At least one of the panes in the warped and brittle frame was cracked enough to need a newspaper. You never bothered to replace it. From the desk, you looked across a small patch of gravel at another rowhouse, another upstairs window. Sometimes, a face would appear between the curtains, then vanish. You didn’t know it, but just a few years before a poet had died just a few doors up the street. The Greek Revival is brittle, and brick. The room is yellow and small and has a ceiling fan. On the wall, there’s a thriftstore reproduction of Goya’s little boy in red with all his birds and cats, next to him, a postcard of a coffin.
He wandered into my path. My shoulder knocked into his shoulder and we smiled or apologised. The traffic, he said. I walked on. He turned and followed me. He said again, The traffic. I moved to the kerb and waited. He said shyly, I’m looking for the university placement office? He held out a piece of paper. I didn’t look at the piece of paper. He said, My eldest boy. He said, I’m from Tanta. He said, It’s cold. The traffic. I said, The office isn’t far. Take the first bus you see. I said, Get out at the university. Take any bus, I said. He put the letter back in his pocket and he smiled. Started moving his feet again. Started to walk away. I paused for a second and let him pass. I looked behind me. I called out. Don’t take the bus, I shouted. Listen to me. He came back. My voice was raised. Don’t take the bus, I said: It’s not far. The traffic, I said. I gestured at the pavement. I said, Just keep going on this side. I said, The office you want’s at the end of this street. He smiled. This way’s better, I said. He smiled. I said, The end of the street. Better than the traffic, I said. The letter was in his hand. He started to cross the street. I said, This side of the street, all the way down. He paused. Took a step forward. Immediately after the university, I said, and he was thrown up in the air. The whole world screaming. Rolling to a stop over his body the car.
We do not see the hut when the lights first come up, and then we see it. Its inhabitants are not interested in us, perhaps because their problems do not concern us. These women spend their days waiting for a man, and they know that one day he will come. Lights shine upstage from the front of the stage, illuminating a door in the back wall. Neither fully open nor quite shut, it swings gently on its hinges, creaking intermittently, as though the fitful wind outside the hut is knocking to make its presence known within. Then the light sweeps downstage and to the right: we see a flight of stairs rising to the princess’s room, mirrored by a flight on the left leading down to their larder. Centre stage is an old-fashioned, rectangular dining table—or rather, it is simply old: it has no identifiable fashion. Around this table there are four chairs, the back of one slightly higher than the rest. The chairs are not neatly arranged but are scattered about as though hastily vacated. Between them wend the backs of two women dressed in black, cleaning the shabby furnishings and complaining.
I had my camera when I went out to demonstrate on Friday, January 28, the climax of the Egyptian revolution (January 25-February 11, 2011). I was on the streets for over twelve hours but I took only two pictures; they were to sit for years on my hard drive, unedited and undisplayed: my only trophies from the revolution. Unlike the majority of “Arab Spring revolutionaries”, from the moment Tahrir Square was occupied in the small hours of Saturday, January 29 and until the long-time president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, I felt that I couldn’t photograph and protest at the same time, that to be photographing would render my presence in the protests insincere and that the protests were about more important things than photography.
At the same time the figures and the faces that I saw daily in and around the protests, and which belonged to both “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries”, imprinted themselves on my mind more forcefully than ever before: sullen and despairing men, slim women in high heels and children everywhere.
You could think of sunlight
Glancing off the minarets,
You could think of guavas and figs
And the whole marketplace filled
With the sumptuous din of haggling,
But you could not think of Alexandria
Without the sea, or the sea,
Turquoise and shimmering, without
The white city rising before it.
Abandoned bags are tossed about by the noon breeze.
Tree leaves, narrow pavements,
children next to shoes,
teens, out of school, are smoking.
The curls on their foreheads are so shiny
they look frozen and stiff.
I’d rather fight a war tomorrow than think my son might have to do it one day.
This sentence, which I know to be true, does not belong to me. It does not emanate from me. It inhabits me because I am part of this living planet. It originates in the deepest strata of life, in the mechanisms that regulate the way life is handed down from being to being, from generation to generation, across time. It does not make me any more courageous than the moderately frightened – or more heroic than the moderately selfish – man that I am.