Herve Guibert

We have no list — either in his letters, in his voluminous diaries, or in his various autofiction novels — of his formative memories, those that might form the carousel in a putative slideshow of his life. But from the texts and photographs, we can imagine:

•The tangle of his aunt Louise’s hair sprung out from her thick braids at the day’s end •His father returning home at night from the slaughterhouse, apron bloodied
•His mother, carefully made up, arranged as he would have liked her to appear in the infamous photograph that came out blank and which would inspire his essay collection Ghost Image
•Thierry’s ass
•The “white woolen garment” from which he couldn’t be separated as a child, evoked through various stuffed animal forms with which he surrounded himself
•The mute Pinocchio doll that would watch him stage his suicide in Modesty, or Immodesty (his first wish having been to be a filmmaker)
•A world of ceramic horses, marbles, marionettes, figurines

Hervé Guibert, the French writer, artist, and polymath, lived his 36 years with propulsive force. To this his work bears witness. He published seventeen novels in fourteen years; he served as the longstanding photography critic for Le Monde; he authored poised correspondences and caustic love letters. He photographed friends and lovers, dioramas and details of paintings, himself in shadow, a delicate compendium of palm-sized objects. He made a single video, the La Pudeur _ou _L’impudeur (Modesty, or Immodesty), in which he recorded his inevitable death with the bravery of one who understands time’s violence.

Guibert was born in Saint-Cloud in 1955, the child of an aspiring bourgeois family that would inspire his disdain throughout his life. He turned his back on his domineering father returning home from the Parisian abattoirs where he worked; he recoiled at his mother’s primness. Contempt often serving as a guise for fascination, the three existed in a psychosexual vortex that dominated his adolescent life. At 17, he moved to Paris, where his cool beauty and careful aesthetic eye quickly granted him access to the leading intellectuals of the time. He was Foucault’s favorite, Barthes pined for him. Guibert wrote constantly: in his diaries (now collected as The Mausoleum of Lovers: Journals 1976-1991), for Le Monde and the literature review Minuit; a steady track of stories and novels that flit between memoir and phantasmagoria, upholding impulse and desire to surgical precision. Ghost Image, his 1981 tract on photography, holds forth alongside Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.

His photographs? Hesitations, pulses, solitude, tenderness. He photographed to distract the glint of death at the corner of his eye. The slim photo-roman, Suzanne and Louise, stages his beloved great-aunts in cadaver-like poses, documents the arcane objects to which they devoted their lives; other collections take up the vibrancy of the body, to which he attended with a grace that befits Simone Weil’s definition: “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

He is often accused of having sold off his secrets, as if people haven’t met a writer before. The foreclosure of his death, with his AIDS diagnosis in 1988, only propelled him to work at greater speed. He gained national recognition and notoriety with the 1990 publication of À l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie (To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life), the novel-cum-roman à clef which depicts with an unflinching eye the fear and mania of the AIDS crisis in French via a group of friends in France. The thinly veiled character “Muzil,” a famous author dying of HIV, was quickly understood to be a stand-in for Michel Foucault, who had not disclosed his diagnosis prior to his death in 1984. The novel was read as textual treason, a ploy for stardom at the expense of friendship. But secrets do not necessarily violate the private life of the heart.

“I empty myself slowly,” wrote Guibert, early on in Mausoleum. “I exploit myself.” If this were his ethos, its penultimate permutation came with Modesty, or Immodesty, a video diary in which Guibert recorded himself between June 1990 and March 1991. He vowed that “everything that could enter into the field of experience … could became a potential episode in the film.” “Everything” would come to encompass the banal and the sublime: medical appointments, a medley of drugs, conversations with Suzanne and Louise, sunlight in Elba, a staged suicide attempt, the persistence of life in death.

He died in 1991 of complications from an unsuccessful suicide attempt. A week later, the video aired on French television.

A possible epitaph? Better to remain hungry than to renounce appetite.

On the occasion of the re-publication of the English translation of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, the editors of Bidoun and Semiotext(e) invited six artists and writers — Moyra Davey, Lia Gangitano, Bruce Hainley, Hedi El Khoti, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Christine Pichini — to reflect on Guibert’s life, work, and ongoing resonance via his photographs.

In all cases, it was a beautiful film to make

Amr Ezzat has always had vivid dreams. After separating from his wife in 2010, Ezzat, who works on matters related to religious freedom at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, moved into a Spartan white-tiled apartment with nothing but a lumpy mattress for furniture. Empty space swiftly became a recurring feature in his dreams. He began to post them on Facebook, where they eventually came to form a diary of sorts.

Baradei
January 29, 2010

It’s all over the news: Mohamed ElBaradei in a ragged grey gown, being led by authorities out of a bakery and into a police vehicle. On the news ticker: “Bakery owner arrested on charges of stealing subsidized flour.”

