A new short story Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette was published recently..
Check it out, and try to find where is the Missing liver
A new short story Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette was published recently..
Check it out, and try to find where is the Missing liver
On July 25, 2019, ARC in collaboration with apexart hosted Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who was the 2016 winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award, for a lecture entitled “Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison.” Naji was formerly sentenced to two years in prison when a literary magazine published a chapter of his novel. Naji discussed the growth and trajectory of his career as a novelist, what life was like in an Egyptian prison, the power of literature, his new project, and more. He is now a Shearing/City of Asylum Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.
This event was supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
When I first saw this picture, it was in 1995. I was sitting with my grandfather and we were watching the news and TV. And when this picture appeared he felt annoyed and sad. I was very young at that age and I asked him, “What’s going on,” and, “What is this story?” And he said it like, “Some kids tried to kill this guy.” And I asked him, “Why did they try to kill him?” And he said, “Because he writes.” At that age I was ten years old. I was reading mainly comics or books for kids and teenagers. And of course while reading I started to imitate what I was reading–I started writing. So suddenly my grandfather was telling me that someone tried to kill this guy cause he was writing. It stayed in back in my mind.
And I continue writing but I know writing is dangerous. So it goes on, I published my first novel in 2007, called Rogers, and then after a while I publish my second novel Using Life. When I published the novel I knew it was dangerous in Egypt and the Arab world. I knew also what is a red line. From an early age I knew that there are [three main] red lines that as a writer you cannot cross. The first red line is the religious mythology. You can’t come close to the Islamic mythology. [The second red line] the national identity imagination. You could talk about politics but you can’t talk about the imagination and the mythologies that created the national identity. The third red line is sex. When you are talking about sex there is a set of words assigned for you.
But I was seeing myself as birthing another Egyptian writer generation who are trying to use different language. So [my new novel] was published in 2014 and after it was published, I was in the south of Sinai on the beach and suddenly I received a phone call from my editor-in-chief (I used to work as a journalist back in Mansoura). He called and he said, “We just received an announcement from a prosecutor and they are summoning you to come do an investigation.” So we discovered what happened: a chapter of the novel had been published in the newspaper and a guy read the chapter and he went to the police station and said, “I read this chapter and it hurt my feelings. It affected my blood pressure and made me faint and it made me throw up.”
So the case was basically this: the prosecutor was saying, “This is pornography.” And we could say, “No, this is not pornography, this is literature.” We thought the worst scenario was they will fine us or something like that. But it ended up the court sentenced me to for two years. I was sent to Tora prison.
Because there is nothing to do inside this prison everyone is reading. Even people who never opened a book before, they start to read inside the prison because it’s the only way to make the time pass. And the collection of books they have in the prison is very interesting, because of course they have a big amount of religious books, but [surprisingly] there was a large amount of books that were banned outside the prison.
But when I was searching inside the prison I found this amazing novel … That Smell. So this novel was published by Sonallah Ibrahim. When he tried to publish it in 1969 … it was banned because of the sex. So I was shocked. It was impossible to find this edition back outside of the prison but suddenly I found it inside the prison library.
It’s interesting to see that people in prison after reading will start to write. Because usually prisoners feel, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s kind of sorrow and pain, and they use writing to document this pain. For example, when I entered the prison I found this guy who’s always writing. He had been in prison for five or six years and he had, like, several notebooks. I called him the Marcel Proust of the prison. He said, “I’m wiring my diaries because I don’t want to forget the pain and the suffering that I [felt] here.” And he showed it to me and basically what he’s writing is, “Today is Sunday. I woke up at 10. I walk toward the bathroom. I eat two eggs.” So at the end when Marcel Proust was released from prison, on his way out the guard searched the bags and found the diaries and he read them and they had details about the prison and he said, “I can’t allow you to go out with this because it has details about the prison. So I’m not gonna sign your release paper until you burn it.” So this alerted me because back then I started to write in the notebooks that he allowed me. So in my notebooks I tried to not write any details about the prison. But I wanted to document my days, to not forget the days. So I used it to write my dreams.
Dreams are very important to the prisoner because dreams are the only window you have with the outside world. So you go to sleep and each time you go to sleep you hope you see your friends or family or the places that you are missing. Sometimes after a while you will start to play with your dreams. You will think all day of someone or something so when I go to sleep maybe it will visit me in dreams.
Dreams also bring a big role into most of Muslim and Arabic prisoners because in Islam and, I believe, in Christanity, we had this story about Yusef-Joseph the Prophet. So in the story of Yusef, he was sent to the Egyptian prison and he stayed in the Egyptian prison for seven years. So Yusef is in the prison and he was in his cell with two other prisoners. The prisoners have a dream and they told him a dream. After they had the dream he started to predict what was going to happen to them. He told one of them, “Well, your dream means you are going to get out of the prison and you will become a very important guy and you will become close to the king. And when this happens please don’t forget me and tell the king about me.” And the story goes on when the king had a dream, he was puzzled by this dream and so he told his adviser and suddenly his adviser remembered Yusef, so they summon him and he comes and he told the king what his dream was about: “In seven years you will not have food or the water will be low in the Nile.”
So as a Muslim prisoner, even as a Christian or Arabic prisoner, one of the hopes you have to get out of the prison is dreams. So I started to offer a prediction, and explain for others. People would wake up in the morning and come and tell me their dreams. Everyone in the prison started to trust me. So I became a holy figure within the prison.
Until I was in prison, I wasn’t looking at myself as a writer. I used to look at myself as a journalist, as a filmmaker. I was writing but I didn’t see myself as a writer, it wasn’t the main purpose of my life–until a small accident happened in the prison. So we had this guy and we are going to name him Mr. X. He was terrible and awful guy. So one day I woke up to go to the bathroom and I found Mr. X crying, crying like a baby. So I was worried, I went to him and asked him, “What happened? Are you OK? Something with the case?” He said, “No, no, everything’s fine. I was just reading this novel. I left it on my bed because even when I look at the cover, I start to cry again.” Suddenly I started to say, “What is the hidden power behind the literature and behind the writing that could reach and affect a guy like this?”
[My next book is called] Rotten Evidence. It’s about reading and writing in an Egyptian prison. I got out of the prison in December 2016. I married my wife Yasmine and she got a scholarship in Syracuse, New York. The plan was to join her after that and then I tried to leave the country and I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country as a free man. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a year and a half. And this year and a half was harder than being in prison.
So it took me a year and a half [but] finally I was able to get a short window for one week, so I was able to join my wife and we moved to DC. Then with help from PEN America and many music friends from this sphere in the state I was able to get [a] fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV in Vegas.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Olivia Salama, September 2019.
This interview was first published at: https://pen.org/ahmed-naji-pen-ten-interview/
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Lily Philpott, Public Programs Manager at PEN America, speaks with Ahmed Naji, 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient and the author of three books: Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), and The Use of Life (2014). Ahmed will join us for this year’s World Voices Festival at Cry, the Beloved Country on May 9. You can purchase tickets for the event here »
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
One Thousand and One Nights. I read it for the first time when I was young. I was amazed by the endless stories, the magical sex, and the mysterious worlds. And above all, the idea that no one knows who the writer is. I still read it from time to time and collect different copies of it.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? How do you work across genres to navigate the relationship between truth and fiction?
