Traps and Shadows in Noor Naga’s Egypt Novel

Translated from the Arabic by Rana Asfour

We find ourselves in Cairo in a post-2016 world, when a bald American girl arrives in what she feels is her homeland and the origin of her roots. Reading between the lines, we gather that she’s left America, fleeing from a sadness that she does not disclose. We know, because Noor Naga tells us from the first chapters that the American girl keeps shaving her head, but what she does not tell us is the reason behind her decision to remain bald. We also know that she is the daughter of Egyptian immigrant parents, that she graduated from Columbia University in New York, and that her father is a practicing physician in a clinic in the heart of Manhattan. Shocked at her decision to visit Egypt, her mother nevertheless makes the necessary calls, after which the daughter arrives, stays in a luxurious apartment in one of Cairo’s most affluent neighborhoods, and obtains a tidy job as an English teacher for adults, at the British Council.

Noor Naga begins her novel If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English with the promise of intense drama. An escape story, a trip home, secrets to unravel, but what truly gets one involved in the reading is her immensely fluid prose, as each sentence forces one to stop long enough to savor it slowly — prose that is highly complex and supremely intelligent.

When I arrived at Ramses Station in Cairo, the air was people. Nowhere you looked wasn’t people. They clogged every street and then piled on top of each other in buildings twenty stories high. Many were not even Egyptian. You could turn into an alley and find fifty Sudanese men, bluer than black, with cheeks like shoulder blades and ankles like knives, or else women as tall as I am, women so pale you could see rivered blood at their wrists and neck. I heard twenty Arabics in my first week and wherever I went people asked me — sometimes in English because of the hair — Where you from?

Naga’s novel is divided into three main parts. In the first movement of the operetta, there are short pieces, each one limited to two pages in length. They all begin with “What if” and have a transcendent feel to them: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?” The narration alternates between two voices, the American girl and a boy from Shobrakheit, who appears as a partner in the novel. Naga describes his upbringing in a village on the margins of the Egyptian countryside, raised by a possessive grandmother who envelopes him in a private world, in which she feeds him with her hands. The two share a bed and bathe together. When his grandmother dies in 2011, he heads to Cairo with his camera, a gift from his grandmother, only to arrive in a city that is in the midst of a revolution. He soon finds himself part of a new group being shaped by the city’s tumultuous uprising, streets, city squares and gas bombs.

Enraptured by the new social order, he captures it all on his camera, and it’s not long before the TV stations and news agencies are racing to publish the photographs he takes from the heart of Tahrir, the Square, that document the clashes taking place. Two years later, the revolution is defeated, and the now world-class photographer from Shobrakheit loses his sense of purpose and questions the meaning of his existence, hanging up his camera and refusing to take any more photos that would document a “fake reality.” With dwindling resources, he moves into a hovel in one of Cairo’s boroughs. His subsequent addiction leads him on a path of self-destruction.

By this point, readers can easily predict how the rest of the story will unfold. The American girl will meet the boy from Shobrakheit, they’ll fall in love, until it all dramatically falls apart. It’s a tale that’s been repeated over and over again in fiction, particularly in the years following Egypt’s 2011 revolution. A popular tale because of its intimacy, especially for a reader like me who lived his life in downtown Cairo and witnessed the beginning and end of dozens of such similar stories. Moreover, for the past decade or so, this is a theme that has been recurrent in Egyptian literature written in Arabic. What Naga does however, is turn this straightforward, simplistic theme into horrific scenes and landscapes in which social class and political identity clash, culminating in a tragic crime.

Egyptian Literature

The history of Egyptian literature, written in English, can be divided into two phases. The first is Egyptian writers born and raised in Egypt for whom English formed an essential part of their education due to their social class, such as Wajuih Ghali, Samia Serageldin, Ahdaf Soueif and others. A sense of alienation presents itself in various forms in the writings of that period, mainly a sense of not belonging within the class the writer occupies. The only exception, perhaps, is Wajuih Ghali, who rebelled against his own class, certainly in the novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

The second phase includes writing from the children of Egyptian immigrants, which began in the ‘70s and continues to this day. According to official Egyptian government figures, the number of Egyptians residing abroad is close to ten million. Estimates from the Egyptian embassy in the United States put the figure of those who live in the US at one million, though this is contradicted by the US Census Bureau, which estimates Egyptian emigrants at a quarter of a million. Regardless of these different figures, this nation of millions living in the diaspora has become part of the modern Egyptian identity, reshaping the meaning of Egypt, and presenting its image through its artistic and literary works, especially as many within this group possess material and scientific capabilities that allow them the power of autonomous representation, or as Naga asks in her novel, “If an Egyptian cannot speak English, who is telling his story?”

Noteworthy is the fact that Egyptians residing abroad who speak different languages — and like the protagonist of the novel study in prestigious universities — transfer, according to the Egyptian government’s latest figures, more than 30 billion dollars annually to the country, representing 8% of the government’s total budget. And so the question that one asks oneself here is if the American girl, with her English, is really able to tell the tale of the boy from Shobrakheit.

Language, English in this case, is an impediment that imposes a rift within the life of the American girl moving to Egypt, and those around her. Her poor command of Arabic exposes her and makes everyone ask her where she’s from. Add to that the writer’s decision not to name her protagonist, to refer to her only as the “American girl,” seems to enforce that idea, despite her Egyptian heritage and time spent in Egypt, language continues to be a barrier to communication, even after she falls in love with the boy from Shobrakheit and he moves in to live with her in her luxury apartment.

The boy from Shobrakheit, who was raised in the care of a smothering grandmother, sits next to the American girl while she eats and expects her, like his grandmother, to feed him. The American feminist soon finds herself in a relationship that has turned her into a dispossessed woman — one who goes to work in the morning, while her male partner sits at home waiting for her to come back to cook and clean, while he does nothing except watch videos on YouTube.

Noor Naga (photo courtesy Poetry Foundation) is an Alexandrian writer who was born in Philadelphia, raised in Dubai, and studied in Toronto. She is the author of a verse novel, Washes, Prays. She is winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award, the RBC/PEN Canada Award, and the Disquiet Fiction Prize. She teaches at the American University in Cairo.

