In the early 1970s, the leftist student movement in Egypt organized protests that rocked the country. Arwa Salih was a leading member of the movement, and in 1991 she published a manuscript entitled The Stillborn that dissected the failure of her generation—a generation that had once believed itself to be “in full possession of the future.” In 1997, a few months after the book’s publication, Salih committed suicide by jumping off a Cairo balcony.
Mustafa Khalifa was also a member of a radical leftist opposition group, but in Syria. From 1982 to 1994, he was tortured and held without trial in secret prisons, including the county’s most infamous, Tadmor. The Shell, which was first published in French in 2005 and in Arabic a year later, is Khalifa’s deeply moving record of his time in nightmarish conditions. Today he lives in Paris.
Salih analyzes the failure and aftermath of a radical political movement; Khalifa bears witness to unimaginable cruelty, suffering and endurance. Their books are distinct in style and purpose, and address different experiences in different countries. Nevertheless, each book also continues to speak, unfortunately, to the present moment. (Both are now available in English: Salih’s translated, outstandingly, by Samah Selim and Khalifa’s by Paul Starkey.) Khalifa was one of the first to describe the barbarity of the regime of Hafez El Assad, whose cruelties have persisted on an unprecedented scale under the regime of Hafez’s son, Bashar, and underpinned the 2011 revolt in Syria. As for Salih’s account of the failure of an earlier protest movement, it has become a reference point for Egyptians trying to make sense of how the popular uprising they enthusiastically and daringly joined in 2011 came to such a dismal end.
When Salih was a student, Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and the death of President Nasser three years later left the country reeling. A regime that had ruled Egypt since its independence in 1956 lost credibility, and with it the ability to repress dissent, leading to an explosion of critical debate, art and political mobilization. Salih joined student activists who were Marxist as well as nationalist: they believed that liberation from colonialism and Western imperialism went hand in hand with class struggle.
They called on the regime of President Anwar Sadat to liberate the Sinai from Israel and to stand up to U.S. imperialism. Sadat did recover the Sinai after the 1973 October War and subsequent peace treaty. Yet he also made peace with Israel and aligned Egypt firmly within the U.S. camp of the Cold War—not the outcome that Salih and her comrades had hoped for. In addition, Sadat’s “Open Door” policy of economic liberalization symbolized a decisive pivot away from socialism, ushering in an era of growing corruption, speculation and inequality. When bread riots broke out in Cairo in 1977 in response to new austerity measures imposed by the IMF, Sadat answered with army violence and mass arrests.
The young leftists who had briefly been at the forefront of a huge popular movement discovered themselves to be irrelevant. They had led the protests, Salih writes, “in the name of an insurgent dream: to change the future of the nation, to save it.” But her generation became “superfluous” before it could realize any of its dreams: “Barely launched on its journey into politics, art and science, it was quashed along with the world it had attempted to bring into being.” It had grown “suddenly old; its children became incomplete projects—a stillborn generation.”
Salih’s voice always sounds like this: striking, wounded and intimate. Reading her is like conversing with a friend whose raw emotion and brutal honesty is matched only by her eloquence. And this impression—that she is speaking to you—is no accident. Her project is precisely to snatch, from the wreckage of her generation’s hopes and illusions, some useful knowledge to be shared with those who come after her: “I find it strange that we should squander our insights into this history just because we ourselves were defeated with such humiliating ease.”
One of Salih’s fundamental insights is about what she calls the conundrum of nationalism. She and her comrades believed that they stood at the center of a political map: “To the east the socialist camp, to the west the capitalist one and in the middle, at the very beating heart, the national independence movements of the third world.” But her small Marxist contingent would be quickly consigned to this map’s margins. “The only struggle in town, the only one of real interest to the masses,” Salih writes, was nationalism: it was the real foundation of the students’ political consciousness—whether they knew it or not—and it trumped their radical but often superficial leftism at every turn.
It was also the means by which the young Egyptian regime could be sure to guarantee its own survival. Any attempt to question economic inequality and political repression could be recast as an attack on the newly independent nation. “The explosion of the student movement onto the political scene was the result of a crack in the walls of the regime’s house, a house of which it was still, nonetheless, the undisputed master,” Salih writes. “The masses were sympathetic to the student movement because it ‘pressured’ the regime, not because it sought to overturn it. … The people’s worst fear was the destruction of the regime at the hands of the country’s enemies.”
