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Atris: Excerpt from Paulo

By Youssef Rakha, translated by Robin Moger.

The following is an extract from Youssef Rakha’s novel Paulo, published in Arabic in Egypt in 2016.

The novel is comprised of a series of fifty-nine blog entries that have been downloaded to a file, re-numbered, and re-dated. A prefatory note from an anonymous editor explains:

Variations in the style and content of these posts and the date stamps appended to them show that they were written at different times over a long period then reordered and re-dated, meaning it is impossible to know with any degree of accuracy when it was composed. It seems most likely that, having been written up over the course of a year or more, all entries were uploaded on a single day and their date stamps then amended online, with the times of publication chosen on a completely arbitrary basis at the last minute, as four time stamps recur invariably: 10am, 11am, 1pm, 5pm.

Furthermore, the entries were downloaded from oldest to newest (the opposite of the order in which they appeared on the site) in order to make them easier to follow, since their original ordering (which we have preserved by appending a numeral from 1 to 59 to the title of each post) made it difficult to make sense of the whole. We have been careful to pass them on as found, while noting that the shameful obscenities, vulgar expressions, and indefensible defamation of sacred beliefs and symbols contained herein (not to mention the slanders directed at religious and national identity) are punishable by law.

The author of this blog and our narrator is the eponymous Paulo, also known as Amer, a former poet and now an employee at a Downtown bookstore, who also works secretly on behalf of the Security Services, to whose ranks he was recruited by the shadowy Wadie Bey in the fallout of the January 2011 revolution. He now commands a unit of agitators charged with identifying and torturing activists.

Addressing a police officer who is investigating a series of ritualistic murders in which he is implicated, Paulo’s statement slips in and out of psychotic fugues and visionary ramblings to advance a conspiratorial vision of the street protests and widespread unrest that followed the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent jockeying for power of various factions under the auspices of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces.
— Robin Moger

31 | Atris

 Saturday, March 31, 2012 – 10am – Tag: Events

Just imagine, sir: as I was getting ready for my nightly exertions with Atris, I spoke to him in a language he understood, so I could tell him. And once I’d told him, teasing him took on another dimension. Like I’d imagined. I’d had so much fun I just stood there for a while before quitting the kitchen, gazing at his tormented body. And his moans continued to give me so much pleasure I couldn’t sleep. I had left him writhing on the tiles and screaming like a famished newborn, surrounded by a mess I’d have to clean up in the morning. And before he could exit the kitchen for his beloved corner of the living room where I put out his food and litter, I looked at him and a growl rose from my throat. He looked so lovely, ya basha, even when splayed wretchedly over the tiles, and for me it was as though I was noticing the softness of his shining pelt for the first time. I put out the light and looked for his eyes. One was fully shut and half the other blazed with a yellow that came and went with his cries. Suddenly in the darkness, a green fire in both. When I saw it, I remembered. I remembered bringing him home from the friend who sold him to me as a kitten. Eight months old: a miniature version of that mythic creature called the puma. I looked online, by the way. There’s no such thing as the puma, just big black cats in the genus of that name—mountain lions, cougars—but even so, Atris was a miniature puma and had about him an air of nobility, or dignity. From the very first there was a dignity about him whose sheer force so puffed him up, so aggrandized him, that you were seduced into degrading it. Then I remembered the day I took him to the vet to neuter him. Tough for me, for all that they gave him a localized anesthetic and he wasn’t in pain. Tough for me, because I was assuming he’d now grow fat and flabby like all my other cats had done. My cats are always black toms and every one I’ve taken to be neutered: Antar, Al Jahiz, Abou Zayd, then Maimoun and Sultan. All stayed with me until they died. And when they were neutered they grew flabby and fat, their beauty fled: every one of them. Except Atris. Until they were dispatched, cat after cat, in some pose similar to his wretched pose upon the tiles. And he, too, however beautiful he remains, will be dispatched like them one day, in just such a pose. (So we might imagine, ya basha. As you know, Atris has been alone in the Qasr El Nil apartment since I left him there and came to Lion’s Pool). He will be dispatched and I will mourn him and search for a cat to take his place. What happened, I’m saying, is that he let me down and grew neither fat nor flabby. That nothing happened. A miniature puma he remained, all nobility and seductive dignity. And this was the sweetest thing I remember about that night: speaking to him—or what came after I’d spoken, rather. I remember how much I’d missed making him the focus of my attentions. I was reclaiming my love for Atris and letting him see that, this night, I would spare him my perpetual teasing and just tell him. Listen up, Atris, I told him: Come over here and listen to a wonderful story, just for you. Then I mentioned the name of the political activist Emad Khashaba.

