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Art in the Revolutionary Square

Ursula Lindsey Jan 24

CAIRO — On Jan. 7, under a clear chill sky, the monthly culture festival al-Fann Midan (Art Is a Square) took place in Cairo’s ‘Abdin Plaza. In the sunny esplanade facing the shuttered former royal palace, spectators cheered a succession of musical acts, took in a display of cartoons and caricatures, and wandered from tables selling homemade jewelry to others handing out the literature of the Revolutionary Socialists or the centrist Islamist party al-Wasat. The drama troupe Masrah al-Maqhurin (Theater of the Oppressed) put on a series of skits requiring audience participation. In the first, a daughter left the family house, against her father’s will and with her mother’s connivance, to attend a birthday party. She was caught and reported by her brother and then beaten by her father. In the participatory iterations that followed, a young woman from the audience chose to play the brother and, to much laughter, told the sister: “I won’t tell Dad I saw you in the street if you don’t tell him I was at the café.” Another audience member played the mother, working arduously but in vain to convince the father to allow the girl out of the house under her brother’s supervision. Interestingly, no one in the audience chose to incarnate — and change the behavior of — the authoritarian and violent father.

The cultural event occurred about three weeks after army and police forces had killed at least 16 protesters outside the cabinet building, not far from ‘Abdin, and wounded hundreds of others. In the evening, a small open-air theater showed footage of the recent army assaults. The mood was a mix of light and dark, of hopeful respite and melancholy.

Al-Fann Midan is one of many artistic initiatives that have sprung up since the uprising that began on January 25, 2011. Although the legal framework in Egypt has not changed (Emergency Law and laws against defaming religion, the army and the state remain in place), what Egyptians call the January 25 Revolution has undoubtedly ushered in a new sense of freedom, as well as a determination to use public space to congregate and connect and to demonstrate support for the uprising through cultural activism.

NOT YET A SUBJECT
When his group began recording songs in 2006, says 25-year-old rapper Mezo teMraz, “There were limits. We would comment on society in a funny, indirect way.” Today, his label, Revolution Records (accessible on Facebook), puts out tracks with titles like “Our Revolution, We’re Gonna Finish It” and “Down with Military Rule.” The refrain of the latter runs: “It looks like you forgot who we are/You think we’re still scared/We saw death and just smiled and stood there/Let me remind you since you’ve forgotten/We’re the revolutionary generation.”

The revolution has accelerated the valorization of Egypt’s burgeoning youth culture and its “underground” and “independent” artists. “After the revolution people started looking to independent artists more,” says teMraz. “Everyone feels that new independent groups will be heard now.”
The uprising has also, not surprisingly, led many artists to explicit political engagement. That desire for relevance has inspired some truly innovative work, alongside plenty of well-meaning but forgettable “revolutionary art.” Revolution Records’ songs are earnestly on message, with little of the verbal playfulness one expects from rap. “The revolution made us feel that we love Egypt,” says teMraz. “We try to put our point of view through music,” to create “very political direct songs that make people rise up.”

It is not easy to combine aesthetic and political ambitions in order to creatively address the revolutionary moment. For one thing, many artists and writers have continued to be active — they have little detachment from the events of the last year, and their energies are depleted by their participation in protests, organizing meetings and advocacy campaigns. In their political work, they, like their fellow citizen-activists, can face significant personal risk. In late December, at a press conference convened to deny army responsibility for the violence visited by soldiers on protesters, a blustering member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suddenly denounced Muhammad Hashim, head of the independent and widely esteemed publishing house Merit, as one of several conspirators being investigated for instigating attacks upon the army. His crime, it appears, consisted of supplying protesters with blankets and helmets.

For another, it is too early for artists or anyone else to map the contours of the current juncture with any clarity. In late January 2011, there was a rupture in the reality Egyptians had known for so long. Many artists and novelists, returning home elated, if exhausted, from weeks of protesting, simply scrapped whatever work they were doing. Since then, the rapid pace of events — or, many would say, of reversals — has rendered it nearly impossible to fix a vantage point from which to consider developments. The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.

