I don’t even like protests. I don’t like chanting, and within ten minutes I’m usually asking myself, what am I doing here. I walk with everybody else, but I observe what’s happening as if from a distance, even when I’m right in the middle of it.
Still, I went to the demonstration on Saturday, May 30. We went early to the park—my wife Yasmin, my daughter Sina and I. On our way we saw that there were already police cars out, lots of them. There were perhaps five hundred people already gathered, and the speeches and chants had begun. The park itself, we found, was closed, and we stood to one side, observing social distancing rules as we’ve done since the start of the pandemic. When the crowd continued to swell, we decided to go home, worried we’d be risking our health and that of our daughter.
We’d just got home when my friend Harrison called. He’d just arrived at the protest and wanted to know where I was. I’ll be there in fifteen, I said.
My roommate burst out of the bathroom clutching a thin piece of metal several feet long in one hand and a pair of wire cutters in the other. “I managed to get the pipe out,” he said. “It drives me crazy when I’m trying to pee.”
I was twenty-one, and it was the first time I’d lived with a Western roommate. This was in Cairo, in a small apartment downtown. “But that’s the shattafa,” I objected, using the Arabic word. “How are we going to use the toilet now?”
It was there and then that I became aware of the most significant cultural difference between East and West: this metal pipe, the shattafa.
We went into the bathroom together, and I explained to him the process, step by step. In most Arab countries, and indeed many Eastern countries from Japan to India, a shattafa—or bidet shower—is an integral part of a toilet. The people of these parts of the world use water to wash after urinating or defecating, reserving toilet paper for drying afterward.
There are two kinds of shattafa. With the kind installed inside the toilet, when you turn the faucet on, water sluices out of the pipe to rinse your undercarriage. The wall-mounted variety is a bit more complicated. You grasp the showerhead and direct the nozzle; with your other hand, you turn on the faucet. Then you can dry off with toilet paper.
It wasn’t until 2008 that I traveled to a Western country—the United States. My digestion and bowel movements were out of whack for days, which was especially keenly felt sans shattafas
On July 25, 2019, ARC in collaboration with apexart hosted Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who was the 2016 winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award, for a lecture entitled “Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison.” Naji was formerly sentenced to two years in prison when a literary magazine published a chapter of his novel. Naji discussed the growth and trajectory of his career as a novelist, what life was like in an Egyptian prison, the power of literature, his new project, and more. He is now a Shearing/City of Asylum Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.
When I first saw this picture, it was in 1995. I was sitting with my grandfather and we were watching the news and TV. And when this picture appeared he felt annoyed and sad. I was very young at that age and I asked him, “What’s going on,” and, “What is this story?” And he said it like, “Some kids tried to kill this guy.” And I asked him, “Why did they try to kill him?” And he said, “Because he writes.” At that age I was ten years old. I was reading mainly comics or books for kids and teenagers. And of course while reading I started to imitate what I was reading–I started writing. So suddenly my grandfather was telling me that someone tried to kill this guy cause he was writing. It stayed in back in my mind.
And I continue writing but I know writing is dangerous. So it goes on, I published my first novel in 2007, called Rogers, and then after a while I publish my second novel Using Life. When I published the novel I knew it was dangerous in Egypt and the Arab world. I knew also what is a red line. From an early age I knew that there are [three main] red lines that as a writer you cannot cross. The first red line is the religious mythology. You can’t come close to the Islamic mythology. [The second red line] the national identity imagination. You could talk about politics but you can’t talk about the imagination and the mythologies that created the national identity. The third red line is sex. When you are talking about sex there is a set of words assigned for you.
But I was seeing myself as birthing another Egyptian writer generation who are trying to use different language. So [my new novel] was published in 2014 and after it was published, I was in the south of Sinai on the beach and suddenly I received a phone call from my editor-in-chief (I used to work as a journalist back in Mansoura). He called and he said, “We just received an announcement from a prosecutor and they are summoning you to come do an investigation.” So we discovered what happened: a chapter of the novel had been published in the newspaper and a guy read the chapter and he went to the police station and said, “I read this chapter and it hurt my feelings. It affected my blood pressure and made me faint and it made me throw up.”
So the case was basically this: the prosecutor was saying, “This is pornography.” And we could say, “No, this is not pornography, this is literature.” We thought the worst scenario was they will fine us or something like that. But it ended up the court sentenced me to for two years. I was sent to Tora prison.
Because there is nothing to do inside this prison everyone is reading. Even people who never opened a book before, they start to read inside the prison because it’s the only way to make the time pass. And the collection of books they have in the prison is very interesting, because of course they have a big amount of religious books, but [surprisingly] there was a large amount of books that were banned outside the prison.
But when I was searching inside the prison I found this amazing novel … That Smell. So this novel was published by Sonallah Ibrahim. When he tried to publish it in 1969 … it was banned because of the sex. So I was shocked. It was impossible to find this edition back outside of the prison but suddenly I found it inside the prison library.
It’s interesting to see that people in prison after reading will start to write. Because usually prisoners feel, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s kind of sorrow and pain, and they use writing to document this pain. For example, when I entered the prison I found this guy who’s always writing. He had been in prison for five or six years and he had, like, several notebooks. I called him the Marcel Proust of the prison. He said, “I’m wiring my diaries because I don’t want to forget the pain and the suffering that I [felt] here.” And he showed it to me and basically what he’s writing is, “Today is Sunday. I woke up at 10. I walk toward the bathroom. I eat two eggs.” So at the end when Marcel Proust was released from prison, on his way out the guard searched the bags and found the diaries and he read them and they had details about the prison and he said, “I can’t allow you to go out with this because it has details about the prison. So I’m not gonna sign your release paper until you burn it.” So this alerted me because back then I started to write in the notebooks that he allowed me. So in my notebooks I tried to not write any details about the prison. But I wanted to document my days, to not forget the days. So I used it to write my dreams.
Dreams are very important to the prisoner because dreams are the only window you have with the outside world. So you go to sleep and each time you go to sleep you hope you see your friends or family or the places that you are missing. Sometimes after a while you will start to play with your dreams. You will think all day of someone or something so when I go to sleep maybe it will visit me in dreams.
Dreams also bring a big role into most of Muslim and Arabic prisoners because in Islam and, I believe, in Christanity, we had this story about Yusef-Joseph the Prophet. So in the story of Yusef, he was sent to the Egyptian prison and he stayed in the Egyptian prison for seven years. So Yusef is in the prison and he was in his cell with two other prisoners. The prisoners have a dream and they told him a dream. After they had the dream he started to predict what was going to happen to them. He told one of them, “Well, your dream means you are going to get out of the prison and you will become a very important guy and you will become close to the king. And when this happens please don’t forget me and tell the king about me.” And the story goes on when the king had a dream, he was puzzled by this dream and so he told his adviser and suddenly his adviser remembered Yusef, so they summon him and he comes and he told the king what his dream was about: “In seven years you will not have food or the water will be low in the Nile.”
So as a Muslim prisoner, even as a Christian or Arabic prisoner, one of the hopes you have to get out of the prison is dreams. So I started to offer a prediction, and explain for others. People would wake up in the morning and come and tell me their dreams. Everyone in the prison started to trust me. So I became a holy figure within the prison.
