EgyptFiction

FICTION: The dead don’t protest

In this short play, Malak and Salem, fleeing a demonstration broken up by police, take refuge inside a tomb in 's city of the dead. Confined together too close for comfort, they have to come to terms with their situation – and each other – until a dangerous stranger appears.

Stage set up as the inside of an Egyptian tomb, which looks something like a small house made up of a single room. In one corner, there is a sort of tombstone and marble plaques on the wall indicate the family members that have been buried there. Lights up. Empty stage. A young man and woman rush on from wings in a state of visible agitation and panic. The girl sits down and tries to catch her breath and composure. The boy, panting, checks the room to make sure it's safe and there's no-one concealed anywhere. He heads back to the wing that represents the doorway and cautiously puts his head out to make sure they made a clean getaway.

Malak: Will you get your head back in here! You'll give us away.

Salem: [shuts the door] Husssshhhh!

Malak: Do you think we've lost them?

Salem: It looks that way. For now, at least.

Malak: There must be a way out. (She starts to move around as if looking for it)

Salem: Well, it's not over there.

Malak: I know that! Let me think.

Salem: What's there to think about? We need to lay low.

Malak: They'll catch up with us. We should keep on the move.

Salem: No! We'll get caught. They have all the exits covered.

Malak: Don't get so panicky. We need to remain calm.

Salem: Who said I was panicking?

Malak: Look at you, you can't keep still and your voice is shaky.

Salem: Well, excuse me, Miss Nerves-of-Steel, one of us has to be realistic.

Malak: That's you, is it?

Salem: Yeah, I know what it's really like. I don't get my ideas from books and films.

Malak: And what I know is not valid, I suppose.

Salem: In this situation, no.

Malak: So, you get chased by police everyday, do you?

Salem: Of course not. But…

Malak: And you know how they think and operate?

Salem: I've seen them around Imbaba enough to know more than a little about them.

Malak: Why did you lead us into this graveyard, then?

Salem: It was our best option at the time. Besides, I didn't hear you complain.

Malak: How could I when you literally threw me through the gate?

Salem: So what do you suggest we should've done?

Malak: Headed for the market. It was packed and we could've vanished into the crowds.

Salem: Not with those tight jeans you're wearing. And look at that T-shirt.

Malak: What's wrong with them?

Salem: They stick out…Galabiyas and long dresses are the most people get to see around here.

Malak: You always comment on the way I dress.

Salem: Because you're a spoilt, rich little girl. It's all a game to you – make believe.

Malak: In case you hadn't realised we are in the same position.

Salem: No we're not.

Malak: Yeah? How's that?

Salem: We'll, for starters, I'm a man…

Malak: Good God! What's that got to do with anything?

Salem: If the police catch you, they'll let you off with a warning. As for me…

Malak: That's ridiculous! It's just as illegal for a woman to demonstrate as a man. How about that woman being loaded into the back of the police van? Didn't you see her? Didn't you see the blood running down from her forehead?

Salem: Women shouldn't go out on the streets and protest.

Malak: Oh, so only macho men like you should do it. When bombs fall on Baghdad they don't care if they kill men or women, or children for that matter. Poverty and oppression don't distinguish between men and women.

Salem: When you're at the bottom, no one hears your protests anyway.

Malak: At least men get to be masters of their own households.

Salem: Not if they're married to you.

Malak: Men like you stand on shaky ground and wouldn't marry a woman like me. Do you know why? Because you're afraid I'd show up your failings.

Salem: That's absurd!… I refuse to carry on with this argument.

Malak: Fine!

Malak moves towards the tombstone. Sits or crouches down.

Malak: (Walks up to plaque and reads) Shawkat, Bey, Abdel-Azeem, Justice at the Crown Court (1880-1943). Kamel, Bey, Abdel-Azeem, Police General (1888-1947).  Ahmed Shawkat Abdel-Azeem, Public Attorney (1939-1992)…

Salem: They're all cops. What is this – a dead man's court?