KEEPING UP WITH THE REVOLUTION
Cairo bookstores are packed with titles about the January 25 Revolution. There is a great deal of poetry. But so far, the books are almost exclusively works of nonfiction: collections of photographs; anthologies of essays or newspaper columns by well-known public intellectuals, spanning the months before and after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster; and yawmiyyat (diaries) born of direct experience of the uprising. Even poetry and fiction about the revolution does not dare stray far from the historical record.

The content of this literary production focuses almost entirely on the momentous 18 days at the beginning of 2011, from January 25 to February 11, at the end of which Mubarak resigned the presidency. There is little attention thus far to the muddled year that followed. The style is very often documentary, with writers intent on transcribing their personal experience of the historic events. The tone of such work tends to be wholeheartedly celebratory of the “Republic of Tahrir,” as the mass sit-in at the iconic downtown Cairo plaza was dubbed.

In many cases, a nostalgic note already rings out:
The revolution’s faith is enough now
For her house of worship is the square
And her Qur’an today is her Testament
And her Testament is her Qur’an

So runs the opening “Fatiha” (referring to the first chapter of the Qur’an) of Hasan Talab’s collection of verse, The Revolution’s Testament and Its Qur’an, whose plaudits for the original uprising’s religious tolerance will strike some as bittersweet in view of the sectarian clashes and state-directed incitement against Copts in the autumn of 2011.

Talab’s volume is composed of matter-of-fact renderings of major revolutionary themes, with poems called “Enough,” “Bringing Down the Regime” and “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id,” invoking the name of the young man from Alexandria whose summer 2010 beating death at the hands of police galvanized one of the seminal pre-revolutionary Facebook campaigns. In such direct, literal references to the revolution and its heroes, Talab is not alone. As Negar Azimi, who writes often on Middle East arts and culture, notes in ArtForum magazine: “A survey of titles of works from recent exhibitions in Cairo reveals the following: ‘Freedom,’ ‘Drink Freedom,’ ‘Shadow of Freedom,’ ‘People Demand,’ ‘Man Crying’ and so on. … This, it turns out, is the sort of revolution-kitsch the market seeks. To be blandly political is in vogue and to be apolitical risks flirting with philistinism.”

Yet a few have the grace and insight of the Egyptian-Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouti in his epic colloquial poem “O People of Egypt” (Ya Sha‘b Masr), recited on several occasions but, it seems, not yet out in print. Barghouti, like Talab, also uses religious references (bismillah, meaning “In the name of God,” is an opening formula and an aya is a verse of the Qur’an), but in his verses they suggest the restless motion of the future, how the revolution remains to be achieved and lived and told:

By the Prophet, I beg you, don’t say:
That will do
Rejoice and keep going, don’t say:
That’s enough
This revolution is a beginning
Like a migration, like a birth
This revolution is a bismillah,
Come on, finish the aya,
See how it improves on every reading
How each verse runs to the next
Passing the torch, without pause
So that tomorrow our lives will be the story of those
Who went to bed barefoot and woke up lords

TRUTHS STRONGER THAN FICTION
In film as well as in writing, the documentary has largely trumped the fictional.
In the wake of one of the most televised revolutions ever, a flurry of documentaries, amateur and professional, local and international, have been released. The three-part Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician, appearing in December, is a well-intentioned effort that captures revealing details: one protester’s “body armor” fashioned ingeniously out of cardboard; the treatment of several others for hysteria in Tahrir Square’s field clinic on Feb. 10, date of Mubarak’s penultimate speech, in which he announced that he would not step down. (One day later, he did.) Most interesting are the troubling interviews with defensive, arrogant, disingenuous state security officers in the movie’s middle section. But the film feels slapdash, relying much too heavily on footage widely viewed on the Internet. Why, Egyptians seem to have felt, go to the movies to watch YouTube clips? The film played to nearly empty theaters at two upscale cinemas in December, even as protesters fought the police in downtown Cairo.

