Though its birth does not precede five years, Mahraganat music has surged into a phenomenon, invading Egypt’s sonic atmosphere and beyond. This phenomenon has crossed borders and seas and made it into the European and international acoustic vernacular.
The adolescents who, five years ago, huddled in the streets of Matariya and Salam City on Cairo’s margins, hoping for nothing more than the chance to perform at a wedding or two every week, now roam Europe, from festival to festival. There, they bring to the crowds that fervent rhythm that has brought this musical movement such a huge following in so little time.
In the Beginning There Was the DJ
At the turn of the millennium, the DJ had begun to make an appearance at Egyptian weddings. DJs emerged as an affordable alternative to live musicians at weddings, and their rise in popularity coincided with the spread of computers in Egypt, and the attendant affinity that primarily young men developed towards this rising profession.
Amid the economic stranglehold that the cassette tape industry imposed on chaabi music at the time—dominated as it was by industry “heavyweights” such as Amro Diab and Mohamed Fouad—the rise of the DJ all but eliminated the genre that relied on weddings as its main source of livelihood. Yet, the spread of computers and various recording programs marked the genre’s salvation. As the twenty-first century kicked off, a new generation of chaabi singers emerged, such as Mahmoud El-Leithy and Mahmoud El-Hosseiny and others, who relied on their computers to record their material, to evade the costs of studio recordings. It was this generation that was the first to make use of electronic sound effects in their music.
And Then Came the Mobile Phone
After computers, there came the eruption of mobile phone use, and before 3G internet, mobile phone stores would sell monophonic tunes that were coded into the phones using the phone’s keypad.
Amr, a young man from Ain Shams, worked in one such store. One day, for the sake of experimentation, rather than code a hit track onto a phone, he decided to compose his own tune. As luck would have it, this tune became a famous ringtone in the neighborhood, and in time Amr was approached by a chaabi singer, asking for permission to use the tune for one of his songs.
Amr went on to develop his musical and technological skills, adopting the moniker Doctor Amr Ħaħa, the composer of “El-Shandarbolla,” one of the first tunes that could be characterized as a Mahraganat tune.
Like electronic music, Mahraganat music relies on a base loop, but unlike Western electronic music, the loop is usually an oriental beat. The loop is cut through with rap-like vocals, backed up by a mix of sound effects and loud noises.
Ħaħa would later go on to work with dozens of artists who would in turn become the ambassadors of the genre; Sadat, Alaa Fifty, Oka & Ortega, to name a few. He was also known to occasionally collaborate with Alexandrian Mahraganat musician Filo.
These musicians cut out the role of production companies, choosing instead to resort to more democratized technologies to record their music, and releasing their creations online for free, relying on their income from live performances at weddings to earn their keep. Others, however, were not satisfied to leave it at that.
Despite its immense popularity, Mahraganat music is still derided as lowbrow, and the state fails to recognize its performers, as the majority of them are not members of the various musical syndicates—a legal prerequisite for live performances in Egypt. These prevailing attitudes culminated in Mahraganat songs being banned on state television and other mainstream channels, while radio hosts make sure not to broadcast “that kind of thing.”
Yet, against this, Mahraganat music has expanded well beyond its economic and production circles, consolidated by the emergence of alternative production companies, such as 100Copies. The company began as a production studio for electronic and experimental music, and provided Mahraganat singers with a platform to record their music. On occasion, the studio would produce songs for these artists at a symbolic cost, in exchange for the rights to the songs, which were released for free on YouTube. 100Copies relied on a model wherein they would reap advertising profits from YouTube when these songs went viral or catapulted into popularity, in addition to selling the song electronically on other outlets.
Musical groups such as Oka & Ortega and El-Dakhlaweya focused their efforts on trying to go to the silver screen, and appearing in on-screen dramas, such as the popular show “Fifa Atata” starring Mohamed Saad, and the films of Mohamed El-Sobky and Mohamed Ramadan.
Yet, another camp chose to chart a different course; with the Arab Spring came an upsurge in attention from the media and the West towards the region and its cultural production, creating a pathway into European concerts and festivals. Among the most prominent musicians who tool this course was Islam Chipsy, who evolved his music to include additional visual aspects, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized faces of the genre abroad.
