As is so often the way with beginnings, I was looking for someone and something else completely when I stumbled on the class Samia Mehrez is teaching. Professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, she came up with the idea of Translating the Revolution and organised its schedule within weeks of Mubarak’s resignation. There is a blog http://blog.aucegypt.edu/ and the contract with a publisher has been signed. Her students, roughly half Arabic-, half English-speakers, are translating and documenting the banners, placards, songs and jokes from the protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities after 25th January. Here are a couple of excerpts from the discussion I sat in on.
Literally, the Arabic reads: He who is silent about the truth is a speechless devil. The banner was photographed in Ismaila very early on, during the first day or two of the protests. It is a proverb addressed to those who see, who witness, but do not testify to what they see. At once elliptical and formal in the original, an idiomatic rendering into English might read ‘He who is silent about the truth is in league with the lie’, or, even, ‘with the Prince of Lies’. Too strong in English?
Other banners were altogether jazzier in their frame of reference: My New Address: 25th January Tahrir Square, read one of them – ‘Tahrir’, of course, means freedom, but the point here is in the echoing and inverting of advertisements for gated communities and other exclusive residences which stare across this over-crowded city from gigantic billboards. Luxury developments have sprung up around the edges of Cairo in recent years. ‘Global life-style providers delivering world-class communities in Egypt’, boasts one construction company; ‘La Rêve development’, crows another, ‘where reality is a dream.’
Perhaps it is for those sufficiently well-placed to even imagine such an ‘address’. These projects have also, consistently, been built on land purchased from the state by tycoons at ‘very favourable’ rates. In seven words, this banner manages to evoke a complicated stench of over-the-top marketing, greed and gangsterism. It’s hardly as if the English-speaking world furnishes us with no parallel to this, but how to pack the specificity of this into so few words?
All of those attending these classes were in Tahrir from the start or very nearly so. There’s an infectious urgency in the way they study and discuss their work. They know they have been, are still being changed, personally, directly, by what has happened. They digress, disagree, reminisce. They are not studying this as ‘Middle Eastern specialists’ might. They are testifying, rather, to what they have seen and heard.
Perhaps the full meaning of these banners will only ever be available to people who endured those billboards on the way to work each morning for years. The call to act upon that ‘meaning’ expressed itself in a peculiarly intoxicating form during ‘the 18 days’ – and Mehrez’s students are still a little dizzy from it – but that should not prevent us from seeing how long this revolution has been in the preparing.
Most journalists have traced these protests back to the general strike of 2008 and the ‘6th April’ movement to which it gave rise. In a country of 20 million industrial workers it is surely right to see this as a crucial moment, particularly as their cause was taken up so quickly by the young, using the social media which in due course transformed a labour dispute into a nation-wide call for comprehensive change. And even in February 2011, Mubarak’s resignation was preceded by three days of strikes at cotton and steel mills, cement works and fertiliser factories. As one young labour activist put it to me, ‘It was only when we directly attacked their profits that he resigned.’
In recent months sectarian tensions have troubled the country. Some journalists accept these at face value, as arising spontaneously between the Muslim and Christian communities. Others trace it to the machinations of Mubarak’s (now banned) National Democratic Party: it is widely assumed that it is still able to influence the Security Services, provoking unrest so as to legitimize the old regime’s repressive policies. Others again see either Saudi influence (much of the wildest Islamist talk – and action – comes from the Salafists, a Wahhabi faction funded directly by Saudi Arabia). Covert Israeli attempts to undermine what has been achieved are also suspected in some quarters. The revolution looks certain to alter the regional dynamic, with the crossing into Gaza already re-opened and Egypt brokering a new pact between Hamas and Fatah.
These approaches are all worth exploring. It’s a pity, though, none of these journalists, even Egyptian ones, ever ask Hani Abdul Mourid what he thinks. Why might they?
Mourid worked for four years teaching IT in a youth centre in the Zaraib, one of Cairo’s poorest neigbourhoods. His third novel, Kirieleison, published in 2008, takes that district for its backdrop. The Zaraib is home to Cairo’s rubbish-collectors – pick-up trucks roll along its uneven streets, bundles of reclaimed cardboard or plastic bottles swaying in the back. It is home also to the huge tenth century cave church of Simon the Tanner. The area is Christian.
