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.
Ahmed Naji is a collector of occupational labels—occasional journalist, blogger, intellectual masturbator, documentary filmmaker, agent for belly dancers—accepting any label, and prescribing to none. The one that feels most true is simply “writer.” For Naji, to be a writer is not an identity in itself, but an avenue for discovery: “Writing itself is a way to doubt and question,” he says in Rotten Evidence, his expansive, intimate account of his time in prison, which was excerpted in The Believer this past February.
Naji, 34, did not consider himself a writer until he went to prison for writing. In 2016, a private Egyptian citizen claimed that he suffered “heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure” after reading a passage from Naji’s novel, Using Life, which included descriptions of sex and drug use. Naji was arrested on charges of “violating public modesty”—it was the first time an author had been subjected to imprisonment for morality concerns in modern Egypt. As a result, Naji served ten months in Tora Prison.
In 2019, Naji moved to Las Vegas with his wife and infant daughter and began his term as the City of Asylum fellow for the Black Mountain Institute. Since then, Naji has published two books in Arabic: And Tigers to My Room, a love-story turned Middle Eastern sci-fi dystopian novel, and Rotten Evidence, a memoir about reading and writing in prison. Naji’s fiction has a subversive, experimental quality that hearkens back to his early days in the blogosphere—it blurs genre lines, mixing artistic mediums like music and graphic illustration with the written word. His prose is prophetic, yet unserious; it offers observations that are at once familiar, and singular in voice and perspective. When reading the excerpt of Rotten Evidence, I was struck by a sentence that dripped with typically Najian flair: “I’d known the power of the police, which was like the power of street dogs: they made a terrifying noise, but if you could keep your nerve, they’d get out of your way.” Naji’s work often offers these bits of irreverent wisdom; he has a unique ability to wax poetic and speak on universal truths in the same breath–it’s a tightrope that not many writers can balance with such sharp precision.
Naji and I first spoke back in 2019, a few months after he arrived in Las Vegas. We continued our conversation more than a year later, in a drastically different world. I met him for tea in Downtown Las Vegas, not far from where he lives with his wife, lawyer Yasmin Hosam El Din, and their young daughter, Sina. We talked about the trials of aging, the most full-proof method for distracting a detention officer, and reading and writing as strategies for survival.
THE BELIEVER: How did you first find your way to writing?
AHMED NAJI: I started writing poetry when I was in high school. I even won several competitions and prizes in high school, and then at college and university. I saw myself as a poet, and would even introduce myself as one. But then a very weird accident happened. Back then, I used to write my poetry on paper. It was in lovely, well-done handwriting, like calligraphy. And I had all my poems in one big folder. When I was in university in Cairo, every week or two, I would travel to see my family in Mansoura. And one day, I forgot the whole folder on the bus. Of course I went back asking about it, and I didn’t find it. I went to the guys at the bus station and asked for the folder, and they were like, “Are they government documents or important papers like contracts?” And I was like, “No, just poems.” and they were like, “Pssshhh.” So I lost them, and it was frustrating and very sad. After that, I tried to write some poems from memory, but then I thought, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Maybe it’s a sign. And since then, my career as a poet was killed. I still write poems from time to time, but only for myself. I don’t publish or share them.
BLVR: Growing up, was there anything you were restricted from, or that you weren’t allowed to read?
AN: I wasn’t allowed to read anything. I was only allowed to study and study and study. My father is a doctor, so the plan was to be raised and trained as a doctor, and I was only allowed to read textbooks. But every year or so, I would be moving to a new school, and it was a lot of effort to get to know people and find friends, so I dove into books and comics and stories. When I was in high school, I would have my school book open and inside it, there would be a novel. And usually when my mom discovered that, [my parents] would take the novel and hide it. Or sometimes my mother would get angry and throw it out the window. They would blame every single thing on the books that I was reading. Like, “You don’t get high scores in school because you’re wasting your time with novels.”
