That metallic sound that hits us

**A version of this piece was published on the Mada Masr blog

The metallic sound of the instrument as it hits the enamel, to clean it. I close my eyes beneath the plastic goggles I’ve been given, and think about the quiet judgement of the Eastern European hygienist whose hands as in my mouth as I obediently move my head to the right, or slightly to the left, or open wider or bite down, which feels slightly more dignified.

Her teeth, of course, are perfect.

In the moments where it is hurts (“when there is sensitivity, just raise your hand, and I will stop,” she had said) I think of greater pains, pains I have been spared.

By the time the dentist herself sees me she has heard that I am a smoker. Unlike the hygienist, she doesn’t comment on how bad the habit is, but she doesn’t need to, the information is there in her voice. We go over my history and I tell her I have had a root canal done, and that it was done in Egypt.

“That should be…interesting,” she says. I tell her the Egyptian dentist had done a good job and she looks skeptical. She says her husband really wants to visit Egypt but every time they plan for it the State Department’s advice is to stay away.

I open my mouth for the exam, a bit relieved that my teeth have just been cleaned. This is as good as it can get. I’ve put on my best dress for her, and shined my metaphorical shoes (or, rather, Irene, the dental hygienist, did).

She pokes around the tooth that had been whittled down in Cairo for the root canal, replaced with a crown (what a term; the dental industry has a dark humor).

“Oh! It looks good! I like it!” Her surprise is genuine.

If I were a different person, or if she didn’t have her hands in my mouth, I would say something sarcastic like “Yes, we have real doctors there, too.”

I remember the dreaded root canal. It was done sometime in 2013 although I’m not sure where it was on the political calendar that dominates the narrative of my life in Cairo. Was it after the coup? Was it before the massacre? Was there a curfew?

The dentist was a young guy, friendly and funny but with that distinct reserve that I’ve felt from slightly pious men. My brother, who had just finished dental school, was working at his clinic, a sort of residency. He assisted on my procedure, in the white coat that I had previously only seen thrown across the back seat of the car.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” by brother asks me at some point, again with instruments in my mouth.

“She can’t believe her own eyes,” the dentist says for me, and he’s right. My brother has been functioning as an adult for years but in my mind, I still understand him to be an adolescent. I realize how quickly my inner view needs to change.

I remember I went home and watched Teer Enta, and that home was downtown.

In New York the doctor has found a cavity, a big one, where I suspected it was. “Oh, we’re gonna be seeing you again.”

Her deferred visit to Egypt comes up again as I am leaving, and for the first time in these years of unknowing, I cannot say that it’s not as dangerous as one thinks just from watching the news. I cannot tell her to go.

I wonder if my view is too vulnerable to the screens, the timelines that are filled with violence and, newly, the despair and exhaustion of advocates in Cairo, and also, horribly, the glee that others are taking in their pain. Amidst that day’s bad news is the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni.

“The world can’t end every day, Egypt. We need a break” – a friend writes on Facebook a few hours later.

Waves of people have disappeared, been killed, too many to count, too many to mourn properly. But Giulio’s death makes us confront the effect of this violence, of witnessing it, on our understanding of the world. Even as we fight this reality, it is with a knowledge that yes, deaths like this will happen today, and tomorrow – we expect them to. But Giulio is not from this world, not really. He is a visitor, and in his world, in his family’s world, people do not get killed jailed disappeared in the hundreds, month by month. His death shows us an outrage with a freshness which we have long forgotten, just as it stuns us with the realization of how we have changed.

To the left, Cairenes hold signs up saying “Giulio was one of us and he was killed like one of us.” People gathered at the Italian embassy in Cairo on Saturday to lay flowers and pay respect to the memory of Giulio Regini. Photos courtesy of Alex Ortiz and Sarah Mohsen.


Approaching an anniversary

I woke up thinking about Shaimaa el Sabbagh today. It’s not the first time, but it’s now been almost a year since she was killed, around the corner from my house, while carrying flowers in memory of those who died protesting in January 2011. I woke up writing about her death the next day. She is wired into my thinking about January 25 as an event and an anniversary, forever.

