[Readings] The Permitted Prohibited | Harper's Magazine
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July 2021 Issue [Readings]

The Permitted Prohibited


From The Republic of False Truths, which will be published next month by Knopf. Translated from the Arabic.

“If a worker wants to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, I don’t give a damn. But if a worker wants to demonstrate in the factory, I will have no mercy on him.” Essam Shaalan seemed to be in an excitable mood. The factory’s managers and department heads sat facing him. One said, “We can’t allow any worker to stir up chaos.” Another said, “Anyone who doesn’t care about the bread on his table deserves what he gets.” Essam ignored their comments and looked at the managers with a severe expression. Then he resumed, in his booming voice, saying, “Each of you has two pieces of paper in front of him. The first is a statement of support for and allegiance to President Hosni Mubarak; the second is an undertaking to report anyone who incites unrest at the factory. You must sign both papers. Any objections?” They took refuge in silence. Essam went on, “Each of you will write his name, position, and national ID number. The statement of support will be broadcast on television and published in newspapers. The security undertaking I shall submit to National Security.”

They busied themselves signing, then stood up, one after another, and handed him their papers. At the end, he said, “You have now become responsible for any incitement to unrest at the factory. Any slackness on your part will cost you dearly. You may go.”

The first day passed without problems. On the second, it was reported that a worker named Shawqi in the furnaces division was calling on his colleagues to strike in solidarity with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. A little later, a procession consisting of Shawqi, his boss (who had reported him), and three security guards arrived at Essam’s office. The young man was dark-complexioned and thin and seemed steady, and ready to take on any provocation. The security guards pushed him into the middle of the room, continuing to hold him by the arms, but Essam yelled, “Let go of him!” Then he got up, approached the young man, and said in a commanding voice, “What’s your name, boy?” (Later, Essam would recall with astonishment that he’d used the same tone of voice with the worker that officers had used with him when he was the one being interrogated.) “Shawqi Ahmad Abd El Barr.”

“Do you want to get yourself into deep trouble, Shawqi?”

Boldly, the young man responded, “We want to fix this country.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“All the millions of Egyptians.”

“My dear boy, take it from me,” Essam said, his tone now that of a kindly father, “nothing you’re doing will make any difference. You’re getting yourself into trouble for nothing. National Security is at the factory gates. If they get hold of you, you’ll be finished.”

The young man looked at him in silence, and his boss yelled at him with a vehemence designed to curry Essam’s favor: “Engineer Essam is like your father, and he wants what’s best for you!”

The young man said, “Engineer Essam wants what’s best for him, not me.”

“And what’s best for me?” Essam asked him, struggling to contain himself.

“You’re worried about the millions you earn.”

Essam slapped the boy, his words ringing through the factory. “I was in prison before you were born, you little prick. Hand him over to National Security. They can teach him some manners.”

The young man was taken away in a police van before the eyes of his colleagues. He was bleeding from his nose, his face was covered in bruises and scratches, and he wore a look of astonishment, as though he couldn’t believe what was happening.

This was the factory’s only example of unrest and it had been contained, but it had a bad effect on Essam. The very idea of a revolution happening was demolishing his theory about the submissiveness of Egyptians and their capacity to coexist with tyranny. He’d built his outlook on life on this theory and would defend it fiercely; he couldn’t tolerate its being cast into doubt. His arrogant, coarse way with the managers, his slapping of the worker, his indiscriminate threats: all these hid his panic at the idea that he might be wrong. He was like a fanatic facing someone casting doubt on his religion.

In the evening, he went home. He took a hot shower and put on his tracksuit, then drank three glasses of whiskey, one after the other. He felt the effect of the alcohol quickly and strongly and all of a sudden he was seized by a desire to see Nourhan, his second wife, whom he hadn’t seen since the demonstrations began.

When Essam phoned her, Nourhan excused herself brusquely. She was living through a state of emergency at the TV station where she worked. On the first day of the revolution, a colonel from National Security had come to the station, taken an office for himself in the security department, and met with the hosts and staff. He informed them that from then on, and in view of the delicate conditions in the country, he’d be giving them daily instructions, the execution of which he would monitor personally.

That day, Nourhan phoned Sheikh Shamel to ask for his perspective on disseminating false news via the television. Sheikh Shamel was silent for a few moments and then told her, “At present, we must regard ourselves as being in a state of war with saboteurs who wish to bring down the state. The true religion makes allowable to Muslims at war things it does not allow them in times of peace, in accordance with the well-known principle that ‘necessity permits the prohibited.’ ” Nourhan was reassured by this legal ruling and set about implementing the colonel’s instructions with zeal and mastery. She didn’t limit herself to giving airtime to callers selected by National Security; she would even go over what they were planning to say with them, word for word, before going on air. Egyptians are much affected by the sound of a woman’s scream. Therefore, every day there would be a female caller begging for help because thugs wanted to rape her and her daughters. The officer had told her, “Our goal is for each demonstrator to feel that his mother and wife are in danger, so he’d better leave the square and go home.”

Even this was not enough for Nourhan. She invited Sheikh Shamel on air to present the religious view. “Revered Sheikh, what do you have to say to the demonstrators?”

“Repent and avert a schism that will drown this country in blood!” he yelled. “Young people, return to your homes, for this is not the path to change! You are simply destroying Egypt with your own hands.”

After the segment, Nourhan phoned her husband back, sounding embarrassed. “Sorry, Essam. I was on air.”

“Finish your work and come.”

At first she refused, but he insisted, then got angry and said, “When I tell you I want to see you, it means I have to see you.”

As soon as Essam opened the door, he realized that his wife was not in a normal state. She seemed tense. She had gathered her hair into a ponytail, and after she had removed her makeup, he saw that she appeared pale, with rings of exhaustion beneath her eyes. She threw herself into the nearest chair. She appeared grave and somewhat preoccupied. He made her a cup of tea, and as soon as she’d taken a sip, she started talking fast: “Essam, please don’t be angry with me. I’m under a lot of pressure and my nerves are suffering.”

Essam didn’t answer. He kissed her hand and drew her into the bedroom. The sex was different this time. No bawdy, festive character remained. She was agitated and exhausted. He threw himself hurriedly into her arms, as though to squeeze out the remaining drops of joy before they disappeared. They were struggling to overcome something heavy in the air; they were resisting something funereal.

They finished quickly and got up in silence. He went back to his seat in the living room and poured himself a glass of whiskey. After a little while, Nourhan returned from the bathroom. “I have to go back to the station,” she said.

He didn’t respond. He sipped the whiskey and lit a cigarette. She said, “I want to ask you a question. What’s your opinion of the demonstrations?”


“What do you mean?”

“Nothing in Egypt is going to change.”

“Do you think the president will go?”

He let out a derisive laugh that seemed artificial. “Are you an idiot, Nourhan? Since when could a few kids get rid of the president of the republic? Even if they keep it up for a year, nothing can possibly change.”

“I’m afraid the president will go and there’ll be chaos.”

“That’s because you don’t understand the nature of the state in Egypt. ‘The state’ means National Security, General Intelligence, Military Intelligence, the police, the Army, the media, and the judiciary. Each of these is a strong institution whose only loyalty is to the president.”

“Every day we say the demonstrations are coming to an end and then they get bigger.”

“Just be patient for a few days and you’ll see. All those damned kids will be arrested and tried before military courts.”

“That’s speculation, not information.”

He smiled and said, “It’s my reading of history. Every struggle between the people and the state ends with the defeat of the people. In Egypt, the authorities are capable of failing at everything, except the subjugation of Egyptians.”