Podcast • November 23, 2012

Egypt’s Revolution Continues: the Talk of Tahrir

Click to listen to three middle-class “revoltionaries” with Chris Lydon renewed protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (26 min, 11.8 meg) CAIRO — We’ve been in Tahrir Square all day till nearly midnight, recording the sound ...

Click to listen to three middle-class “revoltionaries” with Chris Lydon renewed protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (26 min, 11.8 meg)

Three Revolutionary Voices: Law Professor Hossam Issa; Engineer Mamdouh Hamza; and Architect Abbas Mahmoud Abbas. Photo Credit: Mark Fonseca Rendeiro

CAIRO — We’ve been in Tahrir Square all day till nearly midnight, recording the sound of Egypt’s democratic revolution coming back strong on the street against President Mohamed Morsi’s assertion yesterday of sweeping personal authority.  As someone just said to me: “The first wave (Jan 2011) dropped Mubarak. The second wave dropped the military. And the third wave (today) is dropping the Muslim Brotherhood.” Another says: “Say goodbye to the Square (Tahrir).  The demonstrators will not leave until Morsi leaves.”

This is a very big reversal of “the story,” which took the form in the NYT analysis today that Hillary Clinton had embraced Morsi in Cairo two days ago for brokering peace in Gaza between his friend Hamas and our friend Israel; further, that the US had its strong, safe partner back in Egypt, a recovery of the US old palship with the ousted president Mubarak.  

In Cairo from a score of people I encountered today, this is taken as incitement: “Hillary comes and gives Morsi a star they way they do with kids in kindergarten.  She gives him a green light to be a dictator, a fascist.  So the US has a new dictator in Cairo.  A new Mubarak? No! Worse than Mubarak.” Another version: “Every time the US government comes to Egypt, we get hurt.”

So a crowd of many thousands — festive, strong, various, good-tempered, completely welcoming to me with my Radio Open Source T-shirt that says (not that they read it) “Here to Listen” on the back — pretty well filled Tahrir by early afternoon, then grew in size and energy (reinforced by soccer-fan “ultras”) into the night.  “It’s the end of Morsi and of US policy,” said the respected novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid (who has published four books with the American University in Cairo Press). “The secular people and the liberals made the Revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood are thieves. They come in with the Americans, the Israelis and others and they take over… It’s the most important moment since January 25 last year,” meaning the start of the anti-Mubarak protests. “And it’s a turning point for Egyptian history — whether we will be Egypt, or be reduced to religious tribes from Saudi Arabia.”

“Not since the Pharoahs,” said a lively middle-aged civil engineer and architect, Abbas Mahmoud Abbas, speaking of Morsi’s claim of one man rule. “And the Pharoahs had to face judges in the afterlife! The Muslim Brotherhood goes by Mafia rules, exactly like the Mafia! This protest will go on all night. The people want to drop the regime. Don’t worry — Morsi must leave.”

It’s taken as given by everyone I met near Tahrir today that the US government helped engineer the election last summer of Mohamed Morsi and the elevation of the Muslim Brotherhood, long in outlawed opposition; and further that money and manhood are deeply engaged in the next round, too.

“The Muslim Brotherhood are capitalists,” said Said Abdel Nasser, who makes and sells fine jewelry in the tourist market here. “They don’t want Egypt to be a production nation. They want it to be a supermarket. They are castrating the Egyptian craft and industry, to replace it with new trade capitalism, without any industry for Egypt, just McDonalds.”

The demonstrators — for all their determined purpose — looked all day and night like a loose, inclusive, sober sporting crowd. “I see representatives of all Egypts here,” said the writer Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, who was being embraced continously as a cultural star and friend of the revolution from the beginning. “I see activists, merchants, villagers, peasants, actors and actresses, musicians and artists. But the majority is young men who made the January revolution, and many will continue.”

They were exuberant and good-humored today, happy to be taking President Morsi on directly. “The people want the regime to fall,” they chanted. Then simply, in a single word in Arabic, “Frauds… Frauds… Frauds!” One playful little band led a donkey around the Square, named “Morsi,” of course.

Nobody we met in the Square professed to have plan, or to know what will happen next. Tear gas was fired sparingly from the vicinity of the Interior Ministry in the early evening, but we did not see police intervening anywhere with the crowds. Might the Muslim Brotherhood attack in some fashion? Probably not, people said. Word was around that protesters in Alexandria had trashed, or maybe burned the Brotherhood’s headquarters there — and that the police had made no concerted move to stop them. “If the Brotherhood does attack us,” a 60-year-old demonstrator told me, “we will defeat them.” 

Podcast • November 19, 2012

Elias Khoury: an upheaval in “souls, bodies, imaginations…”

Click to listen to novelist Elias Khoury in conversation with Chris Lydon on the Arab unpheaval. (27 min, 12 meg) This revolution is mainly a cultural event, not a political event. It was an explosion ...