Until I was in prison, I wasn’t looking at myself as a writer. I used to look at myself as a journalist, as a filmmaker. I was writing but I didn’t see myself as a writer, it wasn’t the main purpose of my life–until a small accident happened in the prison. So we had this guy and we are going to name him Mr. X. He was terrible and awful guy. So one day I woke up to go to the bathroom and I found Mr. X crying, crying like a baby. So I was worried, I went to him and asked him, “What happened? Are you OK? Something with the case?” He said, “No, no, everything’s fine. I was just reading this novel. I left it on my bed because even when I look at the cover, I start to cry again.” Suddenly I started to say, “What is the hidden power behind the literature and behind the writing that could reach and affect a guy like this?”
[My next book is called] Rotten Evidence. It’s about reading and writing in an Egyptian prison. I got out of the prison in December 2016. I married my wife Yasmine and she got a scholarship in Syracuse, New York. The plan was to join her after that and then I tried to leave the country and I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country as a free man. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a year and a half. And this year and a half was harder than being in prison.
So it took me a year and a half [but] finally I was able to get a short window for one week, so I was able to join my wife and we moved to DC. Then with help from PEN America and many music friends from this sphere in the state I was able to get [a] fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV in Vegas.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Olivia Salama, September 2019.
Yasmeen cried because she could not breastfeed our daughter, Sina, on her first day in this world. Sina cried as well. As I was held captive with both of them in the hospital room, I had no idea what should be done. I called for the nurses’ help. A nurse came and offered to help Yasmeen breastfeed. It was in vain. The milk did not come, and the crying persisted. The nurse suggested using formula, made especially for new-borns. That made Yasmeen cry even more, feeling the failure.
In her first day as a mother, Yasmeen detected the essence of it: An everlasting feeling of guilt.
The nurse asked me to sign some legal and executive papers to confirm our consent to give formula to our hungry baby daughter. For the hospital to get involved in the bond between a mother and an infant, they need the mother’s informed consent or else this interference would be considered a crime. By all powers of biology and modern law, only the mother is responsible for feeding the infant.
A few days later, Yasmeen’s breasts supplied milk. Each time she breastfed the new-born, despite all the physical pain, her face lit up with a smile. She tried to explain how she felt, but words failed her. She spoke of energy, of something that runs through the inside of her, along with milk, to the inside of Sina. It is believed that this is the maternal bond.
We come into life incapable of consuming solid foods. We can only suck our mother’s milk. The first sign of a human infant’s growth is their ability to keep their heads upright, so that they can swallow. Only then some sustenance can be offered. The second sign of growth is weaning. When babies are not breastfed anymore, they shift from being infants to becoming toddlers.
The older we get, the more distant we are from her. We are weaned off the mother’s milk only to eat what her hands offer us. Our palate is shaped by our mother’s food, and we spend years believing that the best food is that cooked by mom.
Regardless of how bad a mother’s cooking might be, children do not realise it. On the contrary, they genuinely believe this is how normal, even excellent, food tastes!
This is known as Mother Culture. It extends not only to include the taste of the mother’s cooking, but also the customs of cuisine taught to us by our mothers. Some mothers raise their children with a must finish your plate rule; others are raised encouraged by mothers to leave a bite or two on their plate. In Egypt, this is known as “the Cat’s Share,”the idea being to help out cats and dogs that live off of garbage.
The mother instructs us as to what we should and should not eat. As such, ever since I was a little boy my mother declared all types of sausages (Egyptian-style street food sausages/ frankfurters/ hotdogs) FORBIDDEN at home. Throughout my childhood we were warned not to eat them outside behind her back.
We listened to Mother because she, definitely, knew our stomachs better than we did. Over time, we grew, left the house more often, we rebelled against Mother’s culture and we began to explore the world…and the hotdog.
I fell in love with all types and shapes of sausages at first bite, when I was nineteen. I went back to my mother asking her, ‘Why did you forbid us from eating hotdogs’? She answered that, as a kid, she stopped once in front of a shop that sells sausage sandwiches and, for some reason, the smell of sausages on the grill upset her so much that she passed out. Ever since that day, she’d hated sausages and everything related to them. So, the ban in this case was never for health reasons. It was merely our mother’s own palate.
Our bodies are a record book signed by time. On the surface it’s all flesh, blood and bones which are the result of what we eat. Our bodies, and what we eat, reflect all that shapes our identity.
We take control of our own selves and reshape our identity when we rebel against the cuisine of Mother Culture. I come from a world where pork is defiled, Haram. I had to travel at the age of twenty-three to know what pork tastes like. I loved the juicy taste of the pink meat. However, when I go back to Cairo, it’s hard for me to find restaurants or shops that serve pork. This made the joy of eating this pink flesh feel like forbidden fruit. I had to wait until I travelled to keep eating it in all its possibilities.
We rebel against Mother Culture.We drift away from Mom’s cuisine only to explore the facts of life.
Some cannot take the taste of truth. They refuse to eat food which they cannot recognise and hold onto the palate shaped by the mother’s cuisine. Others take in everything with mouths wide open, realising that Mom’s food is not necessarily the best there is. However, the taste of nostalgia in Mom’s cooking cannot be found any place else.
One’s palate is similar to one’s identity. It is not a frozen image, but one that changes as a result of what time does to our physical forms. Until the age of twenty-eight, I could not stand eating salad or fruit. I still have a memory of many full years having past in my life without me eating a piece of fruit. All of a sudden, with the age of thirty approaching, my palate changed as a result of my body’s needs and abilities having changed. Today, I seek out salads, in fact some of my meals are all salad and vegetables.
It had started as a call from a secret place in my body. Eating meats and carbohydrates gives me a heavy body and a lazy, slow capability of moving and thinking. After the age of thirty, health problems in my digestive system just blew up in my face.
I went to see a doctor, complaining from difficulty in urination and rectal pain. He asked me to sleep on the bed with my knees held tight against my chest, then he inserted two fingers into my rectum.
‘Anal fracture’, announced the doctor, as he was prescribing some analgesic ointment and telling me that the best remedy for me is to change my diet: Stay away from pastries, pizza, pasta… etc. and to eat more vegetables and fruits.
It was only then that I realised that a new phase of maturing and growing old has started, one where you choose your food not based on your Mother Culture, or your personal palate, but based on medical recommendations and the needs of your digestive system that is starting to go downhill.
I moved, a few months ago, to live in the States, carrying on a digestive system that cannot take in pink meat and other indulgences of American cuisine on a daily basis. Only a small amount of these are now allowed to me.
I feel guilty every time I cheat on my diet. I eat pizza, enjoying the taste, but simultaneously thinking of the pain I go through as I defecate. If, by any means, I managed to silence my conscience, the way food is shown and marketed here in America is basically designed to make you feel guilty.
When you go to any restaurant, whether fast food one or fine dining, you will find the name of the plate, a brief description of the ingredients, pri ce and the number of calories. So, while you are choosing your food, you will not only be thinking of the aroma of the main dish, or the taste of the food, but rather about the number of calories entering your body and coming out of it. If the food was good and you could not resist eating more, you will keep eating as the calorie counter in your head keeps adding.
You finish your meal trying to get over your feeling of guilt and enjoy the warmth of a full stomach, only to find yourself surrounded by articles of nutritional education and posts of friends who promote different diets to target weight loss and health.