The American girl soon loses herself within a world dominated by Arabic and a system of social codes that she is unable to decipher or navigate. Subtly, changes within her behavior take shape in a before and after Egypt form. Prior to her arrival in Egypt, the American girl had been a political activist, who had once revolted against a man and led a whole subway car against him in New York when she witnessed him harassing a veiled woman. The scene had been filmed and even gone viral. However, in Egypt, we see her remain silent, when her friend, the owner of a famous restaurant, refuses to seat two veiled girls in his establishment, because their hijab would put off the “clean Egyptians,” the rich bourgeoisie, decked in Western brands.

In the second part of the novel as the two voices continue to alternate, Noor Naga introduces detailed footnotes that readers assume are likely guidelines for familiarizing the non-Egyptian reader with Egypt, such as its foods that include the different varieties of mangoes, as well as foul, our traditional dish made of fava beans. However, as an Egyptian, these footnotes left me ill at ease, as they appeared to contain errors and factual details that did not add up. I was particularly drawn to one referencing a Nubian writer by the name of Sayed Dhaif, whom I had never heard of and could not find in any of my searches. When I sent the author an enquiry, she admitted that she had, in fact, invented the character. He was not real and neither were a number of other “facts” in her footnotes.

And so it is that the author sets up several traps in the novel for the reader who looks upon literature as an accurate representation of its subject. She ingenuously casts these traps to mimic the American girl’s interpretation regarding the realities of life around her in Egypt, in which she fails to distinguish between the facts and lies that the boy from Shobrakheit makes up. The ensuing confusion and the difficulty of differentiating between the multiple narratives around what is real and what isn’t reaches its climax when it comes to the details of the pair’s relationship. The scene that the boy from Shobrakheit paints is one of unbridled love, while the American girl portrays one of violence.

Trapped within a relationship in which she is unable to distinguish between love and abuse, things escalate slowly until at one point, the boy from Shobrakheit hurls a coffee table at her, inflicting severe wounds and bruises. It is only when the boy from Shobrakheit finally disappears that she is able to return to the remnants of her former life. She ends up meeting an American man living in Cairo, and further entanglements ensue when the boy from Shobrakheit dies, a mystery readers will have to work out for themselves.

Naga plays around with light and shadows, and like a magician manipulates the reality we see in front of us, making us doubt the veracity of whatever her narrators tell us right up to the moment when all is revealed in the last chapter.

Throughout the novel, Noor Naga toys, like a magician, with light and shadow, obscuring certain details while revealing others, casting doubt on everything, right up to the final chapter in which readers encounter the American girl, back in America, discussing, with colleagues in a creative writing class, the final chapter of her novel.It’s a final chapter that readers of this novel aren’t privy to but rather garner its content from the commentary of the American girl’s classmates as they share their critical take on it. The American narrator’s colleagues discuss her novel filtered through the lens of a contemporary American values system as one colleague objects to her empathy with the boy from Shobrakheit, arguing that her writing serves to perpetuate sympathy for the oppressor, and legitimizes violence against women.

Another reader asks the writer for more details related to Egypt, mining her for exciting features that play to an imagined sensibility of a distant place. All the while, the American girl is silent, happy to merely take in the comments, as if the author, having explained her two protagonists in previous chapters, surprises English readers with a mirror that reflects their own questions. In the end, it is one colleague only who focuses his comments on the technical components of the novel and advises her to delete the last chapter, which is exactly what she does. Hence, its unavailability within this novel despite everyone talking about it in this novel’s final chapter.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a novel much like Egyptian mangoes, whose taste lingers on the tongue long after the last bite.

Taming the Immigrant: Musings of a Writer in Exile

Hamid-Sulaiman-chaos-and-the-city-migration

I see no impurity or weakness in fear, unlike courage which I have often found to be synonymous with male folly. In fact, if anything, fear keeps you alert, vigilant, in a state of internal meditation even, one that enables you to gradually build up your psychological defenses. I refer here to a specific limiting fear; one that has nothing to do with panic, horror, or distress in response to a perceived and clear threat but one that is instead subtle and tame. A fear that, as infants, we ingested with our mother’s milk, and after we were weaned, it moved on to become a component of our daily sustenance that we were fed mixed with deception, lies and concealment, all that we relied on to survive.

A fear laden with advice such as Listen to what you’re told, Walk the line, Stay out of troubleIf a bully stops you don’t fight him and give him all you’ve got, Eat up or the food you leave on your plate will run after you on Judgment Day, If you masturbate you’ll go blind and weaken your knees, Say please, Say Alhamdulillah, Don’t discuss politics, Wear an undershirt,” etc, etc, etc, and before you know it, Boom! You’ve reached adolescence and you learn the necessity of stepping out of a traffic officer’s way should you encounter him in the street, concealing your identity from those you talk to, and never discussing religion with anyone, so that by early adulthood you find that your practical experience with fear up to that point has earned you the ability to practice life fully with it constantly by your side: You make love to your girlfriend whilst surrounded by multiple fears that begin with the neighbors potentially breaking in to the house, being stopped by a police officer in the street, a ripped condom, your friend returns home before you two are finished, for her female cousin to learn of your affair, or her mother’s male cousin to encounter the two of you together, and yet in spite of all these fears, Arab love stories persist and grow; we marry, we procreate and we separate.

A total life spent in the company of fear, for who are we to refuse the fear or rebel against it? We are a people who consume fear instead of croissants with our coffee; we are the owners of sharp and hurtful tongues that puncture holes in our bravery, strength, fastidiousness and individuality, and all our beautiful Arab values on rebelliousness, bravery, and daring feats that are invoked in the songs of Egyptian festivals in which the artists string lyrics about their ability to take up arms and see any battle to its bitter end seem in vain when someone like Captain Hani Shaker, Head of the Syndicate of Musical Professions in Egypt, hounds artists and forces them to swallow their words. Intimidated, they cave in, because they, like all of us, were raised in fear too.


