Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

Rare is it to watch television so searing as to elicit a visceral and almost continuous feeling of tension and slow-creeping fear. But try, as a woman, to watch The Handmaid’s Tale and not feel that parts of you have been bruised, others ripped open.

The vivid brutality of the world evoked by this series is breathtaking, its power the result of economy. Not all violence comes in technicolour. Disenfranchised women, offered an outlet for their rage, savage a man to death with their bare hands. A newborn baby is wrenched from its mother, as she cries out in soundless agony. A man lasciviously licks the stump of a woman kept alive only to pleasure him and others like him - because in this society, all female body parts except the reproductive organs are dispensable.   

The basic premise might once have been termed the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. Now it feels more like eerie prescience. In an America beset by environmental and social problems, with catastrophically declining fertility levels, social restructuring has been orchestrated by an elite that wields its power mercilessly. Still-fertile women are subjected to ritualistic rape for the purpose of procreation, its baseness in no way disguised by a veneer of religious ceremony.

As with all good totalitarian regimes, the new state is peopled by an extensive spy network and designed to subjugate any attempts at free thought. Academics have been sent to a toxic wasteland or brutally murdered; books have been burned, museums and churches destroyed, games outlawed. The sterility of sanctioned interactions is embodied by the accepted phrases and greetings used: joyless praise bes and blessed days pepper this social wasteland, where, we are told, carbon emissions have reduced dramatically, crops grow and children are born. Only the ominous under his eye carries with it a deeper meaning – a reminder to watch others as you are watched, that privacy has been abolished, that your eye can be plucked out.

But this series made me recall recent – unrelated – conversations with two female friends who, by coincidence, each said the same thing: still so much about conception is a mystery.

So too parenthood, so too sexuality, so too human connection. Life finds a way. A defiant sentence etched into a wall can penetrate a person’s psyche. Trying to reduce a group of women to bland uniformity, to erase individual identity, may instead create a solidarity so powerful as to give birth to resistance. As two people find each other after long separation, they are reminded that familial bonds are not always of blood, but they cannot be artificially created. Women who have been robbed of their agency in every possible respect wield what weapons they have to fight back: they speak their own names, they tell their stories, they insist on being remembered. One steals a car and deliberately, with exhilaration, runs over one of the faceless men who has served as a warden in her open-air prison. The viewer shares in mixed fear and triumph at the bloody mess she leaves, knowing a worse fate awaits her, encased in walls of clinical white.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a glorious celebration of humanity’s enduring ability to give the finger to forces that would have us cower, even as it is a warning against the growth of the totalitarian regime in sheep’s clothing. Its female characters are not only real and vivid; they, in particular, resist easy characterisation and are accorded a depth and complexity equalled by no male character. Two of the women who in some ways govern, were part of creating or at least perpetuate the system are shown, as the series progresses, to be compassionate as well as bitter and petty, to wish to protect and nurture even while they continue to bully and torment. You see flashes of their anguish and remorse, and you see how these feelings fuel their fury.

In close-up shots exposing both wrinkles and inner thoughts – each one perhaps equally dangerous for women in this society – steely resolve can crumple to vulnerability, smug complacency can turn to confusion and revulsion can be painfully pushed to one side to make room for mock-flirtatiousness.

The ultimate success of this series, for me, is that you are never invited to judge the protagonist. She is sympathetic but refuses to be saintly. She swears and rails against the unfairness of her situation but she seizes her chance to seek pleasure for its own sake and she won’t apologise for it. You feel every violation of her body, whether it is the crack of a whip on her feet or the slithering of an unwanted finger running down her arm. You feel the potency of her barely-contained rage and you find yourself waiting, breathless, until the moment when it will finally explode into life. 

Monday, 16 October 2017


Aged 10. On holiday in southern France, you see that your mother doesn’t want to leave you waiting outside a restaurant in the street on your own. She is all fierce and protective Mama-bear. When you ask why, she tells you it’s because of the way men are looking at you. Confused, you protest: but I’m ten.

It makes no difference, she answers. For them you have a woman’s body. You’re fair game.

You feel dirty and stop wearing shorts for the rest of the trip.


Aged 13. It’s common knowledge at school that one fifty year old maths teacher twangs the bras of his students. He does it and then he laughs. You have always been grateful that he was never your teacher and you wonder why the girls who have been harassed by him don’t complain to someone.