Food is now tasteless. It is more of a medicine that has to be taken to stay alive in a fatless, sugarless, flavourless, and odourless existence.
Two or three days a week, I let go my food cravings. I eat pastries, pizza and/or pasta. I enjoy marinating beef myself and eat it medium rare, delighting in the red colour of the meat. The sound of boiling oil frying potatoes and chicken breaded with flour and that secret recipe is music to my ears. For the rest of the week, I eat leaves and vegetables, just like rabbits. I watch my weight and examine my urine, trying to keep a minimum level of fitness and maintenance of my digestive system, not because I want to be slim or to live a long healthy life, but because I want to still be able to enjoy all types of delicious unhealthy food, forever.
Our family has a long history of disposing of books in various ways.
As a boy in Egypt, I remember the regular routine when, every so often, my father would open the cupboards and drawers and arrange his books, magazines, and notebooks. Most dear to him were the notebooks which contained his commentary and notes on dozens of books, most of them concerning Sufism, Islamic exigency, and political Islam, in addition to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and various other Islamist leaders.
He arranged the books into bundles and then distributed them in various secret hiding places. Some were concealed in boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop. Others were left in the care of close relatives who did not take part in any political activities. Other books, the presence of which he believed jeopardized his and his family’s security, were burned. Assured he could attain other copies, these books would be thoroughly burned and their ashes discretely disposed of.
As a boy I did not take notice of this practice nor did I understand it, yet the ritual of collecting books and papers and setting them ablaze on the roof was seared into my memory forever. When I would ask my mother about it, she would fumble for the right words to explain to her child the politics at play, saying: “These books contain verses from the Qur’an and passages of our Lord and cannot be dumped in the waste, so it is best they are burned.”
My grandfather, who had been a security guard at a local factory, also had a huge library to his name. My father told me that there had been a time when my grandfather could not afford to buy a bed, so he piled together astronomy textbooks and poems of Ahmed Shawki—which he had memorized by heart—and made beds of them for his children sleep to on. However in the beginning of the 1980s, he slipped into a depression and gave away most of the contents of his library. Thereafter he contented himself with reading newspapers, poems of Al-Maʿarri, and books on astronomy. The latter of these was his greatest passion, and was what prompted him to name his eldest son Galileo. Yet after some convincing and admonishing based on the pretense that this was an un-Islamic name, he settled for Nagy, contenting himself by writing “Nagy Galileo” in huge letters on the wall of the house.
Unlike his own father, my father did not dispose of his books because of a sudden depression or deterioration in his capacity to read. Rather he did this so because these books could be used as evidence against him in the event he was arrested, and the house was raided. Directives to dispose of these books came down from senior Brotherhood leaders to protect its members. The letters of al-Banna or of Al-Manhaj Al-Haraki Lissira Al-Nabawiya could have been used as irrefutable evidence that my father was a member of a ‘banned organization.’
Thus during slow summer nights in Mansoura, back from our stays in Kuwait, there was nothing to do but read the books of Anis Mansour and Khalid Muhammad Khalid and the plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim. If ever state security forces were to have raided our home and found these books, they would in no way incriminate my father, and thus they were spared from being used as kindling in his ritual campfires. I personally had no need for al-Banna’s writings in order to understand the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, for I lived and breathed it every day of my life.
In Kuwait, just as in Egypt and more than a hundred other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood runs a social welfare network which not only provides for individuals, but entire families. I would attend weekly sessions with other boys who themselves were also from Egyptian families with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Kuwait.
At that time, the usual program for children my age, aside from reading the Qur’an and becoming acquainted with the Prophetic biography, consisted of regular recreational activities organized over weekends. As a boy suddenly transported from a village on the outskirts of Mansoura to a new environment such as Kuwait, these outings with the Brotherhood youth (or ‘cubs’ as they are known) were filled with adventure and new experiences that helped allay any feelings of homesickness.
Life in Egypt moved to a slightly different rhythm. In our village I was regarded as somewhat special because of my father’s prominent position as a doctor in the Brotherhood. He was a role model for many of the other ‘cubs’, something of which I had not been aware.
Reserved and taciturn by nature, my father spoke little of his past and never spoke at all about anything regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.
He recently told me of his colleagues’ surprise at the hospital, at which he has worked for the past eight years, when they learned only a few months ago that he is a Brother. They only became aware of this after he began attending union conferences held by the Brotherhood Doctors.
My mother was never comfortable with the “Sisters” and felt no urge to take part in Brotherhood activities. Before the revolution, some members of the Brotherhood leadership would coincidentally appear on the news, and she would utter a brief comment, such as, “He was a good friend of your father. They would come to visit and have dinner at your grandmother’s.”
The first thing Brothers in Mansoura and in our village would say upon meeting me was always, “So you are the son of Dr. Nagy Hegazy. You must be proud, God is good!”
Both in Kuwait and Egypt, I always attended private schools, the names of which always included the all-important words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Languages .’
The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’
Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.
Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.
Transitioning from the sheltered Brotherhood schools to the Taha Hussein Public High School was tantamount to setting foot on another planet. For the first time there were Christians in school, and the library contained books other than the standard morning and evening Islamic prayers.
The utopia free of insults and cursing in which Brothers moved about nibbling on siwak and smiling warmly seemed far away. With the second intifada I became more active, and despite the fact that I was still in high school, I would attend meetings with the Brothers at university. I crafted the chants which were shouted in unison during the demonstrations following the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah. I had become an integral member of the Brotherhood group at al-Azhar University. Then Haidar Haidar happened.
A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.
He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned!
Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.
To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.
I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elshaab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”
I left the room, and never went back.
 A small twig (the tip of which is softened by chewing) from the Salvadora persica tree used for cleaning teeth. It is widely held that the Prophet Mohammed recommended its use.
This letter is at least three years overdue, but it’s better late than never.
On this day, the 7th of March, Three years ago, I was sentenced to two years in prison because of a novel I wrote. I was taken from the court to the police station where I spent three nights. During that time, my friends brought me some books to read in my imposed loneliness. Unfortunately, I was transported to prison and they took all the books, my clothes, and my pen.
In my first day in prison, the time passed so slowly. And time in prison is the ever-present executioner. But, I discovered that the only weapon inmates have to face time with, is reading.
Some of the prisoners I met with never opened a book in their lives but surrounded by boredom in prison, and the endless time, books are their only way to survive.
My reading material, however, was ever so scarce; I only found the memoirs of Jihan el Sadat, the wife of the ex-Egyptian president Anwar el- Sadat. I read the book in one night and had to endure its lack of depth and its triviality. I tried re-reading it, but reading it for a second time was more painful than boring.
I walked up and down my cell looking for something to do. A fellow inmate asked me whether I was fine. I told him that I am just looking for something to read because I can’t sleep. Another inmate heard me and said: “Someone I know has a really beautiful translated book with him.” So, I went to that person who had a book with a yellow and orange cover. It was the Arabic edition of your novel, Elling. He promised to give it to me the next day because he was still reading it. But, boredom almost killed me, so I kept on walking up and down the cell in front of him while looking at him persistently. I was convinced that I would be able to have him give it to me without saying a single word. In the end, he surrendered with a frown and gave me the novel.
