Comencé mi carrera en el periodismo hace 17 años. En una serie de incidentes no planeados, terminé cubriendo actividades musicales y la escena de la música contemporánea como mi enfoque principal.
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En un mundo anterior a 2011, había bastantes regulaciones y limitaciones que controlaban la producción musical en Egipto, entre tres círculos adyacentes no entrelazados:
El primer círculo es la producción musical oficial. Este círculo incluye la producción financiada por el gobierno o compañías gigantes egipcias o árabes que pueden operar en esta área, como Rotana y Al-Mamlakah, con sede en Arabia Saudita, o Mazzika and Free Music, con sede en Egipto. Este género musical ‘lucrativo’ con fines comerciales es el más cercano a la música pop y, a veces, puede incluir reordenamientos de música clásica como los conciertos de Om Kolthoum y otras canciones inspiradas en la tradición y el patrimonio árabe. Combinada con la música de los nombres más populares como Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Mohammad Abdo o incluso Samira Said, esta música ocupa la mayor parte del mercado musical.
El segundo círculo engloba un pequeño número de instituciones culturales financiadas por la comunidad o por la Unión Europea. Estas instituciones, a su vez, financian la producción musical de algunos artistas experimentales o ‘clandestinos’. La cuota de mercado de esta música es bastante pequeña y la única forma de escucharla es asistiendo a las actuaciones de estos cantantes en pequeños teatros. Si bien estas canciones no suelen transmitirse por radio o televisión, son las más cercanas a la cultura egipcia de clase media. Ejemplos de esta música ‘clandestina’, bandas como Cairokee, Fareeq West Al Balad y Yaseen Hamdan.
El tercer círculo, que es el más extendido de todos y el menos financiado, es el canto ‘shaab’”. Este género no encontró hogar en teatros públicos o privados; más bien, los cantantes de shaabi cantaban a menudo en bodas y teatros callejeros. Y a pesar de la popularidad de sus canciones, no se transmitieron por televisión, sino que estaban ampliamente disponibles en casetes baratos grabados en estudios modestos. Esta música era de fácil acceso en todas partes.
Entonces, sucedió la Revolución del 25 de enero. En ese momento, las plazas públicas de todo el país se convirtieron en un crisol de estos tres círculos de música —lugares donde se instalaron altavoces en cada rincón y donde se invitó a cantar por los altavoces a todo tipo de artistas y cantantes. Mientras caminaba por la plaza Tahrir, seguí notando que las clásicas canciones nacionalistas antiguas de los años sesenta volvían a la vida. Pronto, cantantes ‘clandestinos’ invadieron las plazas e inmediatamente comenzaron a producir canciones que adoptaron la retórica de la Revolución. Mientras tanto, los cantantes pop se mostraron reacios a participar, mientras algunos ya estaban involucrados en respaldar a Mubarak y atacar la Revolución.
Recuerdo muy bien la semana anterior al 11 de febrero. En ese momento, visité la Plaza Tahrir y descubrí que esta nueva canción no identificada se cantaba en todas partes. Más tarde llegó a ser conocida como la canción “mahraganat” “Ya Husni Seebna Haram Aleik” (Husni, por favor déjanos tranquilos). (N.d.T.: la palabra árabe mahraganat denomina el género musical que combina la música popular shaabi y música electrónica).
I started my career in journalism seventeen years ago. In a series of unplanned incidents, I ended up covering musical activities and the contemporary music scene as my main focus.
In a pre-2011 world, there were quite a few regulations and limitations controlling music production in Egypt and three adjacent, non-interlocking circles:
The first circle is official music production. This circle includes production funded by the government or giant Egyptian or Arab companies that are allowed to operate in this field, such as the Saudi-based Rotana and Al-Mamlakah or Egypt-based Mazzikaand Free Music.
This “commercial” for-profit music genre is closest to pop music and can sometimes take in classical music rearrangements such as Om Kolthoum’s concerts and other songs inspired by Arab tradition and heritage. Combined with the music of most popular names such as Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Mohammad Abdo, or even Samira Said, this music makes the largest portion of the music market.
The second circle encompasses a small number of cultural institutions that are funded either by the community or by the European Union. These institutions in turn fund the musical production of some experimental “underground” artists. The market share of this music is rather small, and the only way to listen to it is by attending performances by these singers in small theaters. While these songs are not usually broadcast on radio or television, they are the closest to middle class Egyptian culture. Examples of this “underground” music are bands like Cairokee, Fareeq West Al Balad, and Yaseen Hamdan.
The third circle, which is the most widespread of all and the least-funded, is “shaabi” singing. This genre did not find homes in public or private theaters; rather, shaabi singers often sang in wedding parties and street theaters. And in spite of the popularity of their songs, they were not aired on TV but rather widely available on cheap cassettes recorded in modest studios. This music was easily accessible everywhere.
Then, the January 25 Revolution happened. At that point, public squares across the country became melting pots for these three circles of music—places where loudspeakers were installed at every corner and where all kinds of artists and singers were invited to sing through the loudspeakers. As I was walked in Tahrir Square, I kept noticing the classic old nationalist songs from the sixties returning to life. Soon, “underground” singers invaded the squares and immediately started producing songs that adopted the Revolution’s rhetoric. In the meantime, pop singers were hesitant to take part, while some were already involved in endorsing Mubarak and attacking the Revolution.
