I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Translated by Robin Moger
1. On the twenty-first birthday of a poet, ostensibly of our group, whom we knew as Nayf (his real name’s not so very important)—on June 20, 1997, to be precise—the activist Radwa Adel went to visit a relative in one of Cairo’s neighborhoods. I don’t remember which. There is no documented account of this journey by the Student Movement’s (or the Seventies Generation’s) most celebrated female icon (i.e. the activist, though we might call her intellectual, writer, great thinker: they’re all synonyms); there’s even a dispute over whether the relative in question lived on the eleventh floor or the twelfth. But what I have picked up over the years, in casual conversation with close friends of hers from the circle out of which our group grew, is that Radwa Adel played with her relative’s children for a little while, then took herself off for an afternoon nap in the bedroom with the balcony. There was nobody at home but the young children, and no sooner had the bedroom door swung back behind her than she went out onto the balcony and jumped over the wall.
3. On the day of Nayf’s twenty-first birthday, within hours of Radwa Adel’s suicide and shortly after midnight, Secret Egyptian Poetry was born in Doqqi Square, and it seemed as though the working-class wedding whose din drowned out our voices in the café (likewise working-class) had been put on expressly to celebrate this event. The wedding was in Dayir Al Nahya, a short walk from the section of pavement we monopolized alongside the Al Sobki butcher’s in Tahrir Street, and we were unable to see anything from where we sat. In the end, we didn’t get up to take a look at the wedding, but the cawing cry, framed by the nauseating electronic jangling emanating from the loudspeaker, conveyed to us an ungovernable pleasure and, at the same time, further confirmation of our conviction that poetry, the thing we could believe was poetry, must need be secret.
7. Despite the dramatic rise in The Crocodiles’ numbers in the months that followed, by the start of 1998, all that was left of those early members were one or two talentless poets. Under the influence of an artist with whom he was then in love, Paulo devised an equation governing the relationship between writing secret poetry and literary success in the traditional sense (literary success being, of course, an impossible dream at that period in Egypt but one that, in one form or another, was still taken seriously within our circle). As for Nayf—coming into his own as a computer expert, acquiring an engineering degree from Cairo University and translating American poetry from the 1950s—he kept returning to the idea of giving up writing altogether.
12. There’s something in one of Wadih Saadeh’s poems—I don’t remember the context—about a future that dangles down, for which the speaker spreads a net in the valley that it may arrive intact, or at least does so for its suitcase, the suitcase in which it sits and in which it arrives. I know now that we never drew nets for our future, or its suitcase. We carried the suitcase carelessly, flinging it down to fall as it may. Maybe we thought of the future as too sublime a thing for its shape to be dictated by suitcases and so we did not acknowledge the end of The Crocodiles when it happened, and then, four years after that, our lives were visited by the supernatural.
13. We’d been six months talking when we announced the group. For a brief moment, in one of our sessions, I had the thought that our talk was all in vain because there was no writing behind it. The writing lay ahead, in the suitcase of the future, which only one of us carried and he unknowingly. Only one, who now must write to give meaning to our words all these years on.
68. And ten years after our story ends for good, I’ll see. Just a few months ago, on October 9, 2011: I shall see clearly the reason for customs and traditions, wherefore for-shame and thou-shalt-not, and the cause, with these things as currency, of the trade in principles. Every time. Why is the only escape from such things to join a richer or more potent class? I shall see the endless talk, the strident tones that insist we’re Egyptians or Arabs or Muslims or—within our circle—that we’re none of these, and I shall see a lion cub fleeing for his life from his mother’s mate, who comes to kill him on the sandy plains. Which is why everything seems like a counterfeit copy of what it’s meant to be. Only in 2011—ten months after the eighteen-day strike that did away with the president of the republic, or his name, and before the outbreak of another set of protests against the army’s leaders he’d tasked to rule before stepping down—only then, shall I see clearly: a terror-stricken invalid boasting of his lost health as, trembling, he snatches the hand of the person before him and stoops to kiss it, entreating succor. And I shall see that those tales of crossing are of necessity a lie, because there’s nowhere for the ambitious to cross to; there’s only climbing, until you occupy a place that lets you look down on others, on customs and traditions, on for-shame and thou-shalt-not, on endless claims that we are Arabs, or Muslims.
140. The night of Radwa Adel’s suicide and Nayf’s twenty-first birthday, after the announcement of The Crocodiles, we walked to Suleiman Gowhar Street where, past one in the morning, the guests gathered at my family’s apartment.