I admit that the previous paragraph is long and full of scattered ideas and images, and I am aware that one of the guidelines of eloquent editing dictates that I break up my paragraphs and sentences into shorter ones. I must rid the text of everything that could potentially distract the reader from the work’s central theme. As I re-read the previous paragraph, I feel a creeping fear and hear a chafing voice that orders me “to write as one ought to, to tow the line, to define my idea, to express my thoughts minimally and precisely, to keep the text clean and simple.

In all probability, I’ll succumb to this type of fear, solely for its novelty, a non-Arab fear if you will, one unlike the one my mother, my society and my government instilled in me, one I’ll liken to a swarm of invading ants that have stealthily taken residence, festering inside of me in the last few years since my move to America, eating away at my self-confidence, severing all communication with the real me. Are you getting any of this? Do you know what I’m trying to say? Never mind, let’s start at the beginning one more time. And yet, there is no beginning point to return to, I am in the middle, stuck with fear in a hole whose walls are screens that display urban landscapes, and stunning images of nature from the North American continent…

Read the full text here: https://themarkaz.org/taming-the-immigrant-musings-of-a-writer-in-exile/

Música en Egipto en la última década: entre huir y asestar con las autoridades

Comencé mi carrera en el periodismo hace 17 años. En una serie de incidentes no planeados, terminé cubriendo actividades musicales y la escena de la música contemporánea como mi enfoque principal. 

[Se prohíbe expresamente la reproducción total o parcial, por cualquier medio, del contenido de esta web sin autorización expresa y por escrito de El Intérprete Digital]

En un mundo anterior a 2011, había bastantes regulaciones y limitaciones que controlaban la producción musical en Egipto, entre tres círculos adyacentes no entrelazados: 

El primer círculo es la producción musical oficial. Este círculo incluye la producción financiada por el gobierno o compañías gigantes egipcias o árabes que pueden operar en esta área, como Rotana y Al-Mamlakah, con sede en Arabia Saudita, o Mazzika and Free Music, con sede en Egipto. Este género musical ‘lucrativo’ con fines comerciales es el más cercano a la música pop y, a veces, puede incluir reordenamientos de música clásica como los conciertos de Om Kolthoum y otras canciones inspiradas en la tradición y el patrimonio árabe. Combinada con la música de los nombres más populares como Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Mohammad Abdo o incluso Samira Said, esta música ocupa la mayor parte del mercado musical.

El segundo círculo engloba un pequeño número de instituciones culturales financiadas por la comunidad o por la Unión Europea. Estas instituciones, a su vez, financian la producción musical de algunos artistas experimentales o ‘clandestinos’. La cuota de mercado de esta música es bastante pequeña y la única forma de escucharla es asistiendo a las actuaciones de estos cantantes en pequeños teatros. Si bien estas canciones no suelen transmitirse por radio o televisión, son las más cercanas a la cultura egipcia de clase media. Ejemplos de esta música ‘clandestina’,  bandas como Cairokee, Fareeq West Al Balad y Yaseen Hamdan.

El tercer círculo, que es el más extendido de todos y el menos financiado, es el canto ‘shaab’”. Este género no encontró hogar en teatros públicos o privados; más bien, los cantantes de shaabi cantaban a menudo en bodas y teatros callejeros. Y a pesar de la popularidad de sus canciones, no se transmitieron por televisión, sino que estaban ampliamente disponibles en casetes baratos grabados en estudios modestos. Esta música era de fácil acceso en todas partes.

Entonces, sucedió la Revolución del 25 de enero. En ese momento, las plazas públicas de todo el país se convirtieron en un crisol de estos tres círculos de música —lugares donde se instalaron altavoces en cada rincón y donde se invitó a cantar por los altavoces a todo tipo de artistas y cantantes. Mientras caminaba por la plaza Tahrir, seguí notando que las clásicas canciones nacionalistas antiguas de los años sesenta volvían a la vida. Pronto, cantantes ‘clandestinos’ invadieron las plazas e inmediatamente comenzaron a producir canciones que adoptaron la retórica de la Revolución. Mientras tanto, los cantantes pop se mostraron reacios a participar, mientras algunos ya estaban involucrados en respaldar a Mubarak y atacar la Revolución.

Recuerdo muy bien la semana anterior al 11 de febrero. En ese momento, visité la Plaza Tahrir y descubrí que esta nueva canción no identificada se cantaba en todas partes. Más tarde llegó a ser conocida como la canción “mahraganat” “Ya Husni Seebna Haram Aleik” (Husni, por favor déjanos tranquilos). (N.d.T.: la palabra árabe mahraganat denomina el género musical que combina la música popular shaabi y música electrónica). 

—- Read the rest: https://elinterpretedigital.com/2021/11/03/musica-en-egipto-en-la-ultima-decada-entre-huir-y-asestar-con-las-autoridades/

All attention to the art

I don’t know when this architecture tradition started, but I believe most of us are familiar with it. You enter a giant building, and at the entrance, you come across a glass box displaying the building’s scale model/maquette. You are inside the building, yet you are observing a miniature rendition of the building from above.

If you visited Las Vegas City Hall last month, at the entrance you would have stood in front of a full-scale maquette for a housing studio built out of cardboard on 160 sq ft. This maquette represents one of the weekly-rental studios that are spread all over the city. It may also remind you of the housing projects that the city and its civil society afford for the homeless. But when you get close, you will find a modest label with the artist’s name on it: Nima Abkenar.

The maquette/artworks invite you to enter. No doors to open. You walk into a small kitchen, a space intended for the bed, and a couple of squares allotted for the restroom. In the end, you are confronted by a wall with fluorescent lights hanging on it. Fluorescence is Nima’s fingerprint; we could spot it in most of his artworks, an aesthetic he took from his home city where fluorescent lights are widely used on mosques and shrines.

Outside of the city hall building, swarms of homeless and vagrants were taking over the streets, sleeping under the shade if they found it, or roving around in a circle that led nowhere.

I couldn’t separate the homeless situation in Las Vegas from Nima’s installation at the city hall, where people who work daily in the building are the ones who are responsible for finding a solution to this problem.

But this was my perception of an art project that has other layers and roots. Some of them go back to Nima himself, who arrived as an immigrant here only to end up revolting against the art school at UNLV and the Art Institutes of Las Vegas — although he lost and was spurned by them for several years. Now he was showing his work in the most official place in the city, revolting against the kitsch/cliché art that dominated Las Vegas’ public image for decades.