Mahraganat emerged during a boom in cultural production, in an atmosphere that was far more celebrating of diversity, providing young people with an outlet to express themselves amid revolutionary spirits and a proliferation of violence that has continued to this day. This was reflected in the lyrics of Mahraganat songs, which often avoid sentimentality, but rather express the difficulty of surviving in a treacherous environment, as related in 2015’s hit single, “Mafĩsh Săħib Beyetsăħib.”
As time goes by, more stringent measures are imposed to restrict the space for broadcasting Mahraganat, such as the granting power of arrest to the then-head of the Musical Syndicate, Hany Shaker. While the future remains uncertain, one thing that seems to be clear is the inverse proportionality between official tolerance towards Mahraganat and its popularity.
In 2003, French philosopher Alain Badiou gave for the first time his lecture entitled “Fifteen Theories on Contemporary Art” at New York’s Drawing Center. In his lecture, Badiou explains the determining features of contemporary art, including a definition of what he calls “non-imperial art.” Badiou bases his definition on Antonio Negri’s theory of Empire as a modern, deterritorialized system that rules a global political economy—the concept of “Empire” represents control through a capitalist system and state-based legal authority. In art, as in politics, this imperial system has produced rules that now govern the world of art. These rules harness revolutionary endeavors, coopting it to become a part of the vast production mechanisms of artistic merchandise.
Three main strategies buttress this system of artwork production around the world. First is the prevalence of intellectual property rights worldwide, which restrict artists’ ability to create collaboratively. Second is a constant focus on the same artists and creative individuals. Last a particularly defined protocol for the evaluation and appreciation of artists. This protocol is based on the number of awards received, the size of an artist’s sales, or even the most “views” or “likes” in today’s world of online art and social networks.
According to Badiou, however, art can be “real and non-imperialist,” functioning outside the logic of Empire. It can even challenge this logic of rule and undo its grip. In one of the theories introduced in his lecture, Badiou explains: “Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.”
In 2011, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) translated Badiou’s lecture into Arabic and published it in Egypt. ACAF is one of the most active centers of arts and culture in the country and one that has played a vital role in creating an environment suitable for knowledge, learning, and discussion amongst the country’s artists. ACAF provides an oasis in a desert environment; arts education in Egypt is stifled by strict censures and terribly outdated syllabi.
In 2012, ACAF organized a three-day conference entitled: “Art and Change,” which featured a talk by Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The conference provided a rare opportunity for Egyptian artists to discuss the political and social scene in the country, as well as try to understand the place that the arts and artists would take in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution.
The year after January 25, 2011 witnessed an exponential growth in public arts. Suddenly, public art was present on most streets; public squares and parks were filled with free concerts. The monthly AlFan Midan (Art is a Square) festival, a music festival in Abdin Square in Cairo and a number of other squares in cities around Egypt, was established. The festival quickly became a place for a number of artists and musicians to sing freely, with no censorship whatsoever. Graffiti also took off in Egypt at that time, fostered by galleries and arts organizations.
Egypt’s artists were the happiest they had been in a while. They were calling for fewer restrictions on the Ministry of Culture and presenting plans that would enable everyone to use the Ministry’s facilities, not just state-approved artists. At that time, dreams of freeing arts and culture in Egypt of all censorship and cultivating creative and artistic freedom across the board were beginning to take flight.
These days ended with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power. Shortly before former President Muhammad Morsi took office, ACAF shut down its headquarters and stopped all its activities—to this day, Baroni refuses to comment or explain the reasons behind that. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise, the arts and culture scene soon came under their attempts to grasp full control, with the appointment of a minister who most artists and cultural figures agreed was bent on stifling the arts scene in Egypt even more.
The “revolutionary art” of Egypt that emerged in the wake of the revolution appeared as an artistic expression carrying a clear and direct political message. It had, however one flaw. The subject of this form of art in Egypt shifted many times, from mocking Mubarak and his regime, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally to the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. A lot of what was known as revolutionary art was therefore reactive art, and not a “rigorous mathematical demonstration.” Its expression was in reaction to political events, and was thus changing as these events changed. Where revolutionary art is meant to affect the media, it was instead guided by it. With the changing events, the art changed in response and its message was rendered an article of the past. Art became a piece of history rather than true, forward-facing, revolutionary art. If the revolutionary art of the time, be it songs or drawings or other works of art, mocked and criticized Mubarak, how does this art remain revolutionary after Mubarak is gone and a new, seemingly more violent, phase has started?