I tore through your beautiful work in one night, and because we weren’t allowed to go out of the cell for two consecutive days, I reread it, and the second time, I read it slowly. I was surprised to discover later on, that a lot of my inmates had read it and liked it. Some of them, for some reason, imagined that the two protagonists of the novel were inmates as well, and because there are no prisons in Norway, both of them were put in that special house.
Personally, I was entranced with the poets in your novel and in my isolation among the other inmates, I found myself back to writing poetry after I stopped writing it for years.
Thank you for this exquisite novel, and for the smile, you put on my face and regards from me and from my fellow inmates in cell number 2/4, Zeraa’ ward, Torra prison Cairo.
Editor’s note: 25 days to #FreeAlaa is a campaign led by friends, family and supporters of political prisoner and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, highlighting two outstanding cases against him: One, which was adjourned on October 19 to November 8, concerning the five-year sentence that Abd El Fattah has already served three-and-a-half years of, in relation to a protest outside the Shura Council building in November 2013 against military trials for civilians. The second is a case against him for “insulting the judiciary,” which was adjourned from September 24 until December, in which Abd El Fattah could face a fine and more years in prison.
They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.
Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.
We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.
The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.
Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?
Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.
After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?
A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.
It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”
Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.
The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?
There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.
Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.
And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.
Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.
I was honored to be a guest speaker at Pen America New Year New BOOKS party, celebrating with them our love for books and writing. And also remembering other writers who are jailed because of their writing.
we live in the times where a dark ghost hovering over the world, spreading desperate making people losing faith in human rights values and, distributing fear and ruling by Ignorance.
And in times like this, we need to get together, to insist on the power of words, literature, and human rights values.
We are not politicians. We don’t have an army. But we resist by keeping Writing, by keeping our imagination wild. We may win some bottles, we will lose others but at least we will enjoy it.
Thank you, Pen, for what you did to me, for other writers, and for giving me the opportunity to meet and take pictures with one of my favorite writers @jennifer Egan
In his work, Tawq al-Hamam (The Dove’s Collar), the Andalusian writer, Ibn Hazm, tells the tale of a man he describes as wise, reasonable and sensible—until the day he travelled to Baghdad and stayed in one of its inns. ‘There, he saw the innkeeper’s daughter, fell in love with her, and married her. When they were alone together, she saw him undressed and, being a virgin, was alarmed by the size of his penis. She fled to her mother and would not see him. Those around her advised her to go to him, but she refused, and came close to death, and so he left her. Regretting his decision, he attempted to win her back but could not, even with the help of al-Abhari and others, for none could find any solution to his predicament. His mind became disordered and he went to stay in the maristan [infirmary], where he suffered for a long time until he had almost recuperated and found consolation, and yet still whenever he recalled her, he would sigh deeply’.
A few years ago, my mind also became disordered, like that of the wise man, but since these days we don’t go straight to hospital for that sort of thing, I decided, for the first time in my life, to visit a psychiatrist. I complained to him for a whole hour: I frequently burst into floods of tears, I slept for hours and couldn’t get out of bed, I was suffering liver problems that the doctors seemed unable to find a reason for, my hair and beard were thinning, I’d resigned from my job several months previously, I saw no reason to live and was overwhelmed by despair, I consumed a vast quantity and variety of drugs which brought me neither pleasure or relief. He listened, then pronounced that my complaints were the side effects of my recent breakup; the psychosomatic symptoms, too, were simply the pains that accompanied the end of an intimate relationship. In another context, I’d have been angry, refusing to see my emotional experience—my epic of shattered love—compared with or ranked alongside the love affairs of others. We all believe that our romantic journeys are unique. But I was drained and in pain, and willing to accept any diagnosis of what was happening to me. I was ready to try whatever the doctor prescribed, without hesitation or objection.
The doctor gave me a strip of antidepressants. They relieved the pain and brought some equilibrium to my disturbed body, but it took time to find ‘consolation’, as Ibn Hazm called the convalescence of the wise man in his story.
Although I fell in love like the wise man, my beloved left me, not because of the size of my penis, but because of its fondness for adventure, along with other reasons too numerous to mention. When I was in the darkest depths of pain after our separation, friends pressured me to get over it as fast as possible, so I decided to get away, and left the city to escape their nagging. On my journey, while I wallowed in my pain and sabotaged any potential chances for future relationships, I discovered a whole breakup industry—an economy of strategies for getting over love.
Ibn Hazm devotes a chapter entitled ‘al-Dana’—a word which describes a sort of gruelling and all-consuming grief—to the pain of love lost and the trials of breakups. It is followed by a chapter entitled ‘al-Suluww’, (‘consolation’), in which he writes: ‘Consolation after a long separation is like the disappointment which enters the soul when it achieves what it has long sought; the intensity of its striving abates and its desire fades away’. Then, through the story of his experience with a courtesan with whom he fell in love as an adolescent, and who accompanied his family on their peregrinations to and from Cordoba before finally leaving him, Ibn Hazm arrives at the first cure for the trials of love and separation, the ‘consolation’ of the chapter’s title: A healing process which he divides into the stages of forgetting, indifference and replacement.
But Ibn Hazm seems to contradict himself, often repeating that any love from which one can be ‘consoled’, and any relationship that can be forgotten, is not to be counted on. For Ibn Hazm, it is not true love. Notice that, unlike in today’s psychoanalytical and romantic writings, in Ibn Hazm’s time, passion and love represented a link to the metaphysical world. Every soul was split in two, and each half sent to this life to search for the half, which would complete it; it was the meeting of a half with its lost counterpart which represented true love, as opposed to the kind of passion which cannot be counted on. Ibn Hazm wrote his Dove’s Collar to help lovers distinguish true love from ephemeral lust, and to guide them past critics and naysayers along its thorny path. All this, of course, sounds very different from today’s discourse, in which the ideal of virtuous love has been replaced by notions of healthy and toxic relationships, balance between the two parties, the importance of equality, respect, and non-exploitation, and other concepts which have filtered through from the realm of political correctness to replace terms for love such as gharam and hawa.
The wise man in Ibn Hazm’s story ended up in the maristan because he was suffering and in pain. At the time, the function of the maristan—an infirmary for the mentally ill—was to relieve pain and suffering, rather than to subdue the patient and ready them for a return to the treadmill of production. There, Ibn Hazm’s wise man did not forget his beloved, but sighed whenever her name was mentioned. He learned, with time, to silence his longing, to control his reactions and to maintain his equanimity. Forgetting one’s beloved was only for false and contemptible lovers.
Today’s breakup advice tends to place forgetting at the centre of its recovery plan. On self-help websites, the foremost piece of advice to heartbroken lovers is usually to forget: Stay away from your ex, keep communication to a minimum, get rid of anything that reminds you of them. After that, the advice gets confusing: Don’t sit in your room moping, go out and meet new people, life is full of pleasures and adventures—but don’t rush into new relationships, because you might get hurt. Put your sadness aside and get out of yourself. Cry and express your emotions, they say—but if your sadness lasts too long, they accuse you of weakness, of giving in to pain, of wallowing, or worst of all, of a pathetic attempt to win back the attention of the person who used to care about you.
It’s no wonder the advice is contradictory. There is no clear route map for avoiding or overcoming pain, or for the confusing task of getting over both the pain of a breakup and the memory of love.