Read the full article here: https://medium.com/@as.naje/all-attention-to-the-art-49ca339da7ee

I Love Wasta and Hate Standing in Line, but I am Poor

We encounter no scenes of people lining up in Renaissance paintings, neither is there evidence of the existence of lines among the Romans or the Greek. In the workers’ city by the pyramids, detailed records have been found regarding workers’ wages, their diet, food and beer rations, yet lo and behold, not a single record of any queue appears in any of them.

In an article by Jamie Lauren Keils on the sociocultural history of the line, she wrote that the first mention of lines appeared in Thomas Carlyle’s book on the history of the French Revolution in which he first documented the uncanny scene of people lined up in rows in front of Paris bakeries to buy bread.

Lines are born out of the womb of revolution and rebellion.

The line is in fact a manifestation that confirms the equality between human beings. So it follows that the revolution that caused feudal heads to roll, abolished nobility titles and called for equality and brotherhood, found in the line an exemplary embodiment of its principles as well as a behavioral practice that best reflected the values and laws of the new era.

Prior to the revolution, not only was the consideration of the line near impossible but it was inconceivable as a concept and regarded by many as one that went against the natural order of things. How could one expect a count, for example, to stand in the same line as a commoner? Or for a slave to precede the noble Sheikh Alazhary in a another one? 

Ancient societies, monarchical and feudal states typically imposed a pyramid-like organizational structure of hierarchy that ranked individuals according to social, ethnic and religious status, thereby nullifying all chances of equality between those at the top of the structure and those at the bottom of it, or even for the two to ever align in one row.

It was not until the early 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the construction of the modern state, that lines became more profligate, albeit confined to the ranks of the workers. The gentry, however, continued to enjoy privileged back door access.

By the start of the early 20th century, lines were no longer considered a peculiar sight, but rather a highly regarded aspiration and encouraged observance. Complete egalitarianism, all equal in one line, with privileged treatment awarded to none.

In the 21st century, lines have come to symbolize professionalism, order, and efficiency, even when they fall short of these attributes.

+++Read the full article here: https://themarkaz.org/magazine/love-wasta-hate-standing-in-line-but-i-am-poor-ahmed-naji

Music in Egypt in the Last Decade: Hit and Run with the Authorities

I started my career in journalism seventeen years ago. In a series of unplanned incidents, I ended up covering musical activities and the contemporary music scene as my main focus. 

Published first: https://timep.org/commentary/analysis/music-in-egypt-in-the-last-decade-hit-and-run-with-the-authorities/

In a pre-2011 world, there were quite a few regulations and limitations controlling music production in Egypt and three adjacent, non-interlocking circles:

The first circle is official music production. This circle includes production funded by the government or giant Egyptian or Arab companies that are allowed to operate in this field, such as the Saudi-based Rotana and Al-Mamlakah or Egypt-based Mazzikaand Free Music.

This “commercial” for-profit music genre is closest to pop music and can sometimes take in classical music rearrangements such as Om Kolthoum’s concerts and other songs inspired by Arab tradition and heritage. Combined with the music of most popular names such as Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Mohammad Abdo, or even Samira Said, this music makes the largest portion of the music market.

The second circle encompasses a small number of cultural institutions that are funded either by the community or by the European Union. These institutions in turn fund the musical production of some experimental “underground” artists. The market share of this music is rather small, and the only way to listen to it is by attending performances by these singers in small theaters. While these songs are not usually broadcast on radio or television, they are the closest to middle class Egyptian culture. Examples of this “underground” music are bands like Cairokee, Fareeq West Al Balad, and Yaseen Hamdan.

The third circle, which is the most widespread of all and the least-funded, is “shaabi” singing. This genre did not find homes in public or private theaters; rather, shaabi singers often sang in wedding parties and street theaters. And in spite of the popularity of their songs, they were not aired on TV but rather widely available on cheap cassettes recorded in modest studios. This music was easily accessible everywhere.

Then, the January 25 Revolution happened. At that point, public squares across the country became melting pots for these three circles of music—places where loudspeakers were installed at every corner and where all kinds of artists and singers were invited to sing through the loudspeakers. As I was walked in Tahrir Square, I kept noticing the classic old nationalist songs from the sixties returning to life. Soon, “underground” singers invaded the squares and immediately started producing songs that adopted the Revolution’s rhetoric. In the meantime, pop singers were hesitant to take part, while some were already involved in endorsing Mubarak and attacking the Revolution.

I remember the one week preceding February 11 very well. At that time, I visited the Tahrir Square and found about this unidentified, new song being sung everywhere. It later came to be known as the “mahraganat” song “Ya Husni Seebna Haram Aleik.”

After Mubarak stepped down, and during the street celebrations, I saw circles of youth dancing to this song. The music was not like any music I had ever heard, and the dancing style was not like anything I had ever seen.

Mahraganat was born within the January Revolution as a byproduct of the Revolution’s spirit and overflowing energy. Today, however, police patrols chase down mahraganat singers, with support from the Musicians’ Syndicate.

*** 

The January Revolution undermined the old rules of music production in Egypt: commercial, for-profit music that had always dominated the market was completely destroyed with the fall of Mubarak. The masses went on further to curse singers of this genre because of their support for Mubarak, and their sexually and emotionally charged music seemed distant from the true feelings of the people at that time. In its replacement, “underground” music grew and rose for a few reasons. First, the European Union and Western organizations increased their funding to these institutions. Second, the public domain was open and ready for this kind of music. Instead of being restricted to small theaters, musical activities spread everywhere, and a series of “Al Fan Midan” concerts was given in a different public squares every month, where a stage would be constructed and “underground” singers would come to sing in open concerts free of charge. 

Shaabi singing, however, underwent a more violent transformation as a new musical wave started to grow in marginalized neighborhoods in the outskirts of Cairo, thus displacing the older traditions of popular music. Popular wedding music that depended on a band and singer was replaced with a DJ and a young boy synthesizing music with a computer—accompanied with singing to a fast, violent beat in a style that mixes rap with traditional Egyptian wedding music.

