Collision 9: February 2018

New Year’s Blast

Maha El Hissy

“Do you know, my dear sir, what disillusionment is? […] Not a miscarriage in small, unimportant matters, but the great and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?” I recalled the lines from Thomas Mann’s early prose text Disillusionment just a few minutes before I boarded a flight from Cairo to Munich on 12 January 2011. I had just hung up with a friend. It was the last phone call I made during that visit to Egypt. I remember I was about to burst with rage. There was no hope. It was a country of disillusionment that I had left behind – a place of origin that had never stopped to disappoint me, even after I had left. I switched off my phone and tried to find a bottom line to what turned out to be one of the heaviest vacations since I left Egypt and moved to Germany in 2004. Disillusionment. Or actually: Enttäuschung, as Mann’s text is called in German. I like to think of it all as Enttäuschung. For some reason, I feel comfortable with the sound of all those consonants in German. They rustle in such a way that you can easily miss hearing all the reasons behind this Enttäuschung. I like the title of this prose text. Enttäuschung. Just Enttäuschung and nothing more than Enttäuschung.

Twelve days earlier, shortly after midnight, in the early morning hours of the new year of 2011, I was driving together with three friends along the Corniche in Alexandria. We had turned on some kitschy music and were gossiping about the bad New Year’s party that we had just escaped to cruise all the way down the promenade along the Mediterranean instead. At first we did not notice the sirens around us, getting louder and louder in the space of ten minutes, until they could not be missed anymore. We learned that there had been a bombing at the Al-Quediseen church (The Saints) that we had just passed by some twenty minutes before. The next day, we learned that one of my sister’s friends got killed in the attack. I remembered her from school. We hadn’t met in years and we would never meet again. A few hours later, we discovered that her mother and sister died at the same New Year’s Mass, too—and that the father had a family when he went to pray that night, but no longer had a family by the time he went home, just a few hours later. My sister, who lives in France, read about the news on social media before we could reach her. There was the Mediterranean between us.

A few days after the bombing on January 3, I traveled from Alexandria to Dubai. I had planned to go on a short trip to visit my other sister and her family who lived there at that time. Dubai was – or perhaps is – the best escape from reality that mankind could ever wish for. When you are there, you can only speak in superlatives about the tallest, the biggest, the most expensive, the fanciest, etc. I met up with two friends who also lived there at the time. They took me to have dinner at one of the super-extra-fanciest restaurants facing the Dancing Fountain of Dubai near Burj Khalifa. In an animated performance set to light and sound, the water challenges the laws of gravity and pours up to the sky to dance to the rhythms of Lionel Richie, Adele, the Lebanese singer Elissa, the UAE National Anthem. I remember recognizing music by Furat Qaddouri, a prominent Iraqi musician and Qanun player from Baghdad. The fountain didn’t dance to the piece best known to me called Al Raheel, which is the Arabic word for departure, exodus or exit. It is impressive how this composition surprises you at the end. After a repeated pattern that makes you assume you know just what the final chord will be, it breaks the rule and ends abruptly, just like a departure without a farewell. Al-Raheel. The “h” is fake. It is a lie, a lie to Western ears. It dismisses an homage to depth. It is not as deep as the Arabic equivalent which is “ح”and is perhaps one of the most difficult sounds for anyone who wants to learn this language. When I started learning Arabic script as a little girl, I was told that to write a “ح” I should draw a line from left to right and then continue all the way down with a semi-circle as if I wanted to draw a “fat belly.” This would make a “ح”. Even the fat belly is a lie. Try to contract your stomach first instead, take a deep breath, and then collect all your energy as if you wanted to steam up a glass from bottom to top, or as if you want to make a sighing sound. This would result in the correct sound for “ح”. It adds depth to departure. As for the musician’s first name Furat, it is the Arabic word for the Euphrates, the river that runs all the way from Turkey down to Syria and Iraq. But let’s not get into that. The events of the last days faded for a while and seemed far away.

