On the last Sunday of last September, six months after he was released from prison, Alaa Seif was rearrested by State Security from the police station where he was spending 12 hours a day as part of a legally contested five-year probation arrangement. He is still being held on remand in a maximum-security prison.
we announce our love for life
In the sweltering heat of last July, Alaa and I spent an hour every day in the pool doing laps. Alaa swims like a whale: he dives deep and crosses the width of the pool with deliberation. Above him I freestyle, breaking the water in flailing motion, gasping for breaths, imperfectly left and right, while I wonder how it is that he doesn’t need to come up for air to breathe.
April 16, 2020.
It has been 200 days.
I am worried the world has descended into a social scientific black hole. All the people are counting the ill and the dead. All the people are watching an exponential curve as if they are watching a TV series unfold.
Speech is detained as it always is, and the media apparatus is for the most part broken. The saddest if not the funniest piece of news is how Turkmenistan decided that we cannot call the virus by its name. It’s like a character in a story, he who shall not be named — by his name.
Writing — as always, and especially in Egypt — is threatened by the apparatus. Mahienour al-Massry’s words from last fall, I wear like a talisman around my thoughts:
We announce that we are still alive.
And we are filled with hope.
We announce our love for life
in the face of their hatred for us.
It is difficult to translate feelings from a distance; speech comprises death. In January, I wrote that in revolution, in crisis, lurks the risk of annihilation. Perhaps already, then, the sense that something was looming was palpable. Now, over one million people are sick, and over 50 thousand people have died. Unemployment is soaring, and the world is shapeshifting.
Since we revolted it’s been nine years — and maybe for you, you’ve been revolting all your life. To speak of what it sounds like, in adjectives, seems flat, but at the end of the day, hey, we are still alive.
Last summer, I asked you:
What is your worst fear
Losing my mind,
you said, and yours?
Prison — I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like.
While it is possible to escape one’s own, it is not possible to escape the other’s worst fear. With the pandemic what I fear the most is the surge: not of deaths, not of respiratory illness, but the toll this will take on minds. The medical industry will diagnose this as a biological problem — one of brains, not minds — and pharma will sedate everyone. It’s already evident that people self-medicate with anything they can find, from drugs to alcohol.
We need a lucid world, and sobriety, to reimagine what is to come.
For what seems like hundreds of days I have been grappling with what it means to rewrite updates issued by your family and lawyers reporting on the state — on your being, health, thought(s). For over a month now, your family visits have been suspended. Surrounding these decisions — to put it mildly — is a state that lacks reason, or care.
I find solace in a playlist painstakingly compiled — between us — one song at a time, with each visit. And I am left imagining how The Crystal Method would sing “Too Sick To Pray.”
The sun is out today, and I think of you deprived of sun. In the mornings, I acknowledge hot water and how that is being withheld from you. I conclude my morning rituals with cold showers — and my mitochondria bask in gratitude. We are alive. Also, I read. There are so many things that await you, to read. I hate to think that you might also be deprived of the very things that you need to survive this viral pandemic. At least you have cold showers. I wonder how much you know already about what is going on.
I need your words, yet you’re not allowed to write. In one of your past appearances in front of the prosecution, you spoke of how the state fears “the written word.” You voiced the consequences of fear.
With the repercussions of the virus, this fear is multiplied. Totalitarianism looms large over here, and over Europe. Chaos reigns and borders close.
We need to write, and to re-write and re-read.
Before you went to prison — this time — we spoke about what I would do, in case … I stated clearly that this is not my calling — but now, in times of friendship, I question what that means. I said: “This is the state of things and the state is a circus — its specters are not my clowns.” I look at the state of things here, and there, from health to culture to prisons, and around the world, infrastructures are on the brink of collapse.
This is so much more than we imagined. I can already hear you disagreeing. This has happened before, and elsewhere, we were just not paying attention.
