A moving testimony to life, death, and the human condition by a journalist who was blessed, and cursed, excerpted from the memoir Light, I Am Coming.
Translated from the Arabic by Rudaina Halasa
I didn’t see the light that day.
I closed my eyes and then opened them to discover that 14 hours had passed, during which the doctors had performed major surgery to remove a vicious tumor. I had known that they were going to remove the stomach entirely, but now they told me they had also had to remove the spleen, part of the pancreas, and a huge number of lymphatic “knots” that had spread to my chest.
I had read about near-death experiences, about patients whose hearts had stopped for a few minutes. They described what they had seen the moment their lives slipped away from them; many found themselves passing through a dark tunnel towards a bright light. Most of them felt happy and at ease as they made their way towards it, or they saw the faces of dead people whom they had known, or relived memories; others described witnessing horrors.
Scientific research offers explanations of this phenomenon. Some theories refer to the secretion of endorphins in the brain, as a reaction to oxygen deprivation. In February 2022 a Canadian study demonstrated that a dying person’s brainwaves during the 30 seconds before and after death resembled those of a dream, or the recollection of memories.
This imagery repeats itself across cultures, and is reflected in the arts. In the 16th century, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch painted “Ascent of the Blessed,” which shows angels carrying human souls, moving upwards, naked, through a tunnel with a light at its end. The 2020 Disney children’s movie Soul depicted a similar tunnel. (The title of the film, translated literally into Arabic, would be Rouh [ روح ], but instead it was translated into A Personal Adventure — perhaps on account of religious and marketing concerns.)
I had been totally aware of, and ready for, the possibility of not waking up again, and had said: “I might pass through the tunnel towards the light to what, I do not know, and may never come back to speak of it.”
Luckily, that never happened. But I saw this cosmic light afterwards — while awake, not asleep.
It happened months later, after a distinguished American physician from the Anderson Cancer Center in Texas told me there was no hope at all of recovery. The tumor had returned after the surgery. She said that all that medicine could do at that point was to buy me some time, less than a year or maybe two years if I received “a favorable outcome to the best treatment available.”
This was in February 2022. I was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of 2021. Dates acquire great importance; I have started visualizing them as an hourglass, with its contents — not sand, but the days left in my life — decreasing steadily.
That night, before I went to sleep, Israa addressed me suddenly, and calmly: “You have to start thinking of what you want to do in the time left to you. Is there a city you want to visit? A dish you want to taste? How can I help you to give our son happy memories?” That night I glimpsed the light in her eyes, the beauty of human essence …
I learned gradually throughout my life to look for that human essence, to feel the light that radiates from good souls. I love being close to such people, while I run away from those with dark souls and heavy hearts.
I used to believe that I lived in the greatest country in the world, Egypt, and that being a devoted Muslim meant instantly that I and others like me were “better” than the rest of humanity — including other Muslims. Then I discovered that human essence is the core of existence, and all else is just a means of spreading whatever is inside, be it light or darkness. This shining essence is not in any way connected to color, race, religion, or language. A Hadith says, “Those who were best in jahiliyyah [the pre-Islamic state of ignorance] are best in Islam,” meaning that those with high morals stayed as they were, before and after their conversions.
History tells us of one of the pagans of jahiliyyah, Sa’sa’ah bin Najiya, nicknamed al-Muhyi al-Maw’udat or “Resurrector of Girls,” because he saved 300 girls from being buried alive; of Hatim al-Tai, whose generosity was legendary; and of Abdullah ibn Jud‘an, whose house became a meeting place for the Hilf al-Fudul (The Alliance of Virtue), whose founders vowed to come to the aid of any who were oppressed.
Much of the light (or darkness) of a person’s soul stems from their upbringing: their familial, economic, social, and political circumstances. But I believe the most important factor is a person’s choice to elevate the self, to let conscience move them, not personal interest. Conscience, or moral compass — the superego, after Freud, or the ancient Egyptians’ “Feather of Ma’at” — are different ways of describing the same principle according to which the human ascends or descends, the soul illuminated or darkened.
