Bi La Kayf

"Bi La Kayf" by David Casey

“I applied on impulse. I got the e-mail and initially dismissed it but after another run in with Carol, that horrible girl at the internship-”

Q.

“Something about filing the briefings incorrectly, although of course I filed them exactly as they needed to be, she was trying to make me look incompetent in front of the boss… it’s irrelevant; let’s just say UPenn must offer a minor in duplicity.  After that I was in one of those moods again. My usual methods of escape were unavailable, but at the very least I had email. I logged on and read over the description of the program again.”

Q.

“I had no real interest in the Middle East at that point, but it’s hard to say I really had an interest in anything. It’s more, I had an interest in everything, and only that, if you get what I mean. Switching majors every month or so. Mostly I was looking for way out of my current situation. The deadline had passed for the other study abroad programs, and there was no indication my last year at Chicago would go any differently than the previous three. So I pieced together a few essays, wrote the one professor from college with who I’d established anything approximating a relationship, and sent it off.”

Q.

“Around the third week of September. I had almost forgotten I had applied, to tell the truth. I had already worked out my schedule under the assumption I would not be going to Cairo. But there the email was. ‘We are happy to offer you a position in the Islamic Civilizations program,’ so on and so forth. Frankly, I was almost dismayed they had taken me. My GPA was not particularly high, my transcript indicated little in the way of consistency, and beyond all that I was a fourth-year. If they took me, they must have been taking anybody. Which is not to say I wasn’t also grateful.”

Q.

“Not immediately. Like I said, I had almost forgotten I had applied, and many of my friends were coming back to Chicago around that time. Even if I wouldn’t be graduating on time, it would be my last time living with the guys, and there was a decided part of me that wanted to see out the entire year.”

Q.

“Talking to one of the guys, Ben. He had gone abroad to Pune the previous year and told me it was the best thing he had ever done at Chicago. Specifically, going somewhere not in the normal realm of things. Kind of ironic I ended up in Paris, then right? But so there was that, and the fact I had also fallen into the same sorts of behaviors that landed me in front of you in the first place.”

Q.

“Yes, that, and drinking alone, basically any activity that actively annihilated my consciousness. I came back to Chicago about two weeks earlier than my roommates, and I knew it would be a bad idea to have the apartment to myself.”

Q.

“Anywhere from three to five in the morning. And then I would wake up around noon, eye bags and all, promising myself never again, furiously writing journal entries. But you know how that goes.”

Q.

“Exactly. But here’s the kicker: after an entire week of this self-annihilation the guys came back. And as it turns out things hardly got better by their presence. I still spent most of my time in my room curled around my laptop. It is like there are two people in me at constant war with each other, and while the short-term thinker was trying to get me to stay by worrying about what I would miss during winter quarter and whether I would graduate on time the more rational one told me, ‘Tres, you have got to go to Cairo. You need a way to break up what you are doing here, because otherwise there is a good chance you will take a leave again, and this time you may never come back.’ The rational one is more and more the one able to act in the long term, even if in the short term I’m essentially paralyzed. So I signed up.”

Q.

“They were a bit taken aback. Up until that point, my dad’s favorite metaphor for my approach to life was something along the lines of, ‘Son, you are in a hallway, and every door in the hallway is open to you. All you have to do is step through one. But instead you just stand there until they close, or you close them yourself.’ So for me to essentially knock a hole in the wall of that hallway and storm my way through was unprecedented.”

Q.

“For the most part people were supportive, if confused. Zeb was especially unhappy with the decision. In some ways it was like a final straw between the guys and me, which is too bad. We had been drifting in different directions for a while, but this decision really created a new dynamic in the apartment.”

Q.

“Exactly like every other quarter. I started skipping class first week and going online, which then of course made me anxious, causing me to conduct searches about why I was going online, and this lead me to send emails to my professors explaining this anxiety about even going to class, which of course led to shame more anxiety, until I’m essentially a gibbering neurotic lock-in - we’ve talked about this tendency before. And of course I didn’t get my work done on time. There was a point late in the quarter where I was behind by more than two weeks in every class. I was aware of the decisions I was making, but that made no difference as far as compelling me to do. I was ashamed to show my face on campus, let alone at parties.”

Q.

“A few times. The group seemed fine - I knew nobody going, which was kind of the point. I then had little organizational involvement at Chicago, and as a result my friend group was pretty limited. In a way I preferred to be with a bunch of strangers. It’s like what somebody once said, when you feel down you want to only be with people who don’t know you or with people who you love so much it hurts.”

Q.

“I’ll get to that, but I wanted to mention one more low point before I took off; it is kind of along the lines we have been talking about for the past few years, and also helps explain my appearance in front of you today.”

…Q.

