I was skimming the Chicago Tribune when I saw the announcement about Walid Kamal, hero of the Arab Spring, next to an article on illegal immigration. I casually turned the page, paused, then flipped back to look again at Kamal’s grainy picture. Something about the tilt of head, the wide-apart eyes, reminded me of my younger brother, also called Walid, killed in an Egyptian riot many years ago. The photo unsettled me as if I had stepped into a stranger’s life.
To calm myself, I let the paper drop on the carpet and paced the living room. (Since the death of my dear Alison, I have lived in a one-bedroom penthouse in Hyde Park with a splintered view of the lake.) I paced stiffly — all my days stood like phantom soldiers on parade — while my mind swirled, floated away.
* * *
A moment later — that’s a manner of speaking: I no longer inhabited time — the phone rang. The caller said she was Walid Kamal’s agent, and did I want to meet the author of Leaderless Revolution? I thought to myself, why would I want to meet him? Kamal was an Egyptian hero; I was a reclusive writer of negligible renown, and had fled Cairo half a century before Kamal became a Time-cover celebrity. What did we share besides an Arabic name?
For an instant, I held the phone, sensing somewhere a trap. But the agent’s girlish voice stirred some fatherly instinct, though I have no children of my own. I said warily:
Meet him where?
The lecture will be at the Chicago Art Institute. A private dinner will follow. We’d be thrilled if you could join us afterwards at Les Nomades. Bellow’s old eatery.
Irritably, I wondered why agents always said “thrilled.”
Well, it’s a busy time for me. But I’ll try.
As I hung up, I heard time rustle like crinkling cellophane.
* * *
That awful day, I was nine, my brother six. Our father governed a province in Lower Egypt. The leader of the opposition Wafd Party had come to our palm-strewn town to incite against the British. The choices for Father were stark: either enforce public order or antagonize the King (read the British). Averse to bloodshed, Father chose the latter. That, at least, was the household legend, after my father’s forced resignation.
Fearing nothing from milling crowds, Walid and I went to school, as usual, on foot. Only Mustapha, our ancient orderly, walked by our side, holding each by the hand. (We loved to hear his stories of rocs and jinn as he twirled his mustache.) Mistaking us for the children of some foreign functionary — it may have been the way our mother dressed her boys — a rabble of toughs closed in on us. Mustapha rolled his eyes, pointed to the brass buttons on his tunic, the stripes on his sleeve, and gave a mighty shout. A student who had once seen me in Father’s company interceded; grumbling, the crowd began to disperse. Just then, the police rushed out like pent-up bulls from hidden vans. Rubber bullets hailed, truncheons flailed, the mob became a monster with a thousand feet. Within the hour, five lay dead on the street, including my brother Walid, trampled into pulp.
* * *
The Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute filled quickly after I took my seat, close enough to see the speaker’s features, far enough to preserve my anonymity. I fidgeted in my seat till a pompous emcee stepped onto the stage, followed by the speaker. As the emcee rambled on in praise of his sponsors, I watched Kamal — tall, copper-skinned, with a handsome head of wavy, black hair — stand apart. He stood modestly, eyes downcast, almost introspective.
After the talk, I realized that I retained only what Kamal had said between the lines. Oh, I heard his descriptions of anger and exultation in Tahrir Square, heard later his deft responses to the audience. (Q: “Mr. Kamal, how can we accomplish here what you have done in Egypt?” A: “You mean start a revolution? [Laughter.] Well, I’m not American, so I can’t really say.”) But what I absorbed was his inner stance: his sense of himself as an Egyptian, an accidental patriot, caught in a necessary moment of history. Without trying, Kamal — or his emanation — seemed to refute my life. I was roiled.
I still had a few hours before dinner to wander through the Art Institute. The galleries were eerily empty as I drifted among artifices of collectible eternity wrought by unworldly hands. Finally, I found myself in a great somber hall, populated by storied tablets, broken columns, and huge staring heads, rescued from desert sand. For an instant, standing still among those haughty hieroglyphs, signs oblivious of Walid’s name and mine, I felt my earlier discontent drain. A museum guard, with dreadlocks halfway down his back, glanced at me blankly.
* * *
Once, after my brother’s death, I accompanied Father to the Temple of Abu Simbel on some business he had in Aswan. Lake Nasser had not yet been scooped out of rock, requiring the transfer of colossal statues to higher ground. I looked up at the forbidding face of Ramses II, and felt like the brittle locust hopping under my feet. Father understood, smiled:
Well, that was his point. Our point is to get on with it without saying too often, ma’lesh.
Then his face clouded. We returned to the Cataracts Palace Hotel. Father called home to inquire about Mother’s “migraine headaches,” which she now suffered constantly, even after the Khamsin Wind ceased to blow. Later, on the high balcony of our hotel, he said:
Your mother has never been the same. We may have to put her in a special clinic for a while.
He did not need to mention my brother Walid. We both gazed over the town — a medley of minarets and mosques, villas and mud hovels — at the waters of the Nile curling around cataracts on their inexorable way to the sea.
* * *
In front of the massive stone lions of the Art Institute — in their repose, they looked as if they had just finished licking their paws — I hailed a cab for Hyde Park to shower and dress for dinner. But my discomfort, a vague nausea, had returned. What was it precisely that I felt: guilt, sorrow, envy, the sense that I had failed to nudge destiny my way? I tried to brush them all aside as variants of self-pity, of nostalgia unworthy of my years. (Alison would have made a wise joke of it.)
Since Alison died, only Samira — a cousin who had married an American — visited me from South Bend twice a year. I came to think of her noisy visits as reproaches of my solitude.
So un-Egyptian! Samira would mutter, looking about my place. How can you stand this isolation?
That’s when I would recite to her Chomei’s “Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut”: “The hermit crab prefers a little shell because he knows the dimensions of his shell. The fish hawk dwells on the crag-bound shore because he fears to be where people are.” She would punch me in the shoulder and cry with mock fury:
Go back to Egypt, dear Uncle — that’s what she called me — go back to our roots. At least, read to me from the Koran, not from a heartless Japanese káfer.
Now, in my austere flat on the thirtieth floor, I watched darkness settle on the lake, strips of gleaming indigo. My head was still agog with all the words Walid Kamal had failed to speak. Words, for instance, about his terror as he waited for the next blow, a black burlap hood over his head. Or about his despair, as he lay in a dungeon like a sack of coal, thinking about his children, his wife, his mother rending her clothes and hair. Words, especially, like “Long Live Egypt!” dearer to him than the blood in his veins.
“Long Live Egypt!” For a moment — still out of time — I peered into the creeping night and marveled at words. Were they the tie that bound us, giving us the edge of survival in a parlous universe? Or were they random fictions, presaging our extinction? I had no answer myself though I had filled many pages with words, foolishly hoping to save myself from childless inexistence. Ah, but I forget that dream in which Alison appeared to me clad in gossamer and whispered, “The childless may be prefects of a new age.”
* * *
In his moody retirement, my father played chess and my mother, back from the clinic after several years, knitted sweaters for small children. We were not poor, we were not rich; we lived in the penumbra of equivocal defeat. But I dreamt beyond my family’s failures.
Once, I dreamt I hid with Walid in the Caliph’s sandalwood coffer while Scheherazade spun all her tales. Later, I fancied myself the Joyce of Arab letters, my face and thick, round glasses etched on wall calendars and glossy journals. But I never aspired to topple tyrants, endure torture, or flicker on a million TV screens: Walid Kamal never visited my dreams.