A year after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power, all these various reactionary songs, paintings, and artistic expressions that presented themselves as revolutionary pieces of art have disappeared. They have become part of the past, with their value stemming solely from their connection to the past. All of this begs the question: Was this truly revolutionary art or simply another form of consumerist artwork?
The year the Muslim Brotherhood spent in power was difficult for anyone working in the fields of art or culture; the political struggle with the Brotherhood forced everyone to become involved. Some artists saw their independence of all political struggles as paramount, while others saw that true revolution meant not only criticizing the Brotherhood but being able to criticize the army as well. This latter opinion was vastly unpopular in the political calculations of that time, with civilian groups believing they needed the army to help remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
That year also witnessed strong alliances being made between what is known as revolutionary art and big Egyptian corporations. What started off as revolutionary art suddenly became mainstream, with large bottled soda companies and other monopolies in the Egyptian market using bands from “Al Midan” (Tahrir Square) to play in their advertisements. We are now at a point where revolutionary art is turning into commercial art. Even more so, the commercial values about smiling, happiness, and other human development values have started to creep into artistic expression, leading to horribly shallow works of art.
Meanwhile, some artists decided to go deeper underground, as far away from the noise as possible, making do with small marginal venues to present their art. One example is Aly Talibab, who patiently continued his own projects away from revolutionary rhetoric or direct political phrases. Rather, he steered that rhetoric from the collective cacophony of the art scene to his own individual voice. Instead of using his art as a revolutionary megaphone, Talibab’s work instead expresses the confusion and fear of the country’s current reality. Another example is rapper MC Amin, who presented a number of direct political songs, collaborating with Egypt’s “mahrajanat” artists to present what has become known as “rapgagiya,” a fusion of the Egyptian folk art of “mahrajanat” and rap.
Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre-January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. Right now, we see the reactionary revolutionary art of the past few years exiting the advertising and commercial market it had succumbed to after its start as revolutionary art. This revolutionary-turned-commercial art is even being thrown out by the advertising companies that have milked it dry. These new forms of art are being pushed back into the small space that they were able to grab or create after January 25.
Most recently, the Ministry of Interior has canceled the AlFan Midan festival, and repeated the cancellation even after Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour tried to intervene on behalf of the festival. The Ministry of Interior is also on the hunt for graffiti artists, and many have been arrested and handed long prison sentences for painting anti-regime phrases on walls.
This tightening of the arts scene continues with the recent law issued by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi that increased penalties for anyone receiving foreign funding that may be suspected as detrimental to national security. This law, even if not used directly to prohibit artists, will inevitably lead to the limiting of dozens of arts and culture centers, as organizations close due to lack of funding or fear of retribution. This will affect the work of places like the ACAF, which are now under threat of arbitrary closure or even imprisonment.
As for Egypt’s artists, a number of them have left the country, especially those that were labeled as “revolutionary” artists. Most prominent among these are graffiti artist Ganzeer, who is currently in Brooklyn, New York, and singer Rami Essam, whose songs became famous in the very first days of the January 25 revolution, and who recently relocated to Sweden.
Four years after January 25, revolutionary art is now one of two things. For some, it has become an endeavor undertaken in foreign lands. For others, it has become a watered-down, almost meaningless and valueless form after its exploitation by the very corporations that represent the regime that was the target of the art in the first place. While ACAF director Bassan Baroni tried to create a space that would allow artists to gain knowledge and perhaps someday create art as “rigorous as a mathematical demonstration,” Egypt’s streets and screens are now filled with dozens of artists from all walks who prefer to blend into the moment, turning the artists into an echo chamber for the voice of the masses.
Only a miniscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.
Published for the first time on the old blog at Aug. 2013
The time for retreat is past and all the chances to avoid this path have been burned up. The incendiary speeches are escalating from every side and are morphing from incitement to war speeches. The television stations put up the slogan “Egypt is fighting terrorism” written in English and no one tells us who and what terrorism we are fighting? Are they Al-Qaeda? Ansar al-Sharia? The Al-Nusra Front? The Brotherhood? A little of this and a little of that?