Spending time with you made me think a lot about the difficulty of suturing time. Your point of reference, politically, and until last summer, kept reverting back to 2013. You were trying to reproduce a chronology of the years you were away, in prison. You were trying to reproduce a chronology of the unfolding, and make sense of the summer of 2013, and I wished you would forge a relationship with the future, and stop nagging the past.
This past February, I was having vivid dreams and highly detailed recollections about 2011. Remembering every single concern and survival tactic. Mid-February, my therapist asked: What do you think is bringing this up? You should write more, she said. My body was anticipating something — already evident in other parts of the world — and the rest of the world was denying it until it washed over us all.
A new vocabulary always emerges in crisis. I wonder how long this one will last.
There are things I have not written about before.
The summer of 2013 was a divisive moment. We witnessed a military coup d’etat, the violent deposition of an elected president. It took mere weeks for the military to disperse a sit-in of thousands. In the early hours of August 14, 2013, the state opened live fire on a sit-in mostly made up of members and families of the Muslim Brotherhood. A thousand were killed, many thousands more injured. It was a damning moment. Outside of language. A nightmare was corroding the barrier between sleeping and waking life, and hurling itself into reality.
It would be wrong to say this wasn’t already anticipated in the euphoria of revolution.
Every day of the past 55 days I have pondered the relationship between revolution and pandemics.
In 2013, like others, I experienced divine terror. This did not prepare me for the panic attacks of past weeks. The 3 am adrenaline jolt of survival experienced en masse, alone.
In August 2013 it started with a sharp throbbing in the belly that I wasn’t able to get rid of. A mental and bodily state of dread that refused to go away. This time, it was a full-body vibration and a lockdown of my jaw — a constant state of alertness. In a primitive sense, I imagined having the energy to walk the circumference of the earth, seeking refuge. But there’s nowhere else to go — everywhere is infected, except maybe Antarctica.
That August, I resorted to escaping under a dining room table and made a call to England, to the NHS. “What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s going on?” they asked. “I feel like there’s a million people trapped in my belly,” I said. “They’re trapped and can’t get out, and I’m worried my body is going to burst.” “Was it a phantom of a pregnancy past,” they asked. The power of suggestion brought on waves of nausea.
Weeks later, the pain worsened. Speech arrested, death called. Over the coming years, many of my friends would become afflicted with similar symptoms, and our periods of suffering and recovery would vary. While we were alive and free, we were trapped between revolutions past, and their future failure.
Without reason, there were times we had to submit ourselves to quarantine.
In that state, we could not behold that we would spend the coming decade of our lives fighting for basic freedoms and elementary rights: like the right to write, and to read, pleading with the state for your right to access hot water in winter.
The August Symptoms multiplied, as did the pain.
There are no over-the-counter remedies for the collapse of the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious.
Several mornings I would wake up and squarely (re)cover myself. If I made it as far as the mirror, I could tell that I had been possessed.
In translation, from the eighth century, these are the words of Saint Rabea al-Adaweya on “Reality:”
Speech is born out of longing,
True descriptions from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
This time I am prepared. The world has paused for me, and I write to you slowly this morning. I hear the motor of the trash truck racketing outside. A sign of life in an otherwise sedated city. It’s been four weeks, maybe even five. I have come to realize where I live and where I have been living. The contours of city, state and federal government are becoming disambiguated, and for the first time I feel a budding sense of communal being — I am alone and distanced, yet not separate.
I imagine in this state we are together.
I am told that on one of my first family trips to Luxor, when I was about two years old, I kept repeating the name “Abbas.” Growing up, my father’s best friend would tease me and ask: Who was this Abbas, whose name you kept repeating?
For months after the events of August 2013, I leapt up at odd moments with a charged force that could disrupt the universe, as if waking from a nightmare, except I was already awake. I would stomp the ground and call out “Allah hayy, Abbas gayy.” (God is alive, Abbas is coming).
I didn’t know who Abbas was, and why he hadn’t yet arrived. Once the inflammation quietened, I did my research.
