New stories in exile: Anno Kachina
 
 

Nine years ago, millions of Egyptians took to the streets in revolt against a regime that had been in power for 30 years. The revolution succeeded in ousting President Hosni Mubarak and caused deep alarm and confusion within the state’s centers of power. The first democratic elections in Egypt’s modern history led the Muslim Brotherhood to control Parliament and the presidency in 2012, yet they were toppled by the army  just one year later amid widespread public discontent.

Ever since then, Egypt’s political sphere has been all but closed down. Figures related to the 2011 revolution have been systematically targeted by authorities with harassment, arrest and imprisonment. The fierce crackdown has forced those fortunate enough to emigrate, in one of the largest waves of mass exodus in recent Egyptian history. While various economic and social grievances have driven a large number to leave, those who have left as a result of their political role in 2011 are many.

The concept of exile can sometimes seem poetic — it reflects defeat, but also surviving defeat. It is a word that carries a certain weight. Throughout history, there have been waves of mass migration and displacement in times of political turmoil — from the first and second world wars in Europe to more recent conflicts in parts of Africa and the Arab world.

Some exiles enter new lives detached from their past, while others get lost in despair over the countries they were forced to leave. In this series, we speak with those who live in the space between estrangement and nostalgia: those who have built a new life abroad but remain engaged with their former home.

 

For Anno Kachina, dance has long been at the very core of his self-expression. He first began practicing contemporary dance in 2010, and over the past decade — one defined by uprisings and defeats, mass movements and mass arrests — he carved out a political role for himself through bodily expression. 

I met Anno last October at a Mexican spot in Brooklyn, New York — the bustling city where he is now trying to create a life for himself. The thirty-year-old from Maadi, Cairo currently works as a part-time salesperson in a retail shop. In his free time, he dances.

“In Hindi, Kachina means the boy whose spirit dances, and Anno is the nickname I prefer,” he says.

Anno came to New York from Cairo in 2017 after receiving a scholarship. His performances in various shows were warmly received, which eventually led to opportunities to take part in art festivals outside the university. His experiences in Egypt still heavily inform his dancing.

“I worked on projects about the revolution, prison, the collapse of hope, the immovability of time, the death penalty, solitary confinement — about how I’m free here but my mind is still in Egypt, where there are no freedoms,” Anno says. “I was interested in expressing myself and telling people here about what happens in that part of the world. I also felt a sense of responsibility and guilt for leaving.”

As Anno speaks, it becomes clear to me that dance for Anno is more than just a form of self-expression, but a way for him to reconcile what he went through in Egypt, and what ultimately drove him to New York.

Anno in a Mexican cafe in Brooklyn

During his first street performance in Egypt, Anno felt a sense of anxiety he had never experienced on the traditional stage, but that anxiety quickly faded. “Normal people, who do not go to the theater and whose faces were grumpy, suddenly smiled,” he explains. Street performances quickly became Anno’s favorite medium. But when he danced on the streets of New York for the first time, it felt different.

“I felt like the people were too well-to-do and that the dancing itself was permitted,” he says. “I remembered what it was like to dance in Egypt and I felt like I wanted to dance there, in that place that’s filled with problems.” 

Anno prefers to perform in places where dance is not commonly seen, places that provide a new kind of experience to passersby — places and communities less familiar with street theater and performance art. Egypt, his home, was such a place — though it was also a place that burdened him.

His unconventional style did not fit within conservative social norms — not his long hair, nor his choice of dance as a profession and his liberated relationship with his body, and he often felt alienated in Egypt. The frequent targeting by police and the slurs hurled at him on the street because of his appearance eventually took a toll and began to affect his relationship with his body, a relationship intimately tied to his work as a dancer. It was a kind of alienation he does not feel in New York.

Nevertheless, ever since he arrived in New York a little over two years ago, he has not been able to completely harmonize with the rhythms of the city. His first month was stressful. “I didn’t go out. I went to campus and came back home. I couldn’t socialize and interact with people here, nor with my friends in Egypt,” he says. 

Matters became more difficult when his scholarship — which provided him with a regular stipend — ended in late 2018. But he decided to stay in the United States, especially after his friends advised him not to return to Egypt, and he officially began the asylum process. 

“I moved to a slightly more expensive apartment and started looking for jobs. I spent all the money I had saved on rent. I couldn’t find work because I didn’t have papers, and I had dance projects that were on hold because of my legal status,” he says.

In January 2019, he found work in a pizza restaurant that employed undocumented workers. He worked five or six days a week for 10 hours a day or more. “I didn’t really have time to do anything else except meet with my lawyer, who was helping me sort out my legal situation,” he says. In June, he finally received a work permit, but the pizza restaurant let him go because he was legally entitled to receive certain benefits.

