We Are All Going to Die?

Medina Portal Aug 2020English
The text is an adaptation of Ismail Fayed's script of the lecture-performance ‘On Va Tous Mourir’, commissioned by HaRaKa Platform, for the performative conference ‘Terranova’, that took place at the American University in Cairo, December 2019, in partnership with the Institut Français in Cairo.

item doc

Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). It features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed, and Myriam Van Imschoot and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes. Originally published on Medina Portal, the arabic version is also available on Sarma.

In 1988, Egyptian filmmaker Nader Galal directed ‘Paper Hero’, starring Mamdouh Abdel Alim, and Athar Alhakim. The story revolves around the scriptwriter, Magdi, who somehow with a stroke of luck (or misfortune) finds out that what he writes is transformed into reality, in a way that does not seem comprehensible. We could see this as a symbolic gesture looking at human actions, and how one could behave if one could actually ‘write their own fate’. Nader Galal breaks the intensity and the heaviness of this idea, through his comic treatment of the story. ‘The prophet’, the film’s leading character played by Mamdouh Abdel Alim, is a young naive scriptwriter from Upper Egypt. He is trying to pitch his ideas to producers and directors in Cairo, under the heavy bureaucracy of Cinema production, as it was transforming into a statist ‘public sector’ domain. The mentally deranged Ahmed Bedair’s obsession with the screenplay leads him to ‘perform the film’s script’, in a series of absurdist comic incidents.


Still from the last scene of the film, Battal min waraq or Paper Hero (1988), directed by Nader Galal, with actor Ahmed Bedei

Nothing distinguishes the film more than the seemingly ecstatic execution of the screenplay by an over-the-top performance delivered by Ahmed Bedair. Ahmed Bedair, in the negligence of fate, became the “hand of God” in the execution of fate itself, as he gives or takes life, and eventually he rises to the self-awareness of the fact that he is the screenplay’s character that can bring death to everyone. Death is a real egalitarian power, that no one no matter what they did could evade its certainty.

Decades go by, and in a state of cultural permutation and adaptation, and at a similar moment in identification with the inevitability of death (or defeat), ten years after the revolution, and in light of a global pandemic with no prospect of containing it, one of the film clips appeared as a meme expressing the feeling of defeat / death. Defeat/ death as a state of absolute equality, so... let's laugh a little, then.


The Gift Of Death

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) presented a paper at a conference in 1990, under the title “Ethics of the Gift.” The paper was published in 1992 under the name “Given Time”, and in 1999 Derrida published another version of the article, under the name “ The gift of death”, where he added another text on Kafka then.

Derrida tried to save morality, in the European context, from the nihilistic emptiness created by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) with his most famous book “Being and Time” (1927), when Heidegger said that life “is only a moment or an expanse of time surrounded by death On both sides “, leaving a moral and ethical void whose political and practical outcomes were terrifying (there becomes a lot of nothingness and a little meaning in Heidegger's world. The identification with nature and its powers in a retroactive conservative manner becomes the ideal conception of true existence).

Derrida acknowledges the inevitability of death but, as is his famous habit, Derrida plays with the French term se donner la mort to “kill oneself” or “to commit suicide”, which literally means “to give oneself death,” in a linguistic paradox that gives Derrida the opportunity to save human agency from absolute nothingness. The French verb donner, meaning “give” and “donate”, can also be used to mean “give a gift”, from which the word le don stems, which means “the gift”. Derrida builds an argument in which he criticizes what Heidegger did (drawing inspiration from the texts of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka on the idea of ​​the sacred and its relationship to the idea of ​​responsibility) that death is an absolutely individual event, in which no one can prevent it from anyone or die in their place. Even if by means of sacrifice, in the end a sacrifice does not protect someone from the inevitability of death, even when they sacrifice themselves for someone’s life. In the absolute individuality of death, every person becomes absolutely responsible as well for their death, to "give it to oneself" 

And in the inevitability of human death (even in the absence of God as in Heidegger's thinking, or the presence of God in the Patočka lectures) the possibility emerges of the realization of a common destiny, which creates a moment of recognition and identification with the "other" (in clear inspiration from Levinas ideas).