BLVR: What role did religion play in your life, growing up in a majority Muslim country?
AN: My family is practicing and they are a little bit conservative. I grew up going to the masjid and the mosque for all five prayers, and going to a bunch of religious, social, and political activities. So I was surrounded by this atmosphere. But then once I started reading intensely in high school, that made me have doubts about everything. When I was like fourteen or sixteen years old, I discovered Nietzsche and other writers, like Naguib Mahfouz—all of this pushed me towards this different way of thinking. By the age of sixteen, I was against religion, and I could say I was agnostic. Especially when you’re a teenager, you have this power like you’re inside of Zeus. You revolt to the extreme.
That’s when I began writing and publishing. I started writing a blog in 2003 and started using the nickname “Iblis,” which means evil or devil. It was a nickname that was given to me by some of my friends, and there are still a lot of people in Egypt who know me as Iblis on the internet. This character that I created for the blogosphere was the first thing that got me a little bit famous in some circles. After three or four years I started to meet with other bloggers. Remember this was in 2005 and 2006, so everything was about blogging, and it was a huge, important movement in Egypt and in the Arab world that has had an impact politically, socially, and culturally. I met with other bloggers and they started to get to know my real name. I wrote my first novel, Rogers, when I was twenty-one years old, but I thought it was so chaotic and complicated that no one was going to be interested in it. I decided to publish it for free on my blog, but after the first month, I got offers from three different publishing houses who were interested in publishing it as a novel. So I signed this deal and it was published, and then it was translated into Italian and got a lot of attention and so on. But again, all of this happened because I started writing under this nickname Iblis as a blogger. And of course back then, part of writing under a nickname was because a lot of writing was critical of Islamic mythology and it had a lot of sarcasm. Religion was an interesting topic for sarcasm and cynicism and jokes. But it’s dangerous to do this with your name in Egypt.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned that you never considered yourself a writer until you went to prison, and that only then did you decide to take writing as a profession seriously. I’m curious if that’s connected to having written under a pseudonym for a lot of the early years of your career. Why did you not feel like a writer back then?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian journalist, writer, and criminal. At least that’s what the Egyptian government thinks of him. Naji didn’t think of himself as a “Writer” with the capital “W” until 2016, when he was sentenced to two years in prison for obscenity and disturbing public morality after excerpts of his novel, Using Life, were published in an Egyptian literary magazine.
Fast-forward to today, and Naji has recently published a memoir of his time in prison: Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison. While already published in Arabic, English readers will have to wait a bit longer for the full translation. In the interim, several chapters from Rotten Evidence were recently translated to English and published in Michigan Quarterly Review. He’s currently a fellow with the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he lives with his family.
I met with Naji near his home in downtown Las Vegas. We discussed his time in prison, the similarities between the United States and Egypt (particularly within the countries’ respective police forces), and the value of reading no matter where you are.
The Rumpus: It’s 2020, and this year has been a rollercoaster. What is the value of reading and writing in today’s age?
At the age of 16, I moved out of my parents’ house. I moved to 6th October City, all by myself, to be closer to university. I lived in a distant, working-class neighborhood where rent was cheap. There was nothing there but a small grocery shop and a filthy local diner throughout my first year. There was nothing and no one there.
It was the year 2001. The 6th of October was literally a “desert.”
If I remember well, one could drive for kilometers on end with nothing there on the right side of the road except for sand and dying plants. They would call it the Eighth District, but all I could see was a solitary district with no sign of life.
There were even no taxis in October, only light trucks, and you had to negotiate with the boys from Al Fayoum and Beni Souif, driving them to take you wherever you wanted. If there were more than two of us, the rest had to ride in the trunk.
Each morning, I would walk for almost 1.5 kilometers before reaching a spot where I could use the mass transportation means available in the city: a light truck covered with metal sheets and benches on both sides. If I remember well, the fare was half a pound.