I remember the one week preceding February 11 very well. At that time, I visited the Tahrir Square and found about this unidentified, new song being sung everywhere. It later came to be known as the “mahraganat” song “Ya Husni Seebna Haram Aleik.”
After Mubarak stepped down, and during the street celebrations, I saw circles of youth dancing to this song. The music was not like any music I had ever heard, and the dancing style was not like anything I had ever seen.
Mahraganat was born within the January Revolution as a byproduct of the Revolution’s spirit and overflowing energy. Today, however, police patrols chase down mahraganat singers, with support from the Musicians’ Syndicate.
The January Revolution undermined the old rules of music production in Egypt: commercial, for-profit music that had always dominated the market was completely destroyed with the fall of Mubarak. The masses went on further to curse singers of this genre because of their support for Mubarak, and their sexually and emotionally charged music seemed distant from the true feelings of the people at that time. In its replacement, “underground” music grew and rose for a few reasons. First, the European Union and Western organizations increased their funding to these institutions. Second, the public domain was open and ready for this kind of music. Instead of being restricted to small theaters, musical activities spread everywhere, and a series of “Al Fan Midan” concerts was given in a different public squares every month, where a stage would be constructed and “underground” singers would come to sing in open concerts free of charge.
Shaabi singing, however, underwent a more violent transformation as a new musical wave started to grow in marginalized neighborhoods in the outskirts of Cairo, thus displacing the older traditions of popular music. Popular wedding music that depended on a band and singer was replaced with a DJ and a young boy synthesizing music with a computer—accompanied with singing to a fast, violent beat in a style that mixes rap with traditional Egyptian wedding music.
The main instrument in mahraganat music is the computer, with the keyboard being the figurative strings. Rather than mimicking Westernized electronic music, it synthesizes oriental rhythms and beats into its melodies.
In 2012, we would hear statements by mahraganat singers such as “We are the music of the street.” In separate interviews with artist Al-Sadat at that time, he often said “We are the voice of those deprived, of the underprivileged neighborhoods.” This discourse seemed in harmony with the heat of the revolutionary moment as the masses sang festival songs against military rule and mourned martyrs of massacres.
With the arrival of Muslim Brotherhood in office, the Egyptian music scene witnessed a state of fear and restlessness, with the threat of new restrictions. When Abdel Fattah El-Sisi first started publicly cultivating his image as then-Minister of Defense, he have a group of singers and artists accompany him wherever he went in a not-so-common display, whether to exploit their fame or to appear as the guardian of Egyptian identity, art, and culture. While streets filled with demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi in 2013, televisions was transmitted footage of El-Sisi inspecting a military unit, accompanied with singers such as Muhammad Fuad, Hani Shakir, and other older names from the commercial music circle.
When El-Sisi came to power, the state sought to immediately control media discourse from all angles. Controlling the music scene was therefore a prime target and was done gradually through a few direct and indirect legal and security procedures and steps.
This was first done by prohibiting “Al Fan Midan” and forcing any place intending to host a musical events to obtain a number of clearances and permissions, starting with the fire department and ending at the National Security Department. Such pressure pushed a number of artist organizations, such as “Al Mawrid Al Thaqafi” which managed the Al Juneina Theater, to leave Egypt and resume work in Lebanon and Jordan.
“Underground” music faced successive blows as it was dealt with as an extension to the January Revolution. This situation pressed a number of singers and musicians of this genre to travel outside Egypt after they had been directly threatened because of their music. Examples include Ramy Essam, Hamza Namira, and Abdullah Miniawy—all prominent voices in the post-January-25 world and who, because of their political songs and affiliations, were threatened and went into exile.
Those who could not travel for various of reasons stopped singing, such as Aly Talibab. On the other hand, those who continued singing were sometimes obliged to give up their old songs and remake their artistic personas in accordance with state censors, such as Abou who used to sing to the rebels in the Tahir Square and then turned into the “official” singer for El Gouna millionaires.
As El-Sisi took office and the 2014 Constitution was approved, a few modifications on the Law of Arts Unions were enacted, based on which many regulations controlling the work of these institutions changed. Then-Minister of Justice Ahmed El-Zend provided judicial investigation powers to the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate who in turn launched war on all that was new on the music scene.
After that, under these judicial powers, the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate, or anyone representing them, had the authority to inspect hotels and restaurants and check clearances for singing or playing music by any singer or musician. In this respect, Hani Shakir and those around him turned into a “music and singing police” that mainly targeted mahraganat music under the pretext that it ruined public taste.
For anyone to become a member of the Musicians’ Syndicate, they would have to undergo an audition before a union committee—one whose tastes are based on its Arab musical traditions. For example, it does not recognize rap, hip-hop, or mahraganat music. Consequently, singers of these genres face difficulties in obtaining syndicate membership or permits to perform.
Some mahraganat singers were successful in becoming members of the Musicians’ Syndicate by registering as “DJ’s” and not as singers, whereas some others work and sing unofficially and illicitly—syndicate representatives are susceptible to bribes, provided you do not cross any red lines in your song choices.
