Episode III – Haflatoun needs your vote
As retold to Khaled Diab
Date: Thursday 11 August 2005
After my ordeal at Guantanamo Bay and before I met Pandora, I was sustained mainly by hope. But despite what the ancients say about her namesake, this all-gifted woman has brought beauty, form, music, healing and wisdom into my life – and has helped thrust me out of the absent Luna’s orbit.
I may have come to Greece on a reconnaissance mission for the dastardly and evil Eye to find ways of bringing the Olympic games to Cairo in 2016, but the pondering Pandora caught my eye and now I carry a massive torch of Olympian proportions for her. Almost immediately, strangers though we were, we began sharing intimate thoughts in a dimly lit private chamber.
At first, it was rather one-sided, with her asking all the questions and listening attentively, while I kicked back on her comfortable leather sofa. But I soon turned the tables on her – an achievement made the more impressive by the fact that nothing that could immediately be identified as a table could be found cluttering her ultra-modern minimalist office.
Our liaison began in Athens where, unhinged by my ordeal in Camp X-Ray and with my faith in human virtue shaken, I became something of a cynic in both the ancient and modern sense. Taking a leaf out of the book of those anarchists and puritans of yore, I spent several days in a contemplative daze soaking Diogenically in the bath trying to restore my trust in my fellow humans. Bewildered passers-by would speculate as to what a grown man was doing bathing on Athen’s famous Syntagma Square, within splashing distance of the city’s spanking new metro system.
drivel Aflatoun: Plato Haflatoun: Drivelling Plato
Haflata: Talking drivel
Haflatoun: Drivelling Plato
A shadow travelled across the still and tranquil waters, darkening the brown mudflats of my knees and clouding the horizon for my plastic duck with red horns. A friendly Athenian policeman called Alexander Alexandropoulos looked down at me and asked: “Is there anything I can do for you, sir?”
Many of the tourists turned their attention to us and started giggling. Incensed, the police officer asked to see my ID. “I am Haflatoun. I need no identification papers,” I responded candidly.
“You look Greek but you don’t sound it. Where are you from, sir?”
“I was born in a sister country but I am a citizen of the world – petty nationalism cramps my style and my rich ancestry.”
“Are you an illegal immigrant?”
“No, I am a philosopher and a nomad in search of wisdom.”
“I’m afraid you’re just mad without the prefixes,” the officer informed me. “I think you need psychiatric attention,” he added as he informed his colleague standing behind me that it was time for a tea break by miming a stirring motion with his index finger by his temple.
Psychiatrist – Psukhe-iatreia, soul-healer – yes, indeed, I needed that after the trauma I’d experienced. “After you’ve had your tea, officer, you may take me to the place where they heal souls,” I determined as I stood up, water and soap dripping off my naked body.
I could not contain myself – nor could a straitjacket and five burly male nurses – as I was checked into the institute for wounded psyches. What would otherwise have been a cold and sterile environment was transformed into my very own soul asylum once Pandora – a healer of lost souls – entered my super deluxe room which was lavishly fitted with cushions everywhere, even on the walls and ceilings. I suspected that it might have been she who had made these arrangements for my comfort, and my heart fluttered to think that she cared so much for my relaxation.
“I hope the police and my staff didn’t disturb your bath too much,” she said as she entered my room.
“Water off a duck’s back,” I said with a bravado I did not feel as I stroked my plastic duck with demon’s horns.
“Good,” she said, her lips forming into a gentle smile that took some of the edge off the stony cool of her black eyes and the brooding darkness of her razor-sharp curls. “I’m Dr Pandora Angelis. Now, Mr Haflatoun, for me to give you a clean bill of health, I need you to give me a sane and rational explanation of what you were doing taking a bath in the middle of Athens.”
“I was asked to find out how Athens had secured its Olympic bid by a group of interested investors who were considering their own bid for Cairo,” I began. “Without wanting to take your name in vain, the mission opened up an unexpected Pandora’s box of complications.”
“How so?” she asked, intrigued, and I told her.
After our first conversation, I heard her say outside my door: “I think we can dispense with the padded cell, don’t you? Please move him somewhere more comfortable.”
Over the following two weeks, our conversations in her office took us from the depths of my soul, to philosophy, politics, science, social issues, and, finally, right down into the gushing rapids of her tortured soul. One day, during one of our long sessions, she confided: “Haflatoun, I’m going to take you into my confidence. I have my own Pandora’s box.”
“That’s hardly surprising, Pandora, I am sure you have dozens of them.”
“I’m speaking metaphorically,” she said a little irritably. She got up off her chair beside the coach I was reclining on and went to her bookcase. Pushing aside a heavy volume of a psychiatric encyclopaedia, she retrieved a small wooden box.
“This is it,” she said dramatically, the dark matter of her black-hole eyes sucking me in. She handed me the box and my eyes suffered from the G-force as I pulled them away from the gravity of her face. Inside the box were multicoloured pills.
