From the archive of Abdelrahim Ali
In my 59th year: State of sorrow
In my 59th year, nothing breaks me. The sorrows break on my fingers. The old cities and memories break. My father comes in a dream that gives me tranquility; then sleepiness covers him. My distant dreams sleep in my eyes, and from afar rises the dawn of my new days.
In my 59th year, I remember those old scars, that fight. I remember I was ten years old when my head was cut and left a mark. Was that boy me, or was it someone besides me? Next year, as I begin my sixties, I may remember everything and paint in the details the face of my country.
I am a Southerner.
I always wanted to be who I wasn't.
I would like to meet two: the truth and the missing faces!
Was it all a dream, then? Or is it the obsession of parting when the pine trees shade it? And Baghdad is damaged by the mills that have stopped spinning. The teacher was ahead of me with disheveled hair, and the soul is panting from jealousy, and I am behind his panting, repeating:
I do not look through the hole of the door to my homeland, but I look through my pierced heart, and I distinguish between the prevailing homeland and the defeated homeland.
That was the first time I met him face to face. I knew him through “The Last Confession of Malik ibn al-Rayb”, “The Book of Revelation” and “The Lady of the Four Apples”, and I memorized his wonderful icon “The Teacher” by heart. I was always comparing him with Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish had tread in the soul a foothold that no one had trodden before him. He had dug a hole in my heart which I saw from him, and I saw Baghdad and the communists crucified on the wall of resurrection.
A world made of paper. The remains of women. A passing train that tramples on the facades of cities. A swing of torment, straying after it was overthrown by those burdened with the truth. It is likely those who eat at the tables of the Caliph, the hearts of the simple, from the layers whose souls are oiled. The lowering of the eyelid when a young girl passes by; she bends down. She is the cup, the myrtle, the prick and the full moon in one sentence.
This is ancient Baghdad, and he is sitting alone in one of its cafes, telling me the details of his journey in that distant time, “the time of crisis.”
Yousef Al-Sayegh was telling me and Baghdad was showing me pictures of carnations. That was in the first week of March 2003. I don’t know how I miraculously escaped days later from the American aerial bombardment of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. The hotel was, during that time, a residence for journalists of various nationalities, and the targeting resulted in the killing and wounding of hundreds.
This was not the first time that I escaped certain death, but I realized from that day that we and death are companions.
The scene of our first confrontation was in Minya in 1990, when the vanguards of the Islamist group ambushed me with swords around my house, wanting my head. But some friends alerted me at the last moments, so I left, and Cairo was the refuge and sanctuary.
There were many confrontations between us, from Minya and Baghdad to Amsterdam and Paris. It would always bring me a surprise, and I would always bring it certainty in God, my certainty in God is my certainty.
It was summer in the French capital, Paris, and the Egyptian security forces had ended the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in in Cairo a few days earlier, and I was one of those who demanded and supported the dispersal operation, because the plan was simply to create a state within the state called the Rabaa state. In the famous Fouquet's restaurant and café on the Champs-Elysees, I was sitting with a friend and his wife having lunch. We talked a little, and we left. He and his wife went to Avenue George V, and I went to the Champs-Elysees, where my good friend Adel Sidhom was waiting for me, and before I shook his hand, five people attacked me and threw me on the ground, shouting “assassin”, and one of them strangled me, while the others helped him subdue me. Only Adel was with me, and he bit the man’s hand around my neck with his teeth and shouted for help. In the blink of an eye, the shoes of the French soldiers roaming the Champs-Elysees quickly swirled around me. Six French policemen gathered around the four young men and arrested them and took them to the police station. I don't know what happened to them after that. I was in a hurry, and my plane was going to take off in the evening.
This was not, of course, the last time. The Dutch capital, Amsterdam, witnessed another confrontation in which I miraculously escaped from a break-in into my room in the famous Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky in the center of the Dutch capital. The conflict was at its most intense between the Egyptian people and the terrorist group, and I was invited to attend a conference. Some planned to storm my room through the balcony, but God protects, as I had left just minutes before they broke in.
A friend had insisted on taking me to dinner at one of the restaurants in the city center. After an investigation that lasted for more than two hours, the police transferred me to a suite on the first floor, and the losses were few; a laptop that the intruders imagined contained the secrets of the universe.
Some friends like to repeat the question: Why do you love Paris so much? They do not know that I melt in love of it, not due to, as they think, its streets and buildings, which are like a traveling museum, nor because it is the city of jinn and angels, as the Dean of Arabic literature Taha Hussein called it, but because she witnessed me saved more than once from certain death.
I will not forget that day in May 2016, I think it was the 19th, when I opened my phone in the morning, only to find that the number of one of my daughters was ringing insistently.
I had postponed my scheduled trip the day before, so I thought she was worried about that, but as soon as she heard my voice, she broke down in tears. I thought that something big had happened to my family in Cairo, but she quickly said, “Praise be to God you are well.” I told her I was still in Paris, then she said in an awkward voice, “The plane that was supposed to take yesterday crashed into the ocean.” I was shocked. I didn’t comprehend the news for a moment, and many pictures gripped me. My fear for my daughters has not left me for a single moment since I had Ghada forty years ago until now; I was twenty at the time, and Ghada was my eldest daughter.