Jerusalem Marble
March 25, 2010

Heavy repairs in the streets around the High Court of Justice. The work area stretches through the heart of Cairo, all the way to Midan Ataba, and as we make our way forward, ignoring the signs, it looks as though we’re part of a silent demonstration, or we’ve just broken out of a siege. The road comes to an end, of sorts, and one of us cries out: “We’ve arrived to Jerusalem!” Another exclaims: “This is where the Al-Aqsa Mosque used to be!”

We stand in awe for a few moments, looking out over an empty stretch of marble that extends to the horizon. They say the entire city has been demolished, and now everything has been paved over with marble.

Everyone seems to be wearing the same outfit: jeans and a white t-shirt. The empty city is teeming with people of all races and nationalities. There are young men handing out bags of potato chips, boxes of juice. Everyone is happy —ecstatic, even. People are drinking and eating. Some have laid down on the marble. One group is dancing the Dabke, while others seem to be moving to inaudible disco music. It feels like a ceremony of some kind. A deep calm prevails. There are no sounds save some soft whispers and a whistling wind.

As night falls, dim lights appear. I sit on the ground with the nice girl. The marble is unusually warm, I say. She smiles, places her head on my thigh, and falls asleep.

The Plan
November 10th, 2011

Noha appears in the doorway to the hotel bar. She looks tired. Dust covers her hair and clothes, and her eyes are skittish. She heads straight to the bar, sits on the stool next to me, and asks the bartender for a bottle of water.

The Indian bartender looks up at her with a slimy grin. “What’s his deal?” she asks. “I think he owns the hotel,” I say.

“Where’s Bassam?” she asks. I tell her he is dancing with Miriam Fares, and point in their direction. The dance floor is full of people.

She gulps the entire contents of her water bottle, wipes her mouth in exhaustion, and announces: “I see them.”

“Here’s the plan,” Noha says matter-of-factly, putting down her water bottle. “We’re going to approach every single person dancing here, one at a time. We tell them we want a word, take them aside, beat them unconscious, and then carry them out. If the security man asks, we say they’re drunk and we’re taking them home. Then when we’re out of sight, we dump them in the street and come back for the next one.”

I climb off my stool, nodding seriously. Lightly, I say: “Let’s go.”

We head towards the dance floor, and a sequence of silent scenes ensues. We are executing the plan, tossing one person after another into half-dark streets lined with thick trees.

I think of the moment when we get to Bassam and Miriam, and wonder which of them we’ll take out first.

Dina
December 13, 2011

Dread-filled eyes face me.

“Your sister has run away.”

I am silent for a few moments as I consider my reply. “I have a sister?”

My brother Mahmoud answers, as if tired of reminding me of something I always forget. “Yes, yes — your sister.”

“My sister?” I muse. “How come?”

He continues, resignedly. “Your sister from your dad’s other wife.”

I look to my father. “His other wife?”

“Yes, yes,” Mahmoud says. “Your sister has run away.”

I sink into silence. “You’re the only one of us that she loves,” my father says, interrupting my thoughts. “Find out where she’s gone. Call her.”

“Me?”

“Yes, Amr. Quickly!”

I look into Mahmoud’s eyes, trying to make sense of what is happening. “Alright,” I say. “Alright, I’ll call her.”

I walk out into the street. It looks like one of the streets in the old market area in Khartoum, and it reminds me of a certain street in Italy, where I’ve never been. On the side-streets, young men in masks are running from clouds of tear gas. In the distance, the tear gas clouds have merged with a heavy fog that seldom hangs over Cairo.

I sit on a sidewalk shaded by the stone arches of a classic Belle Époque building. I take out my phone and dial.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Amr.”

“Amr who?”

“Your brother, Amr.”

She lets out a sudden yelp. She’s never going back, she says to me, almost shouting. Everything’s going to change. She won’t speak to any of them ever again.

She says a lot of things. I lose my eyes in the fog and my ears in her loud, angry voice. My mind wanders. Suddenly it is quiet and I hear her voice, suddenly calm. “What do you think?”

“I am on your side, of course,” I reply. “I’ll tell them you didn’t pick up.”

She bursts into tears and tells me that this is just what she’d expected—that I would be the only one to support her. Then she starts to laugh. She’s been scared to death ever since she left the house, she says. But now she feels safe, somehow.

I smile and go quiet. She goes quiet, too, catching her breath after the tears and the laughter.

I can’t think of anything else to say, so I ask her: “What’s your name?”

“My name is Dina,” she says.

“Alright then,” I say, “take good care of yourself, Dina. Call me if you need anything, okay? And let me know how you’re doing, always. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” she says, in a soft, low voice, as if from the verge of sleep.

A heavy, unannounced weariness overtakes me. I lie back against a cool stone column, stretch my legs out ahead of me, and close my eyes. A group of young men run by, coughing violently. My phone rings. I recognize my father’s name, but I’ve had enough for today. I switch off my phone.