My first days were dominated by a sense of isolation and the eternal repetition of a poetic nature. I went to university, came back to my apartment, took the food out of the fridge, and heated it, sat in my room thinking of ways to kill time.
I gazed out of the window or the balcony for hours without a glimpse of a single soul or movement. There was nothing there but parked cars and dim buildings. Most of the buildings there were uninhabited.
At the time, I was also reading “The Brothers Karamazov,” an unintentional and unconscious choice that triggered an extended episode of depression and sent me to a very dark place. At some point, I started doubting everything around me, so much that I started putting rocks around the parked car tires just to make sure that those cars were actually used and had owners who lived there. I needed to be confident they were real and not merely parts of a set décor for a nightmarish experiment that I was being subjected by hidden forces from up above or way down below.
I look back to those days now, and I see a mixture of nightmares of a teenager journeying through life on his own for the first time. A teenager who thought he was coming to live in Cairo, only to find himself stuck in what resembled a fetal city in creation: the far-from-Cairo Sixth of October City.
After two years of roaming through the isolated emptiness of Sixth of October City, I finally dared to head to Cairo – the Cairo I knew through art and literature, with its center, the “Downtown.” I didn’t know anyone there. I had no specific destination in mind. So, I roamed the streets alone, but that time I was content to be alone amongst crowded streets amidst people; that never happened in October. Sometimes, I sat on the pavement or stood in a corner watching the circus and the Downtown passersby’s captivating diversity.
Five years later, I went to an exhibition in “Ard Al Lewa'” which lies between October and Downtown, right between the city and its margins. The “Black dots 2008” exhibition was held in a tiny shop on a residential building’s ground floor. The shop walls were covered with wooden planks, on those planks, drawings of people in a state of motion. They were crossing the street or leaving a building, but here they were stuck in a void.
That was the first exhibition by “Amr El Kafrawy” for me to attend. We met for a short interview. He told me about his work approach: sitting in some “internet café” overlooking Talaat Harb square in the Downtown area, getting out a small camera while watching people, and secretly taking photographs of them. Afterward, he drew on those photographs to put them back in a state of motion. He turned them into black shadows crossing the empty wooden planks covering the “Artellewa” gallery walls.
Those shadows Amr created formed an old man walking around with a backpack on his bent back, two lovers whispering, and a woman struggling for balance carrying a heavy plastic bag in her right hand. You’d also see the famous Cairo street cats and weasels grown in size in a manner that would make you think of dinosaurs. People were parting from loved ones, friends meeting, people lost in the crowd, and an old man staring under his feet in astonishment.
As we talked, we drifted from the exhibition to the Cairo we loved despite everything – Cairo as we saw it; loud, crowded, and alive. Amr saw Cairo as a tense city full of life, people, and movement, and that tension is what pressures people until they become nothing but ever-shrinking black dots.
On the contrary, I, the village boy, was still thirsty for all that noise, tension, and mayhem. I still wanted a taste of every pleasure and pain there was to experience.
On the next day, I went to Amr’s working spot – that internet café. I rented a computer and sat there staring out of the window for an hour, paying no attention to the computer screen. As I watched the passersby, I noticed that no one was smiling; everybody was wearing their fatigued masks, or they were, in fact, sick. Those were the people of the city, supposedly. But they were all heading somewhere, just like in Amr’s drawings. And that was when it hit me for the first time: If all those people were passing by, then where exactly was the city? Is the city that place we reside and sleep in? Or is it what we cross to survive?
I only got to know Cairo when it was on its deathbed. I’m talking about modern Cairo, which was redesigned and expanded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cairo, which summed up all the different controversies, deformities, and achievements born from the attempts to create modern Egypt.
Cairo’s neighborhoods stretching over in proximity reflect the urban sprawl that took over Cairo for 200 years. And at the same time, they reflect the beliefs and dreams of the Egyptians who passed away.
