July 20, 2014

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language.

 It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language. So I’m re-posting that enlightening moment, and linking to a few of our conversations with Arab artists that, after so many reversals, feel still current: the novelist of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany and the historian, Khaled FahmyMy brief season in Cairo in 2012 was also a grave crisis moment in Gaza.

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

On the Veranda • June 12, 2014

Chris’s Postcards from China

I’m going to China next month, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?”


August 8: At Peking University: the Rising Generation


We call ourselves the 90s generation. The late 90s — not so much the rising generation as the boasting generation, the blossoming generation — about to open up ourselves and explore the outer world.”

Max, a student from Hong Kong at Peking University in Beijing.
2014-06-27 17.10.17

Future leaders of China, from left to right: Max, Rebecca, Flora, Nick, Payton.

What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap. Nobody here is bent on being a billionaire. All voiced versions of a searching interior life. Nobody mentioned political participation as they listed their ambitions. But social idealism infuses their talk. Several volunteered that inequality – of incomes, education, opportunity – is the blight on their society, a problem their generation will have to address. None expressed the slightest confidence in ideological communism. They sounded more embarrassed than outraged by official controls on information (of which they have plenty) and expression (in which they feel individually free). They credit their government with overall effectiveness. And they all spoke comfortably of loving their country and their moment in its history.


China is searching, the China we see today is shaped by different factors: traditional Chinese civilization, and also the western culture since 1840, when Great Britain launched a trade war and broke the gate of the Qing empire. [By now] it’s another aspect of tradition… also the communist ideology… The problem for China is we lack a national philosophy. We as a people, as a nation. We lack a philosophy that supports the spiritual life of our citizens. It’s a problem in the whole country.”

Nick, a philosophy major, whom I’ll remember specially for his short list of cultural treasures for the proverbial desert island: Collected Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

There’s societal pressure, and family pressure, to do financially at least as well as your parents. That’s one of my anxieties, and a big anxiety of a lot of my friends. You’re supposed to do well and your parents have paid a lot for your education. But you don’t know what you want to do. I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m focused on finding something I really enjoy doing.

Rebecca, a rising sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota.

I think it’s not difficult for us to find good jobs. To earn money is not important for us, we can earn so much money. The most important thing is to find ourselves, to be ourselves.

Flora, pursuing a double degree in law and Chinese literature.

I read American books, we talk about the system of American politics almost every day. America is everywhere. I want to have my graduate education in America. It’s necessary to get to know and understand America — necessary to understand the whole world. I don’t like nationalism, and I don’t like to emphasize enemies. I think we have to cooperate, but we are not genuine friends. But we have to cooperate with each other.”

Payton, who rounded up his friends for us at the University of Peking.

Special thanks to Jiang Xueqin, an activist teacher and school reformer, for introducing us on campus.

August 4: Ai Weiwei: At Home With China’s ‘Second Government’


Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing oppositionist who argues with me that China’s moral, natural, aesthetic, philosophical and family foundations have been “completely destroyed.” At the same time he is a celebrity, the virtual mayor of an industrial district in Beijing that’s become a thriving village of modern painters, sculptors, studios and galleries.

At one cheerful turn in our gab, he’s reminding me about the Chinese gift for breaking rules, for thinking outside the box, for double thinking, even under Communism: “Yeah, that’s the culture. Chinese are quite intelligent, witty, and create their own liberal space. Even in very extreme conditions, they still can achieve some kind of happiness or self, some kind of confidence, so that makes Chinese culture very different from others.”

Ai Weiwei is China’s official scare-word and favorite non-person. He’s what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government.” But let’s remember: the embattled democrat and artist of ideas was a star consultant in the design of the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He sees himself naturally as a leader and a patriot. He’s mastered what people say is a very Chinese use of paradox and contradiction. He refers to his testing of the limits as a kind of performance art.


We met his wary sort of humor and warmth on the way into his walled garden. He parks his bicycle at the gate with a basket full of fresh flowers as a greeting each morning to the government spies who ‘mind’ him and who, it turns out, took our picture on the way out.

Ai Weiwei SpyFor almost an hour the conversation flew around a big table in the traffic of Ai Weiwei’s studio. Maybe the worst disaster in China, he said, is the flood of migrant workers out of farm villages into cities where they have dangerous jobs, small pay, no benefits and no residency rights – no rights to city schools, for example, for their kids. “This is just modern slavery” for the migrants, said Ai Weiwei. For the broken families left behind, it’s a desolation.

He says our friend the novelist Yu Hua is “absolutely right” about the continuity between Mao’s brainwashing Cultural Revolution and the booming Market Revolution today. The key links, he concurred, are violence, lying propaganda, and a tiny monopoly of political power. Just off the high-speed train from Shanghai, I confessed I was dazzled by the smooth ride at 300 kpm and by the orderly green abundance in the farmlands. “Wouldn’t this government be good for – say – Egypt?” I asked. But he’s heard the line that China is developing faster than Brazil, or India, or Egypt, and he’s not impressed. “How do you give young people hope, imagination and creativity,” he asked. “Those are the inner structures I think a lot and worry about.” As we wrapped up, he said I’d made him sound like a complainer, just a critic. We could have talked about the weather, he said, “or food, or sex.” Next time we will.

And what did I take away? Mainly gratitude to this brave man for his stubborn, almost fearless attachment to the soul questions: he’s reminding us all what it costs to stand out as an individual, and for a society to stay free, alive, critical, human.

July 24: Yu Hua and China’s Revolution Addiction

yu hua 2

Everybody loves Yu Hua, a giant of the literary life in China today.  He’s a free spirit with a critical eye, and a popular touch, a tragic vision, an easy laugh.  We’re in the snazzy new Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, video-recording a long conversation for Harvard’s ChinaX course on modern China.  As soon as Yu Hua walks in (with his striking 20-something son Phineas) his presence is magic, alike with the Chinese film crew and the young Harvard scholars. I know Yu Hua as much as anything through the long-suffering hero of his novel that became the movie masterpiece To Live. The film and its central character, Fugui, reminded me somehow of Charlie Chaplin, as I said to Yu Hua. He smiled and said, well, of course, he had studied the Chaplin archive. Were Fugui alive today, Yu Hua said he would most likely be among the victims of the Capitalist Revolution.  Fugui would have lost his land and been displaced as a farmer.  He might be living precariously in a tiny, unsafe apartment in a city, but he’d still be thoughtful, tidy, maybe cheerful, and indestructible.

It is a main theme in much of Yu Hua’s work and our conversation that China is hooked for a century now on something like an addiction to Revolution. And a revolution, he reminds me with heavy irony, quoting Chairman Mao, is not a dinner party.  It’s an insurrection, an act of violence.  The market revolution, he’s saying, is more like than unlike the notorious upheavals that preceded it: the war of “liberation” that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949; Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 50s, a headlong rush to industrialize that ended in famine and death for 20-million or more; then the know-nothing Cultural Revolution of the 60s into the 70s.  The problem with all the endless revolutions is that they’ve been run by political monopolies. They’re invariably violent, mobilized by propaganda, not participation.  And they’re generally heedless of long-term results – even in the market revolution that has made so many Chinese people rich.

Yu Hua reminds you that China is still a poor country – median income between ninety and a hundred in the ranking of nations, in the zone with Cuba, Angola, Iraq.

The wealth revolution that we’re conditioned to celebrate has been a hardship for most Chinese, he is saying. The divorce rate goes up on the same curve as the GDP.  A “simmering rage” is the ruling popular emotion, he wrote in an invaluable collection of essays, China in Ten Words (2011).  The capitalist revolution has been bad for human-rights awareness. “This revolution has made the Chinese people profit-driven… They care less about other people, less about the country.”  Our people are losing their health, he says.  And what about their minds?  “People’s minds are chaotic, schizophrenic,” he replies.  “I can’t figure them out.”  The last resource is the Chinese people, I say, and surely they are not destroyed.  “I was half joking, half telling the truth,” he grants, with a laugh.

So we end on a Chinese paradox.  Yu Hua sums up China’s contradictory rules and symptoms today with the point that when guests enter a hotel room in China, they see a “No Smoking” sign and, under it, a gift package of cigarettes.  He lives with such anomalies every day. His novel To Live is sold in bookstores in China.  The movie version is banned.  “The book is like the cigarettes,” he said, “the movie is like the ‘No Smoking’ sign.”

It was a high-point in China so far to feel Yu Hua’s presence.

July 5: Whose Shanghai Is It?

Wang Anyi + Chris Lydon (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

The great modern novelist of Shanghai, Wang Anyi, is coming to feel like a stranger in her city.

The enclosed alleyways of Old Shanghai — the distinctive “longtang,” in a peculiarly Shanghainese word — were the living background of her classic tale, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The longtang, with their cement pavements and iron balconies, their pigeons and their gossip, their card games and cooking smoke, their romances and unsavory goings on, “the intimacy of flesh on flesh, cool and warm, tangible and knowable,” are almost gone, being bulldozed in front of our eyes for the new high-rise and Western commercial Shanghai.

The local joke, she is telling me, is that in fashionable downtown today, the likeliest language is English. In the next ring out, you’ll hear Mandarin spoken. Only in the outskirt third ring, newly settled by “longtang” refugees, will you hear Shanghainese. The women of Shanghai, she says, are more independent than they were, but not quite happily so. They miss being taken care of by men, and their ambition is typically overwhelmed by romance.

Shanghai still lives in something like Jane Austen time, Wang says. “What women are most concerned about is a good marriage.” Women are still being “consumed” as products, consumed by the malls where she observes 70 to 80 percent of the branded luxury goods are aimed at women, in a market designed by men. She herself is still happier to have the man in her life pick up the dinner check.

Wang Anyi was still shaken, she confided, by the movie she’d seen the day before, Spike Jonze’s Her, about Joaquin Phoenix’s infatuation with the computer voice of Scarlett Johannson inside his phone. She was troubled to see that so much of the film was shot in the new Shanghai. Was this a joke, she wondered: thirty years of modernization in China to become a prop in a Hollywood take on the American way?


July 2: China’s Bling Thing

The Chinese in their prosperity have become fantastic shoppers. In colossal shiny-white malls all the high-end Euro brands are here: Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and Co. The customers are mostly Chinese, the models on display invariably Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the hand manufacturing of more and more high-end Italian shoes and bags in these outlets is said to take place in Asia.


A certain aesthetic imperialism has met a ravenous acquired Chinese appetite for a lost season of their lives in Tuscany, or a year in Provence. Almost by accident I spent an afternoon in a made-up retail village outside Suzhou, a couple of hours on the road from Shanghai.

Opened by American entrepreneurs the village is built, in the Las Vegas style, around a Venetian canal. There are bridges and a mix of stores in buildings designed to represent the variety of towns Marco Polo might have stopped in, back and forth to China at the end of the thirteenth century. The game at Suzhou Village will be to draw visitors not simply to buy but to share an “experience,” a spokeswoman told me.

I’m digging through my notes from Singapore a decade ago, to recall a conversation with the architect Tay Kheng Soon. He is the designer of some of Singapore’s finest buildings, but ever out of step with the non-tropical, non-Chinese roots of the celebrity high-rise towers on his island.

“Kitsch is very big in Asia,” Tay Kheng Soon said to me, driving around Singapore one morning in the summer of 2002. “It’s the architecture of Disneyland. It works as a narcotic. It dulls the senses in a pleasurable way. It’s an anesthetic, in that it prevents you from knowing what is going on, and so it has political value.”

He anticipated the unease in the malls of the new China: “We know now from a lot of history,” said Tay Kheng Soon, “that the human spirit is invincible in the face of adversity. But I’ve decided that the human spirit is defenseless in the grip of wealth.”

horns dress

June 30: Kaiser Kuo, King of Chinese Media

Kaiser Kuo2 Listen to some of Chris’s conversation with Kaiser Kuo below: Kaiser Kuo was born in New York, but he has remade himself many times in Beijing by now: as a guitarist for the pioneering metal band, Tang Dynasty, in the 1980s and ’90s, as a blogger and podcaster, and most lately as a global marketer for Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with a star turn on This American Life with our guest, Evan Osnos. For a few hours on my last night in Beijing, we ate and spoke as fellow broadcasters, talking about his second home. KK at dinner Kuo told me to prepare for “paradox after paradox” on the ground in China. It’s a practical nation that drifted, for decades, from calamity to calamity in the Maoist spirit, he said. Today China is still Communist, but its city-dwellers are getting used to sitcoms and mass consumerism — and the ‘spiritual vacuity’ that comes with them. To Kuo, Beijing itself seems to be bustling or depleted, depending on which angle you approach it from. Kuo pointed me toward a song-and-dance number from this year’s televised New Year celebration, sung from a treadmill by the comedian Huang Bo, on the subject of the ‘China dream’, a political concept introduced by the new premier, Xi Jinping, in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di-qATFK3WM The song is called “My Desires Aren’t Too High”, or “I’m Not Too Demanding”. Kuo asks us to take this song as evidence that our title, “China rising”, may have a moderate meaning against the backdrop of saber-rattling and Sinophobia in the West. The expectations of its people are rising — for cleaner air, for a seat at the table globally, for a little more say in their civic lives — and they still have a way to go in meeting them.

June 26: DUMBO East

UCCA wall Chris moved on to Beijing to meet with Ai Weiwei, Kaiser Kuo, college students and others. Hear his conversation with the curator of UCCA, Philip Tinari, here, and come subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to hear China conversations with Yiyun Li, Evan Osnos, Ambassador Chas Freeman, and more:

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in 2007, calls itself a “catalyst for contemporary culture in China.” It’s a linchpin location in Beijing’s 798 art district, a world of converted warehouses and artist spaces. (Think of it as an oversized version of DUMBO in Brooklyn or Boston’s Fort Point.)

When I visited on Tuesday, gray works by the Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer were spread around the gallery space. But I was drawn to the corner of the 70-foot-long shoebox of the room where everyone’s allowed to paint. Little jars of the primary colors and brushes are laid out on a table in the center of the space. There’s a metal movable industrial ladder that allows you to pick a spot well over your head.

The rest is up to you — or, as it happened, me. So of course I inscribed our name, OPEN SOURCE, on a small patch of floor. Alongside it there are portraits of Michael Jackson, catchphrases and slogans in many languages, and icons all over. Every so often the wall gets refreshed with a new coat of white paint, and the painting starts again.

In forthcoming conversations with Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist #1, and the novelist Yu Hua, I was told that China is stuck in a centuries-old cycle of revolutions, one that isn’t learning liberal ways of being, still stuck in patterns on violence and suppression.

Looking at the wall in the Ullens, I see the question from another side — is this what the slow birth of a new culture of pop expression looks like: the visual riffs on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and a free-for-all wall in an art district? I put that question to UCCA curator Philip Tinari, who has his doubts but still comes to work everyday, seeking the next artist to carry the conversation forward in China. Kid by wall

June 24: A Piano Lesson

Mrs-Ying-lesson Listen to Chris’s conversation with Tian Yang about his mother, who started him playing piano when he was three years old — and still teaches: Getting on thirty years ago, in his mid-teens, the prodigy pianist Tian Ying migrated from Shanghai to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. At the time I was able to help Tian find a small apartment in town, and we always joked that he’d return the favor by showing me around Shanghai someday.

While still in his teens, Tian went on to become a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. From there he’s proceeded to an international career as a piano soloist and a tenured professorship at the University of Miami.

No sooner had I made my plans to go to China this month than Tian told me that he was going home himself, on the same weekend, to present his year-old son to his mother (and first teacher) back in Shanghai. True to his word, he’s been walking me around the home precincts of the French Concession, where he grew up.

It’s been a blessed reunion; the timing still feels miraculous. Perhaps the sweetest moments of my time in Shanghai were in his mother’s apartment, where she still teaches serious pianists, young and old, with an extraordinary flair.

Below, a clip of one of China’s 40 million aspiring virtuosos, under Mrs. Ying’s tutelage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP8nlEtP_Ho 2014-06-18 13.46.07

June 21: Shanghai 02138

220 Listen to a conversation Chris had with Ben Wood in the DR Bar here: The DR Bar (DR for ‘Design/Research’) in the Xintiandi section of old Shanghai was the third stop that Prof. Eugene Wang said I must make in his favorite city in the world. It’s the trendy martini bar a stone’s throw from the historic first meeting-place of the Chinese Communist Party. All around it, Xintiandi is a growing neighborhood of global boutiques and a sign of China’s capitalist makeover marching on.

A wax recreation of the First Congress of the Communist Party.

It was Benjamin Wood, a very New England sort of American, who designed both the bar and the shopping district that surrounds it. He was a protégé of the late Ben Thompson, the man who famously rescued the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. Thompson designed and built many buildings around Boston, including the five-story, concrete-and-glass Design/Research Building on Brattle Street in Harvard Square, where locals encountered Marimekko fabrics, midcentury-modern furniture, and everything else in the windows beginning in 1969. Ben Wood told me that his China project is a kind of tribute to his mentor, who didn’t live to see it. He repurposed two blocks of the city’s old shikumen courtyard houses, slated for destruction, into an airy, luxury shopping district that sees 82,000 visitors a day.


Ben Wood’s original plan for the Xintiandi district.

Now he serves as a consultant to many of the major and minor cities around China about their own dreams of a new urbanism. Wood is at war with the soulless, high-rise reality of those  cities, as he recounted to me over his famous martinis in the DR Bar. He favors “Monkey Gin” from Germany, which he says is the critical ingredient of the best martinis made today. I’ve come to believe him.

ben wood copy

Chris and Ben at DR Bar. (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

June 19: A Warning from the Bronze Age

Hear an excerpt from our China Rising hour about this vase:

Potter's hu vessel

Adam Mitchell / Suzanne Petrucci.

In the Shanghai Museum, we’re standing in front of a bronze hu-vessel, a wine urn from roughly 2,500 years ago — from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), not so long before the first emperor Qin unified the country.

We’re here because Eugene Wang told me to start at the beginning in China, and to absorb a sort of “holy grail” of Chinese thinking. The exquisite inlaid design on the bronze vessel depicts frolicking paired animals on the domed lid and, below, a poetic treatment of four seasons: embryonic animals at the bottom in a symbolic winter, swallows returning and couples mating around a mulberry tree in a version of spring. We’re looking at a “cyclical blueprint of regeneration,” Professor Wang tells me, “attuned to the cycle of waxing and waning energies.” The master conceptual scheme “is premised on the belief and observance of the natural cycle of seasonal change and renewal.” So there’s inspirational beauty here, and irony as well. The blue heavens of Shanghai today are in the subway video ads — mostly gone from the smoggy sky over our heads. About sixty miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Lake Tai is dying. Endlessly celebrated by painters and poets as a symbol of China’s natural beauty (and by fishermen for its fish and white shrimp), Lake Tai is lined with chemical factories and covered in many places with green scum. An old story in China is getting radically more dangerous. The first serious wood shortage in China was noted in the 11th century. The Maoist period, with slogans like “Battling with Nature is Boundless Joy,” is remembered now as an natural catastrophe. Today rivers are still drying up; 90 percent of China’s groundwater is polluted. “To be Chinese today,” according to a Harvard Business School case study, “means being heir to both a great civilization and to millennia of environmental exploitation.” And the legend of the bronze urn reads something like a last warning.

China Algae

A man skimming algae off Lake Tai, 2007. (AP Photo)

June 18: The Green House

The Green House in Shanghai, previously owned by  Wu Tongwen . Just a postcard from a house that wants a novel. D. V. Woo (or Wu Tongwen), who built it in the late 1930s, was the dye tycoon who put the color green in China’s Nationalist Army uniforms. László Hudec, his Czech-born architect, had escaped from Russian captivity in Siberia after World War One and had joined the flow of gifted strays (including many Jews) to visa-free Shanghai.Many Hudec buildings in Shanghai survive in one-off splendor, like his rough-hewn China Baptist Publication Society building and his Park Hotel.  This Green House, deemed his masterpiece, was Shanghai’s first private house with an electric elevator (still working).The eve of World War Two was a high time for Americans in China: among the famous names (then or later) the young scholar John King Fairbank, Claire Chennault of the volunteer “Flying Tigers,” and Leighton Stewart, the China-born principal of Yenching (later merged with Beijing) University, who became FDR’s Ambassador to China during the war.  Ambassador Stewart was caught in the post-war cross-fire between the “who lost China?” crowd in America and the Communists taking power; Mao denounced him in a venomous speech that Chinese school kids were required to memorize into the Sixties, and he is said to have died heart-broken.Meantime, the young nephew of D. V. Woo played in the gardens of the family’s treasure house and was seen to be developing an enthusiasm and flair for design. When he came to America his name was transliterated as I. M. Pei.greenhouse1On the show, our friend Eugene Wang observed the asymmetrical balance in the stories rising out of the Green House: Leighton Stewart was an American whose heart was in China.  I. M. Pei was a Chinese man whose heart yearned for America.  The Green House, impeccably restored, stands in a Shanghai visitor’s eyes for a modern cosmopolitanism, open to past and future still unfolding.  On the weekend before I got to Shanghai, the Green House was opened to the public for the first time in 70 years.  Ten thousand neighbors showed up and stood in line for hours to visit it. Chris and Yaping Shen, one of his Shanghai guides, discussed the Green House during the visit: 

June 2: Scratches On My Mind

People ask: “What kinds of people are you hoping to meet and interview in China?”  I answer: maybe people like Alaa Al Aswany in Cairo, the prophetic novelist of The Yacoubian Building, who’s also a full-time dentist.  At the end of 2012, when protest was boiling again in Tahrir Square, I sat in Alaa Al Aswany’s dentist chair as he explained: “Literature and medicine are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” And now it turns out that, Yu Hua, a dentist/novelist in China, writes in a similar vein, in the opening of his marvelous kaleidoscope, China in Ten Words. From his training years, Yu Hua remembers discovering the intense suffering that he was inflicting on factory workers, then children, when he injected them with barbed, worn-out needles that pulled out bleeding bits of flesh.  His shock and remorse, he writes, “left a profound mark, and …  stayed with me through all my years as an author.  It is when the suffering of others becomes part of my own experience that I truly know what it is to live and what it is to write.  Nothing in the world, perhaps, is likely to forge a connection between people as pain, because the connection that comes from that source comes from deep in the heart.  So when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my pain, too, because China’s pain is mine.”

“Poverty, misery, disease, hunger, famine, [and] ignorance…” were the controlling images of the China I met first in a Yale history class in the 1960s. Our background impressions of China, good and bad, had been outlined by MIT’s Harold Isaacs in his masterful Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India (1958). Good China derived from Marco Polo’s 13th-century discovery of China’s ancient greatness and the remarkable intelligence, industry and stoicism of her people; also from Pearl Buck’s novels, read by billions and translated to movies for the multi-millions, about the simple, suffering good people of The Good Earth (1931). Bad China derived from the medieval, non-Chinese Genghiz Khan and his Mongol hordes – prototypes of faceless barbarism, brought vividly to life again in 1950 by Mao Tse-tung’s “human sea” flooding down across the Yalu into Korea, “massed barbarians,” as Harold Isaacs put it, “now armed not with broadswords but with artillery, tanks, and jet planes.”

Headlines since my boyhood have shuttled from the Sino-Soviet marriage to divorce; from Mao’s famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s to the mind-numbing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; from Nixon’s opening to China in 1974 to Deng Xiaoping’s opening to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s and with it abandonment of equality as first principle.  “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” We are transfixed in the present by China’s transformative growth as a manufacturer, the workshop of the world; by the vast and unprecedented migrations of peasants to cities (150 million in the last thirty-some years, 300 million more in the planning); and by China’s spectacularly uneven wealth.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his absorbing Age of Ambition that China today is going through something very like our own post-Civil War “Gilded Age.” (The U.S. had fewer than 20 millionaires in 1850, as he writes; 40,000 of them in 1900).  China today, bristling with construction cranes, “is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.”  China’s new billionaires are a primary market for Rolls Royces from the U.K. and Lamborghinis from Italy. Yu Hua observes that China’s makeover has upended the meaning of the “people,” the first of his Ten Words:  “With the flick of a wrist Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another.  In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.”

Ha Jin, the exiled novelist and poet celebrated in the U.S. for Waiting and A Free Life, tells me: “in the alleys behind the façade, a lot of the old ways have not changed.  You must find the people playing chess and poker, drinking tea, as they always have.  A friend says to me: ‘my grandmother in the countryside is still living like a peasant in China a thousand years ago.’”

I travel to China next month under the wing of the Fairbank Center at Harvard and its director Bill Kirby, having played a bit part in the production of their online course, ChinaX. My first landing on the mainland is fifty years late, but there’s a nice sentimental symmetry in all this. John King Fairbank was the founder of “China Studies” in American academia.  Bill Kirby was the last of his brilliant protégés.  Fairbank’s first star graduate students in the late 1930s were Arthur Frederick Wright from Portland, Oregon and Mary Clabaugh from Birmingham, Alabama.  Married in 1940, the Wrights lit out immediately for Asia, first Japan and then China.  Through the end of World War II they were interned in a Japanese camp in Shandong province.  After liberation by American paratroopers, they chose to stay in China and traveled widely, encountering Mao along way.  They came home first to Stanford, and then Yale, where I took their celebrated year’s survey of Chinese history.

Arthur Wright liked to say it was a two-part field: “ancient Chinese history and ancient-as-hell Chinese history.”  Their star graduate student was Jonathan Spence, who graded our blue books on his way to becoming eminent in the profession.  In their sabbatical year of 1962-63, just after my graduation, the Wrights needed a tutor-babysitter for their sons, then 10 and 11, on a round-the-world journey of research and family grazing.  Grace alone got me the job – as grand a tour as Henry James could have imagined.  But all the way, and especially as we got to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia (we skipped Vietnam), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, the Wrights were itching and pulling every string they could to find a way under the fence and back to the real China.  That mission failed, but unworthy as I am, I take it up again in their sainted names.

May 30: Getting Ready

shanghai longtang Have I told you: I’m going to China this week, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?” Over and over I find that it’s artists broadly – novelists and story writers, actors and screenwriters, musicians, poets, architects and planners – who give me what I’m looking for: wide scope, the long view, and imagination about what’s coming. China is of course a wholly new story – terra largely incognita to me, which is why I’m going.  

I’ll be sending back missives and postcards  and sharing photos and bits of sound. The China watcher, Evan Osnos, will help send me off, on our program on June 12th. I’ll be talking with him and others about what I should be looking and listening for. Please help with your own questions and clues to the urgent mystery of China. What can I bring back for you? And please stay tuned as I prepare for the trip.

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

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

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 effects of the Tahrir Square revolution: In every house in Egypt, he’s saying, you’ll ...

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.

Podcast • December 27, 2012

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

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 ...

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

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 ...

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?

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 ...

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.