I’ll lie to them, tomorrow.

Optimistic About the Future
June 20, 2012

The results of the Egyptian presidential elections come out today, and I am in Tunis with a few people I know. We are huddled together on Bourguiba Avenue near the Ministry of Interior, where large screen televisions have been specially installed for the occasion.

I’m standing next to a billboard with an advertisement for Tunisiana, the telecommunications company, sipping tea from a mug. I think back on the hours I spent at Tunisiana’s corporate headquarters today, having tried and failed repeatedly to activate a Tunisiana SIM card I purchased so I could use the internet. I stood there in front of a sign that read “Optimistic About the Future” while they told me over and over again that everything was fine with their SIM card, and with my phone’s settings, but at the same time there was no way I would be able to activate my connection.

These thoughts are interrupted by a buzzer signaling the start of the press conference. Everyone is nervous. Most predict Mohamed Morsi will win. But the result is — Ahmed Shafik.

I find myself tossing my mug and tearing the Tunisiana billboard apart. Someone else lifts up a chair and smashes it into the TV screen, sweeping it into the middle of the street. The entire avenue erupts in anger.

Swarms of riot police and soldiers abruptly appear in our midst, as well as hordes of black-shirted Salafis. Fires break out here and there as the clashes escalate. “The people demand the fall of the regime, you sons of bitches!”

I lose track of everyone in the fury of running and fighting. I am suddenly surrounded by a group of Salafis. Soldiers start to chase us so we bolt down a side street. One of the Salafis takes a burning Molotov cocktail out of his leather bag and hurls it in the direction of the soldiers, who back off. A car goes up in flames; we duck down behind it. We shower them with stones and fire bombs as their bullets slam into the body of the car.

Things slow down. Only now do the Salafis realize that I’m not one of them. One comes over and speaks to me in Egyptian Arabic with a Tunisian accent. “Egypt is still one week behind,” he says. “And the filthy media keeps saying Salafis are burning Tunis over an art exhibition.”

Andalusia
January 4, 2013

Spain and Portugal are in the World Cup final. Egyptians are divided between the two teams, and have taken to the streets, carrying flags of the two countries in massive marches. Clashes break out between the two sides, which last well into the game. Before the match is over, stones start to pour down from the sky over Cairo. People stumble into stores and apartment buildings for shelter, while many lie under cars parked in the street.

The stone rain does not stop.

Nobody knows the score.

Hannah Arendt
February 27, 2013

On Sharia el-Nil, I see Hannah Arendt in a dark, modest dress and no headscarf, like the Coptic ladies in Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods. She’s just exited Al Warraq Church, and is walking with difficulty in slow, feeble steps.

She waves at a microbus, and climbs up slowly, aided by two young men who step down to help her.

She sits next to a window, and her eyes seem to wander until she sees me. She raises her hand, flashing me a victory sign, and then smiles.

The National Dialogue
April 2013

I receive a WhatsApp message. You’re overdoing it, I am trying to defend myself. It is from Mohamed Morsi.

A few seconds later I get another message. I will send a car for you in half an hour to bring you to the palace for an open session of the National Dialogue. I hope we don’t waste it.

I am in a café in Zamalek. A microbus arrives. “Let’s go, sir,” the driver says. “The presidency sent me.”

“The presidency?”

“Yes, sir. The National Dialogue.”

I get in. I am alone with him in the microbus.

We drive through downtown, through the Azhar Tunnel. We are stopped at a police checkpoint. The driver steps out to speak to the officers. Their conversation drags on and on.

I get out of the car and walk toward them. I hear one of them say, “This is the stolen vehicle. Take him away.”

The officer notices me. “Are you with him” he asks?

“No, no.”

The driver interjects. “He’s with me, all right. We stole it together.”

“Take him, too,” the officer orders, impatient. “Let’s see how this ends.”

I consider my options as I watch the soldiers approach me. I make my decision. I start to run.

A few moments later, I look over my shoulder; there are no sounds of pursuit. They’re all standing there, the cops and the driver, watching me indifferently. Bored. I keep running but at a slower pace, turning back twice to make sure they aren’t moving.

Nietzsche
October 12, 2013

Nietzsche is sitting on a bench in front of that villa in Muqattam, clad in a dark gown.

I’ve seen him there before, but this time I stop and wave, wondering which language I should address him in. He heads me off with a frown, his bushy mustache twitching with the movement of his lips as he says, “Yes, sir. How can I help you?” in a gruff, Upper Egyptian accent.

She’s His Wife!
February 17, 2014

Mass demonstrations break out in Cairo after the police arrest Bassem Youssef hours before The Program is set to air. We’ve been waiting to see whether tonight’s episode will be broadcast. The news report says that the episode will not air because Bassem was caught with a woman in a private apartment and that they have been charged with obscene behavior.

I join the closest march heading to Tahrir Square. Our chants grow louder:

She’s his wife! She’s his wife! She’s his wife — you sons of bitches!