Malak: Do you think Ahmed Shawkat would defend us or prosecute us?

Salem: He's dead. There's not much he can do in his current state.

Malak: Maybe they keep law and order in this ghost town. Do you think they approve of how we're using their grave?

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Salem: They're beyond caring.

Malak: A bit like you… Do you believe in ghosts?

Salem: Once you're dead, you transcend this world.

Malak: Doesn't this place feel creepy? The air is so still… Inviting sleep… Listen… What do you hear?

Salem: Nothing.

Malak: Exactly! It's almost like the city and its noise aren't allowed past the gate… Everything stands still… Hangs heavily… feels so close at hand… Isn't that what death is: a looming silence?

Salem: Enough about death!

A looming silence hangs over them.

They both sit in silence nursing their own thoughts and apprehensions. Suddenly, they hear the sound of a siren. They jump startled. They now stand closer to one another.

Salem: That sounds close.

Malak: I'll go and have a look.

Salem: No, don't! It's not safe.

Malak: I'll keep out of sight.

Salem: I have a better idea. (draws her closer by the hand)

Malak: What?

Salem: Kiss me.

Malak: What?… No!

Salem: It's the only way.

Malak: I don't know what perverted fantasy… Let go of my hand!!

Salem: I'm not being perverted. If you let me kiss…

They hear a faint sound of scurrying feet.

Salem: Listen! We've got to be quick. They'll think we're lovers.

Malak: I'd rather be arrested for demonstrating. It's something I can be proud of. I don't want to be taken in for making out… with you!

Salem: Malak, be reasonable…

Malak: I am. (she says this as she makes her way towards the door)

Malak rushes off stage. There is silence for a moment. Malak screams. Salem jumps. Salem hesitates. He rushes towards the door. As he nears it, Malak rushes in and collides with him.

Salem: Wha… What happened?

Malak: R-r-r-r-r-r

Salem: Is it the police? Are we surrounded?

Malak: R-r-r-r-rat.

Salem: Eh?

Malak: I t-t-t-trod on a rat. It t-t-t-tried to bite me.

Salem laughs.

Malak: It isn't funny.

Salem: The world famous revolutionary is afraid of rats.

Malak: I'm not afraid of them. I'm disgusted by them. They turn my stomach.

As Malak says this she sits down.

Salem: Loosen up. It was funny!

Malak lights a cigarette.

Salem: You're smoking.

Malak: Yes.

Salem: Please, don't.

Malak: Why not?

Salem: Cos, it's so unfeminine.

Malak: So, it's a manly thing to do?

Salem: The sight of a woman with a fag hanging from her lips is so unappealing.

Malak: (Takes a deep drag) Why not say a cigarette adds a touch of sophistication and mystery to a woman? (blows the smoke out)

Salem: So, you want to seem more sophisticated. Is that it?

Malak: No.

Salem: Then, why do you smoke?

Malak: What's it to you?

Salem: I hate the smell. I find the idea of dragging smoke into your lungs unappealing in men and even more so in women.

Malak: It settles my nerves.

Salem: Put it out.

Malak: There're only a few drags left.

Salem: Put it out! (Malak puts out the cigarette) (Short pause) I don't believe it.

Malak: What?

Salem: You actually did what I asked you to do.

Malak: Why not? I'm reasonable. So what if I speak out. I'm only standing up for what I believe. Which is more than I can say for some.

Salem: Meaning me?

Malak: Amongst others.

Salem: Well, it's easy for you to take a holier-than-thou attitude.

Malak: I'm not trying to be condescending.

Salem: Well, you're succeeding. It comes naturally.

Malak: I resent that!

Salem: It's all right for you to live with your head in the clouds. I have to be more realistic.

Malak: You keep going on about real life, what do you know about it?

Salem: A damn sight more than you do.

Malak: Yeah? How?

Salem: It's a birthright. I was born into suffering.

Malak: Always so self-pitying. You're not the only one who suffers, you know.

Salem: I am in the present company, at least.

