The South Sinai Police Chief had spotted the beard. We’d been waived right through the military checkpoint — the kids and I on the side of the car closest to the dust-colored outpost. Collectively, the kids and I look American when we are in Egypt, though the kids are half-and-half, or nusaballah, half-donkey, as the family likes to joke. There were far more uniformed men than it seemed there needed to be for the rolling acres of sand that generally required so little from humans. Some stood, some sat, some leaned in the doorway. As we drove through, Khaled was sitting by the window on the other side of the van, the side the police chief happened to drive past at that very moment. He spotted Khaled and yelled over at the younger men in their desert camouflage to stop the van.
The officer, who’d been smoking in the metal folding chair, the smoke streaming around his thick mustache, stood and leaned into the passenger window, peered back at us, and fixated on Khaled. After a nod to the soldiers behind him, the van door gave a rumbling, sliding noise as the officer opened it. Khaled was then escorted out by a lanky and well-armed young man who might have still been in his teens. The building was gray and cinderblock and didn’t look like it would hold more than fifteen standing close together. A metal door with a window too high to see through opened then shut behind Khaled.
I felt slapped into numbness. I had been walking around Cairo those last months half-expecting the tumult of the country to swallow us, to burst the sphere of safety we were trying to create around us and our kids. The RPGs which had hit the satellite dish down the road from our apartment, the arrests of the activists and journalists that Khaled knew from his time as a writer and journalist before living in the States, the ridiculous machete-wielding Salafis hacking through the smoke of tire fires in Alexandria near the hotel where we stayed on weekend getaways. All of it seemed close and closer, and I had worried, but now that it was here, it felt as though I was outside of it, the van window a screen into someone else’s movie.
We were going to Dahab, a diving town Khaled had told me about back when we first met nearly fifteen years ago. I’d always wanted to go to the Red Sea, and the town sounded laid-back and out of the way, a nice break from the intensity of Cairo, where we were living. It had been built up in the twenty years since Khaled was there, we’d been told, but it still had character.
We had talked on the mostly deserted desert road down about the tense security in the airport. We’d flown from Cairo instead of taking the bus because of the increasing Wild West feeling that was taking over the Sinai Peninsula: kidnappings, ambushes of military outposts, car bombs. Had we been on our own, we likely would have risked it. But with two kids who could not choose the risks they were taking, we took the more expensive route. Khaled had been held back at security because he did not have an official boarding pass, though the kids and I were waived through with the copies the airline had instructed us to print. It was just one of many moments of scrutiny he’d been subjected to lately.
Back in Cairo, the streets were lined again with tanks and Khaled had been subjected to searches more and more as he went about his daily life. While he hated being singled out, the actual presence of the military did not unsettle him in a visceral way as it did me. He’d grown up under Mubarak’s decades-long emergency law, and this was an old, new normal. After New Orleans, where we’d made our home for more than a decade, was devastated by the floods following Hurricane Katrina, the streets were filled National Guard vehicles and men in uniform. For months, they were camped in the school where I taught, while we teachers had to find places to hold our classes. I often resented their presence, their leering calls when I walked in the streets alone. We had heard of their makeshift jails, cages in the Amtrak station, and I wondered who to complain to if they did something out of line, who held the keys. Khaled, on the other hand, didn’t have the same gut-level reaction to their presence and saw them as part of the disaster backdrop, like the Red Cross stations giving out bleach and water, or the fetid smell. I thought of that time as I sat in the van and of how the stakes, and my helplessness, then were not nearly as high as they were now.
When the kids asked Where is Baba going? my tongue felt thick and alien, and I struggled to find words of assurance which would return them to their imaginary games and anticipation of their time on the beach.
The sun in the Sinai peninsula is the sun of the desert, though it is outlined by the sea. Flying over, looking down at the red-brown, velvet mountains, I could not help but think of their Biblical nature: the variations on the stories and names by the three monotheisms. Mosha, Musah, Moses. Mount Sinai — pronounced SYnah by Khaled. SY-NY I’d always heard it said, though it was usually only mentioned on the news when the leaders of the major powers met there. Moses, presidents: the Sinai Peninsula always had a weight and a mythos about it for me.
And it was mythically hot, for sure, but otherwise, a very unreligious experience as minutes, then hours, stretched on without seeing Khaled. The driver leaned against the van, smoking, sometimes walking around toward the door of the building and chatting with one of the soldiers standing by it. Each time he came to the passenger window and leaned in to say koloh tamam, “everything is fine,” a metallic dread would spread through my stomach. When Egyptians insist everything is fine, it often means that they hope to keep you thinking it is fine. No one likes to give bad news. A couple of times I got out of the van only to stand there and kind of peer around, more a spectacle and a distraction than any kind of help to Khaled, somewhere inside the small cinderblock building.
