A Permanent Temporariness

14 February, 2021
Arab refugees, fleeing conflict, are transforming Berlin. Kreuzberg, Berlin's traditional Turkish quarter, is emerging as one of the city's most dynamic cultural hubs. (Photo Juergen Held/Getty Images).
Arab refugees, flee­ing con­flict, are trans­form­ing Berlin. Kreuzberg, Berlin’s tra­di­tion­al Turk­ish quar­ter, is emerg­ing as one of the city’s most dynam­ic cul­tur­al hubs. (Pho­to Juer­gen Held/Getty Images).

 

 

Alia Mossallam

 

In 2017, when we were still fresh­ly arrived in Berlin, Asef Bay­at, a friend and schol­ar we looked up to great­ly, asked me and my hus­band what our plans were for the com­ing years. We laughed and said we had none. I had recent­ly received a two-year fel­low­ship to write my first book, and we were quite con­fi­dent we would not stay more than a year in Ger­many. Before com­ing, I had even tried to nego­ti­ate a short­er con­tract. All we need­ed was “a year off” until things calmed down in Egypt.

We explained this to Asef laugh­ing­ly, and he warned us we were falling into a trap. It was pre­cise­ly what we should be wary of—he and many Ira­ni­ans expe­ri­enced it after the 1979 Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. There was a sense then that every­thing was tem­po­rary, that it would all change for the bet­ter, that all there was to do was wait. But some peo­ple have remained in this state of tem­po­rari­ness for decades since then. Liv­ing abroad with­out ful­ly set­tling in, with­out buy­ing fur­ni­ture, wait­ing for con­di­tions to clear up to allow for their return. What he described sound­ed like a spell. And his con­cern made it feel like we might be either cursed or entranced—depending on whether it came down to blind­ness or sim­ply denial. “Don’t sur­ren­der to it… it is a per­ma­nent tem­po­rari­ness!” he said as we climbed into a bus, the doors slam­ming shut dramatically.

 

Stand­ing Still

One of my most sig­nif­i­cant mem­o­ries of the begin­ning of the 2011 Egypt­ian Rev­o­lu­tion is of the new slo­gans. There are ones that I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber hear­ing for the first time, and ones that seemed to arise col­lec­tive­ly in the moment. One of these was Ith­bat: “stand still.”

I remem­ber the evening of Jan­u­ary 25 in Tahrir Square, when we decid­ed to spend the night after hav­ing man­aged to occu­py the square in large num­bers for the first time in many years. We had been there since 3 p.m. By mid­night the excite­ment had died down and plans were being made to sus­tain a sit-in for at least a few days. At this point, most jour­nal­ists and human rights reporters had left the square. Sud­den­ly, the lights went out. Then the shoot­ing of rub­ber bul­lets and gas can­is­ters began. And then, the stam­pede. My hus­band, friends, and I start­ed run­ning away from the source of the shoot­ing, not sure where we were going. We ran at a mea­sured pace, our arms locked togeth­er to ensure we did­n’t lose each other.

Then came a faint and far­away shout from amidst the chaos: “Ith­bat, ith­bat!” The shout was picked up and could soon be heard in mul­ti­ple voic­es, rip­pling across the crowd and gain­ing momen­tum until the scat­tered voic­es attempt­ed to shout in uni­son, and until I could force myself to stop run­ning and shout it too. I cov­ered my ears and sobbed in fear while shout­ing over and over, my mouth open­ing to shout the word in the midst of a thun­der­ous, thou­sand-voice-strong chant: “ITHBAT. ITHBAT. ITHBAT.” It con­tin­ued until every­one stopped and remained still. Until the crowd felt strong enough in its uni­fied roar, to attack rather than run from the police.

Ith­bat comes from the Ara­bic root word tha­bat. It also means stead­fast­ness, as in the con­text of al thabaat ‘ala al-mab­da—stay­ing true to one’s prin­ci­ples. Any­thing that is thabit is sol­id, unshak­able. Hear­ing that word as a slo­gan evoked all these con­no­ta­tions. As I heard it, and repeat­ed it, I tried to force every mus­cle in my body to be still, no mat­ter how fear­ful I felt, no mat­ter how strong the instinct was to run. I cov­ered my ears and let my own voice and the voic­es of all the oth­ers echo with­in me.