141. My family were away for the summer and we couldn’t go to Maadi, where we usually held our parties, to the house of our friend Mizo, plump and white as a dancing girl from the forties. Mizo’s mother was an American artist, a first-wave hippie until she embraced Islam in search of spiritual fulfillment, and his father an alcoholic businessman who travelled a lot, so he and his brothers made good use of the spacious house with its garden for their own ends, giving themselves over to “broadening the soul” as Mizo, a disciple of American Sufism, referred to his recreational activities. On any night you’d find three or more groups divided between the same number of ground floor rooms, in each a different sort of music and a different drug. Freedom of movement between these scenes was guaranteed, as was your ability to sprawl out in some neutral space, naked if you so wished. And if two, or more, were to go upstairs to one of the top-floor bedrooms and shut the door behind them no one would bat an eye.
142. What went on at Mizo’s was, I guess, precisely what the newspapers of the day had begun to agitate against and denounce, claiming that these things were happening at parties on the independent cultural circuit and at writers’ gatherings, though with the exception of Nayf and Paulo I never saw a single intellectual nor Nineties writer there. The writers were deeply conservative by comparison, for all that their reputation was mud (as we were in the habit of calling anything we didn’t like, in pointed reference to the countryside). Yet even at Mizo’s, until campaigns crying heresy and treason and linking individualism to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Great and Lesser Satans first started in the pages of The Week and The Constitution, until the once socially-progressive magazine Roz Al Youssef performed its volte-face,I don’t believe anyone was intentionally setting out to be morally degenerate, exactly, nor held any predetermined attitude towards society’s sacred cows.
143. In 2011 I think on Wadih Saadeh, and I remember the suitcase of the future: our suitcase. The suitcase of The Crocodiles Group for Secret Egyptian Poetry, Mojab Harb’s suitcase, and ours. We really did not want to carry it. We did not realize that our arrival depended on it. And what happened to Mizo was the first faint sign that there was a future dangling before us, though we had miles to go before it finally arrived. The first sign.
144. So … We couldn’t celebrate in Maadi because Mizo had been locked up in the Satanism case: the most significant achievement of the press campaign against dissolution and immorality in the summer of 1997—its victory over treason, collusion and contempt for religion—albeit not one directly connected with the innermost recesses of the circle.
145. Before the case and after, the newspapers’ slanders against Nargis and Saba, and those other than Nargis and Saba, never let up, nor did the propagation of rumors—a parallel campaign in which the press were aided by persons, mainly nationalist by persuasion, from within our circle and its fringes—about dubious sources of funding for experimental theatre troupes and human rights associations, about plots of cultural colonialism carried out, consciously or unconsciously, by the institutions of the independent art scene, about the moral flexibility of young female poets and their husbands, foreign agents and enemies of the Cause to a man. And no one knew what the Cause was.
146. Our outrage and alarm mounted, though we continued to act as though none of what was written or said concerned us. Only Mizo’s imprisonment alerted us to the fact that the space in which we lived was shrinking, that our places were growing too narrow to hold us, to hold our future and what we carried with us to that future; only when we learned that Mizo’s mother had gone to pieces and that his brothers were panic-stricken and that we, in consequence, could not go to Maadi.
147. Mizo was hooked on heavy metal and punk and he played in a band. He wore black leather, grew out his dyed-black hair and for gigs would smear mascara round his eyes; sometimes he’d cover his whole face with cosmetics, contriving a mask that left him looking Gothic and grim. Now, I find it difficult to believe that back then there were no mobile phones, let alone all this multimedia stuff; I barely understand how we kept in touch via landline alone when we would spend the whole time in the street, with no brain in our heads to memorize numbers or jot them down on paper. So it is that I can’t remember how we found out about Mizo’s arrest; nor do I remember ever seeing him after his release, or going back, even just the once, to his house in Maadi. A mutual friend told me that after his release Mizo gave up the guitar and partying for good and how true the rumor was that he turned religious, shaving his head, growing out his beard, a prayer-bruise in the center of his forehead, I couldn’t say.
148. About a week before The Crocodiles were announced, I was saying—at dawn, at the tail-end of just another night that summer—more than one friend lived out the self-same classic nightmare: troopers from State Security’s investigations branch, in plain clothes, hammering at his front door to drag him from his bedroom, brushing off paternal pleas or threats. Most of the fathers were rich or important enough to get away with threatening the officers that accompanied the troopers, but even so, and without warrant, the investigators ransacked these homes with absolute freedom that dawn: they confiscated anything they judged Satanic then led the young accused off to the interrogation center in Lazoghli, or Doqqi, or wherever it was they were doing it.