The kids played games in the backseat, one of them pretending to be hit by the long barrel of the tank that was pointed at us. They’d take turns being shot, falling into the floor just behind my seat and laughing. I did not stop them because I had nothing better to offer as distraction, just sitting there in a mute, vague shock scanning my brain and phone for whom I could call if he did not come out or was driven away in a different vehicle. Cursing, again, my lack of fluency in Arabic.
Many we had known in Alexandria and in Cairo had been swept up, shooed out. Some were dead. Not that we were important enough to be relevant, but so much of what had happened in the chaos of the last couple of years had been as much about randomness as relevance. Sometimes they just don’t like the look of you. And since the revolution, especially, it was worse to be an Egyptian at the hands of an authority that didn’t like what you seemed to stand for than to be a white American, which is what I am. Add to that the fact that Khaled is more assertive, much more likely to speak up, in Arabic than he is in English.
Back in the States, he generally laid low and relied on a diffusing and diplomatic manner in tense situations. I was more of the volatile one, the one most likely to blow up or yell. But in Arabic, Khaled could be downright mouthy, especially with thuggish authority, and it was not the time to be mouthy. Or to have a beard.
The President, the first to be elected since the revolution, had been aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and he had just been ousted. The military was effectively in control of the country, once again. The aftermath of the revolution made it clear that the military had been controlling the country for decades, except, perhaps, for those few weeks of weightlessness during the uprising, when the motors of power were jammed and had not yet revved up and dug their way back into the foundation of things. Beards were seen as a symbol of alliance to the Brotherhood, a symbol of defiance.
The funny thing is, Khaled had never had a beard since I’d known him. But it is traditional where he is from, in Upper Egypt, to not shave for forty days after the death of someone in your family.
One night, two months or so before, we’d gotten a call from Upper Egypt. His mother was suddenly sick. It was late, and the kids were in bed. Work loomed through Cairo’s dirty glow that passes for night. Though it’s basically in the desert, it is never dark. Even the blackouts don’t blacken it, confined, as they usually are, to pockets of the city at a time. I hated for Khaled to leave, not least because he was the one who cared for our children when I worked. And he was always the one who did most of the cooking and taking care of the house, no easy task living with another poet and two small children.
In Egypt, we relied on him even more, not just for fluency but for navigating the world. Most of the other Western professors at the university lived exclusively in expat bubbles, which I loathed but understood. I was lucky to have Khaled and so not need to confine myself exclusively to the familiar, which most stuck to, right down to the American and European brands the small grocery stores stocked, exquisitely expensive, even if humble (Ritz Crackers, Quaker Oats), because they’d come so far and with so much demand. To be fair, Egypt is not an easy place to manage day-to-day life, especially in the throes of a revolution. Because of Khaled, I was lucky to be able to breach the expat bubble.
Khaled could ride the metro one stop up to the market where he’d plumb its packed labyrinth of live chickens, piles of shoes, vats of charcoal or hibiscus, tires, toys, almost anything you can imagine. He’d come back carrying a pallet of food for the week on his back that would cost less than one impulse trip for Nutella at the expat shop.
We needed him, though I knew we’d manage when he left, as we had before. But there was also the issue of safety. The basic infrastructure of the country seemed to be functioning on momentum alone. Sometimes it felt as though the only reason things did not completely fall apart was that people had been eating, building, raising kids, for so many millennia that there was no other choice. Nearly every week there was news of a metro shutdown, water shortages, train wrecks. And, while the possibility of a protest shutting down the train had been a fact since we’d moved to the country, now, since the ouster of Morsi, there was more random violence and bombings were increasing. Regardless, Khaled needed to be with his mother, and he took the train to Upper Egypt, riding third class as was easiest last minute, with no lights and no seats, using newspapers for a mat to sleep on.
He would be back and forth between the village and Cairo over those next weeks, struggling to get his mother care in a hospital so broken down that one of the issues he dealt with was getting rid of the cats who came to eat the garbage in the hospital rooms. Despite his heroic efforts, she passed some weeks later.
When we got to Dahab, Khaled still had the beard because he was still in the period of mourning, which lasts for forty days. This trip, planned a while back, would, I’d hoped, be a rest for him, who had been dealing with all of the responsibilities of his extended Egyptian family, as well as our own children, not to mention his grief. As a Sufi and a liberal poet, Khaled was foundationally opposed to the Brotherhood and resented the “sheikh” references and religious questions on the Metro during these past weeks as the atmosphere became more polarized and the beard grew unchecked. But through the eyes of the police chief, the beard read as threat, and I worried about what was going on behind the cinderblock walls.