Just like the student activists of Salih’s time, the secular progressive activists who had found themselves lionized, briefly, as “revolutionary youth” in Egypt in 2011 were quickly sidelined by Islamists, the military and foreign powers. They continued to take to the streets for several years but drew dwindling crowds. They discovered, like their predecessors, that they were a vanguard with only temporary, contingent mass support. Soon they were accused of being foreign agents, puppets in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, Qatar, Israel, the United States: the same enemies who had supposedly orchestrated the initial protests against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 with the purpose of weakening Egypt.
Once again, nationalist propaganda proved effective at undermining calls for true political and social reform. Leftist intellectuals, whether out of genuine ideological conviction or cynical self-interest, or because they actually had little connection to the people, put more stock in state power than popular mobilization or democracy. The slogan people chanted in 2011 to encourage the army to stand down and support its protests—“The people and the army are one hand”—devolved in 2013 to unconditional support for a military takeover, and for a massacre of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today dissent and protests are no longer tolerated at all; human rights violations and economic hardship are worse than ever, while Arab Spring activists have been targeted for brutal payback. Estimates of the number of people arrested for political reasons in Egypt since 2014 range between 16,000 and 41,000. Disappearances, in which detainees are kidnapped and held incommunicado in unknown locations, have become common, as have torture and extrajudicial killings.
For authoritarian regimes that sense their very survival is threatened, the step from politically marginalizing their opponents to physically annihilating them is not a hard one to take. Since the Arab Spring, the network of secret prisons in countries across the region—Egypt, Syria, Yemen—has grown like a web of poisonous roots. Tadmor, where the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa was once held, was reopened by the Syrian authorities in 2011 and blown up by Islamic State fighters four years later. But many new facilities have expanded to take its place.
The Shell is set in the Eighties and early Nineties, about a decade after Salih’s story takes place. In Syria the left has been routed as well, but much more brutally. The Communist Party has been severely repressed and leftist groups driven underground by Assad’s dictatorial regime. Meanwhile, the confrontation between Islamists and Assad is becoming increasingly violent. In 1980, the Muslim Brotherhood nearly succeeded in assassinating Hafez El Assad; the president’s brother Rifaat led an expedition to Tadmor during which he killed nearly a thousand prisoners in retaliation. Then, in 1982, the town of Hama rose up; Assad’s military besieged it for 27 days. Thousands were killed and much of Hama was destroyed.
The narrator of The Shell is arrested at the Damascus airport upon his return from his studies in Paris. One moment he is having a beer and a tearful farewell with a girlfriend in Orly; the next he is in the basement of a dingy security building, being stuffed inside a tire and beaten on the soles of his feet until they are bloody and raw.
Accused of being a Muslim Brother, he defends himself by declaring that he is a Christian and an atheist. His defense only serves to convince his fellow inmates that he’s a spy. The “shell” of the title is a barrier the narrator erects between himself and his hellish reality. Ostracized by the other prisoners, he peeps through his shell just as he spies through a hole in the prison wall; he becomes a voyeur of his own and others’ pain, a human recording device.
“For thirteen years,” he writes, “I never heard the grating of the key in the steel door without feeling that my heart was about to be ripped out. I couldn’t get used to it.” Readers will not be able to get used to it either. Some of the book’s scenes are nearly unbearable, such as the prisoners’ arrival in the “Desert Prison,” when they are forced to drink sewage water and beaten so brutally that several of them die or are paralyzed. At one point, a new inmate, a brigadier, refuses to drink from the sewer:
The adjutant looked as though he’d received an electric shock.
“What … what? You won’t drink?” he shouted with genuine amazement. He then turned to the military police. “Make him drink, make him drink any way you want, dogs! Move, let me see!”
The brigadier was barefoot and naked except for his underwear. In a few moments his body was covered in red and blue lines, as more than a dozen men swooped down on him, thrusting him back and forth between them. Thick sticks, twisted ropes and tank fan-belts rained down on him from every side. The brigadier started to resist from the very first moment, hitting the men he could see in front of him with his fist. … As they became more aggressive, blood began to stream from all his body. His pants were torn and the elastic split, leaving the brigadier completely naked. His buttocks were whiter than the rest of his body, so the streams of blood were more visible there, and his testicles shook with every blow. After a little his arms flopped to his sides and began to quiver as well. “They’ve broken his arms!” I heard a voice behind me whisper. “God have mercy! This brigadier … he’s an absolute madman!”
