Early the staccatos swelled, the jalopies trundled through the eigengrau, martins and peckers perched on wires portending the resurrecting sun. Windows jittered in the cold, and outside the red, blinking mast laddered up the azure-turning sky. Watchmen tinkered with their rusty panels and disappeared into silent folds. I woke up on the sofa in the parlor facing the green glow of the incandescent crucifix above mother’s bed. It waned like the moon in the morning. Occasionally, whirring airplanes flew low with their wheels down headed for the airport’s runways, shaking the houses in their cold silence. She’d face the ceiling on her bed, muttering a prayer, then descend into her loose sleeping robes. Feet sweeping the carpet, she’d examine the children splayed on the floor, my sisters and I, sometimes our cousins, carried a lantern and trudged through the creaking door, then through the hollow hallway.
The empty lot gapes, yawns and quivers. It exhales dust and sucks the blue out of the sky. It draws her to it, an emptiness that calls out, that whispers and jeers. A wide mouth, that says, come, that dares her. She has no business with the empty plot. It is a nothing place, a no place, not a place but a gaping, an emptiness that is yet to be filled, something still to come.
It has no address at present, nothing that sets it apart in the neighbourhood. There are so many. Empty stretches of land cleared for some future construction never to come, suspended in the eternal yawning present of oblivion. Plots that have stood so long that they have become part of the landscape, vast parks where rubbish accumulates, some partially developed, deep holes sunk in the earth, now filled with murky water that collects debris, the pokes of steel foundations casting dancing shadows on the surface like the spines of poisonous fish; ruinous scaffold of catastrophic geometries that shade rows of empty buildings, concrete structures looming like theme park wreckage, dark and sullen, windows dust coated, shattered in places, doors padlocked against squatters that never come. The streets that hem them, nearly deserted, monuments to some moment of false hope, a future that dims with each day, grows wary, listless, the air dirty with stalled development.
riley montana slaps the runway
behind the scene it is 30°C
the same temperature a body doesn’t need
to start decomposing—
the body sashays away in a blue blazer
catwalks to a stop in a dirndl
hundred irises of a palazzo
& when the body stops it stops only
to let the world have a view of itself through the bow-bridge of legs
A little girl walking through the woods on her way to her best friend’s house finds a small piece of paper. It is shiny and colorful, ripped from a magazine no doubt, with ragged edges and folded into halves – twice. I still don’t know what makes the little girl take that loose piece of paper into her hands. It is litter, really. But it will never be far from her for the next decade. From that day, she keeps it. Folded as she found it. She gently places it between the pages of The Little Prince or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, perhaps Watership Down. Now and again she takes it out and unfolds it. Over the years, the piece of paper becomes worn and soft, as satin silk or lambskin chamois. Whitened, thin and frayed at the folds until it is too delicate to even open. But the girl keeps it. It has become her confidante.
Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.