Podcast • January 22, 2013

Coffee Hour on Cairo: A Collective Work of Art

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (32 min, 15 meg) Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It happens because it had to happen… Victor Hugo, in the thick ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (32 min, 15 meg)

Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It happens because it had to happen…

Victor Hugo, in the thick of the people’s revolt in Paris in 1832, in Les Miserables, the prized Norman Denny translation, Penguin edition, p. 720.

MFR CL Pyr 640

Mark Fonseca Rendeiro and I are comparing impressions here of our “conversational immersion” in Cairo toward the end of last year. At the two-year mark, the Egyptian “revolution” is still young by the measure of the 18th Century models in France and America. To have felt the paroxysm of people power in Tahrir Square again last month is to know that nothing about the upheaval in Egypt is “over.” Charles Dickens prepared us, of course, to see flashes of paradox in these “best of times” and “worst of times” when history comes unhinged. We saw chapters of a very dark story, the evidence of horrific injuries and cruel losses of life, and revelations of deep old distortions in Egyptian society, also in American policy. We also got close to a lot of thrilling stories of the shit people won’t take; of blind courage and human intuition of the moment to act, to put their dignity and their lives on the line.

The rockets of big news as soon as we got to Cairo were astonishing: the mighty renewal of mass protest in Tahrir Square; the Israeli descent, guns blazing, on defenseless Gaza; the gruesome, preventable train-bus collision that dragged 51 Egyptian children to excruciating death; President Mohamed Morsi’s reach for dictatorial power; then the popular ratification of a pot-luck constitution… We’d come looking for reflections and connections and found them, too. Mark puts it forcefully here. American-born, with lively roots in today’s Portugal, he’s an esteemed solo practitioner of digital journalism, based in Amsterdam. In Egypt he came to realize “I was amongst family and people I could relate to — and a struggle that doesn’t seem so alien to me.”

Here’s the kernel of it for me. I went looking for artists to reflect on events in Egypt. I came back thinking of the ongoing mass revolt in Tahrir Square as, in itself, more like a work of art than anything else. It marks a moment of desperate insight into “the real” (in Victor Hugo’s sense above) and contagious courage in facing it. I was making a connection (before Greg Buchakjian mentioned it) with Picasso’s Guernica. It’s not a peaceful picture. It is a sustained cry from a tortured imagination of blind fury, doubt, agony and decision. It represents an inspired stab in the dark — not by Picasso in the case of Tahrir Square but by a million or more people scared reckless. It was something more than a political event: more like a communal birth, or death, an organic explosion. It seemed to speak for the whole species, a resolution “to act,” in Tony Judt‘s phrase, “upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe.” I kept thinking: what if a million goats had shown up in Tahrir Square? Or a million earthworms? Or a million Glossy Ibises? We would still be looking up in wonder. We’d know: they’re saying something! They’re on to something we haven’t seen clearly and they don’t spell all the way out. But in truth, as Mark says, the brave mobs in Tahrir Square are our close cousins, voicing pain and fear that billions of people know — under tyranny, in extreme poverty, under a mortal threat to their habitat and ours, to our common future as human beings. We will not forget that uncanny resonance of Tahrir Square — the aura of a collective work of art.

guernica 640

Podcast • January 12, 2013

Gregory Buchakjian in Beirut: A Course of Catastrophe

Gregory Buchakjian looks at the Arab uprisings of the last two years and sees not an exception but an extension — at best a pause, not a change, along a course of catastrophe. The pattern of the Middle East since 1945, he’s saying, has been ...

Gregory Buchakjian looks at the Arab uprisings of the last two years and sees not an exception but an extension — at best a pause, not a change, along a course of catastrophe. The pattern of the Middle East since 1945, he’s saying, has been warfare that resolves nothing: that always stops short of treating the agony of Palestinians displaced and more recently occupied by the young state of Israel. Do we know yet what it means that tyrannies have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia? Or that vicious close-up war has broken out in Libya and Syria? “In Lebanon,” he says, “we are used to saying — ‘we don’t know.’ We’re in a region that gets relief now and then, but not reconciliation.” We’re scanning the Arab upheavals from the intersection of Greg Buchakjian’s artistic passions, photography and history, and from the views not far from his window of war damage and construction cranes in his hometown Beirut. He is my kind of informed, digressive, mercurial talker with angles that could sound unconventional in America, but not unrecognizable…

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut.  Photo by Leonardo Matossian.

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut. Photo by Leonardo Matossian.

The French have an expression, le sens de l’histoire, the direction of history, mainly based on the French Revolution and the American Revolution that preceded it. The meaning is that history moves from dark ages to enlightenment and the liberation of people. Well, I don’t agree with that ‘direction of history.’ We are living today in an era of neo-liberalism when the world is commanded by brokers and bankers… We are not moving toward enlightenment and humanism. The world is going toward the enrichment of a category of people who are ruling over economic empires. So if the direction of history is to let some companies take the place of states and empires, I don’t see myself in it. I don’t find it a good direction… We are talking about the Arab world, which is one of the most violent regions in the world. I am not optimistic about the Arab world because I am not optimistic about the world as a whole.

Gregory Buchakjian in conversation with Chris Lydon in Beirut, December 2012.

I am trying out on Greg Buchakjian my romantic notion that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were pushing a “universal panic button” for all of us — about their habitat and ours, their economics of inequality and ours, about blind state brutality far and wide. He hears rather “a cry of despair” in the revolts today and two years ago, speaking directly for a population that is young, poor, angry and out of luck in its current prospects. Either way, is the ongoing Arab rebellion a signal that the world can hear? Greg Buchakjian is drawn to smaller readings and smaller gestures — toward the planting of walnut trees in Lebanon; or, in Japan, to the farmers who are engaging ducks to fight insects that infest rice plants. Or in his own case, to making a photographic record of the houses and lives being crushed and abandoned in the real estate war — “and it is a war” — in Beirut as we speak.

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian

Podcast • January 5, 2013

Guy Talk in Cairo: the “heavenly gift” of Tahrir Square

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with three young activist-thinkers in Cairo (21 min, 10 meg) So three Egyptian guys walked into a coffee shop in Cairo… and this is what we talked about. (1) The culture of fear in a “securitized state.” (2) The ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with three young activist-thinkers in Cairo (21 min, 10 meg)

So three Egyptian guys walked into a coffee shop in Cairo… and this is what we talked about. (1) The culture of fear in a “securitized state.” (2) The burden of spying, torture, cynicism, suspicion, anti-solidarity in Egypt under the late Mubarak dictatorship and (3) the despair that transformed itself finally — maybe miraculously — into a revolutionary force. (4) The ‘heavenly gift’ of Tahrir Square and (5) the dread that it may be running out.

Thinkers and activists, from left, Fouad Halbouni, Ali Al Raggal and Amr Abdel Rahman at Groppi's in Downtown Cairo.  Mark Rendeiro Photo

Thinkers and activists Fouad Halbouni, Ali Al Raggal and Amr Abdel Rahman at Groppi’s in Downtown Cairo. Mark Rendeiro Photo

We are in Groppi’s, a faded old Swiss tea-room in Downtown Cairo — in the bustling “lost European dream of Cairo,” as my friend the anthropologist Fouad Halbouni puts it. The talkers here are three educated activists: social-science-minded graduate students. I am asking about shifts in the emotional ground that may run deeper than politics, transformations that come out as personal.

What broke the culture of fear in Tahrir Square was … a miracle in some sense. All of a sudden there was that glimpse from the future, that a new collectivity is possible. It’s as if you have seen a future that you can identify with, a model you can show to the people saying that: here in Tahrir Square there’s a vision from a country where we can all win, if you come to Tahrir Square… Suddenly, there’s a place in the city where something different is unfolding, and it’s worth fighting for. Definitely the change has been very little since the 25th of January [2011]. Very very limited, and confined to certain areas. But there’s something for sure that we can tell people, that we have Tahrir Square behind us. That moment is in the back of everybody’s mind — and nobody could exclude it from the public memory. It is our “Yes We Can,” if we can put it this way. It exactly is. Now the new system is again manipulating that same old cynicism, the fear. But now we can confidently say: we’re fine. Guys, we did it before. It is possible.

Amr Abdel Rahman, “another miserable graduate student” in politics.

If anything would last out of that revolutionary spark in Tahrir, it would be a different relationship between the people and the state. The security apparatus has taken a strong blow. The Muslim Brotherhood has been in many ways trying to resurrect it — what we call “the dignity of the state,” the thinking that the rule of law always has to take a certain brutal force or blindness. This has been broken with the people, to the point where the state can appear very weak. Such as: they would use that discourse of might, and “state dignity,” about the graffiti. A month ago you had the state wanting to erase the graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, for instance. They wanted to put trucks to guard, after they’d repainted the wall, that no one would draw again. What kind of state would have all those trucks feeding this question about the graffiti painters? Actually the graffiti artists went back while the trucks were there, and they repainted the wall. This could be a small gesture, but it shows something monumental coming between the state and the people. We have begun a new chapter.

Fouad Halbouni, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

The conversation is moving, but it’s in a bit of stagnation. There is an insistent question on us: how are we going to march forward on this path of emancipation? What’s needed more than this? Now there is a clear problem within the society itself. It’s how we convince other sectors to push forward. It’s a difficult question now, because a lot of people are emphasizing stability again — too much — and we’re seeing the same old tactics and methodologies.

Ali Al Raggal, political sociologist, focused on conflict and security

Actually the revolution is continuing in some form, and that’s what gives me hope. But things are not clear. This is what makes me more hopeful. We’ll see.

Fouad Halbouni.

Podcast • January 1, 2013

Khaled Hafez: Art and Revolution in Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Khaled Hafez (12 min, 5.6 meg) CAIRO — Khaled Hafez — charismatic painter and multi-media artist, in his regular Friday salon or master class with most of a dozen students and colleagues — strikes me off the bat ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Khaled Hafez (12 min, 5.6 meg)

CAIRO — Khaled Hafez — charismatic painter and multi-media artist, in his regular Friday salon or master class with most of a dozen students and colleagues — strikes me off the bat as one of those best friends I’ve never met before. “Aha,” I’m thinking: “This is the man I came to see.”

Khaled Hafez with a few of his studio colleagues in Cairo.  From left, Fatma Sabry, Osama A'Moneim, Taghrid Al Sabban and Ahmed El Shaer.  Mark Rendeiro Photo

Khaled Hafez with a few of his studio colleagues in Cairo. From left, Fatma Sabry, Osama A’Moneim, Taghrid Al Sabban and Ahmed El Shaer. Mark Rendeiro Photo

We called this venture in North Africa “Arab Artists in a Revolution” for all the obvious reasons: that novelists, architects, poets, musicians and painters might each tell us some original truth in the turmoil, something beyond politics and the news cycle. Suddenly Khaled Hafez is driving the point several jumps ahead. Here’s what I’ve been seeing, what you can see in the slide show below:

Art, imagination and expressive freedom still set the pulse of Tahrir Square two winters after the revolt that broke a 30-year dictatorship. That 18-day siege, at grave risk to lives and limbs of hundreds of thousands of citizens without a leader or a plan, makes sense only now as a kind of collective artistic breakthrough: one giant stab in the dark by people at the end of their wits, at the edge of both madness and inspiration. Further, the art and artists that crucially defined the event — in graffiti, Facebook photos and slogans, videos, urban murals still freshened continually overnight — are a peculiar fusion of digital media and Egyptian tradition: we’re seeing tomb paintings at Twitter speed. I was afraid of discovering mere local adaptations of Western hip-hop, rap, comedy, and other imported forms, but how little I knew. Ganzeer’s “wounded cat”– a version of the common Cairo street cat, but equally of Egypt’s sacred symbol of freedom and wary survival — is but one genius instance of a tremendous revival of an Egyptian aesthetic. It is context of all the public cartooning, painting as narrative, pictographs and ideograms, storytelling art in which brush-strokes are not highly refined and painterly process is not the point at all. The art of this revolution, derived straight from mankind’s first paintings and oldest “viral” story-telling tricks, may be the means of keeping the emergency fresh through President Morsi’s ups and downs and long afterward.

Podcast • December 29, 2012

Nael El Toukhy: a post-modern novelist’s eye on Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nael El Toukhy (18 min, 8 meg) Nael El Toukhy is a bright light among Egypt’s millennial writers at a breakpoint in Arab culture as well as politics. On a rooftop in Cairo we’re talking about the family ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nael El Toukhy (18 min, 8 meg)

El Toukhy, XLNael El Toukhy is a bright light among Egypt’s millennial writers at a breakpoint in Arab culture as well as politics. On a rooftop in Cairo we’re talking about the family effects of the Tahrir Square revolution: In every house in Egypt, he’s saying, you’ll find a father who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and a son who voted against them. Also: about the liberation of Egyptian talk, which used to be “just football.” The chatter on the bus every morning is now about politics, sex, religion, “everything.” Nael El Toukhy, 34, is speaking of his devotion to Woody Allen movies, Kafka stories, Borges fables and “noisy writers” in general. He is known for his own off-beat novels, but also – and it seems remarkable for an Arab writer — for his translations of provocative Israeli authors from Hebrew. The late playwright, Hanoch Levin, a fierce satirist, is “my dream,” he says. “I was curious, of course, about Hebrew, like everyone else in the Arab world. We don’t know anything about Israel from the inside.” So his blog publishes an Israeli poet, story-writer or novelist in Arabic every week. He’s serious guy with a light touch, a modernist and a sort of globalist who, like everyone else in Egypt, all but worships the immortal singer Oum Kulthum. She’s a modern goddess, as you’ll hear him say: there’s nothing like the experience of this woman’s sound, unless it’s smoking hash.

Of the daily battles around the new constitution and the war inside “the deep state”:

Nobody knows about this fight… At the start of the revolution, the Western media said: Egypt is on the road to Turkey… Other media said: no, the road to Iran. I say: let’s be surprised. This is the most beautiful idea in the Revolution: you don’t know what will happen in the next day; you have no plans. The politicians have plans. But I’m not a politician.

Of women, men, couples and families in the “rising generation” of Egyptians, his readership:

The individuals in Egypt are amazing. Society itself is a very awful factor. By society I mean the relationships between people in families. Authority in the family? We have to refuse it, and in the last three years we did. Many families were against the revolution; the new generation was against their families. I think it’s very significant to be against society and family and Mr. President, all at the same time.

I said I was reminded of a scene in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy in which two sons of the patriarch come home tipsy one night — in the 1930s! — shouting “Long live the Revolution! … Down with the tyrannical wife! … Down with the tyrannical father!”

Same theme. Yeah! All the time the boys are more revolutionary against their families, because you know our society gives more freedom for boys than girls. But I saw this with girls also. How’s to say: ‘I am free. I can do what I think about.’ The concept of challenging the family to go to Tahrir Square is a sign. I think in every house in Egypt today you will find the father voted for the Muslim Brother and Mohamed Morsi, and the son voted for the counter-candidate; and all the time they are fighting eachother. I think the main thing since the revolution is that everybody discusses everything in public. When you get the bus, all the time you are hearing discussions — that Morsi did this because he’s a good man; or: no, he did this because he’s a bad man. It’s a really good thing, this fight.

On the “butterfly effect” of revolt that spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. The butterfly has a message:

Don’t fear anybody powerful. Nobody’s powerful… We learned it with Mubarak. Of course we were afraid of Mubarak. We thought he was like God and the Nile and the Pyramids. He will never go. He will never die. I thought: Mubarak is immortal. And then in 18 days he disappeared. There’s nobody behind the curtain.

Nael El Toukhy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cairo.

Podcast • December 27, 2012

Khaled Abol Naga: Egypt’s Best of Times, Worst of Times

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Khaled Abol Naga (20 min, 10 meg) Khaled Abol Naga — movie star and now film producer, too — found his political voice in what was supposed to be a documentary film. “Microphone” (trailers: here and below) was ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Khaled Abol Naga (20 min, 10 meg)

KAN Microphone Khaled Abol Naga — movie star and now film producer, too — found his political voice in what was supposed to be a documentary film. “Microphone” (trailers: here and below) was a critical hit about the underground musicians in his hometown Alexandria who couldn’t get heard except on the street. The movie appeared in theaters at the moment two years ago when Tahrir Square began to fill up with brave, angry masses demanding the end of dictatorship. Today in Egypt’s ongoing turmoil Abol Naga is cast in much the same role he played in the movie. He’s the Hollywood-handsome ex-athlete who’s been to Europe and America and could obviously thrive anywhere; but he’s come home to ask insistently: “why not here?” He’s been in the thick of the Tahrir crowds at the end of 2012, all the while he’s been shooting a new movie, a comedy, about a dead military tyrant who comes alive to listen in on a new scene. Abol Naga is appalled by the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and dismissive of American politics and government: “A joke… always an obstacle to peace,” he’s saying. What lights our conversation just off the movie set is his conviction that the lifting of Egyptian spirits is irreversible, even if the politics of the post-Tahrir revolution has lurched astray. “We’re not there yet,” Abol Naga says of Egypt two years after Tahrir. “Nothing has changed but the people.”

Where are we going? We’re definitely going in the right direction. Maybe slower now, but even with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, which everybody thinks is a crisis, I think that it’s the best thing that ever happened: now they cannot claim they didn’t have a full chance to be in power. Can they veil women and close bars? No! People won’t take it. Even veiled women how will not take it that they can be dictated to wear the veil. The big change was not getting rid of Mubarak, or of Ben Ali in Tunisia. The big change was that people can’t be manipulated any more by fear. Not in Etypt or Tunis; actually even in the States. I don’t think in the States you could have another Bush. No more will leaders, politicians come and manipulate people and greenlight wars and invade countries, as happened before.

I believe this is not about revolution in Egypt. This is a time that will change the world… I don’t think that anybody in power will be strong enough — even now, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — to dictate what people will do or wear. They can’t anymore. And these are the signs of a new age we’re all witnessing. It looked big in the Middle East because it was the most repressed. But I think it will happen all over the world. I feel it in the States, even from conservatives… That’s why this is important, and why we have to support the revolution in Egypt as a symbol, because it did represent what the new age will be like.

Khaled Abol Naga in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cairo.

December 20, 2012

Alaa Al Aswany: Egypt’s Number One Novelist on… Us

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alaa Al Aswany (45 min, 21 meg) CAIRO — Alaa Al Aswany, the best-selling novelist in the Arab world, sticks to his day job in dentistry. We meet in his modern clinical suite where he starts writing before ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alaa Al Aswany (45 min, 21 meg)

Dr. Alaa Al Aswany in his office after hours…
Photo Credit: Mark Fonseca Rendeiro

CAIRO — Alaa Al Aswany, the best-selling novelist in the Arab world, sticks to his day job in dentistry. We meet in his modern clinical suite where he starts writing before office hours every morning at 6:30. I greet him at 9 in the evening with the thought that he’d written the book that made Egypt’s revolution necessary.

The Yacoubian Building (2002 in Arabic; 2006 in English translation and also a big-budget Egyptian movie) opened a cross section on a Downtown Cairo apartment house, from doorman’s stool to rooftop teeming with poor folk from the country. The links in life and love (gay and straight) inside the building are manipulation, predation, betrayal, heartbreak and vengeance. They’re neatly matched outside in the thuggy, druggy politics of the moment, and in the humiliations that turn an aspiring young policeman into a jihadist. The Yacoubian Building made the private-public connection between torture in the name of love, and torture in the police station. As a chronicle of the Mubarak years in Egypt, it’s a readable shocker, still a call to action.

“Literature and medicine,” Alaa Al Aswany observes in conversation, “are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” His job, he says, is feeling people directly — in the dentist’s chair, in the street, in the cafes. He told Pankaj Mishra three years before the Tahrir Square revolution: “I think we are in for a big surprise.” Long ago, he tells me, “I felt Egyptians were going to need to change the situation. And that’s what happened.”

He is embroiled today in the revolutionary politics of his country — challenging the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi in newspaper columns, also in his long-running Friday open forum on books and public issues, and in a roaring speech to Tahrir Square masses the other day. His signature line everywhere is his response to “Islam is the solution,” the Brotherhood’s slogan. Alaa Al Aswany never fails to say or write: “Democracy is the solution.”

Not the least of what has to change now, he is telling me, is the United States policy that supported Morsi and the Brotherhood in last summer’s presidential election — and that, in the form of Hillary Clinton, embraced Morsi personally on the eve of his reach last month for one-man rule. I am quoting back to Alaa Al Aswany one of the best-remembered speeches in The Yacoubian Building, in which a political fixer in the Mubarak gang explains their theory of rule:

People are naive when they get the idea that we fix elections. Nothing of the kind. It just comes down to the fact that we’ve studied the Egyptian people well. Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority. No Egyptian can go against his government. Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature, but the Egyptian keeps his head down his whole life long so he can eat. It says so in the history books. The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule. The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them.

The parliamentary political boss speaking in The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

The character who spoke that line in the novel is in prison by now, Alaa Al Aswany says with a grim chuckle. But is it possible, I push him, that the American government is still banking on the old theory?

“No,” he begins. “I don’t think so, but…

Of course the U.S. foreign policy to us has been terrible for 50 years. We had the worst moments of our lives because of the U.S. foreign policy. But I’m very proud that Egyptians are absolutely able to see the difference between U.S. foreign policy and Americans. We love Americans in this country. Even during the Iraq war, American people were safe here because people realized that they are not decision makers in their government. The point here is that… America should stand for its principles much more than standing for the interests of the big guys… I’m sorry to say I notice now that America is almost repeating the same strategy with Mr. Morsi. Mr. Morsi has been elected president and has now obviously and in a very visible way decided to be a dictator. He stopped the law. He made the constitutional declaration to cancel the judges… Today the spokesman of the American administration says that the constitutional declaration is an ‘internal issue,’ exactly what they said about Mubarak… What we are expecting but never had from the Western governments is just to leave us alone. We are going to do our democracy for ourselves. But do not support the terrible dictators! That’s what happened with Mubarak. He has been supported by the Western governments for decades, right? Everybody knew what kind of dictator he was. But this question of ‘interests’ — he was ‘okay’; he was doing what Israel wanted; and there was another assumption that he was the barrier against Islamism; but he was not the barrier, he was the reason for the fanaticism in Egypt. That’s clear in my novel… The point here is that what we need from the Western governments is not to support Arab dictators any more…

Alaa Al Aswany with Chris Lydon in Cairo

This man is fascinating across the board: on the strong (but neglected) foundations of Islamic Modernism in the leadership of Muhammed Abduh (1849 – 1905); on two Egypts in the present day — “lucky Egypt and the rest of the pyramid… another Egypt in the dark”; also on Israel’s stake in a real Egyptian democracy; and “the revolutionary moment” still beyond scientific analysis, “when people become different people and are willing to die for freedom and refuse to compromise with dictatorship. This is the real achievement of the revolution in Egypt — that people are no more scared. And it’s irreversible. People will not go back.”

Podcast • December 16, 2012

Heba Morayef’s Rights Watch in Egypt: Why the thuggery?

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Heba Morayef (30 min, 14 meg) CAIRO — Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch serves effectively as a home-grown guardian angel of human decency amidst the endless contradictions of Egypt’s stumbling revolution. She is taking me through a ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Heba Morayef (30 min, 14 meg)

Photo Credit: Mark Fonseca Rendeiro

CAIRO — Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch serves effectively as a home-grown guardian angel of human decency amidst the endless contradictions of Egypt’s stumbling revolution. She is taking me through a few of the numbing questions that face a Cairo newcomer, like:

  • Where do the torturers and thugs come from in a population that wears composure on its face, in its jokes, in its longsuffering world-weariness?
  • How’s to account for the persistent brutality of “security” forces, untouched by the transition from the tyrannical Mubarak to the elected President Morsi?
  • Can it be that police snipers will again be aiming for the eyes of protesters as they notoriously did in the Tahrir Square revolt of almost two years ago?

After three weeks in Cairo, I can’t imagine (or remember) feeling so safe, night and day, on the crowded streets and alleys of a modern, mostly impoverished megacity. And still the sidewalk stream is confounding mix of expressions. I read mostly wit, welcome and cordiality in the men who notice this white-haired American in his Open Source T-shirt. Yet so many North African woman (and Heba Morayef, too) will also testify that these Egyptian men — so funny and forgiving in legend and in my experience — can also be the most frighteningly aggressive grabbers and gropers. Just in the context of the Tahrir Square “revoluton” coming up on its two-year anniversary, I am at a loss to sort the glints of excitement and defeat, pride and anger that flash through every memory of an unfinished uprising.

One of the fantastic things about Cairo is that fact that tragedy can coexist with joy, despair with energy and enthusiasm. There are neighborhoods of the city where slums live side-by-side with middle-class areas, and where crime and violence can also produce a sense of courage against the state that we saw mobilized politically in an extremely effective and brave way during the uprising… Nobody can essentialize Cairo, at all. There are these multiple layers… The uprising in January [2011] was not just a political one. It was one where entire generations in Egypt feel such despair about the economic options that lie ahead of them, and such anger at the failure to provide for social justice amid the clear signs of wealth and corruption in a very small political elite surrounding the Mubarak family… That together with the Mubarak police force which was abusive not only in political cases but at a very grassroots level: your average police office in your average police station would beat up people from the neighborhood to solve an average theft. That was what brought the rage, and the energy. At this point almost two years on people are tired. People are tired, but they also changed in January, 2011. So while on one hand we’ve all been through highs and lows of expectations for a few months, followed by despair through a year and a half of military rule and saw so much violence and abuse… And then the elections and the aftermath: it’s been a tumultuous year where people’s expectations and emotions and feelings toward the country and the city have changed. And so today I think you see a mix of all those things. You see a new-found determination, that energy of January 2011 and excitement at the discovery that it’s still there to be mobilized. And at the same time, looking ahead politically: no easy routes out. And I’m not sure anybody’s going to win this. We all know it’s going to take time. But I think people are worried about the future, and I think that’s why you may be picking up these different emotions.

Heba Morayef with Chris Lydon in Cairo.

November 28, 2012

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an ...

CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an Egyptian tradition of cats and calligraphy, it’s a stunning large (guess: 8′ x 4′) canvas of a cat: fur painted in red; left eye shot out and bandaged, right eye on the horizon. It’s an irresistible image of suffering and survival in a revolution. In an all-Ganzeer show just being taken down, called “The Virus is Spreading,” the cat painting is the piece I would steal. Ganzeer himself is in Berlin, doing a month’s workshop — which tells you something about the spreading of his insight and his touch. Not yet 30, he is exemplifying and teaching defiance in his young generation in the face of every establishment, though in a familiar Egyptian language. Mona Said, daughter of the gallery founder, says Ganzeer (aka Mohamed Fahmy, aka Mofa) was a painter before he was a graffiti artist, and always more humanist than painter.

