Mustafa Kassem RIP

mustafa kassem
RIP ya batl

Another victim of the murderous Egyptian dictator, abdel-Fattah El Sisi. I hope Egypt is punished by the US to the fullest extent possible for all the Human Rights abuses perpetrated in the country since El Sisi’s Gulf-financed coup.  I am never returning to Cairo, where I grew up, until Masr has a freely and democratically-elected President who represents all the people of Egypt. This probably means I shall never set foot in Egypt again. Kassem was, just like me, an Egyptian emigrant who landed in NY, and became a naturalized US citizen.  You might want to read this piece, which appeared in the NY Times in 2018. It was written by his brother. He describes the tragic circumstances of Mustafa’s arrest in 2013, when he was in Egypt roughtly around the same time I was.  In Egypt, many refer to El Sisi as ouzz’a, which is Cairene slang for dwarf. Rarely in modern Egyptian history has a leader of this storied country appeared so small and morally diminished. My sole comfort is that few are likely to weep when Sisi meets his inevitable fate.

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The Wayback Machine

guitar in alexandria
At our chalet on Cleopatra beach, Montazah Palace, 1965. Notice the lack of tall hotel and apartment buildings, which now hover over Montazah like prison guard towers

Someone sent me an email recently asking if I really was in a “famous,” pioneering rock band in Cairo in the 60s.

I’m not sure why this piece of trivia is important, in this day and age, when we all have to deal with the unfortunate reality of this lot…

Jair Bolsonaro
Viktor Orbán
Bashar al-Assad
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
Nikolaos Michaloliakos
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
Kim Jong Un
Isaias Afwerki
Aleksandr Lukashenko
Islam Karimov
Omar al-Bashir
Jaroslaw Kaczynski
and their many good friends

… but the answer is aiwa.

The pic you see above is of me, playing my first guitar, way back in 1965.  I may look older than 14, but that was my age in the pic.

Some people think of that period as the “golden age” of Egypt.

Well… Egypt was nicer, sure, but not everything was perfect

For example, if you might have noticed that I do not look overly happy.

There’s a good reason for that.

Look carefully, and you will see that I am missing the D string on this cheap guitar that I bought near Bab-el-Haddeed, otherwise known as the Cairo train station.

I remember looking in vain in downtown Alex for a replacement that summer, and being really miffed that I had to wait till I returned to Cairo before getting it.

(By the way, this was a flamenco style acoustic guitar.  I eventually wanted an electric sound, so I replaced the nylon strings with steel ones.  This of course soon warped the guitar from the extra tension, which I did not know would happen.  I did this so I could screw a little pickup magnetic mic at the base of the neck.  It had a coiling wire which I threaded through the main soundhole and then through a little hole I made in the ribs of the guitar. I then plugged this wire into an old  radio, and, ishta, that is how I put together my first electric guitar!)

If you are super observant, you might also notice that there are strange splotches on the guitar.

That is because I painted red housepaint over the face varnish.

Why would I ruin a guitar this way?

Well, at the time, I saw a pic of The King playing a red guitar, so being imitative the way all teenagers are, I bought a small tin of plain oil based housepaint, and the rest is history.

takht band
Here is the band at one of our first concerts — we were very advanced for the era

For some reason, the paint never really dried, which caused this guitar to ruin a few of my favorite t-shirts back then.

Well, 1965 was a very long time ago.

Lots has changed, since, in Egypt, and me — but some things have remained the same.

I still play, massalan.

Here’s an original composition I recorded, warts and all, about a year ago. It’s a little monotonous, but hey, there’s only one guitar playing.


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Zamalek, fein?

zamalek egypt

The picture you see above is of the island in Cairo where I grew up.  The red arrow shows the location of the apartment building where I spent my formative, teenage years.  The greenery in the front part of the picture is the Gezira Club. This is where I literally spent the first 16 years of my life, knew everybody, everybody knew me, and all was good.

I went to the Gezira Club almost exactly a year ago today.  I am no longer a sentimental nostalgist, but it felt odd to have to pay 150 LE to some guards to enter the place where once I walked in without a carnet and all the suffragis called me Ali Bey.

gezira club 1955
Mum combing my hair after I swam alone in the big Lido pool for the first time at the Gezira Club in 1955

Life was a box of chocolates, then, for I grew up with extreme, unearned privilege — though I did help start one of the most famous rock bands in Egypt.

Immigration is hard on everyone, but particularly when your family abandons a life of apparent luxury, and you have no idea why.