The third time I met Wadie Bey after the revolution he told me extremely important things about this activist, things which were on my mind now, as I mused on events. For starters he told me that Khashaba had operated under his direct command in Matariya between 2008 and 2010 when he’d been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He had got his technical diploma in Qalyoub and enlisted with the Brotherhood there before making his way to Cairo and registering with the Open University to take an engineering degree. It was during this period he became famous for his skill as a street fighter. Wadie Bey told me he would have been one of the Brotherhood’s senior commanders by the time of the July 2010 Shura Council elections were it not for what happened in early June. What’s known is that he hadn’t been sincere enough in his opposition to the regime, so that he wound up arguing with the head of his shu’ba, was thrown out of the organization, and was no longer of any use to the security services. He remained out of work until the revolution rolled around at which point he immediately became one of its heroes. Just as rapidly he turned from Islamist to Leftist. According to Wadie Bey, Khashaba’s dispute with the head of his shu’ba concerned a minor demonstration at the Matariya police station. Khashaba had gone overboard with the molotovs and the screamed abuse of cops and government and, having drawn a number of young Brothers into a fight with security troops for which they’d all been arrested, he had managed to slip smoothly away. A set-up, of course. That’s what I understood from the story, even though the group’s leaders never for an instant doubted the motives of the promising young commander who’d got their young Brothers locked up. As far as they were concerned it was all the consequence of boyish enthusiasm, of belief in the cause. The talk in Islamist circles was all about balancing the vigor of the revolutionary youth against the awareness, or wisdom, say, of the political leadership. The point: this demonstration was to protest the death of Khalid Said in Alexandria on June 8, 2010. This was after Ahmed Nazif’s government had renewed emergency law: two police sergeants assaulted Khalid Said and went on pounding his head against the wall until he died, his face warped out of shape, then claimed that he’d been in possession of a packet of weed, which was found stuffed in the corpse’s mouth amid the wreckage of its features. You’re aware, of course, that Khalid Said was an icon of the revolution against the police, which was proclaimed in Tahrir Square some six months later, on Police Day, January 25, 2011. Peculiar. I mean to say: revolution as gig, with time and venue arranged beforehand? Point is, Khashaba believed his own bullshit when he was expelled from the Brotherhood and had his State Security stipend cut off. Wadie Bey cautioned him against engaging in any form of political activism in the period ahead, and it seems as though he really believed he was a member of the Leftist opposition, because this was the label he took back with him to the streets after the events were over, to become a celebrity activist screeching on TV and leading demos, the new political players forced to show him respect even if it fucking killed them and then, maybe, with time, using him too. 

 