I believe it’s a writer’s job to create the truth. In fiction, readers know it’s lies, but they think it is (if the writing is good) more accurate than what they read in newspapers.
I always keep a notebook beside my bed, where I write real dreams when I wake up. After a couple of days, I go back and read what I wrote, and sometimes I feel puzzled: “Did I have this dream? Did I see this person really in my dream?” But my dream journal will establish the truth; it’s here to tell me what I forget, what I dreamed of . . . to say to me the truth about the fiction of dreams.
We forget many details of our dreams, sometimes we forget our dreams totally. My ambition is that my writing will have the same impact as that “dream journal” has on me, to establish the truth, and to encourage the readers to doubt what been told as truth.
“I believe it’s a writer’s job to create the truth.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
The key, in my opinion, is to deal with writing as a way of living your life: It’s not a job or a mission to achieve something. If you dealt with it as a job, you will always look for reward or sometimes will be puzzled about the purpose of what you are doing.
I enjoy writing and reading, and I see it as a way of enjoying life, and through this joy, you will always find inspiration. I hear a lot about the writer’s block, but I never experienced it. My problem is that I have a lot of things in my mind and my notebook, but I can’t find the time to write them down.
Don’t wait for the great ideas, but keep writing and reading and it will come. You could write for 10 days a dull draft piece about the sea, but I am sure in the 11th day you will write the beautiful essay, and if not, write again in the 12th day.
4. What is one book or piece of writing by an Egyptian author you love that readers might not know about?
In poetry, I will suggest Iman Mersal.
In nonfiction: Haytham El-Wardany.
In fiction and novels: Nael Eltoukhy and Mohammed Rabie.
For all of them, most of their works have been translated into English.
5. Whose words do you turn to for inspiration?
Two poets: Georges Henein and Joyce Mansour
6. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and on my list two other books to choose between: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón or Philosophy for Militants by Alain Badiou.
7. What does it mean to you to be, temporarily at least, a writer in exile? Do you find that you are thinking and writing about Egypt in different ways?
The real dilemma is not how to write about Egypt, but it’s about the language. I look around myself here in America, and I see many writers from Egypt or other countries living in exile. I notice two tracks available for an exiled writer here:
1—To continue doing what you used to do. Living in Las Vegas but writing about Egypt in Arabic. Following what is happening in your old country but know nothing about your neighborhood. In the end, after a couple of years, you end up having no connection with where you are living or the country you came from. Because of time passing, you end up writing about a country that you used to know, a country that doesn’t exist anymore
2—Another track is to take off your clothes, your old identity. To leave your language and adopt a new language and a new identity. The trick is that America and American culture is built on identity. I notice writers who come here and give the American public and culture institutes what they want to hear.
I didn’t make it a year here, and some people will approach me as “a Muslim writer” or “Borwen writer,” and I don’t even understand what that means.
Anyway, for now at least, I am not sure where I am heading, but I am confident about the following:
A—I don’t want to be sad, or a prisoner of my own nostalgia. It’s an excellent opportunity to be here, and I am thirsty. I want to learn everything, and to rethink everything I used to believe in.
B—I wish to be part of the community that I am living in and to be able to give back.
C—It’s all connected darling, what happens here effects on what is going there. If Trump becomes a president for another four years, that means Sisi in Egypt will be president for another ten years, which mean NO Egypt for me for another ten years. So all battles are connected, and the show goes on.
“I want to learn everything, and to rethink everything I used to believe in.”
8. You’ve spoken about being under strict surveillance in Cairo after being released from prison. Do you think living under this daily surveillance will have a lasting effect on your writing?
Being out of Egypt doesn’t mean I am totally free. I still have family there. Also, the surveillance continues even if you left the country. Lately, the current Egyptian government is following the political opponents who are living abroad, and even writers. Alaa Al-Aswiny, the well-known Egyptian writer, has been sued by military prosecutors because of his last novel. Sometimes the embassies refuse to renew the dissident’s passports.
I believe censorship and surveillance are part of modern life, and part of the writer’s job is to deal with it sometimes by fighting, sometimes by coaxing. It’s not only about political issues, but social values are playing an important role, and fighting against it is harder than fighting against authoritarian authorities.
9. What advice do you have for young writers?
I don’t have anything to say for young writers. The opposite: I would like a bit of advice from them. My advice is for the old writers: Don’t get comfortable with what are you doing just because everyone around you is clapping for whatever you say. Don’t give your readers (or worse, your editor) what they are expecting; it’s refreshing to lose some readers from time to time.
10. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Lately, I have been thinking about Salman Rushdie. If we once met and had the time, I would like to know how he did it and escaped from the battle that they tried to drag him into, and was able to re-shape and reform his identity and his writing style, and how he was able to escape from the frames that constricted him.
11. In an interview with Electric Literature, you said: “Leaving Egypt now allows me to finally breathe and think freely, to test out my ideas, and reexamine everything that’s happened.” How do you anticipate your work will change while you are living in America?
Writing is a way of understanding yourself, and also following your environment. I am open to everything, and I am sure that living in America will have an impact on my writing. Until now I only wrote a short text about my experience as a father in America after we got our baby.
Now we are in Las Vegas, a crazy city full of stories and inspiration. I am sure to be able to understand all of this, I have to write about it.
Another thing is the audience and the language. Before coming here when I was writing, I used to imagine my readers to be Egyptian or Arab. Arabic also was the language that I used. But since we arrived here, I started to think differently, and even sometimes, like answering your questions, I use English.
When thrown into prison, you realize that the hustle and bustle, the friends, all the pomp and fanfare, everything that has ever surrounded you all disappear into thin air. Nothing remains. The beloveds, the mothers, and the wives are the only ones who continue to linger, persistent. Diligently visiting, preparing food, bringing clothes and socks, and snatching a quick hug at the end of every visit as they bid you farewell.
In 2016, I was sentenced to a two year prison sentence because I simply wrote a novel. A civilian had filed the case against me, and the prosecutor had gladly found me guilty of “violating public morals”, an affront to Egyptian families’ sense of propriety, dangerously poisoning children’s minds. The court concurred, found me guilty and sentenced me to two years in prison, locking me up, ridding society of my imminent corrupting influence. I was reeling from a deep shock. It had never for a moment crossed my mind that I could be imprisoned for writing a novel. It was a precedent in the whole history of the Egyptian legal system. And here I am, trapped in the dark heart of the system.
In the prison visiting areas, I have witnessed the strongest and most ferocious of men break down in front of their mothers and wives. Luckily, our visiting area was a little more humane in comparison to other prisons, as there was no wall separating the prisoners from the visitors. We would all sit in one room on marble benches protruding from the walls, harboring scurrying ants and cockroaches, their thirst quenched by the prisoners’ and families’ tears.
