The Unidentifiable

Khairat, El-Sayeda Zainab, Cairo

The speech of the honorable chief was being relayed live everywhere and his impassioned lecturing was even more unbearable than the honking cars outside. Through the TV screen, he asked, “Who are you?”, an existential question that kept everyone in the crowded café on their toes while waiting to catch the names of those being referred to; and all that collective excitement had to be handled without any sort of air conditioning, which had stopped working after the price of electricity had skyrocketed.

According to Mr. Star—the proud owner of the kiosk around the corner—the only way of reaching Rafiq’s place without being seen was taking the dark side alley. He also told me he hadn’t seen him leave his apartment in weeks. After giving me the papers I had asked for, he whispered, “Godspeed, míster!” Hence, I scooted off, the chief’s question, still echoing in my ears, and the patronizing smirk on his face, engraved in my mind.

Close to the mausoleum that was built a few years back for some politician, I turned on the street that runs by the subway station and bumped into a demonstration, a pretty anarchic one at that. There were people advocating for and against the chief, as well as people berating all of those who revile others, all in the name of salvaging the pride of the nation. But I personally don’t give a flying fuck about the nation, nor do the people who come together at Rafiq’s crib.

I am a bit hyperactive and, on the nights I can’t fall asleep, I go visit Rafiq. Since the economic crisis hit, he has been unable to find a job and sells horse for a living. Besides me, the only friends he has are his clients.

He opened the door with a lit cigarette in his mouth. He could barely stand straight. He mentioned some revolution, slurring his words, and then went on to hurling a few expletives at the crowd that had mustered in his apartment.

The deathlike pallor of his face proved that he was still hooked on the big H. I asked him to turn off the TV, which was still broadcasting the chief’s speech and his accusatory question. He swallowed a couple of pills and said, while playing with the cigarette in his hand, “We are bracing ourselves with weed for the war our leader wants us to fight against dark forces.”

We wound up spending that night like most. After popping some smuggled pills and while smoking a joint, we liked to sit down on the floor, huddle together in front of the small window and place bets on what type of train was about to hurtle past us next. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is usually playing in the background.

In his twenties, Rafiq was a man with a promising future lying ahead of him. Like all those who, after the city was hit by the war and sprayed with gunfire, became beggars who, at night, curled up under thick blankets that, despite their current state, could still be recognized as items that had to have carried a high price tag once, and during the day, tried to outsmart the police while jabbing needles into their arms.

At some point, I went to the john and, on my return to the shared space, a girl in the buff asked me for a lighter. There was another chick jerking Rafiq off. They had turned the TV back on and were again listening to the chief’s rant. He was buttering up the nation so that the people would help him fulfill his dreams for their future, which didn’t exactly come in assorted shapes and colors, while warning them against lending ears to the promises made by his contenders for the throne. And after a brief but certainly pregnant silent, he yelled, “Who are you?” Everyone in the room dissolved into fits of laughter, which left a funny aftertaste.

Rafiq took off his clothes and stated, “The chief’s words ring true and I am going to make him proud of who we have become as a nation, for, it behooves us to make certain we are the only ones fucking up the country!” Next, he threw his clothes out the window, aiming at the train passing in front of us at that moment. After his flamboyant display of acerbic wit and rebellious verve, he let the girl who had been pleasuring him with her hand proceed with her mouth. Another one ground a pill to a fine powder, which she then split into thin lines with her ID card. The board with the lines was then passed around and we all got to snort a line through a 200-pound note. Then I made out with the girl, who had nice, big breasts.

I told Rafiq his revolution was doomed to fail and advised him to return to his town and finish college, but he rambled on without listening, repeating the chief’s inflammatory mantras. He lit up another joint, tucked a revolver into the waistband of the sweatpants he had just thrown on, and walked out of the room. “Who are you?”, squawked the chief once again, but his question was left hanging in the air.


Written by Karim Kilani.