Farewell to the youth

I first saw the beast in 2005, in downtown Cairo, in front of the Journalists Syndicate steps. Young men and women gathered and chanted “kifaya” (enough). The beast, dressed in military uniform, stormed out of police vehicles. It was also disguised in civilian attire, beating up protesters and dragging them along the ground. In the streets of downtown Cairo, security forces undressed and sexually assaulted female protesters. It was a great shock. We thought this was the worst the beast could do to us. We thought this offense was enough to destroy the beast. These presumptions reflect the naivety and arrogance of our youth, and are telling of its pure heart and true emotions. Repelled by the consequent feverishly confrontational rhetoric, I withdrew from all battles with the beast.

I had encountered the same naivety five years earlier. I was a high school student in 2000 when I joined a students’ protest in solidarity with the Second Intifada. The former Israeli prime minister and war criminal, Ariel Sharon, had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque and sparked the Palestinian uprising. Israeli forces then assassinated a 12-year-old, Mohamed al-Durrah, while he was in his father’s arms. Our schoolteachers encouraged us to protest, but did not demonstrate themselves. They encouraged us to walk in small angry groups, chanting for the liberty of Palestine, vowing never to forget retribution for Durrah. The security forces then allowed us to demonstrate in bigger groups outside the schools gates, roaming the streets of Mansoura, where I spent my teenage years. The children and students surrounding me were in ecstasy because they had obtained the right to scream and found freedom in the streets for the first time. And when groups of marching students encountered each other they embraced theatrically. Schools in Mansoura, as across the country, are segregated by gender. It was amazing to watch boys and girls mingling in these protests, as opposed to the usual scene of male students waiting outside of girls’ schools to harass them, pick them up, or engage them in emotional adventures. But the crowds, screaming, over-excitement and the egoism of those miserable souls dying to lead the chants, left me mentally disassociated, despite being a part of it all.

I would learn five years later, upon my graduation from university, how Hosni Mubarak’s regime not only allowed the anti-Israel protests but supported and even instigated them. Mubarak wanted the cameras to film the angry crowds as they burned the Israeli flag in order to point at the image, address the gods in Oslo’s mountains and Washington’s valleys and say, “I am here to control these beasts, so that they don’t burn down everything.” When the anti-Mubarak protests later took to the streets, security forces encircled them. Because they had not become beasts yet, Mubarak’s regime made sure they did by undressing female protesters and sexually assaulting young protesters. Instead of becoming beasts, however, they chose defeat and sought revenge through victimhood.

I became jaded by the ridiculousness of the charades we are summoned to participate in, such as elections. This was in addition to the calls for limiting religious and sexual freedoms in the name of religion, and other travesties that conjure up the idea of the nation. They instruct you on the importance of loving the nation and tell you how to do so. These directions did not suit me or various other people I met online. We thus preferred to create our own virtual reality, outside authorities’ control. We created a space that contrasted with the tedious moral principles of our fathers. Egypt was passing through great times. Everyone on television was talking about a democratic transformation. In the authority’s blind spot, we made small venues to hold parties and play music prohibited from broadcast radio and television (both public and private), because it doesn’t contain the usual tacky love song lyrics. In one of these parties, Alaa Abd El Fattah suggested we create a parody of the president’s website, and that I compose its comic content. These were the kinds of games we played. We used delve to into our virtual bubbles and make fun of the naked king, and how his entourage and slaves praised his garments.

I met my first wife on an online forum for the fans of [popular Egyptian singer] Mohamed Mounir. We were teenagers, barely 18 years old. Together we spent an often turbulent 10 years of love, marriage and divorce, a complete cycle of life. Others met on the forums and blogs of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Revolutionary Socialists, the “foot fetish club,” the “Bin Laden warriors” or the “‘Fatakat housewives’” forum. In contrast to the [political stagnation] that manifested in catting about Mubarak’s unfading pitch-black hair dye, the internet was a new home for those holding similar views to get together. The faint humming of these groups’ discussions gradually became audible. With the help of hearing aids, the old guards began to describe that humming as the voice of youth. They labeled young people as aliens to society, and then agents of the West and immorality. In any case, they did not take young people seriously or understand them.

“The old corpses should make way for the new corpses.”