When I was first sent to prison, I wasn’t allowed any visitors for thirty days. As the first visit edged closer, one of my more seasoned cellmates explained to me the necessity of shaving my beard and properly combing my hair. One of the inmates lent me some hair cream to give my hair a less unkempt appearance, while another allowed me a few sprays from cologne that he kept in a plastic bottle. When your loved ones see you, you have to look shipshape, in tip-top condition according to most of the other prisoners. You don’t want to give your family reason to be alarmed, to increase their misery or anxiety, especially since in coming all the way out there to visit you, they too have endured hardship and have been waiting since the crack of dawn for hours at the gates in the scorching sun until they are allowed to enter.
With the nearing approach of every visit, rituals had been established: the “ironing” of my navy prisoner’s uniform by placing it under the mattress, getting my hair cut by the prisoner’s barber in return for a pack of cigarettes, waking up early to shave my beard and take a shower: the preparations for a romantic date. These were the only moments of love available to us. Through perseverance and a focused attention on all the preparations leading up to the visit, you guard that love, water it and nourish it.
After the second visit, the investigations officer called me into his office. He told me that my fiancée had asked about the procedures and paperwork required to marry an inmate on prison grounds. With a smirk on his face, he said he wanted to make sure that I approved and wanted to marry her, and that he wasn’t putting the squeeze on me.
This particular officer, along with a bunch of others, seemed to admire my love for Yasmine, so they temporarily looked the other way regarding the rules that state only first-degree relatives are allowed visiting rights. Although no official legal status bound us, they let her see me, pretending she was my relative.
Yasmine and I weren’t even engaged back then. We had met a few months earlier in the desert of south Sinai, close to the area where the children of Israel had wandered for forty years. Until then our budding relationship had witnessed no disagreements or tribulations; we would look at each other, incredulous, astounded by how all this time had passed with no problems or misunderstandings to speak of. When the time came to go to court, Yasmine accompanied me to the hearing as a concerned human rights lawyer, and because never, in our wildest dreams, had we anticipated all that was about to happen, she had hurriedly left me to attend to another case, while I awaited my sentence. When my mother came to visit me at the police station prior to my transfer to prison, Yasmine was there as “just a concerned lawyer”. By the first visit a month later, my mother began to suspect that Yasmine was not just my lawyer. Egyptian laws do not acknowledge any kind of relationship or social commitment between a man and a woman save marriage; it’s rarer still for society to accept non-marital romantic commitments. Strangely enough, however, the police officer accepted Yasmine’s prison visits and our claims that we were engaged, though we were not even wearing engagement rings.
Our misgivings remained, however, and continued to worry us. What if a sudden change in the Basha’s or Bashas’ mood led them to call off Yasmine’s visits? It was then that Yasmine thought of marriage, since it would allow her the official legal rights to visit me. But we were apprehensive. We knew that my time in prison, however long that would last, was a temporary situation and we didn’t want our wedding day memories to be saddled with the prison guards’ loathsome grins, be weighed down by metal handcuffs and blue prison uniforms with crawling cockroaches.
After the 2016 April Tiran and Sanafir island protests, a fair number of youth and political detainees were arrested and sent to the prison where I was, which led to a visible increase of the patrols and security level. With the increase of inmates, officers, plain-clothes detectives and police guards all became more edgy and short-tempered. It was during that period, that I went down to the visiting area during a scheduled visit and was terrified when I saw that my mother was there alone, without my brother or Yasmine. A thousand and one thoughts raced through my mind. What could have possibly happened? A few minutes later, my brother came from the chief of the prison investigation’s office. My brother told me, “They aren’t going to allow Yasmine to see you.” The detainees’ families had been waiting at the prison gate, and the prison’s administration had arbitrarily decided not to acknowledge the validity of the visiting permits they carried. Being a lawyer, Yasmine had intervened to help the families and put pressure on the prison administration to allow them to see their loved ones inside. The prison’s administration was angry and, to spite her, predictably decided to enforce the visiting regulations so that she couldn’t visit me.
After my brother had talked to me, the officer called me in to see him. A long lecture ensued about how he had broken the rules and allowed Yasmine to visit me, due to his magnanimity, forbearance, and out of regard for our love for one another. However, he continued, Yasmine’s causing a commotion and raising a ruckus, and interfering in matters that are none of her business will force him to deal with her according to the rules. I stood there silently. It was a silly exercise and display of power; a game that the authority had played with thousands of Egyptians and political activists. He very well knew that if he talked to Yasmine directly, she would hold fast to the law, to her role as a lawyer and to the families’ right to visit their detained sons and daughters. However, he also knew that if used his authority as a jailor to address me as a prisoner, I would in turn ultimately end up using his language, logic and words when addressing Yasmine because I wanted to continue to see her during visits. I would emotionally pressure here into compromising and doing what he wanted. I felt totally powerless and helpless. The quiet futility of it all slowly swept over me. Holding my head up high for the first time when addressing him I said “do whatever you want in the future, but I do want to see Yasmine today.” He allowed Yasmine to see me for a few minutes at the end of the visit.
In the coming weeks, the chief of investigations and I reached an unspoken agreement. He had come to understand that three things were important to me: books, Yasmine’s visits and the letters that we sent each other. Everyone in the prison’s administration took pleasure in reading those letters, which reached me days later, after they had been examined and shown to the different security apparatuses. In turn, he took care that these three things remained so that he could use them to make me comply to what he wanted, either by allowing or by denying them. Every time he allowed me one of the books that were sent to me, he always used the telling phrase, “here’s your opium.”
In the visiting room, feelings, tears, laughs and the tension that underlies the feelings that haven’t yet been fully formed are given free rein and released. All this takes place right under the noses of the jailors, and the prisoners that watch one another. When the women visiting their husbands are Niqabis, things become increasingly complicated. One inmate confessed in a moment of weakness how during the past eighteen months, he never got to see his wife’s face once. The visits became an extension of his imprisonment rather than a relief from it. During the visit, just like in his cell, he recreates from memory his wife’s face with all its details.
Another colleague circumvented the visiting room’s regulations by having his sister hold up a little prayer rug, creating a barrier between him and his wife and the rest of the visiting area so that his wife could remove her face veil. In the beginning, the guards overlooked this, but with the passing of time one of them would loudly clear his throat and say “that is forbidden.” The sister would then bring down the prayer rug and the wife would cover her face once more, and that momentary feeling of privacy that they had tried to recreate would evaporate.
Prison laws state that visiting time is one whole hour. Yet, it was rare that we would actually get an hour. Depending on the officer’s mood, the visit’s duration would fluctuate and whenever the bell rang, it was time for goodbyes and hugs. Some prisoners were lucky. Those were the ones who had succeeded in establishing mutually beneficial relations with the prison administration. Those benefits could be based either on the prisoner’s connections or because they spied on their inmates telling the officers what they heard or saw, and in return they would get extra time during visits or according to one investigative officer they would get an “extra dose of emotional opium.”
