Sham el naseem

On my way to Heliopolis by taxi today, the driver came off the 6th October Bridge at Abbassiya and we were confronted by a man lying spread-eagled on his back in the middle of the road, which is unusual even by Egypt’s standards.

It was sham el naseem, and the roads were relatively (and mercifully) quiet, but there was still enough traffic to create a minor queue as drivers navigated round the star-shaped apparition lying unconscious, asleep or dead in their path. Their apparent unwillingness to get out of their cars and help the man prompted the driver of the taxi I was in to do so, and I followed rapidly behind him.

It was the contrived position that the man was in which first made it clear that this was a automaton rather than automotive incident: the perfect symmetry of his limbs, the palms turned upwards to the sky, the feet splayed outwards. His blue shirt and cream-coloured trousers were dishevelled, but only slightly, and above all his face was perfectly composed and entirely at peace.

The driver’s taps failed to elicit a response prompting him to attempt to lift him at which point I assisted him. The man, still unresponsive, allowed himself to be picked up and dragged to the concrete strip separating traffic coming off the bridge from the road running parallel to it. It is hard to say whether the man had been unconscious or simply willingly absent while he was lying on the road, but once seated he suddenly came to and, head in hands said, “I want to die.”

The driver, a paternalistic and practical sort of man, patted the young man on his shoulder and extorted him to have faith in God. “My family have ruined everything. I want to die” the man repeated. His expression betrayed a sort of wild confusion, but the deliberate certainness with which he spoke made me conclude that this confusion might in fact have been caused by the interruption of his suicide attempt rather than the blows that life, and his family, were inflicting. The one thing I was sure of was that this man was not delusional, nor drunk, nor insane. He was simply broken.

After asking the man whether he could help him in any way and failing to get a response, the driver said, ‘have faith and go home, son’ and we resumed our journey. The driver and I naturally started talking, and naturally the conversation turned to Egypt and the myriad ways in which it tortures its children, prompting the driver to tell me this story:

‘There was once a boy who said to his father, ‘I bet I can rule a country better than how it’s being ruled now.’ His father laughed scornfully and said ‘you think it’s that easy, do you? I’ll set you a challenge: look after these fifty birds and make sure they don’t escape. And if you succeed, then I’ll agree that you would be a good ruler.’ So the boy took the cage and the fifty birds in it and lovingly watered and fed them. He then opened the cage’s door and they all flew away.

The father then himself got a cage, also filled with fifty birds, and said to the boy ‘watch and learn.’ He immediately set about pummelling and torturing the birds in indescribable ways and, when he opened the cage’s door, not one of them moved.’

I had looked behind me when I got back in the taxi and saw the man get up, walk across the road and, without a moment’s hesitation, lie down in the middle of the road opposite as the traffic sped towards him. Reflecting on this, and the driver’s story, I later remembered a television programme I had seen years ago about birds raised in battery farms who, driven mad by the torture of their confinement and the conditions in which they are kept, attack themselves viciously. I wondered about the hell in the man’s head, and the hell of existence – his family, life itself – as he perceived it, and wondered at what point the world outside had started mirroring the despair inside his head to such an extent that he had simply given up.

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32 Responses to Sham el naseem

  1. Humphrey Appleby says:

    Achingly beautiful post, Amnesiac. You have the gift to make people feel through words. The struggle for meaning and happiness is a theme that never gets old, and you handle it very well.

  2. fully_polynomial says:

    it is starting to get to the point where i come here and have my heart leap temporarily upon realizing there is a new post. i think it is the unassuming style. it feels like you’re telling me this story on the phone or something.

    if we ever make a ‘greatest hits’ collection of this blog, this post would be in the top five or so. its very sad, but at the same time it does not ask for the reader’s sympathy. it just presents the incident w/ no pretense whatsoever that it is difficult to realize how sad it is on first reading. that the man got back to lie in the middle of the road is such a shocking end, and that this is fact and not fiction makes it almost unbearable to read.

