Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Letter to Maikel Nabil

"Maikel I", postcard, "On Steep Waves"

Dear Maikel,

It has been over nice months since you were arrested and slightly over four months since I became involved in the now rather helpless cause of your liberation. I never thought of myself as an activist or as someone who actually was involved in politics at all, Middle Eastern or otherwise, but I think it was your great example as a human being what convinced me that beyond what I considered the spectacle of political activism - the most fashionably of all professions in 2011, that can be practiced by anyone -, there had to be some sort of social ethics by means of which people would be able to translate into words and actions that they cared for the world.

In the beginning, after you were arrested, I thought that perhaps it wasn't the right place or the right moment for a person of Jewish background and who was virtually a nobody to raise any concern about the uncertain fate of an Egyptian, however it seems that the times demanded something else that was no longer framed by the social and political conventions of the selfsame times. As months went by, I watched in a mixture of amazement and disappointment that there could be found no more than a few people all over Egypt who would even dare to say in public that you had to be released. The reasons and circumstances no longer need to be explained, as they are public knowledge by now.

After those many months in which in some way or another, your message went all over the world, little remains to be said about the things you wrote, for it is the writing on the wall in the mind of every Egyptian with a drop left of common sense - and let us begin by saying that those are a minority - that your analysis, which predates Arab Spring and the Revolution, was fully accurate. On the other hand, many people in Egypt who know this to be the case in all certainty, decided to turn their back and to continue living in the deluded promises of a reality that was nowhere to be seen in the horizon. What that tells us today is not only that people might have been right or wrong, but that revolution - the keyword of 2011 - requires more than politics and slogans.

I've been always very wary of that thing journalistic jargon calls "politics", for it seems to me that what they refer is only to operations, instruments and means that little have to do with the lives of everyday men and women. When I became acquainted with your blog, long before Twitter and months before that day we all saw on TV all over the world when protesters arrived in Tahrir, I thought to myself, this is a man who is not only using reasoning, clever arguments and wits to explain away things; what we are dealing with here is a person whose sense of humanity has compelled him to think without crutches and without the impositions of self-censorship, of tradition or of any consensus that surrounds us, whatever it may be.

With the passage of time and the helplessness behind it, you became a frequent guest not only at my writing desk but also a partner in the solitary moments of thinking, that shield us from the turbulence of the world and offer us the possibility to both think and imagine that it is possible to live better; then your extended companion moved also onto my dinner table as I tried to tamper my despair by talking to people, and ultimately you became also a travel companion, when my best friend and I carried your message to Athens and Vienna with the only hope that something that stands so far beyond politics like art, would bring people perhaps not to get to know you, but to ask themselves those difficult questions, about which kind of world is it that we live in, how have we come down to this and whether the aspirations of a better life are totally without a place in reality.

Great as the frustration was, there were some moments when we learnt to love the world if only a little more, when more and more people began doing reality checks and for whatever reason, became sympathetic with your cause. Many things happened in Egypt that even if only for a while, made people reconsider what they had been thinking all along. Endless sadness followed as we witnessed how time and again we were lied, fooled, deceived by the tyranny about your freedom. No matter how much they attempted to kill you slowly and silently, you battled on, and made manifest what British philosopher Gillian Rose wrote from her deathbed in 1995: "For what people seem to find daunting in me, I discover, is not my illness or possible death, but my accentuated vitality". 

So many times we read your letters and even once heard you chanting for the fall of the illegitimate authority as you were being sent back to prison from those courts, that are courts of law but not of justice - in the words of Goethe - and kept wondering how long you would live, in a mixture of perplexity and miracle. I even sent you a letter once to prison, in which I asked you to reconsider the idea of the hunger strike, since there was nothing we wished more desperately than you to live. On second thought, had you not been so brave and strong, your case would have fallen into immediate oblivion and with it, a great deal of the revolutionary aspirations of many Egyptians, less concerned with the role they are going to play in politics than with the possibility to live a different life, more decent, more free, with more dignity.

I could write on forever, but at the very least I want you to know that there are many people all over the world who have heard your voice - silent as it is - and that have come out of their ordinary lives to act together, in a world made turbulent enough, seizing at every opportunity they have, to express their desire for you to be free and with it, give voice to the most elementary condition of one's humanity - this freedom. We're not entirely sure what the future is going to bring to this land of Egypt, and to the rest of the Middle East - Israel included - but we do know that whatever happens to you, you've already done the impossible and will continue to do so. You represent a basic expression of humanity so badly absent from Tahrir: Thinking without ideological enfranchisement and not fearing anyone when in the pursuit of truth. If more people like you had been out there in the world, we would have never fallen into this abyss in which we have to witness how a young person is locked behind bars for no reason other than an idea. You among many others.

How I wish there was anything else we could do, but as long as you are in this captivity, there's not a single day that goes by without thinking of you and your plight and your great courage and sense of honor. Amongst all this frenzy of madness, it is people like you who remind me daily of the real duties of our humanity that we so easily begin to take for granted, and that faith that comes with your struggle, gives us a little hope in the idea that decency will be possible once. Reading back into the books of philosophy that I read when I need to step away from the horrible circle of history, I found a letter that a Jewish philosopher wrote to her mentor, and today I would like to read to you, because it represents the naked courage behind which you stand, without anything else to protect you from the world:

"What I learnt from you and what helped me in the ensuing years to find my way around in reality without selling my soul to it the way people in earlier times sold their souls to the devil is that the only thing of importance is not philosophies but the truth, that one has to live and think in the open and not in one's little shell, no matter how comfortably furnished it is, and that necessity in whatever form is only a will-o'-the-wisp that tries to lure us into playing a role instead of attempting to be a human being". (Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, 1946)

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