Excerpt

Otared

Mohammad Rabie trans. Robin Moger

December 22, 2016 
The following is from Mohammad Rabie’s novel, Otared. Rabie is the author of three acclaimed novels. His first novel, Amber's Planet, won first prize in the Emerging Writers category of the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2012. He lives in Cairo, Egypt.

We took turns smoking the joint. The five of us finished it in under a minute: just two puffs each. We lit another. As usual, the hash was completely pure. Unadulterated. When cut and crumbled, the block left no marks on the paper; it broke easily between my fingers and had a pungent reek, exactly as my colleague in Narcotics had described the pure product from the eighties. He’d told me what used to happen during raids on hash storehouses.

The pair of us had been lounging by a roadblock on Qasr al-Aini Street. There were very few cars about, and a man walked past us smoking a joint. We could tell from the smell. My colleague laughed. “We’d know there was hash in a building just by standing outside. We’d walk down the street and the stink would leak out of the doors and windows and hit us, and when we got to the apartment we’d know it was the one immediately. The dealers could do what they liked, none of them could cover up the smell. When we caught a whiff, we’d smile and relax. From then on, it was up to the rank and file: they’d search the rooms for hidden compartments. They’d search cellars. Might even have to dig a bit to get the hash out. Sure—even the dirt piled over it couldn’t stop the stink getting out. Later, the dealers were forced to mix it with a lot of cheaper substances, firstly to boost their profits, and secondly to hide the smell.”

I didn’t know them, these four. I was put in with them and now there was nothing for it but to share the hash. We were stationed in one of the rooms on the penultimate floor of the Cairo Tower. In a few hours’ time, this long posting would be over; two whole years it had been. We were an advanced observation post, the eye of the resistance looking out over East Cairo, an instrument of execution and assassination, snipers, the long arm of the partisans, and I, Colonel Ahmed Otared, was commander of the unit that had held fast for all that time. Even when, one after another, the officers had begun breaking down beneath the intense psychological pressure, even when three of them had committed suicide in a single day, not a hair on my head had been disturbed. I’d just sent a message to the leadership to send more snipers and a detachment to pick up the bodies. And as that detachment had made its way to the tower from West Cairo, I had been writing my report: attributing the suicides to the pressures of the job, to our dazzling success in taking out targets, to the absence of any psychological training for the officers, to the loneliness and isolation, and to many other things besides.

After that, I would send officers on leave once they had stayed three or four months, thereby maintaining a reasonably high standard within the unit, and most certainly preserving the lives of the officers. I had realized that everyone who stayed up in the tower underwent a gradual nervous breakdown, and everything I mentioned in the report really did contribute to this: in the end, no matter how much an officer believes in his work, killing a human being he doesn’t know is a major undertaking. I was a sniper. I know. I know that images of the victims linger in the mind for a long time. That one’s memory selects certain images to hold on to forever. Even mine—and I’m a professional—retains images of people I shot and whose identities I can’t recall. I can’t recall where I was or where they were. I can’t recall when it happened or how I received the orders to kill them. And of course, there’s that tableau of the three bodies heaped up on top of one another, framed by the circle of my scope. That one will stay fixed in my mind; it will never be erased until the day I die. So what of amateurs like them? Had it not been for the enthusiasm that sprang from their patriotic spirit, the Tower Group would not have had the slightest success.

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The Tower Group was our official designation, and one that no one will ever find recorded in any official document. But it was the term ‘hornets’ which caught the imagination of the general public and became our nom de guerre. Truth be told, no one had the slightest knowledge of our presence, but they were aware that there were many snipers stationed throughout the city, on rooftops and up tall buildings. We left a clear trail—an officer walking down the street, then dropping without warning; a soldier sitting calmly at a café, his brains sprayed over the tables of those sitting beside him—and so it was that people came to conflate the Tower Group with the snipers scattered through the streets of East Cairo. We were all hornets to them, and certainly it never occurred to a soul that we were based in the Cairo Tower, the furthest point from everything, at the maximum range of our rifles and scopes. No one saw us and no one heard us, and with our suppressors we were veritable angels of death.

