Excuse the title.
I like the Camelot myths. I’ve never read the original Malory, though, and wasn’t quite so interested in it when I was a child. The whole knight in shining armor thing never quite caught my fancy.
However, years later, I was lucky enough to run into The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White’s wonderful take on the Arthurian myths. In the first volume, we see a young Arthur slowly becoming aware of what Merlin’s oblique lessons were forcing him to understand. It is a key moment, and here it is, brutally shortened, for your benefit. It’s still a bit long for an excerpt, but it’s important, and if you give me your attention for a few minutes, you’ll see why it’s so important that you get a feel for how it unfolds…
“I have been thinking,” said Arthur, “about Might and Right. I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them. After all, a penny is a penny, in any case, however much Might is exerted on either side to prove that it is or is not. Is that plain?”
“Battles are not fun when you come to think about them. I mean, people ought not to be killed, ought they? It is better to be alive.”
“Very well. But the funny thing is that Merlyn was helping me to win battles….”
“That seems to me to be inconsistent. Why does he help me to fight wars if they are bad things?”
“I could only think,” said he, beginning to blush, “I could only think that I – that we – that he wanted me to win them for a reason.”
He paused and looked at Merlyn, who turned his head away.
“The reason was – was it? – the reason was that if I could be the master of my kingdom by winning these two battles, I could stop them afterwards and then do something about the business of Might> Have I guessed? Was I right?”
The magician did not turn his head, and his hands lay still in his lap.
“I was!” exclaimed Arthur.
And he began talking so quickly that he could hardly keep up with himself.
“You see,” he said, “Might is not Right. But there is a lot of Might knocking about in this world, and something has to be done about it. It is as if people were half horrible and half nice. Perhaps they are even more than half horrible, and when they are left to themselves, they run wild. You get the average baron that we see nowadays, people like Sir Bruce Sans Pitie, who simply go clod-hopping round the country dressed in steel, and doing exactly what they please, for sport. It is our Norman idea about the upper classes having a monopoly of power without reference to justice. Then the horrible side gets uppermost, and there is thieving and rape and plunder and torture. The people become beasts.
“But, you see, Merlyn is helping me to win my two battles so that I can stop this. He wants me to put things right.”
“Now what I have thought,” said Arthur, “is this. Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you can’t just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of the people, and you can’t neglect it. You can’t cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad.”
The audience was interested. They leaned forward to listen, except Merlyn.
“My idea is that if we can win this battle in front of us, and get a firm hold of the country, then I will institute a sort of order of chivalry. I will not punish the bad knights, or hang Lot, but I will try to get them into our Order. We shall have to make it a great honour, you see, and make it fashionable and all that. Everybody must want to be in. And then I shall make the oath of the order that Might is only to be used for Right. Do you follow? The knights in my order will ride all over the world, still dressed in steel and whacking away with their swords – that will give an outlet for wanting to whack, you understand, an outlet for what Merlyn calls the foxhunting spirit – but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good, to defend virgins against Sir Bruce and to restore what has been done wrong in the past and to help the oppressed and so forth. Do you see the idea? It will be using the Might instead of fighting against it, and turning a bad thing into a good. There, Merlyn, that is all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could, and I suppose I am wrong, as usual. But I did think. I can’t do any better. Please say something!”
The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling, and said the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis.
It is a magical moment in the book when Arthur has understood what he should be doing and came up with an idea, a mechanism, which he believes might achieve it. It is a child doing his utmost best to do what’s right and to guess the unspoken intentions of his beloved teacher.
In many ways, of course, the story ends in failure. Arthur and his dream were caught in a crossfire between the passions of Lancelot and Guinevere and the enmity of Mordred and Morgana…
But he tried.
In many ways, this entire scene reminds me of moments during which Camelot was called Tahrir, and we were all of us, Arthur, trying to improvise our way towards what we knew was Right.
Egypt has endured 61 years of military rule, interrupted only by 1 year in which, ostensibly, Dr. Mohamed Morsi of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ was president. Sixty-one years in which Might ruled, with little or no qualms. It is those 61 years that have brought Egypt to what we see before us today.
In our own way, with no Merlyn to guide us, we moved against oppression and called for social justice. We faced the police force at first, and then the regime’s armed thugs, and ultimately, occasionally, the military.
We won several battles but appeared to have lost the war when the military claimed partnership and declared it a victory.
Now, sadly, Egypt suffers.