Com­ing to Berlin often feels like the exact oppo­site of this moment. Like I could­n’t resist the urge to flee. That I packed up and left with my fam­i­ly for safe­ty. Or maybe for a chance at hap­pi­ness with­out being chased by the con­stant guilt of a “tomor­row that nev­er came,” as one piece of graf­fi­ti in Cairo put it. I con­stant­ly feel like I left a dimin­ish­ing num­ber of peo­ple to fend for themselves—to have to stand and pro­tect them­selves, to fight to keep that space that we man­aged to lib­er­ate. As we leave, one after the oth­er, those that remain are small­er in num­ber and eas­i­er to target.

 

Prayer of Fear

In 2013, after the mas­sacre of the sit-in in Rab’a al-Adawiyya Square [1], the poet Mah­moud Ezzat wrote a piece titled “The Prayer of Fear” (“Salat al khuf”). The title refers to a Mus­lim prayer that was made dur­ing times of war to erad­i­cate or allay fear. The poem was trans­lat­ed by the Mosireen col­lec­tive into sev­er­al lan­guages and shared on YouTube, nar­rat­ed against a back­drop of footage of the blood­i­est mil­i­tary atroc­i­ties in Egypt since 2011.

The poem repeats the great­est and most des­per­ate wish: that one will emerge from “the tri­al,” from the bat­tle, with­out los­ing oneself. 

Are we winning?
Or are we in line for the slaughter?
Is the ques­tion shameful?
Or is the silence worse?
Did we open the way?
Or has it been destroyed?
Can injus­tice ever lead to gardens?
Can oppres­sion be a gate to justice?

“Fi ‘adl babuh al dhulm?” Can oppres­sion be a gate to justice?

“Fi ‘adl babuh al dhulm?” What jus­tice can be reached through the doors of oppression?

The ques­tion of doors and paths was both press­ing and recur­ring. Spray-paint­ed on a wall near my home was the line, “The gate to a safe exit is weld­ed shut.” The “safe exit” referred to the option that lead­ers of Arab coun­tries had in 2011 to exit the scene safe­ly — that is, to flee with­out a tri­al if they were to sur­ren­der and step down. At the time the graf­fi­ti meant that to leave untried would not be an option. As the years rolled on, the ques­tion turned on its head and we became the trapped ones. Is it because we trapped those lead­ers and their insti­tu­tions in with us, not real­iz­ing how long their fangs or how deep their roots were? The gate to escape was locked for many of us, not only in terms of phys­i­cal escape, but, more impor­tant­ly, in find­ing a way to live dai­ly life with­out being stuck in bat­tle, weighed down by a sense of defeat, con­stant­ly hound­ed by the guilt of not hav­ing an opin­ion strong enough, not resist­ing hard enough against the hor­rors that were to come.

Deliv­er us from vision clear with the clar­i­ty of mountains
Between blind­ness and sight
They are delusions
Deliv­er us from them unruined
Shoul­ders on feet
Deliv­er us from them pure
No blood on our hands
Deliv­er us a thousand
Or a hundred
Or one.

Lead us out naked
(pure) As we entered
No min­is­ters no countries
No medals
Lead us out new
Like when we took to the street
A lot of kids walking
Not afraid of anyone
Deliv­er us now
Spare us the trial
The bat­tle is terrifying
Spare us the trial
The bat­tle is terrifying

Sim­ply to have exist­ed while the killing was tak­ing place is dif­fi­cult to for­give one­self for. A nag­ging feel­ing that it could have been pre­vent­ed, but not know­ing how. But how does fas­cism start, and where? It is not iso­lat­ed to one place; it grows through us, mak­ing a mon­ster of each of us, even if our hands were not the ones doing the killing. Thou­sands were killed in Rab’a in per­haps the biggest mas­sacre in Egypt­ian his­to­ry. A mil­i­tary regime wip­ing out its strongest oppo­si­tion, Islamist sup­port­ers, while near­ly every­one else stood by as silent spec­ta­tors. Their deaths cre­at­ed a dark void that has spread amongst us.