30 | A devil eagle

 Saturday, March 31, 2012 – 11am – Tag: Movies

This was three months before the first post-revolution parliamentary elections. Wadie Bey brought up dignity. The same dignity in whose name Khashaba was screeching on the satellite channels and about which Dr. Salim would speak to me months later as we sat at the Cultural Club Café. Wadie Bey said that dignity was one of the great deceptions. There are things that are fake and over-the-top but but which drive people to act hysterically and take reckless steps when they hear them said. Which is quite understandable on an individual level, so he said, but is extremely dangerous when it infects the herd. Like, there are people who know how to consciously exploit a superficial and tacky concept like dignity to achieve political objectives. But anyone punting it around like a sock football in a shitty back-alley without the first idea what he’s doing is a criminal who deserves to be punished. And you know the only punishment that ever has any effect in this world of ours, Amer Bey… This is what Wadie Bey was telling me. To unpick this trick right in front of a person bewitched by it, to remind them it’s just something fake and over-the-top, is to do them a rare service. I remember now. We were in a room constructed of steel and concrete, underground and inside the sewer system. Our third meeting. Each wall framing a pane of thick, frosted glass and the powerful light that lit us hanging down behind this glass and making the picture. The narrow channels like tiny rivers on whose banks were reptiles and rodents, everything small and brown, and Cairo’s human waste bobbing and ducking before us, buckled and bloated. Where we were there was no bad smell and the room was pleasant. Like, I felt as though we were in one of those see-through submarine cockpits, the ones which turn the ocean into an endless fish tank. Only, instead of the blue and green—the seaweed, sunken ships, and wondrous creatures—we had huge cockroaches clustered round rust patches and shit and decomposing limbs, and somewhere in the background the voice of Abdel Wahhab: Me, my torment and my love of you, all together and alone. Where will it end with you, you who forgets us all? On this occasion Wadie Bey was bald and unshaven, wearing a vest and flannel pyjama bottoms and flip-flops on his feet, and keeping one eye on the tea that was brewing on a gas stove. He handed me a glass and sat facing me. Crossed his legs and lit a cigarette. Said: If you saw someone without a shirt, sticking out his chest and running straight at a tank surrounded by soldiers with their weapons raised, you’re immediately going to think that this person must be a hero, that he’s doing something important, right? Defending a principle, say; maybe even giving his life for it. I observed that Wadie Bey would puff the smoke out the moment it entered his mouth and not draw it down into his chest. Wadie Bey was no smoker though he’d often light up and blow smoke like this. That’s what I noticed during our meetings. And his whole aspect would alter with every meeting. This time he was your classic government clerk gossiping with a relative or neighbor after waking from his noontime nap—and what made this impression all the stronger and led you to picture his wife at home in the kitchen, slicing the watermelon he’d brought home from work, was the voice of Abdel Wahhab, issuing as though floating from an ancient transistor: Lovers are poor wretches, patient and impatient, and they envy the free. Even Wadie Bey’s voice was like that of a government clerk except that it began to change as he said, Okay, so what if this individual’s working with people who require this kind of heroic drama for some purpose of their own? Taking their money, even? I’m saying, imagine that this heroic demonstrator’s working for the security services he’s attacking and the troops have orders not to hurt him? What does that mean for the drama that’s playing out before you? At which he lowered his crossed foot to the floor and his cozy persona suddenly altered as he went on before you’d a chance to answer him: The story stays the same, regardless. You either know the truth or you don’t. Your knowing doesn’t cancel out the effect the drama has. Then he stood and gazed aloft as if preparing to change the scene. I caught sight of a huge white moth the size of a suckling infant spreading its wings and beating them against the glass and it was as though its eyes were fixed on me, as though it were attempting to break through the glass and get to me. A horrid moth, that was all, but the size of a babe in arms. Then Wadie Bey walked towards it and pressed his face against the pane and stood there staring at it and hissing till it flew off. And as it flew it seemed to be an eagle, a devil eagle in hell. And Wadie Bey, he came back, came over to me and hissed again and said that what people care about in the drama is the scene, and that if you were to tell them the truth about their hero they’d call you a liar. And he said that just as the drama’s fraudulence does not detract from its value, nor does authenticity necessarily augment it. That any side which needs to can make political capital out of a scene, not because it has any meaning in and of itself, but because of its emotional impact in the media. His hissing had now turned into a humming along with Abdel Wahhab. Like this song, he said. Then he echoed it: My eye meets yours and your lashes have power, yet they let me down. Your eyes speak charms and your lashes salaam, yet you frown. I remember that after that, as I was thinking about what Wadie Bey had said, the scene really did change. Now he was masked and dressed in black, and we were somewhere like a warehouse—an empty interior without windows—and the walls and ceiling were studded with metal bosses to which chains were attached. I was seated and he was standing and there was a strong white light. He was still hissing through his mask but in a voice that was magnified, far louder than his own.

