One year on in Egypt: Art, Politics and Power

The Egyptian revolution began one year ago today and both Negar Azimi in Artforum and Ursula Lindsey in The Middle East Report have interesting essays on the challenges facing artists, writers and performers in trying to address that extraordinary political moment.  The essays are worth reading in full — Ursula Lindsey’s is the more readily accessible online — but they can be summarized this way: it is too soon to address the revolution in art because the revolution is ongoing and not a settled historical event; it looms too large, so tends to be addressed too directly resulting in a kind of ‘revolution-kitsch’; and, anyway, much of the energy of the creative community is directly engaged in the political events themselves, not the representation of them.  All good points.  But as someone who remembers the quieter and more orderly Cairo art world of the mid- to late-1990s and wrote about Egyptian contemporary art for Travel + Leisure in 2005, I would say that, today, the competing voices, the ferment, the new participants and creators, the uncertainty, the confusion, the searching for ways to artistically represent things not yet fully digested — even, in a way, the kitsch and bad art that comes out of this — is the revolution, at least culturally.  To me, at this stage in the process, the cacophony of expression unleashed by the revolution is far, far more important than whether the art produced by it succeeds or fails as some sort of definitive representation of the political acts that catalyzed it.  Time will filter the good from the bad; what matters is the excess of cultural production and the debate and cross-fertilization it creates.

I watch a video like the trailer below for a new (and promising) documentary about Egyptian artists called The Noise of Cairo and it fills me with a kind of awe.  In it, one can see that the psychological revolution — in which Egyptians came to recognize their inalienable right to express themselves in any way and in any context they chose — has already been won, even if the last year has held many disappointments about the progress of the political revolution (which I have written about here, here, and here):



But I have personal experience with this challenge of representation as well.  A year ago, I was writing a novel set in Cairo when the revolution happened in the middle of my book; or, anyway, in the middle of my writing process.  My story was always more French New Wave than ‘Alf Laila wa Laila‘ and political only by context — in Egypt, as everyone knows, even the price of bread is political so to some degree the warping effect of its pre-revolutionary political dysfunction was inescapable — but the revolution forced me to confront the fact that some things I believed would always be true of Egypt had suddenly become exhilaratingly untrue, that the immovable had been moved in fairly spectacular fashion.  I didn’t know how to contend (artistically) with this eruption of possibility in Tahrir Square.  So I put aside the manuscript for months and, basically, just watched a live stream of Al Jazeera as this movement spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya and Yemen and Syria and Bahrain.

When I took up the manuscript again I had to wrestle with some fundamental questions.  Did the revolution mean that everything my characters had thought in those pre-revolutionary days, every way in which they had viewed the scope of possibility in their lives, every sadness and frustration was now wrong?  I, too, faced the question of how to write directly about this phenomenon that had come so suddenly and now made the months and years ahead for Egypt filled with such electric uncertainty where, previously, there had only been the grinding, monotonous certainty of a thirty-year dictatorship that seemed like it would go on for another generation.  In a way, it helped that I wasn’t in Egypt, for all the reasons of distance and engagement that Azimi and Lindsey talk about, but it also meant I had only a refracted and second-hand understanding of what the revolution had been like on the ground.  Yet it seemed impossible, now, to write a novel about contemporary Egypt and not have it be about the revolution.

But then I thought of ‘The Deer Hunter‘ and the fact that sometimes it is best not too look directly at the sun, that the darkness of the shadows can tell you just as much about the intensity of the light.  The film, which stars Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken, is generally thought of as a Vietnam War movie but, in fact, they only go to Vietnam at the end of the film; the rest is about the life and friendship they have before the war, which will never be the same again.  So, I realized, everything my characters had believed and done in the days before the revolution was still true — or, at least, as true as it had ever been and as true as I was capable of making it — because they no more anticipated the coming revolution than did the millions of people who had never undertaken an overtly political act in their lives but would soon find themselves marching in protest to bring down a president.  Indeed, this imminent transformation in thinking could become the true subject of my novel, even if I would barely address it in the book.

So is this the answer to creative representation of the Egyptian revolution?  Surely not; or at least, not the only one.  There are a million answers to this question.  Everyone in Egypt who participated in the revolution has their own and they are free, now, to express it any way they want.  But the revolution is one of those movements of universal resonance — like Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement or Gandhi and the struggle for Indian independence — that is part of our shared world heritage.  It belongs to us all, Egyptian and foreign, because it reveals something vital about what it means to be a human being in society.


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