The Escape
March 17, 2014

I creep along the prison walls with the crew. Preparations to begin shooting my film on sneaking Alaa Abdel Fattah out of prison are going well. Now all we have to do is sneak him out of prison. It’s going to be a beautiful film.

The associate producers blow up part of a wall. Alaa is waiting right behind it. He stumbles quickly through the hole as the alarm whistle sounds.

I give my instructions to the cameraman. Alaa has already started running. I ask him to slow down so that we can get the footage.

“Are you nuts?” he yells. “What the hell are you doing?”

He is speeding away with Manal, Mona, and Sanaa—we’d asked them to attend the shoot—and I run along next to them. The crew is filming us as I try to calm Alaa down. Look, I say, we’ve all committed a great crime today and you’re going to be back in prison sooner or later, anyway, so… just let us shoot our film instead of trying so hard to get away. It will be much more meaningful, I say. This film is sure to become an important document of our times—and, a sweet memory.

Why Just the Monkey?
October 3, 2014

Soheir and I sneak into Khairat El-Shater’s house with the help of a trained monkey. The monkey jumps in first and opens the windows from inside so we can enter.

When they find out about this incident, we predict, they’re going to think it’s politically driven. It won’t occur to them that all we want is the money.

Inside, we stand gaping at the empty foyer, devoid of any furniture, devoid of anything at all. We wander through the entire house, investigating room by room.

Nothing.

We sit laughing on the tiled floor until the sadness begins to creep in on us. Soheir says she is tired and wants to take off her veil for awhile. She walks into an empty room and closes the door. The monkey knocks and starts toying with the doorknob. She squeals from inside. “Don’t come in, Amr! I don’t have my veil on!”

When the door cracks open and she see it’s only the monkey, she laughs. “Okay, come in and close the door behind you.” It is happy to oblige.

I laugh. “Why just the monkey?”

“What? I can’t hear you,” she yells from the other side of the door.

“I said, Why just the monkey?”

She laughs, loudly, and calls out: “We’re all such a bunch of losers.”

Hate
April 16, 2015

I am at the pulpit in the Sultan Hassan mosque, giving the Friday sermon. The imam is standing before me, the worshippers lined up behind him.

My sermon is short and vague. I quote Sartre and Woody Allen and folk songs from Port Said and I throw in a few jokes. People laugh.

After a particularly successful anecdote they applaud, so I take the opportunity to end the sermon. I sit down and take out my phone. My sermon is already all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds, the astonishing news of my historic address paired with leaked video footage.

The imam takes a couple of steps up the pulpit and turns to me. “You still have to give the second part of the sermon,” he says.

I protest that I am done, but he objects. He will not take no for an answer.

I rise and improvise a speech about the importance of hatred in political and social life. I am serious this time. “Politicians always speak about love. But what about hate? It is an important part of our lives, and dangerous to ignore. Politicians have to admit that a certain segment of the population hates them—and that they hate those people, as well.”

I pause, meaningfully. “We must embrace our hatred. We must reflect on it, manage it wisely. Hate must be allowed to flow honestly between us, that we might to free ourselves of our grudges and practice our enmities bravely, morally. Without meanness.”

I notice the imam ascending the steps again. He nudges my foot, and I take the hint… At the microphone, he recites the _adh’an and then makes his own statement. “We wish to apologize for this speech. Due to a technical problem with the sound system, Mr. Ezzat’s words came out incorrectly, which is why they seemed to contradict the teachings of the Ministry of Endowments and the Holy Azhar.”

I start to make my way across the rows of worshippers. They shake my hands with admiration and amusement, recalling some of my best quips. I walk out of the mosque as they begin to pray.

Is There a Poet in the House?
January 14, 2015

There is a spacious lobby in the Beirut airport that is entirely white—the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and the few scattered benches.

I am waiting for someone to pick me up and take me to a conference. There are carpenters here, making things out of wood, and painters painting them white. I begin to notice cockroaches scuttling beneath us, tiny but starkly visible against the white surroundings.

A group of people in formal attire walk in. They appear to be in a hurry. “Is there a poet in the house?” a man in a tuxedo asks. He seems quite nervous.

I glance at the workers in the hall and they glance back at me. No one answers. A woman in pearls repeats the question. “Is there a poet here, please? We are in urgent need of a poet.”

Again, nobody answers, and the workers go back to their business. I continue to observe the scene, silently, watching the cockroaches as they dance through the feet of the elegant group in their formal clothes.

January 28th
January 28, 2016

Cairo is under heavy, constant shelling. Fighter jets are buzzing low, the streets are growing dark, and I am downtown, running aimlessly with the crowd.

The shelling stops for a few minutes, and everyone starts to slow down. We stop and look up at the sky in terror and disbelief.