Initially, I’d assumed that the tower actually housed sixteen floors, but with time and much traveling up and down in the elevator, I realized that its capacity was very limited indeed. The massive structure housed just two floors (referred to as the fifteenth and sixteenth regardless), and atop the last of these an extremely narrow walkway ran around a vast central column, visible from many places throughout the city.

I climbed up to the sixteenth floor, whose own circular balcony commanded a view of the entire metropolis. I was looking out over East Cairo from an elevation of approximately one hundred and eighty meters. Its celebrated landmarks seemed stronger than people, stronger than time, stronger than anything. Even an architect sympathetic to modern styles would perceive their ugliness, accommodated through long familiarity, and maybe this ugliness was the reason why they had survived despite the deaths of so many. The Maspero building, for instance, had no business surviving as it had. It was a gigantic-buttocked man squatting on the ground, his impossibly slender head and chest thrust up into the air. A Buddha erect. A Buddha deformed. To the north was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a tall European gent in an oriental turban, looming over the city, and at his back those numberless interlocked blocks of smaller buildings with no architectural style, or layout, or even specification in common, cut up by crooked streets whose widths would alter every hundred yards: the chaotic neighborhood of Bulaq Abul-Ela, its disorder a fitting backdrop for the infantile troublemaking that had broken out there years before. Then the Egyptian Museum, a clutch of decrepit idlers sitting on the ground, chatting in low tones. Inert for eons, shifting only to sip their tea, they lurked out of sight, loathing their own fraudulent history. The ruins of the deserted Nile Hilton, destroyed at the start of the occupation, was a drunken American tourist, fallen down and dead to the world, who had come to Cairo to find beauty in the shit around him, had searched long and hard, and found nothing, and even so couldn’t admit that the place was a crapheap that harbored no beauty whatsoever—but blamed himself for failing to find the jewel buried in the dung. The Ramses Hilton, a vast whore hanging out over the Nile and hailing one and all. . . but no one went near her. And just as whores can be spotted by their filthy, frayed old shoes—as though they’d agreed among themselves that all their shoes would be like this—so the disorder of the street and the vendors outside the Ramses Hilton were its old heels. The intersection of the Qasr al-Nil Bridge and the Cor- niche was an unintelligible maze, a more byzantine version of its sister junction, where the Corniche met the October 6th Bridge. Then the Semiramis: a man, his wife, and their child. The man, having pissed at his feet, was just standing there, neither moving away from the patch of urine, nor letting his family move. To his left was the Mogamma of Tahrir Square, bearing within itself the causes of all the sicknesses that plague Egyptians. It only showed me its flank because it knew I feared its chest, and head, and broad-notched belly. In front of it was the derelict Arab League: glorious rubble, stately ruins, whose demolition had finally laid Tahrir bare— it had been the only thing that lay between us and the square. It had come down the day after the Nile Hilton, but unlike the hotel, which had tilted over and fallen on its side with- out breaking apart, the Arab League building had collapsed completely, leaving a great mound of debris.

Nothing but chaos. I searched for some order amid it all, but whoever built Cairo seemed never to have contemplated it from a distance, never looked at the whole picture, but instead had taken each building as a discrete entity, standing alone; each one designed in isolation without regard for the structures that surrounded it. They had seen it from the perspective of someone at ground level—aiming to dazzle in an age before airborne cameras—not as a bird soaring through the sky. The architects who followed these founding fathers had continued to build in just the same way, and then those who came after had done likewise. Would I live to see it all destroyed?

For two years, this scene had kept me company. Today I would leave it.