Abbas Helmy II (1874-1944) was the seventh ruler of Egypt, and the great-great-grandson of Mehmet Ali, founder of modern Egypt. Abbas Helmy Pasha was a nationalist, an ally of the Egyptians against British rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Egypt. He was the first to call out against the injustice of British colonialism, demanding their departure. His position emboldened locals in Egyptian towns, leading to clashes among villages and the British navy in Damietta and Qalyub. For years, and throughout the First World War, Egyptians would take to the streets chanting “Allah hayy, Abbas gayy.” The British maintained their stronghold in Egypt, and Abbas would never again rise to rule.
Abbas Helmy died 37 years to the day before I was born. The temporality of injustice had collapsed. In inflammation, I was not myself, but a voice-index of others revolting.
There are some injustices that are impossible to shun. The violence of the coup arrived in physical and mental jolts by proxy of other figures — in my case, figures of a faraway past.
My parents visited Luxor again recently. Abbas — the meaning of the word — encompasses an exaggerated form of gloom, a lion escaping lions. Abbas is the one that frowns, and in my mind a sphinx-like deity — an ancient figure — among pharaohs in a city plagued by illness, displacement and myths.
You first introduced me to Dream, the character who first appeared in Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman vol. 2, #1 in January 1989 (which I promised to read but never did). One of the seven Endless, all-powerful beings, greater than — and distinct from — gods, Dream rules The Dreaming, the realm we go to when we sleep, where all stories originate and where dreams go after they die.
It’s curious that The Dreaming mostly runs itself, but Dream takes it upon himself to impose order. Dream builds a castle with a library containing all the books dreamed but never written by their authors.
It’s been almost a year since you dreamt of a book about a massacre of prisoners who had been locked in a van during a transfer to Abu Zaabal prison. This was four days after the massacre of protestors at Rabea al-Adaweya. Forty-five prisoners were forced into a van that fit 24. After hours in the sweltering heat, the police fired tear gas through the windows of the van. Thirty-seven prisoners died on the spot.
The event never leaves you, it never leaves us.
Your dreamt-up book is broken down into ten chapters. Each chapter is 37 pages — one page for each victim. The chapters start at the moment of death, zooming backward and outward to the moment of their birth, and beyond. Starting at the last second, then to the last minute, and ending with the last century before their departure.
With the virus, death is different yet the same. Universal state negligence makes it impossible to imagine a chronicle of the unfolding of a nightmare, but you’re right to remind me — tomorrow never dies.
The world is changing at a speed that makes dreams struggle to keep up. I wrote a love letter to everyone, and your words were implied. I am left trying to piece together the embryonic idea you had for a network — a medium of social proximity — and I wonder if you were having a Cassandra moment. I believe you—always — a beat too late.
There are so many things I want us to think together: what happens to the black hole of debt after a recession that is making us turn to historical precedent? What happens when the corporate platforms of organizing cease to suffice? Do you think Julia will replace Python?
And, how can I learn to draw a circle, as a step up from our first lesson on how to draw a square?
I find solace in the playlist we compiled week after week when visits were still allowed, and messages were relayed by proxy of your family (mostly Mona, really). I miss the songs, even though we’re approaching two hundred days without hearing each other’s voice.
A professor of mine — while in first place urging me to finish my dissertation — suggested I write you a letter. While letters arrive at their destination, they are also dispersed in the hearts of other people. It reminds me of our disagreements about what constitutes public and private, and while I still stand by the importance of digital privacy, some sentiments, like love — for humanity as much as each other — remain more than glimmers of affect.
Your words, on being released last time round — it was the end of last March — seem more palpable yet, with everything that is going on.
أنا السم أنا الترياق
أنا الدواء أنا أصل الداء
أنا شبح الربيع اللي فات
I am the poison, I am the antidote
I am the medicine, I’m the origin of the disease
I am the ghost of a spring past
You are, too.