We don’t know, and the soldier who is only twenty-one years old doesn’t know, but he obeys the orders of the gunman who directs him to get out of the bus so that he can be executed from behind. Likewise, someone else is led to the hearse, better known as the police truck, to die of asphyxiation.
No one stops to ask questions or demand accountability. War has its rules, but civil war falls outside the rules and the ethics of opposing armies. Civil war has its own clear goals, and they are usually ethnic cleansing and the siege of one faction or group. This always fails. For proof you can look around yourself or in history books, or look at the performance of the Egyptian military state since July 23, 1952 to confirm for yourself that prison and prohibition have never been useful in eliminating the Brotherhood or other supporters of religious despotism.
Why, then, do we repeat the same mistakes that were made thirty years ago when Islamist groups were first released from Pandora’s box in the seventies?
The same old story that happened in the seventies is being played out right now. The military power in the seventies used the Islamist groups to get rid of the remains of Nasserism and the revolutionary left and, once it had accomplished that, the Islamist groups became a danger to this military power and it decided to take them on by force. Throughout the eighties and the nineties we saw how the state fought with unparalleled failure. The same story is being repeated by the military council and the security apparatus who refuse to try any other approach, and if anyone opposes their approach, the result is accusations of treason.
The state did not adopt any program against the ideology of religious despotism. Instead, it exploited this ideology, working to stay one step ahead of the Islamists. The most obvious evidence of this is the second article of the constitution, which Sadat put into place as part of this exploitation. In the same way, the civil state constitution will be written, under the presidency of Adly Mansour, with its sectarian articles and their comprehensive sources.
At the same time, the state left room for a faction of the Islamists to participate in the political process, run in elections, and share in power. In the eighties, this faction was the Brotherhood and now it appears that it’s the Salafi’s turn. It’s obvious that Dr. Yasser Al-Burhami is sitting back confidently waiting to gather the spoils.
In the eighties a large group of intellectuals, writers, and artists joined the state’s battle. At that time, the slogan was enlightenment fighting the forces of darkness. This proposed option of enlightenment was nothing more than a group of theses on renewing the religious discourse and leaving everything to a deeply corrupt regime without a position or a message. Now, some people are using slogans about fighting religious fascism or accepting the authority’s oppression and violence because it is the only way to stop religious violence. But in the morgue, clothes are removed from the bodies and it becomes difficult to tell the soldiers from those who are called “terrorists” or from people who were just passing by at the time of the clashes. Even more importantly, the path that the current authorities are on has no indication of leading us over this ocean of blood to a civil state in which citizenship and equality are achieved. The committee that is working on amending the constitution decided to keep the sectarian articles that restrict citizens’ freedom of belief. Not only that, but the committee added, on the suggestions of some, an article to protect the office of the president of Egypt from protests, as though an article in the constitution could protect the president or any authority from the public’s anger.
Fighting terrorism or groups devoted to religious despotism is not a battle that we can win by liberating a piece of land or killing and arresting the largest possible number of people. It is, fundamentally, a battle of ideas and of a way of life that the Egyptian middle class chose to defend on July 30. Accepting the authority’s violence and illegal violations, and the nonsense that is taking place right now vis-à-vis the constitution means complete defeat in the battle against “terrorism” even if the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and the entire Guidance Office is arrested.
On my first day in prison, trying to make me feel better, my fellow inmates listed the advantages of our particular prison, and our particular ward: most of the inmates were senior civil servants, businessmen, judges, police and army officers. Each ward can take sixty prisoners and the prison has nine wards. ‘We’re all respectable people,’ my colleague said, ‘and the administration here is respectable too.’ I said nothing. ‘And even Alaa Seif is here,’ he said, ‘in the ward across the corridor.’
After years apart, Alaa and I were neighbours again. In 2006 I lived on Faysal Road, two streets away from him and his wife, Manal. Their house was a base for artists passing through Egypt, programmers, adventurers, bloggers and political activists. I used to visit all the time. A friendship grew that opened many doors for me. But eventually I left Faysal Road and Alaa left the country.
On my second day in prison, a colleague came in carrying a white bag. He put it on my bunk and whispered: ‘This bag’s from Alaa … and if you need anything, tell me.’ In the bag were a white T-shirt, a carton of Cleopatra cigarettes (prison currency) and other essentials.