In the ini­tial year of the rev­o­lu­tion, the goal was clear: social jus­tice and dig­ni­ty could only be achieved through the fall of the police state. That police state with­drew and the first mil­i­tary coun­cil failed to rule in 2011. Dream­ing up the alter­na­tive became the dif­fi­cult part. Every step became a test of faith. Hav­ing ques­tions was safer than hav­ing answers, fear was truer than courage, and the bat­tle became about stay­ing true to some­thing larg­er than pol­i­tics, an almost oth­er­world­ly world.

One day in Novem­ber 2011, I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion between two men walk­ing slow­ly towards Mohammed Mah­moud Street, where vio­lent clash­es were under­way between pro­tes­tors, armed police, and the mil­i­tary in what would lat­er be referred to as “the sec­ond rev­o­lu­tion.” One man said to the oth­er, “But I’m afraid…”

“That’s total­ly under­stand­able, to be afraid,” said his friend in response. He con­tin­ued, “Fear and courage are not the oppo­site of each oth­er. On the con­trary. Remem­ber the sto­ry of Moses? He was always afraid, but he was also ter­ri­bly brave. Fear and faith come from the same place, from here…” And he pound­ed his chest with his fist, above his heart. His friend smiled at him as they put their arms around each oth­er and dis­ap­peared into Mohammed Mah­moud Street. 

A Strug­gle Sus­tained by the Couch­es of Friendship

You will see home­lands being shattered,
Crowds gath­er­ing and being scattered,
the world will stare, once again, amazed,
… and then life will sim­ply move on, unfazed

So come along and saunter in
And until you’re here and we continue,
I’ll spread love and can­dy for you
On our liv­ing room couch.

 — from the song Al Kan­a­ba” (“The Couch”) by Kaharib, 2019

Mem­o­ries of the rev­o­lu­tion, or hav­ing sur­vived it, aren’t all heart­break. When I think of myself before those ten years (espe­cial­ly in the peri­od when I was polit­i­cal­ly active, between 2000 and 2010), I remem­ber myself as some­one adven­tur­ous, more dar­ing, when every­thing seemed worth it. The costs were not as high. When I think of myself now, I feel sig­nif­i­cant­ly embit­tered, but also shaped by a sense of ful­filled hope.

Between 2000 and 2010 there was a grow­ing move­ment in many facets of Egypt­ian life: sol­i­dar­i­ty with Pales­tine, inde­pen­dent work­ers’ unions, sup­port for peas­ant net­works and the right to land, build­ing oppo­si­tion to the prac­tice of tor­ture in pris­ons, and a slow­ly devel­op­ing and artic­u­lat­ed oppo­si­tion to then-pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak.

As things devel­oped dur­ing those ten years, it felt like the spaces that we reclaimed as “ours” were grow­ing. And as oppo­si­tion to the gov­ern­ment grew, so too did this sense of who “we” were. With it grew a sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty, wider com­mu­ni­ty, but also this real­iza­tion that our role as cit­i­zens went beyond mere­ly roam­ing per­mis­si­ble streets. Rather, we were the mak­ers and cre­ators of these spaces. The city was ours, and worth fight­ing for.

In these strug­gles, com­rades become friends, and in the short but pow­er­ful moment of the real­iza­tion of dreams, friends become fam­i­ly. I was involved in pol­i­tics not only because I believed a dif­fer­ent world was pos­si­ble, or that I was sure it should or could be achieved. It was because I had dreamed up a world with my friends, with my fam­i­ly and loved ones, and we had tak­en to the streets, to orga­niz­ing, to writ­ing, and to cre­ativ­i­ty in order to achieve it. With­out them, I could not rec­og­nize the dream.

They are the most sig­nif­i­cant aspect of this jour­ney. And in many ways, the bond between us is one that is cement­ed by a dream of a pos­si­ble world. A world so beau­ti­ful, per­haps, that we could­n’t have achieved it. But we were not naïve to try. We, like every group and indi­vid­ual that has tak­en part in rev­o­lu­tions all over the world, have been changed for­ev­er by this expe­ri­ence. By the expe­ri­ence of hav­ing been will­ing to risk every­thing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of that world that glim­mered with jus­tice. This par­tic­u­lar moment in time has proven to us that the forces of injus­tice were far stronger than we were—but this moment can­not pos­si­bly last forever.