The main instrument in mahraganat music is the computer, with the keyboard being the figurative strings. Rather than mimicking Westernized electronic music, it synthesizes oriental rhythms and beats into its melodies.

In 2012, we would hear statements by mahraganat singers such as “We are the music of the street.” In separate interviews with artist Al-Sadat at that time, he often said “We are the voice of those deprived, of the underprivileged neighborhoods.” This discourse seemed in harmony with the heat of the revolutionary moment as the masses sang festival songs against military rule and mourned martyrs of massacres. 

With the arrival of Muslim Brotherhood in office, the Egyptian music scene witnessed a state of fear and restlessness, with the threat of new restrictions. When Abdel Fattah El-Sisi first started publicly cultivating his image as then-Minister of Defense, he have a group of singers and artists accompany him wherever he went in a not-so-common display, whether to exploit their fame or to appear as the guardian of Egyptian identity, art, and culture. While streets filled with demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi in 2013, televisions was transmitted footage of El-Sisi inspecting a military unit, accompanied with singers such as Muhammad Fuad, Hani Shakir, and other older names from the commercial music circle.

When El-Sisi came to power, the state sought to immediately control media discourse from all angles. Controlling the music scene was therefore a prime target and was done gradually through a few direct and indirect legal and security procedures and steps.

This was first done by prohibiting “Al Fan Midan” and forcing any place intending to host a musical events to obtain a number of clearances and permissions, starting with the fire department and ending at the National Security Department. Such pressure pushed a number of artist organizations, such as “Al Mawrid Al Thaqafi” which managed the Al Juneina Theater, to leave Egypt and resume work in Lebanon and Jordan.

“Underground” music faced successive blows as it was dealt with as an extension to the January Revolution. This situation pressed a number of singers and musicians of this genre to travel outside Egypt after they had been directly threatened because of their music. Examples include Ramy Essam, Hamza Namira, and Abdullah Miniawy—all prominent voices in the post-January-25 world and who, because of their political songs and affiliations, were threatened and went into exile.

Those who could not travel for various of reasons stopped singing, such as Aly Talibab. On the other hand, those who continued singing were sometimes obliged to give up their old songs and remake their artistic personas in accordance with state censors, such as Abou who used to sing to the rebels in the Tahir Square and then turned into the “official” singer for El Gouna millionaires. 

***

As El-Sisi took office and the 2014 Constitution was approved, a few modifications on the Law of Arts Unions were enacted, based on which many regulations controlling the work of these institutions changed. Then-Minister of Justice Ahmed El-Zend provided judicial investigation powers to the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate who in turn launched war on all that was new on the music scene. 

After that, under these judicial powers, the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate, or anyone representing them, had the authority to inspect hotels and restaurants and check clearances for singing or playing music by any singer or musician. In this respect, Hani Shakir and those around him turned into a “music and singing police” that mainly targeted mahraganat music under the pretext that it ruined public taste.

For anyone to become a member of the Musicians’ Syndicate, they would have to undergo an audition before a union committee—one whose tastes are based on its Arab musical traditions. For example, it does not recognize rap, hip-hop, or mahraganat music. Consequently, singers of these genres face difficulties in obtaining syndicate membership or permits to perform.

Some mahraganat singers were successful in becoming members of the Musicians’ Syndicate by registering as “DJ’s” and not as singers, whereas some others work and sing unofficially and illicitly—syndicate representatives are susceptible to bribes, provided you do not cross any red lines in your song choices. 

Despite that, mahraganat music kept growing and developing. Hamo Bika, for example, ranks is one of the most listened-to artists but is banned from singing in public parties or concerts, by Hani Shakir’s commands.

***

El-Sisi’s regime has a tight grip on the world of music production. To be able to sing in Egypt, one would requires clearance and permission by the Musicians’ Syndicate. Moreover, song themes must be pre-approved and any that come close to political issues would be flagged and could lead to a prison sentence, and even death. Young director Shadi Habash who was arrested on grounds that he simply took part in filming a political song by Ramy Essam and passed away in prison. Poet Galal El-Behairy is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment for writing the song “Balaha.”

Giant music production companies that are allowed to operate in Egypt and that make the stars are either funded by Gulf countries or the ones funded and managed by Egyptian intelligence, such as the Egyptian Media Group and DMC Channels. Most often, these bodies handle the production of national songs and the organization of musical festivals accompanying the inauguration of infrastructure projects that El-Sisi takes pride in.

Yet, despite this grip of power in security and music production, there exists a crack in this wall that could give Egyptian music the opportunity to flourish and develop. The last five years in Egypt, for instance, witnessed increased popularity of music streaming platforms such as Youtube, Spotify, and Anghami.

Consequently, it is now possible for any Egyptian youth to produce music using a laptop, record in a home studio, and upload songs to these platforms—and have the change to earn income based on streams. This new production style has revolutionized Egyptian music, known as the “New Wave”, which mixes of rap and mahraganat music with rising names such as Wegz, Marwan Pablo, Abyusif, Sadat, Mostafa 3enba, Double Zuksh, Molotof, and Dj Tito. 

All these are singers and music producers who eluded the grip of the music companies of the Gulf and Egyptian intelligence, and most of them are not even members of the Musicians’ Syndicate. Despite that, they have been at the forefront of the music scene over the past year, and their music has become a staple in public. They also top online charts, and their popularity and influence, particularly on the rising generations, are constantly increasing.

The New Wave of rap and mahraganat music has breathed new life into the Egyptian music scene. Up until now, the state with its laws and institutions have taken no heed towards them. Media platforms that support the regime, however, have started talking about the sources of income for these young artists and the numbers they are earning through “selling music” online. Sooner or later, the government will try to crack down on this music scene or at least control the money that is flowing to these musicians through international music platforms out of state control.

Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison

During the 1921 obscenity trial involving James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dispute broke out between the prosecuting attorney and the defense team in the New York courthouse. The assistant district attorney angrily announced he was going to read an extract from the novel out loud to establish before the court that it posed a threat to society and morality. Protesting that there was no need to subject the court to such obscenity, the judge stopped him. Around a century later, in Cairo, during the obscenity trial of my novel Using Life, the assistant attorney for the prosecution challenged my defense attorney and the respected literary figures we had called as witnesses to read a section of my novel out loud.