The first thing we’d done was to divide the floor space of the old restaurant on the fifteenth floor into cubicles using plywood sheets as dividers, leaving the staircase up to the top floor accessible to all so that any one of the officers could get up there in an emergency. Each cubicle was occupied by a sniper. There he lived and slept and, when he was on duty, would climb to the top floor to watch over East Cairo. Over time, the number of officers rose and fell, corresponding to West Cairo’s need for the Tower Group. Our mission: “To safeguard our surroundings.” This elastic prescription had always pleased me. Such flexible orders gave us the freedom to act in critical situations, although our job description went beyond conventional parameters, to include murder. I was left completely to my own devices; there was no rigid plan that I had to implement. I just had to adapt to developments and await orders, all of them most specific: assassinate so-and-so who’d be passing down the Corniche; shoot any five officers of the occupation over the coming month. There were even instructions to kill Egyptian police officers and civilians collaborating with the occupation. Plus our standing orders: to peer through our scopes at East Cairo and note any suspicious movements. As I mentioned, we were a post for advanced observation and assassinations.

Thick dust covered Cairo, a blend of car exhaust, a fog that seemed to come from nowhere, and maybe, too, smoke from burning agricultural waste that drifted in from surrounding villages and towns. Every few weeks, all these would gather together into a curtain that hid Cairo’s distant buildings from our eyes in the sky—a curtain like the one I’d made myself to deflect prying eyes, like the mask I wore when aiming at targets.

Every morning, each man would take his rifle, adjust his scope, and take up his favored position—sitting on the floor with the rifle propped on his knee, or resting it on a slender bipod—while I went upstairs, up where the balcony curved around the tower’s outer face and all Cairo lay revealed. I’d make a couple of circuits to take in the buildings and streets unimpeded by stone or glass: East Cairo and its celebrated architecture under occupation, and West Cairo’s anonymous blocks—a few of which had been razed during the bombard- ment—free and under the complete control of Egyptians. Each time I went up to the balcony, the blockages and blockades would dwindle and Cairo become more accessible.

I was highest in rank, the unit’s leader, who carried a rifle just like them. I didn’t receive orders from another commander, but had complete freedom to act as the situation dictated, with the exception of a few cases each month. For this reason, I didn’t look through my scope that much, but whenever I tired of gazing down on the bigger picture I would raise my rifle to see the city’s component parts through the sight. Not one of us had fired a bullet for nearly a month now. Things had settled down and life had returned to normal, as though nothing had happened, and then a week ago I received a message instructing me to vacate the position today. All week we had been getting ourselves together. We didn’t even take up our observation positions with our customary commitment. These were our last days in the tower. Where to next? What would the next mission be? I didn’t know.

I approached the edge of the balcony and leaned against the railings that rose over my head, facing East Cairo. Through my scope, I could see the five battleships lined up directly below me. I could see the sailors moving over the deck, lazily, as though they’d got nothing to worry about, as though they were not, like us, stuck. The flotilla in mid-river wasn’t there for protection; it was a brazen display of force. Pedestrians on the Corniche saw it and no one crossed the October 6th Bridge without staring at the ships. They didn’t do any real damage, as they had in the early days, and nor did they prevent it, and not a single Egyptian had ever contemplated attacking them. They were the occupation’s immovable idols. They didn’t know where we were, but they knew we could see them, that we were watching them, tracking them through our scopes. They knew we’d dealt painful blows to their col- leagues. We might have been in the tower, or one of Zamalek’s many other buildings, or even on the Nile’s west bank. Perhaps we were on a rooftop in the East Cairo that they occupied. To them, we were ghosts.

This was the first time I’d stood upright, facing East Cairo, in the light of day. We were out of range of the naked eye, but not of an eye that sought us through a scope. We wouldn’t stand staring scopeless at the city except by night. Though the sights’ lenses reflected light, assassinations were carried out in minutes, too short a time to reveal our position. The observation mission took place on the fifteenth floor, where the revolving restaurant had been located before the occupation. The thick glass ringing the space broke up the sun’s rays and kept our lenses from being seen. I remember how complicated it got in the final weeks: I’d update our routine every day in order to keep our position an undiscoverable secret, and I succeeded.