Explanations are exchanged: Israel, the US, Ethiopia, Iran. No—it is Qatar and Turkey, avenging the Brotherhood. No—it is the Army, teaching the people a lesson.

The bombing resumes, even more violently this time. Downtown is a warzone. There are piles of burning rubble everywhere.

I find myself by Cairo Station, unscathed so far. It occurs to me that leaving Cairo might be a good idea.

Inside, a crowd has gathered around a train and is attempting to convince the drivers to go for it. One of them finally agrees, so I jump on with everyone else.

Communications are down. There are no phone signals, no Internet. The people jammed in the train car exchange the same explanations I’d heard on the street. The usual bickering starts up between Sisi fans and Brotherhood supporters, as well as the Revolution enthusiasts who hate both.

We arrive at Mansoura. There is no shelling here, but people have abandoned their homes in panic and are now flooding the streets, trying to find shelter before the next attack. The biggest crowds surround the mosques and the churches. Smaller groups huddle around restaurants and cafés, in parks and on the sidewalks.

People start to engage in arguments and conversations, but the talk soon shifts to devising ways out of the situation. Radio and TV broadcasts come to a halt, and people start to circulate the news themselves.

A story begins to make its way through the crowds. US president Donald Trump has called Sisi to complain that government media outlets are still alleging an American conspiracy against Egypt. If America wanted to attack Egypt, Trump was said to have said, it wouldn’t bother with a conspiracy. We’d just do it. That’s when Sisi really let him have it. Trump hung up angrily. Within thirty minutes, US bombers were in the air.

Now, speculation is rife about whether Sisi has been killed or has fled the country after the presidential palace was shelled. The Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Defense have all been destroyed, as well as the Security Headquarters in Cairo and Giza. And a great number of army camps, and the Mugamma’ in Tahrir Square, and all the buildings in central Cairo. The Citystars Mall in Heliopolis has been destroyed, too—special attention is given to that fact—along with the Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein mosques. Many note that not a single church has been hit.

I go for a stroll and find myself near a small circle of men in suits. One of them is doing most of the speaking; everyone calls him Doctor.

“There are no indicators of a foreign occupation,” the doctor says, quietly. “But what is surely to happen after the destruction of Cairo and the collapse of the centralized state is that society will disintegrate. We are going to have to rebuild society ourselves,” he says. “And this is why we are going to start a series of seminars in sociology.”

The Party
July 16th, 2016

We are celebrating Ahmed Naji’s release from prison. The court has suspended his jail sentence for violating public decency, pending the next stage of his appeal. We’re in a villa. It is white and empty—no furniture of any kind. There’s no food or drink, not even water.

We’re in the swimming pool, Naji and I. It’s empty. No water there, either. We walk along the bottom while everyone else roams the villa and its grounds.

Naji and I recall that once upon a time this villa was the Ethiopian Embassy. Suddenly it all makes sense. Egypt has been fighting with Ethiopia over access to Nile water for years now, ever since they announced the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. The government must have cut off the water supply.

Nasser’s Desk
September 2, 2016

We’re at a noisy party in someone’s house, and Naeem and I move into an empty room to continue our conversation. We find an old desk. Naeem places his drink on it and starts to search the drawers. It appears he has found something—he slides open the rest of the drawers and rummages through them, flipping through papers. Then he looks at me, laughing hysterically. “This is Gamal Abdel Nasser’s desk.”

I begin devising a plan to remove the contents of the desk, but Naeem says we must take the desk itself out to the street immediately.

We pick up the desk and descend the stairs, placing it on the sidewalk of the loud, bustling street in Imbaba.

Naeem pulls out a bottle of wine and two glasses from a drawer. He begins pouring and asks me to join him for a drink. I remind him that we’re in public, on the street in Imbaba, but he is already half-drunk and ignores me.

He leaps onto the desk, glass in hand, and shouts, “I swear to God — I swear to God — I’m gonna turn this desk into a sandwich cart.”

The Delicacy of Radicalism

Squander. History does not wait for the sleepers to wake; it is written by the wakeful alone. What, from those hours of sleep, is worth the history books taking notice of and setting down? Surplus hours of no benefit or purpose; and yet these hours do not wither and fade away like pointless superfluity but grow in number, night after night, to become a strange assemblage. Strange, because unlike other assemblages these hours take on no weight worth mentioning however numerous they become, hovering perpetually in the background to no effect, unaddressed; a neglected nook that all know and never speak of. And so, down the years, sleep remains thus, cast over the pages of history like scattered dust. It might be condensed into the form of a dream here, or there a vision, but otherwise it lives outside these pages, a spirit that haunts all that is unwritten. The response sleep gives to this distancing is repetition. Like all authentic things, sleep returns to the fray night after night, creating from repetition a law. It comes back at us every evening with all its negativity and loss and failure, its insistence on continual squandering, reasserting its affiliation with the tragedies of the past. Expelled from history, sleep neither moves things forward nor holds them back, neither produces nor accumulates, and even so it marks the line beyond which progress’s arrow cannot pass. What can the subject in history do, confronted by this daily squandering? What can she do with all these hours of sleep? Reduce them as much as she can? Forget them utterly as soon as she wakes? Press them down, one atop the other, like pastry layers that she then eats? Walk among them like autumn leaves? Abandon herself to them? What to do?