Whatever the time and place—twentieth-century New York or twenty-first-century Cairo—no sooner does literature enter the courtroom than the same techniques of attack and defense come out. The accused litterateurs mount their case from the ramparts of expertise, demanding to be regarded, like engineers or doctors would be, as authorities in their field. The prosecution’s argument, on the other hand, is premised on the idea that literature is for everyone, which gives the criminal justice system the right to protect society from its harmful effects. If the prosecutor can read literature, then he’s also qualified to pass judgment on it. 

Language is the raw material of both literature and the law, but judges and lawyers claim their own mysterious authority over it. While the practitioners of the law permit their courts and prisons to encroach upon literature, they won’t allow literature to be read in their courts. Writers will defend themselves with tongues of fire, but on the stand they are stripped of their power, because their language is the proof of their guilt.

I’ve always found interviews with the media excruciating. Pressing me to explain my work and state what it is I’m trying to achieve, journalists seem to think that writers understand the full dimensions of the writing process. They don’t realize that writing is itself a way to understand, a way to doubt and question. When forced to defend myself, I always felt like the defense itself became a prison in which my relationship with literature was to be confined. I became trapped in a cage that they and I had together constructed out of sex, obscenity, taboos, and my conflict with censorship. I was being framed as a writer with an obscene agenda. But prior to my trial and conviction, even though I had published three books with literary presses, I never saw myself as a writer. Occasional journalist, day laborer in the arts market, often unemployed, intellectual masturbator, three-legged chair, daydreamer, mental adolescent, but a writer? Not sure. I was only thirty; I hadn’t decided what I wanted yet, and I didn’t see any reason why I should.

Read the full article here: https://believermag.com/rotten-evidence/

RE:WRITING THE FUTURE: THE TANTA MUSEUM OF WHITE HISTORY

A ravishing tale about a time when political and social world orders have been turned on their heads.

It gives us great pleasure to present this proposal for a flagship museum commemorating the history of white people as part of an initiative to recognise and celebrate the ethnic and cultural diversity of Gharbiyya Governorate, Egypt.

The article was published first here: http://artsoftheworkingclass.org/text/the-tanta-museum-of-white-history
The article was published first here: http://artsoftheworkingclass.org/text/the-tanta-museum-of-white-history

The museum aims to harness the power of art and education for social change by honouring the painful history of the white diaspora. It will address the complex and troubling stories of how the Great Pandemic, and the Arab revolutions whose centenary we are soon to celebrate, devastated the white race over the course of the twenty-first century.

The revolutions of the Arab Spring taught us that history is not written by the victors, and that no matter how long injustice lasts, there will come a day when the oppressed will tell their tale. Taking inspiration from this legacy, the museum will recognise and rewrite white history in an effort to educate the white minority and contribute positively to their integration into contemporary Arab society.


THE HISTORY 

One hundred years ago, a wave of revolutions known as the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa, bringing hope to the people of those countries and inspiring kindred movements across the world. Under the slogan “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice!”, the revolutions profoundly transformed political and cultural life across the region.

The immediate aftermath saw the downfall of the monarchies and tribal regimes of the Gulf states, leading the Arab peoples into a crucible of political and social change which established democratic rule and led initially to the electoral success of right-wing Islamist parties. As foreseen by Middle East experts such as Edward Said, Joseph Massad, Wael Hallaq and Talal Asad, the Arabs realised that national identity was a concept foreign to their culture—a hangover from the age of Orientalism and Imperialism. This period saw borders and nation-states exchanged for systems of decentralised local administration under the aegis of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The tension between ascendant white nationalist movements in Western states and the new political order in the Arab world seemed to fulfill predictions of a “clash of civilisations,” and many were bracing themselves for the worst. Prominent voices on both sides were promoting war, especially after an evangelical celebrity pastor was elected president of the USA with the support of the American pope, who threatened undecided voters with the prospect of the End Time and the fall of the Messiah.

Once in office, the new president spearheaded the formation of an alliance of Western states committed to climate change denial. Climate change believers were imprisoned, while environmentalist organisations and think tanks were accused of performing the “devil’s work” and closed down. 

The pace of climate change accelerated, and huge swathes of Europe and the Americas were affected by rising sea levels. The state of Louisiana was submerged in its entirety, and melting ice at the North Pole flooded most of Denmark and Sweden and rendered Northern Europe largely uninhabitable.

Then the pandemic struck. Although scientists showed that the virus had been trapped under permafrost and released by rising temperatures, the US evangelical pope chose to call it the “African virus,” a designation quickly adopted across much of the West.

In collaboration with China and other Asian and African countries, Muslim Arab nations worked furiously to develop a vaccine for the virus and halt climate change—efforts in which Western nations refused to participate. Led by renowned Indian scholar Dr. Roy Sontag, a team of scientists soon succeeded in developing an effective vaccine. 

The vaccine was found to have an unforeseen side effect for white people: it led to an increase in skin pigmentation, which made white-skinned individuals turn brown or black. Although this side effect was also shown to strengthen resistance to skin cancer and a number of other conditions, vast numbers of white people refused to participate in vaccination programs, which they claimed were an affront to Western civilisation. French President Marine Le Pen said: “This is not a vaccine, this is a biological weapon designed to destroy the values of the French revolution.”

The white race was facing environmental and humanitarian crises. Birth rates dropped to a third of their former figure, mortality rates skyrocketed, political opposition was brutally crushed and the best minds fled the collapsing West for the safety and economic opportunities offered by the Arab and Islamic world, where they were welcomed with open arms.

It was only a matter of time before a series of uprisings across the West ousted the incumbent right-wing regimes, with Chinese and Islamic support. The revolutions brought about far-reaching social change in Western nations, which ultimately grew to embrace racial diversity and leave behind the delusions of white supremacy. But decades of upheaval and disease had ravaged the white race, which became a minority in most Western countries, and with the rollout of vaccination programs some white people lost their whiteness altogether, while many intermarried with other races. With only a few exceptions, the last generation of formerly white people gave birth to a generation of dark-skinned children.