We speak, still, sometimes, about wanting justice for those killed, those hurt. We say it like that, in both English and in Arabic: justice for them. I suspect what we really mean is that we want justice for us. So that we might believe that we did something, so that we might not be so helpless in our position, as the ones left behind. So that we might believe that the same violence will not happen again, or not to us, or at least not so easily.

Prosecutors have had to give up on putting the witnesses to her murder in jail, although they tried hard. A police officer has been charged with fatally shooting her. We will have to wait to see if the sentence will be overturned on appeal, as has happened with convictions of police officers many times before.

A spokesman for the Medical Forensics Authority said, two months after the murder, that Shaimaa had died because she was “too thin,” as if somehow the use of birdshot against peaceful protesters were not to blame. Although he was dismissed for those comments, he was appointed head of Medical Forensics in this new year. A promotion.

A few weeks or months after Shaimaa’s death I found myself in someone’s crowded kitchen, peeling tangerines, still wearing my coat. I didn’t know many of the people around. A guy about my age wearing a black jacket sitting in the corner opposite me came to hold the attention of the room, not because he was trying to, but because of the comedy of the story he was telling, about being in a movie theatre when the power cut out. Conversation turned and suddenly it was all about prosecutors and police officers and in a chemical instant I recognized him as the man in the photos, the protester holding Shaimaa, who is wounded but standing, standing and dying against his body. He walked through the streets, carrying her, looking for help.

The photographer behind that important image was 23 years old. He said he went out not expecting violence at the vigil, and that once he had the photo, “the most important thing in that moment was Shaimaa herself.”

I didn’t know Shaimaa, and I can’t guess very much about how she would want to be remembered. There are many images of her, all over the internet: the poetess, the mother, the protester. I like this one, via Mada, although I don’t know when it was taken.

**Update: The ever-helpful scholar Amro Ali points out that this image is from a video shot around January 28th, 2011, near Alexandria’s Mahatet el Raml. Shaimaa is singing “Raise your voice with a song.”


Shaimaa al-Sabbagh


Moments ongoing

I am sitting in Ramallah reading this article about the controversy surrounding the deaths of two Palestinian teenagers, shot by Israeli bullets (one through the back) last week at a protest commemorating the Nakba. CCTV footage of the incident has been circulated over the past week; meanwhile the media quotes Israeli army sources claiming the footage was faked, and also, in some cases, that a Palestinian gunman is responsible for the boys’ deaths.

Their names were Mohamed and Nadim, 16 and 17 years old.

I recall the death of a different Mohamed; Mohamed Reda, shot by Egyptian security forces on the campus of Cairo University last November. His death unleashed a wave of anger by students and faculty. The public prosecutor’s office later claimed that he was killed by gunfire on the students’ side.

Two killings, each holding up a mirror image of the other, an image surrounded by violence and obfuscation.

We had been in the north, “fil dakhel” (meaning “inside 1948,” “inside Israel”) that day. We drove back from Akka and Haifa to Ramallah to find shops and restaurants shuttered, either out of respect for the lives taken, or out of fear of angry mobs of youth. The solemn atmosphere hung over the hilly city for the next few days.

Since Mohamed Reda’s death in Cairo, students have continued to die throughout the Egypt’s campuses. Claims and counter-claims, of whether the brotherhood was present, whether the students were armed, create an ugly noise often louder than the basic facts each time. Too often no one is interested in listening, anyway.

Even in writing this I feel like I am using their teenage lives, their deaths in order to understand the violence that seems inescapable. Is that selfish? Is it insulting to those who loved them? Is it disrespectful to a memory of their lives before they became part of this ongoing, sick story?

“The Nakba is ongoing” is a popular slogan here. That moment in history which changed everything for so many who were still unborn, is stretched out and iterated over and over again: when youth are killed or arrested, when houses are demolished, when land is eaten up, renamed, re-landscaped, by a highly mechanized occupying machine. A catastrophic history – both crystallized in a moment and brought to life repeatedly, generations later and decades later.

Can we see the same canvas in Egypt? When we raise flags with the faces of the fallen from our own catastrophes, from the bullets and the torture and Maspero and Port Said, when new faces are spray-painted onto walls to join this cemetery made of stencils, when we insist that their deaths are not in vain and that the revolution continues, even as the chants grow fainter. Is this all a way to stretch out a moment of change that occurred in 2011, to unfurl it beyond our memory so that it can cover our ongoing crises, our ongoing disasters?

