Unsquared by Bill Cole


Bill Cole

If I wrote a blog this would be it, but I don’t write a blog. I don’t even have a computer. I am told what is occurring up north in the streets of Cairo is revolution, that Tahrir Square is a launching pad for soaring heights and realized ambitions. Demands are being hurled through the air: Bread, Freedom, Social Justice. All the result of social media. That is what I am told. The considerable technological skills of young people have allowed grievances to connect, actions to coalesce. I am told all of this, but I don’t own a computer, so I have to trust my ears, have to trust the lips of others.

Everything that is happening, I am told, is due to young people and their cyber skills. I am 14. That’s young. I don’t have a computer, though. No computer, no skills. If I want to see an actual computer, I can go to my friend Atef’s home. His family has a computer. Only some of the families here have a computer.

We do not live in Cairo where most of the people cohabitate with their fancy machines and their virtual ether. We are not in Alexandria where they flaunt their textured artistic tastes. We just exist in our little village in Upper Egypt, quite near the Nile, a bunch of struggling people with no Internet service who are simply told about an uprising taking place, a fight for Bread, Freedom, Social Justice. How excellent that news sounds. But many of us are not feeling much of any of it because we don’t have computers. We are blind to the eye of the storm, and the eye of storm is blind to us. I don’t understand how it can all happen with so many different goals tangled together. The Brotherhood wants change so they can make an Islamic state out of us, the laborers want change so they can get paid a fair wage, the women want change so they can be treated with respect, the younger generation wants change so they can have a future. It seems too much at once. Throw two or three balls in the air, there is a good chance you can catch them all. Throw ten balls in the air, there is a good chance you will catch none of them. Besides, it seems that to many in Cairo, freedom means being even more like Americans and their European neighbors, eating their hamburgers and speaking and listening on their cell phones. For me, change would not be about getting more. It would be about getting rid of more to live our lives more easily without the corruption that suffocates us.

Atef and I have been talking about getting involved with one of the local youth projects set up to improve the conditions of our village. There are many tasks to choose from, anything from collecting garbage, to distributing bread, to raising money for newly arrived families from the Theban Hills who were squeezed from their homes to make room for more tourism. We are less focused on the broader demands of Tahrir Square and more concerned with the immediate needs of our local community. Ours might be modest efforts, but they can make a big difference in the lives of many of our neighbors.

I often wonder if any of those young people in Tahrir lack a computer in their homes. I suppose I will have to ask someone who can tell me that. Sometimes I think I’m better off looking for answers in the moon.

I do not feel at ease revealing the location of my village. I have fear for my family’s safety. Disclosing such information would make us vulnerable to the whims of the police, despite the fact this is not an actual blog nor is it even words typed on a keyboard. It is just an imagining, a tendency, at times, a desire.

We go to school and are told by our teachers to ignore the wayward influence of these machines. We are urged to heed the directive transmitted to Muhammad: Iqra. Read. Ingest the text. We are taught we will eventually move past the Western part of the world as long as they remain overly focused on profit and indulgence, but I am told many of our people do not resist these same seductions.

Where we live, time fades into the stillness of our days. We don’t feel the moments passing like elephant strides as they do in the West. The hours do not represent monetary units to us. My father worked as a farmer, tending to the barley and sorghum and corn and cotton. He worked long days and wanted only to provide for our family. He told us that when he was younger, the West wrecked our agriculture by using Sadat to push the crops that would make them the most money, leaving the local farmers with next to nothing.

“Once our army joined in with the West’s moneymaking schemes, the rape was complete,” he said.

Father’s heart stopped when I was six. I miss him every day. He used to run his mustache across my cheek like paint brush bristles on a canvas, love as a work of art. This memory buoys me when I struggle to recall the sound of his voice.

I live with my mother, older brother, older sister, and two younger brothers. We have been running a small sandwich shop out of the front part of our home for the past seven years. Our specialty is grilled pigeon with tomato and rice sandwiches. We have a pigeon coop and grow our own tomatoes. My mother, with help from my older sister, prepares the food in the kitchen.

Hamam Mahshi is considered a delicacy throughout our country, but we need to conserve the food we have, so rather than serve stuffed pigeons, we use the meat more sparingly by putting them in sandwiches. People love our sandwiches, but they are getting smaller so that our supply of pita lasts longer. We also sell maps, postcards, and paperweights for the tourists who are more than glad to peek into our local history. When the people living around Tahrir look out their windows, they are reportedly seeing the creation of something fresh and exciting. When we look out our window, we see the same trees tethered to their roots, waving in the breeze.

The police walk by, maniacally pursuing their next opportunity to extort. They stop in routinely for our sandwiches, but they usually don’t pay. They often demand we give them money or threaten to close down our shop. They also require more meat in their sandwiches than we usually give our customers. If they don’t think there is enough pigeon on their plate, they threaten to arrest my mother. One of them even once opened up his sandwich and pelted her with chunks of pigeon. I have walked in on my mother crying to herself after having these kinds of interactions with them. She always pulls herself together and continues on with her day. Maybe, one day, she won’t be able to pull herself together. What then? Our police are crooked and selfish. They are puppets of the regime. I can almost understand why that fruit vendor lit himself on fire in Tunisia last month. It gets to feeling hopeless.