When he finally did emerge from the building, he was chuckling. This comforted me until I recognized it as the nervous laughter I’d seen him have in moments of great stress. As he got in the van, and the driver took off, he told me we were headed to the police station.
“You’re kidding, right?” I said. And he shook his head no as he continued to half-laugh.
The station, one in a series of red brick buildings behind a security gate, was off of Naguib Mahfouz Street, named for the Egyptian writer stabbed in the neck by a radical who thought his prose was blasphemous. Mahfouz lived through the attack, though has since died, and he is beloved among the writers in Egypt, not least because he made the intricacies of Cairo’s streets alive in his stories, place as much a character as any human figure. I silently, irrationally, appealed to his soul to help us slide out of this.
A sameness to the buildings — all brick, one-story — and the gate, which required some invisible hand to open it with a button, lent an air of suburban residential housing development, one that was not ostentatious, more concerned with keeping things safe and under surveillance than having backyard pools.
The driver seemed to easily pick out the one we were being brought to from its neighbors. When the van arrived at the door, there was the awkward moment of deciding whether or not to have the van wait for us or to send him on. Having him wait would be an optimistic gesture — we should only be a little bit. Sending him on would be, if pessimistic for us, a bit more considerate to him as no one knew how long we really would be. I don’t remember what we did, just the moment of indecision. Once inside, we were led down a hall, the air close and thick, the walls covered in a slick brown paneling, then into a room with flimsy, motel-like doors. The two men inside said the man in charge would be right back, was just having lunch . He was the one we needed to talk to in order to go about our way. We were invited to sit on the brown stuffed couch and wait. Chit chat.
So we just hung out with the two men, like awkward family, the kids hot and tired at this point, probably hungry. I labeled the one behind the desk Ustez Desk (“Ustez” is “Mister” in Arabic) in my head so as to get a handle on him, keep him straight as everything appeared to have stopped working according to what I knew.
The kids climbed around and sat on our laps. Had they wanted to sit down in their own seat they would have to do so next to the other man, who was not behind the desk. He seemed to be there for the express purpose of drinking tea with Ustez Desk as they waited for the man to have his lunch somewhere. They did not wear uniforms, but button-up shirts, except that Ustez Desk did not button the button that is nearest the top one. It gave a formal, yet sleazy, air to him, as if he wanted to sell us something we did not want. The room was cold, the A/C unit high on the wall above Ustez Desk set to 17 degrees Celsius. I watched the steam rise from the circles of their cups.
Ustez Desk made some polite talk in the general direction of me and the kids. Not much more diplomatic than Khaled in these moments, and with the added stiltedness of a language barrier, I was clearly indignant about why we were made to stay there. In a creamy tone, Ustez Desk explained it would not be long. I tried to focus, with the kids, on the large television blaring across the small room from Ustez. A baby dancing in a diaper to a catchy tune had the kids cracking up and trying not to.
I was trying to follow the Arabic of Khaled’s conversation with Ustez Desk. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had come onto the screen. The youngest member of SCAF when it took over from Mubarak, he was the director of the military intelligence and reconnaissance department until he became the sixth president of Egypt. By the time the elections came, the same old system was back in place. When Sisi did not get enough votes, the government called another state holiday to give people more time. Many feared voting against him, sure their vote was reported. Rumors flew about fines for those who did not vote. In the end, the news reported that nearly ninety nine percent of the population had voted for him.
On the roads of Egypt, his image was inescapable—on billboards, on flag-like squares of his face near the top of poles, on lacy bras, on fake twenty-pound notes. The image of Sisi was more pervasive than Mubarak’s had been, and with more black, red, and white. His macho persona was mitigated somewhat in my English-speaking mind by thinking about his name, which sounded so much like “sissy” to me. For Egyptians, the image saturation must have felt familiar. Except there had been a disruption with the uprising, a break in the “barrier of fear,” as the rhetoric of the season had it. Now, those who stood for something else were known by name. Some were already being singled out.
We were all staring at the screen, at Sisi, which offered Ustez a segue into his questions. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was coincidental that this came on just before Ustez Desk broached the subject of where Khaled’s allegiance was with regard to the regime — I could not follow well enough to tell.