In a piece about Mohamed and Nadim, the Guardian provides a quote from a public opinion analyst in Tel Aviv, commenting on the response: “Public figures are well aware that the postmodern mindset makes it hard to pin down facts.” The implications are sinister, especially in a region where accountability for crimes committed against the poor, the occupied, or, in Egypt, the whole general citizenry, is completely absent.

Tomorrow Egyptians go to vote in the second presidential election in as many years. Under the care of the General slated to win with no contest, the Egyptian state has charged or imprisoned 41,000 people for political dissent in less than a year, according to WikiThawra. The facts, the past, pin us down whether we leave them in their moment or draw them into life.



Notes from a bridge

All this sickness has to go somewhere, and it seems it has gone directly to my stomach. In my belly is a rock of congealing violence; of fractured time and place; of the anxiety of powerlessness.

I am at the border crossing from Jordan into Israel, in order to reach the West Bank. We’ve already gone through the Jordanian side, where the process always feels vaguely confused, although mercifully quick. We are ushered into a waiting room which has an air of cheap, threadbare formality. A large circle of chairs in terrible brown upholstery are arranged facing towards each other; there is Quran playing in the background. A man comes by with a thermos of coffee; there are portraits of King Hussein hanging in the fluorescent light – he is shown young, smiling, handsome in that particular way that Arab men with strong but fine, even features and thick hair can be. This border crossing is named after him, and also after General Edmund Allenby, who held various posts in the British empire’s military and colonial administration in Jordan when the word referred only to a valley and a river, as well as in Palestine, Egypt, and Sudan.

We leave the Jordanian side and cross the “bridge” in a car. The Israeli side looks much more militarized; the first people we see are soldiers with machine guns. It is Saturday, the Sabbath, which means the crossing closes earlier than usual. The lines at the first processing point are long.

We had somewhat embarrassedly paid extra money for a “VIP” service which means there are employees who explain things to us quite patiently, and physically accompany us through every step of the process. It means we circumvent the queues and in doing so, sidestep the center of the brutal power dynamic; we brush past it rather than stand at its target in lines made up mostly of Arabs, crowded together between metal barricades. 

The first man to process me speaks my father’s name, Mohamed, back at me with a shift towards recognition and mild surprise in his eyes. His hand hovers for a second as he hesitates before circling a number to indicate how potentially suspicious I am based on this brief, initial profiling. It’s the same number I’ve gotten in the past so I am relieved. I notice there is an awkwardness in the way I am clutching my passport, the only reason I am able to consider this journey.

Almost everyone who questions me asks if I speak Arabic and, with a continually growing sense of shame, I say that I prefer to speak in English. On the one hand this is a part of my deflection; my attempt to present myself as less Arab, more American, as less knowing, more blithe. On the other I feel repelled from conversing with the soldiers in an Arabic they have mastered purely in order to better occupy, to more firmly control.

After questioning I am sent to a waiting room. The TV is showing a crew’s adventures in fishing for Blue Fin tuna on National Geographic.

There is a woman wearing niqab sitting just outside the room and yelling in a thick London accent that “they don’t have a right to do this.” I think she eventually passed through with her husband, because now when I look outside the door all I can see are a woman’s feet in sandals. Her pedicure is almost the same color as mine.

At passport control, the employee takes our passports directly to the window. A few minutes later the woman at the front of the line, clutching an American passport like mine, calls out my name so I can come step in front of her.

A while later we finally collect our visas and our luggage and step out into the sun. We head to Jerusalem and to our work in Palestine. I think about how much importance and effort is poured into keeping people out of this place. It feels like it is being hidden away, in the real sense of the words.




The last few months rendered me mute for a while. Trying to take in all that has been happening in Egypt – the attacks, the killings, the arrests, the abuse of justice on every level possible – and do what little I could to work against it somehow crippled my mind and tied my tongue. Thoughts and ideas only hit against walls, and bounced back to lie flat at the bottom of my brain. It all felt unsettlingly familiar.