Despite that, mahraganat music kept growing and developing. Hamo Bika, for example, ranks is one of the most listened-to artists but is banned from singing in public parties or concerts, by Hani Shakir’s commands.
El-Sisi’s regime has a tight grip on the world of music production. To be able to sing in Egypt, one would requires clearance and permission by the Musicians’ Syndicate. Moreover, song themes must be pre-approved and any that come close to political issues would be flagged and could lead to a prison sentence, and even death. Young director Shadi Habash who was arrested on grounds that he simply took part in filming a political song by Ramy Essam and passed away in prison. Poet Galal El-Behairy is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment for writing the song “Balaha.”
Giant music production companies that are allowed to operate in Egypt and that make the stars are either funded by Gulf countries or the ones funded and managed by Egyptian intelligence, such as the Egyptian Media Group and DMC Channels. Most often, these bodies handle the production of national songs and the organization of musical festivals accompanying the inauguration of infrastructure projects that El-Sisi takes pride in.
Yet, despite this grip of power in security and music production, there exists a crack in this wall that could give Egyptian music the opportunity to flourish and develop. The last five years in Egypt, for instance, witnessed increased popularity of music streaming platforms such as Youtube, Spotify, and Anghami.
Consequently, it is now possible for any Egyptian youth to produce music using a laptop, record in a home studio, and upload songs to these platforms—and have the change to earn income based on streams. This new production style has revolutionized Egyptian music, known as the “New Wave”, which mixes of rap and mahraganat music with rising names such as Wegz, Marwan Pablo, Abyusif, Sadat, Mostafa 3enba, Double Zuksh, Molotof, and Dj Tito.
All these are singers and music producers who eluded the grip of the music companies of the Gulf and Egyptian intelligence, and most of them are not even members of the Musicians’ Syndicate. Despite that, they have been at the forefront of the music scene over the past year, and their music has become a staple in public. They also top online charts, and their popularity and influence, particularly on the rising generations, are constantly increasing.
The New Wave of rap and mahraganat music has breathed new life into the Egyptian music scene. Up until now, the state with its laws and institutions have taken no heed towards them. Media platforms that support the regime, however, have started talking about the sources of income for these young artists and the numbers they are earning through “selling music” online. Sooner or later, the government will try to crack down on this music scene or at least control the money that is flowing to these musicians through international music platforms out of state control.
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.
I lived my first 25 years under one president: the one and only Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian president’s portrait hung in schools, in the street, and at police stations. Every year on his birthday, we sang songs about him, and TV shows praised his greatness, his genius. But he was more than just a portrait; his dark hand gripped the whole nation of Egypt. He kept us down and besieged the lives of 90 million people.
I haven’t forgotten any of this. It’s not a historical event, but a reality that we still endure. My friends are still in jail; others are in exile, scattered all over the planet. Most of them, like me, don’t have a long-term residence. And those who have the right visas are still caught between two worlds. They are slogging in circles, carrying their homes in their backpacks.
Ten years after Mubarak’s fall in the 2011 revolution, I don’t have any nostalgia for the freedom and euphoria of protests in the public square. Yes, for 18 days as the protests captured the world’s attention, the stars were in our grip.
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.
Yasmeen cried because she could not breastfeed our daughter, Sina, on her first day in this world. Sina cried as well. As I was held captive with both of them in the hospital room, I had no idea what should be done. I called for the nurses’ help. A nurse came and offered to help Yasmeen breastfeed. It was in vain. The milk did not come, and the crying persisted. The nurse suggested using formula, made especially for new-borns. That made Yasmeen cry even more, feeling the failure.
In her first day as a mother, Yasmeen detected the essence of it: An everlasting feeling of guilt.
The nurse asked me to sign some legal and executive papers to confirm our consent to give formula to our hungry baby daughter. For the hospital to get involved in the bond between a mother and an infant, they need the mother’s informed consent or else this interference would be considered a crime. By all powers of biology and modern law, only the mother is responsible for feeding the infant.
A few days later, Yasmeen’s breasts supplied milk. Each time she breastfed the new-born, despite all the physical pain, her face lit up with a smile. She tried to explain how she felt, but words failed her. She spoke of energy, of something that runs through the inside of her, along with milk, to the inside of Sina. It is believed that this is the maternal bond.
We come into life incapable of consuming solid foods. We can only suck our mother’s milk. The first sign of a human infant’s growth is their ability to keep their heads upright, so that they can swallow. Only then some sustenance can be offered. The second sign of growth is weaning. When babies are not breastfed anymore, they shift from being infants to becoming toddlers.
The older we get, the more distant we are from her. We are weaned off the mother’s milk only to eat what her hands offer us. Our palate is shaped by our mother’s food, and we spend years believing that the best food is that cooked by mom.
Regardless of how bad a mother’s cooking might be, children do not realise it. On the contrary, they genuinely believe this is how normal, even excellent, food tastes!
This is known as Mother Culture. It extends not only to include the taste of the mother’s cooking, but also the customs of cuisine taught to us by our mothers. Some mothers raise their children with a must finish your plate rule; others are raised encouraged by mothers to leave a bite or two on their plate. In Egypt, this is known as “the Cat’s Share,”the idea being to help out cats and dogs that live off of garbage.
