Another extract from Youssef Rakha’s باولو [Paulo], recently acquired by Dar Al-Saqi, the second novel in a planned trilogy and the sequel to التماسيح (Dar Al-Saqi, 2012) [The Crocodiles]. The novel takes the form of fifty nine sequential blog entries numbered in reverse (i.e. starting with 59 and ending on 1), authored by the eponymous Paulo, one of the central characters from The Crocodiles, now an ex-poet, a figure on the independent cultural scene, a revolutionary and a covert operative for the shadowy Wadie Bey, who narrates his adventures in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Egypt. This extract finds Paulo addressing his much-abused cat, Atrees.
The terms naqib, usra and shu’ba are jargon from the Muslim Brotherhood’s internal organization. A naqib is the head or “captain” of an usra (family), a cell of maybe five or six Brothers, which itself belongs to a larger shu’ba, or “branch”.
29 | Khashaba
Posted Saturday, 31/3/2012; Tags: EVENTS Come, come, don’t run you son of a dog. We’re here, in the living room. We’re not going to the kitchen yet. Come, sit on my lap and listen to the rest of the story. Now you’ve heard of the village of Mit Nama in Markaz Qalyoub of course, just before Benha at the start of the Agricultural Road… Mud houses amid farmland, most of them now bare redbrick with sheets of corrugated iron and plywood. Makeshift shacks with no land of their own. Not a single structure built to any kind of spec. No hospital, no school, no police station, no workshop, not even a field worth a damn. Mud everywhere. No running water and no sewers, little Reeso. The mud all trash and shit. Even the electricity’s pinched from the public lines. Brother, settle down and listen, what’s wrong with you? A terrible place, is what I’m saying. Just imagine being one of them, for instance; being raised there. The poverty of the countryside and the city’s grind combined… a daughter of a whore’s religion of a situation, brother. Everyone fucking everyone and always in secret and always for something in return. The most extensive prostitution network of working families in the history of modern Egypt, you could say. And devoutness, of course, by way of crushing the soul. If you do anything the police have to take a cut—that’s if the police ever show. Anything. Yes, yes, that’s what it’s like. Sweet Atrees. So lovely to have you sit in my lap. Anyway: Mit Nama. The big men all dealers and the dogs all rabid. Crowds, violence and criminality. Imagine you grew up in Mit Nama and had half a brain or a drop of sensitivity. That you’d learnt a little and begun to read. That you came to despise injustice, say. You gaze over to Cairo and you realise… Just imagine. You’ve a very limited education and the ideas are all jumbled up in your head. To your mind, the village is a microcosm of life in Egypt. That’s how it was for him, my magnificent puma: From crawling on his belly through family feuds, to the cells and then the wires hooked up all over his body with no mercy. Hey, hey… Don’t be frightened: I’m talking about Khashaba. No one’s gone near the kitchen, have they? So: home’s one room on the ground floor and his brother-in-law fucking his sister while he sleeps half a metre away next to his mother. The reek of sweat and livestock so strong, and everywhere. Weasels savaging any uncovered orifice they come across. The kids hunting rats and bats. One night he wakes up to two dogs mating and the stink is everywhere. They’re frantic. He doesn’t realise they’re not his sister and her husband till the husband gets up and boots them back out of the plywood-covered hole where they crept in. That morning he made up his mind that he wasn’t coming home again. Father died a while back, and perhaps there never was a father. Just five sisters and two brothers, one of them in jail. His brother knifed someone to death in a random street fight. He didn’t get out till 2009. His mother sells vegetables and earns a living from relationships with dealers. The oldest sister, with her husband and kids, stays with them in the room. Imagine. Seven or so to two square metres and his brother-in-law fucking his sister atop three tiles surrounded by mud. Then in the third year of high school, he decides all by himself that he’s going to continue his education in spite of everything his mother says about the need to leave school and turn a penny with one of her dealer contacts, to lend a hand. And he’d discovered Islam. The Abu Bakr Al Sadiq School for Primary Education in Qalyoub, then the Qalyoub Vocational High School for Boys and a rented room with four familyless fellow students by the car mechanic’s where he works. The Abu Bakr Al Sadiq School and the Islamic Serenity Mosque and his colleague, constantly twitching from the effects of Parkinol, and love affairs cut short by the intervention of fathers or sheikhs or police. Love affairs, cut short by men of greater age and standing and an Arabic language teacher who bloodies his hands when he discovers how much more his pupil knows than him about grammar and declension, and the cop from the unit staking out the mosque who cuts a deal with him for his arse in return for immunity from questioning. Khashaba starts out by becoming the imam of a street-corner mosque, then attends a religious seminar given by the naqib of a Muslim Brotherhood usra in Qalyoub, and at the very moment he joins the Brotherhood shu’ba to which this usra is affiliated he’s summoned to a meeting with Wadie Bey at one of the service’s offices here in Cairo. Imagine. Just like that. Khashaba’s a significant case, Atrees. Not just because we met in the apartment of a revolutionary from an old aristocratic family close by Tahrir Square, a session that came just days after that meeting of mine with Wadie Bey where I learned what I learned about the kid… No. Khashaba’s significant because in his face I saw the outline of the revolutionary who has joined the historic march to democratic transition, and me knowing what I knew. The features of someone created by the Second Republic and you understanding perfectly how his life had been… Did this mean the Second Republic that he represented contained the self-same flaws? Khashaba, an elegant young man, with good looks and high spirits that put me in mind of Nayf, though next to Nayf’s profundity and blackness, just the raw stuff of folly and insolence. I’d watched his face as he was saying that only the true revolutionaries could understand the meaning of revolution and that all those who traded on the revolution had no concept of what physical sacrifice for its sake was like. And he said: Who wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his country? A traitor, for sure. He was moved, a tear actually in his eye, and I kept watching his face as he talked of the bravery of the revolutionaries and the brutality of the former regime’s defenders and all those present sitting, listening. He meant it, Atrees. Contradictions or no, he meant it. And this was a most important moment in the history of my relationship with the revolution, because I understood that he was sincere in his hatred of those he demonstrated against, even though it was thanks to them he was able to demonstrate at all… Particularly those he was currently waging street battles against in the name of dignity. He hated them all with absolute sincerity. Even the Brothers, their enemies, from whom he’d split just a year before, he hated them now because they were against the revolution. Of course, just like the rest of the revolutionaries when he said revolution he meant demonstrations, but in his hostility to any party that might suppress these demonstrations or consent to their suppression, he was prepared to renounce the Brotherhood, his membership of which he’d conceal or otherwise, depending on the circumstances, would offer the story of how he broke away. He’d cover the prayer bruise that appeared on his forehead five years before when he’d grown the long Salafist beard without any whiskers on his lip, like these little whiskers of yours. The beard that he pared down Brotherhood-style when he emigrated to Cairo a few weeks following his first meeting with Wadie Bey. There I was, watching Khashaba, when suddenly I got this feeling that I was in a film and those sitting alongside me were acting. The ideas began to take shape and twist like ropes around my body as I glimpsed a new piece of the picture. I reflected that Khashaba could be forgiven. That he was talking about his work. The thing that he lived for, from which he derived his income, through which he understood himself. The day he met with Wadie Bey he told him, the same tear in his eye: Who wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his country? A traitor, for sure. And as it happens Khashaba’s recruitment was easy and quick: no torture, no threats, not even inducement, little Reeso. The moment he understood what Wadie Bey wanted he was all over it, mouth ajar, eyes agleam. Can you believe it? Just like that, Atrees. Now you’ve heard the story. Did you like it? Great. To the kitchen, then. Not a word. You understand that you’re going to bed?