149. I think of Mizo because it was his legendary generosity that brought us, about a week after his imprisonment, a vision like a prophecy—the night we celebrated The Crocodiles—and because what happened to him seems to me to have been a milestone on our journey.
154. I recall Mizo, one evening in 1995 or 1996, bursting in on us at the Horriya Café in Bab Al Louq with a volume of selected translations from Jalal Al Din Rumi’s Masnavi entitled Feeling the Shoulder of a Lion and excitedly banging the book down onto the small table, panting: “Heard the story in this book, man?” Half laughing he saw its corner had been wetted in the bowl of tirmis, a bean skin or two hanging from its cover. (It makes me laugh now that Mizo, with his English and his alienation from Egyptian culture, was a true believer despite his diabolical appearance: before he was imprisoned in the Satanism case, Mizo would describe himself as a Sufi and repeat ad nauseam that Mohammed was “a totally cool prophet” and no religion on Earth was better than Islam.) Downing one bottle of Stella after another, Mizo told us the tale.
155. A peasant tethered his bull in the stable. A lion came along and ate the bull then lay down in its place. Late that night the peasant ventured out to check on his bull and groping in the corner his hand passed back and forth across the lion’s flank. He felt one shoulder, crossed the breast and felt the other. The lion thought: Were a light to sweep away the veil of darkness that hides me from him, this man would straightway die of what was thus revealed … For Mizo, in his drunken state, this lion was a compelling symbol of the truth of God’s existence.
163. After learning of Mizo’s imprisonment in June 1997, we would realize that the arrests had begun as news spread of heavy metal parties held in the Baron’s Palace on Salah Salim Road—that abandoned, some said haunted, Gothic pile, built by a Belgian industrialist and entrepreneur in 1911—and we would accept the way things were until the public prosecutor released our friends for lack of evidence. (How—for nine months straight until the clashes flared up again—could we have accepted the ways things were? How, after taking to the streets to remove the Minister of the Interior, only to end up throwing the president out of office and attacking, or imagining that we were attacking, the head offices of State Security?) And ignoring for the moment their being locked up with no visiting rights, the detainees would be subjected to merciless interrogations amounting to brainwashing, on the pretext of correcting the moral and doctrinal compasses of some hundred or so strayed Guardians Of The Future.
164. And because our fathers kill us … Some thirty years after the Southern poet Amal Donqol hymned futile defiance with his words “Glory to Satan”, young men were hung up by their feet and all Egypt stood with State Security. Not because the people love the government but because they hate the Devil; and the free press, the likes of Adel Hamouda and Mustafa Bakri, convinced them that these people performed rituals in worship of Satan, arguing from the spread of such practices in America.
165. In fact there is no link between heavy metal and Satanism, not even between Satanism and Satan worship in the literal sense—other than black clothes and razor-edged jewelry and make-up, which are also associated with vampires, punk and emo groups and many other idiocies besides—just the claim that if you played a tape or record backwards you’d hear the Devil himself cursing God, something the new “scholars of the Faith” referred to as they depicted yet another deadly plague foisted on us by the godless West, asserting the impermissibility of listening to heavy metal since all music was forbidden.
208. And I remember that on the night of The Crocodiles’ celebration, a little less than four years before all this took place, we had yet to raise the subject of Mizo or any of our imprisoned acquaintances, but even so some scarce-felt weight hung over the gathering. For my own part, before the acid kicked in, I was thinking about State Security investigations and I believe that we were all thinking about similar things though we mightn’t have been brave enough to state it openly. Amid an atmosphere that coiled round the thresholds of even our front doors we were gazing out at a violent hostility towards our very presence in the world, an absolute refusal to accept that the likes of us might breathe God’s air or walk upon His earth. And before the acid kicked in—I remember—I pictured them. I pictured them brutish, then I pictured them courteous, clumsily cutting through the garden to Mizo’s iron and frosted glass front door as though it were the last frail barrier to a monstrous and inescapable violation. And then, all hope of a comparatively merciful brutishness was gone.
209. I pictured their boots like rocks clattering across the pink marble square set at the center of the wooden flooring of Mizo’s circular hall and their ravening eyes sweeping over the eccentric furnishings: the couch with its wine-red pillows on which I’d sprawl to let my sweat dry after dancing or taking MDMA; an original Kandinsky; a red Rothko; a gigantic phonograph bracketed by two wardrobe-sized speakers—I remember Paulo, on Ecstasy, hugging one and pressing his ear to its surface as if to suck up its deafening electronic beats—and the music player connected to the speakers, hidden behind the phonograph; the slim white-wood-and-rubber shelves bursting with books that you, were you to look on them with an ayatollah’s eyes, would find Satanic, each and every one.
