In the presence of the rope, standing on the platform, and in reply to the traditional question, he told the executioners and men of law that his last request was to be washed, so as not to meet his Lord unclean. They’d dragged him from his cell to the place where he would die, and the shit had run out of him uncontrollably, like water. Piss flowing as though a tap had been spun open. By the time they reached the execution chamber his red trousers were soaked through and stained with diarrhoea. The stench filled the heavy air of the room.
The governor, the judge and the prison doctor met the request with silence. Taking him to bathe meant the time it would take to walk him to the prison bathhouse, then the time it would take to wash, and then there was the return journey, and all that, of course, would constitute a waste of time: of government time, and that of the senior officials who there to ensure that the judgement was properly executed.
Which silence the executioners understood perfectly, and so, his request unacknowledged, he was shuffled into place over the trap, the rope was tightened about his neck, and a black cloth bag was pulled down over his head.
Atef wakes at noon, as usual. He is alone in the house. His mother is at work and his sister’s at university. He finds a newspaper on the dining table and is casting his eye over it and sipping his tea, when he sees it: the report at the bottom of the front page.
The public are following the details of the case with intense fascination, and many stories are spun about the two victims and the gang of blackhearted villains, the chief accused in particular.
Reading the report through until he had memorised the names of the prison governor, the judge and the detectives who had brought the case to court, Atef sighs and a faint smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He lays the paper down, picks up his tea and goes to stand by the window.
A great weight has been lifted. The air around him recovers its warmth.
In a large triangular shard of mirror balanced on a little washbasin, Salah smoothed his heavy moustache and briefly met his own gaze, testing its capacity to impress and intimidate. Just twenty-three years old, but the sheaf of black that described a rough rectangle beneath his flared nostrils lent a menacing addendum to his years. A record of delinquency, muggings and knife play in the neighbourhoods of Tora El Hagara and Kotseeka and Manshiat El Masry; a name known all the way to El Maasara. And now, here, in Ezbet El Askary, hard by the prison walls, in a bathroom with a hole in the floor for a toilet and grey walls that sweat damp at their base and are moss-green by the ceiling, he stands combing the thick moustache whose original inspiration was Thabet El Batal, legendary goalkeeper for Al Ahly and Egypt. The penalty shootout specialist.
Salah’s father was a prison guard. A drab balcony in Ezbet El Askary came with the job. Salah had knocked a door through his bedroom wall straight onto the street, so he could come and go without having to pass through the apartment and interact with his family, while his friends could visit and stay up all night without offending the dignity of the home. In fact, Salah’s room was known throughout Tora as a place you could go, laden with any or every substance, to have a good time, so long as you guaranteed Salah a cut of whatever you brought with you. Of course, you couldn’t disguise the smells, nor the plastic syringes and empty bottles of Max scattered beneath the window, but though the window in question lay only footsteps away from the entrance to the Tora El Balad police station, it was the property of Sergeant Fathi Abou Helawa, who was Salah’s father and (like it or not) untouchable, and his home and children likewise so long as red lines were not crossed.
Hamdi El Wazir got his break playing the role of ticket collector Deif in Atef El Tayyeb’s Bus Driver. The first draft of the film’s screenplay had been written by another director, Mohammed Khan, who didn’t usually write at all (not even for himself, let alone anyone else) and it reflected his interests and obsessions as a filmmaker far more so than those of El Tayyeb. Khan envisioned it as a kind of road movie, a genre he was interested in and had made before:
A bus driver who owns a taxi to supplement his income, circling Cairo daily, traversing its streets, sometimes taking the highway out of the city to visit his sisters and their children in Damietta and Port Saïd to beg his brothers-in-law to assist in saving his father’s workshop from sequestration by the tax authorities.
At this point, El Tayyeb and screenwriter Bashir El Deek begin to make their influence felt. They raise (or rather, reduce) the story to the level of symbolism: the seizure of the workshop is a stand-in for the loss of the nation, and the film as a whole becomes a satirical assault on Sadat’s program of economic liberalisation and the decline of good old patriarchal values. It is an approach that starts to gather momentum when Hassan the driver, played by Nour El Sharif, comes to understand his case in patriotic terms, drawing parallels with the fight for independence, and he assembles his old comrades-in-arms to help rescue the workshop.