“It was Christmas Eve, actually. See, my folks had gone with my sister to Puerto Rico. If I had gone with them I would have had to fly directly from there to Cairo by way of New York, and I was just unsure about whether I could adequately handle such a task and maintain some level of internal constitution. So I stayed home. Problem there is, there’s an open Internet connection, and you know what that means.”

Q.

“So I woke up on Christmas Day with a hangover of the screened and liquored variety. And I made a decision to cut myself off entirely. I went to the effort of actually unplugging the Wi-Fi network in the house and deleting the browser on every available screen just to be sure. I flew out two days later, which turned out to be perfect, because it took exactly that much time to nurse myself back to mental and physical stasis.”

Q.

“Yes, right, moving on. I am just not too sure about how to proceed, really – I mean, oh, there’s so much to tell! We stayed in these beautiful and expansive apartments in the Doqqi neighborhood. They had kitchenettes, in-unit washers and dryers, flat screen televisions, and a thrice-weekly housekeeping service. We took up almost half of an apartment building, the sixteen of us.”

Q.

“Like I said, it had been deleted. So I was also, for the first time in my life, completely sans internet.”

Q.

“Amazing. Just, amazing, what it did for my focus and my relationships.”

Q.

 “There were the pyramids and the sarcophagi, yes, but Egypt was so much more. Just, every day, walking to Cairo University, a thousand different things could happen. I could tell you about koshari and sheeshah and shawermas and meeting a billionaire and getting fresh-squeezed strawberry juice en route to an Islamic art museum. Culture shock everywhere – hijabs went from being unusual to routine really quickly. My standards of dress certainly became more conservative – if you ever go to Cairo, please, don’t wear shorts outside. And Arabic, what a language! I even learned a bit of the script before we left. But I mean, this sort of stuff can go on forever. I’ll get to the exciting parts.”

Q.

“There had been a bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria, Coptic referring to an Egyptian Christian church, of course. And a lot of people thought the government could have prevented it or might have been behind it. With that and Tunisia in the background it seemed like something was fomenting. But nothing really big had occurred yet. My friend over in Garden City mentioned jokingly that we might get kicked out of the country, and one of the people on our group voiced the same opinion seriously, but we wrote those notions off for the most part.”          

Q.

“We had gotten enough information where we decided not to have class on campus that Tuesday. That first day Twitter started to suffer a bit, but we could still get news for the most part. One of the apartments had this massive living room we could all crowd into. But of course we went out into the streets after class got out. We were living about two blocks away from a major bridge that led straight towards Midan Tahrir. As we walked there we saw rows and rows of police in full riot gear. Everybody stood around for I would say roughly twenty minutes. Eventually the protesters came into view. The police outnumbered the protesters by about three to one at this point. Without much ado the protesters were stopped and forced to continue along a very specific controlled route. Although we did not have class back at Cairo University until Thursday, it seemed like the riot was a nonstarter.”

Q.

“I did not actually smell tear gas at any time, but I certainly saw people getting beaten. Thing was, I only went out the first day of protests, because like I said it seemed like a tempest in a teapot. It turns out I was wrong.”

Q.

“Well, I will tell you one thing, people in the West were not getting it at all. Some of my friends actually put things on my Facebook wall like “Go flip a car for me dude!” I’m not sure my generation is capable of viewing these sorts of things unironically, which doesn’t really bode well for us in the future.”

Q.

“In Dahab, actually. I found out at a bar.”

Q?

“A small beachcomber town on the southeastern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. We had gone there for the weekend, as we had a trip planned to go to Mt. Sinai and St. Katherine’s Monastery. You have to remember, we were taking trips every weekend; it was wild! And for a pittance of the cost of other places.”

Q.

“Because we didn’t know. Like I said, by Thursday everything was running smoothly again. We were under the impression that things were fine. Yes, Facebook and Twitter were shut down, but we were completely unprepared for what would happen on Friday.”

Q.

“On the bus ride over. Nine of us had decided to go to Dahab, and we took an overnight bus there, crossing the Suez. One of us got a call, and let us know that the Internet had been shut down. But we’re on this bus now, so there isn’t much to be done, right?”

Q.

“This motel called the Penguin Inn. Dahab is beautiful, mind you – sunny, mid 70s, relaxed dress code, incredible food. We actually went snorkeling while we were there. And to do all this in light of the fact we knew almost nothing about what the situation in Cairo was like, well, it felt strange.”

Q.

“Around 5PM that Friday. We started hearing reports from our friends stuck in Cairo that the police had been routed, that prisoners were breaking out of jail and storming the streets, that neighborhood militias had formed. We were told to make lists of our most valuable items, because of course all of us had just packed for the weekend.”

Q.

