Egypt, forgive my cowardice

To every Egyptian, from wherever you may come, to every man, woman, child, and martyr in Tahrir square that sent shivers through my Arab-hood for 18 days, this is for you.

Being a coward had been the easiest thing to do, until Jan. 25. And I’m not talking about a certain ousted president. I’m not talking about a rather sly torturer. And I’m not talking about plainclothes forces gone-bad for some pocket money.

I am a coward.

Hopelessness, greed, corruption, chaos and fear were not enough to stand in the way of the Egyptian people. Every grain of their sweat was laced with patience, sacrifice, risk, and heart. They came out of it not only having spoken up, but with a full-fledged revolution.

Meanwhile, as I watched religiously through the discomfort of my TV, I suddenly find myself helpless. Utterly useless.

Two dollars a day is the allowance some Egyptians have been forced to endure. Two dollars a day were enough to craft a revolution. A revolution. I can’t say that enough. Revolution.

Two dollars.

I have a journalism degree. I did nothing with it.

This is the revolution that changed everything I knew about Arabs. I had no precedent to help me believe in it, but I did from the start because I know what it means to have Egyptian running through your veins.

But I did nothing.

I recall being possessed for 18 days, constantly playing out whimsical scenarios in my mind of some super hero jumping in and saving the day. When I wasn’t contemplating, I was furious. When I wasn’t furious, I was nothing. I was not here. I was being a coward.

Make no mistake – at no point did I thank my lucky stars that I was away from the “unrest” or that I had the best damn excuse not to be in Tahrir square. On the contrary; that was the only place I wished I could be.

But I didn’t go.

Instead I nervously rocked my legs under my desk, stole distracted peeks at the news, isolated myself and grieved over the ignorance I had come to discover in people with whom I once shared heartfelt laughs. I knew history was in the making, yet I made nothing of it.

Egyptians of courage, persistence and morals, I ask of you to forgive me. In the last 18 days you changed the world as I knew it. You showed me what it means to be Arab, a phrase I laughed off or at least stared at blankly, since as far back as I can remember.

You showed me why it pays off to be resilient, forgiving and eloquent. You showed me that occupations don’t need to happen for change to seep through. You showed me that stability means nothing in the name of corruption and injustice.

You showed me what my grandmother saw in our generation that I never quite understood. An intensely Egyptian woman with an overpowering presence, my grandmother had enough heart to give to every democracy maker in this revolution, had she still been here today. You showed me her heart didn’t give in for nothing.

And I did nothing for you.

My cowardice has already paraded itself before you. There was no excuse not to become a part of this revolution, even if through the best way I knew how: telling your stories.

So I plead before you to forgive me for having used the heavy dent in my chest, engraved in me by a relentless dictator, as a scapegoat. Forgive me for having neglected my obligation to you, to us as Arabs, and to future generations.

I hope it’s not too late to document that on Feb. 11, 2011, I witnessed history and fell to my knees in cathartic joy before a new Egypt. I witnessed the revolution.

One day, when Twitter is obsolete and my children’s children sit in my lap and ask me, “what was the revolution?” I will show them this. I will teach them what it means to earn democracy in the Arab world.

I will confess to them that there will be people who will warn them that “the worst is yet to come,” that “there’s nothing worse than instability” and that “Arabs are the worst people to handle democracy.”

But then I will teach them that the worst thing of all is allowing yourself to settle for less than you deserve, simply because it’s easy.

Egypt, today I proudly wear your revolution on my shoulder. Tomorrow I will proudly pin it to our children’s shoulders.

I vow to no longer be a coward. May your rebuilding begin.


My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 4

If there was ever a cure for Alzheimer’s it was my grandmother. After she passed away we realized Jeddo was suffering more than just trauma. She had known all along that grandpa dearest was no longer in his right mind, but she put her strong Egyptian will to the test by making it nobody’s burden but her own.

Little did she know that it would have to be everybody’s “problem” sooner than later. Jeddo constantly misplacing his keys and glasses was barely the tip of the iceberg. Later came the accusations.

A search party would surely find dozens of missing cigarettes lying around Jeddo’s house. He began hiding them in an effort to stop people from stealing them. The lack of trust he had for himself would no longer suffice. His forgetfulness became too overwhelming to believe and conspiracies took over.

“She never used to touch a thing, but lately she’s snatching my cigarettes,” Jeddo says of his caretaker, an underprivileged woman who has lived with my grandparents long before my mother met my father. “And my shirts; where else would they go? She probably steals them and gives them away to her relatives.”