In any case, starting here, and on through a number of different television roles, El Wazir managed to establish himself in honourable company, one of a number of high-calibre supporting actors from the 1980s, the likes of Mahmoud Masoud, Mohammed Kamel, and Hassan Al Adl.
Deif in Bus Driver was a role that seemed to suit him, and which could easily have defined him: salt-of-the-earth, dark-skinned; a solid man and a good man.
Fate had other plans.
Tomorrow is the year one Arabic language exam. Atef and Younis are sitting in Atef’s bedroom, each with a copy of their Arabic textbook open before him. There’s an old copy of David Copperfield at one end of the table and a tape machine is playing by Judas Priest, the volume lowered to give an impression of studious concentration. Atef is telling Younis how David bites Murdstone’s hand, and laughing. “Do you think David Copperfield is meant to be Charles Dickens?” Younis asks. The exam is tomorrow but that isn’t important. The heavy metal washes over what’s left of an anxiety that has lost its focus: school and everything it signifies seems irrelevant now, the people there irredeemably insincere and pretentious; it’s a world that deserves to be cut adrift.
The two friends stand at the window, smoking, staring at the wall of the seminary outside Atef’s bedroom. Immersed in a calm, Christian limpidity, the seminary seems to be somewhere else entirely, outside Cairo. There’s something there; it’s like an optical illusion is telling them there’s a person standing alone by the wall. It’s not far away, but the darkness and the weak yellow wash from the lone streetlight is conjuring a ghost. They peer. A young woman, perhaps? White shirt, white trousers, standing smoking by the wall. Like she’s waiting for something.
David Copperfield fades, Judas Priest fades. And though it’s only hours away now, ushering in two weeks of misery that culminate in the summer holiday’s bright dawn, the Arabic exam fades as well. The holiday starts here. Everything is suspended and into the void steps a powerful curiosity which draws them out of the bedroom and downstairs to see the truth of it for themselves: this rumour of a young woman smoking by the seminary wall.
He’d been eating “black dish”—sliced aubergine, boiled without spices or fat of any kind—and was spooning it down with a generous flap of fresh prison bread when his teeth had closed on grit, cracking a molar lengthwise right down to the root.
The hideous pain ruined the brief moments of joy that he had been able to conjure from the meal. The fragrance of fresh-baked bread, once capable of stirring the condemned body back to life, was now indelibly associated with the rot-inflamed nerve that hammered directly into his brain. The smell of hot bread was the smell of pain: the chastening agony of his tooth. He asked the guard on their wing, a Corporal Meselhy, to help him transfer to the prison hospital so that he could be seen by the dentist. Either get the tooth taken out or get a prescription: anything to muffle the thudding in his skull. The pain—despite the red jumpsuit he wore as a walking dead man; despite the “men’s swing” which waited for him at the end of his line—was making him weep like a woman.
Meselhy had served alongside his father at El Aqrab prison and he did as much as he could. But there was no getting round his condemned status. The corporal promised to try, then passed him a few dried cloves to numb his gums.
“Chew on those. They’ll keep you quiet till we get the hospital sorted.”
Feigning bravado, Atef and Younis approach her. Younis speaks first. Does she need any help? No, she doesn’t. Her defiant insouciance is sexy. She’s their age or slightly older, a voracious smoker. Atef wants to know what she’s doing here. He’s a local, is the implication: he has a responsibility to defend the place against random incursions. Nothing, she says, but prepared to do anything. And very hungry.
Very sexy: inside the heads of both boys now the irresistible, instinctive half-hope: Am I going to see it at last? Touch it? Be inside it? Smell it? She is very real. She looks like she can’t go home, or like she doesn’t have a home. She certainly doesn’t belong around here: standing by herself, smoking in the darkness; untroubled, open to anything.
Atef says, “We could jump the wall and hang out on the seminary football pitch. A bit of privacy? The monks are asleep, and anyway they know us. They’re fine.”
“I’m not jumping any wall,” she says sharply. “Get me something to eat first and then anyone who wants to get off can get off.”
This is the first time they’ve ever heard a woman talk this way. So blunt! They ask her what she wants to eat.
“Liver, sausage, mince… beans and tomatoes… anything.”