One friend of mine who went through a painful divorce decided to go to a psychoanalyst, rather than a psychiatrist. Instead of being prescribed medication like me, my friend has spent hours with her therapist, and is still doing so, a year and a half down the line. Looking like she’s got it together and is proud of it, she spends more than ten hours a day at work, sometimes works six days instead of five, cares for her dog, and steers clear of any potential relationships, on the grounds that she isn’t ready yet, according to her therapist. She wants to maintain the stability she has now because, in her words, ‘I need a bit of time to work on myself’.
Analysing her last relationship, my friend found that she had always been attracted to men who would lie to her and exploit her emotionally. My response to that was to ask: ‘Are there men who don’t’? She shook her head. ‘You don’t understand. The problem isn’t them, it’s me—for being attracted to men like that’.
She pays around $25 for each session with her psychoanalyst, but she no longer has suicidal thoughts now, or borrows our phones to stalk her ex on Facebook, and she’s convinced that she’s forgotten her last relationship—she just needs to focus on her own issues.
Unlike her, I’ve never tried to forget. I remember the mistakes and happy moments of every passing fling. What would be left, if we forgot our emotional connections, the most profound and affecting of the experiences which make us who we are? And anyway, you never really forget. You just put the relationship and all of its associations in a black box, and since there’s nowhere to put the box, you end up carrying it on your back forever, thinking no-one’s noticed. Every time you try to open a door to let love in, the black box eyes you from the corner of the room, shattering your focus and distracting you from the person beside you, who’s waiting eagerly for the moans of the climax which will offer proof that the two of you have truly connected.
Every ‘getting over it’ rests on an illusion of forgetting, on a flight into the future, yet no matter how hard you strain to break away, the memory will cling to you, or lurk in the corner of the room along with the broken pieces of your heart and soul. Maybe the solution is not to forget but to leave the wounds open, to wear them with pride and share them with others—whether you want to entice them to bed, or just to the cinema. Don’t hide your experiences from your new partner, because no matter how hard you try to forget, the monster will still be there, in the box, waiting for the right moment. Perhaps your new partner can help you tame the monster instead, help you transform your anger at yourself and your ex into the energy you need in order to change and build a new life and a new relationship. One day, the monster could be your pet.
In 1989, Egyptian billionaire businessman Nassef Sawiris walked in to a trade fair at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Various luxury goods were exhibited alongside high-end furniture and expensive antiques. An exhibition of works by important artists of the period occupied one corner. The portraitist and still-life painter Sabry Ragheb was the most prominent member of that group. The exhibition organizers, Shahira Idris and Ghada Shahbandar, were venturing their first steps into the world of collecting, buying, and selling art; Ragheb had loaned them one of his favorite paintings as a gesture of appreciation.
Sawiris fell in love with the work, a still-life of a red rose, and as with any love at first sight, the world was no longer the same. He asked to buy the painting. Shahbandar and Idris responded that the work was not for sale, but Sawiris insisted. At his urging, Shahabandar contacted Ragheb, who was angered by the request and refused. Still, Sawiris persisted. In response, the artist demanded a then unheard of sum for the work, equivalent to three times the standard market price: LE 10,000. Sawris’s response was quick and decisive: “Agreed.”
The sale set a new benchmark. According to Shahbandar, Ragheb’s painting represented the most expensive painting sold at the time by a contemporary Egyptian artist. In this period the market was in flux and prices, which previously had settled in the hundreds of Egyptian pounds, reached into the thousands. Urban sprawl led to the establishment of new satellite cities outside of Cairo. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 edged the last remnants of an ideal of Arab unity toward collapse. Maps were changing, and the Arab art market was taking its first shaky steps.
The world before 1989
In the 1950s and 1960s, the state nationalized artistic life in Egypt; the cultural administration was restructured and most significant artistic initiatives and cultural spaces operated under state supervision. In the 1980s, only a handful of private galleries were operating in Cairo. Prior to the sale of Ragheb’s work in 1989, says Shahbandar, the maximum amount paid for a painting was no more than LE 3000. According to her, the Safar Khan Gallery and Tareq al-Marsafi’s Arabesque Gallery represented the most prominent art spaces at the time. The audience for art was limited primarily to a short list of names of collectors who confined their purchases to the works of already prominent, well-established artists. Nevertheless, economic liberalization policies were already having an effect and art’s relationship to the market was beginning to change, witnessing a gradual increase in prices and the emergence of a broader public interest in the arts.
In this period, the state largely withdrew from the cultural sphere. In partnership with her friend Shahira Idris, Shahbandar invested her energies in interior design and dealing antiques and paintings. The two also began visiting art shows and meeting with artists. At the time, many contemporary artists in Cairo had work spaces in Wikalat al-Ghoury, a caravanserai constructed in the early 16th century, or in one of the several other historic buildings the state had restored and lent to artists as studios. Visiting such places helped Shahbandar develop a wide network with artists of all generations.
Despite its many flaws, the state system worked well in many ways, and was comprehensive, providing artists with an overarching framework of support. In addition to offering studio spaces, the state sponsored galleries and ran an acquisitions committee, as well as juries that awarded prizes to artists. In the 1980s, however, Egypt was transitioning to a free market system, efforts were made to “re-organize” the public sector, and state spending was cut from all sides. As international corporations entered the Egyptian market, private exhibitions were held at Cairo’s five-star hotels for the country’s new economic elite. It was at these shows that Shahbandar and Idris displayed works by contemporary artists for the first time. Their exhibitions attracted the attention of a segment of the public, and the two branched out, organizing shows lasting just over a week in private residences, often in the empty apartment of an acquaintance. Their clientele grew as a result, as did the circle of artists they worked with.
Shahbandar and Idris exhibited works by artists who had come to prominence after 1952 including Salah Taher, Hussein Bicar, Gazbia Sirry, Maurice Farid and Nagy Basilios, as well as younger artists active in the period, some of whom went on to pursue high profile careers such as Samir Fouad, while others, such as Huda Khaled and Fatima Rifaat, remained relatively obscure. Other artists, such as Hassan Soliman, refused to work with the duo because he objected to exhibiting in makeshift gallery spaces. He did, however, recommend artist-colleagues with whom he thought Shahbandar and Idris might be interested in collaborating.
Shahbandar was active in the art world from 1986 through the mid-1990s, making a name for herself as one of the scene’s most prominent figures. Nevertheless, the material returns were modest, and she was unable to lease a place permanently and transform it into a fully equipped gallery. She continued to work on her own and began receiving various requests for consultancy services. The influx of international corporations to Egypt introduced new work habits and marketing strategies. These companies recognized art’s ability to serve as a foil for the identity of the company or corporation and as a long-term investment. The international corporations that had recently begun operating in Egypt, approached Shahbandar for assistance in selecting art for their offices. She chose works and arranged them in the local headquarters of several large companies including those of American Express and Carpet City. On occasion, she was asked to work on a smaller scale: for example, acquiring paintings for the office of a company executive or installing works on a single floor.
In 1990, Stefania Angarano arrived on an exploratory visit to found Mashrabia Gallery in downtown Cairo. Previously, she had worked at a number of Italian galleries specializing in contemporary art. Angarano recalls how, when she arrived in Cairo, some galleries were displaying and selling paintings paired with couches and other pieces of furniture. Her primary aim in coming to Cairo was to establish a space that presented art as an integrated whole, rather than as an element of interior design chosen to match the drapes.
