Most days, I wake up and read in the news that hundreds of Iraqis have died in simultaneous explosions, the Syrian regime has bombarded Aleppo into a gigantic crater, the Burmese army has killed more Rohyinga, ISIL has committed and filmed a new massacre, the Egyptian regime has imprisoned scores more and sentenced them to imprisonment and death, or that another boat overflowing with immigrants running away from all of the former has successfully made contact with the seabed. Most days, I just proceed to eating my breakfast.
My daily familiarity with the news for the good part of two decades has led me to getting used to hearing about adversity. To me, it’s the usual when a Palestinian gets humiliated on the hands of a Shin Bet operative, or the Egyptian police kill a lawyer inside a police station, and this warrants no special grief on my part. My judgment is intact, my thoughts are clear, but I generally remain unmoved by the ‘usual’. I don’t rejoice, of course, but I don’t let it ruin my day.
In 2011, when scores of Egyptians were on the streets in Cairo and the provinces, I watched the revolution live on the TV screen at the restaurant on the ground floor of the Sheraton in Abu Dhabi, beer in hand. I allowed myself to make philosophical judgments on the anticipated course of action, the politics of the situation, and the conduct of all the involved parties, and I reasoned – and still reason – that my personal shortcomings have nothing to do with the soundness of my beliefs or opinions. But was I compassionate back then? Am I compassionate now?
As I write these words, thousands of Egyptians, and other Arabs, are imprisoned in unspeakably and unimaginably cruel conditions inside detention centers at police stations or prisons. My friend Loay El-Kahwagi is one of them. He was detained in December 2013 during a peaceful protest against the acquittal of the killers of Khaled Saeed, a young man whose death was a main factor leading up to the revolution in January 2011. Loay has since received two sentences, one while already in jail serving the first sentence, with a total imprisonment time of more than three years. With him are poet Omar Hazek, lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, his sister Sanaa Abdel-Fattah, and thousands and thousands of others whose names we don’t even know. Alaa has a son whom he rarely met due to frequent prosecution and imprisonment. And how do I feel about all of that? Pretty sorry and sad, but not enough to stop me from insisting to ask the restaurant that delivers my food every day to overcook the chicken because I like it like that. Not enough to stop me from being pissed off when they fail to do so.
Over the past few years, I’ve read about and watched – from a distance – as millions were killed in the region, in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Sudan. I’ve always had my opinions and political views, but I never took part in any struggle, sacrificed anything, exposed myself to direct or indirect harm, nor protested any injustice except in words. Part of me reasoned that I am a practical person who doesn’t let his emotions lead him on to doing something that will benefit no one, and part of me called me a coward for not putting up a fight against injustice and tyranny. But what tools do I have? All the tools necessary, that is.
I have often allowed myself to be deeply touched by the misfortune of others, but I seldom made a move. I’ve never traveled to help the children in Syria, or the women in Iraq, or anybody in Egypt. To my practical mind, I’ve learned to filter the news very quickly, applying the Victim Count-to-Sadness conversion rate by which if less than 300 hundred Syrians are dead on a certain day, there is no special occasion. If less than 900 immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean, I could enjoy my breakfast all right, and even think about what movie I’m going to watch before sleep. I’ve read a lot about how people usually dissociate themselves from the calamities they read about in the news, especially when those have taken place in distant places, but what is my excuse when others have actively engaged in relief campaigns and decided to dramatically change their lives in order to help those cursed with ill fortune?
I’m your perfect Facebook Activist. Just wait until next time Israel bombards Gaza, or Egypt’s military attacks Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, and you’ll see me pouring words, schooling any opinion that would support what I view as murder and persecution. But where am I during the long, dull days, weeks and months when the people in Gaza are living under siege, without electricity, water or medication in the searing heat of this new thermal age, and where was I when the Egyptian army literally wiped out the Egyptian Rafah off of the face of the Earth? The answer is: I wasn’t there. There was no drama in that, so I wasn’t interested in it. Not enough, at least.
When the events at Yarmouk and al-Hajar al-Aswad were all over the news three years ago, I was angry, and this is how I feel when the news get to me. I feel intense anger, and I end up taking to Facebook, insulting a president or an official here or there, and that’s it. I have typed and deleted the words “Kos deen om el-Sisi” more than two hundred times in the past couple of years. I’ve done the same with Bashar al-Assad, Avigdor Lieberman and many others, and that’s all I did. The events at Yarmouk are still ongoing, by the way, except that they’re not all over the news now.
My compassion, which sometimes compels me to walk out of my way to give a banknote to the guy who cleans the restroom at a mall, doesn’t stand the test of serious, effective and sustainable effort towards relieving the same guy from suffering with more dedication than it takes to reach for my wallet. Mahienour el-Masry’s compassion, however, was expressed differently in how she campaigned for the release of scores of prisoners, attended their trials, gathered donations for their bails, and ultimately ended up imprisoned with them.
I like to think of myself as a moral and compassionate person, but I have never demonstrated this, even to myself. The world is so fucked up right now that a person who needs to help others will probably only need to travel less than a 100 kilometers in any direction, so what is my excuse? Is it fear for my own well-being? I don’t think so, since I don’t hold my life as valuable as others’, due to my lack of achievements or some philosophical reason or another. Is it my pragmatism that sees no point in wasting any effort on something that won’t work? I have historically had many encounters with this idea, and to some extent it is true, but it’s also true that helping someone else should be enough a cause to motivate someone, most of all me.
In my opinion, failing to make a stand for a moral cause – when one is equipped with all the means and faculties it takes – is a sign of immorality. In 2013, I read in a Facebook post that many Syrian families are locked up at the police station in Karmouz, Alexandria. I thought it was horrible, but I didn’t even click ‘Share’.