Mince catches Younis’s attention. The rest make sense—liver, sausage, beans—but something about minced meat doesn’t seem to belong. Can you order mince? Does anyone even serve cooked mince? Then he remembers the cart that sells liver sandwiches at the Thakanat train station. The man who runs it sells two kinds of sausage alongside the liver: a heavily spiced Alexandrian sausage and then a type that he cuts out of its casing once cooked and which looks exactly like minced meat.
They introduce themselves and she introduces herself to them. Her name is Etab, she says, and neither of them have the slightest doubt that this isn’t her name at all; that it’s lifted straight from the Afro-Saudi singer currently the rage in Cairo. They agree to take her to the sandwich cart by the Thakanat station. The little money they have on them will cover it and it’s only five minutes away on foot.
They walk along the seminary wall until Avenue 15 meets Avenue 87, then turn left towards the station. About a minute later they pass their school gate. Abdel Zaher the school guard is sitting next to the gate, smoking molasses tobacco from a water pipe. They greet him tentatively and he answers with a frown, curiosity pricked by the presence of the strange girl by their side. They don’t care. A minute later they run into Hisham Abdallah, a classmate, walking down the street towards them. He is carrying books, which means that he is on his way home from a private lesson: final revision before tomorrow’s exam. They stop to say hi, and introduce him to Etab. He immediately understands what’s going on and decides to come with them. He is coming for a sandwich, he says. He is hoping like they are hoping.
Next to the train station is something like a little market: shops and stalls selling various goods and services. There’s a big grocer and a smaller grocer, a shop selling household goods, a poultry stall, fruit and veg, and a cafe for the taxi drivers. The glass-fronted liver cart is set up where the pavement forms a right angle with the station wall. Here, in a space between cart and wall, the owner keeps two tables where his customers can eat. At one of these tables, the four friends see Hamada El Maghribi and Ali Hamad sitting before a veritable pyramid of sandwiches and a smaller pile of green chillis. They take the second table and greetings and occasional small talk pass back and forth between both groups.
By the time Etab has wolfed her sandwiches, Hamada and Ali have joined the table, and joined the party. They leave the sandwich seller, looking for “somewhere quiet”. The three who set out from the seminary are six as they walk away from the cart. A cat on heat acquiring a new tom at every corner.
Etab makes it clear that she will be doing nothing out in the open, so the monks’ football pitch is out, as is the (easily accessible) playground of Victoria High School, the waste ground that runs in a strip along the railway line, the unlit park on Qinal Street, and the desert in nearby Degla.
Hamada says he knows a guy from Tora who works in a patisserie nearby. Khaled El Khawaga. He could sort out a place for sure. He’s “street”. They walk to the patisserie. Hamada goes in and emerges with El Khawaga. Khaled El Khawaga is tall and thin and in the hellish glow of the shopfront’s green neon they can see that his face is covered with nicks and scars. El Khawaga says he’ll take them to a friend who has a place in Ezbet El Askary. Nice and safe.
It’s easy. They cross the empty drainage channel that divides Maadi from Tora, then on past the Tora police station and the Tora train station, then into the heart of Ezbet El Askary, between the uniform grey cubes of the apartment blocks. At one of these blocks, El Khawaga raps on a door and a short, scowling young man appears with a thick bolt of moustache. Salah Abou Helawa. As the six of them stand there—the five boys and Etab in the boy’s clothes which hide her figure—El Khawaga bends and whispers something in Helawa’s ear. Minutes pass, then Abou Helawa steps forward, El Khawaga behind him.
“Here, Etab. You’re sleeping with me tonight.”
He turns to the boys.
“And a good night to you all. Let’s hope we don’t have to meet again.”
Calm as you like, without the slightest sign of objection, Etab slips out of the huddle and under Abou Helawa’s wing. Atef thinks: He’s tough and he’s older than us, but I must have fifteen centimetres on him and there’s more of us. Younis thinks: This is his neighbourhood, there’s no point fighting. We lost this before we begun. Etab is gone. But emboldened by his height advantage, a full head higher than Helawa, Atef is speaking:
“What’s that?” Trying to sound like he means it. “What did Khaled say to you? This isn’t the agreement.”
Helawa sees a sixteen-year-old schoolboy losing his manners, feeling his size. He gives him a sharp poke in the chest—“Fuck off, faggot”—and taking Etab by the arm, turns to go inside. As El Khawaga turns to come with him he stops him, says,
“Not you. Take these kids back to Maadi where you found them.”