Sisi was standing next to a hospital bed, the angle of the camera such that we only saw him beside the railings and a young woman’s hands reaching for the flowers he gave her. She’d been gang raped in Tahrir Square, a particular, politically-charged violence that had become more and more common over the last couple of years and that had left a lot of women horribly battered. When we joined the protests in the square, it was the specter of the rapes, more than the attacks by uniformed security forces, which made me understand the desire to go back home, to go back to normal, revolution be damned. And this reaction was exactly what the attacks were aiming for. The television, which had, in recent months, become taken over by propaganda as in the Mubarak days, only now with more pomp and militarism, showed the adoring crowds, and was now lauding Sisi for his compassion in going to the unfortunate woman’s side. God bless him, the newscaster said. God bless this man.
If I was following the conversation right, Khaled was saying that he did not like the Brotherhood, but nor did he like the military dictatorship. And a part of me was proud, righteous beside him: That’s right! Speak truth to power! And another part of me, especially the part holding my children, was willing him to shut his mouth. I have trouble keeping track of the different strands of police-type authorities. These guys might be from the military, the interior ministry, the national police force. In any case, we’d just left a military checkpoint to be handed over to a police-type authority that was obviously in cahoots with the military, which Sisi had been heading until stepping down to head it from the presidency. And it seemed urgent to me then not to speak of our distrust of the current regime when the ones who determined our release were, in some capacity, working for it. Whether those are the thoughts of a mother or a coward, I’m not sure. Later, he told me that we had not been at a police station but at a military intelligence office. He did not tell me then, wisely knowing the two words would trigger an unproductive and even more palpable panic.
Thankfully, we were, for whatever reason, allowed to leave. But we had to list our itinerary and, if we deviated from it, to report that. I don’t even remember if we saw the man who’d been lunching and for whom we were supposedly waiting. I could not help but wonder what would happen to Khaled if we, his “American family,” had not been there. The fact that Americans were better regarded than its own citizens by those in power had been made abundantly clear to us in our family’s time there. The general sense was that, of those arrested, the only ones with a shot at getting out were those who held foreign passports. And there were smaller, constant slights.
At the first official event after being hired by the American University in Cairo, for example, we attended an enormous feast at the president’s villa: whole goats and lambs on spits, tables of deserts and wines, an entire section of the yard for the seafood offerings. Our times in Egypt had always been spent between the rural village and in rented, dilapidated apartments in Alexandria where we’d host our friends — mostly artists, writers, and activists — who lived outside of such decadence, or varying configurations of our family who had never encountered it. The president’s event was not for the new Egyptian hires; it was primarily for us foreigners, who would be paid better for the same jobs, and our families. Anywhere in Cairo where westerners made up the bulk of the people, Egyptians were treated as suspect or as servants. Our dazzled, sated mood as we walked out of the villa’s gated walls was quickly deflated when a well-coiffed woman tried to hand Khaled her keys, thinking him a driver.
The slights he and his family got in our time there made for a distressing contrast to my treatment as an American working there. I’d seen Khaled face prejudice for years in the U.S., of course. He had moved to New Orleans on September 9, 2001, and was kicked out of the hotel he had rented for a week three days later, a gesture that would set the tone for the way he, as an Arab, would often be seen post-9/11. We became friends in those years of fervent Islamophobia, and it was part of his life as an immigrant. But it was a surprise to find the prejudice there, where I was the outsider.
Somehow, we had gotten out of this one. “Alhamdullilah,” Khaled said. “It could have been a lot worse.” In Dahab, we’d try to forget about it.
Dahab had spread south along the water, and the tourist shops and restaurants had nearly doubled since Khaled’s last visit. But tourism had dropped off since the revolution, and none of the hotels were anywhere near capacity. We found a cheap place that catered to the many divers who came from Europe, Israel, and Russia. In the mornings, we’d either walk the one strip past the shuttered clothing and dive shops or wend our way along the path beside the sea to one of the swimming spots where we’d stake out a spot until lunch. Apparently, few Americans were coming except for the occasional one on a tour bus, and the restaurant hosts would try out a few different languages when I walked alone to try to see where I was from and get me to come in and eat. We ended up eating most of our meals at the hotel, as we could sit Bedouin-style on the huge pillows around the low tables, the kids drinking fresh juices as we smoked shisha or ate whatever was caught that day. At night, we’d drink tea or sip a Stella beer and watch the lights of the Saudi Arabian coast flicker into view across the Red Sea.
I learned to snorkel while in Dahab — or rather, I learned to allow myself to breathe while underwater, which I’d never been able to do — and looking at the ridiculous purples, the almost-neon yellows and pinks of the coral under the water silenced me. I was mute before the wordless depths of the water pooling to turquoise around the curved bottom of the sea, a school of silver fish straight as dashes interrupting the water in a circle around me, my humanness unremarkable to them, just part of the landscape.