The mother instructs us as to what we should and should not eat. As such, ever since I was a little boy my mother declared all types of sausages (Egyptian-style street food sausages/ frankfurters/ hotdogs) FORBIDDEN at home. Throughout my childhood we were warned not to eat them outside behind her back.
We listened to Mother because she, definitely, knew our stomachs better than we did. Over time, we grew, left the house more often, we rebelled against Mother’s culture and we began to explore the world…and the hotdog.
I fell in love with all types and shapes of sausages at first bite, when I was nineteen. I went back to my mother asking her, ‘Why did you forbid us from eating hotdogs’? She answered that, as a kid, she stopped once in front of a shop that sells sausage sandwiches and, for some reason, the smell of sausages on the grill upset her so much that she passed out. Ever since that day, she’d hated sausages and everything related to them. So, the ban in this case was never for health reasons. It was merely our mother’s own palate.
Our bodies are a record book signed by time. On the surface it’s all flesh, blood and bones which are the result of what we eat. Our bodies, and what we eat, reflect all that shapes our identity.
We take control of our own selves and reshape our identity when we rebel against the cuisine of Mother Culture. I come from a world where pork is defiled, Haram. I had to travel at the age of twenty-three to know what pork tastes like. I loved the juicy taste of the pink meat. However, when I go back to Cairo, it’s hard for me to find restaurants or shops that serve pork. This made the joy of eating this pink flesh feel like forbidden fruit. I had to wait until I travelled to keep eating it in all its possibilities.
We rebel against Mother Culture.We drift away from Mom’s cuisine only to explore the facts of life.
Some cannot take the taste of truth. They refuse to eat food which they cannot recognise and hold onto the palate shaped by the mother’s cuisine. Others take in everything with mouths wide open, realising that Mom’s food is not necessarily the best there is. However, the taste of nostalgia in Mom’s cooking cannot be found any place else.
One’s palate is similar to one’s identity. It is not a frozen image, but one that changes as a result of what time does to our physical forms. Until the age of twenty-eight, I could not stand eating salad or fruit. I still have a memory of many full years having past in my life without me eating a piece of fruit. All of a sudden, with the age of thirty approaching, my palate changed as a result of my body’s needs and abilities having changed. Today, I seek out salads, in fact some of my meals are all salad and vegetables.
It had started as a call from a secret place in my body. Eating meats and carbohydrates gives me a heavy body and a lazy, slow capability of moving and thinking. After the age of thirty, health problems in my digestive system just blew up in my face.
I went to see a doctor, complaining from difficulty in urination and rectal pain. He asked me to sleep on the bed with my knees held tight against my chest, then he inserted two fingers into my rectum.
‘Anal fracture’, announced the doctor, as he was prescribing some analgesic ointment and telling me that the best remedy for me is to change my diet: Stay away from pastries, pizza, pasta… etc. and to eat more vegetables and fruits.
It was only then that I realised that a new phase of maturing and growing old has started, one where you choose your food not based on your Mother Culture, or your personal palate, but based on medical recommendations and the needs of your digestive system that is starting to go downhill.
I moved, a few months ago, to live in the States, carrying on a digestive system that cannot take in pink meat and other indulgences of American cuisine on a daily basis. Only a small amount of these are now allowed to me.
I feel guilty every time I cheat on my diet. I eat pizza, enjoying the taste, but simultaneously thinking of the pain I go through as I defecate. If, by any means, I managed to silence my conscience, the way food is shown and marketed here in America is basically designed to make you feel guilty.
When you go to any restaurant, whether fast food one or fine dining, you will find the name of the plate, a brief description of the ingredients, pri ce and the number of calories. So, while you are choosing your food, you will not only be thinking of the aroma of the main dish, or the taste of the food, but rather about the number of calories entering your body and coming out of it. If the food was good and you could not resist eating more, you will keep eating as the calorie counter in your head keeps adding.
You finish your meal trying to get over your feeling of guilt and enjoy the warmth of a full stomach, only to find yourself surrounded by articles of nutritional education and posts of friends who promote different diets to target weight loss and health.
Food is now tasteless. It is more of a medicine that has to be taken to stay alive in a fatless, sugarless, flavourless, and odourless existence.
Two or three days a week, I let go my food cravings. I eat pastries, pizza and/or pasta. I enjoy marinating beef myself and eat it medium rare, delighting in the red colour of the meat. The sound of boiling oil frying potatoes and chicken breaded with flour and that secret recipe is music to my ears. For the rest of the week, I eat leaves and vegetables, just like rabbits. I watch my weight and examine my urine, trying to keep a minimum level of fitness and maintenance of my digestive system, not because I want to be slim or to live a long healthy life, but because I want to still be able to enjoy all types of delicious unhealthy food, forever.
Today marks a “Day of Blogging” for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is serving two years in prison: guilty of having written the playful, language-rich, genre-crossing novel Using Life, he will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, today, in absentia, in New York City. When Naji was charged with “violating public morals” for an excerpt of his novel published in a journal, he initially won his case, but lost an appeal and has been in jail since February 20.
Below, Ben Koerber reflects on the play in using life.