But here I am again, writing about the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt. There was a moment, around this time last year, when I thought we could be on the cusp of something great: I was hoping, dreaming, of a war. For months, independent volunteer groups had been battling mob assaults against women at protests in Tahrir – there had been blood, trauma, camaraderie, media and propaganda campaigns, drills, recruitment. What I wanted and thought possible was to take that ethos and expand it into something larger, that could ripple through society in various figurations, from the artistic to the militant, but always acting upon the same core idea: zero tolerance.

Zero, because years of being a woman have taught me that even though this might not be the primary way in which I define and see myself in any given situation, it is how most people around me will see me. And that the surrounding presumptions mean that I have to watch how I sit, dress, smell, talk, laugh, make eye contact, eat, pay, walk, smile and frown in an energy-zapping way that most men cannot imagine. That there is a spectrum between Manly/Bossy and Provocative/Loose on which women are constantly sliding. That it is easier to play by their rules than to try and shatter this way of seeing things, in which women are constantly spinning on an axis of male perceptions, needs, desires. That ignoring this ubiquitous lens will in no way protect you from it. That it is this way of seeing things which allows violence, and means that men in positions of authority such as Cairo University President Gaber Nassar will blame the target of a sexual assault for her clothing, whatever it may be.

I’m often told that things really are not so bad, that women should just get on with it. That at least now women can drive and work and travel and ask for divorce. A friend of mine broke her teeth when she was younger and she passed out on the street, literally fainted from a white rage after spending too long dodging and fighting a man driving a car who was masturbating and harassing her as she waited for a bus. I have been filled with shame after running into friends near my house downtown, where I was walking with my head to the floor like some downtrodden wretch, trying to tune out rather than shout or argue with a group of lewd men. A close childhood friend confided incest. Another friend confided FGM. So many confided rape. Things are not so bad.

My hopes for a feminist uprising to lurch Egypt forward in a messy, imperfect, but ultimately positive way now seem part of a different time, before the great recalibration of possibilities, plans, and tactics that last summer brought about. But more than any other fight or cause this is still the one that sits, unbudging, in my heart and mind. This is in part because it is deeply personal – but beyond this, it is tied up with every other battle for social justice that we will have to face. Military dominance, political corruption, and the ills of the justice system and capitalism are all inherently patriarchal, depend on patriarchy in order to survive.

Things are bad. Admitting that and allowing ourselves to see it clearly is the first step to finding change.

Margins, islands, and homes

I recently moved from downtown to Zamalek, which feels increasingly like an island playground/food court. Running errands, I elbow my way through crowds of preppy young people standing around in brightly colored shorts, waiting for a table at a café or a burger from one of the half dozen new burger places. Past some designer jewelry and furniture stores, I am waiting to cross a busy intersection when a woman sitting on the sidewalk and begging for money grabs onto my leg, pleading with me for change.

Anywhere else in the world this might alarm me; instead all I feel is a deep shame. Because all I can do is give a few pounds to this woman whose baby is crawling over her shoulder, his small face smudged with dirt, in an almost unbearably typified scene. Because I know that afterwards I will go and buy overpriced food and sit at my overpriced laptop and go about my day.

Cairo does this to me all the time; it hits me with my own privilege, constantly reminding me of how big the city’s cracks are, and how many people live in them. It’s an experience I recall having as far back as childhood visits to the city.

My recent apartment move brings up memories of my first move to Cairo, more than ten years ago now. Seventeen and about to start university, I moved into the student dorms on Maraashly Street. My university experience would be turbulent, as I pushed against my family and the restrictions of social conservatism, and struggled to find real engagement in a student body that seemed overwhelmingly vapid to me. In both areas, I reacted by distancing myself, dismissing entire groups of people and situations, convinced I had nothing to learn, nothing to gain. I thought I would just have to operate according to my own code, owing nothing to anyone outside of my immediate inner circle.

Despite this very adolescent self-insulation, I fell in love with Cairo, distinctly and unmistakably. Eventually I grew up a little and opened up to the world around me. The city charmed me with its vastness, its intimacy, and with how it could sometimes be so forthcoming and revealing, and at the same time, mean none of what it reveals.

Throughout, however, there was a lingering, mostly peripheral sensation that I did not belong here. Part of this has to do with possessing a female body; this in itself means that just being on the street is always some kind of battle, let alone being able to feel any inclusion in or ownership over it. But that is a whole other topic for a whole other post, career, or lifetime. Beyond femaleness, I had grown up elsewhere, my first language was English, and, importantly for many: I had another passport. I could leave at any time and go to any place that I wanted. I think this gives the impression that one has less at stake in a place, and cares less about it.