I remember my first day there. It was night when I reached the tower, and I wandered about for a while outside the grand entrance, looking up at the huge eagle that surmounted it, then got into the lift. Seconds later I was on the fifteenth floor. I climbed up to the top floor and looked out longingly at the five ships on the Nile. Full of eagerness, I took out my scope and inspected each one. I was breaking a number of rules by doing this, placing the position, if not the whole mission, in jeopardy. The next day, when the courier came with food and the first message, I gave him a letter requesting permission to destroy the five ships. What I’d written must have come across as overly excitable, for the day after that an officer from the resistance, a general, came to me and said a lot of things about the importance of the position and the importance of maintaining it unseen. He told me that the island of Zamalek was completely empty: no residents, no civilians. The residents had cleared out a while ago, during the violent bombardment that set the streets and spacious parks aflame. Only a few operatives from the resistance remained, and giving away their position in the tower was easily done: a bullet fired at the wrong moment, a glint of light on a scope’s lens. One of us emerging onto the balcony in plain sight would be enough. No one, he told me, would ever dream that the resistance controlled the Cairo Tower and had retained it as a forward observation and sniping platform. He told me to ready myself for exceptionally difficult missions, and said that my job was to hold my position using guile, not gung-ho.

I walked around the balcony to the other side overlooking West Cairo, the lion-hearted sector the occupier had never managed to enter. Well, fine: that he had never tried to enter.

. . . But even so, Giza was well guarded and the occupier couldn’t get in. This half of the city we utterly ignored. We never bothered watching what went on there. Never bothered sniping anyone who walked its streets. Of course, it was just as forbidden to appear on the western side of the tower as it was on the eastern. Who could say? There might be spies in the free city as well.

A red dot of light appeared on the balcony wall, careering wildly in all directions. The source of the beam was very far away and being blown about in the breeze, but it was getting closer and would be here in a minute or less. It always took a few bullets before my own hands steadied. I remembered that the first laser dot I’d seen through my scope had also wobbled about violently; after days of training I’d come to hold my rifle as if cradling a baby, and the dot had sat more steadily on the target. Now, perhaps, it was no longer a way to gauge the accuracy of my aim, as is usually the case, but instead served as a signal to the target, letting him know that he was about to be struck by my round. The laser beam, fired out parallel to the gun barrel and coming to rest exactly on the point of impact—I no longer required it, but I went on using it as a final warning.

Slowly but surely, the red dot on the wall steadied. I stared at the horizon, searching for its source, but it was still far off and all I saw was the faintly trembling track of the approaching beam. A minute later, what I’d been looking for floated down and settled on the balcony floor in front of me.

A new drone, this. I hadn’t seen one of these before. I opened the message compartment and extracted the small envelope that had been carefully placed inside. Whoever sent me these messages was a true visionary: dispatching little paper missives inside a flying machine with a mind of its own. This drone had five tiny rotors, was lighter and smaller than the four-rotor model which had delivered all our previous messages, and was further equipped with a miniature laser, the message compartment, and a camera affixed to the under- carriage beneath a tiny glass dome that allowed it to swivel in all directions. In addition to all that, there was a thin tube protruding to the right of the camera. I could tell straight away that it was part of a weapon, and looking a little closer saw that it was connected to a magazine containing four 9-mm rounds. Now we had a drone with a gun that could shoot, a camera that could record, and a compartment for messages. A multipurpose tool: kill, deliver, spy.

I set the drone on the ground, and a few seconds later the rotors started to emit a low whine, like a harmless child’s toy. It swayed back and forth across the floor for a bit, then flew through the balcony’s railings and away from the tower. After a few months in the tower, these machines had become our silent companions.

