The liberation of exile in Egypt
Though I feel quite out of place everywhere, I can also make myself at home just about anywhere.
People protest in Tahrir Square [file] Photo: REUTERS
My father’s secret police file reveals that my newly wed parents were right to
But I’m grateful to our years abroad for providing me with
the liberation of “exile.”
This is your life was a British TV show in
which special guests were taken by surprise on a trip down memory lane with the
aid of a “big red book” of their lives.
Though this format never made it
to Egypt, the secret police, diligent to a fault when it comes to documenting
the achievements of Egyptians, for decades ran its own Orwellian biographical
service, accumulating clandestine archives on the “enemies” of the
That such documents existed would surprise only the most naïve
Egyptians, as most dissidents, opposition politicians, political activists and
critical writers and journalists have long suspected there was a binder with
their name on it lying in some dusty state security archive or
On occasion, I have been curious whether I, or other outspoken
members of my family and circle of friends, had an unofficial state biographer,
and what information my unauthorized biography contained. Who knows, perhaps I
am privileged enough to have multiple biographers, including an Israeli one
chronicling my sojourn here.
The idea that anyone would ever be able to
lay hands on their file once seemed like a distant fantasy. But in the mayhem
and chaos that followed the collapse of the Mubarak regime, revolutionaries were
able to enter a number of state security fortresses – which some likened to the
storming of the Bastille – and get their hands on numerous files before they
could be destroyed by panicked agents.
It turns out that state security’s
prolific biographers had profiled my father. A dissident for the greater part of
his life now, he entered one of those ransacked “temples of torture” and a
revolutionary who recognized him handed him 25 partially scorched pages from his
The fragments of my father’s unauthorized biography, while
containing a smattering of facts, were mainly a work of creative fiction. In
addition to detailed information about his family in Egypt, the file contained a
number of far-fetched claims – foremost among them was that he had once led a
militia in South Lebanon.
“I never even learned how to shoot a gun,” my
father, whose poor eyesight had got him out of military service, told the BBC,
his tone reflecting his utter disbelief. The mere suggestion that my
bespectacled, somewhat corpulent old man – who has come no nearer to commanding
columns than those found on a newspaper page – was some kind of Arab Che Guevara
or was capable of wielding anything more threatening than a pen is truly
My father regards the very existence of his state security file
as a sign of the state’s profound insecurity and weakness.
believes that the tall tales it contains were not the fevered workings of a
paranoid mind, but a carefully crafted attempt to frame him in the event that
they ever got their hands on him. “They were preparing something to get rid of
me. There was a plan to do something,” he speculated.
If he is right,
then my parents’ decision to flee Egypt was a wise one and saved us all the
grief of political imprisonment, a show trial, or perhaps worse.
my father’s file doesn’t contain is the human consequences of dissent and exile,
and the profound role it has played in shaping an entire family.
father learned that he was being watched, my parents decided to get married in a
hurry and the nearest they got to a honeymoon was to flee to Libya, which was
relatively open and booming in the early 1970s, before Muammar Gaddafi had gone
I was born in Tripoli (as was one of my brothers) and,
though I remember almost nothing of our sojourn there, my birthplace has cast a
shadow over my life. For example, exhibiting a comparable level of paranoia to
the Egyptian regime, American Homeland Insecurity has quizzed me as to whether
my toddler self ever served in the Libyan armed forces, which would give a whole
new meaning to “infantry.”
From Libya, my parents decided to move on to
the UK, at a time when it was still relatively easy to immigrate because my
folks were against the idea of seeking political asylum. But my mother returned
to Egypt to give birth to my sister (the only sibling born in Egypt) among her
family while my father sorted out a place for us to live. What was supposed to
be a short visit morphed into a three-year enforced stay as the Egyptian regime
effectively held us hostage in a bid to lure my father back.
courageous and versatile mother, who was juggling the demands of caring for
three children and holding down a job, took the government to court and the
judge always ruled in her favour, yet each time we went to the airport, we found
our name on the notorious “banned from travel” list. Actually, I should point
out here that, though my father is the official dissident of the family, my
mother is the real rebel, willing to go against social convention to stay true
to her convictions.
In addition, she is the founding mother of our
Eventually, the court was able to impose its will
and we finally made it out of the country, only to embark on a long tour of the
Middle East trying to find a country which wasn’t pissed off with my father
where we could meet and finish the paperwork to move to Britain.
next decade or so, we lived in London and were unable to visit family in Egypt.
During that time, my mother lost her mother and one of her sisters, losses made
the more painful by distance.
The memories I have of my favorite
grandmother are shrouded in mist: I recall her lovingly tending her birds,
kissing the food into their beaks, in her intriguing rooftop pigeon coop, and
the frenzied activity she coordinated on the eve of Eid to produce delicious
In a way, our return to Egypt did not end my sense of
“exile.” Although I felt a strong bond of belonging at a certain level, some
aspects of life there remained foreign to me and quite a few compatriots viewed
me as an honorary foreigner. In addition, my years abroad had bred in me a
certain wanderlust and I eventually departed the banks of the Nile once
Despite the challenges of distance, I do not share the sentiments
of many Egyptian and Arab political and economic migrants who lament their
estrangement and long passionately to return. But, unlike for some, such as
Palestinians and Arab Jews, my “exile” is an entirely voluntary one and, hence,
The unusual circumstances surrounding the formative years of
my life have played a part in shaping my personality and identity, and gave me
an early object lesson in the importance of being your own person and thinking
your own thoughts.
Despite the occasional conflicts between them, I am
thrilled by my multiple identities (at once Egyptian, Arab, British, Belgian,
European and, above all, human). Each has its own distinct voice in my head,
reminding me that the world is a complex place that can be viewed from so many
Learning other languages can also help you savor
the various accents of life.
Being one half of an international couple
has been a hugely mind-expanding experience, involving, as it has, tripping
round the world with my wife. Our toddler son’s multicultural background is
already showing signs of instilling in him a sense of adventure: he is currently
missing travelling and has been loudly demanding to go on a plane, switching
languages to make his point absolutely clear.
I sometimes wonder what my
life would have been like had I spent its entirety in Egypt and I usually
conclude that it would have been much duller. I am profoundly grateful for the
kaleidoscope of experiences the accident of my birth has opened up to
Though I feel quite out of place everywhere, I can also make myself
at home just about anywhere.
The writer is an Egyptian journalist and
blogger currently based in Jerusalem. He blogs at www.chronikler.com and has
begun sharing his tweet nothings at https://twitter.com/DiabolicalIdea