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Farewell, Bassem Sabry

The last time we sat and talked was April 18, 2014. You were about to embark upon writing a novel and wanted to pick my brain about a couple of details on which you were unsure. Though you had carved your path as one of the most respected and successful political writers in Egypt, you were excited about writing this novel for, as you said, it would encapsulate the events of the past three years since the revolution had started; the philosophical wordsmith in you was eager to redefine the experience that had altered and converged our lives, to unravel new meanings to old lessons, and perhaps even to stumble upon much-needed answers.

The problems you were facing were related to the beginning and ending of your novel. You wanted it to be almost autobiographical, and though the opening was understandably bleak, you were adamant that, in the end, the stars would align and the optimist in you would defeat the odds—dreams would be realized, lovers would be reunited, happiness would be achieved. I said that this was the problem: stories should not just end happily, because life does not just end happily. Life is about negotiating one’s way through the least painful scenario. You asked me why I responded this way. I took the extreme position and said that the ultimate ending is death. You said that death could be a happy ending for the dead. I replied that, be that as it may, death is a misery to those who loved the dead. You shut me up by saying that that is not the dead person’s problem. Touché.

I have always been in awe of your optimism; your ability to hold on to hope in the darkest hour. I often wondered where you had acquired this positive energy when all that surrounded us was dark and bloody. You were fixated on a single idea: the solemn and certain belief that Egypt would be a better place.

The numbers (1982 – 2014) stand authoritatively by your name now. Closed-ended, absolute, interrupted only by a small, yet weighty, hyphen. Death is supposedly a finality—the ultimate conclusion to our lives and possibly the only verifiable truth.

The same night we met to discuss the book, you sent me a message via Facebook with a link to the ending of the movie Stranger than Fiction and the words “Speaking of endings that don’t seem to fit and why sometimes one should do them anyway…” I realized that the ending was as important to you as the journey itself and that you needed to know everything was going to be OK before you embarked on the journey of writing the novel. It was important to you that a novel about the Egyptian revolution and love ended happily for the protagonist. Sensing that need, I told you that I was converted to your religion and that what mattered to me was being part of your protagonist’s journey and seeing what ending you thought he deserved. I told you the journey made all the difference.

Eleven days later, in the obscurity of the night, news spread that you had left our world. You taught me a cruel lesson in both life and literature that loathsome night.

The only ending I wanted to see to your journey was you, settled down, happy, with children, a successful political and/or writing career, lots of children, being the next Egyptian president—or the one after next—lots of grandchildren, and after many, many, many healthy years, a peaceful letting go, surrounded by your loved ones, preferably after I had died. We were going to grow old together and reminisce about the days we are living in now.

Given all that you have symbolized both to your friends and to strangers, you have been described as the “voice of the Egyptian revolution.” I know this would have made you uncomfortable. You did not wish to be distracted by your greatness (or even to acknowledge it). Such modesty and humility only added to your greatness. Though I do not subscribe to how the media liberally pins certain labels on some people, I believe they nailed it this time. Your voice was calm, consistent, and unwavering in its call for equal rights, freedom, and social justice and its loud rejection of the ongoing divisions and violence. This voice that kept us level-headed amidst the manic screaming has now been muted by another pen, one that writes a life stranger than fiction.

 You never feared death. I believe death feared you. You conquered many of your fears and held out your hand to help us conquer ours. Happiness was an attainable goal, you believed. You named your first blog Finding Nirvana and your last Táállamtú (meaning: I learnt), and in both, you ventured on a journey to learn the difference between truth and myth. “The road to happiness,” you once said, “is hard and tiresome but it need not be complicated.” Though life attacked you incessantly, you were kind to it and to all its actors. In retrospect, we awaited your words to find solace; a perspective that allowed for hope. I find myself wondering, what is the point of following the news if your reasoned, seasoned, and logical voice does not penetrate these walls of madness?

Many wondered how you managed to keep your moral compass strictly focused in the right direction. I believe your secret weapon was equilibrium. It meant that your life would not be swallowed by the all-consuming nature of politics—thus, you became Batman. Calling you Egypt’s Batman started off as a popular joke. We loved to tease you about the alter ego you had chosen for yourself. With you now gone, and with our witnessing the stream of people who knew and loved you, people have sworn that you have changed their lives one way or another, the joke is becoming a wishful alternative scenario. Perhaps you are Batman. Perhaps you will rise again, somehow, somewhere.

Since January 2011, Egypt has not been kind to us. Many have grown disillusioned. Many have given up on the dream of a better Egypt. But not you. Your worldly compassion and endless capacity to endure resuscitated us when we needed it. I have never seen you react in anger. You were always collected and never let the chaos confuse you. Even when things became intolerable, knowing that you were there was enough to calm my fears. But we grew up too much, too fast, too soon—in a matter of months—in an inevitable acceleration towards the finishing line, the same one you had told me need not be so gloomy.

I still think about your unwritten novel; I wonder how it could have enriched us with your unmatched humor and with the wisdom that was beyond your 31 years. I see the parallels between your life and death and our revolution: the hopeful beginnings and the tragic, sudden ending. And then I remember you and how you refused to believe that this would be the end; how you had urged us to speak up, to write on, to do what we could to enrich our own lives.

How or why you died does not make the slightest difference. You are gone. That is our agonizing reality. Waking up with this realization every morning has been the toughest test of strength I have had to endure to this date. But need the end be so absolute? I still see your smile when I think of you. I still hear your timeless words, and your cheeky eyes still mock our reality. Perhaps this is what some call denial, but I am comfortable living in it for as long as possible. And your lessons do not end there, my friend. Witnessing the ripple that the news of your death has caused across the world has been awe-inspiring. The same august aura that had pulled me towards you the first time we “met” on Twitter had the same effect on thousands of people. You would be very proud of us. We united in our love for you. We leaned on each other and cried while we tried to comprehend the magnitude of our loss. There were also moments of hope and moments that were simply valued because they were Bassemesque; we laughed because they were sent from you.

Inevitably, I will only find some comfort in reading the words you’ve left behind, even if I do not like how the story ended:

There is so much cruelty around us. During the past few months, I have been exposed myself to some of life’s most intolerable cruelty…
But enough of that for now…
That is not the story…
The story is that in the midst of all of the agony of life, the injustice, the hunger, the pain, the sickness, the sadness, we still find that survival is our primary instinct. Something inside of us does not want us to let go.

Surviving feels so tiresome, but it seems we shall for now. Holding on to memories of you, of how you lived and loved and laughed, may carry us a little further, make the baggage a little lighter, make us laugh a little louder, and even love a little deeper.