It was that Cairo, “the city of a thousand minarets,” “The East wonder,” the city that woke up one day to the sounds of the stallions and cannons of the French pointed at his heart: Al Azhar mosque. Later on, the urban sprawl continued, and Cairo stretched over the swamps, allowing Downtown’s space to emerge. It was an architectural replication of western modernity. Downtown was designed to resemble Paris. It was planned for as the residential destination for the European colonial elite that came to rule Egypt. It was designed to become the new capital of modern Egypt, while they left ancient Cairo to rot on its deathbed. “Downtown” was the result of those attempts that continued for years. And afterward, in the twentieth century, the Effendi class multiplied in numbers. So the middle class carved out new urban areas, which was when the districts of Manyal, Abbasiyah, and Dokki first appeared.
And with the establishment of the military republic, the districts of Nasr City and Imbaba exploded into being. This random urban explosion continued until the nineties when the city was surrounded by an asphalt belt: The Ring Road.
The Ring Road is a witness to that experiment that continued for almost 7 years and ended with new cities ever trying to escape from Cairo’s tight grip without avail. Ironically, one of them was even given the name of “New Cairo” as if nothing comes after Cairo.
After the first decade of the new millennium, the authorities unofficially announced the death of Khedivial Cairo. The modernization plans and projects openly addressed a need to move the ministries and governmental bodies to 6thof October City, which was no longer the desert it used to be. Sixth of October City was then destined to become the new capital, but not for long. After the January 25 revolution, the compass changed, pointing towards the far East, and the New Administrative Capital project appeared. The New Capital is almost ready to be fully operational; it’s in the final phase. Once it’s ready, the old Cairo we know will be turned into nothing but a network of roads and bridges, leading only to the New Capital.
While Amr El Kafrawy was born in Cairo, I come from another city: Al Mansoura. I migrated to the outskirts of Cairo from Mansoura. And for 15 years, I had lived my life torn between 6of October and the heart of Cairo. El Kafrawy’s experience was the complete opposite of mine.
Amr had spent his childhood in Nasr City – a neighborhood that symbolizes Egypt’s republic like no other. From there, he moved to Downtown, where he used to live for years, chasing after his artistic passion. Downtown is the beating heart of the tense city that has influenced his artwork. An after years of living in the Downtown area, El Kafrawy finally moved to 6th October. Nevertheless, he still owns a small studio dedicated to working in Downtown.
Geographically speaking, El Kafrawy opted to distance himself from the city. And the tension, energy, and movement in his drawings turned into substantial, still buildings and ghosts from the past. The magic fades away with time, and the true nature of the city reveals itself. As time passes by, you discover that the city’s image and history only exist in your imagination, while the grotesque reality hits you right between the eyes.
El Kafrawy is not a documentary artist, and his works cannot be considered mere observations and notes on the city’s tension. His artwork is an extension of his long relationship with the city he deeply loves and is seriously involved with.
In 2014, El Kafrawy held his exhibition “Like a Mirage.” There was no one passing by the city this time; only the city’s buildings and ruins, and a vast archive of photographs he bought from an antique photo seller and recycled. He mixed the portraits that go back to the fifties and sixties of the past century with modern buildings’ photographs. He created faces of the city’s past residents roaming the remains of its present.
Art is only present off the road. Only copycats and “Kitsch” producers settle for images that highlight the sleeping beauty by the sidewalk. But art precipitates at the bottom and undergoes a long filtration process and purification of its primary materials. Amr begins his process with a photograph of a generic scene – he considers photography to be a medium that intensifies reality and isolates it from all stimulants. Copycats would take a photograph and re-draw it, showing off all the professional techniques of drawing and coloring, to produce a “Kitsch” photographs that gain a massive number of “Likes” yet are quickly forgotten the next day. Like El Kafrawy, an artist magnifies the photograph, adjusts, divides, prints and colors it, using a series of refinement, reformation, and experimental techniques. He continues in his process until he captures what’s hidden, even the absent or non-existent that would have never been there if it were not for the artist.