The old zombies were taking up all the seats. The zombie general, the zombie sheikh, the zombie president, the zombie businessman, the zombie ruling party, the zombie opposition, the moderate Islamist zombie, and the radical Islamist zombie. And all they offered the youth was to be zombies and let go of their idealistic dreams and ethics. We were forced to mingle with these zombies. We were forced to converse with them, coax them, sometimes praise them, in order to protect ourselves against their evil. “With cold hands, we got into their midst; we looked but could not see,” is how poet Youssef Rakha described the situation years later in his great poem, On Sleeping with Reality. When we opposed them or refused to consume their archaic understanding of the nation and religion, we were faced with torture, marginalization and siege.

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photo by : Pauline Beugnies

“Live like your parents have lived,” said the zombies. In his movie The Mummy (1969), late Egyptian filmmaker Shady Abdel Salam tells us that our parents lived as scavengers. Girls walk in the streets with their shoulders curved forward and heads looking down with a desire not to be noticed. They don’t look left or right, often getting catcalled and harassed in silence. When they decided to stand up against mass sexual assault in the heart of the city, zombies accused girls and women of attracting criminal harassers and arousing them.

Demonstrators first took to the streets to protest police brutality and torture. They were accused of insulting the police. Protests kept growing in size and magnitude, eventually calling for the removal of the zombies’ leader (who taught his disciples his hair-dying technique). The zombies then congregated to address the youth. “Consider him your father,” they said, in reference to their leader.

Common traits of young people include passion and emotional vulnerability. As much as passion fueled the revolution, gushing blood in the veins of the agitated masses, it also prompted mercy and pity. It was precisely this passion that transformed the revolution into a quest to seek retribution for the martyrs, and prevent the children from killing their zombie fathers.

In many of Pauline Beugnies’ images in her photo book Génération Tahrir, we can see heated discussions between girls and mothers, between the young and the old. What’s not audible, however, is the sound of the screams, debates and opposing views. But the photos do make clear to us the magnitude of the authority the zombie fathers possess and the immense pressure young people are under.

I knew many young men and women who took to the streets, burning car tires and occupying the frontlines in the battle against the criminal elements of the police force. But the moment their phones rang, they would quickly escape to a quiet spot to answer their mothers’ calls. “I’m fine and far away from the clashes,” they would say. They must have thought rebellion could exist in a parallel reality away from familial life. I have also known activists who work on LGBT rights and are brave enough to advocate this issue in a [conservative] society like Egypt’s. They defend these rights in a court of law, in front of the police, and so on, yet cannot muster the courage to announce this to their parents. My female friends who gave officers the finger as they were being shot with the police’s rubber bullets used to weep in the face of parental and societal pressures. They are pressured to assume a single path in life, a future that includes nothing but marriage and bearing children in a cycle of reproducing more zombies.

This cowardliness and hesitancy led young people to always try to find a middle ground, only to eventually be deprived of everything by their fathers. They cheered for moderate Islamists, as the Brotherhood youth claimed that Islam is an identity and a moderate religion compatible with democracy. The Brotherhood youth claimed there was no place for secularism in our national identity. Then the Islamist zombies announced that there was no difference between Islamic State militants and us. They called those militants “mujahidin” and pledged to send their young people to fight on their side in Syria. When young democrats cheered for the civilian coalition led by a military general, they justified this. “Look at Sisi’s eyes,” they said. “They radiate warmth and love; he will save this nation and build a secular state.” The general responded by prohibiting speech and jailing everyone. Others were killed in public squares and football stadiums.

The Gulf sheikhs, the agents of the Western gods in the region, backed up the general. Along with the zombies and the general, they opted to deprive young people of all spaces, even virtual reality. Internet surveillance systems were put in place and a single tweet could put its writer behind bars. They invested millions in the internet, turning it into a mega shopping mall, controlling its content through social media companies that decide what’s trending. If a single story surfaces on a new torture case inside an Egyptian prison, it is quickly buried under piles of entries and clicks on the new shapes of Kim Kardashian’s butt.

