24 de gen. 2016

to be us

Contextualizing is not always a matter of figures and letters, contextualizing is also about filling in the gap between the letters and the headlines. Context is following the thread of those who sustain the headlines being the main characters of news that are not in the news.
Those who are not Nobody's à la Galeano, because they are I's discussing about the difficulties of living with the Other, about being People alongside other nobodies who despise each other.
What follows is a Saturday conversation about the difficulties of being Us in Egypt, when what is shared is the victory, the guilt, the defeat and the struggle.
Ezz and I live in Alexandria and we love to talk. We bridge one hour after the other, we link the words jumping from one topic to the next because there is something that Ezz is very good at: listening and answering back with an endless dwell of questions. Today we have decided to try an experiment: we'll meet in the morning to talk about our stuff, but this time we'll record it, as if it was an interview in disguise. The thing begins when Ezz rings at my door and waits for me in his wonder car downstairs. A car that has the ability to spit the right music at the right time. And the ability to be checked at every check point: wrong license, rear light broken, suspicious driver.

To be Myself:
M: tell me, where are we going?
E: we're going to the highway heading to Borgh el Arab. There's a big lake, lake Mariout. There's few people around and we can talk in peace, naturally.
Talking naturally is something that sometimes you have to plan in Alexandria, but it's hard to explain the reasons of this crippled spontaneity without becoming a paranoid. Being oneself implies building the spaces to be easygoing, because you feel often the eyes of others licking your neck as if they were only gossiping, as if they were controlling. So Ezz proposes to talk while he drives randomly on the way that goes from Alexandria to the lake. And ideas keep rolling as we drive up and down the road. Ezz says that he prefers to do so because if we were sitting in the city, the sight of others would stick to our words.
Ezz is young, his hair is very long and curly, he's growing his beard and wears tshirts with slogans written in many languages which are not arabic. There are plenty of guys with beards in the city and many of them have afro hair. Some of them wear challenging tshirts and, just like Ezz, rebuilt their identity around 2011 by becoming political subjects. Despite of their youth, Ezz's generation tells the story of their previous 5 years with a biographer's precision. Because, to a great extent, they are and they have become an I that walks in the streets of Alexandria.
I ask him how do the others see him and he says:
E: According to their definition I am a concept. Not a person. And you can see it in their eyes, in the way they look at you. They focus on what you wear, your way of speaking, the way you smoke, even your way of walking, the way you look at things they are not used to see. And they think you are weird because the eyes with which you look around are not like theirs.

To be Him:
Being oneself looks suspicious in the streets of a city where uniformity is invisible but stalks you in every corner. When you go out to the public, exposing your skin to the sunlight and to others, you cannot avoid looking for the traces that will help you distinguish who's the imaginary Other, to anticipate what he likes and what he dislikes, knowing that he's observing.
M: who is He?
E: he carries two packs of cigarettes in his hand. One pack of Marlboro and one of LM. In the other hand he carries two self-phones. A small one for business and a bigger one for his adventures, for Facebook and WhatsApp to share a lot of stuff about how strong and handsome Sisi is and about his ability to run the country. He's 30 or 35. He has a son or he's about to have one. He's married to a girl he found to be his wife after having had some relationships with other girls he now considers to be whores. But he wanted a pure woman, because he deserves a proper wife. He spends a lot of time in those cafés in Miami or Sidi Bishr, this kind of tasteless coffee shops, with no identity, merely commercial, touristic spots. Cafés that have the taste of tasteless things. He lives in a building of old Alexandria, in Mansheya for instance. He has a little tummy, grease in his hair and he has never considered doing things in a way that differs from what he has been told. He's convinced that there is an enemy, but he doesn't realize that the enemy of this society is society itself. He thinks that the enemy is always beyond. And the enemy always tries to persuade him that in order to save society you have to kill others.