“I take uppers and downers to get me through the despair of dealing with so many poor and helpless people,” she admitted, the orbs of her normally rock solid gaze began blurring in pools of tears.
From that moment on, Pandora was transformed from being my soul-healer and became my soul mate. And, a few days later, in a carnal moment of passion, we became simply and primevally just mates.
Time: Crack of dawn
Place: Psychiatric ward in Athens
At the highly symbolic (or perhaps cheaper) stroke of midnight, I received an encoded SMS telegram from Egypt. While I’ve been tripping along from one form of detention to the next on two continents, a lot of exciting things have been going down in Egypt.
Unbelievable as it may seem, the concession for the presidential monopoly is up for renewal and, this time, there will be more than one bidder for the contract. That means that the “Thou shalt have no other President but I” pillar of the establishment is beginning to crumble.
Despite the profusion of election poster boys, ‘Blessed One’ is almost definitely going to win, but at least there are signs that the popular will of the masses is rising from its slumber.
One sign of this was the telegram I received from the secretary-general of Egypt’s largest – that is, in terms of passive support – political organisation. It is bigger even than the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the officially sanctioned National Democratic Party. It is the monolithic and ever-popular Political Apathy Party, aka the Keep Out of Harm’s Way Coalition of the Unwilling. I, myself, have long been a fully fledged, if unsubscribed, member. The party’s platform is not exactly ‘middle of the road’; it is more ‘close to the wall’.
“Haflatoun, you have been picked as our candidate for the elections,” the coded message from Secretary Salim Amrak Ilallah began. “Apologies for the last-minute nature of the message, but it took us a while to get around to making the selection – you know how it is with earning a living and bringing up a family. Besides, no one else wanted to do it and we finally remembered you. We hope that you’ll take up the opportunity. If not, then no hard feelings. Drop by for a cup of tea when you’re back in town.”
I was flattered that Egypt’s largest political party had chosen me as its candidate. But every sweet moment is laced with a bitter pill that must be swallowed. I told Pandora the good/bad news first thing in the morning and tears welled up in her eyes as she signed my discharge papers.
“The next time we meet I may be president,” I said, the melancholy of the moment rising in my heart.
“Can I be your first lady?” she asked.
“You already are,” I told her and she promised she would join me in Egypt.
Date: Saturday, 19 August 2005
Place: Political Apathy Party branch office
Time: Late afternoon
After a late Friday night reunion with friends, I only managed to get out of bed at midday. I then decided that I needed to spend some quality time with Otter, my blind Siamese cat, and Double-Click, his guide mouse. Of course, I had a presidential campaign to run and if I was going to make an impression on the electorate I had to get out there and feel some skin. But a principled politician needs to get his priorities straight. Besides, hanging out with my pets would help establish my street cred as a family man.
I finally arrived at the PAP party office – one of thousands around the country – where I was due to meet Secretary Salim. It turned out to be a half-empty – as a good politician I should say, half-full – traditional Egyptian ahwah (coffee shop) and the party chief was nowhere to be seen. To keep me company while I waited, I ordered a tea so strong and sweet that it sat itself up, winked at me and said, “Call me honey!”
Men of all ages sat around me playing all kinds of board games: backgammon, chess, dominoes. I could only detect a handful of women sitting around the place. Obviously, universal suffrage had not yet taken off among the party rank and file, at least at the social level, even if they have at the political one.
Some devoted individuals looked like they spent most of their days at this party branch office, moving the pieces round the board with a fluidity of motion that only comes with years of practice. Yet, strangely, they did little to motivate or mobilise others politically. In fact, some actively discouraged it. “Who are you going to vote for in the elections, Alaa?” one young fellow asked his backgammon rival as he rolled the dice.
“You see these dice,” Alaa said as he picked them up dramatically. “Can you tell me where they are going to land?”
“No, not really,” his companion admitted, a little crestfallen.
“Well, politics is like these dice – you get the politicians fate deals you. Besides, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Mubarak has brought stability to this country trapped in a volatile region.”
“So, why don’t you go out and vote for him?”
“You see these dice,” Alaa repeated. “They’re not loaded. I’m thrashing you fair and square. But our government doesn’t trust Lady Luck, so it creates its own. It can tell which way the dice are going to fall, so there’s no need for me to vote.”
“Perhaps, if we, the electorate, pinch the dice in a certain way, we can get a double-six and defeat the regime.”
“Politics is not for the likes of us, man, just play your roll, drag on your shisha and let’s talk about something important.”
“I think Ahli are going to beat Zamalek again tonight.”
“In your dreams...”
I’m no politician – I’m only a modest philosopher prince – but the conversation between these two young men did not sound encouraging and I felt that my dream of a brighter future for the country was simply an illusion, worse, a delusion.
Secretary Salim finally arrived, sweating profusely, with a newspaper under one arm and a watermelon under the other. “So, you’ve decided to lead our campaign. Mumtaz! Splendid!” he chuckled as he clapped his hands together to get the waiter’s attention.