Finally, the brave brigadier is cudgelled to death, his inert body dragged to the drain and his head dunked in its effluvia.
After scenes like this, it comes as a respite when the narrator focuses on the daily workings of the prison, which holds up to ten thousand prisoners, divided into wards of several hundred. Once a month, military officers arrive by helicopter and deliver death sentences to the prisoners brought before them. No one is ever acquitted; those who have been imprisoned by mistake are held in the so-called “innocent dormitories.” Inmates spend time memorizing the Qur’an but also the “register”—the names, provenance, admission date and fate of tens of thousands of prisoners.
The narrator himself learns to use these memorization techniques: “I would write a sentence in my mind, then repeat it, memorize it, then write it out again, and memorize it. By the end of the day I would have written and memorized the main events of the day.” This technique probably accounts for the book’s vivid, spare style. The tone is matter-of-fact, and even manages some moments of humor. The narrator injects little in the way of commentary, because little is needed. Every page feels essential.
Late in the book, the narrator tells the story of a father who has been imprisoned with his three sons. At one of the military tribunals, the officers are in a lenient mood and tell the father he may choose one son to be spared. He picks the youngest, because he has not had the chance to have a family. Yet when the time comes, all three sons are called for execution.
The father cannot control himself; a deeply religious man, he inveighs against God:
“Why like this? Lord of the worlds, why like this? You are powerful, you are the all-powerful! Why do you let these evildoers wreak havoc with us, why? What will you say? Will you say that God may move slowly but is never neglectful? And will words like that bring back my children?…” The sons took hold of his hands and started to kiss them, then all four burst out in spontaneous weeping, which engulfed the dormitory.
The tableau is a timeless, elemental tragedy—in part because, despite his own political background, Khalifa makes few references to contemporary events or politics. The prisoners receive no news of the outside world (a single newspaper page, stuck in a window, occupies the entire ward for weeks). The fact that many officers, prison officials and guards are Alawite, belonging to the same minority Shiite sect as the Assad family, is never explicitly stated.
This puts readers in the same position as the narrator, one of those “political” prisoners whose only crime is an offhand gesture of insubordination or a bit of bad lack. Like many others, the narrator does not understand why he is there, and has almost no information about what is going on outside. And yet this blinkered view is revelatory. Nothing can explain the way the system works better than this secret prison: it is both its foundation and its purest manifestation. The Shell is set in a place where any pretense or hope of real politics has been stripped away. All that is left is a hellish mockery, as when a guard nicknamed “The Beast,” himself looked down upon by the other guards, beats the corpse of a prisoner, screaming his loyalty to Assad:
“The President’s the most powerful man in the world”—another blow—“The President will fuck your mothers”—another blow—“The President’s got the biggest cock in the whole world”—another blow—“He’ll fuck you and your sister one after the other!”
Salih’s book is different. It stays within the bounds of politics, as hopeless and infuriating as they may be. It is a study of the blind spots, pretensions and eventual compromises of the Marxist student movement and of the left in Egypt in general; and it is a diagnosis of how that left was outmaneuvered by the Egyptian regime and bourgeoisie. Often brilliant in its analysis, it is inflected with the pathos of Salih’s own painful struggle to make sense of her past.
By the time she published her book, Salih had re-evaluated not just the geopolitical situation in which she came of age but also the Marxist movement to which she had belonged. Her criticism of former comrades and of the Egyptian left caused a stir upon publication. It’s clear from her book, however, that the very qualities that drew Salih to political activism made her someone who could never reach any accommodations or accept any platitudes—who could never let things be.
Salih had become a Marxist as a teenager because she could not accept that the world was “a place of boundless suffering.” “The militant,” she wrote, “is someone who responds to a form of collective awareness. He steps into the movement for the sake of correcting the ever-crooked balance between truth and history.” Salih was never able to accept the crookedness of that balance—and it ended up unsettling her own life. She had trouble finding a place for herself, socially and professionally, in Egypt, and wrote part of The Stillborn while traveling alone in Europe. Decades later, she remarked, “I keep colliding with that ever-widening abyss between what is and what should be.”