“When I was looking for another job, I was asked for my Social Security number. But I didn’t have one, so I didn’t get the jobs, and I had to leave my house and stay at a friend’s house for a couple of months. In September, I was issued a Social Security number. Then I found a room in a house, but it was a storage room that I spent two months cleaning,” he says.

While he does not yet feel fully settled in the city, he believes that, with time, that will change. “It’s true that I can walk down the street freely, but my experiences with harm in Egypt made me fearful of harm, even here. If I catch someone looking at me, I still feel nervous. But compared to Egypt, I am living a pleasant life on the level of personal freedom. No one will judge my appearance the way they do in Egypt,” he says. “I’m still different here, and there is still a lot I do not know about this culture and society. People here also fear one another, but I can’t say I feel alienated in the way I did in Egypt.”

Anno says he is grateful that he is in New York, but his gratitude is interlaced with guilt towards the friends he left behind in Egypt. He  is trying to become a part of the Arab community in New York and focus on his creative projects, but he is still hung up on Egypt.

“I always feel that I don’t deserve a lot of things, even on a personal level,” he says, “that I could be easily forgotten.”

When the revolution broke out in January 2011, Anno was in his second year studying journalism at Cairo University. “When the revolution happened, I felt that my presence on the street was much more beneficial than sitting down and writing, so I dumped journalism. I discovered that I knew how to run and how to throw rocks, so I stayed in the streets,” he says. “I also didn’t like the education at university, so I left.”

In the runup to the revolution, there were organized political groups, and then there were those, like Anno, who existed on the margins of political life — those who were concerned and followed events, participated every now and then, but were not politically organized or affiliated. The revolution offered a chance for these people to become involved on a larger scale. He would sometimes participate in political activism, such as distributing pamphlets by the April 6 Youth Movement or the National Association for Change, or joining sporadic protests in the years between 2008 and 2010. He was detained once for two days after attending a football match for possessing a “book about Jews”, as he put it. 

But after the revolution, he was detained several times at protests between 2011 and 2013, experiences that would forever shape him.

Anno says he didn’t feel that he had a stake in the battle between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood following President Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow in July 2013, and he withdrew from the protest scene. But he was arrested in August of 2013 on suspicion of being a terrorist. 

“I was returning home from work in Mohandiseen, and I was on my way to pick up a cousin of mine because there were some protests and violence. I asked a soldier about the roads because they were blocked. I was wearing shorts, Crocs and a T-shirt that had the words ‘reality is screwed” on it, and I had a ponytail. He didn’t like how I looked and told me that I wasn’t going anywhere, then he handcuffed me and insulted me,” Anno says. “They went through my stuff and asked me about my travel visas. They found scriptwriting books and flash drives with films on them, so they took them. After that, passersby started gathering around and insulting me.”

The soldiers and people gathered around Anno and beat him up before handing him over to the police. He was detained inside an armored car and electrocuted. 

“They beat the hell out of me. I still have scars from that beating today. I spent days unable to swallow food,” he says. He was taken to the Giza Security Directorate where he was beaten again and interrogated. “Someone posted a video of me being beaten and it went viral. People started commenting, saying that I was a dancer, not a terrorist. At night, lawyers arrived and I was released the following afternoon,” he says. “They told me that I would only be released on the condition that I said regular people beat me up, and that the army and the police protected me. But I couldn’t care less.”

Anno says he was singled out by the soldier because of how he looked, that his long hair indicated to them that he was a member of the April 6 Youth Movement. He says his appearance never sat well with Egyptian society as a whole. “From an early age, I wore my hair long and socially there were always problems with that, especially during university, where I was treated like an alien,” he says.

His arrest and subsequent beating and torture heavily impacted Anno’s emotional and mental state, and he struggled to recover from the incident. “I started seeing strange things, hallucinating. I had suicidal ideations, and I stayed at home for a month and a half. The experience still haunts me,” he says. “To recover, I continued to take part in demonstrations and I busied myself with work and dance, but I later realized these distractions were not healthy. I only discovered this here, in New York, where I’m alone and without friends to distract me. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t think of anything else other than what had happened to me. It began three months after I arrived here. And it got worse after the one year mark.”

Anno walking in Brooklyn

Anno hadn’t yet fully recovered from the August 2013 incident when he was arrested again, on June 21, 2014, this time in front of the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace at a protest that was calling for the release of detainees. 