Click to listen to novelist Elias Khoury in conversation with Chris Lydon on the Arab unpheaval. (27 min, 12 meg)

This revolution is mainly a cultural event, not a political event. It was an explosion — against the madness, irrationality and brutality of the situation. It happened with no mediation by intellectuals, no strategy, no “idea.” It came from the depths of the society, spontaneously. Even the participants were totally astonished, even the “heroes” were taken by surprise…

Elias Khoury with Chris Lydon in Cairo, November 15, 2012

Elias Khoury on a visit to Cairo
Photo Credit: Mosa’b Elshamy

CAIRO — Elias Khoury is the sort of novelist we rely on to tell us what is going on. Himself of Lebanese and Christian antecedents, he wrote Gate of the Sun (1998), a stylized and much-admired fictional account of the Palestinian naqbah or “catastrophe” from 1948 to the infamous Sabra and Shatillah massacres in Lebanon in 1982. Writing, he remarks, is his means of discovering his ignorance and overcoming it. When we meet, almost by chance, in Cairo, he jumps to extend the cultural and emotional frame around the Arab upheaval:

We crossed the bridge of fear. Go back to the dialectics of the slave and the master, of Hegel, the German philosopher. I mean, there is a master because you are a slave. He will continue to be a master because you accept to be a slave. If you don’t accept being a slave, he is no more the master. These regimes created an era of terror, which made people believe that the people itself as an entity is the problem… Society is afraid of itself. So once a bunch of kids decided not be afraid, everything collapsed.

I feel when I come to Cairo, people are still poor; they are even more poor. The economic problems are still there, and even more complicated. But you feel freedom. You feel people are at ease with their bodies. Even the women who are covered are so sexy! Here the veil is not an Islamic sign; it’s a mode; it’s a social sign. Not every woman who has a veil is an Islamist — on the contrary! So you feel their body language has totally changed. And you feel people feeling their power. Which means that no one can repeat dictatorship. So this is a profound change. Now how to create from this change a real victory of the revolution? It still a long way… In world history, most revolutions failed, by the way. But this process itself is liberating our souls, liberating our bodies, liberating our imaginations. Now it is the big challenge for Arab societies to prove their reconciliation with history. The Arab people were totally kicked out of history — by these dictators, by their failures, and by their defeats. Now we have to prove that we deserved this reconciliation, that we can build upon it.

Elias Khoury with Chris Lydon in Cairo, November 15, 2012

“This is a very precious, very rich moment in Arab life,” Elias Khoury is telling me through the din and dread of cruel news from Gaza. “I am not pessimistic at all. We are in a process of rebuilding the concept of democracy, and putting it together with social justice, and reestablishing the idea of security in the region.” It has been an “empty region,” he says, since Egypt went its separate way to peace with Israel at Camp David in the 1970s… It will be a long and interesting and difficult task.”

The Muslim Brotherhood prevailed in Egypt’s presidential election “because there was nobody else, not because people wanted them.” But the Brotherhood is part of the old regime and time past, when it was cast as the outlaw opposition. To Elias Khoury today the Muslim Brotherhood looks unprepared to govern — not least, he says, because political Islsam is a machine without a culture. “In 80 years political Islam has not produced any writers — not one poet, not one playwright, not one novelist, not one philosopher. People who do not produce culture cannot run a country. For what Gramsci calls ‘hegemony,’ you need culture.”

Arabic cultural production and Islamic religious life have been separate spheres since the time of the Prophet, Elias Khoury tells me. “Cultural production will continue in the secular frame of everyday life, not the sacred. Daily life is more powerful than sacred texts… What’s sacred is life, not texts about life.. Life will win.”

Podcast • November 9, 2012

Yasser Jradi: for a “cultural revolution” in Tunisia

Yasser Jradi is a Tunisian calligrapher and musician best known for writing an anthem of the 2011 Revolution, Dima, Dima. He says it was the anaesthetic “bad culture” of Ben Ali’s police state that killed ...

Yasser Jradi is a Tunisian calligrapher and musician best known for writing an anthem of the 2011 Revolution, Dima, Dima. He says it was the anaesthetic “bad culture” of Ben Ali’s police state that killed the old regime — that, and 10 years of popular underground protest music, mostly from America: songs like Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Pink Floyd’s Hey You, songs by Bob Dylan and Bob Marley that incited young people to revolt, or at least to “Do something! Stand up!” Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land moves him openly: “I have the feeling this is about Tunisia now, even if it is talking about ‘California and the New York islands.’ It is feeling about Tunisia now. I love this man Woody Guthrie.”

Jradi says: “it’s not yet time to say we made a revolution; we may have to wait 10 or 15 years.” But for sure he believes that it’s good art and music that will reconstruct the Tunisia he wants to see. Suddenly, as we spoke, two musical friends and bandsmen turned up — one with a three-string bass, another with iron clackers — and the living tradition of Tunisian music broke out in Yasser Jradi’s little shop in a cave of old Tunis’s Medina market. The sound, Jradi says, was compounded in the 17th Century by sub-Saharan Africans and Arab slavers, in the days when Tunis was a capital of the slave trade. It’s a mystical, trance music, “Tunisian reggae,” as Yasser Jradi hears and sings it, and it is known as “Stambeli.”

Tunisia in my Kitchen: Back in Boston, in the Spring of 2013, I finally have from the fine hand of Yasser Jeradi a daily look at the spirit of transition in North Africa.  The words are from Mahmoud Darwish's poem, "In Jerusalem."

Tunisia in my Kitchen: Back in Boston, in the Spring of 2013, I finally have from the fine hand of Yasser Jeradi a daily look at the spirit of transition in North Africa. The words are from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “In Jerusalem.”