I opened the envelope to find five small sheets of paper with our names on them, one name per sheet. I unfolded mine. It said I would be moving in an hour’s time, the last man to quit the tower. I must make sure that everyone received their orders and that they evacuated the tower, then I was to head to East Cairo and be at the intersection of Ramses and July 26th Streets at exactly 10 a.m. There I would meet a member of the resistance who was to act as my guide.

I returned to the fifteenth floor, handed out the letters, and bade them farewell, asking them to leave immediately.

Now I was the only person left in the place. In a few minutes’ time, it would be completely empty.

I picked up my rifle case and descended to the ground floor, carrying a bag containing a few clothes, my mask, cigarette packs, and some money—just a few pound coins. I remembered their cold, hard, metallic feel. Nothing else. No weapons, no ID card, nothing.

Selecting a spot next to the biggest tree outside the tower, I dug a little rectangular hole into which I laid the gun. The case would keep it free of damp and dirt for a long time. Then I backfilled the remaining space with soil. The tower was my safe place. One day I was sure to return, and when I did my gun had to be ready to go.

There weren’t many routes between Zamalek and East Cairo, only the bridges that linked the two halves of the city: Qasr al-Nil, October 6th, and May 15th. As long as the battleships remained mid-Nile, preventing river traffic between the two banks, these bridges were the only crossing points. Of course, there were checkpoints at each one. Daily, I’d see those intending to cross from east to west and vice versa standing in long queues waiting to be allowed to go over. Through my scope, the checkpoint on the October 6th Bridge looked laughable. The officers and policemen had narrowed the road slightly using barriers, allowing no more than two cars through at a time, while a limited number of pedestrians could pass through a metal detector. The whole operation was a farce. I’d see the officer in charge sitting sprawled out next to the police car, the people around him all staring ahead, beyond the check- points, hoping to reach East or West Cairo on time. People here still took their jobs seriously. Even me—I was careful about my job: I’d obeyed orders and I had listened to everyone’s complaints, faithfully forwarding them to the leadership in hope of an improvement in circumstances, for an end to the occupation. I walked along, unburdened but for my lightweight bag and the few clothes it contained, treading lightly, my feet barely touching the ground. For a moment, I felt relief. I might even have smiled, and I tried to remember the last time I’d felt so secure, but it was so very long ago, so obscured by time I could scarcely recall it. I walked northward, parallel to the Nile, toward the October 6th Bridge.

Plants were everywhere here. The whole island was a garden run wild. How it had all spread and flourished unwatered and untended I had no idea. Trees and plants unpruned, flowers aplenty, boughs and stems beginning to break through the paving stones and asphalt, and all of it somehow unspoiled by the wrecked, burnt-out, and abandoned cars on every side. They were just details that made the scene complete. These cars of ours had been a wonder fashioned from steel and now were gone for good, their place taken by the plants, a glory that had lived on through bombardment, fire, and destruction, that had defied oblivion and stubbornly sprung back up. Many birds had built their nests here, as though our former presence had denied them life and stability. Our existence as peaceful urban citizens, our life on this earth, had ultimately been an impediment to that of the plants and birds, while the artillery was their friend: they lived in harmony with the falling shells, the bullets of the warring sides.

At last, I came to the on-ramp of the October 6th Bridge. I walked on a little way to where the bridge curved up over the Nile, and here I spotted a round breach in the body of the bridge itself, the entrance to the tunnel that spanned the river beneath the crossing cars. I climbed the wooden ladder resting directly beneath the hole and, before passing into the darkness, looked out at the island behind me, so perfectly calm and peaceful. At that moment, I might have been the last human on it and maybe, too, the last person ever to step through that hole into the belly of the bridge.

I moved into total darkness and sensed people standing there, silent, waiting for me to say something. Then one of them switched on a torch. A half-light came faintly from the hole at my back and picked out the shapes of four or five figures.

 

From OTARED.  Used with permission of Hoopoe. Copyright © 2016 by Mohammad Rabie.




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