On my third day, I stood in front of Alaa’s door and called out to him. The ‘canaries’ who inform on their fellow prisoners stood around puzzled, listening to Alaa and me trade jokes and insults through the door. He told me there was a library in the prison and the books there were reasonable; I could depend on it for the thirty days till my first visit, when I’d presumably get some books. ‘There are also some novels by Bahaa Taher,’ he said, ‘but I can’t take that nation-state rubbish any more.’
Suddenly the air rang with whistles. Guards, in uniform and plainclothes, rushed at me and pulled me away from the ward door, yelling that it was ‘forbidden’. Thirty minutes later I was taken to the duty officer and told that what had happened was forbidden and any communication between me and Alaa was forbidden.
Five months passed like this: only a wall between us, but we weren’t allowed to talk or exchange messages. The prison schedule was changed so we couldn’t bump into each other by accident. My family once waited outside for five hours so that Alaa and I wouldn’t have our visits at the same time. I never understood what was behind this. In prison it’s no use trying to understand.
One morning, all the men in my ward were asked to collect our belongings and move to Alaa’s ward. I stood in the middle of the room till one of the guards came and said that mine would be the bunk above Alaa’s; these were instructions from ‘high up’.
At first Alaa and I went back to our old quarrels, shouting at each other because he’d accepted the Constitutional Amendments in 2011. After a while we found better topics to talk about in Scientific American and Wired, which came in for an American colleague.
We knew there were canaries dedicated to us, listening out for our conversations, our plots, our plans for a takeover. At odd moments I felt sorry for them. Alaa and I once spent a whole day talking about the future of manual labour and craftsmanship in the age of three-dimensional printing.
Since my release I’ve faced the question in many forms: ‘How’s Alaa?’And though I lived with him for five months, each time it takes me some hesitant seconds before I give the answer I always give: ‘He’s … resisting.’
I think of his anxiety, how he couldn’t sleep as the date for the decision of the Constitutional Court on the Protest Law approached. He had a lot of hope. Hope is the daily torment of the prisoner. If hope gets hold of you in prison there’s no sleep, no food, no comfort.
I think of his disappointment when the judgment was issued. The disappointment after each visit when they told him that the Court of Cassation had not yet set a date to hear his final appeal – even though others in the same case had been given court dates, and some had even had their verdicts overturned.
In our last four months together, exercise was banned throughout the prison. No one was allowed to leave their ward or see the sun. I gave in to my fate. But Alaa put his headphones in his ears and paced the ward for hours each night. At half past two every morning, there was an hour of BBC news on the radio. It was our main source of information. Alaa would listen, then come and tell me what he’d heard. Then we would read the state-sanctioned newspapers and talk, trying to find material for comedy, something to resist with.
I miss Alaa now more than ever. I don’t know if our next meeting will be outside, or if I’ll be going back to him. Sometimes, as I read alone at night, I think I hear the fall of his footsteps.
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 Doctors Syndicate meetings as one of the Brotherhood’s representative.
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 siwak1 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 Elsh aab. 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.
1 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.
I first saw the beast in 2005, in downtown Cairo, in front of the Journalists Syndicate steps. Young men and women gathered and chanted “kifaya” (enough). The beast, dressed in military uniform, stormed out of police vehicles. It was also disguised in civilian attire, beating up protesters and dragging them along the ground. In the streets of downtown Cairo, security forces undressed and sexually assaulted female protesters. It was a great shock. We thought this was the worst the beast could do to us. We thought this offense was enough to destroy the beast. These presumptions reflect the naivety and arrogance of our youth, and are telling of its pure heart and true emotions. Repelled by the consequent feverishly confrontational rhetoric, I withdrew from all battles with the beast.