Of Bats and the River

Mabalo Lokela, the principal of a school in the village of Yambuku in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, did not know that his visit to a missionary on the Ebola River in the summer of 1976 would be his last trip. A few days later, he developed a fever (he was diagnosed with malaria in the beginning) and his symptoms began to worsen until he passed away, about two weeks after the onset of symptoms.

After his death, patients started to fall successively, until a state of emergency was declared in the country, and for 26 days the northern region and the capital, Kinshasa, were quarantined, until it was found that the cause of the disease was the Ebola virus (named after the river), and the researchers (Congolese and Belgians) discovered that the cause of the outbreak of the epidemic was mostly due to the fact that the Belgian missionary nuns were reusing syringes on patients, without sterilizing them or boiling them. The same tragedy was then repeated in the spread of the immunodeficiency viral epidemic, which is most likely also transmitted from an area near the Sangha River, as a result of the repeated use of syringes, without sterilization, to vaccinate the population of the Congo over decades.

This was not the first time that one of the strains of the Ebola virus spread in Central Africa. In the same year, the epidemic broke out in the city of "Nzara" in southern Sudan, in a cotton factory, but no one realized at the time that this was the first outbreak of one of the strains of the virus. Scientists believe that Ebola viruses are transmitted through eating, or dealing with so-called Bushmeat (such as various types of monkeys and antelopes), but they do not know exactly what the virus main reservoir is. But it is most likely that fruit bats (their name does not indicate how much harm they cause) are the main reservoir of the virus. The viruses potentially are often transmitted by chewing the fruit that was semi-eaten by a bat, which is then eaten by one of the bushmeat species (from monkeys or antelopes) and then transmitted to humans.

The first time I heard the word pandemic was when I watched the movie "Outbreak" - 1995, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and I could not sleep for a week. I was struck by a continued state of panic about these tiny creatures that can trick the cells of the body, seize them and use them to reproduce, until the cells explode and our organs start collapsing one by one.

The film deals with the story of the development of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but did not adhere to the historical or practical facts about the nature of the disease (it is certainly less alarming to think of the virus taking 21 days for symptoms to appear, rather than the film’s depiction of the disease and its symptoms that seem to appear only within a few hours of infection- which was not the case). But the notion that there are beings or life forms in nature that can destroy a human being and with such speed and cruelty were far from my mind. Until that moment, I did not know what the words "epidemic", "quarantine" or "militarizing" a disease meant. We say: “We will fight the disease,” and as the film portrayed the United States sending military forces to carry out large-scale quarantine operations (which raises more and more alarm), as we see happening now in a call to war rhetoric, and in describing the medical sector and its workers in Egypt as the “white army”.

In 2003, when the SARS epidemic broke out in China, many Chinese and American scientists tried to trace the routes by which the virus spreads, and after months of analysis and investigation it was discovered that horseshoe bats (of various kinds) are the main repository for different strains of the coronaviruses. Bats are not affected by the virus. As a result of the effect of flying and the effort required of them to fly, their immune system has developed in a way that allows for rapid recovery and fighting disease without the occurrence of acute infections, unlike how viruses could affect other animal species (including humans).

In the same way that Ebola viruses may be transmitted from bats to other animals, a different group of coronaviruses is transmitted from bats to other animals, which may eat the same plants or prey caught and sold live in wet markets in the various provinces of China.

It is no secret to the reader that what happened in 2003 is what happened again in 2020. When the epidemic broke out in Wuhan Province in China within the context of an animal market (scientists do not yet know which species of animals exactly was the link between bats and humans, through which one of the virus strains developed to infect humans with Covid-19, but they know that there is a confirmed relationship between consumption of animals, through hunting or eating and between the spread and development of the disease.)