But he’s not the teacher who one day comments on your breasts casually in a passing conversation. And when this happens you wonder if it was somehow your fault. And you don’t complain either.


Aged 17. You go to a friend’s house party and a 24 year old army soldier that your friend met that day and invited home tells you that you’re pretty. You don’t know anyone except your friend, who has gone to bed, and the only place for you to sleep is the floor. When he tries to kiss you and you say no, he starts shouting. The only way you can get him to stop is by agreeing to sleep beside him on the floor. He whispers in your ear "at least now you know you have someone who really cares about you". Every part of you is filled with revulsion but you are scared of what might happen if you tell him to leave you alone, or if he gets angry again.

You want to call your parents to come and pick you up but don’t want to seem like a child, or make them worry, or be told you can’t go to parties any more.


Aged 21. You go for dinner in Thailand with a New Zealand acquaintance who works at a local guesthouse. You don’t realise until you arrive at the restaurant on his motorbike, miles from anywhere, that he believes you’re on a date. He starts telling stories about all the women he has slept with, in detail. You panic internally.

You keep trying to steer the conversation away from sex. He keeps dragging it back. You tell him how conservative you are, tell him the story about the person back home you have feelings for, tell him point blank that you don’t want to have sex with him.

He tells you he is a reiki practitioner and that, if he can’t have sex with you, he’ll settle for lying naked in the dark, “exchanging energy”.


Aged 25. Standing on a metro platform in Paris, a leering 50-something year old man with a giant, protruding hernia makes an obscene gesture and remark to your beautiful 23 year old sister. You are filled with rage. You have vivid fantasies about punching his hernia, seeing him doubled over in pain for even looking at her that way. But the crowds come between you and you wonder if the situation had escalated whether anyone would have stopped to help you anyway.


Aged 28. Cairo, during the Friday prayer, in the middle of Ramadan. A man follows you home from grocery shopping without you realising he is there and squeezes your ass as you wait for the lift in the entrance hall to your building. You are furious but before you can even react he is running to his car. You think to cry out, but your doorman is immersed in prayer beside you and has noticed nothing, and what good could it do anyway? The man is already driving away.


Aged 31. The man who you are used to thinking of as your best friend regularly tells you no one will ever love you the way he does, that all your relationship choices have been terrible, that he is the only person who really sees how beautiful you are. He is angry that you don’t love him. He tells you how selfish you are and you feel guilty, and then he tells you that you are the most wonderful woman in the world and he can’t bear to lose you, and you feel guiltier.

Friends tell you to cut him out but it takes four years for you to finally understand that this is a toxic relationship you don’t have to be part of and to tell him not to contact you anymore. The feeling of relief is instantaneous.


If the point of the #MeToo stories is to show how widespread sexual harassment and assault are, I think we also have to recognise their insidiousness. I don’t believe there is a woman alive who has not experienced them in one capacity or another, only to find that there is little or no recourse for complaint or help.

Many male friends have expressed shock and disgust at the fact that women from all over the world, from all walks of life, are posting #MeToo today. We have not all experienced the most brutal and degrading forms of harassment and assault – and my heart aches for all those who have, female and male.

But we all have stories of insidious incidents of objectification and the abuse of power. It’s not limited to certain parts of the world. It doesn’t only affect certain women. It has nothing to do with how pretty you are or what you wear. It’s the systematic abuse of power, plain and simple, which thrives in a festering climate where it is tacitly accepted that those who have more power (strength, influence, money…whatever) can do whatever they want with those who have less.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Poet

The poet asked me to support his work on a summer evening. We knew each other only by name but he spoke as a friend.

He is a philosopher and a weaver of ideas. His job is to lift the gossamer curtain that hides the beauty of everyday interactions, of the mundane. A strange alchemy.

And I thought of connections that spread like giant spiders’ webs. Their tenuousness and their tenacity.

Of those who have never met in person but are moved by the same words.

Of the people you never believe you will lose, until one day they are gone.

Of the ones who come back to you.

And the half-light of dusk was luminous, and the wind carried the stillness of a city breaking its fast.

And all was balm for my poor cluttered mind.  

Monday, 5 June 2017

Terror and the price of fear

Manchester – Minya – Baghdad – Kabul – London

In less than two weeks.

News of yet another terror attack in both my home country, Britain, and my adopted country, Egypt. Every time this happens, it strikes fear and sorrow in my heart. And in the echo chamber of Facebook, I see my pain and fear reflected in many people I know and love.

