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 ACAF provides an oasis in a desert environment; arts education in Egypt is stifled by strict censures and terribly outdated syllabi.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.

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

An interview with Walt Curnow, published in The Gurdian : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/16/ahmed-naji-prison-made-me-believe-in-literature-more

After seeing a photo of him, Zadie Smith imagined Ahmed Naji as someone wild and antic. (“Rather handsome, slightly louche-looking, with a Burt Reynolds moustache, wearing a Nehru shirt in a dandyish print and the half smile of someone both amusing and easily amused” she observed in the New York Review of Books – without having met him.) Just a short extract of his prose allegedly gave one reader heart palpitations, and, for one judge, his language – “pussy, cock, licking, sucking”, according to court documents – was enough to justify a two-year jail sentence.

It’s hard to equate these intense, fleeting impressions with the quietly spoken man in front of me sipping green tea.

Naji is best known internationally for being imprisoned for the sexual content and drug references in his novel The Use of Life, in a society where these subjects remain largely taboo.

However, sitting in his apartment close to the Nile in central Cairo, Naji plays down the image he has acquired as a result of his plight, and the themes that got him into trouble.

A blend of existentialist literature, fantasy and social criticism, The Use of Life follows Bassam, a young man who lives in an alternate Cairo, which Naji imagines as a grubby metropolis that has risen from a series of natural disasters that levelled the city. Filled with irreverent references to masturbation, fetishes and pornography, the book is consistently transgressive. Bassam’s opinions and ideas are also knowingly progressive – having sex with an older woman, keeping transgender friends, indulging in drugs and drink.

“Sex and drugs play a very important part in Cairo,” says Naji – while stressing that they are not the main themes of his novel. As he sees it, The Use of Life is about “the history of the city and how it has been designed … and how people in this Kafkaesque maze are trying to find a small piece of joy”.

The 31-year-old author first ran into legal trouble in 2015, when a chapter of The Use of Life was published in the state-run literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. A male complainant, who said the passage came to his attention only when his wife ridiculed him for allowing such material into their house, alleged that reading Naji’s descriptions of sex and hashish-smoking gave him “heart palpitations, sickness and a drop in blood pressure”.

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In January 2016, Naji was acquitted by an Egyptian court. But a month later, a higher court fined him £1,000 and sentenced him to two years in jail – the maximum sentence – for violating public morality, as enshrined in Egypt’s penal code. (The editor of Akhbar al-Adab was fined £430 for publishing the chapter.)

Naji’s lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, describes the chaotic legal process leading up to the sentencing as unprecedented.

“There was not enough discussion or attention paid to what we said in defence and the court refused to listen to a witness who is the head of Egypt’s general book institution,” he says. “They issued the verdict quickly, in less than an hour, without the announcement even being made in court – we found out the verdict from a security source.” Naji was the writer in Egypt to be jailed over a novel extract published in a newspaper.

Finally, after more than 300 days behind bars, Naji was released on appeal on 22 December. Now out, he is reluctant to say much about his time in jail, apart from revealing that it had affected his health and that one of his cellmates was the prominent revolutionary Alaa Abd El Fattah, with whom he discussed literature. “Jail is jail,” he says, quietly.

He does, however, take solace from being the latest in an international line of literary outlaws. “Joyce had something related to the same problem, because he’s using dirty words and it seems like it was a huge battle in the 1930s and 40s. And in the US, for example, when you read Kerouac and Ginsberg,” he says. “It’s about words that people are using in the street which suddenly have another meaning when people use them in literature. How can I know about all this and not use it in my writing?”

Naji is not the only Egyptian writer to go to jail, but he is the first to be imprisoned for reasons of morality. Others have been put behind bars for political or religious reasons, among them the novelist and short-story writer Sonallah Ibrahim, a member of the “60s generation” who was jailed between 1959 and 1964 during a crackdown on dissent by the nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Ibrahim was one of Naji’s most vocal domestic supporters, even appearing in court for his defence. He was one of more than 600 Egyptian and Arab writers, artists and authors to sign a statement calling for his release. As Naji’s case gained attention, his defenders were backed by international cultural figures including Woody Allen and Patti Smith as well as authors Dave Eggers, Philip Roth and Zadie Smith.

Naji seems unfazed by his new-found fame, but says he read an Arabic translation of Smith’s novel On Beauty in jail before he knew about her support for his release.

“It was a sign for me to believe in my literature more,” he says. “Before jail, I used to see myself mostly as a journalist and found it more difficult to be motivated. Now that is easier and has become a habit. I write fiction for two hours every day.”

This week, a leading Egyptian publisher took the risk of publishing a new collection of short stories by Naji. Mohamed Hashem, owner of Merit publishing house, is a patriarchal figure on Egypt’s literary scene and is no stranger to run-ins with the authorities.

He says that he decided to publish the stories because “I believe in the freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, as well as freedom of literary creativity. There shouldn’t be any kinds of restraints on the mind.”

He points out that though Naji’s language might seem bold, it is no more transgressive than that of One Thousand and One Nights.

“If you open [that] or other books from the Arabic-Islamic heritage, you will find an explicit language magnified by thousands of times more than in The Use of Life. And those authors were not called heathens or judged by anyone,” Hashem says.

Naji, meanwhile, reveals that while in jail he secretly started writing another novel, now about a quarter complete. He won’t divulge what it’s about, but another book that he read in jail, passed on to him by his friend Abd El Fattah, might give a clue. “I’ve just discovered an amazing writer,” he says. “China Miéville.”

He is due to appear in court again in April and is aware that he could go back to jail. If he is acquitted, he says, he plans to move to either Washington DC or Hong Kong at the end of the year.

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Sonaa Allah during the trail

After everything, Naji downplays suggestions that his sentencing was for political reasons. “I don’t think so. Of course, I heard some conspiracies and a lot of rumours but we didn’t have any evidence to support it,” he says. Some members of parliament even attended his trial and tried to change the law – frustratingly, it was unsuccessful (“The Egyptian political scene is complicated,” Naji says).

“I’m not a writer with a message,” he insists. “I’m more of a writer with questions. I’m not what they call in Egypt an enlightened writer or thinker.”