THE LIFE OF BASTARDS

On a wall facing the police station in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s bourgeois neighborhoods, someone has written:

The life of an ethical individual is based on following the universal

system of ethics, but the life of bastards is based on reversing

that universal system.”

Next to this sentence is a huge graffiti of the face of an urban legend known as Al-Haram, ‘The Pyramid’. He is rolling a hash joint between his fingers, and his head is surrounded by a large halo, like a saint.

Al-Haram is classified in some areas as the god of drug dealers, of guile. In sha’bi [working-class] neighborhoods, small icons of Al-Haram are sold, bearing this verse from the Quran: “We have covered them up, so that they cannot see.” Anyone who wears the icon is thus protected by the shadow of Al-Haram from the eyes of police officers, ethical individuals, and the dogs of the universal system of ethics.

But the deep philosophical statement accompanying the graffiti is not one of Al-Haram’s sayings. The author of the quote is not known . . . and why was it used alongside this image?

This was in the period following the events of 25 and 28 January 2011. The walls of Cairo were heaving with thousands of writings and drawings, most of which were political in nature. But the graffiti of Al-Haram, with its enigmatic quote, remained a deep fissure in the harmonious spirit of revolutionary patriotism that blanketed the country at that moment in time.

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There is more than one world.

To every issue there is more than one angle, more than one layer. In the universal system of ethics there is a preoccupation with democracy, revolution, the dignity of a prophet, barking dogs, debts and loans and states declaring bankruptcy, struggles taking place onscreen and on the news. But we, here, in the world of bastards, are aware that these are delusions, a lying depiction of life.

While they, in the universal system of ethics, speak of the significance of music and literature in the ‘dialogue of civilizations’, we realize that there is no need for this sort of steering from ‘the system’ for literature and music to flow in this direction.

In Egypt over the past few years, the music of bastards has grown in popularity. Known as mahraganat [literally: ‘street festivals’], this new genre combines hip-hop beats with electronic sounds and the voices of its bastard stars. The songs are recorded in houses, in makeshift shacks, in the dim light of back alleys — and the lyrics transgress all the usual systematic and ethical boundaries.

Without needing to be steered, I recently discovered an incredible similarity between this music that was born on the sha’bi backstreets of Cairo, and a type of gang music that is flourishing like crazy in Brazil.

What borders need to be crossed, then?

The real borders don’t lie between two languages or countries with different visa-issuing procedures. The real borders are between two systems:

The first, universal and ethical, imposes stereotypical images of human beings — as individuals and as peoples — then claims they are all human, with equal rights. ‘Love for the greater good’ drives them to a ‘dialogue’ whose foundations are ownership and competition.

The second is the world of bastards, where the individual is complete within him/herself, and draws his freedom and adventurous energy in exploring life from reversing that universal system — not with the aim of demolishing or imploding it, but for that small secret pleasure.

But that secret pleasure is not all. There’s another side to it: as one of the inhabitants of the world of bastards says: “In this state there’s no security, your life is a poker game, up and down. When you let a bit of wind blow you back and forth, when you run after your bread or the smell of danger, when you roam around all night without a moment to rest your head against a wall or you feet on the ground, when time — for you — is chance, and place is a stroke of luck . . . at that moment, and that moment alone, you know you’ve become a bastard . . .”

But don’t forget: the key to playing poker is courage

The kind of courage that’s not shaken by being outnumbered

The kind of courage without which there is no freedom.

About Alaa: Prison isolates and so does your silence

They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.

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Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.

We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.

The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.

Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?

Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.

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After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?

A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.

It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”

Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.

The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?

There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.

Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.

And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.

Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.

Translated by Asmaa Naguib