A few weeks ago, I began sensing a faint, dull pain in my left testicle. The doctor told me I’m suffering from a case of varicocele in my testicles. He advised me not to stay standing for long periods of time, cut back on sexual intercourse and refrain from prolonged erections. When I asked him about the cause, he simply said, without taking his eyes off his newpapers: “Most probably it is genetics and age.”

No more prolonged erections for our generation; we are dispersed all over the world. Some are in jail, some are exiled and some are willing to be drawn to the Mediterranean’s European shores. Others aim for an exit from hell to God’s promised heaven through a path of beheadings. Those who have stayed have secured a place among the zombies. They appear on television as youth representatives, take selfies with the zombie general and sheikhs, and compete over the crumbs Gulf amirs and sheikhs often throw at them.

Now it is time for documentation, archiving and preservation before we depart with the past and our youth. Let’s bid farewell to our sorrows and ghosts. Let’s search within for a new path and revolution. The greatest danger lies in giving into nostalgia, to the old ideas and principles, and to assume there is a golden moment in the past that should be retrieved. The greatest danger is in revering the picture. Any form of reverence — for the revolution or the martyrs or higher ideologies — is enough to turn you into a zombie without even noticing it.

This essay was first published in French as an introduction to the book Génération Tahrir, for which photographer Pauline Beugnies followed the stories of various artists and politicians during the 25 January revolution in 2011. Mada Masr published the original Arabic text here.

Richard Jacquemond: Ahmed Naji, the Use of Life and the zombies

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How do you feel when you learn that the author of the novel you’ve been reading and enjoying for the past few days has just been given a two-year prison sentence for violating public morality? One more on the list, you say. Tens of thousands of his fellow citizens rot in jail, where they are being abused in all sorts of ways, without any due process or a parody of it — some for wearing a T-shirt, others for demonstrating against the law that deprives them of their right to demonstrate, many more for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You’ve just spent the last two weeks grieving for Giulio Regeni, speculating with Italian, Egyptian and other colleagues and friends about the causes and consequences of his murder, reflecting on your own responsibility toward your students. You remember your colleague Atef Botros, one of the finest and bravest Egyptian scholars you met in the past few years, banned from his own country and sent back to Germany, the day before you landed yourself at Cairo Airport the last time. What to do? What can you do, back here in France, except vent your anger on Facebook and sign the usual petition?

But then you remember that you were reading Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life), not only for the fun of it, but because you’ve dedicated most of your professional life to the study and the translation of Egyptian literature and that gives you a special responsibility. You remember Pierre Rabhi’s hummingbird. Pierre Rabhi’s name may not be familiar to the Egyptian reader, but he is one of the most influential thinkers in the French environmentalist sphere. He goes around telling this Native American legend:

One day, there was a huge forest fire. All the animals were terrified, helplessly watching the disaster. All but one tiny hummingbird, which kept flying back and forth between the fire and a pond, each time throwing a few drops on the flames. An old armadillo, annoyed by this pathetic agitation, cried out: “Don’t be a fool! You won’t put out the fire with those tiny drops of water one after another! — I know, replied the hummingbird, but I’m doing my bit.”

Fortunately, lots of people around you are in motion and after a few hours you find yourself part of this chain of solidarity where you’ll be able to do your own bit in the best possible way. An old acquaintance contacts you. She works now for the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) and asks you if you’re willing to sign a statement prepared by the IFHR and translate the novel’s incriminated chapter to French. That’s the least you can do. You share the chapter with your colleague Frédéric Lagrange and get back to the novel.

Translating is as close as one can get to “close reading” and as such, it is possibly the surest quality test you can submit a text to. You can feel from the first sentences you translate that Ahmed Naji’s text passes the test. Here is everything you appreciate in a literary text: Straightforwardness, irony, and sincerity. And also — among other things — there is this love-hate relationship with Cairo that you seem to share with so many Egyptians of all ages. You are amused by his ability to call a spade a spade, and you admire this about him. Here is another proof of the modernity of Arabic fiction. For more than a century, generations of Arab writers have fought for their right to express themselves — the way they want, the way they are. You remember the epigraph to Tilka al-Ra’iha (1966), when Sonallah Ibrahim quoted James Joyce: “This country and this life produced me. I shall express myself as I am.” Naji is a worthy son of this history.