Fictional filmmaking, meanwhile, has lagged behind. Tamantashar Yawm (18 Days) — an amalgam of shorts by well-known young Egyptian directors — is so far one of the only feature-length cinematic treatments of the revolution. It was produced very soon after the original uprising and screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival,

Some of 18 Days’ stories are funny and touching, and most of them are not set among the protesters or in Tahrir. Instead, the screenwriters and directors circle around the revolution, looking for outside angles, coming at the uprising indirectly. But almost all of the pieces suffer from indifferent cinematography and — much more gravely — make use of political symbolism so pointed it amounts to assault by metaphor. Even the better ones cannot seem to resist final shots that thuddingly overplay their hand: an embrace in front of a tank; a blood-soaked banknote; a confession by a murdered political prisoner that simply reads: “Freedom … freedom … freedom.” Ironically, both Tahrir 2011 and 18 Days — with their rehearsal of the same well-known dates and reprise of the same oft-viewed news footage — make the revolution seem familiar, even stale.

Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona, on the other hand, has produced a lovely documentary, Tahrir: Liberation Square, the realization of a complete and deeply personal vision. Savona spent almost the entirety of the original uprising in Tahrir Square, at times at considerable peril to himself. His film has no narration and no interviews. Instead, it immerses the viewer in the mysterious and awesome flow of the revolution — through shot after stunning shot of the action in the square, where the filmmaker followed one group of youths, capturing everything from their conversations about the country’s future to their battles with the ubiquitous thugs, and every mood from anxiety to communion to laughter. One long, almost dreamlike sequence simply registers the endless stream of faces passing by the square’s welcoming committee, who flank its entrance and chant: “Al-Masriyyin ah-hum! Al-Masriyyin ah-hum!” (Here they are, the Egyptians!) The committee members are commending the new arrivals, but — for those watching months later — their cheer also refers to themselves. These are the Egyptians, indeed. It is the most moving paean to the ecstatic, transformative solidarity of Tahrir that I have seen.

STREET ART VS. ART ART
Tahrir Square has from the start been a space for performance of the most serious and passionate kind. If over the period from one January to the next the thrilling drama seems to have deteriorated into an absurdist play, in which the same despair-inducing violence is staged over and over again, it remains daunting for art to compete, in relevance and power of expression, with the midan itself.

Graffiti — fleet, anonymous, contextual and irreverent — has emerged as the signature art form of the revolution. It flourishes wherever protests and sit-ins are held, but is also to be found in many quieter neighborhoods of Cairo (and, increasingly, in other Egyptian cities). Graffiti was practically unheard of before 2011, but now suits the moment, being, all at once, an act of defiance, an appropriation of public space and a running political counter-narrative.

But attempts to channel the creative energies of the street into more conventional settings have largely fallen flat. Several Cairo galleries have had shows featuring graffiti artists, but the work they have produced in designated art spaces has been listless and superficial, lacking the jolt of discovery that is so much a part of the form.

NEW AUDIENCES, NEW VENTURES
In these tempestuous and trying times in Egypt, art projects that engage with the revolution as an ongoing process, rather than an event to be encapsulated or commended, seem to be the most fruitful. Open-air movie screenings, free cultural festivals, touring theater troupes, street art — these forms and events create new venues and new audiences, mix art and politics, and start conversations. Many of these ventures have unabashedly gone about the business of consciousness raising. But, generally, they do not seek to make programmatic statements or issue manifestos; they simply want to show and to share. A slew of novels and films that address the revolution in more conventional terms is no doubt around the corner, but it will probably take time for the true classics of the historical moment to emerge.

In the meantime, Egyptians have productions like the Tahrir Monologues, a fluid, unadorned enactment of personal stories from the bounteous 18 days. Actors — a few professional, but most of them amateur — take turns stepping on stage and delivering short, often poignant accounts of solidarity, enlightenment, fear, violence and change. The stories were collected in Tahrir Square itself, as well as solicited online and through social networks. Sundus Shabayik, the young actress and director who started the project, says it was born from the sense that everyone had a story to tell after the toppling of Mubarak. “People loved hearing and telling these stories over and over again.”

The Tahrir Monologues troupe continues to receive submissions, and each performance is therefore a bit different from the previous one. They are considering incorporating more stories, from after the 18-day uprising in early 2011. The actors’ morale tends to rise and fall with the tenor of reports from the street, says Shabayik: “Sometimes, when things are going well, we feel that what we are doing is meaningful. At other times, we wonder: What is the point?”

Ursula Lindsey has written about Middle East media, culture, education and politics from Cairo since 2002. She is a regular contributor to The Arabist blog. A longer version of this article appeared at Middle East Report Online (merip.org).