What Do You Know?
I have never known Cairo without the knowledge that you were taken from it. That someone came to the door of your house and took you away. I have often wondered why it has become my muse, why I keep returning to the city and its chaos for some hint of you.
I enter the house of your wife, my mother in law, and look up at the portraits of you, large and prominent, that are hung throughout the front rooms. This is a man's house, even though your wife has lived here alone for most of the past 17 years. She has the custom of moving the living and dining areas each few months, and each time I visit the configuration of the home is decidedly different. But with each of these moves there remains a chair, a place setting ready for you at the head of the table, awaiting your return as if by a miracle you will walk through the door.
I imagine you light and agile, placing your keys by the door, never misplacing anything, and forever greeting the maid with respect. I imagine men pausing in conversation, waiting for you to speak, and your wife wanting to make things graceful for you; your shirts ironed, your salads well seasoned and fresh, your papers dusted but left undisturbed. What I cannot imagine is your face. I see photographs of you, but what remains in order to know you is the silence of not standing before you, of being in your sphere.
I drive to the outskirts of the city, new roads built since you were taken apartment blocks and high rise office buildings that sprout from the depths of the disappearing desert. My nephew Jaballah, your first grandson, named after you, and whom you have never met has come with me. We walk together over dunes, he carries my tripod before I ask and points out shadows in the sand, knowing my eye is tuned to that kind of thing. He takes the camera from my hand, teasing me, holding it high above his head and just out of my reach; he is getting taller now.
Jaballah and I stand in the desert, looking east towards the Cairo skyline. I have the comforting and vaguely familiar vertigo of nothing watching us, only God. The Egyptian secret police had watched you well after you came to live in their land. In the end they sold you back to your country and the government you opposed.
I look for you in the traces you have left behind. I think I see the form of your foot in the outline of my husband's. I know it must be yours, because my husband and his brother have the same long lean feet with a second toe longer than the first. There are thousands of these details pointing to your being, none of which add up to you. I look at a tissue that my husband has found in one of your old coat pockets: something that should have been thrown out, and in its time would have been looked at with mild annoyance, even disgust, but because you are gone becomes treasured, silently. I am afraid to touch it, afraid that my own oils will break down something precious, some residue of life. I photograph the tissue. I want it to be more than what it is, to evoke your presence, yet all I see in the developed image is a tissue, crumpled and old.
There are photo albums, treasured on shelves in the back room of the house. The early pictures are in Libya. You are young dressed smartly in a military uniform, your physique perfect, slim and well disciplined; your mother wears a jalabiya and is serving tea; your father, elderly, wearing a head cap and slippers sits elegantly and comfortably on the rug on the floor. The next photos are in Switzerland; you have the same well-disciplined physique, but your hair is graying and you are dressed in civilian clothes, walking slightly behind your young wife and two sons, on cobbled roads with mountains in the background. Later you are in Cairo, drum sets and guitars sit in brightly painted rooms, you are distinguished in a long house robe and both of your sons' hair is long and wild. Every ten pages or so is a studio portrait of the family, you are always standing tall, your shoes shined, your suits perfect, in each photograph your sons are getting taller, and your wife is always well made up and beautiful.
After many pages, your image is gone. Your beautiful wife is still in the photos but she looks different: something lost in her eyes. The family grows. Your eldest son gets married, and there are photographs of your first grandson, and then another. Your youngest son, the one who looks most like you, marries. I am his wife. I see my face in the pages, a continuation of something fractured, something not complete. The later albums seem to be filled with memories to show you, collected as proof that life continues, ever in hope that it will be said, 'this is what happened when you were gone.'
One day I return from the desert. Tariq, your second grandson is taking apart an old stereo and amplifier. I wish you knew him. Everyone in the family says he is the most Libyan of all the grandchildren growing up in Cairo, and the most like you. He dismantles the stereo and amplifier into countless small pieces. I am afraid he will leave them for others to pick up, but he painstakingly cleans every one of them and then puts the stereo and amplifier back together again. He plugs it in and it works no static the volume is just right. Your wife takes the microphone and begins to sing and then abruptly to relate. Not tell stories but relate. The first thing she says is 'my husband is Jaballah and he was taken, he has disappeared.' She says it as if there is a large audience, as if the pain she holds onto demands to be heard by others. But there is no one in her house except us her grandsons and daughter in law to hear her amplified voice.
I have known your son now over a quarter of my life and still I cannot picture you. I realize I piece together an idea of who you are from the tales others tell about you, tales that say more about the pain of your absence, than the way you walked through this world.
I wonder how you would call my name, and as I look up at your books, a library of knowledge, kept straight, dusted and now unopened; I wonder what do you know? I wonder how you would have led a country, how you would have handled dissent? I would like to know the part of you that didn't fail and the man who has led other men. London, 2008