There is nothing original in saying that the only possible goal of such attacks is to keep people the world over living in ever-greater fear. Fearful people are easy to manipulate. It’s so much easier to perpetuate an “us vs. them” narrative when people are afraid of what a frightening place the world has become, when we have become accustomed to seeing danger around every corner.

I do believe the world has become a more frightening place. And the frequency of attacks designed to provoke chaos, and that blind, visceral jolt that is the essence of the word terror is part of that, of course. Each person who died or has been injured in such attacks will have or have had loved ones, and plans, and a life ahead of them. Each one of them could be any of us. The idea that this raw violence can penetrate even our safe spaces — whether these be pop concerts for teenagers or ice-cream shops for children celebrating Ramadan — cuts to the quick. It makes our stomachs contract and our hearts beat painfully faster.

And that’s the point.

But the slow drip of fear that grips us in our daily lives as a result of the narratives fuelling these attacks is more insidious. Hate crimes, incendiary speech, racism, isolation, insularity — the greater the fear, the more readily narrow worldviews and vicious, divisive rhetoric spread and become normalized.

The world has become a more frightening place, not because startling inequality and monstrously unbalanced power dynamics exist now where they did not before, but because the fear that we are living with every single day makes it harder and harder to see beyond our own perspective.

And meanwhile, slow-moving tragedies are unfolding under our noses. Climate change will make large parts of the planet uninhabitable within our lifetimes; Syria and Yemen are burning; brave people get stabbed on trains because they challenge the xenophobia that is becoming louder and louder in communities and in countries that have long prided themselves on holding values of diversity and tolerance paramount.

I don’t believe it has to be this way. Even within my circles, I am remotely connected with people who offer extraordinary examples of how it is possible to remain clear-headed and compassionate and to fight fiercely for the values of a decent society, against this climate of fear. Brendan Cox, husband of murdered British MP Jo Cox, is one example of someone speaking out against division and vitriol with immense strength and dignity. Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour is a lioness, battling bigotry in multiple forms. Egyptian writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif fights to ensure the stories of people imprisoned and marginalised are heard, illuminating our common humanity even as she protests injustice. These people speak with intelligence, nuance and compassion; I wish their voices, and others like them, were amplified in the English-speaking media.

Britain goes to the polls on Thursday. A surprise General Election called by Prime Minister Theresa May sees her ruling Conservative party pitted against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition. Two radically different leaders, both polarising; two utterly different visions for which direction the country should move in. A lead that seems to be shrinking by the day. And dominating the campaign of each, existential issues that will fundamentally alter our identity as a nation: Brexit, the future of the NHS, state surveillance, Scottish independence.

The stakes are as high as our emotions. And again, that is the point. We will be voting on what we want our country to become.

Nothing I am saying here is new, but I feel compelled to utter something more than my usual generic, if heartfelt, expressions of sorrow and increasing despair.

Because one way or another, we have to change the narrative. We have to find a way to not let fear be the lens through which we view the world and our place within it in relation to others — whether those others are sitting beside us on the bus, living somewhere on the other side of the world or just images we see through a computer screen.


Published on Mada Masr:

Friday, 27 January 2017


Holocaust Memorial Day.

My paternal grandfather was born Fritz Rudolph Marx. He was German, of Jewish ancestry. Fortunate enough to be born into privileged circumstances, he and his immediate family left Germany before the country was fully entrenched in the ugly grip of fascism. He was lucky that his uncle, already settled in the UK, had had the prescience to tell my great-grandfather to get his family out while he could.

When the Second World War broke out, my grandfather fought with the British army against the Nazis. He faced dangerous situations and was awarded the Military Cross for valour. After the war ended, he became a naturalised British citizen and changed his name to Frank Ralph. He kept the name Marx.

All his friends knew him as Ralph and even with family he never spoke about the things he had seen and experienced. He never spoke German with his children. When I was about nine years old, I found some pictures in an old desk in his study which must have been taken when he was involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I will never forget those pictures, or the fact that my grandfather must have been thinking as he took them of his own family members who were not able to leave Germany as he had done.

Living in Britain, my grandfather adopted a conservative stance towards issues of national policy, particularly economic ones. Though he died when I was 17 and we never discussed politics or identity, I think more and more of him as I get older.

I’m sure there are many things we would have disagreed about but he was a deeply principled man, who was never afraid to put himself on the line for what he believed to be right. Probably the most important thing he ever taught me is that you should always stand up to bullies.

