The Air Was Hot with Hysterical Nationalism

August 14, 2014
A year after the Raba’a massacre in Cairo, one writer struggles to redraw her relationship to the city
By Yasmin El-Rifae
A year ago I woke up in Cairo to the news of a massacre, the second of the summer. I was subletting a friend’s apartment downtown, a beautiful place that gave me solitude above the blazing, dense insanity below while keeping me close to the small geography of my social life. If I was home around sunset, I would open the doors to the bedroom balcony to a view of the rooftops cluttered with old furniture, partially stripped billboards, and makeshift homes; beyond them lay the river and the lush banks of Zamalek. There was an Indian Jasmine tree on the balcony, kept alive by water dripping from the hose of the bedroom air conditioner. Usually, there was a man in a yellow or white sleeveless shirt one or two roofs down, talking on a cell phone with the intensity reserved for conversations about love or money.
I had decided to stay in Cairo a few months earlier, rather than move to New York for a Master’s degree that was really about a way to move to New York more than academic interest. It was the third or fourth time I had chosen Cairo over a move abroad, although of course every day in Cairo feels like a small decision for those with the privilege of a choice. I stayed because I had done work that had changed me in ways that I am still learning about, and I wanted to do more.
The whole summer had been violent and traumatic, and no one knew what we were hurtling towards. (Certain analysts and journalists claim they saw it all coming, but I don’t believe them.) Nonetheless, the summer was punctuated by trips to the beach, which seemed even more surreal than usual because no one in the enclaves of the rich that colonize the pristine white beaches of Egypt’s Mediterranean was checking Twitter or talking about politics in a way that wasn’t directly about money or a naked fear of headscarves.
But I went to the beach, and I drank with friends in our beloved, dirty bars even if sometimes it was after seeing or touching someone else’s blood, and I ate at least one mango and I knew that I was not doing those things to “remind myself” that there were good things still around but simply because there were. I was comfortable with my decision to stay, and I had made enough big decisions to know that all that matters is how they make you feel in the part of yourself beyond apprehensiveness and shame.
I walked around the heat in flip flops and long skirts and sometimes I yelled at men in the streets who harassed me but other times I just stared straight ahead and other times I didn’t even hear them, the words were just disconnected syllables that my ears did not synthesize, and other times I looked to the floor and one time I got into a taxi and just cried in the backseat, silent and trying to stay out of the angle of the rearview mirror.
In July, they removed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi from office and no one knew where he was for a long time. The politics around that are sharp and bright in my mind, but in my memory of that time, they are in the background of the work we were doing to fight a form of sexual assault that wouldn’t go away. We pushed the issue onto the media and we fought men with knives and guns, and politicians lied about it, and so many women were hurt but sometimes we were able to help. There was trauma on all sides but rarely did we admit that afterwards, we needed help too. That we weren’t sleeping, or we were sleeping all the time; that those of us who hadn’t been targeted felt guilty for the safety of our flesh. That some of us who had been targeted still felt guilty, sometimes guilty enough not to leave the house for months at a time.
Between that time around the coup that wasn’t a coup but was and the Raba’a massacre of Brotherhood protestors that occurred a year ago today, and immediately before and after both events, the air was hot with hysterical nationalism. It was alienating, chauvinistic, xenophobic, patriarchal. People were wild either with fear or with the promise of redemption by the army from the Muslim Brotherhood’s fumbling political leadership. Liberals and others who had fought Mubarak’s regime came to the defense of the security state; an “Egypt fights Terrorism” banner appeared on news channels. Anyone who spoke out was deemed a radical Islamist and a traitor. Real kinships and lifelong friendships were severed along fault lines cracked open between coup and revolution, massacre and management of violent protest, benevolent generals or vengeful masterminds, propaganda or truth.
I don’t remember how I found out about the Raba’a massacre. Probably Twitter. I didn’t cry that day but I cried later, when an uncle said it was better for their corpses to rot in the street. I had experienced the betrayal of strangers and people of office and come to expect it, but it cut through everything to hear this from someone I once adored. And I would cry again on the occasion of several other cruelties to come from the state and its people as they widened their multiplying arms, like some terrifying Hindu god.
That day in August was the first of the military curfew, one that was real and immobilizing and unlike anything I had experienced. I thought I would spend the night at a friend’s place where several other people were staying, but a little while past the cut-off point I found I desperately craved my borrowed, beautiful home. After some fuss I left with my host, who insisted on accompanying me in a gracious if somewhat irritated way (and fair enough). We walked through the darkened downtown, past stray dogs and a few scattered people, everyone staring at each other jumpily.
I got home and stayed awake with the knowledge that things had changed for me, in that place, but that I wouldn’t know how for a long time. The boats that live in the river and usually provide the area with a cacophony of late-night music had turned their lights off.
I write this from New York, from the southern edge of Brooklyn where I can see the statue of liberty and the skyline of Manhattan’s steel and stone when I run in the mornings. As I walk around the city and it washes over me or makes me laugh out loud or leads me to marvel at the cruelty of how entrenched its own underbelly of oppression is, I think about how to redraw the map of my relationship with Cairo. I’ll go to sleep soon and Cairo will wake up to tomorrow faster than I, and as we move around the sun from different angles I’ll think about the people who lost their loves and their sense of home one year ago.
Yasmin El-Rifae is a writer living between New York and Cairo. She helps run the Palestine Festival of Literature.