During December of 2016, as a result of her work as a lawyer and a human rights activist, Yasmine was subjected to a fierce smear campaign carried out by pro-state propagandist media and security apparatuses. I never realized how vicious and defamatory the campaign was until my mother’s and brother’s visit. Yasmine was not with them. Mohamed, my brother succinctly explained just how ferocious the campaign was and that a number of lawsuits had been filed against her, accusing her of cooperating with terrorists because one of her 2014 clients had been accused of the 2016 St.Peter and St.Paul church bombing. Some of Yasmine’s friends who were lawyers too, had advised her to stop visiting me in prison because the authorities might arrest or harass her if she did.
That day, at the end of the visit, the officer asked me, “So where is your fiancée?” I tersely responded, “ She is a little tired.” He smiled and nodded. I realized by his look that he had received new directives about Yasmine and me. I was no longer allowed either to receive or send letters to her. I feared for Yasmine. I sent her a message through Alaa Abd El Fattah who had a visit due a few days after mine. I told him to get word to her through his family that she mustn’t come visit me.
That night I slept feeling that I was falling from one prison into another, far darker and gloomier. I had been in prison for a year now. With Yasmine no longer able to visit me, I felt that everything that had preceded this was just a precursory phase to the real prison and its darkness; one without Yasmine and where constant worry and fear for your loved ones outside of prison sinks its claws into your heart. For the first time, my faith and trust in my ability to get through this ordeal had been shaken, for without Yasmine why even resist? I slept in the prison’s darkness, isolated without an opiate capable of relieving the pain.
I kept counting the days, marking them in the small notebook I had managed to smuggle into prison. After 303 days, I was finally released and the rest of my two-year prison sentence was suspended. My case is still pending in the courts, however. Yasmine and I married and temporarily enjoyed our hard-earned happiness. But we knew it would be impossible to continue this way, seeing how things stood. My writing was implicitly banned, and the high appeal court was still looking into my case to determine if I should be cleared. We planned to leave Egypt in search for new opportunities, to expand our horizons, acquire new skills and knowledge. Soon after, Yasmine received a scholarship to study law in the states and moved there in June 2017 to pursue her studies. The plan was that I would soon join her. Upon arriving at the airport to catch my flight, I discovered I had been banned from traveling and was placed in custody yet again, but this time for a couple of hours.
Nearly a year and half after having been released from prison on December 20th, 2016, my case is still pending and my travel ban remains. Every time I tweet or publish an article harboring the slightest critique of the current regime in Egypt, I receive a menacing phone call. I live in a state of fear to which I have grown accustomed; I have convinced myself that for now fear is good…it makes you cautious, a helpful survival mechanism. More painful than fear is having to wait yet again. The seemingly endless waiting for Godot. A couple of weeks ago we joyfully learned that Yasmine is pregnant, yet I am more frustrated than ever that I’m not allowed to be with her during this time, yearning to be together even more. Every week, I make the journey to court asking if they have set a date for my trial. The answer is always the same: “Check in with us next week”. So I keep counting the days, nourishing the hope, nurturing the love.
Translated by: Radwa El Barouni
 In Egypt, convicted criminals wear blue prison uniforms, while those in remand wear white prison uniforms. Those on death row wear red uniforms.
 Basha comes from the Ottoman title Pasha and is used in Egypt to refer to police officers. It has come to evoke the police’s arrogance, sense of entitlement and superiority, and mistreatment of people. Naji is using it both ironically and non-ironically here.
 Mukhbir: a plain-clothes detective that is a feature of Egyptian public space as well as within institutions.
Was published first in: https://harpers.org/archive/2018/01/after-the-revolution-2/
Iwas in a classroom in Turkey recently, explaining the word utopia. From u and topos: “no-place,” possibly a pun on eu-topos, “good place.” See also: dystopia. That, too, is a place that doesn’t exist, but—
“Oh,” someone interrupted, “it exists.”
My students were Syrian refugees, and they were taking no lessons on where the border lay between the real and the unthinkable. They knew that not all dystopias are fictional, that one person’s nightmare is another’s dark norm. For them, survivors of tyranny and war, it was no great leap to imagine a place in which, as the OED defines the word, “everything is unpleasant or bad.”
Dystopian literature has its representative figures and their defining specters—Orwell, rule by fear; Huxley, rule by consumerism—and their descendants have opened up the genre to a strangely thrilling variety of possible hells. Hell tends to be another word for “dehumanization,” and the key insight of this recent flowering is that there are as many ways to dehumanize as there are humans to write them. Whatever the threat in question—climate meltdown, runaway mutants, an all-knowing state—these works are usually understood as cautionary tales. The alternate worlds they present are supposed to shock us into repairing this one. Their implied tense is the future perfect: this is what will have happened, they warn, if we don’t pay attention. But they also serve as reminders that for many, the world is already a dystopia.
Three new novels from Egypt, where the revolutionary hope of 2011 has given way to a society in which things are, by many accounts, worse than ever, hold up a black mirror to the present. “The future is now. And it stinks, I tell you.” That’s Bassam Bahgat, the narrator of Ahmed Naji’s Using Life. He’s writing twenty years after the Catastrophe, a series of violent natural events that leave Cairo buried under a tsunami of sand and result in the building of New Cairo on its outskirts. (This is not very far from reality—sandstorms blow through Cairo every spring, and the government is planning a new capital in the desert; China has already pledged $35 billion.) Dystopia is often linked to natural disaster, but here the novelist’s device seems to function less as a warning than as a coping mechanism for somber times: if politics get you down, lie back and think of Armageddon. Nakba (“catastrophe”) and naksa (“setback”)—references to the Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967—are now only shorthand for the Storm. By commandeering the political obsessions of the old order, this brave new world seems to have done away with history itself.
Not that Bassam has much time for regret. He’s suspicious of nostalgia, which he sees as a form of amnesia:
For several years after the event, many made desperate attempts to save what they could. The Egyptian people were joined in the perpetuation of this farce by UNESCO and the people of the world. “Humanity faces a catastrophe.” “Our heritage is threatened with extinction.” To hell with all of it, really. As if Cairo’s very existence were not a disaster in and of itself. As if abandoning it to such a sorry state long before the naksa, and the devolution of its human residents into soulless beasts, were not the real tragedy.
Behind this snub, we are given to understand, lurks a complicated affection. Using Lifeis an old man’s letter to his youth, a bittersweet portrait of Cairo before it was destroyed. This turns out to be a report on what is for us the recent past, its details recalling the years around 2011. It was a time of house parties and arguments and hash, of stifling bus rides and talking until morning before melting into bed “like honey.” Bassam and his friends struggle to live and love in a city where a welter of slow-burning crises conspire to eat them alive. It’s not just the raw displays of state power; it’s also the smell of waste, the traffic, the harassment, the repression. Yet however much he insists that Cairo was a “miserable, hideous, filthy .?.?. overcrowded, impoverished, angry .?.?. shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” his memories cast it in a prelapsarian glow. There are moments of exquisite feeling—a lover’s “soft-spoken thighs,” Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieking “like a hen laying its first egg.” Bassam is both disenchanted (from reading Foucault he learned that “there was no longer any hope”) and full of passionate intensity, just like a young man, or rather like a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth. (Naji is just past thirty.)