Some of the dwindling white population fled the West for Africa and the Middle East. Thousands lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and those who arrived safely at its southern shores found themselves forced to assimilate to new cultures that were foreign and even anathema to their own. Americans had to adapt to free universal healthcare, even though it contravened the teachings of Christ and the US constitution. Even their history was rewritten under the hegemony of Arab Muslim culture in the lands, which they made their new home.

WHY TANTA?

In its January 1917 issue, the Egyptian magazine Illustrated Fancies reported on the efforts Egypt was making to support European refugees and victims of the First World War. In March of that year, a charity market was held in Tanta to raise money for war orphans, some of whom had found homes in the city. To shield them from the trauma of bereavement, the children were told that their parents were still alive and encouraged to write to them. The report didn’t say why this approach had been adopted. It featured a picture of a young boy hunched over a pen and paper, writing a letter to his father who had been killed in the war.

Documents like this reveal the humanitarian role played by the cosmopolitan city of Tanta throughout its long history. Whether in the century of World Wars, or the century of pandemics and climate change, Tanta has a proud record of welcoming white refugees with open arms.

Taking its inspiration from this historical event, the museum will centre on the orphaned white child who wrote that letter to his parents, whose voice will guide visitors through the exhibits.

MUSEUM THEMES

The attached catalogue provides details of individual exhibits. The central themes of the museum are:


Celebrating White History

No history has been so distorted and abused as the history of the white race. Accused of imperialism and racism, white people were portrayed in the past as intrinsically evil, and their historical achievements downplayed or hijacked by slaves, colonised peoples, and immigrants.

The museum will shed new light on the great ideas produced by white minds of the past, such as the Catholic church, the US constitution, the successful imprisonment of leftwing thought in university humanities departments, high-interest loans, and other landmarks of white creativity.

White Heroes

The last century witnessed the near-total marginalisation of white cultural figures by the forces of political correctness. Silenced and made to feel ashamed of their white heritage, they were sidelined by immigrants wielding the weapon of “cancel culture.” The museum will showcase white culture’s most trailblazing figures, incorporating lifelike wax models and exhibits exploring their biographies and legacies. 

Among the historical personalities featured will be:

Steve Bannon, the last white prophet, who foresaw and fought against the extinction of the white race but was defeated by the forces of cultural diversity.

Jordan Peterson, a pioneering clinical psychologist nicknamed “the white Franz Fanon” who identified the psychological crises of the white race, and studied the phobias and schizophrenia caused by the presence of immigrants in white environments. Vilified during his lifetime, his ideas have since been neglected and forgotten.

J.K. Rowling, a famous writer beloved even of black and brown readers who was nevertheless cancelled for her efforts to defend white women from the predations of trans people and other less-than-female individuals seeking to invade women’s public toilets.


Ganzeer

Stolen Voices

Not only have white voices been silenced—their ideas and achievements have been appropriated by other cultures. A classic example of this phenomenon is the figure of the “Karen.”

The “Karen” we know today is a simple-minded, lower-class white woman who appears in children’s stories and comic films in the role of the housekeeper and is made the butt of practical jokes and mockery for the entertainment of audiences. Surprising though it may seem, many high-profile actresses who have played “Karen” roles are in fact not white.

But one hundred years ago, a “Karen” was a strong white woman who was prepared to defend her family, her home and her neighbourhood from ethnic parasitism and cultural invasion. Only with the later domination of the values of the Arab Spring was “Karen” transformed into a figure of ridicule and a byword for hysteria and limited intelligence.

The Karen exhibit will tell the true history of these brave women and their battle to defend white cultural values.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY AND DIVERSITY POLICIES 

The museum’s founders are committed to racial and cultural diversity in the workplace. We will operate quotas to ensure we employ individuals from white backgrounds. The cleaning, sanitation, and accounting departments will be staffed entirely by white people. The museum is proud to be the first major cultural institution to hire a white deputy director of finance.

BUDGET 

The attached document gives a full breakdown of the museum’s proposed budget. We would like to highlight here that a large portion of the museum’s funds will be invested in creating positions for Muslim and Arab residents of Gharbiyya Governorate. Employee salaries account for approximately 65% of the overall budget proposed here. We have policies in place which aim to reduce the pay gap between Muslims/Arabs and white immigrants, and are committed to ensuring that 10% of the salary budget is spent on white employees within the first ten years of the museum’s operation.

We also have a pay-gap reduction policy in place for the employment of independent curators and artists. We are committed to narrowing the pay imbalance between Muslim/Arab and white freelancers to 3:1, from the current local average of 7:1.

We do not aim to appropriate the history of the white race but to create space for white voices as part of an international and diverse institutional culture and commitment to positive leadership.
 

______________________________________________________________________________________________ 

This article is an extension of the festival, Re:Writing the Future, taking place from February 25 to 28. It is going to be published in print in the Extrablatt of the upcoming issue of Arts of the Working Class. 

The Arabic original was translated by Katharine Halls.

This publication was made possible by the DAAD ARTISTS-IN-BERLIN PROGRAM, as part of its engagement with ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network.

The publication was edited by Mohamed Ashraf and Elisabeth Wellerhaus. 

A tour in the wild, without leaving your couch

Published first time at Mdamasr:

When I am anxious, or heavy, or feeling — like Mahmoud Darwish — that nothing pleases me, I usually put on a documentary about the lives of lions in central Africa, or wild horses in Mongolia, and I let it play in the background as I try to calm my nerves by writing or reading or indulging in a game on my phone. There’s nothing much to follow in such films; usually the producers pick a geographical location and send a crew to live there for months, and the result is hours of footage of various species coexisting in the same habitat, edited to create some kind of structure and accompanied by the deep voice of a narrator attempting to project human drama on daily life in the wild. 

I’ve watched many nature films by virtue of my years of work in the documentary industry, and even though most of them are pretty similar, and rather redundant, playing them in the background often provides an air of tranquility and a certain delightful languor. However, Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which made its debut a couple of months ago, is a welcome divergence from the typical, pre-packaged format of nature documentaries, allowing us an unconventional glimpse into the lives of nature documentarians instead. 