Looking back, Salih dissected the radical left’s Stalinist and sectarian tendencies, the ideological rigidity that masked intrigues and insecurities. Winning arguments on points of doctrine and accruing authority over others became “a substitute for productive work” and for “the possibility of human communication.” Those who claimed the roles of writers and intellectuals were elevated above those who did the mundane work of organizing. Gender relations, despite a desire to be revolutionary, were still based on double standards and quickly conformed to traditional models. Salih is scathing on the older, male, would-be gurus of the movement:
Their brains and their bookshelves were crowded with “radical” ideas that had no consistent, principled application in the world around them. The only thing these ideas were good for was to patch together a shining image of personal militancy propped by abstract political positions and the occasional prison sentence. And even then, the title of “militant” wasn’t enough to satisfy the bloated egos of these individuals. Nothing less than the status of “leader” could shore up the humiliated pride of an “intellectual” wrapped up in his personal tragedy rather than the tragedy of his people.
Salih’s own journals were destroyed, without her knowledge, by a comrade and lover who had persuaded her to hand them over to him for her protection.
Yet Salih continued to value Marxism as a way to see the world: “Marx was the last of the great thinkers, and part of my brain will always tick with a mechanism acquired from the world of his ideas.” Her own bitter experience, however, taught her to be deeply suspicious of ideology and how it could turn into a deadening, stultifying force rather than a means to engage with the world. She invoked Milan Kundera’s notion of totalitarian kitsch: a sort of “violent sentimentalism embodied in a collective dream of salvation.” When you embrace this kitsch and its ready-made certainties, you insist that you have all the answers, and “you refuse the human being as a world unto herself, alive with contradiction.”
Salih’s ability herself to remain “alive with contradiction” is what makes The Stillborn such a valuable interrogation of the past, both politically and personally. Many of her former comrades, when their political failure became clear, took refuge in cynicism, compromises or the romanticization of defeat. But, Salih believed, they could never really move on: “They can never go back to being the person they were before the rapture took them. They can never be free of the memory of that magnificent moment of transgression, of freedom; of a lightness whose beauty is almost unbearable.”
She is, of course, speaking of herself. It is Salih who could never go back. The aftermath of revolutionary and utopian moments, especially for those who most sincerely believed in them, can be devastating. Salih lost both her ideological certainties and the exhilarating sense of collective belonging and purpose that comes from being part of a movement. The “decomposition … into isolated units connected by nothing but the struggle for survival,” she wrote, was “part of the entire people’s loss of their collective hopes.”
When the narrator of The Shell is suddenly released from the Desert Prison, he is driven to a security building in Damascus. “The car stopped at some traffic lights and I looked out at the people, looked hard into their faces,” recounts the narrator. “What was this indifference? How many of them knew what went on, and was still going on, in the Desert Prison? How many of them cared, do you suppose?”
Before being released he is tortured again by three different intelligence services, each hoping to break him and thus embarrass the others as ineffective. One intelligence official asks him politely to be sure not to tell other torturers anything new. The narrator discovers that what precipitated his arrest was an informer’s report about a joke he made one evening in Paris at the expense of the president. He is told his twelve years in prison were “the result of an error for which we are not responsible.” He is badgered to sign a telegram to the president thanking him for his release (he balks). When he finally goes home, he discovers that his mother and father are dead.
In jail, The Shell’s narrator had found camaraderie, even love, in the end. In the outside world—Syrian society at large—he seems to face only estrangement. He does not survive his imprisonment to emerge into a society where the Assad regime has fallen; instead, he comes back to find it as strong as ever. Once outside, he writes,
Here—in what prisoners called the world of freedom—there was fear of another kind, and well as revulsion, anger, and loathing. Together they fashioned another shell, thicker, stronger, and darker … I feel a backbreaking terror, when the idea flashes through my mind that I might go on living as other people do. My God, how tiresome and stupid to live like them.
