This is the first of six fictional short stories we will be publishing as part of our inaugural fiction series. While diverse in both content and style, these narratives share an interest in the ‘fate’ of the Middle East, and use fiction to make conceivable seemingly farfetched and unachievable possibilities for its tomorrow. We hope that their imaginings might spark a very real debate about what kinds of future Middle Easts are desirable and attainable.
We are happy to feature some of the stories along with illustrations from three talented illustrators. This first piece, written by Egyptian Sarah Moawad, comes with a drawing by Tunisian Nidhal Chamekh (whose work on the 2011 revolution we’ve featured earlier).
Visions of a (sub)alternate reality
Ahmed blinked. And then again. He tried to rub the exhaustion from his eyes, but it somehow found a way to take up permanent residence in his eyelids. He hadn’t slept in what felt like weeks. He was building. They were building. Things were never going to be the same.
Memories of cold asphalt peppered with cigarette butts and glazed in grime, to shoes that shuffle by on termiss-littered sidewalks, stifling blankets of salty air and intoxicated dreams. When fumes inhaled provided temporary repose and bare skin on streets just felt like home. Because it had to be. Atfal el-shaware’. Street children. Lining sidewalks like broken coke bottles and the drip, drip, drip of faulty air conditioning, awaiting a dirty windshield or shoes to shine, runny noses in need of 50 ‘irsh tissues or screaming toddlers entranced by colourful plastic rattles marked “Made in China”.
He was borne of asphalt and abuse. The nafa’ his bedroom; the corniche his workplace — passersby merely potential customers. At five or six, notions of family and of compassion were already too distant, too foreign. He probably had a mother once, maybe even a father too. But poverty and want are thicker than blood and he had no illusions about what the world owed him. He understood better than most people that he occupied a different domain, that “street children” were a nuisance easily neglected, that “the street” was a place that played by different rules. Atfal el-shaware’. Like “At-Risk” youths. But who put them at risk? Who put them on the streets? At risk from a system that scorns, forsakes, abandons, conceals. That rapes and deprives, all the while smiling at tourists with mimosas in hand.
Ahmed spent his days wiping down windshields with an old undershirt that had more holes than substance, often just redistributing the dirt. Occasionally he got his hands on a few stray packs of tissues or incense to sell amidst the chaos of microbuses and delivery motorcycles at traffic lights. He knew how to work the streets, who to avoid and when to call it a day, how to appeal to emotion or guilt. But he refused to beg. Something about integrity, about karama, about sharaf. It was nonnegotiable. Abu Nasser said so. And he would never forget it.
Waves lap at the sand, taking some with them as they retreat. They bring gusts of wind that pull garments closer to bodies and wisps of hair across weathered faces. They reveal but also wash away what we do not want to see. You watch from afar. One, two, three handfuls. And with each additional coin come more peanuts. He is bent. Back crooked as he heads back down, back to the beginning, preparing for the end. Hair graying, furrowed brow, grooves carve gorges and hills where streams flow… sweat, tears, struggle. He leans against a phone booth and rests worn, brown eyelids, breathing deeply salted air, his weathered body trying to seek a moment’s repose. But his mind was as stubborn as his body was worn, and he continued to go from one table to the next, selling his fresh-roasted peanuts from a sack. Dignity: karama. He refuses charity and earns every ginayh he makes. Through peanuts, he refuses defeat.
Defeat. I remember the day defeat was no longer an option. When Egyptian flags started to replace the cheap plastic trinkets sold through car windows, and the air was dense with anticipation. Ahmed could sense the stirs, the murmurs of rebellion, the glimmers of defiance that flashed through faces on trams and in coffee shops.