  3. Marwa Rakha says:

    Very moving, Amnesiac … I feel that I was in the taxi with you. I can’t help but wonder, why did you and the driver leave the guy behind? Did you get to know what was wrong? I wonder how he felt every time a car passed him by. – great post.

  4. Mumbo Jumbo says:


  5. Seneferu says:

    You should publish this, Amnesiac. Heartbreaking story, but excellent writing to convey it.

  6. Seneferu says:

    p.s: and nice title too:)

  7. Carmen says:

    Ditto to all the above and you should visit Common Ties ( to consider publishing this or writing something new. They need good voices from Egypt.

  8. N says:

    you must be shook up…

  9. Amnesiac says:

    Humphrey: 7 – 1!!!!!! Imagine how that mamma mia bloke is feeling now.

    Fully P: You certainly know how to make a girl smile. Greatest hits!

    Marwa: Thanks. The man was completely unreachable by which I mean he was beyond the stage where – even if I or the driver knew what to say – we could turn things around.
    I briefly considered calling an ambulance (yeah right) or the police, but concluded that government involvement at any level would probably only make confirm to him that his choice was the correct one.

    Seneferu: Thanks…Publishing wouldn’t know where to start.

    Carmen: Thanks for sending this site mate. Do you know Words Without Borders?

    I think you might like it.

    N: the frightening thing is that because I had my Egypt armour on the initial shock was minimal somehow…It was only afterwards when I reflected on what happened that the sadness of it struck me, but that was the result of a cerebral process remote from raw instinctive emotion somehow.

  10. Carmen says:

    Words Without Borders is great! I’ve already found five stories to use in my classes!

  11. pink panther says:


    great writing, get this published.

    I don’t know if she can help but try:

  12. GC says:

    How come you don’t write for a living? This post, and the art review post, are so much better than 90% of what’s published in Egyptian English language publications.

  13. Forsoothsayer says:

    she does. not much of a living fil balad el weskha.

    yes she was journeying to helio to meet me and i pre-heard this story but the written version is way better.

  14. fully_polynomial says:

    forsooth — at the risk of diverting the attention from the post, i would like to ask why do you stay in egypt if you dislike it so much (from what i’ve read from you at least)? as i understand it, it is possible for you to go live somewhere else, right? why dont you just do that?

    i dont mean to sound like an ass, i am just curious.

  15. Amnesiac says:

    Carmen: Great.

    Pink Panther: Thanks :-)

    GC & Forsooth: Not quite for a living (yet?). It is something I am thinking hard about at the moment. Streets Apart was actually published in the Weekly.

    Fully P: Forsooth has an interesting turn of phrase, but in her defence I can say that she is one of the few people I know who say unconditionally that they enjoy living in Egypt.

  16. DailyAntics says:

    stunning post, ur blog is fast becoming one of my favourites.

  17. Amir says:

    Great Post Amenesiac,
    I was away on holiday for Easter and have been catching up to your last two weeks’ posts. Keep it up, your critical but more broad minded and understanding of why Egypt is where it is than other blogs i’ve read about Egypt. You certainly should think about writing for a living, you invoked empathy in me for the tortured man when I can safely say I have never felt close to as broken.

  18. pink panther says:

    i just realised that i posted my earlier post on the wrong article. I was supposed to post the above comment about publishing on ‘streets apart’. I did not at all mean the account of this poor guy. apologies

  19. Amnesiac says:

    Daily: Ah thanks :-)

    Amir: Hope you enjoyed your holiday, and thanks for the kind words. The writing full time thing is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment.

    Pink: No probs, and Streets Apart was actually published in the Weekly.

  20. pink panther says:

    oh what’s the weekly?!

  21. Amnesiac says:

    Al Ahram Weekly, an English language newspaper published in Egypt.

  22. Maxxed`ouT says:


  23. ramy says:

    as you can see, im going through almost every single post you’ve written (i have never done this)…
    you’ve had so many compliments on this one, so i wont add to them.
    well except to say it is unforgettable.
    can i post it to my site please?

  24. Amnesiac says:

    Thanks, Ramy. Of course you may but if it’s on the blog which is for invited readers only, invite me please :-)

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