Now I look at the world we’re living in and I vacillate between anger and despair at the wave of popular support for demagogues, riding on ugly prejudice and ignorance, and total humility in the face of people risking their comfort and safety to resist in the ways they can.

I know the world has been witness to genocides for almost as long as human civilisation as we know it has existed. The horrors of the Holocaust should not eclipse what happened in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, or what is happening today in the Central African Republic, Myanmar and I imagine many other places that are not even on my radar. The genocide of Jews in Germany and throughout Europe is not a greater horror than the genocide of any of these peoples, but it does have particular resonance for me.

I feel these days as though everywhere I look the bullies are winning – whether it’s on a huge scale in Syria, Yemen, Occupied Palestine, where the injustice is so brutally obvious as to take the breath away, whether it’s tacitly acknowledged but not talked about, as in countries not facing outright war but existing in a vacuum of minimal social and political freedoms and human rights, or whether it’s in a country like Britain, which I believe has long basked in pride at having been on “the right side of history” in 1939-1945 but which is clearly in no way resistant to the current sweeping wave of right-wing nationalism that demonises minorities and lives off stereotypes and fear.

Clearly what is happening in the US at the moment throws everything into sharp relief, and I stand on the brink of being completely overwhelmed by what a Trump presidency means for the world as a whole – on everything ranging from climate change, to reproductive rights, to press freedom, to large-scale corruption and the threat of nuclear war.

But today, Holocaust Memorial Day, I am entirely consumed by revulsion at what Trump and his supporters are trying to do with their so-called Muslim registry. I am raging internally at their blatant pushing of a white supremacist agenda, their demonization of refugees, immigrants, citizens of colour, Black Lives Matter supporters, members of the LGBTQ community and anyone who does not fit their narrow, spineless, small-minded definition of being worthy to be accorded full human rights, compassion, security and support.

And I am disgusted beyond belief to see the British Prime Minister simpering and fawning as she tries to secure a trade deal with Trump to limit the disastrous fallout from Brexit by waxing lyrical over the fucking “Special Relationship”. Next thing you know she’ll be weaving friendship bracelets or engraving T loves D 4 eva into Westminster Abbey.

I don’t know what to do with all this anger but I have to do something.

I can’t look at this day and what it symbolises for me on a personal level without wanting to do more than show solidarity with people forced to live in fear, everyone being targeted directly or indirectly by an orange lunatic with delusions of grandeur.

Monday, 23 January 2017

A Present from the Past

I had heard wonderful things about A Present from the Past. So much so that I hesitated in going to see it, fearing disappointment.

The premise is universally relatable, even if the tale carries a touch of the extraordinary in the way it unfolds. A daughter buys her father, and herself, plane tickets to Italy from Egypt to celebrate his 75th birthday. Having studied there in his youth, he returned to Egypt leaving behind an Italian woman who he promised to go back and marry. He never did, and the love of his youth coalesced into a romanticised story about the one who got away. Now the daughter, walking in her father’s footsteps as a filmmaker, suggests a trip to revisit the scene of a story she has grown up hearing, and maybe find the woman he hasn’t seen for 33 years.

Filming almost entirely surreptitiously on an iPhone, Kawthar has captured the flickers of detail that make up intimate knowledge of another person. She shows her father in lovingly prosaic attitudes: lying in bed with his feet next to the camera, crooning old love songs, vulnerable in sleep. Her tenderness towards him is striking from the first frame and she revels in the quirks of his character without ever offering an opportunity for him to be mocked. Careful crafting shows a character who pretends to shoot koshary sellers from a passing car, chuckling triumphantly, who hoards mangoes like a mischievous child, who claims that his eagerness to see Patrizia is mostly so that he not “disrespect all Egyptians”, by giving the impression that Egyptian men break women’s hearts without explanation.

So much more interesting than the Mokhtar-Patrizia relationship, which you suspect remains well confined to the past, is the film’s dusting of emotion over the fragility of old age and the importance of memory. Mokhtar battles contradictory impulses as he contemplates the probability that this long dreamed-of meeting will actually take place. He wants Patrizia to remember him as the “prince” she once saw him as, resplendent in the abaya he has resurrected for the occasion. The prospect of a meeting is full of romance and significance. He will understand, he tells his daughter, if she has been with other men in the years since they met. After all, he never contacted her.