We see here not a portrait of Cairo or its buildings; it’s a portrait of what has no shape. It’s a portrait of that wound, that sadness, that indifference, and that suppressed anger boiling deep inside. It’s a portrait of the impact of Cairo and its Ring Road on our souls.
Nothing represents Cairo in the last twenty years, better than the Ring Road.
The city that had expanded over hundreds of years with no restriction has been enclosed by the Ring Road. Its residents moved to new cities and found themselves in the diaspora. Meanwhile, similar in manner to El Kafrawy’s drawings, the remains, and ruins of the city and the Ring Road stood still, overlooking each other.
The artist left again, heading to a new destination. This time he headed to a new country: to icy-cold Canada in the North where he currently lives. With a new look, Amr returns to his city, with a project that seems like a final kiss goodbye. Not to Cairo, but to a long artistic experiment that he indulged himself in together with the city: to an experiment that started from photography and printing, then drawing on wood, and ended with creating huge mosaic drawings using shadows and colors.
While El Kafrawy continues to use the same techniques in his artwork, this time, contrary to the “Like a Mirage” exhibition, there are no portraits of people from the fifties of the past century; there are no shadows of life in the drawings of this exhibition. He deliberately hid all life signs while he processed the photographs, during printing, and while drawing.
It is notable how the windows and balconies are dark in most of the drawings. There is no sign of life in these buildings. We cannot even tell if these buildings are complete or still under construction.
A considerable number of photographs, mostly taken on the Ring Road, acts as the central pillar of this project. Overlooking the Ring Road, random buildings stand erect on both sides, with nothing but red bricks. In the trench between them roadway, small pyramids of garbage are piled up all over the place to create a reflection of the cultural and aesthetic depth of the area. Most of these buildings and apartments are uninhabited; they are left there for when the sons of their owners grow up to get married or were built in a rush when the building materials were cheap. They are an investment for the future, which no one knows when it will come.
Everyone knows it, but it’s always important to remember: Cairo is only beautiful if you manage to escape it, and in El Kafrawy’s drawings.
Nowadays, I remember my first days in October. Dull, lonely, and terrifying as they were, I now catch myself reminiscing about them. No matter how brutal the past is, yearning for the past is part of being human. We yearn for the past and laugh at ourselves ironically for doing so. It’s very similar to that spontaneous smile that popped on my face when I gazed at Amr’s last drawings and noticed how the buildings’ red and pink colors deviate into grey shades in some drawings. How the trees and green scenery come together in others to create vague abstracts. How the tiny leaves come close to each other creates a gigantic network that ties the scene dimensions to one another. How round frames were used to give the drawings an iconic effect.
El Kafrawy’s attempt to turn the grotesqueness of Cairo’s architecture and its canned buildings into symmetric drawings is undeniable; he takes everything into consideration: ratios, balance, perspective, the relation between shadow and light, the relation between heaviness and lightness, and accurately calculated shades. His work is a reminder of the Renaissance Era’s landscape paintings, with a significant difference in the approach. Perhaps it’s because now that he lives far away from the city, he can yearn for it or search for the beauty buried in its remains.
I don’t even like protests. I don’t like chanting, and within ten minutes I’m usually asking myself, what am I doing here. I walk with everybody else, but I observe what’s happening as if from a distance, even when I’m right in the middle of it.
Still, I went to the demonstration on Saturday, May 30. We went early to the park—my wife Yasmin, my daughter Sina and I. On our way we saw that there were already police cars out, lots of them. There were perhaps five hundred people already gathered, and the speeches and chants had begun. The park itself, we found, was closed, and we stood to one side, observing social distancing rules as we’ve done since the start of the pandemic. When the crowd continued to swell, we decided to go home, worried we’d be risking our health and that of our daughter.
We’d just got home when my friend Harrison called. He’d just arrived at the protest and wanted to know where I was. I’ll be there in fifteen, I said.