“I’m not sure I’m the right man,” I levelled with him in a rare moment of self-doubt. “Too much to do in too little time.”
“Look, Haflatoun, we need you,” he urged earnestly. “Our traditional support base is abandoning us in droves for new parties, and even some old ones. They believe we’re too apathetic. Naturally, we, in the party hierarchy, feel betrayed, after all these years in bed together, they walk out on us because ‘we’re too lethargic’!” he bemoaned with barely suppressed passion.
“And why do they think that?”
“I suspect it’s our name. Political Apathy is not as popular as it once was. People are no longer content to sit back and watch, they want more.”
“Well, give them more, Goddamit!” I said as I rose to my feet and pounded the table, overturning my extra-strong ‘Call me honey’ tea and Salim’s watermelon.
“That’s why we need your help, Haflatoun,” he said, drying the sweat off his forehead and mopping the beads of perspiration off his upper lip with his carefully folded handkerchief.
“Well,” I mused, “first, you need a change of name and then a change of platform to accompany it.”
“We’ve already thought of that. How does New PAP grab you?” he announced theatrically as his hands drew apart an invisible curtain.
“I don’t think it goes far enough,” I reckoned.
“It worked wonders for Tony Blair’s New Labour.”
“I think you need to drop the Apathy, Mr Chairman,” I suggested.
“Even you, Haflatoun, are calling me apathetic. I’m trying my best!” he complained.
“I meant the apathy in the party name. How about you call it the Popular Sympathy Party?”
“Brilliant! Mumtaz!! Superb!!!” the praise surged out of his mouth.
“Just one problem: hasn’t the candidate application deadline already passed?”
“It’s all right. We have a carte blanche to field any candidate we want – the authorities obviously don’t see us as a threat, especially when they learnt that we hadn’t decided on a candidate yet?”
“Mumtaz, splendid,” I echoed, “Surprise is always a good ally to have.”
Around the corner from the café, I saw at least 10,000 people waiting for the number 77-with-a-dash bus. “The public transport crisis must’ve got a lot worse since I left the country,” I thought in concern.
Many of the people in the crowd were holding up banners with the bold legend Kifaya! (Enough!) embellished upon them. Had they really had it with waiting for the bus or were they protesting against something more immobile?
“Kifaya! Haram! (Enough! It’s a sin!)” the crowd shouted in classic football style, blowing whistles. “Mubarak, salam (Mubarak, goodbye).” One guy was dressed in a referee’s outfit and he repeatedly showed a red card to an effigy of the president which stubbornly refused to move.
The chanting crowd was composed of young and old, men in beards and men in ponytails, Muslim brothers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with feminist sisters (although their shoulders didn’t rub), women in summer dresses mingled with those in headscarves, Coptic priests in their black gowns and big crosses and imams in white galabiyas and embroidered skullcaps prayed collectively for a miracle. But one thing the bulk of the crowd had in common was that it was young, educated and impatient.
Egypt’s various political colours – pan-Arab comrades and Muslim brethren, strident socialists and nostalgic royalists of the old Wafd – closed ranks and found common purpose which could be summed up in one single word: Kifaya!
Then, off to one side, somewhat leftfield, I spotted Kahka, my friend and existential baker. We greeted each other with a warm hug. “What are you doing back in town?” she asked.
“I’m running for president,” I explained to her.
“So am I,” she admitted.
Shocked, I asked her: “But doesn’t that go against all your anti-authoritarian principles?”
“No, not at all. You’ve got to play the system to beat it,” she said with a lightness of spirit I did not usually associate with her. “Doesn’t running for president go against your nomadic non-partisan philosophy?”
“In theory, yes. But Egypt is part of me and if my fellow humans need me, who am I to ignore their call.”
“That’s so sweet but, even if we’re friends, I will show you no mercy in the campaign.” Someone came up and whispered in her ear and she said: “Touny, I’ve got to go now.”
“May the best human win,” I shouted to her.
She jumped on to a nearby platform which was surrounded by the young, radical and dishevelled. “Friends and fellow anarchists, if you choose me as your next president, I will not only become Egypt’s first female president, I will also become her last – I plan.
“The presidency has been more trouble than it is worth and so my first act as president will be to abolish the office of the president and put myself out of a job. Then, it will be up to you, the people, to decide on how you want to be ruled,” she screamed to loud cheering.
As I was pondering the implications of her radical platform, I saw a dark car occupied by men in dark suits sidle up to the kerb. Was it the Eye’s henchmen or State Security? I couldn’t tell. What were they doing here?
No time for idle musings, I thought. I have a campaign to run.
Will Haflatoun manage to make a difference in the few short days left to him? Will Kahka’s radical ideas catch on? Who exactly are the men in the dark car? Will Pandora join him or will his electioneering open up a Pandora’s box of complications? Find out in the next exciting instalment of the odd-ventures of Haflatoun, the delusional philosopher prince. Click here to find out
ã2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.