At some point the thoughts in Jeddo’s mind transitioned from scapegoats to pure, hard facts. But every once in a while, reality, the one you and I know, will take the upper hand in Jeddo’s inner struggle. That day on my mother’s bed, this very reality terrified me.

When people speak with my grandfather they secretly hope that he is alert, desperate for the sake of his image that he is coherent. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just read between the lines; the lines keep shifting. Should I believe this? Is he making this part up? You may become an expert, but you can never quite know.

Our conversation dragged a while longer. Plenty of redundancies from Jeddo were nothing out of the norm. It was one of the few times that didn’t bother me. My aunt and mother were taking Jeddo’s revelation calmly. I was burning to know more; how were they taking this so lightly?

Then again, I did nothing.

I must have appeared to them as they did to me. I could not bring myself to react. I could not bring myself to ask him more. A sickening thought had buried its way into my head and at some point, as I was trying to brush it off, I heard it out loud. It was vague. But even though it vanished as quickly as it came, I heard it.

Amid some sort of interruption, perhaps my aunt’s ringing cell phone or a side conversation between her and my mother, Jeddo released snippets of thought out loud. He often returned to a conversation that had ended as though he had been mulling it over while the rest of us spoke of something new. This time the conversation hadn’t quite finished. Distractions simply came at the right time.

He looked my way and gestured with his hands as he repeated how Afaf fell through the planters. Head first – that part of the story didn’t change anymore. But another part did.

“Poor girl,” Jeddo said. “You know how it is with kids, always playing rough. I guess when we were playing she slipped away and somehow ended up at the ledge.”

That was all. I don’t recall hearing anything more, if even that. All attention turned back where it was due and in an instant a composed panic broke Jeddo’s catharsis.

A brief nausea came over me, or rather a pinching shock. I noticed my mother and aunt exchanging nods of admissions confirming what I feared.

It might have been Jeddo after all.

Looking over to Jeddo, his eyes sprung with tears and that was the first time I saw him agonize over another girl besides my grandmother. It took him 83 years and a case of Alzheimer’s.

The next thing I remember was walking out of my mother’s room thinking, should I believe this? Is this part true?

I never really decided. None of us did.

Also see:

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 1

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 2

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 3

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 3

When most people snap out of a daydream their reaction is abrupt, intentionally noticeable. But Jeddo’s transition back into the conversation is smooth. At the most his pupils swiftly shift into focus as he turns to talk to you. Sigh. A pause. Perhaps a hand gesture. Jeddo is slow by nature, but it was obvious he took an extra moment for composure this time.

“I don’t know; I don’t remember,” he said. “We were living in Salt where houses with staggered rooftops stood side by side and kids would play atop.”

It was his way – more so after the Alzheimer’s– to take you around in circles before he answered your questions. It wasn’t a nervous habit. He simply didn’t trust his own memory anymore. He figured that by covering all his bases he couldn’t miss anything.

“Afaf must have been really young and I can’t remember who was playing with her on our rooftop one day,” he said. “It might have been Ziad.”

The irony is Ziad had long passed too, in a plane crash if my memory serves me right. There was no coincidence that Jeddo chose Ziad of all his other siblings – and there are many – to fill the missing gap in his story. He was no longer alive to tell it differently.

Afaf was their sister.

I could see my mother nudge my aunt with a mischievous look from the corner of her eye as if to say, “rooftop? This is new.”

Nobody reacted otherwise. We acknowledged his story with a nod and a typical Arabic “mmm, tayeb” cueing him to go on. He hesitated, swallowed hard and sighed. His confident state was on the verge of flight and his face became flustered. Discovering a hidden family secret was thrilling as it was, but it was that expression on Jeddo’s face that hooked me.

“I wasn’t there to see how she fell, but I guess they were playing by the ledge, tugging at one another and she toppled over to the rooftop below,” he said. “There were planters of some sort by the ledge and she must have fallen through.”

Jeddo’s tendency to add unnecessary details to a story is his method of recollection. Paint the picture entirely and the story will come together. This was no interrogation but we would all be lying if we said that we didn’t linger on his every word waiting for him to mess up – a simple slip of the tongue. The more he said, the more beans he spilled. He had no idea what sort of confession he was about to make because of it.

Then came a silence – not deafening – but just enough to make your gums sour.