The latest we are being told is that the police have been freeing all of the jailed criminals around Cairo so that they will start attacking the people in Tahrir Square like wild dogs, disrupting any progress the protestors hope to make. In light of this rumor, my older brother, along with several of his friends, have joined a large group of young men who have been organizing a community watch. They are preparing to stand guard at our borders to protect us against any of these runaway prisoners who try to enter our village seeking mischief. I am worried that violence will find by brother. I couldn’t handle losing another member of my family, another strong man erased. My mother would surely wither away from such an outcome.

We have a few photo albums in our house. Members of our family posed in some formation or the camera snapping at a moment when nobody is prepared for their picture to be taken. They are typical photographs, but they never seem to describe what I feel about my life. I think the photographs that would truly reflect my life do not belong to us. Those pictures are scattered across other people’s photo albums throughout the world. They are the photographs of tourists posing in front of desired sites while I might have incidentally been caught in the background. A newly married American couple embracing in front of the ancient Mosque while I am trotting, mid-stride, in the photo’s upper corner. A family from Canada poses on the banks of the Nile as Atef and I laze on the water behind them, unwittingly, at the edge of the frame. A group of French teenagers lean in front of the ruins as I unknowingly gather stones from the ground nearby, hovering within the image. Of course, I am not aware of the existence of these photos, but if I went through all of the photo albums of all the travelers that passed through my village over the last fourteen years, I am certain there would be many pictures of me stuck somewhere in the background, enough to fill up an entire photo album. That would be a photo album that really captures my life. That would be the type of photo album that would probably summarize most everybody’s life: stuck in somewhere in the background.

So many young people say they can’t wait to grow up. They anticipate adulthood as the goal to be achieved. So many others never want to grow up. They are convinced their youth preserves the illusion of relative freedom. They think all that blissful innocence rudely changes as they become adults. I don’t think it matters either way. Nothing every really changes. It doesn’t matter about our age. In school, our teacher tells us how important it is to learn. It will lead us to a bigger life, a better life. I don’t believe it. The only ones who have the power to lead us to a better life are the people in charge. Mubarak doesn’t want us to have a better life. He only cares about his select group of friends. He wants to keep us living a poor life.

Atef and I are planning to start a punk rock duo. He plays the drums and I am learning how to play this battered bass guitar that used to belong to my brother and is missing a string. My concern is Atef wants to do this with the foolish notion of attracting girls and becoming a celebrity. I want to do it with the purpose of using my unease to construct monuments to my unease. Okay, maybe I want to attract girls a little bit, too.

We all stay pretty much the same. The circumstances surrounding us all stay pretty much the same. Some might call this trapped, but I am not so sure that is accurate. Trapped means there is something better we are being kept from that we cannot reach, but I don’t think there is anything waiting for us on some other side. Many of us are led to believe material goods and a more luxurious life are waiting for us on the other side, but these fetishes are just a mirage. They are not even signs of an improved life, just an empty obsession with the West. I do catch myself wondering if this moment in this place will be somehow different. Maybe the army is finally with the people and Mubarak will be removed tomorrow. Then again, maybe Mubarak will still be in power 200 years from now, another living relic, another pharaoh.

The fact that nothing changes can be a source of comfort. In our mosque, as we read through sacred passages in the Qur’an, I often take notice of my fellow congregants. We are an unchanging cluster, as unchanging as the words on the pages in front of us. Our eyes are the same as the eyes of our great-grandparents, swooping up the same words from the same holy texts. I imagine a similar feeling among the Copts when they pray from their Bible and maybe even the Jews with their Torah. As our congregants chant in unison, we are representations of the words. The words are representations of us. Our words, our voices, all become one. An endless, singular sheet of permanence.

It seems people from the West think we are all the same. We have the tendency to get offended by this conclusion. We mock them for their simple brains. We forcefully claim that only if you squint through life will you see us as all the same. But here is where I get confused. If you actually magnify things, you see that we are all the same, just as they probably are all the same. How odd that it is an insult to say everyone from one country is the same but a compliment to say everyone in the world is the same. How impossible it is to be at the same time an individual and a member of a group.

According to the way some people are talking, you would think without cyberspace there would have been no revolution. It is as if the machines, themselves, are waging war on Mubarak. The machines are what organized the protests. The machines have a social conscience. The people are just instruments of the machines. I try to remain untainted by the flood of all this technology. After all, I don’t have a computer, not such an unfortunate truth. I prefer to watch the pigeons bounce off each other inside their coop, a cluster of essentially identical creatures seeking an escape where there is none.

About the Author

Bill Cole is a school psychologist, public school advocate, and adjunct professor of developmental psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. His work has previously appeared in Eclectica, California Quarterly, and The Great American Literary Magazine. His fiction has also been in Highlights for Children magazine, for which he received their Pewter Plate Award as Author of the Month.