Things start to veer off course, and the novel into outright fantasy, when Bassam falls in with the Society of Urbanists, a shadowy outfit with pharaonic ambitions in urban planning— like the Freemasons, if they’d stuck to masonry. Though global and tentacular, the group is centered in Cairo: its members might meet at the base of the pyramids, or naked in a Jacuzzi, or in a plane circling the city. Our desultory hero is recruited to make a film about them in the style of “documentary hyperrealism” (“What cocksucking Frenchman came up with such a lame idea?”), and slowly teases out their philosophy, which involves a lot of esoteric knowledge, fierce secrecy, and the eating of watery food. His recruiter, Ihab Hassan (a real-life theorist of postmodernism, one of the novel’s many in-jokes), lets him in on the secret. The society’s members keep an archive of the architectural truths they have discovered over the millennia, which are transmitted “like phantom genetic material” among them. Some of this data is published—James Joyce and the brothers Grimm, and almost every visionary you can think of, were Urbanists in disguise—and some is kept at the bottom of the sea. The society was responsible for the world’s first city, the Suez Canal, the catacombs of Paris, cheap postwar housing, and almost everything else. Its members, we are hardly surprised to discover, can be traced back to Adam.
The design of modern Cairo, according to this pseudo-history, was the result of a power struggle between the Urbanists and a coterie of European architects, which the Urbanists lost. Now, under the leadership of a ruthless, nationless mind reader called Paprika, they want redress. (Softcore descriptions of every female character’s figure are gratuitous—“her breasts pressed against her T-shirt like a pair of lemons”—and in Paprika’s case somewhat undermine her mystique as an evil shape-shifting sprite.) Their mission is the eradication of pain through architecture. Their powers are limitless, their logic neatly hubristic: to end suffering, many must die. After the disaster, they embark on a project of radical social engineering whose ripples extend well beyond Cairo:
The whole world was now more or less the same: no room for rebellion, no space for screaming. The forests had been masterfully redesigned, and temperatures kept carefully under control. . . . Peacocks were placed under strict surveillance, as the number of endangered species increased with every passing hour.
Once the utopians have had their way with it, the unruly city comes to seem a paradise lost. Ostensibly a document of frustration with the old world, the novel is also an attempt to imagine how much more miserable things could be. Yes, it seems to say, this life is unlivable, but how would we feel if we lost it all?
As though in response to this question, soon after an excerpt from the book was published in an Egyptian magazine in 2014, a surreal chain of events landed Naji in jail for “violating public morality.” It’s hard not to read Benjamin Koerber’s rollicking translation in light of Naji’s legal ordeal, which began after a “concerned citizen” complained to the public prosecutor that a scene involving cunnilingus had caused him heart palpitations and psychological harm. As Koerber explains in his introduction, Naji’s case marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been imprisoned for a work of fiction. One of the ironies of the case is that the offending chapter was also the novel’s happiest, one in which simple pleasures—morning sex, a walk in the sun—become scraps of joy snatched from the jaws of the city. Another is that Naji, who has written critically and explicitly about the current regime in his journalism, should have been undone by a work that announces itself so clearly as fiction; the prosecutor took the chapter to be a confession of its author’s indecent behavior. Naji was acquitted last year; his case is pending retrial, but a bootleg copy of his novel circulates online. The book is an experiment, wild and weird, full of non sequiturs and oddball imagery. (The text is interspersed with surreal comics by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Perhaps it is subversive precisely for its love of whimsy; in a culture beset with political gloom, it agitates for the freedom to be unserious.
If Naji’s dystopia has the low-stakes lightness of a dream, Mohammad Rabie’s Otared is an unadulterated nightmare. The novel begins with a cannibal crime scene of rare ghoulishness and gets steadily grimmer. Our guide to this underworld is Ahmed Otared, good cop turned partisan. It’s 2025, and East Cairo has been occupied for two years by the armies of the Knights of Malta, land pirates with no territory of their own who speak “Arabic like Tunisians, and English in many different dialects.” The invasion was as swift and total as it was unopposed; only a lionhearted few still hold out. The bourgeois island of Zamalek has become the eye of the resistance. From the top of a tower in its midst, Otared, a matchless sniper, looks out over the divided city (the West remains free) and trains his scope on the enemy, cold-blooded behind his mask. “I was an ancient Egyptian god with a borrowed face, whose true features no man could ever know. . . . A Greek god, full of contempt for the world that he’d created.”
Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of armed struggle, it does not take long for the resistance to overstep even the widest definition of guerrilla warfare and devolve into outright slaughter. What is remarkable about this shift is how slow we are to notice it. Otared is a companionable narrator, and at first we cannot see the murderer for the fancy prose style; one of the novel’s most chilling moves is the ennoblement of evil through formal beauty. Served by Robin Moger’s exceptionally fine translation, its mazelike structure and sensitive flashes of description are a lesson in the seductions of art. (Here is our terminator describing a line of blood: “It reminded me of an ostrich’s tail feather, a column of water rising from a fountain, the glowing tracks of fireworks launched across the sky.”) At regular intervals Otared takes stock of those he has killed, and these lists grow longer every time, a paratactic mess of names and bodies. Yet the slowly gathering rhythm has the effect of an ostinato, a musical pattern repeated and amplified. Violence is so carefully and insistently woven into the pattern of the novel that it cannot be senseless; something else, we come to suspect, must be at work.
And so it is. One of the longer roll calls of the dead provides a hint that Otared’s killing spree might not be quite what it seems:
And I killed a southerner called Gowhar, dressed in a broad-sleeved robe. I shot him in the neck with a single bullet, and he took to his heels, bleeding, and I let him go because I knew he’d die in a few minutes and that nobody would be able to help him.?.?.?. And I looked for Samira al-Dahshuri. She’d be walking beneath the overpass, I knew, and I swept the area through my scope, and when I saw her I fired without hesitation into her liver. It had been cirrhotic for years, and maybe she felt the bullet ripping through it and killing her. Maybe that is why she hunched over and peered at the spot as she died.
What kind of a sniper is this, and why is he blessed with a total, transcendent awareness of his victims’ lives? Why, at the moment of their death, does he describe them with something close to love?
Another clue lies in the novel’s cyclical structure: some sections pan back to 2011, and at its midpoint is a single, very brief chapter set in the year of the Hegira 455, or ad 1077. It is a testament to Moger’s flair for the varieties of English—and how they might map onto the many registers of Arabic—that within a few lines it is beautifully, mysteriously apparent that we have been transported a thousand years back in time. Here, a man attends a burial and comes to a violent understanding (“Hope shall be set in your hearts, and hope there is none, and hope is your torment”), which foreshadows the novel’s final revelation. It is not spoiling things too much to say that this key, when it comes, both clarifies the novel’s cruelty and upends it, turning its sadists into angels of mercy. A dystopia can also be a world turned on its head.
