My Friend Ahmed

by David Schneider

Ahmed He'd disappeared. I searched and searched –– nothing but null sets. For the past four days, around the clock, he'd been beaming the news, minute by minute, from Cairo. But Tuesday morning, a vast silence on FaceBook. He'd ceased to exist. They'd just released Wael Ghonim; did they nail my friend Ahmed instead? He was a democrat, a revolutionary; a journalist, a broadcaster, an educator, a link between Arabic and English, a link between Egypt and America, someone I knew. I sent up the flares, waiting. We'd only just met, I thought, and now he's gone.

Where did they take him?

•••

I shouldn't be telling this story. It's not my story to tell. It should be Ahmed's story. It should be Egyptians telling their stories. But I can't talk with Ahmed any more. So all I can do is talk about my sphere of thought surrounding my brief intersection with Ahmed's sphere, in the midst of this astounding Egyptian revolution.

A bit of background.

I was exceptionally moved by Jonathan Kramnick's short essay on Egypt published last week in these pages. I had a similar religious upbringing. Born in the year of the Yom Kippur War, I attended a Conservative synagogue (in America) in which there was little love, but a lot of nationalistic indoctrination. In the Sunday-school classroom, where a map of Greater Israel hung in pride of place, our teacher, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, drummed into our heads the horrors done to us from Giza to Belsen, and our triumphs from Moses to the Golan Heights. The whole “They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat” package but somber and stern, without the wry humor implied by that phrase.

I actually attended, for a summer or two, a Jewish sleepaway camp deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. The boys' and girls' cabins stood on either side of a huge man-made lake carved – yes – in the shape of Greater Israel. (Credit to the landscape architects: the “West Bank” was a shallows of mud and muck and weeds and cat-tails; if your canoe drifted in you'd never get out.) The state of Israel was a fait accompli, its shape beautiful and immutable, its existence and the complications thereof beyond question or consideration, its non-Jewish inhabitants and Arab encirclements merely anonymous hordes of villianry in the great story.

At college, a Muslim acquaintance confronted me during lunch one day.

He said, “Are you a Zionist?”

I replied, “Why yes, why wouldn't I be?”

He turned away, in frustration and fury. “We have nothing more to say to one another.”

In later years, I reflected: that's all our troubles in a nutshell, right there.

•••

My first thought was to the treaty, the foundation of everything even hesitatingly unwarring in the Middle East. My second thought was toward my wallet. I'm writing travel brochures for my meager living; how can I sell Alexandria, now? Can I make my sales quotas? And how many millions in cancellations? Let it end quickly.

And then I watched the video that some say began it all. Watch it, please; it's not well known; my feeble words will continue when it ends, regardless if they matter or not.

For the next three days and nights, when I wasn't asleep I watched Al-Jazeera. Let it end triumphantly. I watched the “Day of Rage” and I heard Mubarak stand down from further election and I thought that's it we've won and then I heard an entire nation say NO. NOT ENOUGH.

It should have been enough. It should have been enough, shouldn't it? It was only then I understood how blind, dumb and ignorant I was – just as blind, dumb and ignorant to the world as that day I first said, “Why yes, I am a Zionist, why wouldn't I be?”

I've been fortunate to have a remarkably diverse collection of FaceBook friends, who encircle the globe in their nodal points. By the second week of the Egyptian revolt, threads of apprehension and cynicism began spooling out from some conservative Jewish-American and Israeli quarters. From them, I heard outrage about the destruction of mummies in the Egyptian Museum but none about the anti-government protesters who'd been deliberately and viciously run down by a Cairo police van. Characterization of the protesters as non-violent and religiously diverse was, to them, solely and simply left-wing media bias. The Muslim Brotherhood, I was assured, would prove an existential threat to Israel. (“They had underground links to the Nazis in the '30s,” I was told. “So did the Germans,” I replied, “and the English. And some Americans.”)

Meanwhile, Mubarak's forces were detaining journalists and accusing them of being Israeli agents and provocateurs. The cognitive dissonance in the former opinions and the latter facts was truly a sight to behold.

“What side are you on?” an Israeli asked me.

“I'm on the side of a peaceful, religiously diverse, modern democratic Egyptian state,” I replied.

“Saying it doesn't make it so,” the Israeli countered. “Dream on.” Meanwhile, Christians were protecting Muslims as they bent for their prayers in Tahrir Square.

•••

That's when I met Ahmed, introduced by a mutual friend. All I knew about him was that he was an Egyptian in Cairo, called himself a cartoonist and a freelance journalist, spoke fluent English, was as strongly opposed to Mubarak as anyone, and may well have been ten people, so swiftly was he disseminating the latest news and video from the protests – from a dozen different sources – far more quickly than I could consume them. He appeared to be in his mid-20s, passionate, gregarious, and fully armed with that wry Egyptian sense of humor so frequently mentioned since.

It's obvious now that, pace Malcolm Gladwell, this was a revolution intensely motivated by social media. But having a direct window on it was exhilarating in a way I hadn't counted on. Particularly in Great Recession-era America, social media's dissolution of public and private spheres has become nerve-wracking. From lost jobs to lost friends to humiliation and embarrassment and suicide, infinite interconnectibility has become a fishbowl, a Panopticon. The prompt, “What's on your mind?” has become your invitation to establish a “personal brand” (shudder) or to perjure it (even worse). I had spent a long time feeling trapped in the Web.

But for Egyptians, none of that mattered now. Not even after Wael Ghonim disappeared. And it was impossible not to get caught up in it, in the effusions of opinions rampaging. I was learning something about freedom of expression all over again. And for a very short time, apprehensive conservative Israelis and young Egyptian revolutionaries were appearing togther on my Status Updates, frame by frame.