Being dirt poor in Manhattan in the 70s through 90s, hanging out during those interminable afternoons at those Irish dives in the East Village, having those blurry, raucous one nighters with the various skanks that randomly came in and out of my shotgun walkup, then, seemed edgy at the time, the bohemian life any budding writer must lead to accumulate material, the idea of having noble dreams, while pursuing the most wicked of pleasures, saying no to little except the most sordid, but it was not much fun when no solid writing emerged, and I began to think of writing fiction not as art but as a form of pernicious self-indulgence, as I increasingly lived a life abstracted even from the unreality of early 80s Manhattan, a place that while not the hollow trustafarian garden it later turned into, was still a place where one could cultivate self-righteous rage and existential despair, until the rent came due, and I finally came to terms with the idea, like some dim-witted, unfunny Lebowski, that I had to find a real job that provided a steady income, not just gig money, one gig after another, a precursor to the so-called gig economy that passes for cool nowadays, which gets old real fast by the time you hit your mid 30s and keep having to explain to your date why you don’t have a real job despite getting a Ph.D. at NYU,  this idea, this notion of a job, of steady employment, crucial to the coming to terms late in life with the necessities of an orderly, middle-class existence, like the one your parents had, and you don’t just have the one shitty suit from Moe Ginsberg that you wear winter, summer and fall, and with that the obligation of paying  bills on a regular basis and not filing embarrassingly piddling chump change 1099s, because you’re a creative, after all, and not some ordinary strap-hanger, and you even have the bright idea one day of even trying to make a career of it, some it, any it, despite your late start, because while you may have scored the gorgeous girl in your mid 20s, when looks and clever patter are everything, now you’re starting to fall off the radar of desirability and that girl, the one who said you were the handsomest man she had ever met, remember her, the one who ended up dumping your bony ass for the rat-faced dork who was already a VP somewhere, the one they used to giggle at behind his back in High School, the same sort of dude whom you always knew could not even begin to compete with you at any level, so you thought, arrogantly, but now she shares his bedroom, and sucks his dick, and you sit there some loser in a cubicle wondering what happened, until you realize it’s never going to be now yet don’t give in for the contrariness of it  — stepping past the built-in excuses and bitterness over the lost beautiful island and the One Who Got Away.

I am 67 now; an old man, and no longer handsome. Who is, at 67?

The last decade and a half has been for me a sort of lost weekend.  I essentially threw away 16 years of my life, as I wandered from place to place, in Dahab and Tozeur and El Gouna and Nice and Tavira, not so much a digital nomad, for I walked away from that in anger when the tech meltdown ruined me financially in 2001, but a pilgrim looking in vain for that place where I could hang my hat again, and as the years progressed, where I could embrace the tranquility of growing old gracefully and without regrets and where I would not be horrified at resting my bones one day.

But my mind won’t let me; I can’t let go; not yet.

It still whispers to  me that I have that novel to write.

It still tells me that I also have an affinity for tech.  I was good at it once, why not have another go at it?

At an age when brains begin to shrink and atrophy, would I still have the mental suppleness to pursue such endeavors, or settle for the pensioner’s life, frittering whatever time is left away.

After publishing this post, I shall focus on what I planned on doing today — other than running my wife’s e-commerce site — which is learning some shiny new thing called graph database technology, which I talk a lot about in my other blog, the tech one, as well as on my chatty Twitter account.

My mind refuses to slow down; I probably still have a good ten or maybe even 15-20 years before it goes to sleep.

You can do a lot in 20 years.

Write a novel, or two.

Launch a tech startup — which is why I am so interested in the tech scene in Lisbon, as a way of getting permanently away from the bovine, antediluvian mentality of FLA.

I would love launching it in El Gouna, where I spent much of the past year.  There is a flourishing angel funding tech startup scene that is constituting itself there.

In El Gouna, which is starting to address some of the wild roaming dogs and noise pollution issues I documented in this blog a year ago, being 67 and forming a little tech company might not be viewed as quixotic.

In Lisbon, I would probably cut a pathetic, faintly ridiculous figure.

nasser egypt
Me Dad showing Nasser the products of the manufacturing company he CEOed in Eypt in his early 30s in 1964. Dad is the one with the glasses on the right.

But then, as I take off those ever tempting rose-colored glasses, and read news like this, I remember my late father, who left everything — including the opportunity to be as rich or richer even than the richest of mucky-mucks today in El Gouna — in order to provide his sons with something he deemed as infinitely more precious:  Freedom.

My uncle the retired general still lives in the apartment overlooking the Nile that I grew up in, where the red arrow in the pic is pointing.

He has throat cancer now.

There may never be another chance to see him again, if I don’t return soon, he who represents one of the few direct links to my father still around.

He fought gallantly in Egypt’s wars, and was made to suffer immensely by the guy in the big suit you see in the pic above, for speaking up as to why ’67 happened.

What if…  I returned?

Just look the other way as the poets and mystics and homosexuals and truth tellers are tortured and imprisoned or mutilated and left for dead in some ditch on the road to Alexandria; the way everyone else does in Gouna; ignore the proverty and lack of democracy outside its patrician walls, and do this startup thing in El Gouna, where if you keep your mouth shut and have the right friends, life is as it should be.

I have an Egyptian ID card that says Muslim on it, just like 90 per cent of the population there. I can recite the fatha from memory. Just by hearing the intonations of my accent in Arabic, there is no question to any Egyptian as to where I come from, even though to most I look like a “mister,” for it is my land, here, ardi, baladi, my country — even though the changes have been vast.

I watched an interesting  movie last night called Goldstone, that the Guardian review described as a masterpiece of outback noir.  There is a line in the movie that stayed with me, something about it not being the job of the world to accommodate itself to you, but yours to find a place where you fit in.

I am no longer the rich man’s son who grew up in a life of immense privilege.

I know what it is like to be poor, to go hungry, to get very sick.

Despite all that, I am still no sheep-like conformist.

2018 is coming to a close.

What will the future bring?

Will I finally shed my sense of overarching personal failure, and accomplish the impossible, at this stage of my life?

Or will I simply get older, and, one day, as time goes on, die a stranger in a strange land?

Allahu a’lam.

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