Art enters the free market
The factors contributing to the transformation of the art market in the late 1980s were not limited to the entrance of international corporations. In this period, the government expanded construction projects and support for the capital’s new satellite cities, resulting in significant growth in the real-estate market, especially to the west and east of Cairo, with the construction of 6th of October City and areas around Nasr City and the Fifth Settlement. Within the city’s existing bounds, villas were being torn down to make way for apartment buildings, while on the margins, opulent mansions sprang up. An economic elite that had emerged on the back of the open-market, or infitah, policies introduced by President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s took to buying art as a means of generating (and flaunting) class distinctions; hanging original paintings and works of art in the home became a marker of social exclusivity. This was a period of great extravagance.
At the same time, many works by leading artists of the early 20th century, which had previously remained out of sight, became available during this period, including sculptures by Mahmoud Moukhtar and paintings by Mahmoud Said: perhaps the most celebrated of the “pioneer-generation” artists credited with founding a modern Egyptian art movement. In an emerging market lacking sufficient legislation and institutional oversight, counterfeits proliferated. Soon, Shahbandar found that in addition to her role as art dealer she was also compelled to act as an investigator: examining the authenticity of each painting. She tells the story of one incident in which she was asked to appraise a painting by Hussein Bicar. When she brought the painting to the artist for verification, he smiled slowly and told her that it was a good painting, but it wasn’t his; someone had imitated his style.
Nude with the Golden Bracelets and The Reciter
This hothouse climate in the art market tended to foster the sale of certain kinds of works over others. The depiction of nudity represented one of the primary factors informing the kinds of works circulating in the market after 1989. Sultan al-Qassemi, chairman of Barjeel Securities and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, recalls that images of nude paintings by Mahmoud Said published in an auction house catalog of the period were censored. At the same time Karim Francis, director of the Karim Francis Gallery in downtown Cairo, defends this approach, which he frames as a response to laws in Arab countries regulating the display of nudity rather than any rules imposed by the auction houses themselves. Shahbandar, for her part, believes that the moral basis for an assessment of the value of a work of art or the tepid reception of paintings of nudes can be attributed to the predominance of specific social values.
In the early 1990s, Shahbandar exhibited a painting by Said, which was priced at less than LE 100,000. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris had turned down the work — titled Nude with Gold Bracelets(1946) — preferring, instead, she reports, to purchase and display Said’s The Reciter (date unconfirmed). Representatives of the Institut claimed that the painting of the pious reciter of the Quran was more representative of Egyptian art than a painting of a nude, dark-skinned woman. According to Shahbandar, “In the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s, a general social climate prevailed that rejected paintings of nudes. This was not just due to the spread of Islamism; it involved all sectors of society.” Sitting in her home, Shahbandar gestures toward a painting by Sabry Ragheb depicting a girl applying makeup in front of a mirror and wearing a short, black nightdress. The painting had been purchased by a woman from a middle class, Coptic family. A few days later, the client returned, asking to exchange the work because her daughter would not tolerate having a painting of a nude in the home. What Shahbandar describes as mutable social mores came to inform the practices of cultural institutions, such as the Institut du Monde Arabe, that played a prominent role on the international stage and sought to influence perceptions of Arab identity abroad. The same values came into play in even the most basic forms of social organization, such as the family. Shahbandar tells of how she would use her own exhibition space to display nude paintings by Georges Sabbagh from private family collections because the children of the owners refused to display the works and approached her for help in selling them.
Others, such as Mohamed Talaat, the director of Misr Gallery in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, believe that those social values that discouraged the exhibition of nudity have since changed. In 2012, for example, Misr Gallery exhibited various works created by Nadine Hammam over the course of the period following the January 25 revolution of 2011. The exhibition, titled Tank Girl, was composed of acrylic paintings representing the eponymous female nude who confronts the viewer from atop a tank with her legs spread, transforming the barrel of the gun into a larger than life size phallus. An explanatory booklet accompanying the exhibition framed the work in the following terms:
Through her work, which she has titled Tank Girl, the artist sets out to reconfigure stereotypes and established beliefs. Simulating this reformulation a combination of power inversions, a woman controls one of the most vicious war machines, the tank, as a symbol suggesting ‘woman’s’ ability to impose her power and prevail in the battle to assert their existence.
The booklet closes with a paragraph that explains: “Through her treatment of these complex symbols, the artist hopes to locate a more active role for modern women in the political and social scene. Here, Tank Girl represents every Egyptian woman.” According to Talaat, those collectors with an interest in buying art today are attracted to the more contemporary works in various media and don’t have a problem works that contain nudity or even erotic content, such as works in the Eros collection byel-Dessouki Fahmi, a portion of which was also shown at Misr Gallery.
Until the mid-1990s, there were no clear laws on the art market for setting prices and confirming the authenticity of works of art. An ethical code existed, but no supervisory body. Artists set their prices and the galleries exhibited their works, earning a percentage on sale. Some of the artists active in the 1980s harbored misgivings about this system and asked galleries to purchase their works instead of handing them over directly for consignment. At the same time, artists were not immune to questionable behavior, and cutting out the middleman by selling work at a lower price than that advertised in the gallery constituted one of the worst possible violations of the ethical code yet, apart from the latter, Egypt has no laws in place regulating the art market.
The uptick in activity in the Egyptian art market stemmed from the drive among the new upper middle class to acquire artwork. Some of these individuals were encouraged to enter the market based on a business approach that relied on a logic of quick gains. Until the mid-1990s, most owners of private galleries in Egypt were women whose interest in art had prompted their entry into the field; the need to make a profit proved a secondary consideration. Sherwet Shafie represented another prominent art world figure. Shafie had opened the Safar Khan Gallery after leaving her position as a program presenter on Egyptian television in the 1960s. While Safar Khan Gallery still operates today, Shahbandar stopped working in the field in the mid-1990s due, she claims, to the type of clients who were beginning to take an interest in art. She recalls standing with the artist on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition she had organized, when they overheard a client saying she wanted to buy a painting because the colors matched her living room interior. The artist was insulted and pleaded with her not to sell the painting to that client. In 2005, Shahbandar would found Shayfeencom (We are watching you), a movement that aimed to uncover the corruption and electoral fraud of the Mubarak regime. She would later become one of the most prominent names in political activism, especially after the 2011 revolution.
Shahbandar withdrew from the field just as the new adventurers were entering. At the time, Karim Francis was embarking on a journey of self-discovery which took him from working in the import/export business to tourism, and, finally, to art. Francis devoted three years to reading about art and familiarizing himself with artists and various artistic practices before opening his own gallery. He held his first show in 1995 in an apartment he owns on Sherifein Street in downtown Cairo. The group exhibition, titled Identity, included works by artists such as Mohamed Abla, as well as literary works, displaying manuscripts belonging to the celebrated novelist Sonallah Ibrahim.
Sitting in his gallery, surrounded by sculptures by Sobhy Guirguis, Francis recalls his beginnings:
When I started working in the art world, most buyers were receptive to works by the older, well-established names. Quite simply, each buyer felt in touch with the artists of their generation. However, motivated by my own passion, I wanted to put new names and new ideas in art out there that had not yet been seen in the market. I held a series of group shows titled New Talents to introduce artists whose work was being shown for the first time, as well as to show artistic modes and experimentation that went beyond paintings hanging on a wall, including installation artworks and video art.