In an arti­cle writ­ten by impris­oned activist Alaa Abdelfat­tah about being allowed to see his new­born son Khaled in a half-hour vis­it, he con­clud­ed with a sen­tence that drew upon the mean­ing of his son’s name in Ara­bic: “eter­nal.”

“Love is Khaled (eter­nal), sad­ness is eter­nal, the square is eter­nal, the mar­tyr is eter­nal, and the coun­try is eter­nal; as for their state, it is for an hour (of that eter­ni­ty), only an hour.”

Egypt has become a far more dan­ger­ous place than it was before the rev­o­lu­tion. Tor­ture is ram­pant, forced dis­ap­pear­ances are wide­spread, and jail cells are brim­ming with youth with bound­less imag­i­na­tions and a sense of enti­tle­ment to a bet­ter world. Our free­doms have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly cur­tailed. But the strug­gles con­tin­ue, and not just on the streets and against the regime. The strug­gles con­tin­ue in resis­tance to a patri­ar­chal soci­ety, in deep­er foren­sic research into the ugly prac­tices of the state, in jour­nal­ism, sto­ry­telling, and art. The mil­i­tary state may have world regimes on its side, mon­ey and ammu­ni­tion, jail and sophis­ti­cat­ed tor­ture mech­a­nisms. But we have gen­er­a­tions that will know the truth, the truth of that state’s evil, and the truth of bound­less possibility—that pos­si­bil­i­ty we had a glimpse of. For a short moment, but one with so much eternity.

In March 2020, while reor­ga­niz­ing my desk dur­ing the first coro­n­avirus lock­down, I found a group of let­ters from my close friend Alaa Abdelfat­tah, sent dur­ing his var­i­ous peri­ods of cap­tiv­i­ty between 2014 and 2019. He was released in March 2019 after serv­ing a five-year sen­tence for attend­ing a protest. His release last­ed mere months before he was tak­en in again, kid­napped and impris­oned with­out clear charges. Read­ing the let­ters is like hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with him, and his wis­dom tran­scends the moments in which he writes. I was caught by a para­graph in a let­ter dat­ed Feb­ru­ary 24, 2014.

We do need to learn to stop feel­ing guilty for things that hap­pen to us though, and to let go of the sense of des­tiny. If we accept that con­stant­ly try­ing to be good and do good absolves you of guilt and that if you slip once or arrive late or what­ev­er you don’t miss the train of des­tiny, our abil­i­ty to love life is much greater. I now get angry when peo­ple say things like if we had stayed at the post in the square on 11th of Feb­ru­ary this or that would have hap­pened. The notion that there is a sin­gle moment, a sin­gle choice that alone changed the course of his­to­ry, is the worst kind of roman­ti­cism; it is par­a­lyz­ing, inspires guilt, and invites fanati­cism and intol­er­ance. …We get 2nd chances and 3rd and 100th and an almost infi­nite num­ber of chances. It would­n’t be a strug­gle otherwise.

The moment is defeat; the moment is theirs; the moment is dan­ger­ous. But this moment can’t last for­ev­er. Strug­gle and pos­si­bil­i­ty will.

[1] Rab’a al-Adawiyya is a square in the Nasr City dis­trict of Cairo where a sit-in was staged by sup­port­ers of for­mer pres­i­dent Mohammed Mor­si, who had been oust­ed by the mil­i­tary one month before. The pre­dom­i­nant­ly Islamist sit-in was vio­lent­ly dis­persed by the mil­i­tary on August 14, 2013, with at least one thou­sand pro­test­ers killed and more than two thou­sand injured. Human Rights Watch claimed this to be the largest one-day killing of demon­stra­tors in world history.

This essay first appeared on the site of the Hein­rich Böll Foun­da­tion and appears here by spe­cial arrangement.

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Alia Mossallam is a cultural historian and writer interested in songs that tell stories of popular struggles behind the better-known events that shape world history. She is currently a EUME post-doctoral fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin.

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