…The mother that reads a story to her child: this is resistance. Building a small house: this is resistance. Singing at night is resistance. Having sex is resistance. Resistance is not just bearing arms; it is also the ability to adhere to the virtue of play, and to pursue–promiscuously, and with an eye to passion and pleasure–methods for using life…
I recall Bisu saying something to this effect some ten years ago.
July, 2006: Lebanon had been invaded again by the Israeli army after clashes with militants from Hizballah. A debate was raging in the Egyptian blogosphere on strategies for solidarity with the ordinary Lebanese citizens caught in the crossfire. “Resistance” was the rarefied term that Hizballah used to refer to the bullets and rockets it fired randomly southward. Bisu, blogging from somewhere in or around Cairo, had a different understanding of the word.
Like most people, I knew Bisu before I knew Ahmed Naje. The former was for a time the trickster-protagonist of the blog “Wassa’ Khayalak” (“Widen your Imagination”), and was known for his devastating parodies of state-sponsored intellectuals, producers and consumers of kitsch, religious hypocrites, as well as other bloggers who took themselves too seriously. (The name “Bisu” is explained as a pseudo-diminutive form of Iblis or “Satan”; before knowing any better, I sometimes imagined him as sprightly little smug-faced sanfur – Arabic for “smurf” and an occasional topic of Bisu’s posts). That was all back during the heady days of what Ahmed Naje, in his history of the Egyptian blogosphere, refers to as the “Diluvian Age”: a period of glorious cyber cacophony that lasted, roughly speaking, from the suppression of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 to the draining of writers away from blogs to Facebook and Twitter a few years later. Sometime in late 2009, Bisu transformed, or molted, or something, into someone called “Ahmed Naje,” which also happened to be the name of a journalist, editor, and novelist in real life. There was no great “coming out” ritual here, only a courteous nod of admission to what many readers had already begun to suspect.
Fortunately, little else changed, and the blog stayed true to its slogan, “Live like you’re playing.” Bisu’s ludic imperative about the virtues of play were with me when I began to translate Ahmed Naje and Ayman Zorkany’s novel, Using Life, in late 2015. Something I had read in graduate school by Roland Barthes about interpretation as “play” seemed to recommend itself in my efforts at self-justification, but I was happy that Bisu’s sporadic use of the term was possessed of a more immediate vitality, and beckoned with the warmer and more inviting ontology of the nonce-concept. Barring some orange-haired apocalypse in November, my translation of Using Life is on schedule to be released by the University of Texas Press early next year. But though it may serve as the original work’s primary representative in the English-speaking world, I would urge we consider it as just one “play” on the book written by Ahmed Naje and illustrated by Ayman Zorkany.
The English-language play on Using Life has been preceded by many others, in different idioms and media.
There are Ayman Zorkany’s illustrations, which both complement and “translate” the text written by Ahmed Naje. Some of these may also be viewed on the Arabic book’s Facebook page.
Looking further back in the Arabic tradition, one may contemplate the uncanny resemblances between Zorkany’s illustrations and the monstrous hybrids of Zakaria al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Wonders of Creation manuscripts.
Curiously, while moral panics surrounding comics in the United States have historically targeted the genre for their graphic content, the illustrations in Using Life have not featured prominently in the recent legal controversy; perhaps this is because Zorkany’s images, while seemingly grotesque, are only so to eyes not accustomed to the realities of urban decay in contemporary Cairo.
There is Using Life merchandise. The book’s publication in Egypt coincided with an exhibit held at the Medrar artists’ collective in downtown Cairo (Nov. 24 – Dec. 1, 2014), which featured Zorkany’s drawings in a variety of printed formats, including T-shirts, hoodies, pins, coasters, and coffee mugs. These items were available for sale until recently at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, which has been subject to raids, closures, and partial demolitions by various state agencies.
There are interpretive dance performances. The cultural center Darb 1718, in Cairo, hosted one in late 2015, which, though I attended, cannot now find a trace of on the interwebs.
There are critical reviews. An important context for playing with Using Life and understanding the surrounding controversy are several not-yet-translated articles by Egyptian artists and academics. Some appeared in a recent issue of the Cairo-based literary review ‘Alam al-Kitab (“Book World,” no. 94/95, Nov.-Dec. 2015); for example, the intriguing essay by poet Ahmed Nada compares the trial of Using Life with that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem which has been translated into Arabic by Yusuf Rakha (in his recent novel, The Crocodiles, itself translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger), and before him by the inimitable Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus.
Lastly, or rather primarily, Using Life (Istikhdam al-Haya in Arabic) is itself a translation, in textual medium, of the aesthetic and architectural work that has conspired to design contemporary Cairo.
One of the great ironies of Naje’s imprisonment is that such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the critical concerns expressed in his novel. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a play, in the first place, on the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo – “a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat.
Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feeling is far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: un-breachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge, concrete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.
Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to re-purpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers. Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genres. In fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields traditionally dominated by foreign brands.
In Using Life, Zorkany and Naje have managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that, together with its “translations,” may serve as a guide-book of sorts for playing Cairo. All of these “plays” of/on Using Life – which, incidentally, were all performed or published before Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in prison – not only constitute forms of translation more inventive than the linguistic plays of professional interpreters, but that they also offer models for those contemplating solidarity in a manner suggested by the playful work itself.