“Right, they were still giving us percentages. ‘60/40 we’ll be staying,’ things like that. But the bar: we decided to decamp to a beachside dive and get a drink, you know, calm down. And as it turns out, this bar actually had al-Jazeera English, which was quite amazing, because most television stations had been cut at this point. So they turn on the TV for us, and the first thing that appears is a line of military vehicles headed towards Tahrir Square. I had been walking down that very street three days prior. And then-“

Q.

“Our apartments were about ten minutes away from there. But anyways, then a montage starts, and they show bodies in morgues and death counts. And suddenly there is a live cut to the outside of al-Jazeera’s office in Cairo, an office not five minutes from our apartments, and there are live rounds being fired right outside of it. At that moment, I knew we were out of there. Whatever hope we had that things would cool over, well, as soon as these images got to Chicago, we knew it was over.”

Q.

“The next morning. They sent a van for us and in a very short amount of time we suddenly found ourselves at a hotel in Paris. Of course the first thing we do is call our respective folks and check our Facebook walls, where some of those irreverent friends I mentioned earlier had changed their tune from sarcasm to extreme worry.”

Q.

“They arrived about three days after us. We had no idea how they were going to get out. That entire time was spent very anxiously, believe me. Our group had initially been almost resentful that we were at a beachside resort instead of a place where history was actually being made. As it turns out, we had been extremely lucky to be in Dahab that Friday. The Cairo group had to spend the night in the airport, which was apparently in complete chaos. Fighting, groping, stealing, the whole deal. Everyone looked utterly shell-shocked.”

Q.

“Arrangements were made to finish the program in Paris. We had a center there, after all. But I don’t want to get into Paris too much – maybe only to say that my French dramatically improved and, again, I was essentially a Luddite with regards to Internet use. It was certainly different than Cairo, and there were a lot of mixed emotions. Personally, I wish we had been able to stay in Cairo. But Paris itself was amazing, and Chicago allowed us to switch classes from one on Islamic architecture to the politics of the Middle East. Really, the university’s response was remarkable. Whatever doubts or misgivings I have had about my experience here, the way Chicago handled our program was just incredible.”

Q.

“In mid-March, after a few weeks in Spain and Morocco, which we simply don’t have time here for, I know. And everything was restored, the Internet, alcohol, all of it – and nothing. I had no desire to obliterate my consciousness at all, no drive whatsoever to waste time or anything.”

Q-

“And what mo- oh, sorry, what were you saying?”

Q.

“I’m serious. None. Give me an open connection and I’ll be so bored that I’ll be staring at the wall in five minutes. Look, what Cairo did more than anything was create meaning. Essentially I had found almost everything I did or that I could do meaningless, and I knew there was something wrong with thinking that way, but I also knew that I couldn’t necessarily change it through thinking either, which left me in this negative spiral of thinking that is way, way too common and banal to even continue talking about. But since Cairo, none of that. I’m taking classes on foreign policy. I’m interested in politics again. I haven’t missed a single class. I don’t care so much about appearances and all the other social positioning things that dominated my first three years here. I’m simply friendlier now. And that’s why this will be out last meeting.”

…Q?

“Completely. It’s in my control now anyways, this is no longer a requirement for me to stay.”

Q.

“Thanks for understanding. And you, too.”

Q.

“Concisely?”

Q.

Q.

“Just give me a minute.”

“God, I am not sure how to summarize. I feel like I have spent years tailing about myself to you and people like you, but in all that machinating and talking and talking about talking I was spinning in circles. I mean, even tracking our conversation, I have been falling into the solipsistic trap Egypt broke me out of. There’s nothing more I can discover by talking about myself. You’ve been an immense help, really, but it’s time for me to go. A number of metaphors come to mind: placing an idling car into first gear, firing up a motor that has been quietly rusting for over two decades. It’s strange, because I have never had any qualms about talking about myself before, but I don’t think I have ever been able to fully say that something else concerns me that is bigger than myself.”

Q.

“Absolutely, you’re right, things can change, and God knows I can flounder all over the place. But I think this time is for real.”

Q.

“I mean it, I am done.”

Q-

“But can I tell you what really did it for me? It wasn’t just the revolution. And I know how sappy this will sound, I get the New-Agey unhip spiritualism that is inherent in this answer, and I don’t believe you should have any other reaction but to roll your eyes, but enough with the qualifying, here is what I mean: driving into the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, being surrounded for miles and miles by essentially nothing, and realizing that these dunes will be here long after I and everyone else I know is gone. And in that moment I could not conceive of my experience from an ironic distance. At that moment, my constant paroxysms of thought simply ceased to be. It hasn’t always remained, but at that moment I didn’t worry so much, about law school and my GPA and whether that girl with the double piercing liked me. There was something bigger than me. I didn’t really try to figure it out. At some point explanation just fails. Bi la kayf, right? ‘Without asking how.’ Some things are better left unexamined.”

Q.

“Now? God, what will I not do now?”