Absence – On going
“Tired of crying.” Atef Lamei lies sick after running away from his kidnappers. His mother is torn between being happy he is safe and mourning his father’s absence. Naga Hammady, Qena.
I lost Atef Yehya, one of my best friends. It was painful.
The pain was not only in his absence, but also in the details of the journey: witnessing his injury, informing his mother, searching for financial support for his medical care, and seeing the medical negligence he suffered for six months. I thought the journey had ended with his sudden death. Yet, while Atef’s journey ended in our world, others started for those who knew him and would have to live with his absence.
Yasmine and I arrived at a simple house where a photo of him, dressed in a style familiar to us, adorned the gate. On it was written, “Martyr Sameh Ahmed — a Freedom Martyr.” I was touched by another mother and shared another mother’s pain. I felt his presence despite his absence through the faith of his mother. She had printed his photo on her prayer mat, so she could feel his presence close to her each time she prayed.
No one can compensate for the absence of another, but together we can pass through what is deeper than the absence of the body. We live in this world forgetting sometimes what life is all about. This world shakes our faith with doubts, so we seek what strengthens, gives us assurance and deepens our faith.
I tried to think of something that would honor the dead and benefit the living, for we are here for each other. I decided to launch a photography project about the families of martyrs and the stories hiding behind the all too many names in government files. I wanted a way to express my feelings and document what I share with so many others.
Where should I start? And how? I decided to leave it to my gut feeling and mere chance to guide me on this journey.
From the house of the first missing person in the village of Abo al-Matameer in the Alexandrian desert, to Yasmine Khozam’s house, to the familiar house of my friend Atef, I tried to capture moments shared with kind-hearted families. I strived to document what happened to those still living alongside the memories of those who had passed away in a country going through the daily changes of people coming and going. I have looked for unheard stories that shape our collective history day after day.
I carried heavy memories, feelings, stories and a lot of silence from one home to another. As I moved from one house to the next I sometimes lost the ability to control the grief shared with me for hours or days. But thanks to the group of photographers who share this exhibit, with our varied life experiences, similarities and differences, I have been able to overcome those psychological hurdles. I feel grateful for their professional role in contributing to the planning of my photo sessions, the help in selecting suitable photo equipment, and assistance in getting the necessary and seemingly unavailable resources such as lenses and financing.
Some of my subjects asked me, “Why did you come?” and I asked myself, “Why did I go?” My answers were usually spontaneous. However, I tried to carve a way between them and me, often communicating not in words, but in the end I shared my dream to document their loved one’s stories, my desire to document the absentee and how life has brought them to where they are.
The initial barrier was broken quickly and I am not sure why. They seemed to appreciate that I was not coming for quick press reportage. I even told some of them that the newspaper I work for is not interested in my project, and the question comes back at me, “Why are you here?” I am here because, like you, I know how the absence of a loved one feels. I am here because you and I do not need a lot of words to express what is inside us. The moments of silence, interrupted by the unavoidable camera clicks, are enough for me to understand. I hope to save what my heart sees in my camera. A few seconds are enough. The basic elements of light, a feeling, and eyes say what words cannot. This is not where it ends. Another journey starts in an attempt to communicate and share what I came for.
“Calm.” Father of Sameh Abdel Fattah, who was killed on the Friday of Anger, January 28, 2011, sits alone in his living room. Qusayareen, Cairo.
“هنلاقيهم” (We will find them) is a group of human rights activists who are trying to document the hundreds of stories of missing people after the revolution.
“Always in our hearts.” Written on the wall of Hassan Khayal’s home. Hassan was killed during the dispersal of the Nahda sit in, Giza.
“Hassan still lives by the hope he planted in each and every one of us.” Hassan Khayal’s wife and her sister visit his grave on the Eid holiday after his death. Hassan died during the Nahda dispersal in August, 2013. Badrasheen, Giza.
Silent comfort. Parents who lost their elder son during the clashes in Nahda Square, Giza, 2013.
A lady sits at the entrance to the morgue. An experience that is common for many Egyptians after each tragic event, October 2013.
“Karim, the groom of the sky.” Kareem’s mother, Heliopolis, Cairo.
“Even his fiancée abandoned him. We have no one on our side.” Ma’moura, Alexandria. Mohamad Ibrahim’s mother, who was arrested at the beginning of the revolution in Alexandria. Ibrahim disappeared for two years. His family later discovered that he was tried in a military court.
“When I asked the army for help, they arrested my sons instead.” Badrya’s six sons are in jail, having been tried by a military court. Abu el-Matameer, Alexandria.
“Waiting for time to pass.” Badreya’s husband was convicted to 10 years in prison by a military court. He was arrested on the Friday of Anger, January 28, 2011. Alexandria.
“Rights? What rights do we have?” Atef died after a long struggle with a head injury caused by a bullet during the Israeli embassy clashes in 2011. Hawamdia, Giza.
“Take a photo of me with him, please.” Ahmed al-Shafei, twin brother of Mohamed, disappeared on Jan 30, 2011. Abu Matamer, Behira.
“My hope was just to have my son by my side when I am old.” Abd al-A’al Hatem travels from Fayoum to Cairo at least once a week to visit NGOs, asking them to help him find his son Hatem who has been missing since March 2011. Downtown, Cairo
“Do not forget and remember that the police killed Gaber.” Friends of “Gika,” who was killed during Morsi’s rule, celebrate his birthday under his window in Abdeen, Cairo.
The house of martyr Ahmed Saleh. Saleh was killed during the Mohamed Mahmoud street clashes in November, 2011. Sayeda Zeinab, Cairo.
The room of martyr Ahmed Saleh. Sayeda Zeinab, Cairo. Saleh was killed during the Mohamed Mahmoud street clashes in November, 2011.
“I need you almighty God to perform miracles. You know my struggles before i voice them, you are capable, no matter how hard they seem to be.” October 2013, after the shooting at Warraq church, Moatamdeya, Giza.
“My son.” Mother of Mohamed Ibrahim faints amid family and friends saddened by the loss of her son, who was killed in the shooting at Warraq church in 2013. Moatamdeya, Giza.
“Hmm… strange coincidence.” I am waiting in the living room of my friend’s house, martyr Atef Yahya, looking at a calendar with an older photo of him and his mother. I flip through the pages to today’s date to find the quote of the day. “No tears are enough; neither do the days make you forget the loss of a true loyal friend.” Atef died after a long struggle with a head injury caused by a bullet during the Israeli embassy clashes in 2011, Giza.
“The second I saw Kareem’s body my life changed forever.“ Yasmeen Khozam’s older brother was killed during the football match tragedy in Port Said in February, 2012.
Trying to see the light. Amina lost her husband after he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison in a military court in February, 2011. She is raising four children alone. She started cleaning houses to cover the medical expenses of her family. Abu Qir, Alexandria.
“He will come back one day, I see him,” says the mother of Shafey, who has been missing since January 28, 2011.