The people of the cave. Disaster is the point at which the nature of the struggle changes totally to become another kind of struggle, which thus requires another kind of resistance. In this sense, disaster is not an extension of struggle but rather the locus of its radical transformation, a point whose afterward has no connection with what came before, and so requires neither a search for solutions nor a widening of the struggle, but wants instead a new beginning to create new tools of resistance—that new and eagerly-awaited start that is generated not by managing the disaster or ameliorating its impact but rather by acceptance, by permitting the collapse it occasions to run its full course. And this is sleep’s function, to take us to the very bottom, which must be touched if we are to rise back up to the surface. Sleep, with all the brokenness and surrender it brings, is not a tool of resistance in the struggle. It is disaster’s dark shadow, the twin without which it cannot come into being. When the youths take refuge from the cruel city in their cave, they do not found a just society based on the precepts of the religion for whose sake they were persecuted, nor do they make their refuge a fortress from which to sally forth against those who did them wrong. They simply sleep. For three hundred and nine lunar years, they do nothing but sleep. The sun dawns and sets a thousand times, their recumbent bodies motionless, and then the disaster passes and they wake. The cave where they repaired is not, therefore, a site of resistance. It is a place of absolute brokenness, the final disjuncture. A place that can only be exited though a fresh bout of birth pangs. The sleepers do not wish to resist: they are giving birth to a new beginning, and the new beginning that emerges from the womb of their disaster is the awakening that follows their sleep. Each awakening is an attempt, however weak it may seem, to begin a new day.

Reassured. Beyond the social as space for negotiation and struggle, for the exchange of views and dialogue, another hidden aspect emerges: the social as an arena for shared silence. Sleeping on public transport, in squares and lecture halls, at work, is a redoubled rejection of the social act, for it takes place not in the bedroom but in the traditional sites of social interaction. The sleeper at work prevents himself from working, the sleeper on the bus fails to view the roadside advertisements, the sleeper in the square aborts his communication with others. Sleep taps the public sphere with its wand and transforms it from a space for negotiation and struggle into a site of silence and absence, both of which become a collective activity and not a private matter. Yet for all its social inadequacy, sleep does not transform the public sphere into a place of coldness and deliberate disregard, but—how strange!—into a site of trust and reassurance; for there, at the heart of the social disengagement created by sleep, a new trust in others can be discerned. A trust whose origin remains mysterious, for the public sleeper neither negotiates nor struggles with others, does not ally or interact, but instead surrenders himself, reveals to them his weakness, his insubstantiality, his incapacity. Sleeping in public is, therefore, a declaration of faith in the random other. The other of the public square, beside whom the sleeper lies contentedly, is not one individual but a group of strangers, a group whose members the sleeper has no desire to know but whose plurality he finds reassuring, allowing him to become, like them, a stranger.

The delicacy of radicalism. Bodies that walk in public are primed, their veins charged with the exact quantity of tension that enables them to interact with their surroundings and deliver the appropriate responses. The radical public act requires bodies that are more highly strung, ready to confront any dangers that may bar its way. They are bodies that have entered into open conflict with the authorities for the purpose of reshaping public space. Among the many varieties of radical act, the sit-in stands apart in its extreme complexity. On the one hand, it constitutes the most extreme manifestation of the protest movement and its riskiest act, because it seizes the initiative and manufactures a new reality by “occupying” public space. On the other hand, it can only be made complete by another, deeply fragile, act, an action that is almost its antithesis: to fall asleep at the protest site. Sleeping at the sit-in is the very essence of it, the act that all participants are seeking to perform. A sit-in without protestors carpeting the ground is on shaky foundations, which is why there is always a battle to prevent sleep from taking place; once they manage to do so, the sit-in has political consequences. The act of staging a sit-in, with the clear risks it poses, only becomes radical when it denies its own nature and is replaced by an act that denies the very principle of action. Sleep is that low-energy act; it is this “sluggishness” that has the power to meld public and private: to make the public sphere private and vice versa and thereby realize the sit-in’s objectives. The radical body, tensed and primed, unwinds and slackens; it drops its defences, reveals its weakness and frailty. Through this accumulation and contiguity of weakness and frailty, the sharing of weariness and pain and their exposure to the public, sleep becomes a source of strength and a means for change. The sleepers at a sit-in do not return singly from the field of battle. Lying side by side, they become brokers of a new reality, and their dreams the language of this reality, which they strive to decode.