Back in Germany via Egypt, I tried to avoid eye contact with anyone who might ask how my trip to Egypt was, simply to avoid this feeling of desolation you experience when you realize your world is light-years away from that of your listener. I was worried such a conversation would fuel my rage towards a first-world bourgeois nonchalance and this purely intellectual awareness of what real struggle is about.

There is something about the casual saxophone player in the video clip of Sting’s Englishman in New York. In the last shot, he walks down the rain-covered cobblestones away from the camera, and then pulls up his shoulders to adjust the dark coat he is wearing as he continues to walk away. Who wants to play a wind instrument with a heavy coat hanging from one’s shoulders! You have no idea what it means to migrate and leave a mother tongue behind.

And then came the Arab Spring. It was not more than two weeks after my return to Munich that I saw the picture of Mubarak’s face torn up, perhaps on January 26 or 27, 2011. At that moment, I knew that nothing would be the same ever again. You find it surprising that the sight of the torn picture of a political leader can have such an impact on someone? The gigantic portraits, that could be seen everywhere on the streets, were untouchable. There was no way anyone would have dared to climb up to the poster and tear it down. I remember one of those ’Mubaraks’ hanging just next to the entrance of the railway station in Alexandria, not far from my parents’ house, the place I grew up. The president was there, always saluting travelers departing, or welcoming them to the city also known as the “Bride of the Mediterranean.” Well, the saluting president came to power a year after I was born. I spent almost the entire first thirty years of my life seeing that gigantically sovereign smile on his face near the railway station in Alexandria. And now someone is tearing up that face. When I was a kid, my father used to tell me how a state security officer in plainclothes watched him from behind in the election polling-booth to make sure he voted for Mubarak. During the events of the Arab Spring, I wondered almost every night what my father would have said or thought if he was still alive and saw the everlasting leader being ousted. What happens after an omnipresent face is gone? How will things feel after Big-Brother-watching-you is watching you no more? And please do not underestimate these questions. The vacuum was not scary. On the contrary. Maybe there was a chance of post-disillusionment.

On 28 January 2011, I was officially an outsider to the parallel worlds between which I was living anyway. In attempt to stop the increasing protests, everybody knew that the Egyptian government was shutting down the internet and cutting off all mobile phones. Anticipating what would happen on the day that later became known as “The Friday of Anger”—the real beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt for many people—I realized I might not be able to belong to this place anymore, now that I had missed out on being part of what might be the most important historical event in Egypt’s modern history. I had to attend a symposium in Munich instead. I believe the attendees and speakers were talking about Hannah Arendt’s natality, about procreation, monstrosity, and miscarriage. If the timing had been better and my mind had happened to be clear on that day, I would have thought the worlds I lived between were not necessarily that far apart. Or maybe they were. During the coffee break, I seized the opportunity to slip out without being noticed, and left the event. On the way home, I bought new brown boots and rushed to sit down and stare, for the next few days, at the news about the place that remained dearest to me. Given the events in the following days, the detail about the boots turned out not to be as insignificant as one might think.

After seventeen exhausting days, everybody was full of hope anticipating Mubarak’s speech to the nation on 10 February. By then, there were no doubts that the pharaoh would step down. However, the celebrations at the Tahrir Square turned out to be premature. For Mr. Mubarak seemed set to remain in office come hell or high water. In reaction to the first minutes of what was clearly a paternalistic speech, protestors took off their shoes and waved them at the face of Mr. President that was almost torn anyway. Remember Muntazer Al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad, back in 2008? Maybe one day I should look into the Arab use of shoes as means of political expression or resistance throughout history. As a response to Mubarak, the crowd started chanting “Erhal, Erhal” (Leave, Leave). Needless to say, the sound of the “h” is a call from below to leave, a plea from deep inside to depart with no return.

Finding where to start never seemed difficult to me, whereas I wince twice when it comes to closures and bottom lines. However, I have known how they feel since the time I used to play music. It is when you are in full harmony with your breath, and you let it guide you all the way through the crescendos and diminuendos until you reach the final bar and come close to the last beat or chord. You prepare, or sustain, or surprise your listeners with the fact that there is no cadence and no fading away.