This spirit of innovation and embrace of the unfamiliar would come to define the direction of the art scene in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Francis, alongside other gallerists active in the period and espousing similar ambitions, helped provide a platform for the emergence of a number of artists who are often referred to collectively as “the 90s generation.”
The joy of the sale
In the 1990s, state financial policies continued to liberalize so as to integrate Egypt into the new world market, and Egypt signed many partnership agreements with the European Union. These agreements included articles explicitly referencing cultural cooperation; a number of foreign cultural institutions became active in Egypt. Initially, these institutions were viewed with a great deal of suspicion, and were boycotted by art critics: most prominently Osama Afifi, who understood the activities of foreign cultural and arts organizations to represent a form of interference with Egypt’s natural course and part of a larger plan to destabilize Egyptian national identity. From the Ford Foundation to the Townhouse gallery (to borrow Afifi’s examples), the arts organizations that played an important role in supporting contemporary artistic practices were subjected to attacks of treason and suspicion, to the extent that art critic Sobhi el-Sharoni described the role of these organizations as malicious in his book Encyclopedia of Egyptian Fine Arts in the Twentieth Century.
This model of arts organization does not rely on selling art but, rather, approaches art within a developmental framework, operating according to different economic rules. Despite various drawbacks, this approach proved to be an effective stimulus for contemporary art practices and provided young artists with the space to branch out and experiment with installation and video art. These media are difficult to sell, and works in this vein have not been well-received historically by government arts institutions; the 1990s generation of artists was marginalized and alienated from official institutions that continued to show and display art that was considered more representative of “Egyptian identity.”
In the midst of this struggle and the changes taking place in the art world, Karim Francis was attempting to create a third model, closer to that espoused by Stefania Angarano, the director of Mashrabia Gallery, who refused to work with artists teaching in arts academies or exhibit the paintings of deceased artists, preferring to focus instead on contemporary Egyptian art. Francis declined the opportunity to convert the gallery into an establishment that relied on outside funding and preferred to pursue his own path. He made this choice not because he believed that accepting funding would make him a “traitor,” as per the widespread accusations against institutions that relied on these sources, but for other reasons, which Francis enumerates as follows:
First, I’m not convinced by the idea of organizations that fund the arts. Personally, if I was given money, I wouldn’t work and struggle so hard to show and sell art. Also, the issue of “selling” in itself is the job of a gallery owner, not only for the sake of material gain but also because it lends the work an added sense of value. I feel a real joy when I sell a work of art. Second, the work model of funding organizations turns the artist and the gallery owner into employees who receive monthly funds. Selling art grants you a greater freedom. Third, working with these organizations is demanding, there is a lot of paperwork, routine procedures, and funding applications to fill out that contain questions that are, in my opinion, meaningless, yet you’re forced to answer them and say what the funders want to hear, or to clothe what you’re doing in their concepts and development terms. In a private gallery all you need is a license and commercial registration.
At the same time, Francis does accept funding from these organizations for the work of certain artists, especially for costly video art which cannot be sold afterwards.
The Karim Francis Gallery was one of the first places that opened its doors to the 1990s generation, many members of whom have now become internationally celebrated artists and whose works can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Francis mentions that, in the 1990s, he showed a work of Ghada Amer priced at LE5,000, and no one was interested in buying it. Now the same work sells for US$165,000. He laughs, remembering the surprise on the faces of gallery visitors when they encountered works of installation art: “There were very few sales. So I thought, why don’t we open things up to new experiments and practices? The visitors did not understand what was going on and I was showing these experiments and works in an attempt to understand and absorb and to create a dialog around these new ideas.”
In this period, Karim Francis Gallery, Mashrabia Gallery and Townhouse played a vital role in posing alternatives and new paths for art practice. In 2000, the three locations collaborated to put on the Nitaq Festival; a second festival was held the following year and was designed to correspond with the launch of the Cairo Biennale. Negar Azimi (a former employee of the Townhouse) describes this event in an article as: “the most palpable sign that the Egyptian art scene as we knew it had been shaken up.” According to Azimi, the festival was significant for:
the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale’s opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an ‘off’ version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.
The event would come to represent a landmark in the history of contemporary art in Egypt: signaling the entrance of a new coterie of artists and institutions, and, with them, new practices and understandings of art. At the same time, the market horizons for this work were expanding.
Auctioneers in the cities of the desert and bourgeois gold
In a recent interview, Sultan al-Qassemi noted the absence of a healthy demand for Egyptian art in the 1990s: “There was art, even in the 90s, but there wasn’t a market for art in Egypt, and there was a near total absence of Egyptian art outside of Egypt. Collectors of Egyptian art could be counted on one hand, most prominently Mohammed Said Al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and the emir of Qatar, Hassan bin Mohamed Al Thani.” Nevertheless, with the beginning of a new century, cities in the Gulf were rapidly acquiring international status, and the skyscrapers rising in Doha competed with those of Dubai. The entrance of auction houses at this particular moment would have a significant effect on the market for works from Egypt and the region.
Francis relates that at the start of the new millennium, he began to receive invitations and friendly advice to go to Dubai, where the art market was already strong and expanding as a result of the rapid growth of the real estate market. After ten years of involvement in the art world, he had made a name for himself both locally and internationally. During this period, Francis met a European interior designer working in Dubai and she began working with him in selecting art for her projects. In 2005, he was visited by members of a delegation from Christie’s auction house who sought to familiarize themselves with Egyptian and Arab art and art markets. Francis accompanied them to a number of studios, including those of the prominent artists Adel el-Siwi, Mohamed Abla, and Adam Henein. The auctioneers were undertaking their first exploratory visits of the Arab art market by visiting a number of Arab cities in preparation for the inauguration of branches in Dubai and the wider Gulf region.
In a 2012 study of the Middle Eastern art market, The Rise of the Middle Eastern Art Market Since 2006, author Taymour Grahne quotes Philipp Hoffmann, executive director of the Fine Art Fund Group, as setting the total value of the Middle Eastern art market at US$10 billion; this value was expected to triple in coming years. By the end of 2005, Christie’s had opened its first branch in the Middle East. Sotheby’s and Bonhams followed suite. The establishment of these auction houses had a transformative effect on the status of Arab art. Qassemi describes some of these changes:
These houses employed art scholars and experts to study and appraise Egyptian art and did reports to verify the proposed numbers. Sometimes, we’d hear about works selling for outrageous amounts but we had no way to verify these numbers; the houses worked to verify them. The auction houses reduced the number of fakes threatening the Arab art market, due to the passing off and sale of art forgeries without verifying their authenticity or history. The houses produced authenticated catalogs of Egyptian artists. There is a catalogue raisonné documenting all of the works of Mahmoud Said, Ramses Younan, and other greats, which became essential references for their work.”
When I asked Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke recently why people in Dubai, the Gulf and Cairo buy art at these prices, he replied, “everything the bourgeoisie touches turns to gold” — attributing the statement to Karl Marx. If auction houses aim primarily to generate more and more “gold,” a law governing the art market must first be established for pricing works of art. In a market where opinions and critical judgments are up for debate, the auction is one of the few institutions that leaves the task of determining the price of a work of art to the free market. On this basis, the work of a particular artist is assigned a monetary value that becomes, as Mohamed Talaat says, a reference point for future sales.