210. Before the hit kicked in—I was saying—I pictured the men of State Security and pictured their eyes, as though they’d uncoupled from their owners’ faces to float through doorways behind which, sinking back against the dark-hued walls, into the exotic carpets and rugs, I’d lost more than one innocence. Nor were their eyes ravening as I pictured them; they were damp with equal parts gloating and dazzlement and no sooner dry than possessed by a severity that emptied all the world of joy, a severity like the flip side of fear.
211. Acid—I must make clear—was a rare treat, a gift we’d take when celebrating. In those days chemical stimulants were confined to the medications you could buy from the pharmacy (Parkinol, a medicine for epilepsy whose hallucinatory side-effects earned it the street name “Cockroaches” and the poor-man’s heroin, a cough-syrup called Codafen) but Paulo had obtained from Mizo—a few weeks before his imprisonment—a bottle like a pen cap filled with five or six drops of LSD. During the party, out of sight of the guests, I took it to the kitchen and tipped it onto a sheet from my notebook, then cut out the saturated part and divided it into three rectangles, one of which I swallowed on the spot with Nayf and Paulo each taking a rectangle for themselves. The trip was certainly strong enough to etch my surroundings in my memory. I can’t be sure, but to this day I remember that on the page I used was written in a large and slanting hand, “Most of them are fools, most are braggarts, and abuse is easier than understanding”, and that I smiled to read this phrase wondering as I snipped it just when and why it was set down.
212. It’s said Jim Morrison, the poet and lead singer of The Doors, saw his death before he died. Jim Morrison, famous for taking acid and hymning death or “riding the dragon” to the life beyond: only now do I recall the story of how he foresaw his death in Death Valley, in 1965. And for the first time in seventeen years I’m struck by a suspicion that what happened to Paulo, Nayf, and me at the end of our celebration of The Crocodiles Group, the afternoon of the day after the announcement, was an echo of what happened to Jim Morrison in that story.
213. I couldn’t say how much the acid had to do with it all, but the night before it happened—the night of the party—was my first experience of having people in your home you didn’t want to be there, not because you hated them or because they weren’t like you, but because whatever it was that bound you together and set you apart from society at large had become a source of fear. As though you were the infected in a time of plague or Jews under the Nazis, your gathering together in one location transforms it into quarantine, a ghetto. It’s not pleasant to see your house a ghetto, but it strikes me now that the whole world was turning into a ghetto and it is that, all else aside, that wasn’t pleasant. When the dawn prayer call came—I remember—I stopped up every chink that might let in light to delay the coming of the day. And when I heard the call of the kerosene seller followed by the ragman—those familiar cries, steeped in family mornings and dazed awakenings—I slithered up to Paulo sitting cross-legged on the floor, still rolling cigarettes to the voice of Cheikha Rimitti.
214. “When will the jungle be still that the crocodiles might come out?” So I whispered to Paulo. A moment’s hesitation then he began to cackle—Paulo had a way of breaking into laughter a few seconds after the joke had hit: like he was frighteningly upset with you, but had let it go and took the anger out in laughter—and he tipped his head at Nayf, who was on his feet behind us, capering round one of the remaining guests, a Spanish girl: “When the chimp chills out, perhaps.”
215. I remember that no sooner had he said it, Nayf turned into a chimp for real; and we watched him, unable to stop laughing. But the chimp didn’t chill and the jungle was not still. Even after everyone had left there was still a sense of bustle and noise and by the time we three were slumped on the floor, each one’s back against a different wall in the front room, without music or guests, the feeling persisted that I was in the middle of a rowdy ghetto and my comrades swarms of questing ants. Instead of peace or talk of poetry something quite unexpected happened. A tableau or vision. And today I can’t say if it actually took place or whether my memory made it up, not to mention the acid.
216. I never broached the subject of what I saw that morning with either friend although I was certain they both saw it, or saw something equally as menacing. Maybe each one of us saw something a little different from the others.
Youssef Rakha was born in Cairo in 1976. Since 1998, he has worked as a reporter, copy editor, and cultural editor-cum-literary critic at Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper. He helped found, and has contributed features to, the Abu Dhabi-based daily The National. His work in English has been featured in The New York Times, Daily Telegraph, Kenyon Review, Aeon, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. He is the author of seven books in Arabic, which have been translated into German, Polish, Slovak, and Italian, as well as English. The Crocodiles, translated into English by Robin Moger, is forthcoming in December from Seven Stories Press, as is The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, translated by Paul Starkey, from Interlink Books.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee