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

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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.

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