I had encountered the same naivety five years earlier. I was a high school student in 2000 when I joined a students’ protest in solidarity with the Second Intifada. The former Israeli prime minister and war criminal, Ariel Sharon, had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque and sparked the Palestinian uprising. Israeli forces then assassinated a 12-year-old, Mohamed al-Durrah, while he was in his father’s arms. Our schoolteachers encouraged us to protest, but did not demonstrate themselves. They encouraged us to walk in small angry groups, chanting for the liberty of Palestine, vowing never to forget retribution for Durrah. The security forces then allowed us to demonstrate in bigger groups outside the schools gates, roaming the streets of Mansoura, where I spent my teenage years. The children and students surrounding me were in ecstasy because they had obtained the right to scream and found freedom in the streets for the first time. And when groups of marching students encountered each other they embraced theatrically. Schools in Mansoura, as across the country, are segregated by gender. It was amazing to watch boys and girls mingling in these protests, as opposed to the usual scene of male students waiting outside of girls’ schools to harass them, pick them up, or engage them in emotional adventures. But the crowds, screaming, over-excitement and the egoism of those miserable souls dying to lead the chants, left me mentally disassociated, despite being a part of it all.
I would learn five years later, upon my graduation from university, how Hosni Mubarak’s regime not only allowed the anti-Israel protests but supported and even instigated them. Mubarak wanted the cameras to film the angry crowds as they burned the Israeli flag in order to point at the image, address the gods in Oslo’s mountains and Washington’s valleys and say, “I am here to control these beasts, so that they don’t burn down everything.” When the anti-Mubarak protests later took to the streets, security forces encircled them. Because they had not become beasts yet, Mubarak’s regime made sure they did by undressing female protesters and sexually assaulting young protesters. Instead of becoming beasts, however, they chose defeat and sought revenge through victimhood.
I became jaded by the ridiculousness of the charades we are summoned to participate in, such as elections. This was in addition to the calls for limiting religious and sexual freedoms in the name of religion, and other travesties that conjure up the idea of the nation. They instruct you on the importance of loving the nation and tell you how to do so. These directions did not suit me or various other people I met online. We thus preferred to create our own virtual reality, outside authorities’ control. We created a space that contrasted with the tedious moral principles of our fathers. Egypt was passing through great times. Everyone on television was talking about a democratic transformation. In the authority’s blind spot, we made small venues to hold parties and play music prohibited from broadcast radio and television (both public and private), because it doesn’t contain the usual tacky love song lyrics. In one of these parties, Alaa Abd El Fattah suggested we create a parody of the president’s website, and that I compose its comic content. These were the kinds of games we played. We used delve to into our virtual bubbles and make fun of the naked king, and how his entourage and slaves praised his garments.
I met my first wife on an online forum for the fans of [popular Egyptian singer] Mohamed Mounir. We were teenagers, barely 18 years old. Together we spent an often turbulent 10 years of love, marriage and divorce, a complete cycle of life. Others met on the forums and blogs of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Revolutionary Socialists, the “foot fetish club,” the “Bin Laden warriors” or the “‘Fatakat housewives’” forum. In contrast to the [political stagnation] that manifested in catting about Mubarak’s unfading pitch-black hair dye, the internet was a new home for those holding similar views to get together. The faint humming of these groups’ discussions gradually became audible. With the help of hearing aids, the old guards began to describe that humming as the voice of youth. They labeled young people as aliens to society, and then agents of the West and immorality. In any case, they did not take young people seriously or understand them.
“The old corpses should make way for the new corpses.”
The old zombies were taking up all the seats. The zombie general, the zombie sheikh, the zombie president, the zombie businessman, the zombie ruling party, the zombie opposition, the moderate Islamist zombie, and the radical Islamist zombie. And all they offered the youth was to be zombies and let go of their idealistic dreams and ethics. We were forced to mingle with these zombies. We were forced to converse with them, coax them, sometimes praise them, in order to protect ourselves against their evil. “With cold hands, we got into their midst; we looked but could not see,” is how poet Youssef Rakha described the situation years later in his great poem, On Sleeping with Reality. When we opposed them or refused to consume their archaic understanding of the nation and religion, we were faced with torture, marginalization and siege.
“Live like your parents have lived,” said the zombies. In his movie The Mummy (1969), late Egyptian filmmaker Shady Abdel Salam tells us that our parents lived as scavengers. Girls walk in the streets with their shoulders curved forward and heads looking down with a desire not to be noticed. They don’t look left or right, often getting catcalled and harassed in silence. When they decided to stand up against mass sexual assault in the heart of the city, zombies accused girls and women of attracting criminal harassers and arousing them.