Scientists confirm that the phenomenon of the spread of zoonotic diseases (or diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans) is a direct result of trafficking rare and endangered animals, and encroaching on these animals' environments through deforestation, for example, or climate change as a result of human activity (from burning fossil fuel and others). The destruction of those environments and what results from such destruction directly affects the distribution of wild and non-domesticated animals, and places them in direct contact with humans or domesticated species used by humans, which allows for the existence of several pathways for the transmission of new and unfamiliar types of pathogens that may develop into forms that may infect humans with diseases. This could infect a person with diseases humans have no prior immunity against, as in the case of Covid-19.


Of heavens and darkness

Nobody realized what had just happened in the summer of 1816, known as the "year of poverty”. The sky was extinguished, hidden behind a veil, and the night fell at high noon, and everyone thought that the world would end. No one realized that the darkness was caused by a massive eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia (it was the worst volcanic eruption in 10,000 years). The volcanic ash blocked away sunrays, the temperatures dropped, the skies darkened, the crops perished, and everyone in the northern hemisphere sat wondering whether or not the world would end. A moment very similar to the Australian bushfires, where smoke and ash blacked out the skies in neighboring New Zealand. These fires have given the world a chance to see what climate change could cause, by a change in temperature of one degree up or down and the natural disasters that could come, and prove to be difficult to control.

That summer, which was then called “a summer without sun,” the English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) wrote his famous poem “Darkness”. And as if Byron witnessed what we are witnessing now in terms of devastation and extremely baffling natural phenomena, he saw what we can see and described it in ways we could not. He realized that in the hour of the annihilation of the world, nature would not need the sun, clouds, trees, or even us ourselves, because the darkness of nothingness would become the sovereign of the universe.


“The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;

The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.”


It really is a captivating idea; this obsession, this arduous search for intelligent life forms in that vast, infinite universe. A real obsession for everyone who looks at the sky and beholds those constellations scattered across the width and length of the sky.

Film director James Gray was able to portray this obsession with great intelligence and sensitivity in his latest film "Ad Astra" (Latin for: to the stars) in 2018. We see Tommy Lee Jones, the brave intelligent astronaut who was taken over by the idea of ​​finding other forms of life in the universe (or, more precisely, escaping from the reality of human life and searching for another life), until he forgot his family, his wife and his son, Brad Pitt, but kept recording very accurately each of his observations of the possibility of such a life, even if it cost him the destruction of all other life in the rest of the solar system itself. Tommy Lee Jones disappears after an exploratory mission, and for two decades he is cut off until suspicious activities begin to appear from the observation unit he was managing.

Brad Pitt becomes an astronaut like his father and is called on an exploration mission to find out that suspicious activity (radioactivity threatening the solar system), and Pitt discovers that the radioactive flashes are coming from that same unit of observation, and he suspects that Jones is still alive, and that it is possible that he is responsible for that radiological defect. 

In one scene, Gray was able to condense all these concepts (the absurdity of searching for other lifeforms instead of preserving the forms that already exist, carrying out the imperative moral duty on humans as thinking subjects responsible for themselves and the world in which they live ... etc). The son tries to save his father, after discovering that the radioactive defect would actually destroy the solar system if the exploration station was not detonated. However, the father refuses  the son’s help, evades his hold, repeating, “Leave me, my son, let me go,” as if Gray tells us to leave these delusions and return again to Earth, and the life on it which is, definitely, the one worth saving.

I had never regretted my weakness in mathematics and in understanding numbers any more than I did when reading the report of the International Committee on Climate Change. All the results of the committee are based on developing models of several variables through which it tries to deduce the different relationships between them and predict the models of future changes. However, the one thing that did not require much understanding was that all of the future scenarios predicted by the commission were catastrophic at best.

The report confirms that carbon economy based on the extraction and burning of fossil derivatives (oil, coal, gas, etc.), which started since the end of the nineteenth century, and reached its most advanced and widespread stage since the middle of the twentieth century, has reached a stage of disruption of climate systems in a way that cannot be controlled or contained or controlled any longer. 