By the end of the chapter, and in the middle of the sex scene that supposedly upset the Akhbar al-Adab reader who raised all this hell, you stumble upon a verb you’ve never seen before in the thousands of pages of Arabic fiction you’ve read: “rahaztu-ha.” As usual in such cases, you first think it’s a typo, but it does not make sense. You go back to your Bible: the English version of Hans Wehr’s Arabic-German dictionary. The root is not mentioned. This gets interesting. A modern writer who uses a root too rare to be accepted by Hans Wehr must be well read in the Arabic turath — another point for Naji. You go to your online Lisan al-‘Arab through the Baheth Arabic search engine and you find it:

.الرهز: الحركة. وقد رهزها المباضع يهرزها رهزا ورهزانا فاهترزت: وهو تحركها جميعا عند الإبلاج من الرجل والمرأة

Wow! This is one of the things that made you fall in love with this language more than 30 years ago, and it still works.  You can still discover, in the course of a novel published a few months ago, a single, classical Arabic verb that conveys such a precise meaning that you cannot find its equivalent in French. And what meaning: “To move, shake a woman during sexual intercourse” — mind you, Lisan al-‘Arab is not gender sensitive.

You spend a good chunk of time pondering, while looking for a single French verb that would carry the same meaning, and of course anything you can find sounds terribly vulgar compared to this beautifully archaic Arabic verb, and nothing you find conveys its precise meaning. Did our upset reader grasp the actual meaning of rahaztu-ha before fainting? It does not matter. What matters is that there was a time when the poets, writers, theologians, and many more who wrote in Arabic could write such words. And when their colleagues, who compiled the dictionaries of “pure Arabic” (al-‘arabiyya al-fusha), did not blush when they inserted them into their lexicons with their masader (word roots), derivations and meanings. You also find the root n/i/k  (to copulate; fuck) in Lisan al-‘Arab, but you won’t find it in any modern Arabic monolingual dictionary.

This is one of the strangest, one of the most hidden effects of the Nahda (the Arab Renaissance). The intellectual Renaissance elite imported from Europe not only nationalism, the novel and plenty of other material and cultural artifacts, but they also imported Victorian values that were alien to Arab culture and strove to impose them on its societies, with the help, a few decades later, of the Wahhabi Islamic model propagated by the Saudi state.

Arab societies never ceased to cultivate all sorts of forms and places of resistance to this moral castration imposed by their elites, whether secular or religious. Maybe the deepest and the most longstanding effect of the 2011 revolutions lies in that they have shaken and cracked this paternalist, patriarchal and puritan mode of social domination. This is what most frightens the current powers that be and this is why their first enemy is not “terrorism,” whatever that means, but this rebellious youth that took to the streets in 2011, to whom Naji and his peers belong and give voice.

As it happens, I first became acquainted with Naji’s writing a few days before travelling to Cairo, last January, through a short text published in Génération Tahrir, a book he co-authored with Pauline Beugnies (photos) and Ammar Abo Bakr (drawings), published in Marseille (Le Bec en l’air). In this powerful text titled “Farewell to the youth” (Wada’an lil-shabab), Naji juxtaposes the youth against “the zombies.” Before the revolution, “the old zombies were all around the place. There was the zombie-general, the zombie-sheikh, the zombie-businessman, the zombie-ruling party, the zombie-opposition, the zombie-moderate Islam, the zombie-extremist Islam. The only choice the zombies leave the youth is to become a zombie and to abandon the idealism of dreams and ethics.” The youth revolted, but now, five years later, “the sheikhs, the zombies and the president have decided to deny the youth even virtual space. Internet is submitted to censorship and even a single tweet can send you to jail.“

I let him conclude: “The time has come to archive, to record, to collect. Then, let us bid farewell to the past and to youth. Let us bid farewell to the ghosts, let us search from inside a new revolution, a new path. The worst danger would be to give way to nostalgia, to stick to old principles and ideas, to imagine that there exists a golden age, a moment in the past that can be recovered. The worst of all dangers would be to sacralise an image. For all of these choices, even if they lead you to other forms of worship — that of the revolution, the martyrs, the superior values of ideology — may transform you into a zombie without you being aware of it.”

Editor’s note: The translations of excerpts from Ahmed Naji’s Istikhdam al-Hayah are the author’s own.