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Hard-fought silence

I have slowly, but surely, reached the end of my tether

Adel Heine
Adel Heine

I live in fear. I slink around the streets at dusk because the fading light allows me to merge into the lengthening shadows. I wear non-descript clothing, hide the majority of my face behind sunglasses and have my hair tied up in a bun so the blonde will not show too much. Wrapping a scarf around my head is no longer an option for obvious reasons. If this was the 70s, this would be the beginning of an East German spy novel, but sadly this is now and it is my life.

There are many reasons to be scared these days. It is a phenomenon that I have not encountered in all these years that I have lived in this country that I have made my home. The news has been filled with enough horror stories lately to put the fear of whichever deity you subscribe to in anyone of sound mind. Cairo traffic has gone from impossible, past absurd to utterly terrifying. The unholy trinity of xenophobia, intolerance and revenge have teamed up and conga down the streets in a frenzy of wrath, smiting all those perceived to be deserving of their displeasure.

At any given moment, a group of protesters can surround you, angrily shouting slogans and waving yellow posters in your face. Thugs roam the streets looking for a fight and harassers lurk on street corners ready to shout, whistle, grope or worse. Cairo has become a cesspool of terror, yet none of the above is what has me trembling in my shib-shib.

Of course, such a state of fear is not reached overnight, unless of course bombs are raining from the sky or spiders rear their hairy heads. The dread that sits like a stone on my chest took a long time to build up, fed by snippets of information, snapshots of daily life and experiences that each added their weight to the ever-growing burden I carry.

It is hard to say when it started, but I remember the first time I realised it was there. It was at the end of the day, not that long ago, when I was on my way home and looking for a taxi. I passed a garbage collector sitting on the edge of his small wooden cart that was piled up with stinking refuge. A tired-looking, skinny donkey was doing his best to pull the load at the end of what probably had been a long day. The street was full of cars, so the going was slow, but this did not stop the driver from whacking the sad little beast repeatedly on its back. The animal hardly flinched, accepting the wooden stick connecting with its body with dry thuds with the same disinterest the driver displayed while meeting them out.

I also noticed it when a small group of filthy kids who beg outside my supermarket ganged up on one of their own and started hitting, punching and kicking her. As middle-aged mums determinedly looked the other way and hurried by, clutching plastic bags filled with groceries.

It is a constant companion that threatens to rise to the surface as I watch videos of citizens brutally attacking fellow countrymen who adhere to another faiths or when I read a report about a small girl who was found tortured and abandoned. It takes all my strength to not let it overwhelm me when a young girl from the upper strata of society snidely remarks that liberals like me, because apparently that is what all us white folk are, should not work in newspapers because we always get it wrong.

When in the past I would have vigorously argued and passionately spoken my opinionated mind when confronted by injustice, bigotry and racism, I now stay silent.

Because I have slowly, but surely, reached the end of my tether. I am out of patience with stupidity, the demand to understand cultural differences that are used as an excuse for inhumanity and tolerance of false lines of reasoning. I am no longer capable of making an argument in a calm and constructive way. There is no more room for trying to understand another point of view if it is blatantly racist or trying to find excuses for ignorance in those that should know better.

Earlier this week it all came to a head when I read that a farmer was arrested for naming his donkey after the big boss of the army. Because personal insults are, of course, an evil that threatens the very core of the state. Forget about rapists, thieves, molesters, abusers and murderers that roam the streets at will, the horrors they inflict on society are nothing compared to the damage a lone farmer and his donkey can do.

And I have not left my house since, because what I had feared became a reality. The feeble dams of my self-control broke and my fury erupted in a way it seldom has in my life. And so I slink around, stay out of sight and wait until a modicum of self-restraint is mine again. Because in present day Cairo, there is very little room for a call to accountability when it comes from someone who looks like me.

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  • Debbie Nell

    This is an extremely well-written article, very open and vulnerable. I think the gist of it for me is that you are choosing to stay indoors or limit your outdoor movements just because you are at the end of her tether and it’s safer, in your eyes, for you to stay home, not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others who might be at the receiving end of a tirade, whether verbal or physical, simply because you feel you’re at the end of your rope. I applaud that decision, because it is selfless – choosing others over you while at the same time doing some self-evaluating and hopefully healing. I can definitely identify with what you ares saying both from my experiences while living in Egypt and also just life in general. I hope you have caring friends who just love on you and don’t pressure you to do what you’res not ready to do or comfortable doing yet. If you don’t, let me know and I will put you in contact with a few amazing people in Cairo.

    Best regards,
    Debbie Nell

  • Reda Sobky

    This is a time of revolution when the social controls come loose and extremes of behavior occur. I was in Bangkok during two uprisings, one successful and one unsuccessful and much of what you see in Cairo happened except the sexual harassment, I didn’t see any of that or the xenophobia but there was no real foreign hands like we have seen in Egypt. The Iranian revolution was was turbulent and destructive and need I say anything about Libya and Syria. Those of us who grew up in the time of revolution know that one of its most dangerous aspects is that loss of boundaries especially for those who are borderline types to start with. Please be patient and don’t give up and leave because the next phase should have more conformity built in because the vast majority have had enough of this acting out and soon it will look very bad and hopefully lessen.

  • shahira amin

    I feel the same Adel even though I am dark skinned and have dark hair and brown eyes. I am Egyptian and everyday, I have to put up with ignorance, intolerance and harassment. It may make you feel slightly better to know you are not alone. Hiding isn’t the solution. We can only face this bigotry and racism by being vocal about it.

  • Islaye

    A people/country can be judged on how it treats its animals. The rest follows.

    My sympathies

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