This was translated into severe changes in climate patterns (drought, rain, hurricanes, etc.) on the one hand, but on the other hand, the escalation of the pace of global warming directly affects the agricultural and food cycles, (the emergence of a term such as climate change famines), as well as impacts hunting, and routes of transportation of goods.

The report does not paint any positive picture or perception of a possible best possible scenario, but the report confirms that whatever decisions governments and regimes of power will take over the next two decades will certainly shape the fate of humanity in the next fifty years.


Rivers, and the Naked Truth

In 1954 Abdel-Wahab sang one of his most famous songs, “The Immortal River,” written by the poet Mahmoud Hassan Ismail, which was perhaps inspired by the political reality itself then. This is the year late president Abdel Nasser submitted the proposal to finance the construction of the High Dam project to the World Bank. In the wake of the Bandung Conference and the subsequent negotiations of the arms deal from the Soviet Union (via Czechoslovakia) the recognition of China led to the concern of the US administration and its then president, Dwight Eisenhower, which resulted in a reconsideration and rejection of Nasser’s request for funding. Because of this, Nasser announced the nationalization of the canal. The reaction to the nationalization decision was the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956, which almost led to the outbreak of a Third World War.

What many do not know is that during Nasser's attempts to find ways to finance the dam in 1954, the US Survey Authority was conducting a survey to determine the most suitable location in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region  in Ethiopia to build a dam in the northwest of the country, which would then be known as the Renaissance Dam. Several internal moments of unrest occurred in Ethiopia after that, and ended with a twenty-year civil war, during which Ethiopia was unable to complete the dam project until Meles Zenawi took over as prime minister in 1995 and was in charge of the project’s idea again in 2011.

Atef Salem's film “The Naked Truth” (1963) starring Magda and Ihab Nafeh was one of the few films that recorded the construction of the dam in color. The film revolves around a tourist guide who wants to live independently and to fulfil her potential. She ends up traveling to Aswan on a tourist trip and falls in love with Ihab Nafie, an engineer who works among thousands of others building the dam, and of course she cannot resist the temptation of the handsome engineer and eventually gives up her dreams and marries him.

The film shows the construction process of the dam, and the magnitude of labor required to implement the project. But the coincidences between the film's title and reality do not end here. Just as Magda abandoned her dreams in order to identify with the expectations of society (the same society whose expectations she fought against in the beginning of the film), the regime abandoned the promises it had made to the people of Nubia and to the farmers, to create a "new Nile Valley", or of the dam project as a leap towards the future.

The naked truth becomes not only that the dam project cost Egypt a lot, but also that it linked notions of ​​independence, progress and development to the completion of the construction of the dam without thinking about the consequences of that fundamental change in the ecological water and geographical systems in Egypt.

Perhaps the most important consequence of building the dam, besides providing water for irrigation throughout the year, is the loss of silt that was deposited on both sides of the Nile and in its deltas. Besides its basic role as a natural fertilizer that allows the formation of highly fertile agricultural lands (it had to be replaced by chemical fertilizers), the suspended silt allowed the deposition of materials that limit the erosion of the northern Egyptian coasts. Studies show that over the past fifty years, there has been severe decline and erosion of the northern coast, especially in densely populated areas such as the city of Rashid and Damietta. It is greatly expected for the coast to decline further in light of the increasing frequency of incidents of climate change that threaten an unprecedented rise in the sea levels of the Mediterranean.