We have the same problems we’ve always had; bad education, bad health, a weak economy (only previously propped up by tourism), a corrupt security apparatus, a bad judiciary, a military too busy with industry and which is now rated 6th in strength according to at least one recent study (which puts even the armies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia) ahead of us…
In addition, we now suffer a whole other set of problems; an overtly politicized military (previously covert), a judiciary which is now not only bad, but which has, essentially, become a political tool, an economy deprived of tourism, innovation, and industry held up by the hope of a grandiose canal project, laws produced not by a parliament, but by a president, and which are often in direct violation of the recently approved constitution, a complete erosion of human rights accompanied by constant derision of human rights throughout a media which is now referred to as patriotic. A declaration by the president (who we had been told was now a civilian because he’s taken off his military uniform) placing all ‘vital institutions’ under the military, based on which, the military is now given the task of securing universities (which have been hotbeds of student activism and protests), and alongside with that, the imminent threat of military trials to any students with which the ‘state’ has grievances…
The High Council of Universities declares that students who have been suspended from any public university for whatever reason will not be allowed into any other university, even private ones.
Yes, Egypt has become the only country in the world in which being deprived of education is now considered a valid punitive measure.
The list, unfortunately, goes on and on – as do the absurdities.
This isn’t what was supposed to happen, and everybody knows it – even the people who still support the regime. They know that there’s something wrong, but they still try to blame anybody else rather than the military. They try to blame the revolutionaries (who never held power, and whose proposals, since the revolution began, have consistently been rejected, derided, or censored..), and, naturally, they blame Morsi, who was only in power for one year, and could not possibly have ruined Egypt unless the ripples of his presidency reached all the way back in time to 1952. They try to blame anybody but themselves or the regime they continue to support because, in their minds, there is no alternative, even to a regime that promised to cure HIV and AIDS with spicy minced meat.
These are hard times, not because they are difficult but because they seem absolutely futile. We trudge towards inevitable damnation, and, it seems, the only people who can steer us away from it are blind to it.
They rage against the students, and they rage against anybody who does not support the regime. They rage against anybody who even expresses doubt. Television hosts are well known to be anything, but harsh critics are suspended for even expressing concern that things might not be perfect and that failures happen. Military generals fill the airwaves and the living rooms, shouting at the hosts, phone-callers, and home viewers. How dare you doubt? They ask. How dare you evaluate our decisions or our strategies? Who are you to ask such things? Don’t you know we are at war! With the world?!
People in the street are now afraid to talk. You get in a cab, and you try to start a conversation. The man barely reacts. When he does, he does so in a fuzzy non-committal manner. You would not know where he stood. When you, frustrated, speak your mind, he relaxes and admits that he, too, is pessimistic. He, too, knows that the emerald bricks of this new kingdom are bare shells, hollowed out, bereft of any density or strength. His initial silence, he tells you, was based on fear. He thought that you might be one of them – those who support the regime. He tells you he’d leave the country if he could. That there is no hope. That we have been betrayed by everybody who has come to power, whether it be the Generals or the Sheikhs.
“What is it with that chair?” They ask, “It seems to corrupt everybody who sits on it.”
The reality, of course, is that only the corrupt are attracted to the chair…
And so it goes…
A culture, withering, on the brink of collapse. The only real question remains; what will collapse first?
The young will endure, but for them, also – all seems lost. They are born to misery. They have been shown that there is no social mobility. The best they can hope for is that they are not street children condemned to child labor and rape. In the best of cases, they are lucky. Their parents can feed them, educate them, put them through university so that, finally, they can get a degree, and with which, in all likelihood, they will drive a cab. Even then, older cab drivers will bemoan their presence. “There are too many cab drivers these days! They all end up driving cabs! That means less money for me. I’ve been driving this cab for 15 years. I used to make good money, but now…look! They’re all driving cabs! They’re beginners.” He says, “They don’t even know the streets!”
Then I hear a story from a cab driver who used to be a tourist guide. He tells me he made good money for a while. Has one daughter. She graduated, he boasts, with high honors – with a degree in Economics & Political Science. She was the 5th in her class nationally. She speaks 5 languages; Arabic, English, French, German, and Hebrew. She applied for a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was rejected.
Months later, he and his daughter found out that a far less qualified colleague of hers got the job. In a rage, he takes her by the hand and goes to the Ministry.
“Why,” He asks, “Did my daughter, who is far more qualified, not get the job?!”
The man pulls out her folder, and there’s a formal paper inside, and it says, clearly and officially, why she did not get the job…
“Her father,” It says, “Drives a Taxi.”
And so it goes, I say again, as Vonnegut used to say…a contagious turn of phrase, a familiar trope when anger and disappointment have grown too familiar, and when too much has been ridiculous.