 

29 | Khashaba

 Saturday, March 31, 2012 – 1pm – Tag: Events

Come, come, don’t run you son of a dog. We’re here, in the living room. We’re not going to the kitchen. Come, sit on my lap and listen to the rest of the story. Now, you’ve heard of the village of Mit Nima in Markaz Qalyoub, of course. Just before Benha at the beginning of the Agricultural Road: Mud houses amid farmland most of them now unpainted redbrick with sheets of corrugated iron and plywood. Makeshift shacks with no land of their own. Not a single structure built to any kind of spec. No hospital, no school, no police station, no workshop, not even a field worth a damn. Mud everywhere. No running water and no sewers, little Riso. The mud all trash and shit. Even the electricity’s pinched from the public lines. Brother, settle down and listen, what’s wrong with you? A terrible place, is what I’m saying. Just imagine being one of them, for instance, being raised there. The poverty of the countryside and the city’s grind combined; a daughter of a whore’s religion of a situation, my brother. Everyone fucking everyone and always in secret and always for something in return. The most extensive prostitution network of working families in the history of modern Egypt, you could say. And piety, of course, by way of crushing the soul. If you do anything the police have to take a cut—that’s if the police ever show. Anything. Yes, yes, that’s what it’s like. Sweet Atris. It’s so lovely to have you sit in my lap. So: Mit Nama. The big men all dealers and the dogs all rabid. Crowds, violence, and criminality. Imagine you grew up in Mit Nama and had half a brain or a drop of sensitivity. That you learned a little at school and began to read. That you came to despise injustice, say. And you gaze across to Cairo proper and you realize. Just imagine. You’ve a very limited education and the ideas are all jumbled up in your head. To your mind, the village is a microcosm of life in Egypt. That’s how it was for him, my magnificent puma: from crawling on his belly through family feuds, to the cells, and then the wires hooked up all over his body, and no mercy. Hey, hey. Don’t be scared. I’m talking about Khashaba. No one’s gone near the kitchen, have they? So: home’s one room on the ground floor and his brother-in-law fucking his sister while he sleeps half a meter away next to his mother. The reek of sweat and livestock so strong, and everywhere. Weasels savaging any uncovered orifice they come across. The kids hunting rats and bats. One night he wakes up to two dogs mating and the stink is everywhere. They’re frantic. He doesn’t realize they’re not his sister and her husband till the husband gets up and boots them back out of the plywood-covered hole where they crept in. That morning he made up his mind that he wasn’t coming home again. Father died a while back, and perhaps there never was a father. Just five sisters and two brothers, one of them in jail. The brother had knifed someone to death in a street fight and didn’t get out till 2009. His mother sells vegetables and earns a bit from putting out to dealers. The oldest sister, with her husband and kids, stays with them in the room. Imagine. Seven or so to two square meters and his brother-in-law fucking his sister atop three floor tiles in a sea of mud. Then in the third year of high school, he decides all by himself that he’s going to continue his education in spite of everything his mother says about the need to leave school and turn a penny with one of her dealer contacts. To lend a hand. And he’s discovered Islam. The Abu Bakr Al Siddeeq School for Primary Education in Qalyoub, followed by the Qalyoub Vocational High School for Boys and a rented room with four family-less fellow students by the car mechanic’s where he works. The Abu Bakr Al Siddeeq School and the Islamic Serenity Mosque and his co-worker, constantly twitching from the effects of Parkinol, and love affairs cut short by the intervention of fathers or sheikhs or the police. Love affairs, cut short by men of greater age and standing and an Arabic language teacher who bloodies his hands when he discovers how much more his pupil knows than him about grammar and declension, and the cop from the unit staking out the mosque who cuts a deal with him: his arsehole in return for immunity from questioning. Khashaba starts out by becoming the imam of a street-corner mosque, then attends a religious seminar given by the naqib of a Muslim Brotherhood usra in Qalyoub, and at the very moment he joins the Brotherhood shu’ba to which this usra is affiliated he’s summoned to a meeting with Wadie Bey at one of the service’s offices