GonzoFest Literary Contest Second Place: ‘Counting bodies’

The mosque stank of formaldehyde and was bathed in pale fluorescent light. The bodies were jammed two deep along the walls and everywhere between them men and women in drab clothes paced, handkerchiefs thrust to their noses, searching among the white-shrouded forms, the wreckage of the faces, for some cue: a father’s bent nose, a brother’s arching brow, a son’s thin goatee. Incense burned; blocks of ice melted into the sheets. An hour earlier I’d woken to my editor’s voice, bleeding into the melting fragments of some vicious dream, Cairo’s bright skyline with its dust-stained concrete towers, its profusion of grubby satellite dishes like a forest of toadstools stretching out from the 25th-story window to the horizon, the dawn coming up blood red amid the distant shrieks of car horns. Get out there and count the bodies, he told me. No coffee, no nothing. No time. Get out and count the bodies before they start to disappear—before too many brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, wives found too many faces and started to cart them away. 

I’d flown back to Egypt the day before, had gotten back on a plane and landed in the country where I’d lived for six years, the country I’d been trying to escape. The protesters had been in the square where they’d camped for nearly two months, and the army had decided it was time to kick them out. So they began to shoot, and the bodies began to pile up, and then they burned the tents, and the bodies began to burn too, and when the flames settled, the survivors came and brought the bodies to the Iman Mosque, veiling them with white shrouds and laying them two deep along the walls. The government morgues would not count these bodies, would not include them in the official toll, and so I would count them instead, would add my tally, for whatever that was worth. 

The faces glistened, like wax figurines. Eyes closed as if in sleep. No shock, no anger, no betrayal. A sea of faces at peace. Stepping gingerly, one foot before another, avoiding broken arms, charred fingers, trying hard not to trip, I began to count. 

One, two, three… 

In moments of crisis it helps to have a specific task to focus the mind. Something to turn thoughts away from the greater picture, the universal truths which, if acknowledged, can paralyze or even kill. In the past I have counted breaths. Today I counted bodies, trying not to imagine what would happen if a foot were misplaced, what would happen should I fall… 

Eleven, twelve, thirteen…

After several minutes, I began, in spite of myself, to feel soothed. The numbers were a sort of shield. I was bathed in the sanctity of the count. The count was everything. And everything depended upon the count. 

Forty-two, forty-three, forty-four…. 

Yet soon I was losing track. The bodies kept moving; families kept carting them away. Subtly, inchoately, I began to resent these families, these mothers and brothers and wives and sisters hoisting their dead and taking them away. How was I supposed to get the count right? Couldn’t they see how important it was that I did not err?

One hundred and eight, one hundred and nine, one hundred and ten…

The bodies formed a circle, so that I could not be sure where I had started and where I should end. Had I counted any bodies twice? Or were there others that had eluded me? To make sure, I had to count again, starting this time from a place by a pillar and a green patch of carpet. Feet between the white shrouds, weaving between the families, making sure not to trip, making sure not to think too hard about what happens if you trip. 

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One, two, three… 

At some point, I hardly knew how, it was over. The count was 228. I wrote to my editor, and he thanked me, and he began to write the story. I put the phone in my pocket, my eyes drifting lazily, uncertainly over the white-shrouded bodies, the handkerchief-covered mouths, the thin wisps of incense, uncertain what to do next. To my left, someone wept. I turned and there was a black-veiled woman, maybe 50 years old, bent over a white-shrouded form, cradling a charcoal-black chunk of flesh on her lap. “My son!” she cried. “My son!” 

But this was not her son. Or, at least, there was no way she could know that it was. It was, in fact, nothing but a hunk of molten flesh, a charred bit of singed meat, wrapped in a white shroud. No teeth, no hair, no clothes. Nothing to identify this body—nothing, in fact, to distinguish it from the others except for how thoroughly unidentifiable it was. I watched her for a moment. Was there some piece of ID? Some scrap of clothing, some curve of the cheekbone or ridge of the brow that might have identified this as her son? There was nothing. 

I walked outside and lit a cigarette. The sky was cloudless between the concrete high rises and every so often a military helicopter buzzed overhead, and the men outside would shake their shoes at it and hurl insults. “Dogs!” “Cowards!” “Go to hell!” 

My driver, Rabeea, a man of about 60 with a baseball cap and thick glasses, looked up as I got in the car. “Were there a lot of bodies in there?” he said. 

“Yes,” I said. “More than 200.” 

He looked forward. “Not nearly enough,” he said. 

I looked back at the mosque, toward the part of the wall where I thought the woman might be kneeling, close enough that if it were not for the car doors and the concrete wall, we might have been able to hear her. I finished my cigarette and because I could think of nothing else to say, I told Rabeea to take us home. 

I’ve never been able to tell this story right. People always think I’m leaving something out. The mother must have found something, they tell me—some shred of an ID, some part of the man’s face, that let her know it was her son. There is no sufficient explanation I can give as to why I know this is not true, but I know it is not. What I am certain of is that the woman, like me, had spent minutes—hours perhaps—walking among the white-shrouded forms, repeating the same grim circuit, again, again, and then once more again, growing, with each pass, a little more desperate, a little more frantic, the unspoken certainty becoming a little harder to deny, the need for a sign becoming, with each unsuccessful loop, a little more urgent, her mind pleading for something, anything to appear—a tooth, a nail, a ring, a scrap of shirt—that might allow the cycle to end. At last, finding none, she had settled on the only form so mangled that it could not, at least, be definitely ruled out, and there collapsed, cradled the shattered body, and allowed herself, finally, in that strip of green carpet in the pale fluorescent light, to mourn. 

Alexander Dziadosz said the story is based on the experience of reporting the following story for Reuters news agency in 2013, following the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-egypt-protests-mosque/charred-bodies-lie-in-cairo-mosque-unrecognised-by-egyptian-state-idUKBRE97E0MP20130815

“I have worked as a journalist in the Middle East for the past ten years, reporting on the Egyptian revolution, secession of South Sudan, and civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria. I currently work from Beirut, Lebanon.”

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