Not only did the delta lands lose the annual sediments that the floods carried, but with the collapse of the July state project since the mid-1960s and the diversion of much of the state budget for armaments (for a series of continuous wars), the move to the capital has become an inevitable reality, laden with a long history of centralization, and of marginalization of the country’s periphery. Large migrations began from all over Egypt, and from the Delta in particular, synchronous with agricultural policies that did not take into consideration the interest of farmers nor pay attention to their needs. And within various forms of control and mismanagement, and with the cessation of the annual floods that were on the one hand "washing the soil" (the salinity increased in the delta lands at an accelerated pace with the end of the seventies, even more so with the absence of a real policy to combat the degradation of agricultural lands, and provide natural fertilization), peasants and farmers began selling their agricultural lands and converting them into urban lands in a seemingly random manner. But it is mainly linked to the proximity or distance of these lands to the basic facilities (road networks,  electricity infrastructure, for instance). And if we view the most important agricultural land in Egypt; the delta region and its environs, we see an alarming decline of agricultural lands in favor of their dredging, and their transformation into residential and urban areas.

This phenomenon was coined ‘informal urban expansion’ by the state, as if the state’s failure to break the centrality of the capital and its basic facilities and crush farmers and peasants does not amount to an official and systematic policy, but it is framed as if it is the problem of the farmers, peasants and residents of the periphery. Almost no village or agricultural area in the delta has been spared of that scene in the image below. Small agricultural plots interspersed with a group of concrete buildings.

Here comes a question: what can we do after we become certain that Egypt's water future is in grave danger ? With the failure of the Renaissance Dam negotiations time after time, and with violent climate change, it has become a clear challenge for the continuation of the post-July policies. 

Is it possible to draw inspiration from that informal model in and of itself as a solution? Meaning that the multiple uses of agricultural land be recognized with the expansion of different and varied types of agriculture, and equally with the development of policies and mechanisms that prioritize the interest of the farmer and the local interest over the interest of investors or of the private sector?

I am not an expert in urban or agricultural policies, and indeed there are several factors and variables that must be taken into account when trying to develop an agricultural policy that is more equitable and more capable of adapting to the coming climate changes. Despite my appreciation of specialists and their experience, there can be no controversy regarding the agricultural and urban policies that Egypt adopted throughout its history since the July state. These policies came at the expense of the great majority of the Egyptian people (peasants and farmers). Oftentimes on one hand it came in a patriarchal-authoritarian manner that sought to achieve a successful development model, without considering the nature of the population of that country and its sensitive geography (98% of Egypt's population lives on 8% of its land area). At other times, it came with arrogance and indifference, through a system that adopted neoliberalism with its various forms, to get rid of the burden of responsibility towards about 60% of the Egyptian people (the result is that about 60% of this people suffer from different forms of poverty).

Egyptians always try to reduce the tragedy of their reality with merciless sarcasm. So the meme that has lately been circulating based on the scene of Ahmed Bedir's attempt to blow up the train while flashing that crazy smile (from the film "Paper Hero") surprisingly expresses the current reality and the true desire to accept the inevitably of death and the necessity of taking it lightly. But perhaps the time has come for us to “abandon the path” of the fathers of the July state, and leave them in a space of post-independence delusions and obsession with achieving a strong state even if it is at the expense of the lives of its citizens (as if the state is a separate entity that has nothing to do with citizens).

Darkness will descend (Covid19 and its likes are a step closer to the dark) and it forces us not only to see and consider death as an inevitable situation (we all die no matter what), but it forces us to return again to Earth, this earth we live on, in an attempt to understand what it means to live in a particular place, (a particular place of a certain geography, certain types of climate, certain set of resources..etc.), and the mutual responsibility shared between us as partners in this place, and not merely as a group of people on whom an authoritarian political system imposed a set of considerations and ideas separate from our reality, but as a group of people that are able to see that we are part of the world itself. A group of people busy with the lives and well-being of our brothers and sisters, and that until that world ends we have the right to live in it with all means of comfort and dignity, in ways that guarantee its continuation and safeguard our freedom and agency.


All rights are reserved to the Egyptian Ministry of Environment Photo for illustration purpose of urban encroachment of farmland in Nile Delta, all rights are reserved to the Egyptian Ministry of Environment.


Ismail Fayed is a writer, critic and dramaturge from Egypt, working on histories of nationalism, philosophy and religion, and queer performance.