In the comment threads of Ahmed's FaceBook fabric, there was a smattering – and at times more than a smattering – of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, sometimes stepping over the line into anti-Semitism. I'd been called too many names in grade school to let this affect me, and decided: I'd let Ahmed know I was Jewish, subtly; keep quiet, joke when a joke was warranted, and only counter things that I could prove were verifiably false claims. We had too many things in common, now: democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Let me be clear: these anti-America/Israel/Semitic ejaculations had nothing to do with Israel, or the Palestinian question, on the most immediate pressing level. They had everything to do with the nexus of international relations that had kept Mubarak in power: the U.S.'s continued support of Middle East stability represented by Mubarak, continually revitalized and recultivated by Mubarak's insistence that only continued repression could smother Islamic extremism; Mubarak's use of the Islamic extremism threat to perpetuate his rule, and enlarge his fortune to the great detriment of Egyptians; extremists motivated by repression and severe economic inequality; and the U.S.'s ignorance, willful blindness, or mitigation of that entire dynamic.

Let me also be very clear: I have zero ability to judge whether any or all of these claims have validity. But this is the world-view of some Egyptians and Arabs, as I was able to observe them. And some Egyptians felt a confirmation of this world-view when Obama was perceived to be hedging his bets in the early days of the revolution; when Hillary Clinton insisted the Mubarak regime was stable; when U.S. diplomat Frank Wisner backed Vice President Suleiman to lead the transition; and when the American right-wing media insisted, contrary to all fact, that Islamic extremists were leading this revolutionary charge. (The New York Times just published an insightful analysis of the split between the White House and the State Department's old and new paradigms of Middle East thinking that occurred during the crisis.)

I introduced Ahmed to New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who'd been reporting from Tahrir Square, to show him that not everyone in the American media was spouting idiocy. Ahmed “friended” him immediately. I tried to explain to him America's concerns over this seemingly “leaderless” revolution.

“Against all orthodoxy,” I wrote, laughing about in the scrum, “you might want to take a lesson from the Jews here. As you may recall, we defied a Pharaoh too. And you know what happened after that? FORTY FREAKIN' YEARS of wandering in the desert. God that shit is BORING. So boring we started having orgies and worshiping a Golden Calf.” [I used to have an illustrated Bible that pictured the scene, all Roman bacchanalia-like.] “You know why God gave us Ten Commandments, right? Because after you're under the thumb for so long, first taste of freedom you get, all people go batshit crazy. Hope you guys can do better.”

“U.S. BUTT OUT!! Suleiman is a U.S. puppet!” I read, often. “If Suleiman were a U.S. puppet,” I wrote, “He'd be talking like Kermit the Frog.”

“He is talking like Kermit the Frog,” wrote someone. “It's not easy being green…”

“Chill out,” I said, “You forgot about the Rainbow Connection.”

“LOL!!” came the response. “Never saw that before. Always thought 'Rainbow Connection' was a gay thing.”

“Nah, man,” said someone else. “It's Bert and Ernie who're the gay ones. They're sleeping in the same bed!”

“DOOD,” I wrote, “We knew about Bert & Ernie before we'd figured out Elton John. Why do you think the Republicans are trying to cut PBS funding?”

Now this is a revolution, I thought.

Things had turned serious again, in my latenight, Ahmed's morning last Monday. I asked him directly, “What happens after? Say you get the Hollywood ending, Mubarak's gone, what then? Because the American press isn't saying that there's any organization at all.”

Ahmed mentioned agreements that were forming between the opposition groups and ElBaradei and two names I didn't recognize: Ahmed Zwail, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, and Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League. A quick Google check and –– “Holy smokes! They were featured in this Time Magazine article about Egyptian political succession back in 2009!” ElBaradei said he hadn't “been invited” to take part in the transition dialogue, as of last Monday. There was a lot still unknown.

A couple of people on Ahmed's page were nervous about an army takeover. I “liked” their comments. Then Ahmed posted a long Egyptian television interview in which the interviewee was talking about what he “knew” about dialogues between Bush and Cheney in the first hours of 9/11. I was extremely dubious, because the interviewee had placed Bush on Air Force One at the moment the first plane hit, while we all knew he was reading “My Pet Goat” to schoolchildren.

“Well Dave,” Ahmed wrote, “He's 100% military and I trust the military. I totally believe 9/11 was an inside job.”

Ohhboy, well that was a huge kettle of worms; it was after 2am and I didn't have the strength to get into it. I went to sleep.

The next morning, Ahmed was gone.

•••

I was stunned; to be honest, I was a little frantic. This was hardly random paranoia. Four days of nearly constant broadcast, and suddenly he'd utterly disappeared from my FriendsList? I sent up flares, waiting.

The answer was simple and stupid. No, he wasn't being tortured in a secret prison. I'd been blocked. Blocked! When you're “blocked” on FaceBook, you're completely severed from previous dialogues: you're blacklisted. You're disappeared. You cease to exist. Your former friend no longer exists. Page Not Found. But why?

Apparently, later that night one of Ahmed's “friends” had posted some hundred links detailing the Rothschilds' purported financial string-pullings of the world. Our mutual “friend,” Ahmed's and mine, had deemed this anti-Semitic and an argument ensued. So he was blocked. And I was too –– by association? What? Was it something else? Because I distrusted the Egyptian army? Because I'd listed “The Satanic Verses” as one of my favorite books? My concern turned to fury. We'd laughed together, we'd learned together, and now this? Was I just another American Zionist, tarred with the same brush?

Maybe it was just because this was Egypt's revolution. It was theirs. I wanted it to be mine too. And when it was all over, I wanted to be there, in the here, in the nowhere, celebrating, alongside and together, freedom, freedom of speech, with my fake FaceBook friend Ahmed.

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