This is happening to Syrians today, as those who rebelled and were bombed, gassed, shot at and tortured must continue living under the regime that so brazenly tried to destroy them. The Shell, like all such stories of survival, bears witness—it insists on inscribing into the historical record a voice that brute power would just as soon have erased (along with the body that shared its breath). But it also raises an important question: How much of a difference can bearing witness make? It was two decades ago that The Shelland other books exposed the gruesome workings of the Assad regime. Since then, the Syrian war and its atrocities have been exhaustively documented, at great personal risk, in real time—and yet the Assad regime remains in power, while the war mercilessly grinds on.
Both The Shell and The Stillborn refer to alienation—to being cut off from others and from life, out of sync. They are written from the point of view of someone who has been reduced, against their will, to an utterly isolated individual. Small wonder that suicide, that act of hopelessness and protest, hangs over both books. Khalifa’s narrator describes himself as filled with death: “I hold a large graveyard inside me, Lena!” Similarly, Salih writes, “When I look inside me, I find nothing but a mass grave.”
In the personal letters included in a final section of her book, Salih mentions her own breakdowns as well as her belief that she might kill herself eventually. She suffered from schizophrenia and depression and she attempted to take her life several times before she finally did so in 1997.
But her legacy as an activist and a writer has reverberated in the imagination of others, a half-forgotten history from which they have drawn inspiration. The Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha made Salih an important character in The Crocodiles (2012), a novel about a group of Cairo poets who come of age in the Nineties. One of the young poets becomes fascinated with an activist named Radwa Adel, whose life and death matches Salih’s, and whose legacy seems to hold important clues for his own generation. On the book’s final page, Rakha’s narrator tells us:
During that period in which it seemed that a spontaneous movement would eradicate the futility of living in Egyptian society, meaning really did return to words like people, homeland, revolution, even, perhaps, to bourgeoisie; and though this period did not last and though the meaning vanished again with its passing, it’s been clear to me ever since that Radwa Adel really did kill herself for our sake. Without knowing it, she killed herself that meaning might return to words.
Rakha imagined this suicide as an act not of despair but of consistency—as a generous lesson. That’s certainly how Salih seems to have tried to live her life—as if her acts and words meant something, to herself and others. And that is how countless others, in streets and prisons across the Arab world, have in more recent years also tried to live and, much too often, have died. Reactionary forces have denied all of these deaths the remembrance and the significance they deserve; they have buried their meaning.
Salih wrote that future generations in Egypt wouldn’t have the same ideological blinders as her, but also that they wouldn’t harbor the same outsize ambitions. On the second count, she was wrong. Most militants in the Arab uprisings of 2011 didn’t share the Marxist certainties of Salih and her generation, but they did experience the same ecstatic sense of communal purpose and possibility. And they have struggled just as painfully, in the years since, to figure out how to live in a society that denies both their experience and their ambitions.
My friend Yasmin El-Rifae is a writer who lives in Cairo. I called her to talk about what Salih, who in recent years has developed a small new readership, means to her. El-Rifae was 27 in 2011, when, she says, the revolution took her by surprise—it “disrupted an ambitionless time” and inspired sudden and huge hopes. Four years later, when everything seemed already lost, she read The Stillborn for the first time. The work spoke to her deeply, “to my feelings of regret, at a time when I was stunned and surprised by how powerfully I felt our failure.” For El-Rifae, Salih’s book is a raw and essential example of self-reckoning. And it is a gift. “She really set out to write a useful text and a useful history,” El-Rifae told me.
It’s not an easy example to follow. Across the Arab world, the scale and ferocity of the defeat of progressive forces has left the losers with little time or space to ponder their mistakes or delusions, let alone to share their thoughts publicly. Even privately, such discussions can be difficult, given the intensely personal disagreements over where things went wrong. It seems unfair to focus on the shortcomings of the protest movement when the much greater culprits are those who undermined it; for many it is painful, even traumatic, to dwell on the past; and there is a sort of shame, I think, in considering what Salih called “the humiliating ease” with which the protesters were routed.
Yet for El-Rifae, it is necessary to reckon with what happened—on a personal, creative, and eventually, when the chance presents itself, historical level. As Salih insisted on asking: “Who were we? What was our experience? In other words: How did we come to be defeated?” And also, “What did we do with that defeat?”
Photo credits: Bruno Barbey (Magnum Photo), Moises Saman (Magnum Photo)