My dear Awatef,

The world’s getting to be too much for us…

My dear Awatef,

The world’s getting to be too much for us…

Facebook’s full of advertisements for Factory Girl—that’s director Mohammed Khan’s latest film, Awatef—and it looks like we’ll get to see some great cinema at last. Three whole years, and not a glimpse of the magic glow that holds the eyes and heart captive for seconds at a time. Khan’s made Hani Adel from the Wast Al Balad band the star of his film. It’s an existential question, Awatef: it’s about Hani Adel and I can’t answer it. Why, when directors want to talk about our generation in their films, do they turn to Hani Adel? I don’t like Hani Adel or the values he represents. I don’t like his acting, Awatef, and you know how much I love cinema.

I was going to Cinema Zeitoun—what was called a third-class cinema—before I was ten years old. I would go despite knowing about the security officers camped outside the cinema to catch youngsters skipping school to watch a movie. This was their routine— outside third-class cinemas and in the public parks to clear as many cases as possible in a day. I would go alone to watch an Arabic film and a Turkish film and if you missed a showing, Awatef, you could stay on till the next. No one would ask you to walk away from that giant screen. The cinema was full of school kids and young men out of work. All of them, whatever their reasons for coming, loved the cinema and those red stage curtains that fell after every show, loved the filthy drinks served up by Uncle Labib behind the counter. Served up but never once offered to us unaccompanied youths. Uncle Labib knew which side his bread was buttered.

Most of those in the stalls had clubbed together for the price of ticket. He’d take himself upstairs to the balcony and offer them to the guys and girls sitting in isolated splendour in the five-pound side seats. Invade their privacy, offer them a filthy drink followed by the phrase, “It’s how I feed my children, sir,” and so the young man would be forced to purchase said filthy drink and purchase with it the cinema’s tacit consent, embodied in Uncle Labib’s forbearance towards him and his girlfriend for the duration of the show.

There was no harassment in the cinema, Awatef, no matter how big the numbers or provoking the scenes. There was this peacefulness that fell over everyone, each in his own happy world. I was there three times a week or more. Ihab went a lot, too; followed the movies more closely than me. I got to know him when the snoring of the thirty-something on the seat next to me started drowning out the actors’ voices and I gave him a nudge and woke him up. And awake he did and watched the film through to the end, and then we introduced ourselves.

Three pounds a ticket, but the value of entry into this world could not be measured in money, Awatef. We’d walk the streets free men despite our tender years, heedless of a desperate nation’s dream of safety and security, however slim its chances. We alone knew we belonged to no one but ourselves. There was a flame in our breasts, Awatef: we’d pass down streets at any time of day with the sense that the universe couldn’t hold us all. Enough cash to ride the Metro, but we’d hop on the guard’s van for the wind to strike our chests and set the flame burning brighter. Adventure moved us and now the days have had their fun and mocked us and adventure moves us no more. We deny. We seek comfort in our silence, which we call wisdom.

Our crisis, Awatef, is that reality didn’t kill off our enthusiasm in one stroke; our enthusiasm was murdered by degrees, Awatef… the slow endings that bleed out the soul, the opposite of those swift conclusions… It was to do with love and the dream of a few teenage boys who knew whodunnit without need for a trial and knew the victim without needing to hear their groans. We faced disasters with a bloodlessness that provoked even ourselves and strange to say, Awatef, the equation balances out: as though we’re being punished for our spirits being hotter than this place can handle. The Brothers ran away, Awatef, and Tamer Amin and Gaber Nassar denounced the clothes worn by the girl gang-raped in Cairo University, no different to the young Brother who said, “Why was she there?”

We were hoping to find the answer to all this, Awatef: who else rejected injustice, racism, poverty and oppression, boldly stated their view of the authorities, like we did? Just us, Awatef, at war with all these things, just as we’d fought to make it to the cinema as kids, and now, after everything has failed—as wrong and outlandish as one of Uncle Labib’s drinks—they want us to stand shoulder to shoulder and they set their tame media to mobilize the very youth they detain and kill in the streets.

The youth boycotted the last referendum held here, Awatef. There was a terrible atmosphere: they’d arrested one of them for voting against the referendum when the orders were for “Yes”… and why not, since any referendum would be on Sisi’s legitimacy, not that of the Constitution. When the day came, Awatef, the kids boycotted this foolishness, whatever their political ideology. Everyone witnessed the absence of the younger generation: the only ones to turn up were from the generation of their mothers and fathers. A sorry affair, as my friend Mr. Miracle, one of the free sons of Matariya, told me: “We sneak out and mount a revolution behind our families’ backs and they march out and wreck it right in front of us.”

That generation with its corrupt understanding of rights and duties, of freedom and free spirits, of the price of being free… they’re the ones who went and got Mortada Mansour reinstalled at Zamalek after he and his cronies had ruined the club and brought us to the state we’re in now. That generation, which found itself in the corruption of everything we fought for was the same generation that made icons out patriotic songs that sought, not to give voice to their desires and their rights, but to dominate them. Clearly wrong, things just got worse: we all lose control when things go wrong, my dear.

Then Ihab, the thirty-something with the irritating snore, slipped off and left the cinema while the police trap was operating outside its doors. Off he went in the van with the other arrested children, and did not return. Labib tried to reassure me. He told me that Ihab paid three pounds every morning to enter the cinema and stay there from ten to midnight, to sleep on its seats through all the shows, then leave at night to wander the streets and alleys until the morning show rolled round. Nowhere to live and no friends. During the day he’d catch up on his sleep in the cinema, sleep he’d missed out on for lack of shelter by night. Labib was happy because now no one would be able to hurt him, as they could during his night time wanderings.

A while later we heard Ihab had died—someone had been able to hurt him night and day, perhaps—then Uncle Labib retired, and finally, Awatef, four years ago, the cinema shut down and the paintings of Shams Al Baroudi’s face on its hoardings scuffed and torn and nothing left save the police trap outside, the officers and others waging their weekly battle after Friday prayers against the demonstrators the media has classified as “Brothers”… outside the cinema, Awatef, to fight terrorism and also, perhaps, to clear as many cases as they can.