The following is drawn from Yasmine El Rashidi’s forthcoming book, Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt.
It has been almost four years since Uncle died. Forty-one months since the revolution. Like all my friends I find it hard to sleep through the night. My sleep is fitful. I get up, pace, check the news, Twitter. I try to work. My desk faces a wall. A sketch of Mama’s, a portrait, hangs above it. Piles surround me. Newspapers, books. On the floor, leaning against walls, opened randomly, left on the sofa. What I thought was a script is slowly turning into a book. It’s an hour past dawn, but the heat is already scorching. My shutters are partially down, blocking out the sun. A plastic fan whines in the corner. In the background I can hear the chatter of birds. I pick up Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, Booklet No. 48, fiction, Nawal El Saadawi writing for the art biennial Documenta. I browse, leaf through pages, book after book, mindlessly, searching. I flip through a photocopy of an Arabic study on the literature of defeat, what was conceived in the aftermath of ’67. It is described by one writer cited as a new language that spoke to the times. Everything was stripped down to fundamentals, bare, deflated. I read about this new language, one I have read through its novels for years. The more ornate social realism of such prominent writers as Naguib Mahfouz and the virtuous eloquence of Arabic literature were abandoned for more experimental, fragmented works that expressed the anxieties and crises at hand. I pick up another book. Another. Everything has resonance. I wonder about structure, and form. Genre. Can literature, the novel, be written in the form of a script? At what point would it become that, a script? I think about this as I relive summers and try to write, grapple with the beginnings of a manuscript. The summer before Uncle died. The things that were said. The summer before things changed. Dido and I becoming estranged.
We fought sitting at a café on a pedestrian street in El Borsa downtown. Dido was smoking apple-flavored shisha, I was drinking mint tea served extra sweet. Over the years our views had differed and veered apart. Dido believed fervently that anarchy was better than the despotism we had. My reservations were inherited. He had hoped I might turn out as political as he was, but I’d failed him in every way. He consumed literature voraciously, but thought writing in a country like ours to be an exercise in passivity, a luxurious musing, not a tool for change. He spoke of the need for an urgency to one’s actions, a physicality. I insisted that writing is an action, becomes a physicality. We debated this often, argued about it, sometimes even wrote impassioned letters that we would read to each other out loud. When we fought, though, it was about the two young men who sauntered off the street and sat at a table down from ours. They held hands and wore tight T-shirts. One of them had a yellow headband through his hair. We sat in silence for a long time, Dido inhaling his pipe, watching them from an angle, his head slightly revealing of his scrutiny. I watched with no attempt to conceal my gaze. People walked by. Young men sat down. Two girls with wild curls. Four young boys, also in tight T-shirts, also holding hands. They put two tables together and asked for the unused chairs from nearby. Dido and I looked on. I could hear him inhale. As he exhaled, blowing a single smoke ring into the air, I watched him raise two fingers languidly, gesturing with them and as well with his eyes. His charcoal was out. He wanted a refill. We looked past the white robes of the man placing more cubes of lit charcoal into the mouth of the shisha. Past the growing crowd around us, and to the table with the two young men. A man in a gray safari shirt and faded black trousers had walked towards them. He had been standing at the corner for close to an hour. I had noticed his shoes. Dido had too. They were familiar shoes. Shoes we saw a lot. Shoes of the undercover police. They were pointed, with a ledge. With his head the man gestured to the extra plastic chair at the table. Could he join? The young men hovered forward from their waists, their feet verging on pushing themselves up from the ground. Their gesture: of course. He pulled back the chair and sat. The server rushing forward, saluting him, bowing. The young men in their tight T-shirts, touching hands, leaned forward. Words were exchanged. Dido flicked his head, so fiercely that the tube of his shisha leaped from his hand onto the floor. He swore under his breath. Minutes passed. The man and his shoes got up and walked away. The young men resumed their laughter. Dido fumed. I could see it in his nostrils, in the movement of his chest. He tapped his foot nervously. His thigh trembled. We shared a friend who had fled the country years before. He had been on the moored Queen Boat-turned-nightclub when it was raided by plainclothes state security agents. Someone had noticed them walking on board and alerted those inside. They had revealed themselves by their shoes. More than one hundred men were arrested. Our friend had slipped out. He now lives in Seattle, a political asylee. Those who stayed, some of them, were roped into the state’s network of informers, like the Islamists and dealers. Snitchers, someone had called them in the months after as the trial progressed and we sat at cafés like this one, hesitantly, talking about their fate. Survivors, another had said.
The transaction of words across the table was clear. Dido burst forward. His plastic chair pushed onto its hind legs and then over onto the floor. I watched as he took fierce strides towards them. His legs were skinny, his jeans sat just below the line of his boxers. He had lost weight over the past year, his face now drawn. He had stopped wearing a tie some time ago and only ever wore plain T-shirts and colored hoodies. Even in the summer. He would tell me to meet him at El Borsa, and I could spot him by his hood, which was always over his head. We didn’t speak about all that much anymore, not the way we used to, even though we spent hours at cafés on the pedestrian streets in downtown together. His eyes still twinkled and his mouth was always verging on a smile, but he had become somewhat dispirited. One afternoon I noticed his engagement ring was off. I asked. He shrugged. It’s over. His second fiancée. She isn’t right anymore. Why? Don’t want to talk about it. I said nothing but could see he was hurt, so tried to change subject, make conversation. I brought up my book again. The main narrator, what did he think, how should I deal with form? We were both interested in this, what a new Egyptian modernism, founded in the vernacular, might be, and some afternoons Dido would spontaneously want to talk about it, things I should read around it, an idea he had, even as he concurrently wanted me to put my writing aside and join the movement. But that afternoon he swung back onto the hind legs of his chair, pulled the cords of his hoodie, tucked his head deeper in. We sat in silence. His friends, overlapping groups of old leftists and a new, much younger generation of activists, all looked much like him. Less in their dress, but more so in their demeanor. Dido’s red hood slipped off his head as he barged toward the young men. He lowered his face between them, clenched his fists. I made out the insults. Heads had turned. The café paused. The yellow-headbanded boy put his hands up as if in surrender, or appeal. Dido flicked his hand in the air and swore. He paused over them. It might have been less than a minute that felt like time had stopped. Traitors, he said under his breath as he strode back towards me and sat with a thud. He became incensed when I expressed a sympathy, suggesting that they were only trying to find a way of making a life for themselves, that he should be more forgiving.
It wasn’t that many weeks later that Uncle had died, and at the funeral Dido ignored me. He walked into the mosque, kissed Mama, Aunty, Taunte, wiping both his and also her tears, then sauntered to the farthest row of chairs and sat down, burying his head in his phone. I couldn’t remember ever having seen him cry before. The mosque had been packed. People poured in. Uncle seemed to have known everyone. Yousra was there, the widow of Sadat was there, for a moment even the pop star Amr Diab. The farmers came from Faiyûm. The service was held in the only mosque in the city that allowed men and women to be seated in the same large hall. I imagined that Dido might not have come had we been segregated. I watched him, kept my eye on him, but hadn’t noticed when he left. Mama remarked later how withdrawn he seemed. A cousin asked why we weren’t speaking, then said she worried that his activism had become as much about intolerance of experiences that strayed from his ideals as it was the tolerance he preached. She worried he was too influenced by those around him. I imagined Uncle would have said he was hardened by life. It saddened me, the sudden change in him, our distance, but I wondered if perhaps he was also simply brokenhearted.
Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt will be published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, on June 28.