In his work, Tawq al-Hamam (The Dove’s Collar), the Andalusian writer, Ibn Hazm, tells the tale of a man he describes as wise, reasonable and sensible—until the day he travelled to Baghdad and stayed in one of its inns. ‘There, he saw the innkeeper’s daughter, fell in love with her, and married her. When they were alone together, she saw him undressed and, being a virgin, was alarmed by the size of his penis. She fled to her mother and would not see him. Those around her advised her to go to him, but she refused, and came close to death, and so he left her. Regretting his decision, he attempted to win her back but could not, even with the help of al-Abhari and others, for none could find any solution to his predicament. His mind became disordered and he went to stay in the maristan [infirmary], where he suffered for a long time until he had almost recuperated and found consolation, and yet still whenever he recalled her, he would sigh deeply’.
A few years ago, my mind also became disordered, like that of the wise man, but since these days we don’t go straight to hospital for that sort of thing, I decided, for the first time in my life, to visit a psychiatrist. I complained to him for a whole hour: I frequently burst into floods of tears, I slept for hours and couldn’t get out of bed, I was suffering liver problems that the doctors seemed unable to find a reason for, my hair and beard were thinning, I’d resigned from my job several months previously, I saw no reason to live and was overwhelmed by despair, I consumed a vast quantity and variety of drugs which brought me neither pleasure or relief. He listened, then pronounced that my complaints were the side effects of my recent breakup; the psychosomatic symptoms, too, were simply the pains that accompanied the end of an intimate relationship. In another context, I’d have been angry, refusing to see my emotional experience—my epic of shattered love—compared with or ranked alongside the love affairs of others. We all believe that our romantic journeys are unique. But I was drained and in pain, and willing to accept any diagnosis of what was happening to me. I was ready to try whatever the doctor prescribed, without hesitation or objection.
The doctor gave me a strip of antidepressants. They relieved the pain and brought some equilibrium to my disturbed body, but it took time to find ‘consolation’, as Ibn Hazm called the convalescence of the wise man in his story.
Although I fell in love like the wise man, my beloved left me, not because of the size of my penis, but because of its fondness for adventure, along with other reasons too numerous to mention. When I was in the darkest depths of pain after our separation, friends pressured me to get over it as fast as possible, so I decided to get away, and left the city to escape their nagging. On my journey, while I wallowed in my pain and sabotaged any potential chances for future relationships, I discovered a whole breakup industry—an economy of strategies for getting over love.
Ibn Hazm devotes a chapter entitled ‘al-Dana’—a word which describes a sort of gruelling and all-consuming grief—to the pain of love lost and the trials of breakups. It is followed by a chapter entitled ‘al-Suluww’, (‘consolation’), in which he writes: ‘Consolation after a long separation is like the disappointment which enters the soul when it achieves what it has long sought; the intensity of its striving abates and its desire fades away’. Then, through the story of his experience with a courtesan with whom he fell in love as an adolescent, and who accompanied his family on their peregrinations to and from Cordoba before finally leaving him, Ibn Hazm arrives at the first cure for the trials of love and separation, the ‘consolation’ of the chapter’s title: A healing process which he divides into the stages of forgetting, indifference and replacement.
But Ibn Hazm seems to contradict himself, often repeating that any love from which one can be ‘consoled’, and any relationship that can be forgotten, is not to be counted on. For Ibn Hazm, it is not true love. Notice that, unlike in today’s psychoanalytical and romantic writings, in Ibn Hazm’s time, passion and love represented a link to the metaphysical world. Every soul was split in two, and each half sent to this life to search for the half, which would complete it; it was the meeting of a half with its lost counterpart which represented true love, as opposed to the kind of passion which cannot be counted on. Ibn Hazm wrote his Dove’s Collar to help lovers distinguish true love from ephemeral lust, and to guide them past critics and naysayers along its thorny path. All this, of course, sounds very different from today’s discourse, in which the ideal of virtuous love has been replaced by notions of healthy and toxic relationships, balance between the two parties, the importance of equality, respect, and non-exploitation, and other concepts which have filtered through from the realm of political correctness to replace terms for love such as gharam and hawa.
The wise man in Ibn Hazm’s story ended up in the maristan because he was suffering and in pain. At the time, the function of the maristan—an infirmary for the mentally ill—was to relieve pain and suffering, rather than to subdue the patient and ready them for a return to the treadmill of production. There, Ibn Hazm’s wise man did not forget his beloved, but sighed whenever her name was mentioned. He learned, with time, to silence his longing, to control his reactions and to maintain his equanimity. Forgetting one’s beloved was only for false and contemptible lovers.
Today’s breakup advice tends to place forgetting at the centre of its recovery plan. On self-help websites, the foremost piece of advice to heartbroken lovers is usually to forget: Stay away from your ex, keep communication to a minimum, get rid of anything that reminds you of them. After that, the advice gets confusing: Don’t sit in your room moping, go out and meet new people, life is full of pleasures and adventures—but don’t rush into new relationships, because you might get hurt. Put your sadness aside and get out of yourself. Cry and express your emotions, they say—but if your sadness lasts too long, they accuse you of weakness, of giving in to pain, of wallowing, or worst of all, of a pathetic attempt to win back the attention of the person who used to care about you.