here in Cairo. Imagine. Just like that. Khashaba’s a significant case, Atris. Not just because we met in the apartment of a revolutionary from an old aristocratic family close by Tahrir Square, a session that came just days after that meeting of mine with Wadie Bey where I learned what I learned about the kid. No. Khashaba’s significant because in his face I saw the features of the revolutionary who has joined the historic march to democratic transition, and me knowing what I knew. The features of one of the creators of the Second Republic, and you understanding perfectly how his life had been. Did this mean the Second Republic that he represented contained the self-same flaws? Khashaba, an elegant young man, with good looks and high spirits that put me in mind of Nayf (though, next to Nayf’s profundity and blackness, just the raw stuff of folly and insolence). I’d watched his face as he was saying that only true revolutionaries could understand the meaning of revolution and that all those who traded on the revolution had no concept of what physical sacrifice for its sake was like. And he said: Who wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his country? A traitor, for sure. He was moved, a tear actually in his eye, and I kept watching his face as he talked of the bravery of the revolutionaries and the brutality of the former regime’s defenders and all those present sitting and listening. He meant it, Atris. Contradictions or no, he meant it. And this was a most important moment in the history of my relationship with the revolution, because I understood that he was sincere in his hatred of those he demonstrated against, even though it was thanks to them he was able to demonstrate at all, particularly those against whom he was currently waging street battles in the name of dignity. He hated them all with absolute sincerity. Even the Brothers—their enemies—from whom he’d split just a year before, he now hated them because they were against the revolution. Of course, just like the rest of the revolutionaries when he said “revolution” he meant demonstrations, but in his hostility to any party that might suppress these demonstrations or consent to their suppression, he was prepared to renounce the Brotherhood, his membership of which he hid or otherwise (depending on circumstances) would offer the story of how he broke away. He’d cover the prayer bruise that had appeared on his forehead five years before when he’d grown the long Salafist beard without any moustaches, like these little moustaches of yours. The beard that he pared down Brotherhood-style when he emigrated to Cairo a few weeks after his first meeting with Wadie Bey. I was watching Khashaba like this when I suddenly got this feeling that I was in a film and those sitting alongside me were acting. And as I glimpsed a new piece of the picture the ideas began to take shape and twist like ropes around my body. I reflected that Khashaba could be forgiven. That he was talking about his work: the thing that he lived for, from which he derived his living, through which he understood himself. The day he’d met with Wadie Bey he told him, the same tear in his eye: Who wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his country? A traitor, for sure. And as it happens Khashaba’s recruitment had been easy and quick: no torture, no threats, not even inducement, little Riso. The moment he’d understood what Wadie Bey wanted he was all over it, mouth ajar, eyes agleam. Can you believe it? Just like that, Atris. Now you’ve heard the story. Did you like it? Great. To the kitchen, then. Not a word. Did you think you were going to bed?

A note on terms
The terms naqibusra and shu’ba are jargon from the Muslim Brotherhood’s internal organization. A naqib is the head or “captain” of an usra (family), a cell of maybe five or six Brothers, which itself belongs to a larger shu’ba, or “branch”. Ya basha, a respectful form of address, like “sir”.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Youssef Rakha, who edits тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ: Cairo’s Coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel, is a novelist, poet, essayist, literary critic, journalist and photographer who writes in both Arabic and English. Rooted in post-millennial Cairo, his interests include what a post-Muslim perspective implies and the vagaries of Arab porn. Paulo is his most recent novel.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Robin Moger is a translator of contemporary Arabic prose and poetry currently living in Cape Town, South Africa.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 21st, 2018.