—Cairo

Notes on a Dissident, or Founder of the Polish Revolution

By Yasmine El Rashidi
Authors
  • Yasmine El Rashidi

    Yasmine El Rashidi is a Cairo-based writer. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor to the Middle East arts and culture journal Bidoun. Her writing has appeared and is forthcoming in publications including Frieze, The GuardianLondon Review of Books, The Happy Hypocrite, Index on Censorship, Aperture, and the Arabic literary journal Weghat Nazar. A collection of her writings on the Egyptian revolution, The Battle for Egypt, was published in 2011, and her essays feature in the anthologies Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus, and The New York Review Abroad: Fifty Years of International Reportage. She is currently a fellow at Princeton University's Lewis Center for the Arts, where she is working on a nonfiction book about Egypt (forthcoming 2014), and a novel set in Los Angeles. 

He wears Teva sandals and a spearmint shirt.

A button is missing.

A corner is untucked.

His face is flushed.

A tradeshow strap hangs around his neck. Attached to it is a Nokia phone circa 1998.

He has lost four of these already.

In his shirt pocket is a packet of cigarettes from Spain.

In his shirt pocket are two vaporizers.

He says AKH, and clarifies, they are e-cigarettes.

He has lost several of these already.

He has just come from the Reagan Library. They have awarded him a medal of freedom.

It is the Nancy Reagan medal.

Nancy died in 2004.

He carries a small plastic bag from Bed, Bath & Beyond.

He asks where he can smoke before he says hello.

His condition for speaking at the LA Public Library was that he could smoke on stage.

The library burned down in an arson fire in 1986.

Someone asks about his child.

He giggles, childishly, swallowing laughter.

At sixty-eight, he has a one-year-old.

He tells me that no revolution can learn from a past one.

I insist that had we read his books sooner our mistakes might have been fewer.

He says mistakes are the making of revolution.

I ask what he thinks of our revolution.

He kisses my hand.

He was overjoyed that Arabs proved their stereotype wrong.

He tells me that the greatest challenge in history is for a nation, for its people, to shake off the stereotype assigned to it.

It is hard not to let the mind revert to current realities.

Someone asks about the term “unfinished revolution.”

Another person asks if the revolution failed.

The Polish revolution started in 1968 and ended in 1989.

This, he considers fact.

The Egyptian revolution started in 2011. He says in forty years we will know when it ended.

There is a possibility the revolution of 2011 started in 1952.

I am asked if I followed the revolution of 1989.

He answers for me that I was too young.

He believes Sisi should be given more credit.

He says the Egyptian people should be given more credit.

His greatest fear was that Poland would give birth to its own ayatollahs.

He refers to the Muslim Brotherhood as ayatollahs.

Poland has a long history of democracy.

Egypt does not.

I am asked what I think of US foreign policy.

I call it piecemeal.

My answer is hasty.

There is no foreign policy toward the Middle East.

He asks me what I would tell Obama if given the chance.

He delivers his own dissertation.

I say the term “democracy” is at deficit.

A new language is needed.

The United States has double standards.

The audience applauds.

He says the young KGB officer lives with a nightmare of reprisal.

He compares the Egyptian government employee to the young KGB officer.

I am asked how hard it will be for Egypt to achieve democracy when it has been under dictatorship for thirty years.

I respond that Egypt has been under dictatorship since the time of the Pharaohs.

King Khufu might have been the greatest dictator in history.

The Great Pyramid of Giza took twenty years to build and employed 200,000 ‘workers’.

The correct term would be slaves.

Someone mentions Hitler.

Someone says America created Hitler.

Poland is an anomaly.

Prison changed him.

He was in prison when he learned of two events that changed his life.

He doesn’t elaborate.

He was in prison twice.

I make a mental note that prison sharpens mind and character.

The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim comes to mind.

They have both received and rejected awards.

They are both cited as dissidents.

The term “former” has recently been attached to the novelist.

He has been dismissed for supporting Sisi.

The Polish, dissident, is widely celebrated.

Egyptian youth revere him.

The Egyptian regime first blamed Poland for the revolution.

The accusation was of “training activists.”

It also blamed the US.

Poland is struggling with its own divides.

I am asked how the violence in the region is affecting Egypt.

I tell them it’s not.

I say Egyptians consider that the country has been spared.

You believe that?

I do.

I reduce myself to stereotypes and am attentive to the single veiled woman in the audience.

Someone asks about the role of imagination in revolution.

Egyptian or Polish?

Adam crosses his legs.

It is the subject of at least three dissertations he tells us.

Twenty minutes pass.

He says AKH, again.

He begins to smoke.

They escort him to the fire exit.

We are told that the last person to smoke there was Christopher Hitchens.