The protagonist is Craig Foster, a filmmaker who spent his life documenting wildlife in south and central Africa with his brother, Tom. Together, the brothers became a prominent duo in the world of nature documentaries, but after two decades working amidst nature — filming the creatures that roam the earth and sky — Craig sank into a work-related depression (an important lesson, reminding us that whatever your profession is, you’re never miserable because of the nature of your work but rather because you have to work in the first place).

Craig returns to his hometown of False Bay, South Africa, where he lives in a house overlooking the water. It is a spot with a rich and diverse marine life, and Craig soon begins a routine of swimming and freediving, until one day he meets a little octopus. The most beautiful thing about this film is that it is free of scenes where creatures devour one another, nor does it covertly focus on the demise of nature at the hands of the human race: it is simply the story of a friendship that develops between a filmmaker and this wondrous octopus. 

Octopuses are shy; they usually hide whenever they sense a foreign presence. But as Craig’s visits become frequent, our little octopus begins to warm up to him. She reaches out an arm one day, and the first touch takes place. Gradually a relationship blooms: one can sense the joy when the two friends meet, and almost hear an intimate dialogue unfold as the octopus’s arms and Craig’s fingers intertwine. 

An important element in the narrative is the tense relationship between Craig and his teenage son. Silence looms like a barrier between both of them, but the boy goes to the beach with his dad and eventually dives with him and meets the octopus too, and a dramatic triangle is formed, heightening the conflict.

The film is emotionally charged, wrapped in a mysterious cloud of poetry. Perhaps it’s simply the color of the bay’s water, but my eyes welled up twice as I watched, and so I warn you: it is not for the faint of heart. In other words, and as they often say in disclaimers, some content may be triggering.  

_____

However, if you’re not in the mood for a tear-jerker, we recommend another nature documentary, also on Netflix, and that is David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. As clear from the title, the film stars the British broadcaster and natural historian made famous worldwide through BBC series such as Life on Earth and later Planet Earth and Life, all of which documented animal and plant life across the globe, from seas and oceans to jungles, swamps and deserts, all the way to the frozen Arctic.  https://www.youtube.com/embed/64R2MYUt394

Here, Sir Attenborough bears witness to shrinking biodiversity and the extinction of animal and plant species as a result of population growth. He gives his own personal account of this transformation, depicting images of locations he visited in the 1940s, and through archival footage from his programs we see how landscapes have gradually changed and certain creatures have ceased to exist as humans multiplied, consumption increased and resources dwindled. Moreover, Attenborough presents an insightful narrative on the rise of green parties and environmental activism as political action, and how this notion that began in the 1960s grew until every active political party had to have an environmental agenda as part of its platform. He also suggests a political solution for saving the planet, and like most western environmental activists, he divides the tasks: citizens of the global North are required to recycle and switch to smart cars, while citizens of the South must sacrifice developmental plans — keep living in mud houses and rely on solar energy — for the sake of maintaining biodiversity and protecting the ecosystem. 

What’s new in the film, however, is that it confronts the audience with the bitter truth: neither industrial activity nor fossil fuels are destroying our planet; overpopulation is. Even if we stop using fuel and plastic and manage to save the sea turtles, life on earth cannot possibly continue with the global population growing at this rate, and so Attenborough’s main proposition is stabilizing it. But while autocratic regimes like the Chinese government have enforced policies to this end through coercion and violence, Sir Attenborough believes that enhancing education and healthcare is the only reasonable and humane way forward, using Japan as a successful example. 

A self-proclaimed leftist, Sir David Attenborough currently has a net worth of US$35 million. He spent his life traveling across the world, visiting more places than one could possibly imagine. If we traced his carbon footprint, it would probably exceed that of an industrial city in central Africa. So I can’t help but envy him for being a son of the Great British Empire, which accumulated such great wealth early on that it could invest in a giant project like the BBC, which in turn funded all of the Sir’s dreams and films. Back when I used to work in documentary filmmaking, I would often pitch projects about wildlife, or sometimes even simple ideas like a short documentary about Egyptian donkeys. Such pitches were always rejected, though, and would often be ridiculed as well, and the channel would instead ask for a film about revenge killings in Upper Egypt, terrorism or the hijab. I eventually gave up my dream of working on nature documentaries, and gave in to envying people like David Attenborough instead as I watched their films. 

Today, I find myself thinking that perhaps the reason why all nature documentaries are so redundant is because, for decades, this industry and format of filmmaking has been monopolized by white, western men. They copy one another without the slightest inkling of shame; we now have almost 100 years’ worth of documentaries all centering on the white explorer in his pith helmet and safari gear. Sometimes he’s in front of the camera, his face red with the effect of the sun, other times he’s behind it and we can only hear his voice, penetrating the landscape as he stealthily spies on the creatures inhabiting it, drowning in his hunter-fantasies of danger and adventure. 

Sometimes, in such films, we catch a glimpse of the land’s native people. For example, in A Life on Our Planet, we see footage of him meeting with a hunter-gatherer tribe in central Africa in the 1950s, presenting them as an example of living in harmony with nature. The camera shows them in the background, like silent extras waiting for the day they’ll hold the camera, reclaiming the right to their land.

The Arab Spring Isn’t a Historical Event. It’s Our Life

I lived my first 25 years under one president: the one and only Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian president’s portrait hung in schools, in the street, and at police stations. Every year on his birthday, we sang songs about him, and TV shows praised his greatness, his genius. But he was more than just a portrait; his dark hand gripped the whole nation of Egypt. He kept us down and besieged the lives of 90 million people.

I haven’t forgotten any of this. It’s not a historical event, but a reality that we still endure. My friends are still in jail; others are in exile, scattered all over the planet. Most of them, like me, don’t have a long-term residence. And those who have the right visas are still caught between two worlds. They are slogging in circles, carrying their homes in their backpacks.

Ten years after Mubarak’s fall in the 2011 revolution, I don’t have any nostalgia for the freedom and euphoria of protests in the public square. Yes, for 18 days as the protests captured the world’s attention, the stars were in our grip.

Read and listen to the full article at American prospect: https://prospect.org/world/ten-years-arab-spring-not-historical-event-but-our-life/

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