Few people reading this reflection know Bassem Sabry, of course. I didn’t know him myself. We may have exchanged tweets two or three times over the past three years. But when I saw the news of his death – on that same Twitter medium – it filled me with dread. They’re keeping score, I thought, and they’re coming to get you.
Sabry was one of the first Egyptian voices of the revolution I became familiar with. He kept a popular blog in the early days when people still weren’t sure what was happening, if it was good or bad, or where it was going. Sabry believed it was good, was never wild in his predictions, but had a keen sense of what was happening. In those confusing days, still confusing now, his was a lucid analysis that was simultaneously authentic. He was here, living it.
As was I.
My situation was much different, to be sure. He was a participant, an advocate, one whose level-headed hope was contagious. Mine sought to convey the situation correctly, weigh between differing explanations, but be tinged all the while with a positive sympathy that sought to identify with all sides, to the degree possible. Among many, I identified with Bassem.
But it is a mark of the psychological weight of Egypt in these days that I briefly identified too far. The first report I read said Bassem, aged 31, died in a fall from his balcony window.
Cairo is a city of high rise apartments, with balconies overlooking both narrow, crowded streets and wide expanses overlooking the Nile. Rich or poor, the balcony equates as one of the few places that can lift one above and give safe outside space above the bustling, often chaotic world below.
Safe, however, is only a matter of speaking. Every mother fears for her children, no matter how high the wall. Our one-and-a-half year old is proving quite adept at climbing, combining stools and chairs to rappel himself up onto heights he has no business reaching.
But those in Egypt are also aware that the balcony has been a not-infrequent place of untimely, suspicious death. The stories are not necessary to tell here, but rumors circulate of celebrity accidents from years earlier, or from sectarian tensions, or or or.
How does a 31 year old fall from a balcony?
The next day’s reports related from his friends that Bassem suffered a diabetic dizzy spell that caused him to lose his balance and fall. None of the numerous tributes I have read suspect foul play.
He just died. In Egypt, these days, that is strange enough.
People die every week now in scenes no less unnatural than falling from a balcony. Protestors are shot. Policemen are bombed. And despite the simplicity of these sentences there are the conspiracies that swirl and complicate. Demonstrators shoot their own colleagues to enrage and further the cause. The state blows up its own security to demonize the opposition. And on and on.
So a situation that is evil in its own right becomes even more sordid by the alleged manipulations and deceptions. Those who are good, as Bassem appeared, are easy to imagine as having been eliminated. He would not be the first on this imaginary list.
Of course, I imagine myself as good as well. And given the handful of foreigners who have also suffered as witnesses to the revolution, it is easy for the imagination to extrapolate in fear. They, whoever they are, are keeping watch.
But this is a psychology, not the reality in which I live. The reader outside Egypt should know that I and my family pass each day in safety. We have kind friends and normal lives.
This weekend there were reports of clashes in Helwan, an industrial city to the south of Cairo. I was there that afternoon. I enjoyed tea with a friend and then an uneventful church service. At one point the television showed footage, and my friend quickly inquired about which neighborhood. Everyone else was calm and went about their business. A ten minute microbus ride could have brought us to the two or three street radius of troubles; everywhere else in this poor, lower-class district was fine.
Yet at the same time, Egypt suffered four bombings yesterday and another handful of protestors died. All is not well, even though it is.
Living in this tension takes a toll. It is a good toll, one I am privileged to be able to offer. It is fulfilling, exhilarating, and offers much temptation to pride and self-importance. It conjures drama and imagines conspiracies, even as it dispels them. It suffers, while remaining apart. It makes a difference, while making none. Negotiating these tensions is essential for peace of mind; trying to do so can drive you crazy.
For there are thousands of Egyptians striving for the success of their interpretation of the revolution, and thousands more wishing they would all go away. And there are hundreds of foreigners offering better and more courageous analysis, and hundreds more who just live here and get along.
I, whatever I am and offer, am a drop in the bucket.
As was Bassem Sabry. His was a larger and more influential drop, but now he is gone and the world marches on. The world is less without him, as it will one day be less without me, and you, and your neighbor, and everyone else.
But Bassem lived well, analyzed well, explained well, did his best to politick well, but above all, gave hope. For those who have any sense of belonging to Bassem, this is the worthy imitation.
May he rest in peace, and inspire us all.