At the same time, Talaat explains that the art market and its main site of exchange in the Gulf-based auction houses possess blind spots which leave them open to manipulation. He tells of how some galleries might offer the works of young artists they represent to auction houses, only to turn around and purchase the same works for a high price at auction through an agent. As a result, the value of an artist’s work increases and art collectors are encouraged to seek them out. After prices have multiplied, the gallery re-exhibits and resells the artist’s work. However, Qassemi takes a different view regarding the manipulation of auction bidding to increase the price of an artist’s work: “This might have occurred at the beginning, but now it would be difficult for such a thing to happen because the market is very narrow, and if a gallery did such a thing it would be discovered immediately, because the market is small and we all know what’s out there.”
While warning against the misuse of the auction system, Talaat also complains of national biases perpetuated by gallerists in the region, claiming:
Iranian businessmen and millionaires mostly reside in Dubai, therefore, they buy works by Iranian artists, who have come to represent a large portion of the art market shared by Arab art. And the Iranians aren’t satisfied with just acquiring art; they also support projects promoting Iranian art in Dubai and the Arab countries. Galleries in Syria and Lebanon also have a clear bias against Egyptian art, to the degree that the director of a Syrian gallery announced a while ago in an interview that the only artists on the market are Syrian artists. On the other hand, there are galleries in Egypt that do not coordinate with each other at all.
Francis holds a different opinion, stating that he has held shows for Egyptian artists in Lebanon and Syria. He adds, “galleries might collaborate on a given project, but we can’t work together or coordinate with each other because, frankly, we’re competitors in the same market.” Whether at the auction house or in the gallery, the value assigned to works of art is often determined by a system that rewards the self-interest of those with a profit to make from the sale of work.
Ultimately, the market is supported by art collectors who invest heavily in particular names, acquiring the works of these artists with the goal of building savings and investing in property, as a painting that is worth “ten” today might reach a hundred in a few years. Such individuals seek to protect the market and enforce the rules governing it, so as to guard the value of their investments. The collapse of the market or any fundamental change in the laws of appraisal and pricing that regulating it, translates into a loss in the assets of art collectors and a collapse of their investments.
Modern art in the museum
Outside interest in acquiring modern Egyptian art originated in the 1960s, as students from Gulf states moved to Egypt to pursue advanced education or for various other reasons, and were exposed to the works of modern and contemporary artists. As Qassemi recounts, there were four major art collectors in the Arab Gulf as early as the 1980s. The most significant of these belonged to Mohammed Said al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and owner of the largest collection of works by modern Egyptian artists. The private art collection of Qatar’s Sheikh Hassan Al Thani would serve as the seed of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Currently, he claims, the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art still possesses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the region comprised of some 12,000 pieces. At the same time, the museum operates within an extremely limited annual budget of LE 2 million. While the National Public Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Algiers (MAMA) stands in second place with a collection of some 8,000 works, Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art is quickly closing in from behind.
Talaat graduated from Cairo’s College of Fine Arts in 1999. In addition to his work as an artist, he took an interest in organizing exhibitions. In 2005, he was appointed director of the Arts Palace at the Cairo Opera House, where he worked with the artist Mohsen Shaalan who was serving at the time as the head of the Fine Arts Sector in the Ministry of Culture. Talaat relates that in the period in which he served as director of the Arts Palace there was something of a boom in the art market in that a new breed of collector interested in young artists appeared on the scene and new Arab markets opened up, while state institutions continued to lag behind.
The state’s newfound interest in these artists stemmed, in part, from the esteem their works enjoyed abroad, and was fueled by an attempt to recover its original position of influence in the arts sphere. Galleries such as the Townhouse served as international authorities on contemporary Egyptian art and were called upon regularly to nominate artists to participate in initiatives outside of Egypt: a role historically monopolized by the Ministry of Culture. However, despite breakthroughs and attempts at change initiated by Shaalan, the Fine Arts Sector’s performance in this regard was limited by its restricted budget, and continued to weaken after 2010, Talaat claims. Eventually, Talaat grew discouraged with the rejection of many of his project proposals. His experience in the state arts’ administration qualified him to pursue work as an art consultant: developing collections for a number of real estate and tourism companies. He also launched plans to open his own space.
While the Egyptian government sector was scaling down its involvement in the arts, Gulf-state governments, and, in particular, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, were becoming increasingly active players in the field and initiating construction on various museum projects. Yet, in doing so, they have pursued distinct aims and cultivated varying approaches. Thus, each state in the region pursues a different policy in acquiring art. According to Qassemi:
In the UAE, the government purchases and acquires works of art through a museums authority, which has a board of specialists who study paintings and determine what to purchase. There are regulations governing acquisitions, and certain museums don’t buy art from auction houses. In Qatar, the decision to purchase a work is instantaneous and is made quickly depending upon the market and what is on offer. Qatar also buys from auction houses. The most significant purchase it made at an auction was the painting Les Chadoufs by Mahmoudd Said, which sold for more than US$2.4 million.
Likewise, in a study titled Re-Inventing the Museum in Abu Dhabi and Qatar?, Laura Damême explains how these particular governments have used museums to achieve various objectives. In both Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the number of foreign workers and residents in 2010-2011 stood at over 80 percent of the total population. In Abu Dhabi, Damême claims, the government uses museums to present itself as a global capital offering international-brand museums such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, in choosing to build the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf, Qatar approaches museums as a means of asserting the cultural specificity and Muslim-Arab identity of its citizens, which account for no more than 15 percent of the total population.
Qassemi adds another possible explanation for the considerable investments made by Gulf countries in the art market: Building museums carries a clear political message. The erection of important new centers of cultural and artistic preservation and display projects an image of these governments as capable of meeting the needs of their citizens, in addition to bolstering the terms of national and cultural identity.
The art market in the Arab world: At the intersection of real estate and oil money
Wealth in the Middle East is concentrated primarily within two markets: real estate and oil. Those familiar with the contemporary history of the arts and the art market in the region can see clearly how the money pouring in from these sources has played a key role in shaping and altering the market. The relationship of art to real estate originated in an understanding of art as an element of interior design. The separation of art from interior design required gallery owners to take significant risks on less conventional works of art. Art’s autonomy from the realm of décor also relied on the subsequent development of a greater appreciation amongst many buyers for the immaterial, as well as the material value of art. With the expansion of the real estate market and urban sprawl in the satellite cities popping up outside of Cairo, the interest of the Egyptian economic elite in acquiring works of art steadily increased. Art, and the acquisition of art, became important markers of social status amongst the upper and upper middle classes.
The relationship of art to real estate became salient again when art was taken up as a vehicle for re-branding the city of Dubai. In the past decade, art has played a central role in the formulation of the image of Gulf countries, which compete to acquire art collections in a race to establish museums that reflect a progressive image of these states, while also converting art into material assets, or a form of investment and savings.
However, despite the surge occasioned by this outside interest in the Egyptian art market, exhibition halls in Cairo have tended to privilege modern art over work by contemporary artists. Moreover, local cultural and social mores inform the processes of selling and appraising art. Works with sexual, religious or politically sensitive content are particularly likely to be excluded from the market. Nevertheless, the market’s relative upswing is related to the appearance of young art collectors who no longer possess the same inhibitions as their predecessors and who are more receptive to purchasing contemporary works of art that reflect some of the spirit of the present moment.