But life is complicated, and painful. There is serious scientific debate over the role of genetics in producing psychopaths — the darkest souls, who cannot empathize with others. The psychopathic personality, one theory holds, is a matter of cannot rather than will not, which entails a more complex debate about the extent of legal responsibility such people must bear for their actions.
I was told that the cause of my illness was mainly genetic. The doctors were bewildered by my young age, and wondered frequently whether or not anyone in my family had a history of being diagnosed with such a tumor. And repeatedly, my answer was “no.”
Disaster can descend suddenly upon us; we might carry it within us from birth, without even knowing it. We have no control over it, as we have no control over the many tragedies that we shall face — separation, weaknesses, death. We have no control over our feelings. But we can control our actions, or at least attempt to do so, without guaranteed success. No human being is perfect, and we all, without exception, will endure times of inadequacy, fear, selfishness, greed … the difference, however, is that there are those who allow themselves to give into these deficiencies and sins, and those who are aware of them and keep struggling with them with variable success and failure rates, eventually prevailing over them as much as possible.
During a recent interview conducted by the British journalist Aidan White, I considered my life from a distance, and was amazed by the extent of its richness: A short life span of 33 years, it nevertheless encompassed numerous lives. I lived in Upper Egypt and moved to Cairo, then to London. I worked as a doctor, then transitioned to journalism at the local and then international levels, coinciding with an exceptionally rare historical period — the events of the Arab Spring, which found me at their heart.
One day I didn’t have a single Egyptian pound to my name, and the next, my bank account was loaded with tens of thousands of dollars. One day I was explaining my views to farmers in my home village in Upper Egypt, and another day found me explaining the same views to António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, as he presented me with the UN Correspondents Association’s Ricardo Ortega Award for Audio-Visual Journalism.
Strange are the Fates and their games: Life gave me so much happiness and good luck so quickly, and just as quickly it folded, diminished, and eventually collapsed on me. I was always the youngest journalist on staff at the newspapers and media companies I worked for, and now I am the youngest resident in the cancer care ward of a British hospital.
I have changed from both inside and outside; I am even astonished by my face in the mirror today. Many of my convictions have changed, and so have the faces and worlds around me; but what has never changed is my search for that light emanating from the good souls, the light of empathy, of being human before anything else.
Since my diagnosis, after overcoming the shock, I found my hands writing about illness … about everything around me; not the diary of a sick man, but a record of events and feelings, sharing what I have been through, what I have learned. It is a memoir, of my generation as well as of my own life.
Without my noticing, my writing transcended from the personal to the general. Just like that, I started moving from scientific explanations of how cancer medication works to political news updates in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East; from contradicting myths related to so-called “alternative medicine” to following up on the death of Queen Elizabeth II. I contemplated death and life. I came up with ideas for solutions to the climate-change crisis.
One day, visiting the Tower of London, I saw Traitors’ Gate, through which Sir Thomas More passed on his way to imprisonment for opposing Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church and self-declaration as the head of the Church of England. More prevailed against the king’s abuse and threats to strip his family of all their possessions; in the end, he ascended to the execution platform with his head held high.
In his last letter, More thanked his daughter Margaret for breaking through the line of guards to hug and kiss him one final time: “… I like when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy,” he wrote.
On the same Tower grounds, I visited the museum in which instruments of torture are exhibited, and was horrified to imagine what the poor victims who succumbed to them must have endured. How far is the extent to which humans can travel in evil or good, in the light of the soul, or in its darkness.
I later found myself in a dark passage in the Tower, with the only light source a ray of sun creeping in from a small, narrow hole between the stones. I headed towards it unconsciously.
If by some miracle I am to survive, I shall strive for the rest of my life towards that light, which I have grown to appreciate during my days of illness. I shall show as much gratitude as I can: I am lucky to have a wife, and a father and mother, and many friends whose shining light have given me comfort, and confidence in the existence of good in the world.
And should Fate lead me to my demise, and if I must depart when the doctors have predicted it, then I hope that at the end of my tunnel, there will be light, peace, and serenity … and that there can be, in this book, some opening, even if from a tiny slit, so that some light may pass through to whomever reads it.