On the way home, Atef and Younis mock El Khawaga viciously while the other three laugh. Tall and thin and scarred he seems derisory, irrelevant.
Their adventure fizzled out, hopes dashed, only one fact remains: in a few hours their Arabic exams will begin, and with it a fortnight of sleepless torment.
An interlude for the victims:
Safwat Bastawisi obtained his high school diploma in Riyadh, where he lived with his expat parents. But because it was difficult for foreigners to pursue higher education in the kingdom, the boy travelled back to Cairo with his father, who had but a single aim in mind: to register Safwat at university and then return to Saudi Arabia. The father owned an apartment in Medinat Nasr and he bought the boy a new car, but when Safwat’s Saudi qualifications were processed it became apparent that he didn’t have the marks he needed to enrol at any university through the official placement system, and as private universities were as yet unknown in Egypt, there was nothing for it but the technical college on Galaa Street. The boy wasn’t having it though: he was too proud to graduate as a “technician”, which title meant, of course, “manual labourer”. If it had to be a two-year vocational course with a mediocre qualification at the end of it, then let it be a commercial college and book-keeping. The lowest rungs, maybe, but at least the ladder was white-collar.
Then it became clear that even the city’s commercial colleges wouldn’t accept him with those marks, so if he was going to insist then it would have to be the provinces. His father refused to countenance this double exile from home. Cairo was where they owned an apartment, and his uncles all lived in Shubra and El Haram and could take care of the boy if necessary and take instructions from his father.
After much searching and investigation, father and son were directed to the doors of a college that was not registered with the placement office. Radio College. It was near the centre of town, in Parliament Street, and claimed to guarantee all its graduates employment as a communication officer, either at an airport or in commercial shipping. Communications officer… It sounded good. Okay then.
The neighbourhood bounded by Qasr El Ainy Street, Parliament Street, the Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum and Mubtadiyan Street, was full of ministries and government offices, and alongside them, a host of private establishments that operated along the same lines as Radio College. The Joy of Joys Joint Secondary was a private, fee-paying high school that offered no foreign languages nor conferred any special advantages, but was instead a means to enter the state secondary education system for those who had failed to achieve the necessary marks in their middle school exams. Foundation College offered a range of supplementary evening courses, its staggering success down to the opportunity it afforded students from girls’ and boy’s schools alike to study together in the same classroom and what might follow: engagement and involvement—long-term or short-term as the case may be.
One fine evening Safwat walked into the lecture hall where he was due to attend a lesson on Morse code, to find the other students seated at their benches, in front of each a cobbler’s anvil on which sat an inverted shoe, and resting on the shoe, strips cut from the worn tyres of Antonov jets, and every one of the students, boys and girls alike, hammering away. Safwat didn’t fully understand at first. He must have the wrong address. What did shoes and anvils have to do with Radio College, with semaphore and codes? Then he recognised Mona El Danaf, wielding her mallet like a pro, and before he’d quite taken this in, he saw another student, a boy, slip out from behind his anvil and its splayed shoe, and scuttle after a young women who had just received the lecturer’s permission to leave, shouting, “I’m coming to melt you, sugar,” then give a piercing whistle.
Mona El Danaf had graduated from the Joy of Joys and progressed to Radio College, and it goes without saying that she was also an attendee of the Foundation evening classes. The Joy of Joys was aptly named: the boys sharply dressed, the girls in full make-up clipping their high heels along the pavements of Mubtadiyan Street, filling the morning air with whispers, like cooing doves.
Mona lived in Manial, walking over the Qasr El Ainy bridge with dozens of girls all dressed in dark blue, all envious of the freedoms of Joy of Joys, the dressing up that every other school forbad with an severity unique in the regulations of the education system. The girls at La Mere De Dieu wore yellow blouses, at the venerable institutions of Qasr El Ainy Secondary and Sunniya they had to dress in the traditional dark blue pinafores or skirts with white blouses. But the girls of the Joy of Joys? Every day a different outfit, a different look.