The Pasha Resurrects

What ‘Isa Ibn Hisham Told Us

Sometime in the late 1890s, a struggling writer named ‘Isa took a walk in the City of the Dead. He hoped the surroundings would force him to contemplate death, so that he might find some inspiration for his book. Suddenly, not far from him, a tomb cracked open, and out of it appeared Ahmad Pasha al-Manikali, the Minister of War from the reign of Muhammad Ali. The large, imposing pasha, naked underneath his burial shroud, demanded the writer’s overcoat and tarboosh, and the odd pair set out on a madcap journey through Cairo — from its new, landscaped developments to its most labyrinthine government bureaucracies. Dead for fifty years, the pasha cannot help but observe how Cairo has changed — in some ways for the better, in most for the worse — as Muhammad al-Muwaylihi imagined in his epic What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us. Serialized in a Cairo newspaper at the turn of the twentieth century, the mordant classic has been recently published in two volumes by the Library of Arabic Literature, in Roger Allen’s masterful translation, and is excerpted below in brief vignettes. Sentenced to death in the wake of the failed uprisings of 1882, the journalist and activist al-Muwaylihi was forced into exile for several years in Italy, Paris, Istanbul and London, before he was able to return to Cairo. He orbited a rare universe of revolutionaries and poets, Egyptian aristocrats and British imperialists—and their dialogues often made their way into his fictions. In the 1920s, the undead Pasha’s commentary was adapted as a school textbook by Egypt’s Ministry of Education, with some of its more controversial or grumpy passages left out.


The Pasha and 'Isa find themselves in the new, centrally planned Ismailiyah neighborhood. Catching sight of the mansions and villas, the resurrected minister is entranced by the orderly layout of the streets and the many newly planted trees.

Pasha: “All praise be to Almighty God, Glorious and Powerful! This district used to be in ruins; there were no houses or mansions in it. The only plant life was the barren acacia tree; the only flowers the tragacanth and sayal thorn; the only birds owls, crows, falcons and eagles. Of wild beasts there would have been foxes, wolves, hyenas, jackals, and lizards. The only humans would have been plundering brigands, murderers, or lurking cutthroats. What wonders the Egyptians have accomplished!”

The Pasha has barely been undead for an hour when he gets into a scuffle with an impertinent donkeyman. He is arrested for assault and taken to the police station.

'Isa: “We duly accompanied the Policeman until we reached the Register of Convictions and Substantiation of Identity. There the Pasha endured enough identity procedures to give anyone heart failure and turn his hair white. They stripped him of his clothes, examined him limb by limb, measured his face and body, stared into his eyes, and did all kinds of things to him.”

The Pasha is shocked when he is sentenced to one and a half years in prison and a five-piaster fine. To try to overturn the conviction, the pair must visit the Court of Appeals and the Committee of Surveillance in the Ministry of Justice. Trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, the curmudgeonly pasha proclaims:

“Lofty mountains must inevitably crumble when the whitefooted mountain goats are brought down. Graves must be split asunder and the trumpet be blown when all ideas of dignity have vanished and all values have been debased. The words of the Almighty have come true with regard to Egypt: And We have made its highest parts into its lowest parts.”

The Pasha is eventually acquitted on charges of assault, but he has accrued enormous legal fees and realizes he has no cash to pay the bill. Since he was dead, all his wealth had been passed down to his descendants, and had swiftly been squandered away. As a last resort, the Pasha and 'Isa embark on a quest to reclaim the profits from old endowments that may still be in his name.

The pair find themselves at a newly built villa in the middle of a garden.

“It was bedecked with different kinds of flowers which looked like sapphires and other jewels. In the center was the mansion itself which looked like a white pearl or the full moon among the stars in the sky:

As though it were a neck, and its garden around it
a beautifully arranged necklace.

What can we say about a garden so decorously woven by the earth’s hand for the day of its festive decoration: a place garlanded in a cloak through which to relish its own radiant beauty?

It is clothed in a garment made by downpour and dew;
needlework, though not real, and striped cloth, though not such.

In its wafting breezes, girls could dispense with the scent of musk…”

The Pasha is astonished to learn that the owner of the house is utterly bankrupt. They watch as the servants turn away a pharmacist, a wine seller, a butcher, a tailor, a shoemaker, a jeweler, one after another, all coming to collect their debts at the front door.

“We observed the scene in amazement. Contrasting the beauty of the place with the misfortunes of its inhabitants, we felt we were being roasted and turned on the embers of our own worries.”

The Pasha and 'Isa end up in front of a brand-new hotel.

“The Pasha turned toward that great hotel, a veritable al-Khawarnak and al-Sadir, and noticed the electric lights gleaming brightly like rising suns, so much so that darkest night shone in white raiment and its surface seemed like ebony embossed with silver. The street lamps resembled tree branches glowing with light… Each pillar seemed like a ray of dawn piercing the cavity of darkness—and what a piercing it was! In the pitch darkness the lights were like stars scattered throughout the dome of the firmament. Beneath these lights the Pasha could see rows of men mingling freely with women.”

