By the Way • March 6, 2015

Ganzeer in America: Get the joke? Can we take it?

The Egyptian graffiti genius known as Ganzeer is working on our turf now. I am presuming to welcome him as an artist of radical humanism. Four years ago in the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, ...

The Egyptian graffiti genius known as Ganzeer is working on our turf now. I am presuming to welcome him as an artist of radical humanism.

Four years ago in the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, Ganzeer was first among the young outlaws who painted the truth about Egypt’s dictatorship and the promise of the Arab Spring on the walls of their city. They made images that beat guns, for a while.


Ganzeer hand-painted that famous highway billboard, of a tank bearing down on the bread-delivery-man on his bicycle. He made the iconic poster of Egyptian police with American weaponry, stripping and beating up a lady protester in Tahrir Square. Four years later the same intrepid Ganzeer, just into his 30s, has taken root in Brooklyn. He’s got New York and the United States in his sights.

For his “All-American” gallery show in Manhattan of new paintings and posters, his impressions of us are merciless – not exactly funny, not quite incendiary, but tough: maybe just what we need from an artist and humanist of Egypt and the wide world. One Sunday afternoon this winter Ganzeer let me into his Brooklyn studio for a long gab about art as social commentary, about Concept Pop, as he calls it – which is to say idea-driven art that comes with a sort of punch in the nose. We’re talking about what he sees as the face of America, and I keep wondering: can we take it? “I guess I’m going to find out,” he smiles at me. “We’re all going to find out.”


G: I just notice things. I just noticed that Robin Williams’ death, for example, grabbed far more media attention, in the papers and whatnot, than the events in Ferguson happening at exactly the same time. Media aside, just normal day-to-day experiences, you just see things. You’re on the subway for the first time, and the loudspeaker is telling people that all their bags are subject to random search by the police, which is a quality of an authoritarian state; it doesn’t get more obvious than that, you know? You see cops harassing guys who are playing music on the subway if they’re African-American. Of course when you’re entering Williamsburg and there are some white hipsters playing music on the subway, the cops are standing there but they’re not doing anything about it. So you start to see trends…

For example, enforced nationalism. The display of the Egyptian flag in public space to a nauseating degree is something new that happened recently with the military takeover in Egypt… but then you come to the United States and maybe this practice has been here for a longer time: you see the flag on every single vehicle of public transportation… You see these incredibly pointless glossy magazines at every newsstand trying to sway society in a particular direction: to constantly be happy, to constantly have great sex, a great American body, great American summer, great American dad – whatever it is, you know, it’s just like ridiculous.

CL: And what about the people?

G: I see a lot of immigrants mostly. People who are actually not American at all, not in any way American. So what’s interesting about all this Americanism that’s in the air – it’s trying to get people to assimilate and become American when they’re so obviously not. Most people in New York are not really American.

Egypt seems mostly behind him now, except for the native confidence it gave him in the power of images — “we’re a visual people, back to ancient times” — and the force of ridicule. “Egyptians have a reputation for liking to laugh… If the joke is good, people are not going to remember anything else.” “Honest Money” in Ganzeer’s “All American” show is his redesign of our legal tender, six bills memorializing moments in our history:


The $1 bill has a hand holding a severed head of a Native American man. This exemplifies what I would argue is the first major event in American history, the genocide of the Native American population… No, There’s no Thanksgiving on my bills! The rear side shows where there are Native American reservations today. They tend to be seen as the American way of doing good by these people… but these reservations are about 2.3 percent of the entire country… To be honest, looking at this map the only thing it brings to mind is Israel and Palestine. So you have some scattered bits of Palestinian land, right? But then the fact of the matter is the entirety of the land is occupied land, taken from these people.

On the $5 bill we have the enslavement of the African population, bringing them on board ships and taking them to the Americas to serve European settlers… The $10 bill shows the exploitation of the Chinese workers in building the transcontinental railway… On the rear… in 1882 the U. S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion act, which was their reward…

Finally, on the $100 bill we have an illustration of ancient artifacts in American museums. For example the Met: 39.5 percent of those artifacts come from Egypt, India, Greece, the Roman Empire, Peru, Syria, Turkey, Korea, Africa and Asia. The Met makes an annual revenue of approximately $68 to $70 million, one museum in the US. Zero percent goes to Egypt, Syria, Turkey… Meanwhile the Disney Consumer Products Co. made $39.3 billion in 2013 off licensing the use of Disney characters in foreign countries.

Ganzeer is showing us a parody of that bugaboo “Orientalism,” turning it 180 degrees. I’m calling it “Occidentalism” that says in effect: Look what they do in the odd, exotic West — in the New York seat of empire. His language is art for a gallery wall. There’s a bit of theory in it, about art as Activism, Empty-ism (high and low), and what he dubs his own Concept Pop.

You have a certain kind of Activisty art. It’s not going to change anybody’s mind: a pumped up fist is like a slogan… It fails on conceptual and aesthetic measures. If we look at what’s happening in contemporary arts here, there’s a lot of art that is not really about anything in particular. It just entirely focuses on aesthetic experiments and playing with materials. I call it “Art for Supervillains.” If you think about your standard Hollywood villain figure and what his house would look like if he had art in it, it’s probably going to be some of the art you might find in a Chelsea gallery. And then of course you have Street Art, or graffiti, right? So there’s a lot of tagging; people writing their names on the wall, or doing beautiful murals they can do with spray paint: they’re very large and they’re impressive technically speaking, and they’re not really about anything as well, right? So these are the major movements in the art sphere here.

And it is a little disappointing, disheartening, that there isn’t enough art that can experiment with a method but be about something in the process of doing that, right? Mine? I call it Concept Pop, and for me it’s just a way of doing art that can use these pop references, popular symbols, popular forms; but rather than do it for no reason, do it with an actual concept behind you – but of course in so doing it’s also very different from conceptual art which often tends to deliver concepts in a very bland, unaestheticized way, right. I feel like it’s an approach that occupies this particular mid-ground that I try to dance in a little bit.

Ganzeer could remind you of Ai Weiwei — another anti-authoritarian global humanist who lashes his fellow artists to be bolder, more notoriously defiant. But Ganzeer likes the irony in their different stances: Ganzeer sees himself as equal opportunity offender. Ai Weiwei is a celebrity in the West for confronting the government in Beijing. “But he seems to be incapable or unaware or naïve enough not to do anything about the context here” in the States. Ganzeer feels he was invited implicitly to follow suit: “becoming this avatar of some kind of resistance movement in some other country, right? But of course it’s a role that I completely refused.” And still, “almost every profile or review seems to focus on the Egyptian aspect of my work. A lot of artists fall into that trap, right? … It is easy for the artist to fall into… coming from this very interesting, exotic land, right?”


So he is happy to pose for my camera in front of a collaborative painting he made with artists in Germany: it depicts a child warrior in Africa holding the outline of a machine gun that was originally papered with Euro bills. On public display in Germany the painting “experienced citizen censorship,” as Ganzeer put it. His audience stripped off the Euros (fakes, in any event) but the point stuck about neo-imperial interest in Africa’s instability. Ganzeer is restoring the work in his Brooklyn studio. When we do speak of Egypt, where his revolutionary work has been effaced and he himself would be in danger, Ganzeer wants to nail a punchline about the United States. I observe that most Americans know very little about the US hand in Mubarak’s reign, Mubarak’s downfall, the succession of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and now General Sisi and the Egyptian Army. Ganzeer says: that’s just the point:

The one obvious change you can see since the ‘revolution’ in Egypt is that the police force has become incredibly heavily militarized now – and of course these weapons come from the Egyptian military, which gets its weapons from the United States of America. So of course the US government has a direct involvement in the killing of Egyptian people on the streets of Cairo today, and the American people do not know that. And the fact they do not know exemplifies the kind of democracy that they actually have. How is it that these people think they live in a country where they do control the government’s actions and don’t even know that their government is supplying weapons to kill people across the world?

