THE LIFE OF BASTARDS

On a wall facing the police station in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s bourgeois neighborhoods, someone has written:

The life of an ethical individual is based on following the universal

system of ethics, but the life of bastards is based on reversing

that universal system.”

Next to this sentence is a huge graffiti of the face of an urban legend known as Al-Haram, ‘The Pyramid’. He is rolling a hash joint between his fingers, and his head is surrounded by a large halo, like a saint.

Al-Haram is classified in some areas as the god of drug dealers, of guile. In sha’bi [working-class] neighborhoods, small icons of Al-Haram are sold, bearing this verse from the Quran: “We have covered them up, so that they cannot see.” Anyone who wears the icon is thus protected by the shadow of Al-Haram from the eyes of police officers, ethical individuals, and the dogs of the universal system of ethics.

But the deep philosophical statement accompanying the graffiti is not one of Al-Haram’s sayings. The author of the quote is not known . . . and why was it used alongside this image?

This was in the period following the events of 25 and 28 January 2011. The walls of Cairo were heaving with thousands of writings and drawings, most of which were political in nature. But the graffiti of Al-Haram, with its enigmatic quote, remained a deep fissure in the harmonious spirit of revolutionary patriotism that blanketed the country at that moment in time.

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There is more than one world.

To every issue there is more than one angle, more than one layer. In the universal system of ethics there is a preoccupation with democracy, revolution, the dignity of a prophet, barking dogs, debts and loans and states declaring bankruptcy, struggles taking place onscreen and on the news. But we, here, in the world of bastards, are aware that these are delusions, a lying depiction of life.

While they, in the universal system of ethics, speak of the significance of music and literature in the ‘dialogue of civilizations’, we realize that there is no need for this sort of steering from ‘the system’ for literature and music to flow in this direction.

In Egypt over the past few years, the music of bastards has grown in popularity. Known as mahraganat [literally: ‘street festivals’], this new genre combines hip-hop beats with electronic sounds and the voices of its bastard stars. The songs are recorded in houses, in makeshift shacks, in the dim light of back alleys — and the lyrics transgress all the usual systematic and ethical boundaries.

Without needing to be steered, I recently discovered an incredible similarity between this music that was born on the sha’bi backstreets of Cairo, and a type of gang music that is flourishing like crazy in Brazil.

What borders need to be crossed, then?

The real borders don’t lie between two languages or countries with different visa-issuing procedures. The real borders are between two systems:

The first, universal and ethical, imposes stereotypical images of human beings — as individuals and as peoples — then claims they are all human, with equal rights. ‘Love for the greater good’ drives them to a ‘dialogue’ whose foundations are ownership and competition.

The second is the world of bastards, where the individual is complete within him/herself, and draws his freedom and adventurous energy in exploring life from reversing that universal system — not with the aim of demolishing or imploding it, but for that small secret pleasure.

But that secret pleasure is not all. There’s another side to it: as one of the inhabitants of the world of bastards says: “In this state there’s no security, your life is a poker game, up and down. When you let a bit of wind blow you back and forth, when you run after your bread or the smell of danger, when you roam around all night without a moment to rest your head against a wall or you feet on the ground, when time — for you — is chance, and place is a stroke of luck . . . at that moment, and that moment alone, you know you’ve become a bastard . . .”

But don’t forget: the key to playing poker is courage

The kind of courage that’s not shaken by being outnumbered

The kind of courage without which there is no freedom.

غواصه من الماضى

نشرت لأول مرة في عام 2011

أثناء اعتصام ميدان التحرير الممتد لـ 18 يوم والذي أطلق عليه بعد ذلك ثورة 25 يناير. كنت في طريقي من 6 أكتوبر إلى ميدان التحرير حينما لمحت على الوصلة بين ميدان جهينة ومدينة الشيخ زايد فتاة تسير على الرصيف وترتدى بدلة غطس كاملة. أعنى بدلة ذات لون أسود، خزانة أكسجين في الخلف على ظهرها، نظارات مائية ضخمة، زعانف في الأقدام، حزام رصاص حول الخصر، كانت تسير بهدوء كأنها فوق مياة البحر الأحمر. توقفت عند بقعة ما وبدأت في إزاحة غطاء المجاري. اقتربت بالسيارة منها. توقفت على بضعة أمتار وفتحت النافذة مذهولاً وهى ببساطة تقفز داخل فتحة المجاري ثم تسحب غطاء البلاعة الثقيل كأنه ورقة وتعيده لمكانه خلفها وهى تختفي ببدلة الغوص تحت الأرض.

غاب مشهد فتاة الغواصة عن ذهني في مقابل ما كنت أراه طوال تلك الأيام، كما أنه لم يجد سياقاً مناسباً وسط أحاديث الأصدقاء والشئون والنميمة السياسية. ماذا تفعل؟ ماذا تقول؟ يعنى هتقعد وسط ناس بتحكى عن مؤامرات الجيش والجنرالات والرصاص وقنابل الغاز وأنت تقطع هذا الحديث الشيق المفيد وتحكى مشهد فتاة ترتدى ملابس الغوص وتختفي في بلاعة مجاري على محور 26 يوليو.

بعد تنحى الرئيس طلب منى أحد الأصدقاء وهو مصور يعمل مع الوكالات الأجنبية المساعدة في سعيه لانجاز قصة عن أصحاب الخيول والجمال أبطال موقعة الجمل الشهيرة، تطلب الأمر مشاوير وأبحاث طويلة. رفضوا التصوير أو الحديث لكن في محاولة أخيرة قررنا زيارة المنطقة.

الزيارة كانت محبطة، وأنا شخصيا لم أكن متحمساً للموضوع. جلسنا على أحد المقاهى لشرب “سبرايت”. فجأة حانت منى لفتة للوراء شاهدت فتاة البلاعة، وهى تزيل نظارة المياه من على وجهه، وبجوارها أسطوانة الأكسجين، طلبت شاى خفيف سكر برا. رغم أن المكان كان قهوة شعبية ليس من المعتاد أن يجلس عليها النساء. لكن كل من كانوا في المنطقة كانوا يتعاملون معها بأريحية وكأنها جزء طبيعى من المكان، عامل المقهى وهو يضع الشاى تبادل منها بعض الجمل لم استطع تبينها. صديق اندهش هو الآخر وقرر التقدم ومحاولة فتح الحوار معاها لكنها رفضت بعنف. ثم قامت وحملت أسطوانة الأكسجين وقررت الانصراف دون حتي أن تحاسب على المشاريب، كأنها زبونة دائمة ولديها حساب مفتوح.

 

About Alaa: Prison isolates and so does your silence

They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.

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Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.

We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.

The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.

Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?

Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.

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After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?

A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.

It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”

Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.

The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?

There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.

Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.

And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.

Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.

Translated by Asmaa Naguib

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Fate of Revolutionary Art in Egypt

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.

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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?

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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.

A Sad Melody at the End of the Road

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?

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Military Supporters

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.