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 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.

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  • nother

    A lot of cool things here but for me the best thing that comes out of Khaled Abol Naga’s mouth, is not a particular word, it’s his collective tone. Energetic, defiant, and with a touch of whimsy. I think I remember John Updike saying on Radio Open Source, that the American spirit is one of “ingenuity.” If there’s not a way already, we’ll make a way – that’s the spirit I hear in Mr. Naga’s voice. And the sad irony in America is that I too often hear a jaded tone of resentment…and that’s coming from the liberal Occupy crowd! Naga reminds me that Adams and Jefferson must have been eternal optimists, not angry revolutionaries. They built “castles in the air” as Thoreau said, and “when you have a dream you have a dream,” as Naga says here.

    ROS thank you for this Egypt series, it has shown me that together, Egypt and American can move the world forward, by bridging East and West with the principles of “freedom, equality, and dignity.” All we need to do is marry the haggard and hard won lessons of our Revolution with the optimistic vitality of theirs. “Revolution continues.”

  • Niall Dooley

    Will anyone respond to my query about that fact that this show is on the whole podcasts relating to issues to do with middle eastern countries. This betrays the tag line for the show. Why is this so? Don’t get me wrong, I like this podcast, the shows are well done, interesting and insightful, but for once I’d like to find out about issues in countries that are not Egypt or Iraq!

  • chris

    For Niall Dooley:
    You’re quite right — except for the shows from Cuba, Jamaica, Greece, Israel, Pakistan, India and Singapore, among other places. As the saying goes, you can look these things up!
    Chris Lydon

  • Robert Zucchi

    Mr. Abol Naga is winningly personable, well-spoken, persuasive, and admirably éngagé in arguing that in the very mentality of the Arab people there is a paradigm change underway, marked by a disinclination to suffer dictatorship, whether “sacred” or secular, or to endure silently the immiseration imposed by an economic elite. Mr. Lydon’s earlier interviews with artists and other intellectuals in this series reinforced that view, and so does Mr. Abol Naga’s relative youth … when haven’t we depended on the idealism and energy of young people to fructify such hopes as remain to us oldsters?

    Another commenter on this article is also heartened by Mr. Abol Naga’s informed optimism. But I’m confused by the “jaded tone of resentment” brickbat hurled at “the liberal Occupy crowd.” Does not outrage directed against economic criminality belong precisely to the same order of rebellion as exhibited in Tahrir Square? And how are the Occupiers more jaded or resentful than our colorful secessional revanchists?

    Mr. Abol Naga says that even among American conservatives he detects a dialectic with democratic renewal at work. This is not evident to me, but Mr. Lydon’s whole series has had as its theme the renovation of societal relations as the precursor of changes in societal structures. The struggle that has engaged Egypt is upon us now as well (!), and it has nothing of “the American dream” (that detestable trope) in it, nor much of our mythologized ingenuity, though it demands of us small-d democrats every measure of intrepidity and resolve that our Founders in their UNoptimistic moments prophesied would be logically unavoidable.

  • Potter

    I don’t think in the States you could have another Bush.

    I do. In fact Bush may look good in retrospect if the feeling that we need to control and play superpower prevails again as it did with Romney. This is something that Obama has backed away from.

    I agree with this positive outlook in general though, that these political revolutions are spurred on by a global culture and attendant awakening that we share, bouncing off each other, transmitting the absolute necessity of individual spirit to breath free. There is a fearlessness about that, a willingness to die for it. It’s about ideas that are not new for us here in the US but ones that need rejuvenation here and an awakening for that to happen. We watch. So it was (and is) inspiring to behold Egyptians in Tahrir Square. Many of us were with them in spirit; still are.

    I connect with Khaled abol Naga’s view; the quote above is so full of light.

    A handsome guy!

  • Potter

    What is the music you are playing?

  • chris

    The band is Massar Egbari. They’re from Alexandria, and were featured in Khaled Abol Naga’s movie “Microphone.” We heard them at the Cairo Jazz Club and could feel their hold on a generation and its moment! Check them on YouTube — for example here and here.

  • Linda Pilgrim

    The ‘power of the people’ that Khaled Abol Naga talks about also sounds like a good description of what musicians in Mali — from the north and south — are now doing by uniting to play their music for peace in defiance of the militants in the North who have declared a ban on all music.