Demonstrators first took to the streets to protest police brutality and torture. They were accused of insulting the police. Protests kept growing in size and magnitude, eventually calling for the removal of the zombies’ leader (who taught his disciples his hair-dying technique). The zombies then congregated to address the youth. “Consider him your father,” they said, in reference to their leader.
Common traits of young people include passion and emotional vulnerability. As much as passion fueled the revolution, gushing blood in the veins of the agitated masses, it also prompted mercy and pity. It was precisely this passion that transformed the revolution into a quest to seek retribution for the martyrs, and prevent the children from killing their zombie fathers.
In many of Pauline Beugnies’ images in her photo book Génération Tahrir, we can see heated discussions between girls and mothers, between the young and the old. What’s not audible, however, is the sound of the screams, debates and opposing views. But the photos do make clear to us the magnitude of the authority the zombie fathers possess and the immense pressure young people are under.
I knew many young men and women who took to the streets, burning car tires and occupying the frontlines in the battle against the criminal elements of the police force. But the moment their phones rang, they would quickly escape to a quiet spot to answer their mothers’ calls. “I’m fine and far away from the clashes,” they would say. They must have thought rebellion could exist in a parallel reality away from familial life. I have also known activists who work on LGBT rights and are brave enough to advocate this issue in a [conservative] society like Egypt’s. They defend these rights in a court of law, in front of the police, and so on, yet cannot muster the courage to announce this to their parents. My female friends who gave officers the finger as they were being shot with the police’s rubber bullets used to weep in the face of parental and societal pressures. They are pressured to assume a single path in life, a future that includes nothing but marriage and bearing children in a cycle of reproducing more zombies.
This cowardliness and hesitancy led young people to always try to find a middle ground, only to eventually be deprived of everything by their fathers. They cheered for moderate Islamists, as the Brotherhood youth claimed that Islam is an identity and a moderate religion compatible with democracy. The Brotherhood youth claimed there was no place for secularism in our national identity. Then the Islamist zombies announced that there was no difference between Islamic State militants and us. They called those militants “mujahidin” and pledged to send their young people to fight on their side in Syria. When young democrats cheered for the civilian coalition led by a military general, they justified this. “Look at Sisi’s eyes,” they said. “They radiate warmth and love; he will save this nation and build a secular state.” The general responded by prohibiting speech and jailing everyone. Others were killed in public squares and football stadiums.
The Gulf sheikhs, the agents of the Western gods in the region, backed up the general. Along with the zombies and the general, they opted to deprive young people of all spaces, even virtual reality. Internet surveillance systems were put in place and a single tweet could put its writer behind bars. They invested millions in the internet, turning it into a mega shopping mall, controlling its content through social media companies that decide what’s trending. If a single story surfaces on a new torture case inside an Egyptian prison, it is quickly buried under piles of entries and clicks on the new shapes of Kim Kardashian’s butt.
A few weeks ago, I began sensing a faint, dull pain in my left testicle. The doctor told me I’m suffering from a case of varicocele in my testicles. He advised me not to stay standing for long periods of time, cut back on sexual intercourse and refrain from prolonged erections. When I asked him about the cause, he simply said, without taking his eyes off his newpapers: “Most probably it is genetics and age.”
No more prolonged erections for our generation; we are dispersed all over the world. Some are in jail, some are exiled and some are willing to be drawn to the Mediterranean’s European shores. Others aim for an exit from hell to God’s promised heaven through a path of beheadings. Those who have stayed have secured a place among the zombies. They appear on television as youth representatives, take selfies with the zombie general and sheikhs, and compete over the crumbs Gulf amirs and sheikhs often throw at them.
Now it is time for documentation, archiving and preservation before we depart with the past and our youth. Let’s bid farewell to our sorrows and ghosts. Let’s search within for a new path and revolution. The greatest danger lies in giving into nostalgia, to the old ideas and principles, and to assume there is a golden moment in the past that should be retrieved. The greatest danger is in revering the picture. Any form of reverence — for the revolution or the martyrs or higher ideologies — is enough to turn you into a zombie without even noticing it.
This essay was first published in French as an introduction to the book Génération Tahrir, for which photographer Pauline Beugnies followed the stories of various artists and politicians during the 25 January revolution in 2011. Mada Masr published the original Arabic text here.