“Oh, Lord. The square’s full. The streets feeding into it are full… There’s never been a demonstration like this before… This is Egypt… Egypt appeared to be one great demonstration… united in a single chant… The sight of thousands of people concentrated together filled him with such limitless power and assurance it was like armor protecting him, clinging tightly to him so that bullets could not penetrate… the most eloquent proof of the victory of the revolution.”
From Chapter 70 of Palace Walk (1956), the first volume of Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy.”
It could have been Tahrir Square in January of last year. But this was an anti-British riot in Cairo, in the Arab Spring of 1919, recounted by the supreme novelist of 20th Century Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz. Our nationalist hero in the scene, young Fahmy, is about to be killed by a stray bullet. The riot was brutally crushed. The nationalists were exiled. The British ruled Egypt for another 30-plus years.
We’re on our way next to Cairo and Tunis, for a “conversational immersion” in the Arab revolution. I cite the beloved Mahfouz for reminding us there were Arab “awakenings” and cycles of anti-imperial rebellion in Egypt, long before this Arab Spring of 2011… Mahfouz is telling us also: the passionate players in today’s turmoil are often, like Fahmy, lost to what’s happening. Further: it will take years, maybe decades, to see the ongoing Arab revolution as a coherent story. The shaping of epics takes a while, even as it took Naguib Mahfouz (who was 8 during those 1919 riots) almost 50 years to compose his account in Palace Walk. (The interval between the burning of Moscow and Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) was 50 years; between Waterloo and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) about the same.) And still, Mahfouz is reminding me how we long for stories, and for history and characters lit by imagination.
So — boldly, humbly! — we are leaping with our recorders into North Africa for a month or more, starting in early November. The mission is not to sum up the Arab Spring, much less to dwell on geo-strategy or political forecasts. It’s only to listen, listen, listen to lived experience and family stories; and yes, to aspirations, angst and loss under a mighty wave of events.
“Arab Artists in a Revolution” is the general banner over this project. It’s my instinct — confirmed in Pakistan last year — to seek out poets, musicians, novelists, film-makers and story-tellers of all kinds who bring touches of Mahfouz’s fire and magic. But our lines are out also to historians, labor leaders, editors, teacher, students, even a politician or two. We’re open to suggestions of guests and themes, and to and volunteers from the Open Source faithful, in the Comments box below.
For a modest project we have a huge debt of thanks to those of you who rallied fast and open-heartedly to our Kickstarter campaign. With 223 backers, we met our goal ($14,900) to pay for the trip in the first 10 days of a 30-day campaign. At the Kickstarter deadline tonight, we are flush with $21,000 in the kitty. We remain lean, mean and deeply grateful for the support and the chance to do our best work. Expect the stream of podcasts to begin here on the ROS site in the first week of November — to continue until the stories are told.