It’s no wonder the advice is contradictory. There is no clear route map for avoiding or overcoming pain, or for the confusing task of getting over both the pain of a breakup and the memory of love.
One friend of mine who went through a painful divorce decided to go to a psychoanalyst, rather than a psychiatrist. Instead of being prescribed medication like me, my friend has spent hours with her therapist, and is still doing so, a year and a half down the line. Looking like she’s got it together and is proud of it, she spends more than ten hours a day at work, sometimes works six days instead of five, cares for her dog, and steers clear of any potential relationships, on the grounds that she isn’t ready yet, according to her therapist. She wants to maintain the stability she has now because, in her words, ‘I need a bit of time to work on myself’.
Analysing her last relationship, my friend found that she had always been attracted to men who would lie to her and exploit her emotionally. My response to that was to ask: ‘Are there men who don’t’? She shook her head. ‘You don’t understand. The problem isn’t them, it’s me—for being attracted to men like that’.
She pays around $25 for each session with her psychoanalyst, but she no longer has suicidal thoughts now, or borrows our phones to stalk her ex on Facebook, and she’s convinced that she’s forgotten her last relationship—she just needs to focus on her own issues.
Unlike her, I’ve never tried to forget. I remember the mistakes and happy moments of every passing fling. What would be left, if we forgot our emotional connections, the most profound and affecting of the experiences which make us who we are? And anyway, you never really forget. You just put the relationship and all of its associations in a black box, and since there’s nowhere to put the box, you end up carrying it on your back forever, thinking no-one’s noticed. Every time you try to open a door to let love in, the black box eyes you from the corner of the room, shattering your focus and distracting you from the person beside you, who’s waiting eagerly for the moans of the climax which will offer proof that the two of you have truly connected.
Every ‘getting over it’ rests on an illusion of forgetting, on a flight into the future, yet no matter how hard you strain to break away, the memory will cling to you, or lurk in the corner of the room along with the broken pieces of your heart and soul. Maybe the solution is not to forget but to leave the wounds open, to wear them with pride and share them with others—whether you want to entice them to bed, or just to the cinema. Don’t hide your experiences from your new partner, because no matter how hard you try to forget, the monster will still be there, in the box, waiting for the right moment. Perhaps your new partner can help you tame the monster instead, help you transform your anger at yourself and your ex into the energy you need in order to change and build a new life and a new relationship. One day, the monster could be your pet.
Fifa’s most tedious make-believes are the notion of ‘fair play’ and the idea that the World Cup brings nations together in a celebration of football, peace, sport, and the future of childhood. Everyone knows they’re a pack of lies, but we need them: To keep the smiles going, to justify all the exhilaration and zeal, all the disappointment and anguish, all the overflowing, conflicting emotions that are the reason we care so much about the World Cup.
The World Cup is generally held to be an encounter between peoples and nations, but in truth it’s an excuse for competition and conflict and an opportunity to show off differences and inequalities. Parading their collective identities on the pitch, nations learn to recognize their respective peculiarities, while we as humans come to see that conflict and competition are forms of co-operation, and that conflict is the engine of progress.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I read Klaus Zeyringer and Ilija Trojanow’s Manifesto against the Dictatorship of Sport. The text begins with the question of conflict, referencing what it describes as Fifa’s ‘mafia-like’ behaviour (a moot point since no prison sentences have ever been handed out), dealings which in some countries would be considered corruption, but in others, such as Switzerland, are not. The manifesto moves swiftly on to the question of social justice, accusing international football’s corrupt institutions of bleeding state resources and taxpayers’ money, which pays for the infrastructure which makes the sport possible. At this point one gets a little lost: Is the manifesto directed at Fifa, players’ wages, or liberal policies? Or at everything, like the anger of the Ultras on an adrenaline high?
The text ends by urging the reader to take an unusual decision: To refuse to watch the World Cup, and to refuse to be ‘sheep’ or ‘consumers’. Then, in stark contrast with what they have said so far, the authors affirm they are ‘true football fans’.
Perhaps to the white European intellectual this manifesto might sound like a courageous voice of reason, but to the brown intellectual, it comes across as counter-intuitive. If you’re a football fan, but you resent the dictatorship of Fifa, then why boycott, why withdraw from the battle? As I see it, the text reflects Western anxiety over the white man’s loss of control over Fifa, and international football more generally, in recent decades. Other, non-democratic states are no longer satisfied with giving up talented expatriate players to European clubs and national teams; many of these states are now wealthy and powerful enough to join the fray that surrounds Fifa, hosting tournaments and gaining access to the material, social and political power which international football bestows.
The white intellectual is perturbed by Russian, Qatari and Saudi influence within Fifa. He sees what is happening as a corrupt dictatorial takeover of what is ostensibly a democratic game. Their intervention prescribes turning one’s back on the world and on the conflict.
A brown intellectual like myself, on the other hand, would never have paid the equivalent of €200 to the Qatari company Bein, and instead chooses to stream the World Cup on pirate websites or watch free broadcasts on British or European television channels. That’s how I enjoy my World Cup—not to mention the exasperation of the commentators and presenters, as they rail against piracy and accuse me of stealing from Qatari billionaires.
