Egypt: Metaphysical Walls After State Abduction Of Our Friend

Alaa was taken away by the Egyptian state. Mohamed al-Baqer, a human rights lawyer, was also detained when he showed up to attend Alaa’s interrogation.

You may not make it up. You may never come down.
You may not make it up. You may never come down.
Sarah Rifky and Lina Attalah

CAIRO — On Sunday morning, our friend, the ghost of spring past, was abducted. For the past six months, Alaa has emerged every morning at 6:01 am outside of the Dokki police station, where he spends 12 hours every night. These are the terms of his 60-month probation. Today, he would have successfully completed 10 percent of it. Alaa, a techie, activist, father and writer, has been in prison for five years. In another four, Alaa will have spent the entirety of his thirties locked up, serving his sentences, full and part-time. By 2024, it will have been 10 years since he was convicted of breaking the protest law.

Alaa was taken to State Security Prosecution. Mohamed al-Baqer, a human rights lawyer, was also detained when he showed up to attend Alaa's interrogation. They were both assigned to Case 1356/2019. After hours of waiting, a rushed session concluded with a list of four charges, none of which have been formally confirmed. Despite attempts to report on the case quickly and accurately, what we know is what we are told, and we retell. Through relays of words from lawyers and family, we believe the charges are ones commonly fabricated by the authorities: "joining an illegal organization" and "receiving foreign funding" through said organization, "spreading false news' and doing so by "misusing social media." Both Alaa and Mohamed are being held for 15 days in remand detention. Following the interrogation by prosecutors, they were relocated. Their whereabouts remain unknown today. Families of both men are out looking for them.

A few days ago, together with his son on the playground, Alaa was telling us about climbing a tree. Khaled would run toward a tree, climb up its trunk, feel its bark, get stuck, and not be able to climb down. "Who does he take after?" Alaa asked. The question, largely rhetorical, has to do with the capacity for imagination. Some of it is hereditary, perhaps. We run toward causes, incite revolutions, fall in love. Let's just say they are all adventures in nature, in our nature.

What happens when one climbs up a tree and can't get down?

More so, what happens when one climbs up a tree and can't get down? More and more, it feels like everyone is stuck in trees. The descent from treetops is an enduring task, both physically and mentally — except for superheroes, perhaps.

Alaa is a comics fan. (We don't share that interest.) However, in moments like arbitrary detentions, especially when repeated, it inspires something of the fantastical as a means to political imagination. In a simple sense, when someone you love gets arrested or detained in the conditions we are in, in which action is impossible, one can feel their own body split and phantasms emerge. Superhero feelings. Wings grow and hands multiply into mechanical extensions that do many things at once — we become cyborgs, with the quantum sentience of being in many places at once. Teleportation is real; we are in at least two places in an instant. In time, it is unheard of that anyone gets stuck in a tree. For years, we have been drafting plans for cities in treetops, a type of commune: We all live in our own tree houses, together.

A tree that grows in Egypt ... — Photo: Adamina

Wittgenstein once asked, "What if something really unheard-of happened?" A metaphysical question, which is intended to examine what we would say — or write — or how we would react. (When the unheard of has happened.) A logician and philosopher of mathematics, he imagined how houses would turn into steam, or cows would graze upside down, laugh and speak unintelligibly. In his book, On Certainty (published posthumously in 1969), he also wondered what would happen if trees changed into men, and men into trees. (In mythology it is often women who turn into trees). In a city of people-turned-trees, perhaps in climbing and being stuck, our plight is that of an acrobatic human pyramid, rather than simply a matter of someone being stuck in a tree-tree. We are stuck together, trying to be trees, in some bizarre tower of sorts, scattered.

It is not normal to accept the current state of things.

What are trees, and how many are in Cairo, still? Are we them? And are we stuck trying to climb down, trees and each others' bodies, petrified? This is a different type of arboreality.

This is not normal. It is not normal to accept the current state of things.

An uneasy version of the really unheard-of is really happening for real. Alaa, already serving a post-prison probation sentence, is imprisoned again. A recursive nightmare, which also entails the illogical abduction of the law itself: Mohamed, a human rights lawyer and director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, founded in 2014 — the same year Alaa was first imprisoned — while representing Alaa during his detention.

There is no doubt that this moment is one that has left everyone, ourselves included, in a petrified state, whether we might think of ourselves as entangled masses of people-trees, or, perhaps more simply, as those who have climbed up trees and gotten stuck, amid dense branches, frozen in fear. While the more likely imagination in this scenario is to cry and reach out for a hand to help us climb down or someone to catch us falling, there's also another solution: Let's just build treehouses and stay up there. Let's embrace the arboreal.

We are drafting a tender call for proposals from gifted children with treehouse-building experience, and bird watchers who are hobby engineers.

For now.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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