Yet the realization that Otared’s savagery is only a negative image of the truth does not redeem it entirely. Having sat through the horror show—public suicide and stoning, a miscarried fetus on a plate, homeless girls raped by a homeless man—one could be forgiven for not standing to applaud its basic conceptual trick. One part of the nightmare, however, contains the seed of something brighter. The chapters set in 2011 revolve around a man, Insal, who adopts a little girl after her parents disappear. The girl, Zahra, develops a strange ailment that causes her eyes, ears, and mouth to seal themselves shut until she is nothing but a smooth lump of flesh that has to be fed through a tube, cut off from the world of the senses. Eventually she is reunited with an aunt who suffers from the same affliction. That Zahra’s character should be one of the few not only to survive the novel but to experience a moment of connection comes as a poignant relief.
Zahra kept running her hand over her aunt’s cheek. Slow, even passes, testing out her favored sense: touch. At the nasal openings, she stopped, lifted her head, and stuck the tips of her first and middle fingers into the holes. There was a momentary lull, then the aunt released a sudden blast from her nose and Zahra snatched her hand away in feigned alarm. The aunt rocked her head back, as did the girl, then the two foreheads met once more. They were laughing.
The drama of dystopia is that it rarely succeeds completely; these novels draw much of their power from the resilience of the human. In other words, embedded in dystopia is the possibility of miniature utopias, clearings of solidarity or autonomous thought. Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue may be named after a hallmark of authoritarian states (it shares its title with Vladimir Sorokin’s 1983 Soviet saga), but its real subject is the queuers and their stubborn fellow feeling. We are in a parallel world of Brechtian simplicity, where the highway is marked Public Road, scripture is the Greater Book, and the only newspaper is the Truth. The Gate is both a place—a door set in an octagonal fortress—and the source of all authority; it came to power after a popular uprising was crushed many years before. (The phrase “winds of change,” often heard in 2011, marks out the revolt as a reference to that one.) No aspect of life falls outside its jurisdiction: the Gate announces the arrival of winter and decides who is entitled to phone lines. Even window-shopping is taxed. When a group rises up against the reigning injustice, this, too, is brutally put down. As punishment for these Disgraceful Events, the Gate closes, and outside forms an ever-lengthening queue, which threatens to replace society itself:
So many shopkeepers spent so long in the queue that they couldn’t buy or sell anything or supervise their employees, and so they decided to get rid of their merchandise.?.?.?. No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there.
The novel is organized around a single medical file, that of Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, a man in his late thirties with a bullet lodged in his body. This he acquired during the Events, but when he is taken to the government-run hospital and sees people around him dying of bullet wounds, he realizes that a gaslighting operation is under way:
The doctor asserted that the high mortality rate was due to the fact that these rioters were simply too sensitive. Upon hearing one another’s harsh words, they’d succumbed automatically, their hearts having stopped before the ambulances even arrived. Others had stumbled upon the grisly scene and were so traumatized by it that they froze, and then they collapsed, too, falling one after another like dominoes.
Another doctor is willing to help, but nothing, not even surgery, can be done without permission from the Gate. So Yehya joins the queue and its economy of frail hope. It is a microcosm of Egyptian life: it ought to be a utopia, or at least a great leveling.
Thrown into cohabitation, people pray together, work, sleep, roast sweet potatoes, propose marriage. A conservative preacher is forced to reckon with the opinionated young woman standing next to him. But as the queue grows, inertia creeps over the crowd. Though they stand together, day after day, fear keeps them suspicious and strips them slowly “of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.”
Another obstacle to Yehya’s operation is that his bullet does not officially exist. It cannot be mentioned, let alone removed, being evidence of the state-led crackdown on the Events. (Here too reality is catching up: the 2011 revolt has been expunged from the history curriculum in Egyptian schools.) Radiology wards are shut down, their equipment confiscated; X-rays circulate like samizdat. As the hospital becomes a battleground in the war on truth, conversations in the queue are mysteriously reflected in people’s medical files, which seem to be updated in real time. It turns out that nothing of the queuers’ lives escapes the Gate, not even the hour of their death.
Elisabeth Jaquette’s limpid translation achieves the spare, sterilized quality that medical prose and the communiqués of overbearing states have in common. This economy of style is integral to a world in which human interactions have been painfully circumscribed and stripped of trust; bleakness is related to bleach. This is a study of totalitarian logic with the plainness of a Kafka parable—and, unlike Naji’s and Rabie’s novels, it pulls off its unnerving effect without resorting to the degradation of women’s bodies. (A scene of harassment on the metro ends with the offender being beaten with a handbag and decamping in fright.) Nothing human is alien to it; see how compassion has sharpened, not softened, the prose:
With practiced care, Yehya slowly bent his right knee, leaned his torso to the right, too, and then lowered one side of his skinny bottom onto the edge of the wooden chair. He let the pain swell to its full magnitude for a moment, until he knew he could bear it without groaning or crying out, and then slid his whole rear end onto the rough-edged wooden seat, stretching his left leg out a bit.
A healthy man might take three words to sit down; a man in pain takes seventy-seven. Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist who treats torture victims in Cairo, knows how wounded bodies move.
Dystopia is the putrefaction of utopia; it is the promise of perfection turned sour. After the uprising that is now a distant memory, “the Gate and its guardians had prevailed, and they emerged stronger than before.” The Queue was written before the military coup that put Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power, but it has proved prophetic. Since 2013, cases of death by torture have soared, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned without charge. Many have disappeared. The crackdown on noncompliance has led to a war on writers; Egypt is now the third-largest jailer of journalists on earth. Last June, a few months after his release from prison, Ahmed Naji wrote in a blog post about the fate of revolutionary art:
Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre–January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. . . . Only a minuscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.
These novels are among them, and they are reasons for hope.
Though its birth does not precede five years, Mahraganat music has surged into a phenomenon, invading Egypt’s sonic atmosphere and beyond. This phenomenon has crossed borders and seas and made it into the European and international acoustic vernacular.
The adolescents who, five years ago, huddled in the streets of Matariya and Salam City on Cairo’s margins, hoping for nothing more than the chance to perform at a wedding or two every week, now roam Europe, from festival to festival. There, they bring to the crowds that fervent rhythm that has brought this musical movement such a huge following in so little time.
At the turn of the millennium, the DJ had begun to make an appearance at Egyptian weddings. DJs emerged as an affordable alternative to live musicians at weddings, and their rise in popularity coincided with the spread of computers in Egypt, and the attendant affinity that primarily young men developed towards this rising profession.
Amid the economic stranglehold that the cassette tape industry imposed on chaabi music at the time—dominated as it was by industry “heavyweights” such as Amro Diab and Mohamed Fouad—the rise of the DJ all but eliminated the genre that relied on weddings as its main source of livelihood. Yet, the spread of computers and various recording programs marked the genre’s salvation. As the twenty-first century kicked off, a new generation of chaabi singers emerged, such as Mahmoud El-Leithy and Mahmoud El-Hosseiny and others, who relied on their computers to record their material, to evade the costs of studio recordings. It was this generation that was the first to make use of electronic sound effects in their music.
After computers, there came the eruption of mobile phone use, and before 3G internet, mobile phone stores would sell monophonic tunes that were coded into the phones using the phone’s keypad.