So is some of the novel’s imagery. The tormented main protagonist (a Muslim, as is Mourid) sees himself at one point as a Christ-like figure and the story of Simon the Tanner is a leitmotif. But it is Mubarak’s dictatorship and it is poverty, it is bitterly disappointed hopes and sexual frustration of all kinds which determine these lives, not religious affiliation. The ‘conversion’ of a drug-user who has spent a year in Saudi Arabia is treated with scepticism. Christian and Muslim characters are portrayed as equally complicit in the wider corruption. His theme is plainly not only the Zaraib but, in microcosm, the sorry state of the entire country.
Mourid’s book was well received, though unsurprisingly perhaps, as the West dispatches its correspondents to the region, it has not been translated into English. Both Kirieleison and the way the news narrative has ignored it tell us more than at first they might seem to.
As the former-President’s trial begins, along with those of his sons and close associates, this settling of moral accounts in Egypt is sure to continue for a long while yet. Mock-trails of the President were being held during Friday protests in Tahrir Square from mid-March, but in some ways this trial was being prepared for long before last March or last January or even 2008. Mubarak had been in power for only two years when the novelist Naguib Mahfouz, later awarded the Nobel prize for literature, published Before the Throne. The book put one Egyptian leader after another in the dock, from the first Pharoah to unite Upper and Lower Egypt, around BC 3100, to Anwar Sadat, whose support for American policy in the Middle East led to his assassination by Islamists in 1981. The novel was re-worked in a children’s version which sold well.
It was left to other writers to cross-examine Mubarak’s regime and some fiercely sarcastic prosecutors soon stepped forward. Sonallah Ibrahim had made his name in 1966, when he privately published a short first novel, The Smell of It. It was immediately banned, but too late. Recounting the first few days of a political prisoner’s ‘liberty’, it testified to the Egyptian reality with a bewildered precision that created the literary sensation of the decade. Ibrahim himself had spent five years in prison after his arrest as a Communist in 1959. It is to the professors, workers and actors he met ‘inside’ that he has attributed the discovery of his vocation as a writer.
His 1993 Zaat is both the name of the novel’s main protagonist and a word taken from mystical Islamic philosophy, translating very approximately as ‘identity’. The book follows Zaat’s tawdry existence as she struggles to win acceptance from the office colleagues who ‘boycott’ her. Language here is above all a way of remaining ostentatiously ‘in the swim’. Its purpose is to dazzle and update the listener with the very latest information and life-style tips. It is the proper medium for news about home-improvements and recent foreign trips, the husband’s professional advancement etc etc. To have a ready way with all of these is to be a successful ‘transmission machine’ and socially acceptable.
Zaat’s hopeless longing for that acceptance is the novel’s central theme. Like most Egyptians, she never comes anywhere remotely near fulfilling that dream. The botched circumcision with which her story begins prefigures the adult attempts at love and political engagement, which are baulked at every turn. Language, too, is corrupted here by those delusions of consumerist grandeur which were so skilfully dangled before Egyptians, with American assistance, by Presidents Sadat and Mubarak. ‘La Rêve’ has been implanted, in Egypt as elsewhere, with scant regard for its actual consequences. Zaat is a case study in the result.
Intercut with her story are chapters in a quite different vein. These consist of selected passages from newspapers, advertisements, business page announcements and government communiqués. It hardly matters that the office in which Zaat seeks to be worthy of attention is in fact the archive of a newspaper. Its employees, as we’ve seen, have far more important things to worry about than the criminal mismanagement of the country they live in. Any connection, between the shameless fraudulence of the public sphere and psychological implosion in the private one, passes Zaat and her colleagues completely by.
Twenty years on from Zaat, Ibrahim no longer writes with quite the same cruelty or sarcasm. ‘I wrote it with a feeling of frustration,’ he told me, ‘At the corruption. Nothing was happening. It seemed. People believing whatever the TV told them. But after the end of the nineties I wasn’t able to use irony like that any more. I don’t know why.’ In 2005 he indignantly and very publicly refused a state-sponsored literary prize, declaring the Egyptian state unfit to confer any such award, not least by its support for US policy in the Middle East. An American-sponsored prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Arab world, had been discreetly turned down two years earlier.