“I was far away from them, probably drawing or playing by myself off in a corner,” he said. “But I’ll never forget how she fell through the planters, head first.”

It was difficult to tell whether Jeddo contradicted himself because he had forgotten what he said initially or because he couldn’t throw the burden of his sister’s death on someone else. There is a thin line between his dying brain and his golden heart.

Either way, Jeddo confessed his presence. He had witnessed the demise of his sister.

Also See:

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 1

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 2

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 2

Of all days Jeddo chose the most brutally windy afternoon to walk to our house. Such a rebellion alone is a call for worry. But try telling a fully-grown, hard-headed man, and particularly my grandfather, that he is not allowed to leave his house to take a walk at his own will. After all, what does he have to lose?

A panicky phone call from his caretaker had us holding our breaths by the window for what seemed to last a while longer than two minutes. It must have been a lucid hour, because he made it. Or maybe he simply knows how to walk from point A to point B, but we hardly gave him the chance to prove it.

It wasn’t exactly pride that settled on his face as he sat on my feverish mother’s bed. Some would rather call it a look of authority or independence, just as a father should look when paying a visit to his cold-stricken daughter. What was said a while later would change that expression entirely.

Not more than a quarter of an hour had gone by before my aunt showed up. There was an air of comic relief in our reunion – three generations of us lounging on my mother’s bed. I’m not one to get a kick out of family gossip sessions but this day was an exception. Only on the most rare occasions do the four of us find the opportunity to gather alone and I wasn’t about to turn a deaf ear. I became nostalgic, but I soon realized I wasn’t the only one.

Jeddo’s memory process defies everything they taught you in Psych 101. Recollection in his world is inconsistent. Consequently so are his stories. Figuring out which parts are accurate and which ones are suspiciously flawed is a subjective matter. Mostly, everyone expects him to tell fibs and fables. But his daughters and grandkids know him well enough to lend credibility to his older memories. Jeddo may not remember what he said two minutes earlier, but he can tell you all about his neighbors from his teenage years.

Amid the funny family tales my mother and aunt told, mom let slip, “remember Afaf?” At first it was a half-thought, barely mumbled under her breath and probably directed at my aunt. “That was one strange story,” she said. “I think it was said that she tripped over one day and had gotten sick shortly after.”

A hesitant nod and a raised eyebrow from my aunt could have been the last of that conversation but my mother has a tendency to pursue awkward questions.

“Baba, do you remember how Afaf died?” she said.

Also see: My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl- Chapter 1

My grandfather’s diaries: The other girl – Chapter 1

There have only ever been two triggers that welled up my grandfather’s eyes: the life and death of my grandma. But now there is a third. Eighty-three years and a case of Alzheimer’s later a haunting past reveals itself in casual conversation.

Jeddo has his bad hours and his lucid hours. He has his lost days and his good days. But don’t mistake good for happy. When alert, his memory is relatively solid, yet those are sometimes his saddest moments for he realizes what he has lost: a wife, a life and one hell of a brilliant mind. Jeddo was a thinker and when he thinks today, he thinks of all that he can no longer think up.

“Two girls, two boys or one of each,” Jeddo used to say. “Gender never mattered to me; I always knew I wanted two children.” Any other man of his generation would have only muttered these words had his miserable destiny encumbered him with children of the fairer sex. But not jeddo. He really meant it. And it’s a good thing he did, because no two other daughters would have taken on such a burden – the burden of taking care of a sick widower father and a stubborn one at that.

A six-year age difference between my mother and her younger sister gave them just enough individual space to be very different from one another. Somehow, it also gave them enough unity to understand the responsibility they had to share. They do labor at it, bless them. But mostly, they push my buttons.

What my aunt and more so my mother often dwell upon is the ugly disease that has saddened a good man and turned him into a real-life example of Benjamin Button – a disease that is too embarrassing to flaunt before the public. Speak before he says something shameless, save his reputation before he insults a brother or worse, a brother’s son. Nobody says it, but everybody thinks it.

I would like to say that I am the exception, but I too have caught myself censoring him once or twice. The difference is, I don’t do it because I believe it is the healthy path so to speak, but rather to take the easy way out. On the other hand, when patience feels like gracing me with its presence, I realize that Alzheimer’s is not the violent intruder people make it out to be. There is a beautiful process of wisdom, recollection and peace that pierces through, but only if you listen hard.

This was how I discovered the only other girl in my grandfather’s life that choked him up with tears. In my 25 years, this was the first time I had heard of Afaf.



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