Malak: All you ever talk about is how unfair life is to you. We've all heard about your father's forced early retirement, your inability to study because of the two-room flat you share with your family of seven, your bitterness at working as a waiter in the student cafeteria. After college, you'll graduate to the coffeeshop under your building where unemployed young men go to die, your prospects vanishing in a wisp of smoke rising from the shisha glued to your lips. Yours is not the only life of misery, you know. Take Maged…

Salem: Your boyfriend.

Malak: You're practically neighbours. His father's dead and he works at a bakery to supplement the money they get from his father's pension. Yet he still thinks about the suffering of others.

Salem: Well, if he wants to be nominated for sainthood, that's his choice. I think and operate in terms of the possible, the attainable.

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Malak: You mean you're more apathetic… He's not my boyfriend.

Salem: No. I'm neither a hopeless dreamer nor a layabout. I'll make it. What's wrong with screaming from the pain every now and then?

Malak: Nothing. It makes it more bearable. What's wrong with dreaming? The best things in the world started off as dreams.

Salem: Nothing. But dreams have a tendency of disappointing, like you and Maged.

Malak: You mean like YOU and ME!

Salem: What!? I've never dreamt of you.

Malak: I've never dreamt of Maged. I dream with Maged of a better world.

Salem: Dreams'll get you nowhere. ‘Keep your head down until you're strong enough to make a difference' is my motto.

Malak: That's the excuse of the weak. We can all make a difference.

Salem: We are weak.

Malak: Nothing's ever won without a struggle.

Salem: And what use was our struggle today? Did it stop Iraqi children from dying? Did it stop any bombs from falling? Did it convince the US that sanctions don't work? What's walking in the street with some silly banners going to achieve? Nothing.

Malak: The will of the masses is unstoppable.

Salem: What do you know about the will of the masses?

Malak: Don't you ever give it up?

Salem: But it's true. Daddy's little girl decides to flirt with the notion of being a revolutionary comfortable in the knowledge that if things get sticky Daddy will be there with his millions to pull a few strings and get her out.

Malak: I've never asked my father to bail me out.

Salem: You don't need to ask. Wake up, Malak. He won't let his precious little angel drown.

Malak: You obviously don't know my father very well, Salem.

Salem: He's probably one of those high-class fathers whose little darling means the world to him and he would give her the stars. Attend to her every whim.

Malak: Huh! Wrong!

Salem: Well, then, put me right.

Malak: Forget it.

Salem: Look, I want to understand.

Malak:  My dad always said, “I'm your father. I know best.” He's always taken my independence hard. Last year, I landed that job with the magazine. I went home all excited and told my mum. She was pleased for me. Then he walked in. I told him. In a hurry to please and explain, the words came out of my mouth half-formed and clumsy. He didn't respond. Not a word. His look said it all.  He never spoke to me again. If you wondered where the Berlin Wall went, come round and I'll show you it.

Salem: I'm sorry. I didn't realise.

A noise of footfalls issues from off-stage. Salem and Malak freeze.

Salem: What's that?

Malak: Someone's coming.

Salem: We've been found out!

Malak: What do we do?

Salem: Hush! (he picks up a heavy looking rock)

Malak: What…?

Salem: Hush!

Salem hastens towards the wing and hides by the wing that represents the entrance to the tomb. A tall, young man, in plain clothes and sunglasses enters.

Malak: Nooo!

Salem dashes out of wing and wallops the man on the back of the head with the stone. The man falls and lands on his front.

Malak: Oh my God!

Salem looks at his handiwork in utter shock.

Salem: What have I done?

Malak: I tried to warn you.

Salem: Things moved too fast.

Malak: Do you think he's ok? His head's bleeding… He's not moving!

Salem: He's only unconscious… Don't worry he'll be all right, insh'a Allah. I didn't hit him all that hard.

Malak: He's bleeding quite heavily.

Salem retrieves a handkerchief from his pocket.

Salem: I need some perfume?