It had started out as a relatively good day. Anno was choreographing a dance performance for the first time. After he finished rehearsals, he headed out to the meeting point for the demonstration. There he saw a heavy security presence around the demonstrators and he could tell from the outset that the protest was not going to end well. The organizers tried to change the route of the march, but state-hired thugs descended on them and attacked. Anno was taken to the Nozha police station along with 30 other detainees.

“They couldn’t really understand who I was from my beard, my hair and my slippers. No one interrogated me, but they accused us of stealing 50 pounds from a store and destroying public and private property. They released some people, but they kept me and four others. I was taken to the prosecution the following day. We stayed five more days in the police station, and then they took us to Tora Prison,” he says.

Anno was eventually sentenced, along with several others, to three years in prison, which was later reduced to two years. In September 2015, after nearly 15 months in prison, all the defendants in the case were released on a presidential pardon.

Prison was a psychologically distressing experience, Anno says, and one of the most damaging experiences in his life. “I had less than two feet to myself in a three-meter-long cell with 14 other people in the Islamist section. The guards always tried to stir things up between us. Daily exercise was only permitted in a locked cage or on the prison ward. In the beginning, we were allowed books, but after a while everything was banned, even bread,” he says. “The fact that there was no privacy at all inside the prison, even among your friends, was quite scary. I also spent two weeks in the disciplinary ward for having a mobile phone inside the cell. I was beaten up three times in fights with both the officers and the Islamists. They shaved my head twice. We were also threatened by Islamists on death row, to the point that they had to lock us up inside the cell for a month and a half for protection, until we were moved elsewhere.”

Anno’s loved ones were also affected by his detention. His brother and sister would visit him in prison, but his elderly father was unable to make the trip. “After my sentence was announced, my dad was stricken with sadness and developed a heart disease, for which he had surgery that I didn’t know about,” he says. “My sister had just given birth and would come to the visitations only to be harassed while being searched. They didn’t deserve this. My friends  tried to come but weren’t allowed inside to see me. My dad died four months after I was released.”

In his first few months in prison, Anno thought constantly about dance. “It was all I could think about. I was thinking about my ruined projects. At first I thought that they just wanted to humiliate us for a while before releasing us but when the verdict came, it was over. We wanted to get out in any way possible,” he says. “I was also distressed by the presidential pardon. I felt small, like I was receiving some kind of charity, that we were giving up on our principles and such. But I had also reached a point where I was dying to be outside.”

Anno in his house, sketching scenes for an upcoming show

Anno started practicing contemporary dance in 2010, but he only adopted it as a serious profession after the revolution. He performed in individual and group shows and art festivals in Cairo and Alexandria. But he bever earned enough from dancing to make a living and was forced to find other work to make ends meet. “I did everything: delivery, sculpting, electrical support, carpentry. I worked in a bank,” he says. “But retail shops are where I worked the most.”

After his release from prison, Anno tried to resume his normal life, but he never fully recovered from his experience of torture and detention. Everything was a trigger — places, streets and people all reminded him of his ordeal. He tried to distract himself with work. 

Three months after his release, he was accepted to study at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center for a year. But normal life only became more difficult. He always felt like he was under surveillance. He would see strange faces on the street, some of which belonged to his torturers or the officers who sent him to prison. He continued to suffer daily insults and slurs from people on the street who took exception to the way he looked as he walked from his house to the dance school. He had recurring nightmares about getting arrested again and was in a constant state of anxiety that prevented him from focusing on what he loved most — dancing. He ultimately decided to leave Egypt.

His friends helped him apply for scholarships in 2016. He was awarded a scholarship in April 2017 that eventually led him to New York University, where he would spend a year working on an artistic project. He was set to leave in November 2017.

“I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to travel. Everything was shutting down and going awry and I was always worried that I’d be arrested again. I used to walk and look behind me all the time. I was also worried that they would detain me in the airport. I was scared of the unknown, because my experience with the unknown has always been shit,” he says. “For a while after I traveled, I felt like I was here by mistake. Everything was suddenly open to me and I was supposed to work. But I was used to things being shut down. I had accommodation and an office at the university. Everything I asked for was granted. I actually sat down with the university provost once to make sure that they did not bring me here by mistake.”

The only time that Anno thought about returning to Egypt in the two years of his new life in New York was last September, when anti-government protests broke out on the streets of Cairo and other cities in response to a series of videos posted by contractor-turned-actor Mohamed Ali, in which he accused President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and senior army brass of financial corruption. 

Frustrated, Anno joined a group of Egyptians at a demonstration in New York in solidarity with the protests against Sisi, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. 

“I felt like I wanted to go back to Egypt, to the streets,” he says. 

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Hadeer El-Mahdawy 
 
 

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