I found myself wanting to stay there, underneath the surface, not trying to navigate the human world. In the last year, especially, the atmosphere had become polarized: Christian/Muslim, pro-/anti-Sisi, pro-/anti-Morsi, secular/religious, revolutionary/ felool (conservatives). Recently, we’d watched the street battles by the Presidential Palace, a few miles across Cairo from where we lived, in split screen, like a sport. Cheered the unarmed citizens for grabbing a plastic turret as protection. I was haunted when I read of the labyrinthine cells set up in the street by baltageya (which loosely translates into thugs but who are understood to be henchmen for those in power) to detain and torture protestors. No matter how brutal, it all started to feel like relatively normal.
Under the water, among the coral and sea grasses, it was gone. The danger, the human violence and allegiances that give rise to it. Not a silence, more a thickness of sound, blotted out everything else but what was there: a fat copper fish swimming up to stare at me, its bulbous eyes at once serious and cartoonish. A small, metallic, tapping sound. It took some time to connect it to the small movement of a striped lionfish, its poisonous spikes encircling its body, nibbling the algae off of the side of a smooth stone. At one point, another person swam up to me as I watched and indicated for me to open my hand. He put a hinged clamshell in my palm, still held together as if there were something inside. I think he was Egyptian, though I can’t be certain as we could not speak to one another under the water. Gloriously, there was no language, no religious or political identities, no names.
I wanted to spend more and more time under the water, in that wordless world. The kids started to joke with me that I was in love with the fishes, that I was going to turn into a mermaid. My daughter even snorkeled with me a couple of times, having caught a glimpse of a banana-colored fish which intrigued her enough to want to get closer. Our four-year-old son was repulsed by the apparatus of it, but he enjoyed watching the silver and purple colonies through the bottom of a glass-bottom boat one afternoon. I wanted them to see what I had been seeing, to know this hidden, other world teaming with mysterious, neon life.
Another morning, I saw a boy paddling out on a piece of wide Styrofoam to the area where I planned to snorkel, which was full of thick coral and thick, bright sea life hidden in the folds of it. He kept going back and forth from the shore to just above the reef. He paddled quickly, almost clawing at the water, and I could not figure out what he was up to. I swam out to see if something under the water could explain it, navigating around the curve of the reef until I saw a figure deeper down. He had a large stick in his hand and would swim up, over and over, shoving it into the coral colonies — which clung densely to the rocks — then lifting up, dislodging pieces of it. Coral is alive, an intricate organism. Out of the water, it is dead, white, a skeleton. The man would rip it and hand pieces to the kid, who took it up to the surface, the start of some black-market chain, I suppose.
There was a whole gaggle of local kids up there on the shore hustling for money. The whole time in Dahab, everyone complained about the lack of visitors. Tourism had almost died since the revolution. The local kids sold little string bracelets and whatever they could to get by to the few, largely indifferent, tourists. This guy and this kid were probably hustling some money from a coral buyer because they had to, or felt they did, to survive. That was one reason, combined with the greed of those who buy it, that ancient sites were being raided: to sell the artifacts on the black market. It was business.
And yet, the violence of the act, the full force it took his body to rip it and the rigidness with which he set himself against the stick in order to pry the coral from its natural place, chilled me. A diver had earlier pointed out to us that it would soon be the full moon, which means the coral could be spawning.
I could not help but think of the women raped in the Square. The attack was always described as shark-like, a coordinated circling of men, sometimes more than two dozen, surrounding someone in the middle of the crowd of protestors in the Square, so many of them, and so impenetrable in their circle, that it was nearly impossible to rescue the victim. The focus of protests had shifted during the last couple of years, but the attack remained the same, a frenzy of men that left the women stripped, bleeding, sometimes requiring repeated surgeries.
Mute, I stared at the man, ripping the coral. What could I say if I could speak? Escaping into the water had brought me a sense of anonymity and escape from the conflicts. I’d felt buffered, unimplicated, separate from it all. I could have shouted “haram!” to him when he surfaced for air, a word that meant “forbidden.” People use that word in many ways, but this way, the one I heard later, too late, in my head was the one like I’d heard in Cairo as we watched a legless woman dragging herself by her hands through the street, or in my own shouts to some boys who were torturing a kitten by dangling it above a snapping dog. Haram here would have meant that it was shameful that this was happening, shameful on the deepest human level. Yet I stood there, a mute poet.
Soon, we would be back in the city.about the author