I lived in Alex for a year at the beginning of this millennium, and it was one of the best experiences of my life: heat-filled, carefree and of limited duration.
Revisiting the city for the first time after I left it was unexpectedly painful, what with the bumping into the memories and all that. It is a still wonderful city – and one I became attached to far more intensely than I will ever feel fondness for stinky, crotchety Cairo – but with each visit it has become less and less mesmerizing, and is almost now a stranger where once it was my partner in crime. Reduced to someone I would nod my head at in greeting in the street.
The city was intensely unfamiliar when Sharshar, Um Nakad and I arrived on Monday evening. The intense emptiness of the night’s black sea was still there – but it emitted a putrid stench of piss and sweat. The corniche’s buildings, the old soldiers, still stand sentry duty – but are pockmarked and wind-lashed and exhausted. At their feet are the crowds, Alexandrians and holidaymakers happily promenading in the evening’s sticky, cloying air – but I don’t remember seeing so many beggars in Alex when I lived there.
But then memories of places are always carbon copy versions, a faulty imprint of geography and time and emotion.
I was in Alex for the trial of two policemen being tried for misuse of force against Khaled Said, who died when they apprehended him in an Internet café in June. The courtroom was absolutely filled with both media and relatives and friends of the two defendants. Angry-looking women occupied one row. One remonstrated aggressively with the tea-seller about the LE 4 change he had still not brought her. When I squeezed past them in order to take a photo of the defendants they hissed and mumbled in complaint. It was only when a slanging match broke out between them and a woman who is testifying against the defendants that I realized that they were relatives of Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud and Awad Suleiman.
At one point in the trial I had the despairing thought that as usual, justice is only going to be half done in this case; the two men will be found guilty but not of the crime witnesses say they committed (murder, or at least manslaughter) and that those higher up the chain of command will continue to sleep peacefully at night. The findings of the two postmortems performed on Khaled Said’s body have effectively locked the truth in a room to which the legal system doesn’t have a key, as I understand it. Maybe the judge will be different this time. I don’t have much hope of this however since a defence lawyer (who introduced himself as “general” so and so = ex police = regime) speaking after the trial described him in glowing terms.
After the trial we went to Trianon in Raml Square so I could write my article. Sharshar (who had not been allowed into the courtroom and was kept waiting in the sun for two hours) slept, Um Nakad made phone calls and provided invaluable legal assistance for my story.
There was a man in the corner of the café who talked in a loud voice and gesticulated in an animated fashion for the duration of the time we were there. I thought he was using a hands-free but later realized that he was talking to himself. He had a briefcase on the chair next to him. I wondered what was in it.
After I had finished my story I went to use the loo and on the way there saw that all the café’s staff were staring out of the window.
Street children/teenagers were fighting. As we watched through the glass one of them, wearing a baseball jacket, dragged a youth with no feet out of his wheelchair and proceeded to pummel him, assisted by two other children and a young man who came and went.
I stood next to the man talking to himself – whose stream of consciousness now centered on the fight – as it continued, the disabled man on his back, his stumps flailing wildly as the youth in the baseball jacket punched him in the head and the other children kicked him. A middle-aged man carrying a plastic bag stood and watched, half smiling, fascinated.
Separated by the café’s glass, the fight played out for people in the café in silence, and this was perhaps its most disturbing aspect: seeing the disabled man being dragged along the pavement by his shoulders, the empty wheelchair rolling, the fists cutting through the air, the vain attempt to resist, the dirty desperation of it all, how long it was, how long, and all mute.
Café staff eventually intervened and police arrived. The disabled man, now smiling, was placed back in his chair and the youth in the baseball jacket obligingly pushed the wheelchair accompanied by two policemen. Calm returned. I then noticed that the street kids had put pieces of cardboard in the opening of an unused underpass where the fight broke out, in addition to flowers in an improvised vase. A man kicked it all away on the instructions of the man from Trianon.
Um Nakad later told me that someone from Trianon told her that the disabled man had “opened up someone’s stomach last week and is no angel. Nobody intervened because they’re all scared of him. He might be carrying a knife”.
Maybe there will be a time in Egypt when it will be impossible to silence and conceal this everyday violence, when the glass sealing off desperation from people who can afford not to care will be shattered. I hope so.