To be the People:
But Him, this paradigmatic him, is part of the people who live among us in the same way as we mingle with the People. Although we never fully manage to be unnoticed: Him and his greasy hair, Ezz and his beard, they happen among the people knowing that you have to pay attention, because the People knows the enemy is hidden among us. This is why He is staring around trying to identify it, for the sake of our security. But being an enemy or a victim depends on the shade of the glasses through which the disperse authority sees us.
M: Who is the victim?
E: It's those people who for some reason believe that there might be a small possibility for change in society. In one way or another: to be more islamist or to be more radical. Or it might even be those who don't expect any change but who complain about the rise of the prices. They will be victims. Those who support and cheer the indiscriminate repression and the blood could be victims, any given day they can be the victims. Because in this society everyone is a victim. Everyone is a victim but we don't realize it.
When it comes to be a victim there are many shades of gray, despite of the fact that being guilty is a matter of black and white. And everybody knows it, when they stay home or when they go out to the street. When they speak about the weather, or about a TV show, or about the family. To be People is in fact to be constantly making choices and negotiating to what extent one can be oneself among others.
E: Each one has a compromise, a choice. And sometimes people choses to see an alternative, even if you pay the price with your life. This kind of commitment is the main reason why people dies attending any event. It's the only compromise that people can make, because in this country it is very difficult to say something without being hit. There is a stick for every word and a bullet for every chant. And to them, this kind of sounds have a value: if you speak during a couple of minutes, we will hit you; if you speak for more than ten minutes, you will get a life sentence. And if you speak during four years, we might kill you. It's a scale of values that people tries to understand. And when they understand it, they decide to speak out for as long as possible. And this is how they end up dead.
Being People means making noise, honking in the street jam or chanting. And in the risk of such noise raises the identity of the martyr, who is at the same time a very specific somebody and a nobody among many others.
When I ask Ezz how to make this journey that goes from the death of an “I”, that could be anyone, to the celebration of a martyr, he tells me:
E: The fact that you have been killed tells a lot about yourself. It tells us a lot because you have been murdered, and it might be a stereotype, but if the police has killed you is maybe because you had found for a moment a space against this regime, I don't know. And celebrating the martyrs can be a way to celebrate this moment. Because in this society there are gaps. A gap between two groups: a group that controls everything and the other who is always against. And the other way to prove that there is a gap, that it exists, is these people being assassinated whose corpses fall in the void.

To be Us:
However, everyone wanders through this void dodging authority and fear and its effect on a crowd you belong to without much of a choice. The greasy Him and my friend Ezz are the same People when they meet in the bakery shop and in the electoral census, despite of their looking at things from different corners.
E: they are affected by the situation, we share the same reality, this is a fact. We might share the same sacrifices, we share a lot of things without knowing it.
They share the calendar and despite of it, since 2011 the dates don't mean the same for everyone. Transitioning is to announce an Us that contains the People without counting on the I's that conform it. A majuscule Us from which the authority claims the victories and the threats, a majestic Us staring at the fire where the well-sounding words are burning: revolution, democracy, people. Us, nobody, acting for the sake of common good.
M: who is Us? Us is the winners?
E: We could say so. But the winners of what? The winners of, how to say it...I don't know, the winners of the louder voice. The winners of the microphone. Yes, I could not put it in other words. Winners who know that in this society their voice is louder than the voice of others. Although I’m not sure if they have ever won anything. Because if they had won, they wouldn't be so scared all the  time, so intimidated.
M: But having a loud collective voice, isn't it what happened during the 18 days? That was a victory, wasn’t it?
E: I wouldn’t say that the victory happened because at some point we had a louder voice. But because there was a moment when we decided to take the microphone, even if the rules of the game didn't foresee such situation. The victory is that at some point the microphone passed through our hands. This is winning, not because we were louder (…) their voice will always be louder, systematically, but it is not planned that one day we could be able to take the microphone. This is the winning position of the regime. And this is what they lost and they still cannot recover it no matter how loud they scream. Even if they use thousands of speakers and televisions. Because this cannot change the fact that we have already heard our voices while we were screaming at the microphone.
M: and you, what do you celebrate?
E: I don't know, maybe at this point there is nothing to celebrate. Maybe the only the thing that we can celebrate is the blood of the people who once was with us. This is what we celebrate. Because we are still alive and we still have noise to make, and maybe these people, the martyrs, liked to make noises. So we celebrate them by making noise around them when they are going to be buried. Maybe this is a way to give the final commemoration, making sounds around their dead bodies because they cannot make noise with us. Maybe, I'm not sure. It's still strange for me the way in which we still celebrate blood. It's strange that we are still celebrating 2011. Myself, I still celebrate 2011. Why? Because many died. Why? I don't know, a lot of people died and nothing has changed. But no, something changed. I have changed. And this is why I celebrate. I celebrate for the blood. Because the blood has changed me.

To be Staying:
We have been driving for one hour and a half, being a tiny spot that moves through the roads of google maps, the windows open the ashtray full. As we speak a police pick-up drives next to our car. One of the officers looks at us, looks at Ezz, looks at me. Ezz keeps driving and smoking and I draw a smile and keep asking while the pick-up drives away. Nothing important, to be honest, but after a while I ask Ezz if he has noticed it and what is his reaction.
E: Yes, first I've seen that you were hiding the microphone and I have seen the police. I haven't done anything special, in this kind of circumstances I believe that the eyes are a good answer: to look at the eyes of the solider or the police officer. Because I'm convinced that through our life there are micro-fights and that you can fight them with an eye contact.
If I decide not to look straight at their eyes I will be accepting their position. I will be confirming that he is someone powerful. And staring at the eyes can be a way to say that we are equal. That we have the same power and that the fact that they are on the side of those who speak loud, the fact that they have many bullets doesn't make them powerful. Because power is not something material, is something at our reach. Something we have inside and we can feel it.


* Text originally published in Spanish in Diagonal Newspaper the 19/05/2015.