Amr, a young man from Ain Shams, worked in one such store. One day, for the sake of experimentation, rather than code a hit track onto a phone, he decided to compose his own tune. As luck would have it, this tune became a famous ringtone in the neighborhood, and in time Amr was approached by a chaabi singer, asking for permission to use the tune for one of his songs.
Amr went on to develop his musical and technological skills, adopting the moniker Doctor Amr Ħaħa, the composer of “El-Shandarbolla,” one of the first tunes that could be characterized as a Mahraganat tune.
Like electronic music, Mahraganat music relies on a base loop, but unlike Western electronic music, the loop is usually an oriental beat. The loop is cut through with rap-like vocals, backed up by a mix of sound effects and loud noises.
Ħaħa would later go on to work with dozens of artists who would in turn become the ambassadors of the genre; Sadat, Alaa Fifty, Oka & Ortega, to name a few. He was also known to occasionally collaborate with Alexandrian Mahraganat musician Filo.
These musicians cut out the role of production companies, choosing instead to resort to more democratized technologies to record their music, and releasing their creations online for free, relying on their income from live performances at weddings to earn their keep. Others, however, were not satisfied to leave it at that.
Despite its immense popularity, Mahraganat music is still derided as lowbrow, and the state fails to recognize its performers, as the majority of them are not members of the various musical syndicates—a legal prerequisite for live performances in Egypt. These prevailing attitudes culminated in Mahraganat songs being banned on state television and other mainstream channels, while radio hosts make sure not to broadcast “that kind of thing.”
Yet, against this, Mahraganat music has expanded well beyond its economic and production circles, consolidated by the emergence of alternative production companies, such as 100Copies. The company began as a production studio for electronic and experimental music, and provided Mahraganat singers with a platform to record their music. On occasion, the studio would produce songs for these artists at a symbolic cost, in exchange for the rights to the songs, which were released for free on YouTube. 100Copies relied on a model wherein they would reap advertising profits from YouTube when these songs went viral or catapulted into popularity, in addition to selling the song electronically on other outlets.
Musical groups such as Oka & Ortega and El-Dakhlaweya focused their efforts on trying to go to the silver screen, and appearing in on-screen dramas, such as the popular show “Fifa Atata” starring Mohamed Saad, and the films of Mohamed El-Sobky and Mohamed Ramadan.
Yet, another camp chose to chart a different course; with the Arab Spring came an upsurge in attention from the media and the West towards the region and its cultural production, creating a pathway into European concerts and festivals. Among the most prominent musicians who tool this course was Islam Chipsy, who evolved his music to include additional visual aspects, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized faces of the genre abroad.
Mahraganat emerged during a boom in cultural production, in an atmosphere that was far more celebrating of diversity, providing young people with an outlet to express themselves amid revolutionary spirits and a proliferation of violence that has continued to this day. This was reflected in the lyrics of Mahraganat songs, which often avoid sentimentality, but rather express the difficulty of surviving in a treacherous environment, as related in 2015’s hit single, “Mafĩsh Săħib Beyetsăħib.”
As time goes by, more stringent measures are imposed to restrict the space for broadcasting Mahraganat, such as the granting power of arrest to the then-head of the Musical Syndicate, Hany Shaker. While the future remains uncertain, one thing that seems to be clear is the inverse proportionality between official tolerance towards Mahraganat and its popularity.
In 2003, French philosopher Alain Badiou gave for the first time his lecture entitled “Fifteen Theories on Contemporary Art” at New York’s Drawing Center. In his lecture, Badiou explains the determining features of contemporary art, including a definition of what he calls “non-imperial art.” Badiou bases his definition on Antonio Negri’s theory of Empire as a modern, deterritorialized system that rules a global political economy—the concept of “Empire” represents control through a capitalist system and state-based legal authority. In art, as in politics, this imperial system has produced rules that now govern the world of art. These rules harness revolutionary endeavors, coopting it to become a part of the vast production mechanisms of artistic merchandise.
Three main strategies buttress this system of artwork production around the world. First is the prevalence of intellectual property rights worldwide, which restrict artists’ ability to create collaboratively. Second is a constant focus on the same artists and creative individuals. Last a particularly defined protocol for the evaluation and appreciation of artists. This protocol is based on the number of awards received, the size of an artist’s sales, or even the most “views” or “likes” in today’s world of online art and social networks.
According to Badiou, however, art can be “real and non-imperialist,” functioning outside the logic of Empire. It can even challenge this logic of rule and undo its grip. In one of the theories introduced in his lecture, Badiou explains: “Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.”
In 2011, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) translated Badiou’s lecture into Arabic and published it in Egypt. ACAF is one of the most active centers of arts and culture in the country and one that has played a vital role in creating an environment suitable for knowledge, learning, and discussion amongst the country’s artists. ACAF provides an oasis in a desert environment; arts education in Egypt is stifled by strict censures and terribly outdated syllabi.
In 2012, ACAF organized a three-day conference entitled: “Art and Change,” which featured a talk by Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The conference provided a rare opportunity for Egyptian artists to discuss the political and social scene in the country, as well as try to understand the place that the arts and artists would take in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution.
The year after January 25, 2011 witnessed an exponential growth in public arts. Suddenly, public art was present on most streets; public squares and parks were filled with free concerts. The monthly AlFan Midan (Art is a Square) festival, a music festival in Abdin Square in Cairo and a number of other squares in cities around Egypt, was established. The festival quickly became a place for a number of artists and musicians to sing freely, with no censorship whatsoever. Graffiti also took off in Egypt at that time, fostered by galleries and arts organizations.
Egypt’s artists were the happiest they had been in a while. They were calling for fewer restrictions on the Ministry of Culture and presenting plans that would enable everyone to use the Ministry’s facilities, not just state-approved artists. At that time, dreams of freeing arts and culture in Egypt of all censorship and cultivating creative and artistic freedom across the board were beginning to take flight.
These days ended with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power. Shortly before former President Muhammad Morsi took office, ACAF shut down its headquarters and stopped all its activities—to this day, Baroni refuses to comment or explain the reasons behind that. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise, the arts and culture scene soon came under their attempts to grasp full control, with the appointment of a minister who most artists and cultural figures agreed was bent on stifling the arts scene in Egypt even more.
The “revolutionary art” of Egypt that emerged in the wake of the revolution appeared as an artistic expression carrying a clear and direct political message. It had, however one flaw. The subject of this form of art in Egypt shifted many times, from mocking Mubarak and his regime, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally to the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. A lot of what was known as revolutionary art was therefore reactive art, and not a “rigorous mathematical demonstration.” Its expression was in reaction to political events, and was thus changing as these events changed. Where revolutionary art is meant to affect the media, it was instead guided by it. With the changing events, the art changed in response and its message was rendered an article of the past. Art became a piece of history rather than true, forward-facing, revolutionary art. If the revolutionary art of the time, be it songs or drawings or other works of art, mocked and criticized Mubarak, how does this art remain revolutionary after Mubarak is gone and a new, seemingly more violent, phase has started?
A year after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power, all these various reactionary songs, paintings, and artistic expressions that presented themselves as revolutionary pieces of art have disappeared. They have become part of the past, with their value stemming solely from their connection to the past. All of this begs the question: Was this truly revolutionary art or simply another form of consumerist artwork?
