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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