They all want to leave.
A friend, Baraa Ashraf, who’s a film director, and one of the kindest souls I know, writes a short scene. He imagines the end of our story. In his imagining, two young Egyptians, a boy, and a girl, meet each other at the airport. Both are leaving the country, having despaired of what lies behind them and hoping for a better life elsewhere, where the contagion of fascism might wear a lighter boot. A spark occurs. We sense that they will meet again, in the new land to which they’re going, that there might be a future for them. Finally, in his story, we see the plane takes off, and then, abruptly, it blows up. The movie ends when a piece of debris flies into the camera, turning everything dark. The credits begin with a special ‘thank you’ to the Ministry of the Interior.
The generations now, war against each other. There are exceptions, of course, as there always are. Some older people have not been cowed into fascism by their Islamophobia (a misnomer that identifies politicians who exploit religion with actual Muslims…), and there are some young people whose luck, wealth, ambitions, or desire for stability alienate them from those who protest for change. However, for the most part, we are witnessing a generational battle. The old have decided to feed on the young. They are willfully sacrificing the lives and the futures of their children for the sake of living out their last few years in what they hope is, at least, a benign dictatorship. They excuse the actions of the regime because they can not justify them. They do not think too hard because logic will destroy their sole working paradigm, that the military is patriotic, and that only the military can protect Egypt.
They aim to protect Egypt (which in their minds refers to themselves, or people like them…) – and it seems to matter little to them whether or not Egypt still breathes. The youth fight to reshape Egypt, and the old care only to preserve whatever remains, at any cost.
Life, it seems, is cheap.
A child in Egypt is born. He has a 22/1000 chance of not surviving his birth. In Syria, which is frequently cited as an example of what we do not want to become, the infant mortality rate is 12/1000. In the United States, hardly the world leader in healthcare, the ratio is 6/1000. If you discuss this, many will say that matters of life and death are subject to “God’s will,” what they fail to tell you is that in Japan, the mortality rate is 2/1000.
God, it seems, favors Sushi.
There are over 3 million street children in Egypt, and that’s according to the government, which, it must be remembered, is always wearing the pinkest of shades, and which is very reluctant to ‘air’ what it considers ‘dirty laundry.’ In effect, let us say; at least 3 million children in Egypt live on the streets, and over 50% of them report that they have been targets of rape.
In Sinai, right now – as I write these words – Egyptian citizens are forcibly evicted from their homes in the service of the great god Security. The media does not cover their evictions, and yet – it explains why their evictions are necessary. Little mention is made of the fact that the constitution explicitly prohibits forced evictions under Article 63, which places a complete ban on forced evictions in any way, shape or form, and considers it a crime that has no statute of limitations. This crime, right now, is being committed by the military.
The explanation is simple, of course; when the constitutional article was initially conceived, it was intended to protect Copts against forced evictions imposed by so-called ‘Islamists’ and was part of what it took to get the Coptic Church on board with the ‘road-map’ the military declared after it removed then-President Morsi. It matters little to them now that the Article as it is written protects all Egyptians from forceful evictions. After all, the military must know what it’s’ doing…
In God, we trust.
The windows have been boarded up, and it seems little we do can change anything.
Those of us who write have felt useless. Everything we start to write remains unfinished. Everything remains at once both insufficient and redundant. I haven’t written enough, you think. There’s more I need to explain, you tell yourself, and all the time you realize that everything you have written is redundant, you are re-iterating universal truths…
It’s wrong to kill people, you see yourself write, as though that needed explaining. The police should protect the children, you say, as though that needed explaining. The law, you scream, cannot violate the constitution! Why do I need to even say that? You ask yourself, but you already know the answer. The military, you say, belongs to the country, not the country to the military – and you know the second you’ve said it that you’d forgotten the word ‘should.’
Might, you keep saying, should serve Right.
“After all, a penny is a penny, in any case, however much Might is exerted on either side to prove that it is or is not. Is that plain?”
Cairo, October 29th, 2014
PS: The photo at the start of this post was taken on the 4th of March, 2011. The large Egyptian flag is one that we ourselves put up in the middle of Tahrir Square. It was the only time an Egyptian Flag held the center spot in Tahrir. That flag was removed by the army when it attacked our sit-in later during that month.
PS: Some readers who speak French have pointed out that the title of this post is grammatically incorrect. Well, it is – however – it’s meant as a take-off from Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ – so I’ve retained that styling for the purposes of this post. Not many people complain about that, only those who are fortunate enough to speak French but are also unfamiliar with Malory’s mistake.