Zeyringer and Trojanow’s manifesto addresses the democratic world, which has been shrinking ever faster over recent years, to the point it scarcely has a continent to its name. The writers believe that football derives its power and presence not only from corrupt institutions, but from the continued interest of its fans and followers, and hence believe that with their call to football lovers not to watch any matches, they can shake the structure of the institution, or perhaps reform it. Once again, this is a white man’s fantasy.
In the brown part of the world where I live, the state of Qatar has invested tens of billions in the media and sports sectors over the last ten years, won their bid to host the next World Cup, and established the Aljazeera news network, as well as the Bein sports network which monopolises World Cup broadcasts in the Middle East. Qatar has pressed all this into service of its political agenda, which consists in supporting regressive and Islamist currents across the Arab region. This agenda has brought Qatar into conflict with ruling regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, resulting in a movement to boycott Qatar led by the three states.
Watching football matches on the Qatari channel is an irritating experience thanks to the style of Arab commentators. [Arab] commentators don’t just get excited about goals—they remain in a permanent state of excitement throughout the match, reeling off metaphors and nicknames, and wittering about their sporting reminiscences, or becoming engrossed in thinly-veiled invective directed at Saudi Arabia and other states participating in the blockade.
If you get bored of the Qatari commentary, you can switch to a Saudi pirate channel. Saudi Arabia refused Bein permission to operate or sell satellite receivers within the kingdom and instead established its own sports network which pirates its broadcasts from the Qatari channel. In breaks you’ll find Saudi commercials urging you to visit Salwa, at the base of the Qatar peninsula, where you can see the cows—a mocking reference to the dairy shortages caused by the Saudi-led blockade—up close. Fifa, from whom both channels claim they bought the rights, have given vague and contradicting statements on the matter.
All these manoeuvrings are highly undemocratic, and a result of the regional crises and conflicts of recent times. Fifa and the World Cup merely reflect the contemporary moment. There is no use attempting to reform Fifa by democratic means, since Fifa cannot be reformed as long as these regional conflicts continue. It is naive to think that democracy is capable of solving any of these problems, because it was democracy that got us where we are today. Giving up our right to watch football, meanwhile, will do nothing but make our lives as individual football fans more miserable, and more isolated from the world and its conflicts.
That said, I couldn’t bear to stream the whole World Cup on sites pirating the Qatari and Saudi broadcasts, because the constant political chatter and nationalist swagger of the commentators got on my nerves so much. Searching for alternatives, I discovered a whole world of commentary. I found a website showing the BBC broadcasts, whose commentators were so calm you hardly noticed when anyone scored a goal, and confined themselves to narrating the action in a neutral tone, with asides I can only presume are considered humorous in the white world—one described the Egypt v. Saudi Arabia match, for example, as the ‘desert derby’, while another attributed the African teams’ poor showing to the migration of African players to Europe. In the end I decided to watch the World Cup with the sound switched off, without commentators, sitting with my friends and listening to our own commentaries.
In 2015,shortly after Ahmed Naji published his novel “Using Life” (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 196 pages, $21.95), a sexually explicit dystopian fantasy that imagines the destruction of Cairo under a tsunami of sand, an elderly reader wrote the authorities to complain that the book had caused him heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure. To most in the West, so strong a reaction would be taken as an endorsement of the writer’s gifts, but under Egyptian President Sisi’s authoritarian rule, the consequences were severe. Mr. Naji was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for, in the words of the prosecutor, “misusing writing to create foul stories that serve artistic lust and mortal joy.” And though his conviction was eventually overturned he is still, as of now, forced to await a retrial.
Mortal joy, indeed. “Using Life,” which has been vividly translated into English by Benjamin Koerber, is a ribald, streetwise, outrageously inventive speculative fiction that hammers at the chaos and dysfunction of Egyptian life while testifying to the vitality of its counterculture.
The story is told from the near future, following a sequence of natural disasters known collectively as the “Setback,” which left Cairo buried in sand and led to the construction of a new and far more efficiently organized capital. As the narrator, Bassam Bahgat, wryly relates, these acts of God were anything but: They were actually manufactured by a shadowy international syndicate called the Society of Urbanists, which aims to “change the direction of humanity as a whole” by aggressively re-engineering its cities.
Bassam recounts the revolutionary years when he was a documentary filmmaker hired by this illuminati of architects to produce a series of videos about Cairo’s neighborhoods. He takes a fatalistic view of the transformations. Pre-catastrophe Cairo, he mordantly admits, is a cesspool of graft, pollution and standstill traffic, “where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere.”
But Mr. Naji comes both to bury Cairo and to praise it. “Pessimistic on the outside,” its residents are “idealistic on the inside,” and the howling anarchy of the city is infinitely preferable to the soulless utopia envisioned by the Urbanists. Bassam’s encounters with the Society alternate with graphic episodes of party-going, drug use and lovemaking. Similarly, interspersed within the story are lurid, Ralph Steadman-esque panel illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany. The alleged immorality for which Mr. Naji has been prosecuted is really a tribute to Cairo’s irrepressible life force. Even as Egyptian authorities play to the dystopian script by attempting to punish the author for his heterodoxies, his book memorably celebrates the country’s underground seams of freedom and individual expression.