BERLIN — On the bus I now take to university in Berlin every day, I reach compulsively for my phone to check Facebook for updates from Egypt. I see that someone else has been arrested, this time a PhD student like me, who was also doing his fieldwork in Egypt. I get flustered and feel physically scared. I've resisted this feeling for so long, but this time it hits me.
I was planning to travel to Egypt for the recent Eid holiday to visit my mother. She hasn't taken my absence very well, both physically and emotionally, so I wanted to do something nice for her. But now I'm afraid to go home and my mind spins. If I'm held at the airport and disappear for a few days, as has become almost customary with these arrests, how will my mother's heart deal with it? Will she cope until I resurface at a random police station? If something happens to her, I'll never forgive myself. After a life of hardship she is strong — but what about me?
Would the authorities allow me access to my daily medication? It has become a pattern to deny prisoners access to medical supplies, even those with chronic or terminal illnesses. Would they put me in solitary confinement, as they do with many political prisoners, to control the spread of their "poisonous ideas?" How would I survive in solitary confinement without my medication? I wonder if they would allow me access to books, or pens and paper. Would I be allowed visitors? Would I be able to see my mother? How long might I be detained? I don't even consider the possibility of seeing my partner, or my friends: That's a luxury.
What did my mother do to deserve such pain? She lost her father when he was exiled from Egypt under Sadat for being an outspoken opposition figure, and I never met him.
Three generations of struggle and a revolution later, and one might think that today would be better than 50 years ago. I wonder: Did she ever forgive my grandfather for what happened to the family? Did she think he abandoned her? Did she blame him? Would she blame me? My mind races.
Street scene in Cairo — Photo: Simon Matzinger
I must have a conversation with her about this when I go home. I know she hates to talk about it, but we must. I understand now that it wasn't my grandfather's fault. He stood up for what he believed in, as I am trying to do. But why does the price of all this have to be her pain?
Hopes and dreams is how we survive together in diaspora.
I miss my station. I get out, look around, and realize how beautiful it is. I feel guilty that I'm here, while some of my friends are in dark cells. I also feel guilty that I'm here and not enjoying all this beauty. Crippling fear has crossed the Mediterranean and taken over my mind. Fear is a strange thing. I cannot go home, but neither can I make a home here. Sometimes, someone yells at me on the street to "go home," thinking this is an insult, but it's not for me. Returning home is my deepest desire. I dream of going back to a place that is free of fear, where I can fulfill my potential. Dictatorships are not a far away problem. My neighbors, colleagues, people I meet at the supermarket or on the U-bahn, may be suffering from fear, just like me. In Germany you never really know who you're talking to. But talking about our fears, hopes and dreams is how we survive together in diaspora. Sharing them somehow lightens the burden, and means I am no longer in a solitary confinement of sorts.
If you see me on the bus, with tears in my eyes, it is probably because I'm deep in thought or scared. If you see me smiling or laughing, you know that I'm trying. If you do not see me at all, imagine me back home surrounded by friends and family, telling them about my time in Germany. Or maybe detained somewhere. For, as I continue my PhD research, a nagging fear in my mind and body reminds me that, if I go back, I might be imprisoned, cut off from the outside world because I, like many of my friends, dared to dream of a better home.