I made her my toy, my friend and my sweetheart, and she still is, even after she became a mother of three children, the oldest of whom is now fourteen years old. I was afraid for her from the breeze if it stroked her hair, and I jealously guarded her even more than her mother, and then this disease passed to all her sisters. Maybe this feeling was a little different with Khaled; my father raised me differently, and I tried to repeat it with my only son, but I admit that I had failed, so I turned him from a son to a friend, and he is still the friend closest to my heart and mind together. The pictures rolled before my eyes. What would happen to them after me, and who would pat their shoulders, embrace them, dry up their tears, and give them warmth and safety?
I quickly returned to Ghada and asked her as I turned my phone to find dozens of missed calls and hundreds of messages of reassurance. How did this happen? But she prompted me to ask, how did I miss the scheduled boarding?
I remembered, as I was enjoying her question, how the receptionist provoked me at the Hotel Claridge located on the famous Rue Marbeuf in Paris, the street to which prominent Egyptian and French writers and authors made pilgrimage to the Al-Ahram office in Paris during its glory. I had come from Brussels two days before and spent two nights in the hotel, and I was surprised that the receptionist woke me up at twelve o'clock to tell me that the time of departure had come, and he added, apologizing, that the hotel is full because France is hosting the European Nations Cup. Because I am a night creature and do not sleep until after dawn, I exploded with anger in the man’s face. I asked him how could I leave my room when my plane was at eleven in the evening? He replied coldly, “Those are the rules!” I found myself saying to him in irritation, “So, put me down for another night,” and immediately shut the door of my room. I slept a little, then got up and prepared myself to go out, as a friend took me to hang out a bit in the Latin Quarter. We cruised a little on the Seine, then had dinner at the famous Le Procope (the first restaurant to be established in Paris after the revolution in 1789), and then I returned to the hotel late, so I forgot to tell the company to adjust the ticket for tomorrow and fell asleep, and in the morning, it was what it was.
I don’t know why these distant and near memories pester me at this time. Maybe because I have now reached 59 years of age and enter upon 60 years with full certainty that what God wants is. Or maybe because I am now looking at the crystallization of age and see what remains of my blood. What remains is enough, perhaps, for me to love twenty women and thirty cities, perhaps to enter the body of the lily and become a poem, perhaps to reveal some of my weakness in front of the mirrors. I was very scared the time they took my phone at the doors of the Kremlin-Bicêtre Teaching Hospital in Paris after I was seriously infected with the corona virus on June 18, 2020. They took me straight from the ambulance to an intensive care room and placed me on oxygen machines. At that time, I was between life and death. I was terrified. I might not be able to say goodbye to my family after today. I might also not be able to help them, especially as my eldest daughter Ghada, her husband, and my wife - the mother of my children - were transferred to the intensive care unit at Qasr Al-Aini Hospital around the same time.
It was a hard test of the resilience of this little family, who have been a blessing to me in all stages of my life. It was part of my destiny to do something even when I was dying, and I soon found myself removing all the tubes from my body. Catching my breath, I tried hard to I reached my bag of belongings that they had put in a closet near my bed. I picked up the phone and put it directly on the “silent” feature and then returned to my bed. I carefully put the tubes back in their place. I started sending message after message. My first message was to my daughter Ghada, where I checked on her, her husband and her mother, then I sent another message in which I entrusted some friends to look after my family. Truth be told, many were generous during that ordeal, not only in Egypt, but outside Egypt as well. Many offered to take me and my family for treatment to them, but all the advice was for me to stay in Paris and the family to stay in Qasr Al-Aini. There are many to whom I will always be grateful for their help in saving my daughter, her husband, and my wife - the mother of my children - from certain death.
The third contact was with my son Khaled in Barcelona, where he was with me on the plane that took us to Paris. We parted at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and he went to his university campus in Barcelona, as he was not allowed to enter Paris due to the quarantine rules at the time, because his residence was in Spain. I thought that he might have contracted the dreaded virus, and after strenuous attempts, I was able to get him an appointment for a test at a Barcelona hospital with the help of some friends there, as it was very difficult in those days to get a test except through an appointment a few weeks beforehand. Thank God, the result was negative.
I will never forget that day when the doctors entered the intensive care room to tell me that I had to sign for them an affidavit approving to put me on a ventilator, which would mean that I would be in a coma for a period that could be long or short, depending on the situation.
But I refused immediately. I told them that I would not miss a single minute of consciousness while my family was in this condition. I would fight this damn virus, and I will die while I am fully conscious. So their chief suggested to me a certain way to breathe using oxygen tubes without reaching the stage of coma, and I slept 12 hours a day in a way a certain that allows the lungs to be relatively filled with oxygen. This method succeeded, and I was able, thanks to the prayers of my mother, my family, and hundreds of good people who were calling me day and night, to pass the danger stage after ten days spent in intensive care in this situation, alone. I received messages from everyone and responded without saying a single word, and without the attending physicians discovering that I hid the mobile under the bed mattress.
God has honored me, and I have escaped dozens of times from certain death. He gave me a new life at least five times, perhaps to know that life is a great and a beautiful gift from the Creator that we must use in spreading the values of love, goodness and beauty, and to warm each other and to sympathize with each other as much as we can, because soon we will leave and only traces will remain, so let it be like the musk - whenever it comes or goes, it leaves a beautiful mark on everyone’s hearts. Here I am in my 59th year. I acknowledge that I do not hold any rancor towards anyone, nor do I hold grudges against anyone, nor do I envy anyone, and I wish I could include the whole world in my heart and give it as much love and happiness as I can. I step towards 60, and nothing possesses the heart of my heart except my family, my loved ones, my friends, and my country, Egypt.