Malak: Perfume?

Salem: To clean the wound.

Malak: Oh… No… Wait, I've got some water.

Malak gets up and rushes to her rucksack and takes a bottle of water out of it. She comes back and gives the water to Salem, who is now bent over the body. He uses it to clean up the wound in the stranger's head and, then, applies the handkerchief to it. Salem begins to look round him.

Malak: What?

Salem: I need something to tie round his head to keep the handkerchief in place.

Malak: (she rummages around in her bag and finds nothing) Didn't find anything. Sorry.

Salem takes off his shirt, rips off the sleeve and ties it round the stranger's head over the wound.

Malak: Who do you think he is?

Salem: How should I know? Anyway, we'll soon find out. (the man groans)

Malak: He's moving.

The head slowly rises and begins to focus on them.

Malak: Are you ok?

The stranger leaps up onto his feet.

Stranger: Who the hell are you? What do you think you're doing? (clutches his head and yelps in agony)

Malak: You're hurt. Let me have a look at that.

Stranger: Get away from me. We don't want your sorts round here.

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Salem: Leave her alone. I didn't mean to hurt you.

Stranger: Are you crazy attacking me like that?

Salem: Look, I said I was sorry, man. It was an accident.

Stranger: You call hitting me with a rock an accident? What? Were you aiming to miss?

Salem: Listen, it was a mis…

Stranger: Things are bad enough for you, son. Don't make them any worse.

Malak: Relax, Salem. All right, can we all cool down? (Her eyes rove between the two men) Hi, I'm Malak.

Salem: And I'm Salem. You are?

Stranger: I ask the questions round here.

Salem: We came here first.

Malak: You don't look like a tomb-keeper.

Stranger: Were you in that demonstration up the road?

Salem & Malak: No.

Stranger: So, what are you doing here?

Malak: We're visiting…

Salem: It's none of your concern…

Stranger: You're family?

Malak: Yes, we are.

Stranger: I know this family. I don't know you, though.

Malak: We're distant relations.

Stranger: Whose?

Malak: My great uncle is Ahmed Shawkat.

Stranger: A likely story! You're obviously two lovers.

Malak: We're not!

Stranger: Have you no shame? At least have some respect for the dead.

Salem: We've done nothing wrong.

Stranger: What do you call making love in a tomb?

Malak: I object.

Stranger: So, where's his shirt?

Malak: Round your head.

Stranger: Sluts like you always play the innocent when they get caught.

Salem: (grabbing hold of stranger) That's my wife you're talking to.

Stranger: You're married?

Salem: Yeah. We've been married for a year now and can't find our own place. We came here for a bit of privacy.

Stranger: Where's your marriage licence?

Salem: I don't have to show it to you.

Stranger: You're lying. No respectable married couple would come here.

Malak: You're right, we're not married. Who do you think you are, anyway?

Stranger: (flashing ID)Vice squad. You're under arrest.

Malak: You can't arrest us for this!

Salem: Do you know who she is?

Malak: Salem!

Stranger: Yes, I think I do.

Malak: You've got it all wrong.

Salem: Look, we were in that demonstration, OK.

Stranger: You'll make things worse for yourself.

Malak: But it's the truth.

Stranger: You shouldn't get mixed up in politics. It can ruin your futures.

Malak: Are you happy with what's going on?

Salem: Do you approve of all those people being starved and bombed to death?

Stranger: Of course not. But marching in the street won't change things.

Malak: It did with Gandhi.

Stranger: You can only fight fire with fire. We have no fire.

Salem: Why did you break it up?

Stranger: We were just following orders… (takes handcuffs out of pocket). Now, I'm going to have to arrest you.

Malak: You don't want to do it. Let us go.

Salem: No one will be the wiser. You said it yourself, we're not dangerous.

Stranger hesitates. Returns handcuffs to pockets. Salem and Malak run off stage.

__________

This short play was written in 1999 and staged at the American University in Cairo, also in 1999.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual . Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in and the , and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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