Immediately, I thought, here’s a statement that will keep, or is keeping, the revolution deeply alive in the world, a current more charged than politics or journalism or social media, finding its own network and resonance. Ganzeer as I imagine him has something in common with the young rockers and rappers in the decorated Egyptian film “Microphone” about the music underground pre-revolution in Alexandria; except that Ganzeer has a much grander talent and now global reach. The musicians remind me of our own Amanda Palmer — defiant energy and confidence to “make art every day” … and then? Ganzeer reminds me more of the late Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986): “every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.” Ganzeer’s work looks more considered, more beautifully executed, older, newer, more political, more universal than anything new I can think of. It’s worthy of a book project to decode this work, and find the others. Part of the fun of his work, specially this cat, is the element of old “Pharaonic” Egypt about it: the semi-sacred cat who symbolizes freedom and endurance, not to mention the Egyptian tradition of formalist painting on the walls of tombs. The words in the stylized Arabic script come from the cat, in a vernacular Egyptian expression: “One day he entertains me. The other day I’m on my own. And I can work with that.”

Ganzeer — painter, graffiti master, humanist — in Cairo. Photo Credit: Baldwin Portraits

Podcast • November 27, 2012

Tuesday in Tahrir: Field Notes, with Novelists

  CAIRO — On the way into the tumult in Tahrir Square today, we’re in conversation with the novelist Mona Prince of So You May See and My Name is Revolution. And on the way out late Tuesday night, we are listening to a beloved ...

 

Podcasting colleague Mark Fonseca Rendeiro high over tents in Tahrir Square. Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CAIRO — On the way into the tumult in Tahrir Square today, we’re in conversation with the novelist Mona Prince of So You May See and My Name is Revolution. And on the way out late Tuesday night, we are listening to a beloved writer in this crowd, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, author of many novels, four in English translation, including Nobody Sleeps in Alexandria. From my own “archives of the feet” (Simon Schama’s phrase) Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution of January 2011 appears to be roaring back to full life — spirits higher, some say, even if numbers may be lower than two winters ago. And the chants are full-throated echoes of the slogans that drove Hosni Mubarak out of power: “The Egyptian people say: leave!” and “We want bread, and freedom.”

I found myself at one point in a mass of lawyers stretching out a 25-yard red-white-and-black Egyptian flag, shouting over and over: “Gamal Abdel Nasser said: You can’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood.” Lawyers and judges I met today are up in arms because President Mohamed Morsi’s decrees last week put him formally above the law. So they chant: “The Brotherhood is not legal.” Other rhythmic rants that caught on: “It’s a joke! How much can we take?” And dead seriously: “People demand to remove the regime!”

Hardest to absorb and pass on are the extreme emotions around what could look like a festive football crowd. Ecstasy and the deepest sadness and remembered pain are all in the mix. A 40-year-old man named Hassan told me he himself had carried 70 dead or dying people out of Tahrir Square in February 2011. “It was horrible,” he said. “Horrible! But we succeeded. The people succeeded. Mubarak was a thief,” and then he spelled out the word “thief” in ballpoint on his newspaper to be sure I understood. He added: “Freedom is fundamental for the Egyptian people.”

I saw one flash fight on the edge of Tahrir this afternoon, eight feet from me. Suddenly a tall suited man with a handsome Nubian look was swinging hard slaps at the face and head of a smaller man with a formal beard. An undercover cop beating a civilian, was my first thought. No, my friend Hassan explained, it was an outraged civilian taking warning shots at a man with the “black chin” of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if to say — maybe saying: “how dare you take a picture of me? You people don’t belong here — and here you are spying on me!” Braver men than I jumped quickly between the combatants, who melted as quickly into the crowd. And wave after wave of practiced, peaceable protesters poured into the ocean of Tahrir Square.