Safwat had a Pony, the Hyundai’s first mass-produced model. Korean cars didn’t have much of a reputation at the time, but the Pony’s design, which imitated better-made and better-known Japanese models, managed to deceive Mona El Danaf, and this, combined with the conceited behaviour of its proud owner and contrasted with wretchedness of the vast majority of his peers (conceit being an attractive quality at this time), meant that Safwat and Mona soon found themselves entangled. His name alone was enough to turn her on. Safwat. Clarity, with the class of a Turkish T at the end. A rare name. In fact, the only person she remembered with that name was a famous and long-retired footballer. And when added to his family name, its firm chime seemed further proof of the self-assurance she so adored: Safwat Bastawisi.
An ill-starred night. Mona point-blank refused to accompany Safwat back to his apartment in Medinat Nasr. Too far, she said. He considered Maadi—the tree-lined streets wrapped in darkness, not a glimmer of light, no passers-by—and then convinced her. Maadi was closer. They could sit in his car “in peace”, drink a couple of beers and talk, and he’d have her back in Manial by ten.
He parked the Pony in the shadows beneath the big old camphor trees on Qinal Street. “It’s so dark!” Thus Mona, a little frightened, a little thrilled. “Good,” said Safwat, opening two beers and handing one over, hoping the alcohol would make it go easier. He began decorously enough, following the rules, the romance of hand-holding. He felt her hand surrender itself to his broad palm then remain there, comfortable and still. A good sign. It was dark, but not totally so: against the glow of city-light in the sky they could make out each other’s outlines. Tiny red and green pinpricks flared and faded on the cassette player’s console to the rhythm of the music, though in order to remain undetected the volume was turned down to zero. Their random, unreadable pulsing and her half-finished bottle of beer dizzied Mona. He placed a light exploratory kiss on her cheek. No reaction. Encouraged, he touched his lips to her neck, concentrating his attention on the sensitive skin behind her ears, the tracery of veins. Now he was hungrier, and at last she responded, laying her hand against his face and pulling him closer, gently, closer and closer, then pushing him into her neck. The pinprick lights were dancing madly across the console and his hand began its slide from her breast to the fly of her jeans, first unbuttoning then unzipping, and then, suddenly, there were shapes hammering on the windows, slobbering faces peering in.
The cloves had run out and, re-awoken, the pain was wild enough to drive out all thought of sleep and leave Abou Helawa biting into his prison-issue blanket. Like a skewer had been driven through his upper jaw and into his brain. He could hear his heart beat in the bones of his face like the heavy tick of a clock and despite himself tears spilled from his eyes. He prayed for dawn to come quickly, for the prison to wake up, for Meselhy to bring him more cloves, more aspirin—maybe even news of a transfer—but he knew by now that God didn’t listen to his prayers. Maybe this torment was necessary in order to wipe clean the record of his numberless sins before he encountered God’s face. Maybe he had to suffer to the end. Shortly after dawn, the cell door opened to reveal the face of Corporal Meselhy and beside him, the prison doctor in his white coat. To the hospital at last. But why was the governor there with them? And who were those officers, and those other men in dress uniforms? An honour guard for a simple trip to the dentist? Then, staring up at the grave faces, he understood, and shrank to the back of his cell in terror, all strength gone from his limbs. He hadn’t slept, of course. A pair of soldiers gripped him under his arms and had to carry him out of the cell. At the door, Meselhy gave him a hug and stroked his hair. “Come now, Salah, be a man. It’s all done in minutes.”
The pain in his tooth had quite vanished.
In 1989, four years after the incident that had shaken Egyptian society to its core, director Said Marzouk revisited it in his film The Rapists. Marzouk changed a few details, like names and faces, but retained others. The principle accused in the case kept the surname Abou Helawa, for instance. Leila Alawi played the female victim. Marzouk, who was renowned for addressing feminist issues in his work, set out to depict the female body as a weak link, a site where society’s conflicts and tensions played out, something he had done before in films like Fear, A Place for Love, The Guilty—and, of course, in I Want A Solution, which was said to have contributed to the amendment of the deeply unjust personal status laws. But in the finished film the only detectable trace of his progressive style is found in Mohammed Hilal’s soundtrack, a homage to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, which Marzouk had used before in Fear without the slightest regard or respect for copyright. The film was, in fact, the epitome of mainstream ‘80s cinema in Egypt. It belonged neither to an avant-garde movement then at its peak, produced by auteurs like Mohammed Khan, Raafat El Mihi, Khairy Beshara, and Atef El Tayyeb, nor to the trash aesthetics of low-budget “contractor films”. Absolutely conventional, it could just have easily been directed by Ahmed Fouad or Nader Galal or Mohammed Abdel Aziz.