To say that the revolution removed this unease would be inaccurate. I think what it did was show me how the structures of political and cultural oppression that ran the country – the security state, patriarchy, deep classism, religious prejudice, racism, economic corruption – marginalized everyone in one way or other. The very concept of citizenship was legally and philosophically absent.

It also showed me communities of people who were working for everyone’s inclusion, who had opened up their lives to unknown change, and this made me less afraid to do the same. It showed me how impossible it was to be away from moments of transformation here, or even just moments of loss.

There was a lot of loss this past summer. There is a new struggle against marginalization, as we are all hounded by messages that Egypt is a homogenous, male, strong state and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor. It’s a struggle not to feel muted by ubiquitous expressions of support for the generals. But then I remember that people don’t always mean what they say, and that we are quite skilled at performing. And this one is an easy jig, with a catchy song to go along with it. More deeply, I think that supporting the military allows people to see Egypt the way they always wanted to: strong, united, and robust. Simultaneously, they can blame the Muslim Brotherhood for everything that they hate about our reality: corruption, poverty, bankruptcy, violence. It is a perfect delusion, and one that cannot last long past the honeymoon.

These days I walk around the island, between its begging women and the iPhones and hormones of its teenagers, and I think about choices. Choice of neighborhood, choice of city. It mostly feels like I am here by default  – how could I not be? Where else would I be? But the truth is I have chosen Cairo over and over again. I’ve learned not to care whether it would choose me, sincerity not being a strong quality of any megalopolis. It is home, from whatever margin. 


This is the third time I’ve tried to write something about these nightmarish days in Egypt. The words that come out have been too hollow and disconnected to share, but I’m trying again. I don’t have a laser-sharp analysis to provide, and I’m certainly not going to take a wild stab at predicting what will happen. My physical engagement with politics has been restricted to my own couch, or friends’, ever since June 30, when I half-heartedly went out to an anti-MB, anti-military rule march.

Egypt has given me a life-changing political education in the last two and a half years. When the revolution started I was personally burnt out, and so numbed by the necrosis that characterized political life in the last years of Mubarak that it was not until January 28th that I fully believed that people could change the country. My cynicism was deep and heavy to budge, but it evaporated over the course of those weeks and I’ve kept it sternly in check ever since; choosing, every time things got violent or dispirited or stagnant, to see the possibilities people were working for all around me.

It’s hard, now, not to feel like something has been stolen from me. As I write this, I am deeply aware of how many others have had the much more devastating  loss, the theft, of a loved one or a limb.

The past days have left me with a feeling of uselessness and alienation. I condemn both the Brotherhood and the security forces in their inter-locking cycle of violence and lies. There is no place for me in the street, or in a national conversation determined to start and end with chauvinistic nationalism. So I stay in and watch the city descend into silence, the streets emptying of life as military curfew approaches. On days like yesterday, I can hear gunshots, explosions, and the occasional surreal chants. Friends come and go, and we oscillate between collective media monitoring and outbursts of humor and distraction. So many have seen gruesome death, literally counting bodies and wading through blood in the course of their jobs. I wonder what this does to us, to what we know.

This is not the first time the state has pushed us to the edge, to where we can see the possibility and feel the fear of continuous violence and chaos. Churches are left to be attacked, buildings to burn, and brute force is being used in part, I believe, to provoke. It’s not the first time, but it might be the bloodiest and the scariest – and the one receiving the loudest applause.


(Inverted eagles, symbols of Egyptian nationalism, on a public wall in downtown Cairo). 

I do not know how we will move forward from here, or when we will stop flaunting our cruelty as a source of pride. How will the hundreds of families that bury their dead ever find peace in a country whose authorities bully them into accepting suicide as the official cause of death before releasing the body? Whose media refuses to call those they lost anything but terrorists? Elements of the Brotherhood are using terror, and its leadership is criminal; but it is not a monolith, and innocent people have surely been killed by the army’s own terrorism.

In the meantime, I will venture out into the quiet streets, in search of glimpses of the city I first fell in love with.