Delicately, with deliberation, he examines his memories. A letter in which she referred to him as the man of the house is recalled with pride, the recollection that she never wore earrings disclosed as you would something infinitely precious and cherished. He will invite her to come to Egypt, he muses in his hotel room; she may be tired of life in Italy.

Woven throughout the narrative is the yearning of a man who is preoccupied with aging to remain relevant, to have something tangible to offer the world. He has devoted his life to children’s education and speaks dismissively of people who try to communicate with youth in a didactic or patronising way. Periodically he rails against his daughter for taking control of the trip and their itinerary. A palpable fear of redundancy is evident in his calls home to his capable wife, asking her if she is scared to be in the house without him.

Equal in stubbornness, father and daughter fight. And then sleep, heads on one another’s shoulders.

The film is multi-layered and an understated, moving testament to love in its different forms. Kawthar, fearing that she has raised her father’s hopes for nothing, pleads with a bemused Italian hotel worker to help her find a trace of Patrizia online. Gone is her habitual tone of impish teasing, gone too the simmering frustration you hear at other junctures; tearfully she explains that she just wants to stop his sadness, and she suddenly sounds very young.

Mokhtar’s paternal pride is exhibited less directly. It is transmitted through the prism of an Egyptian-Italian they meet and befriend on arrival in Rome, who shrewdly observes the alchemic potency of the trip, the way that Kawthar’s presence gives her father back his youth. It is evident as they check into their hotel, with his loud declaration “father and daughter!”

If the film is a reminder to cherish those we live side by side with, it is one that is issued in the gentlest way. Unlike the countless evolving intimacies of daily life, memory is shown to be both enduring and malleable. We may never know why a story ends, but the ending we give ourselves may not be that of the person who lived the story with us. When it has been all this time, how could I not have loved you? How many people must have asked this question in the middle of a one-sided imaginary conversation with no end.

We may never know how our lovers remember us.  

At the end of the film, like mirages stepping from the screen, father and daughter appeared to answer questions, so guilelessly like their film selves as to be almost disconcerting. Basking as the visible hero of a story now firmly embedded in the collective imagination of filmgoers within and beyond Egypt, Mokhtar looked younger than his film self.

Immortalised by his daughter, his legacy is enshrined in the love story of his youth. What a tremendous gift. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

On the awful sterility of things having to make sense

M has a particular look she gives me whenever I use the expression I don’t know if I did the right thing. We both realise that she doesn’t have to say a word for me to understand what this signifies. There is no right decision, only decisions. You will hurt people, and you have to get over it. Your boundaries are yours to choose and others may not understand them. It is intention that matters most.

Allowing space for my own complexities doesn’t come naturally. Letting go of the compulsion to explain, taking the risk of not being understood or being thought badly of, are gut-wrenching prospects.

But devoting time to things I don’t believe to be worthwhile is killing my compassion. And the awful backdrop of the Brave New World we find ourselves in today kindles defiance in me as much as it breathes melancholy. I feel that we are inclining more and more towards reductionism and its manifestations are everywhere.

I see it in myself at a personal level when I try to bridge divides that in truth are great chasms in understanding and viewpoint. When I pretend to myself that I can understand someone whose words or actions nevertheless trigger a sense of something deeply wrong, for the sake of being open-minded, for the sake of wanting the world around me to make sense.

Denying my need to let go when there are insurmountable barriers to understanding has created a rage that I have swept aside for so much of my life. Wanting to be likeable, warm-hearted, generous, I have pretended there wasn’t something much fiercer churning away inside me.  

But the only way I stand a chance of understanding anyone is by not trying to be understood by everyone. It seems that the stakes are so much higher these days, with what feels like a world spinning faster and faster out of control.

So I have made myself a promise, because I only have so much space and so much time. I will let go of what I have tried, and failed, to understand or connect with. I will allow myself to rage against injustice and lack of respect in all the forms I encounter them, and I will struggle against my own inclinations to be peaceable and accommodating to people who demonstrate them when I know I am doing it for the sake of social convention, or my belief that things have to be in order or make sense.

But I will keep looking for meaning, nuance and new ways to understand this world that overwhelms me with its complexity and its inconsistency. I will seek out art that disconcerts and unsettles me. I will see the beauty and the brutality in people, but I will not interact meaningfully with them out of a sense of obligation; the ones who get real space are those who spark joy or passion.

I will accept that I may hurt people and that the alternative to doing so is living in a world of bland sterility, where I am afraid to say what I believe to be true. I will stop expecting everything to make sense.