To cast the gang of unemployed rapists, Marzouk turned to the supporting actors mentioned above: Hamdi El Wazir, Mohammed Kamel and Hassan El Adl, along with the veteran star Mohammed Farid. Mohammed Kamel played the part of the gang’s leader, Salah Abou Helawa, the only one of the accused to receive the death sentence. There was a genuine resemblance between the men, at least when it came to the moustache. Kamel might have been a touch taller, perhaps, his features less fierce.
A couple of years later, in 1991, Hamdi El Wazir played another rapist in Hilali’s Fist, a vehicle for kung-fu star Youssef Mansour that was directed by Ibrahim Afifi. It marked another milestone on El Wazir’s professional decline, from the heights of Mohammed Khan and Atef El Tayyeb, then the pivotal shift downwards marked by Said Marzouk’s film, and now the drop: down to Afifi, purveyor of schlock. When he went on to reprise the role in two successive commercial productions, his fate was sealed.
In 1997, at a memorial performance in honour of the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, he made an attempt to restore his image as a serious actor, playing the lead in Wannous’s Rites of Signs and Transformations under the direction of his brother Hassan. But this production, staged at the National Theatre, came hard on the heels of a production of the same play by Nidal El Achkar and the Al Medina Theatre company at the Ezbekiya Theatre across town. Comparisons between the two productions—the first Egyptian, the second Lebanese—were not only unfavourable to the El Wazir brothers, but damaging to the reputation of Egypt’s long and noble theatrical tradition. The bid to free his reputation from the rapist’s clutches had failed, and with the slump in the production of Egyptian film and television drama, coupled with the rise of a new generation of actors who flooded the shrinking market, El Wazir faded into obscurity.
Then came the social media boom and the political awakening of the middle classes across the Arab world, and with these, a new generation of graphic and video artists who played with image, recontextualising visual cliches to generate a comedy in which to laugh was to weep: not because its satire was too mordant to bear, but because it offered irony collapsed to a singularity, constantly rebounding on itself, eating itself, held suspended in its own absurdity—which is the absurdity of life itself. “Here you go,” it said to society, “I think these are yours…” and returned its goods to the counter. A kind of Dadaism.
Hamdi El Wazir was resurrected on social media. A still of El Wazir from Hilali’s Fist—lip sneering, one eye narrowed—underwent a semiotic shift away from its original context (a scene in which he confronts the kung-fu hero) into a generalised concept of machismo and sex and rape. A meme. It was popularly understood to be an image from The Rapists, and furthermore, a depiction of Salah himself. The rapist as hyper-ironised comic icon: the iconic figure of Salah Abou Helawa emptied of its tragedy and horror.
It is a story of displacement: Hamdi El Wazir’s journey from avant-garde cinema to commercial action flicks, from the honourable working-class ticket collector to rapist, then from supporting rapist to lead rapist, displacing Mohammed Kamel from the shaky throne of popular memory. And suddenly, El Wazir was making appearances on television chat shows, not to talk about his career, about himself as an actor, but as a star of social media, a name on par with figures such as Ahmed Al Tabbaa or Saeed Al Hawa or Al Khalil Comedy. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed delighted with these iterations of an image which (to put it mildly) had rescued him. Some people even thought he must have been behind it; that it had been a ploy to put himself back in the spotlight.
Atef crosses the entire suburb on foot in quarter of an hour, from the furthest point south where his house lies, to its northerly boundary where Younis lives. He wants to return Gossip Over The Nile, as he had promised: the novel belongs to Younis’s father and is one of his most treasured books. But at the same time he needs to bring his friend the good news. The deliverance.
Younis had forgotten all about Salah Abou Helawa almost immediately. He hadn’t seemed particularly interested when Abou Helawa and the five other unemployed youths had been arrested for their part in what the press were calling the Maadi Girl Case. For Atef, though, Abou Helawa had been a daily presence ever since that night last spring. Atef was the one who had been hot headed, who’d nearly come to blows with him in his own neighbourhood, outside his own front door. It was Atef’s misfortune that his own house, at the far end of Avenue 15, directly bordered Tora El Balad, overlooking Salah Abou Helawa’s crossing point on his daily trips to and from Tora. And when he saw Atef standing at his bedroom window, which he frequently did, he would stop and stare at him with a cold smile, smoothing down his moustache as though in threat. Atef would leer back, but with time, fear began to seep in. It was like a sickness inside him. A mild fixation becoming an entrenched panic. He would rush to close the windows whenever he saw him coming.