And then it happened. First tens, then hundreds, then thousands. Millions. Ahmed’s tiny bare feet pounded past the jagged chunks of loose brick and debris that litter Alexandria’s streets, his sun-smeared face and polluted hair fading in and out of the crowds. Time became heavy. Drawn out. Young men in jeans sitting on shoulders. Flashes of red, white, black, on cheeks and fists. Chanting women, thunderous and fearless. He spotted Abu Nasser seated on a wooden stool on the sidewalk, holding a small cup of tea, surveying the scene with twinkling eyes filled with hope but subdued with caution, hesitation. Their gazes locked, fixated on a future neither was certain of. Ahmed took note of his presence and was once again lost among the sea of knees and belt buckles. Abu Nasser seemed to be watching over them, over us, observing from the periphery. Abu al-thuwwar. Father of the revolutionaries.
She lives here. But doesn’t really live. She is temporary. An outsider. Only 17 and yet knows the world like she’s 60. Black eyes set deep, fixed, she observes: white sand like tahina, bare bodies, young men and women, house that can hold 10 families built only for one, bubbling shisha, imposing machinery pollutes God’s sea, and synthetic laughter… constructed, material, worldly things. Luxury. Indulge, indulge, indulge. No shame.
She carries the tray filled with liquid poison and knows it is haram to touch, to serve, to make… she whispers a guilty prayer and hopes He will forgive: Astaghfurallah. Ya rab samehni. She hurries to meet the voices screaming her name. FOWZIIAAAAA!! She serves. And then wonders how she ended up here. Beauty all around her. God’s beauty. But also man’s — fake, destructive, sinful. She wonders how two worlds could reside on one land.
She was a circus performer once. Along the corniche. She was forced to perform dangerous stunts teetering along a sidewalk, flirting with the steal and speed and death that own the street. Tears cleared tiny pathways through her dirt-encrusted cheeks, falling onto the street six feet below as she stood on one foot atop her father’s head. Onlookers sat at scattered tables smoking shisha and drinking Turkish coffee, some gasping at the spectacle, urging the men to move away from vehicles that know no speed limits, but most barely noticed, laughing loudly and blowing rings of aromatic smoke into the already thick, damp, contaminated air.
Invisible. Though she did not expect much else. She always had been. She was from the ‘ashwa’iyat. ‘Ashwa’iy: “Haphazard.” Random. Those spontaneous, dense, bustling concentrations of life, of flesh, of communities tucked away and hidden from view. These are the settlements borne of alleyways and poverty, where wealth resides just around the corner but somehow, miraculously, keeps its distance. As did Fowzia. She could clean their homes, care for their children, serve their organic, imported food. But that is where the relationship ended. Here there were lines not to be crossed. Lines that cut deep and harsh like thick rope against skin.
But she was there. On that day in January she was there, as they all were. This revolution was just as much hers as anybody else’s, and she was going to claim her place among the throngs. Feet feeling the concrete through paper-thin soles and head lifted to the sky in defiance, she is proud to be lost among the crowd of nobodies. Here, she is honoured to be nobody.
Ahmed opens his eyes. He grins. He squeezes wet blades of grass between his toes and feels the leftover rain seep through the seat of his pants. Rays of sun dance along the hairs on his arms and bounce off his fingertips into the flecks of crimson in Fowzia’s dark curls. Her eyes pure honey, unrefined, smile.
They look down at the document in Ahmed’s hands. Dostour. Theirs. Ours. A constitution, this time for real. One not drowning in technicalities and superfluous subtexts and opportunistic articles, one that doesn’t provide limitations veiled and disguised as protections. A constitution that promises humanity for humans and life for the living and everything else that just. makes. sense. A constitution that works. For all. That renders the ‘ashwa’iyat no longer “haphazard”, but deliberate — infrastructure, homes, families, laws, lives that need not be concealed and sequestered. That erases the shaware’ from atfal el-shaware’ and lets them just be children. That allows Abu-Nasser to sit right there across the street, in his wheelchair with his cup of tea, and a sack of peanuts purely for his own enjoyment, rather than his livelihood. No longer on the margins, no such thing as muhammasheen. Front and centre, here, they are grounded.