Ganzeer in conversation becomes the very image of his defiant Cairo cat that thrilled me in Egypt two and a half years ago. His wounded common street cat was a comment on the stalled revolution. It was homage, too, to the Pharaonic Egypt, the semi-sacred cat symbolizing freedom and endurance. We’re blessed to have this cat’s fresh, almost fearless, gaze on us for a while.



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 ...

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 7, 2013

Barbara Massaad in Beirut: Make Food, not War. Seriously!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (19 min, 21 meg) BEIRUT — Barbara Massaad, writer and chef, in her kitchen, is telling us a terrific story about the all-conquering cult of food ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (19 min, 21 meg)

BEIRUT — Barbara Massaad, writer and chef, in her kitchen, is telling us a terrific story about the all-conquering cult of food in Lebanon. And I am asking her: no kidding, what if we demanded that cooks and musicians run this ugly world, starting here in Beirut and, by all means, next door in Syria.

When you talk about food to a Lebanese, you bring them back to their childhood with a big smile. Once I was in Nabatiyeh, deep in the south of Lebanon, and I was taking pictures of a sign that said “Garlic” or something. And this guy from Hezbollah comes up to me and starts screaming! Like, ‘Yaaaah! You’re not allowed to photograph that! What do you think you’re doing?’ And I said: Look, food! This is what I am doing. And I started showing him my book on Man’oushé — about local varieties of ‘thyme pie’ in Lebanon. And suddenly this ferocious guy became like a little boy. ‘Aaah,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to come and visit my mom. She makes the best food in the world.’ And then it was like: ‘I promise I will come back and visit your mom.’ And he said: ‘take as many pictures as you want. I’m really sorry.’ This is the effect that food has on Lebanese people. It’s a maternal thing. It’s childhood. It’s the root of everything.

Barbara Abdeni Massaad in conversation with Chris Lydon and Mark Rendeiro in Beirut, December 2012.

At the ragged edge of the Arab upheaval, Beirut is enjoying yet another constuction boom. Gracious old Ottoman-era houses are disappearing fast near the ever-bustling Hamra Street. New luxury apartments are sprouting up next to shot-up shells of 1960s hotels, described as too big to tear down, too damaged to repair…

Talking about food is, of course, a way of not talking about everything else on Lebanon’s mind. Thousands of refugees are turning up from Syria. There’s a palpable dread that Syria’s civil war could run as long as Lebanon’s (1975 to 1990). And there’s a real danger that Lebanon’s politics — aligned for and against the Assad regime in Damascus — could go haywire again. Then again, food talk reflects and connects with everything else — village cheeses match local and tribal loyalties in this dense mosaic of minorities.

Barbara Massaad has published two handsome books of slow-food lore, both rich with social implications. Mouneh is the old Lebanese folk science of preserving food — drying and pickling, for example — to survive war and other disasters. Man’oushé used to be every Lebanese person’s daily bread, in infinite local varieties, dressed with onions, olives, tomatos, spiced with zaatar, or not. Man’oushé is her dream remedy for almost everything that ails the Arab world. “It’s a poor man’s food, but you see the richest people eating it,” she is telling us. Man’oushé is the work of magnetic, gossipy local bakeries where, as in England’s “local” pubs, “you find out who’s going out with whom, what the president said, and what Hassan Nasrallah spoke about last night.” If she could summon the energy, Barbara Massad says, she’d open a place with food for everyone. “It wouldn’t be that expensive — food for all walks of life. Something with lentils — but this divine lentil soup!”

So, what if man’oushé, lentil soup and good music are the basic program?

Podcast • January 5, 2013

Guy Talk in Tahrir Square

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, ...

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

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Khaled Hafez (12 min, 5.6 meg) CAIRO — Khaled Hafez — charismatic painter and multi-media artist, in his regular Friday salon or master class with most of a ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Khaled Hafez (12 min, 5.6 meg)

CAIRO — 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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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.”

yacoubian dentist 2He 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

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 ...

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.

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.”