The year the Muslim Brotherhood spent in power was difficult for anyone working in the fields of art or culture; the political struggle with the Brotherhood forced everyone to become involved. Some artists saw their independence of all political struggles as paramount, while others saw that true revolution meant not only criticizing the Brotherhood but being able to criticize the army as well. This latter opinion was vastly unpopular in the political calculations of that time, with civilian groups believing they needed the army to help remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
That year also witnessed strong alliances being made between what is known as revolutionary art and big Egyptian corporations. What started off as revolutionary art suddenly became mainstream, with large bottled soda companies and other monopolies in the Egyptian market using bands from “Al Midan” (Tahrir Square) to play in their advertisements. We are now at a point where revolutionary art is turning into commercial art. Even more so, the commercial values about smiling, happiness, and other human development values have started to creep into artistic expression, leading to horribly shallow works of art.
Meanwhile, some artists decided to go deeper underground, as far away from the noise as possible, making do with small marginal venues to present their art. One example is Aly Talibab, who patiently continued his own projects away from revolutionary rhetoric or direct political phrases. Rather, he steered that rhetoric from the collective cacophony of the art scene to his own individual voice. Instead of using his art as a revolutionary megaphone, Talibab’s work instead expresses the confusion and fear of the country’s current reality. Another example is rapper MC Amin, who presented a number of direct political songs, collaborating with Egypt’s “mahrajanat” artists to present what has become known as “rapgagiya,” a fusion of the Egyptian folk art of “mahrajanat” and rap.
Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre-January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. Right now, we see the reactionary revolutionary art of the past few years exiting the advertising and commercial market it had succumbed to after its start as revolutionary art. This revolutionary-turned-commercial art is even being thrown out by the advertising companies that have milked it dry. These new forms of art are being pushed back into the small space that they were able to grab or create after January 25.
Most recently, the Ministry of Interior has canceled the AlFan Midan festival, and repeated the cancellation even after Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour tried to intervene on behalf of the festival. The Ministry of Interior is also on the hunt for graffiti artists, and many have been arrested and handed long prison sentences for painting anti-regime phrases on walls.
This tightening of the arts scene continues with the recent law issued by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi that increased penalties for anyone receiving foreign funding that may be suspected as detrimental to national security. This law, even if not used directly to prohibit artists, will inevitably lead to the limiting of dozens of arts and culture centers, as organizations close due to lack of funding or fear of retribution. This will affect the work of places like the ACAF, which are now under threat of arbitrary closure or even imprisonment.
As for Egypt’s artists, a number of them have left the country, especially those that were labeled as “revolutionary” artists. Most prominent among these are graffiti artist Ganzeer, who is currently in Brooklyn, New York, and singer Rami Essam, whose songs became famous in the very first days of the January 25 revolution, and who recently relocated to Sweden.
Four years after January 25, revolutionary art is now one of two things. For some, it has become an endeavor undertaken in foreign lands. For others, it has become a watered-down, almost meaningless and valueless form after its exploitation by the very corporations that represent the regime that was the target of the art in the first place. While ACAF director Bassan Baroni tried to create a space that would allow artists to gain knowledge and perhaps someday create art as “rigorous as a mathematical demonstration,” Egypt’s streets and screens are now filled with dozens of artists from all walks who prefer to blend into the moment, turning the artists into an echo chamber for the voice of the masses.
Only a miniscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.
Published for the first time on the old blog at Aug. 2013
The time for retreat is past and all the chances to avoid this path have been burned up. The incendiary speeches are escalating from every side and are morphing from incitement to war speeches. The television stations put up the slogan “Egypt is fighting terrorism” written in English and no one tells us who and what terrorism we are fighting? Are they Al-Qaeda? Ansar al-Sharia? The Al-Nusra Front? The Brotherhood? A little of this and a little of that?
We don’t know, and the soldier who is only twenty-one years old doesn’t know, but he obeys the orders of the gunman who directs him to get out of the bus so that he can be executed from behind. Likewise, someone else is led to the hearse, better known as the police truck, to die of asphyxiation.
No one stops to ask questions or demand accountability. War has its rules, but civil war falls outside the rules and the ethics of opposing armies. Civil war has its own clear goals, and they are usually ethnic cleansing and the siege of one faction or group. This always fails. For proof you can look around yourself or in history books, or look at the performance of the Egyptian military state since July 23, 1952 to confirm for yourself that prison and prohibition have never been useful in eliminating the Brotherhood or other supporters of religious despotism.
Why, then, do we repeat the same mistakes that were made thirty years ago when Islamist groups were first released from Pandora’s box in the seventies?
The same old story that happened in the seventies is being played out right now. The military power in the seventies used the Islamist groups to get rid of the remains of Nasserism and the revolutionary left and, once it had accomplished that, the Islamist groups became a danger to this military power and it decided to take them on by force. Throughout the eighties and the nineties we saw how the state fought with unparalleled failure. The same story is being repeated by the military council and the security apparatus who refuse to try any other approach, and if anyone opposes their approach, the result is accusations of treason.
The state did not adopt any program against the ideology of religious despotism. Instead, it exploited this ideology, working to stay one step ahead of the Islamists. The most obvious evidence of this is the second article of the constitution, which Sadat put into place as part of this exploitation. In the same way, the civil state constitution will be written, under the presidency of Adly Mansour, with its sectarian articles and their comprehensive sources.
At the same time, the state left room for a faction of the Islamists to participate in the political process, run in elections, and share in power. In the eighties, this faction was the Brotherhood and now it appears that it’s the Salafi’s turn. It’s obvious that Dr. Yasser Al-Burhami is sitting back confidently waiting to gather the spoils.
In the eighties a large group of intellectuals, writers, and artists joined the state’s battle. At that time, the slogan was enlightenment fighting the forces of darkness. This proposed option of enlightenment was nothing more than a group of theses on renewing the religious discourse and leaving everything to a deeply corrupt regime without a position or a message. Now, some people are using slogans about fighting religious fascism or accepting the authority’s oppression and violence because it is the only way to stop religious violence. But in the morgue, clothes are removed from the bodies and it becomes difficult to tell the soldiers from those who are called “terrorists” or from people who were just passing by at the time of the clashes. Even more importantly, the path that the current authorities are on has no indication of leading us over this ocean of blood to a civil state in which citizenship and equality are achieved. The committee that is working on amending the constitution decided to keep the sectarian articles that restrict citizens’ freedom of belief. Not only that, but the committee added, on the suggestions of some, an article to protect the office of the president of Egypt from protests, as though an article in the constitution could protect the president or any authority from the public’s anger.
Fighting terrorism or groups devoted to religious despotism is not a battle that we can win by liberating a piece of land or killing and arresting the largest possible number of people. It is, fundamentally, a battle of ideas and of a way of life that the Egyptian middle class chose to defend on July 30. Accepting the authority’s violence and illegal violations, and the nonsense that is taking place right now vis-à-vis the constitution means complete defeat in the battle against “terrorism” even if the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and the entire Guidance Office is arrested.