“Has some house opened its rooms so that anyone can see what’s inside?” the Pasha asks in amazement. “Or is it perhaps a festival night for a group of demons who are socializing with human beings like tame animals? They’ve forsaken the earth’s interior for its surface, its belly for its lap.”

“Yes,” Isa replies, “these people are devils in human form. They traverse land and sea, cut through hard and rugged earth, and fly in the heavens. They can walk on water, penetrate through mountains, and pulverize mountain peaks, turning hills into lowlands, leveling mounds, making deserts into seas, and changing seas into steam. They make people in the East listen to sounds made by people in the West, and vice versa. They can bring down the remotest stars for you to see, magnify the tiniest spider into a mountain, freeze the air, melt stones, start gales….“

"You’re describing Solomon’s jinn living in this era!” the Pasha remarks.

“They’re European officials,” Isa replies.

The Pasha and ‘Isa pass through Opera Square, and the undead minister is horrified to see the statue of Ibrahim Pasha in a place of such ill-repute.

“He stared at it for a moment and then stood to attention out of respect. ‘Hail to Ibrahim!’ he said, quivering and shaking all over. He gave a bitter, sorrowful sigh and almost burst into tears. ‘Why so sad?’ I asked him. ‘Are you nostalgic for times past with all their happy and bitter moments…?’

‘How can I not shed tears of sorrow?’ the Pasha responded, ‘and express my profound grief when I see before me this hero of Egypt… who waded through the floods of tumultuous war and swept them clean:

In every pore of his body where a hair grew,
there was a lion stretching out its claws towards the prey.”


To attempt to locate the deeds to his endowments, the Pasha and 'Isa pay a visit to the Record Office of the Sharia Courts.

“The darkness was so intense that it reminded the Pasha of the grave which he had only just left, and so he turned back and decided to wait for us in the daylight outside…. I could not see where I was going and stopped where I was. The Assistant grabbed me by the hand. I had no idea where I was going in this terrifying and dangerous place. I kept feeling something under my feet that crunched and sagged like chaff trodden into the soil.”

'Isa trips over something and falls onto a pile of moth-eaten scrolls. Something cries out. It’s the record clerk, dutifully at work among the heaps of title deeds. 'Isa pulls himself together and recites a verse to himself:

“A gloom in which everything is alike
and people’s sex is unknown until they shout.”

The Assistant informs the writer that the Record Clerks are accustomed to working without any light; like bats, they can see in complete darkness.

'Isa: “This is the way things were between the Pasha and me. Every time I showed him something with which he had not been familiar in his own lifetime and had never encountered before, he would object and turn away, showing me as he did so things that I had not previously noticed and making me aware of the evil underpinnings that lurk beneath the surface cover of habit and are shrouded by the veil of familiarity and acceptance.… Eventually our routine involved an invitation to a wedding. Accepting the offer we hastened to the location after sunset and discovered two policemen guarding the door. They kept shouting and shoving people away to stop them getting inside. The Pasha pulled me aside.”

Pasha: “Wait a minute, my friend! Are you sure you haven’t gone the wrong way….? Unless that is, you plan to go the police station with me again, and through the entire court system….”

When 'Isa explains that policemen are hired at important weddings to keep people out, the Pasha is appalled. He exclaims that in his day, weddings were for everyone to attend. “Poor and indigent people were never excluded. People would spread out tablecloths for them; they would eat and drink and then watch the amazing games that were put on for the occasion: horse races, displays of horsemanship, wrestling, and sword drills…”

'Isa to Himself: “Good heavens, I told myself, now we’re finding things to grumble about even at weddings.”

At the wedding, they chat with a guest called “Suave Friend,” and observe some government officials mingling in their natural habitat.

Suave Friend: “May God bolster you! Today our government officials have such a low opinion of themselves and are so scared to reveal their sentiments in public that they make every effort to cover it all up with boasts and displays of pride. They fabricate phony illusions of conceit and arrogance and go to enormous lengths to enhance their dignity in the way they walk and make their image that much more daunting in the way they sit. Some of them even take lessons in front of a mirror on bodily movements that they like and spend some time perfecting them.”

Soon it is time for dinner and the Pasha is horrified by the chaos, the crush, and the crowds.

“This was no conquest such as al-Mu’tasim at the Battle of Amorium, or Muhammad the Conquerer at Constantinople,” 'Isa narrates. “People crowded around like the chaste receiving gifts and devout going to prayer; they were standing close to the tables like sufferers from drought who have just found lush pasture. The Pasha was on the point of going back.”

Pasha: “Good grief, what an insult! Have things with the wedding host now reached the point that he makes people go into the scullery to eat, and on the run at that?”

A wedding guest chimes in:

Friend: “It’s not the scullery…. People can choose the things that suit their fancy and satisfy their tastes. They call it a ‘buffet.’”