He wasn’t personally afraid of the fucker: setting first impressions aside, he reckoned he could take him if he had to. He remembered the advice of his friend Atwa, the school goalkeeper: “If you get in a fight with someone stronger than you, don’t wrestle them. Work them from the outside. Punches and kicks.” And if such a scenario were to play out between them, given the difference in height, then Atef should beat him. No: his fear, in some way he didn’t fully grasp, was connected with his mother and his sister; with his household in general.
Younis didn’t have to face any of this. Living on the far side of the neighbourhood, he hadn’t encountered Abou Helawa once since that night, outside the pages of the daily papers and on TV.
They are sitting out on the triangular balcony that leads off Younis’s bedroom. Atef says that Anis Zaki, the hero of Gossip Over The Nile, is an amazing character, that he (Anis) thinks exactly like him (Atef), but that he’d always thought people were happy back in the ‘60s.
“Misery’s nothing new,” says Younis, and the pair take on the world-weary air of older men. For a while they are silent, peering down into the street. This is the moment to relay the news:
“Abou Helawa’s finished! Bye bye!”
“To hell with him,” says Younis. “I read about it this morning.”
In the same instant, both of them are thinking of Etab.
“Liver, sausage, mince… beans and tomatoes… anything…” Atef intones in her nasal whine: “…then anyone who wants to get off can get off.”
An explosion of laughter from the balcony.
I dreamt I met Hamdi El Wazir, face-to-face in the Downtown Cairo bar run by the Iraqi that no one could figure out. The actor, visibly aged, was sitting at a table stacked with plates of sliced cucumber, white cheese and tomato, and sprouted beans. There was a 750 ml bottle of Stella in front of him. I stood there like a defendant before the prosecutor as he took a swallow of beer and bit into a slice of cucumber. His expression was somewhere between anger and contempt.
“You call yourself a historian and a film critic then you make things up and change them?”
“I’m not a film critic and I don’t think of myself as a historian. Like the poet said: I look at facts and describe acts. For which I have other uses (to quote the prophet Moses).”
He offered me a seat, and was about to launch another attack when suddenly, all at once, the whole gang turned up, Ahmed Abdel Aziz, Mahmoud Masoud, Mohammed Kamel, Hassan El Adl, Hassan El Wazir, and he quite forgot me. My chance! I thought, and slipped away. At the door, the Iraqi stopped me:
“You haven’t paid.”
“I didn’t order anything. Anyway, it’s all on Hamdi.”
Forensic records from those countries which carry out executions this way, tell us that it happens to a sizeable proportion of those they kill, whether dropped suddenly through an opened trap, or departing life at a more leisurely pace, dangling at the end of the rope: the men’s penises erect, ejaculating at the moment of death or postmortem, the labia and clitoris of the women engorged with blood. In 19th-century England, when hanging was still practised, the phenomenon was known as angel lust. It is the product of pressure on the cerebellum caused by the tightening rope: in living subjects, similar injuries to the cerebellum produce a painful and extreme priapism.
The most famous cases of angel lust in Egyptian medical history involved three of the four male members of the gang named for the Bint Hammam sisters, Raya and Sakina, who murdered and robbed seventeen women in Alexandria between 1919 and 1920. They were Mohammed Abdel Aal, Orabi Hassan El Sawamei, and Abdel Razeq Youssef. The fourth male member of the gang was Hasballah Maraei, Raya’s husband. The fact that Hasballah did not achieve an erection was attributed at the time to a lack of manliness, to the fact that he was a procurer not only by profession but also by nature.
And because our local criminal Salah Abou Helawa was a proper criminal—his achievements in this field no less storied than those of Orabi Hassan and Mohammed Abdel Aal—then it must be supposed that he, too, brought his distinguished career to its conclusion with just such a terminal erection, a symbolic cleansing that marked the transition between the impurity that came before the trap, and the fame that came after.