The Secret History of Atheism — Youssef Rakha

In April 2005 a band of militant atheists occupied New Cairo. They called themselves the Yaroslavsky Brothers and their symbol was a red band with Darwin’s quadrupedal fish at the centre in black, the words bila ilah, or ‘without god’, inscribed in Kufic calligraphy inside it. Led by four American University in Cairo students, they had recruited and organised on Facebook in the year since the site went live.

They chose the residential development because of its remoteness and relative dereliction. But it was for the same reasons that they ended up falling off the edge of the world, their existence slipping into an abyss somewhere between the online prank they were believed to be and the Armed Forces battalion they were mistaken for on sight. They lasted five days.

One weekend they put up barbed wire around five feddans of desert west of the central construction site and set up camp. They had a generator and floodlights, tankards of water and sleeping bags. They had a mountain of cans and a boulder of cigarette cartons and chocolate bars. They had tequila. By the time they were busted there was also evidence of shawarma and fried chicken.

On Facebook they declared Dawlet El Nil Bila Ilah or the Godless Nile State, calling on prospective citizens to come home with their tents. Death metal blaring out of two giant speakers, they filmed themselves burning up a model of the Kaaba they’d decorated with crosses and Stars of David, but April 2005 was early days for YouTube. By the time the footage circulated there was no sign of atheism in New Cairo, and the idea that the Yaroslavsky Brothers had never actually existed took firmer root.

On the third day a Special Operations detachment entered the State in the guise of citizens-to-be. They found less than fifty Yaroslavskys dressed in fatigues, fewer girls than young men. The militants blasphemed religiously, taunting each other for half-hearted sacrilege. They wore Richard Dawkins buttons and swore at each other using the English term god-bitch.

The Yaroslavskys had six cars including a Jeep Cherokee fitted with a siren which turned out to be genuine government property, assigned to the Justice Minister Mahmud Rashid’s retinue. It had never been reported stolen. This bemused the Interior Minister Habib Adli until it dawned on him that Rashid had a twenty-year-old son.

In the Special Operations report – I managed to read a copy that was made by hand before the document was taken off the records – the colonel in charge described the State as a decadent campsite populated by a social-media gruel of privileged college dropouts and delinquent teenagers from the shantytowns.

A kilogramme of the Sinai-grown cannabis we call bango was sighted alongside twenty machine guns, enough ammunition for a week of intense combat. The one possession the colonel couldn’t account for was a B83 thermonuclear bomb that appeared to be in working order but would require an aircraft to deploy it.

He recommended a peaceful delegation of representatives of social and moral institutions backed by a small rank of plainclothes operatives to coax the youths out before confiscating the weaponry and clearing the site.

I could picture a soft-spoken sheikh in El Azhar regalia giving his beatific best to a slobbering teenager with a tabby Afro and a Grinov. I could picture an Arab nationalist history professor spastically explaining that Yemelyan Yaroslavsky was not only a Stalinist Jew but also a committed Zionist, his life dedicated to usurping the land of our Palestinian brothers. I could picture a pudgy girl with pigtails hugging the B83, her cheek on the streamlined surface as she crouched before it like a devout Hindu at a Shiva lingam, the plainclothes policemen slipping in the sand while they tried to pull her up.

I could picture the four leaders in a huddle like sportsmen on the field, then three of them dragging away a Coptic Orthodox churchman, the delegation’s National Unity component, attempting to take him hostage while the fourth roared, staccato:

— I’ve been in touch with all the Godless pages on Facebook and I can safely say, Hold on, comrades. REINFORCEMENTS ARE ON THEIR WAY FROM KAZAKHSTAN.

All this really happened. Rashid’s son was handed to Rashid after Adli phoned to say, You owe me, your excellency. Others were taken into custody on charges of arms possession and drug dealing.

The shantytown boys were escorted to an abandoned construction site, stripped and made to kneel with their faces in piles of cement. They were sodomised till the sun went down, struck with cables to the head or the spine when they cried out. At night they were packed into a truck and driven through a tributary of the Suez highway. They were abandoned bleeding and half-conscious by the side of the road.

The cars and the electronics were confiscated along with the weaponry, never to be retrieved by their owners. The bango was smoked behind officers’ desks to peals of savage laughter. The barbed wire was collected in a colossal heap on a ridge just outside New Cairo. There it stood like an abstract statue, for months the highest point on the horizon, an inscrutable landmark of suburbia.


Youssef Rakha is a bilingual writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Based in Cairo, his birthplace, he graduated from Hull University, England, in 1998. He has worked in mostly English-language journalism since then. @Sultans_Seal

Image: cairo_ringroad_5Mark Muehlhaeusler, Creative Commons.