L’antidoto all’infelicità

Mohamed Salah banners and merchandise in Sporting, Alexandria

An Italian translation of the Mada Masr essay Unhappiness and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, which featured in Italy’s Internazionale magazine, print edition. (Click here for the PDF magazine version)

“Infelice è la terra che non produce eroi,” esclama Andrea in Vita di Galileo, opera del 1938 del drammaturgo tedesco Bertolt Brecht. E Galileo gli risponde: “No, infelice è la terra che ha bisogno di eroi”.

L’Egitto potrebbe essere quella terra infelice. Un posto dove ormai sono più le feste di addio che quelle di bentornato. Dove una giovane dottoressa medita con tristezza di andare via, perché “far nascere un bambino qui mi sembra moralmente sbagliato, quasi illegale”. Dove il proprietario di un chiosco di succhi di frutta dice con sarcasmo: “Non abbiamo tempo di pensare ad altro che alla sopravvivenza; non abbiamo neanche tempo per pensare al suicidio”. Quando un paese precipita in problemi economici e sociali senza fine e sprofonda nella disperazione, cresce il desiderio di un batal (eroe), una figura che da sola possa comprendere e risolvere la dolorosa complessità del reale.

In Egitto qualcosa ha causato un cortocircuito in uno sport che spesso i governi usano per distrarre le masse. Qualcosa ha intralciato il disegno autoritario che vuole impedire all’unicità di emergere dal lusso della vita egiziana.

Ecco a voi Mohamed Salah, il calciatore, armato della sua etica.

Salah è motivo di speranza per molti, ed è uno spettro inquietante che perseguita le autorità. Perché lui ha davanti a sé delle alternative, ha prestigio internazionale e un’aura di intoccabilità. Poco alla volta è diventato molto di più di un semplice eroe del calcio. Salah è un eroe dirompente, il paradosso vivente di una voce che fa politica senza parlare di politica. La sua è una politica che agisce per giustapposizione inconscia: il calciatore che sembra impeccabile contro i vertici del potere, tanto corrotti e familiari.

Molte personalità egiziane importanti e rispettate sembrano avere una risposta a tutto. Ma poi arriva Salah e ci si trova davanti a domande a cui è difficile rispondere.

Per esempio: perché riponiamo tanta speranza in un uomo?

Salah non può sostituirsi alla politica. Resta pur sempre un calciatore, per quanto bravo. Ma la sua incursione nell’instabile panorama egiziano fa un po’ di luce su quello che è andato storto, e tutto questo entusiasmo per lui pu. dirci qualcosa sull’infelicità egiziana.

Il fatto di restare alla larga dalla politica, o di svelare involontariamente le sue idee, gli ha dato una vasta base di consenso. Dalla rivoluzione del 2011, gli egiziani si ritrovano a vivere tra opposti: rivoluzionario o controrivoluzionario, laico o islamista, civile o militare, liberale o ipernazionalista, pro o contro i Fratelli musulmani. Anche se alcune di queste contrapposizioni si sono placate sotto il regime dei militari, l’unità che si è creata è un’unità in negativo: è quasi sempre contro qualcosa, come il terrorismo; e quando invece è per qualcosa, per esempio per l’Egitto, diventa una costrizione imposta dall’alto, senza spazio per voci o pensieri diversi.

Salah sembra essere il primo, dopo molto tempo, in grado di unire sostenitori e oppositori del regime. Come ha detto un dottorando egiziano che studia in California: “Grazie a Salah sto recuperando il rapporto con il mio paese”.

Qualcosa di peggio

Ormai è normale attribuire l’infelicità in Egitto alla disoccupazione, alla povertà, a un sistema scolastico al collasso, alla censura, alla repressione delle voci indipendenti, alle violazioni dei diritti umani. Indubbiamente questi sono tutti fattori che contribuiscono alla miseria di molti egiziani, ma dietro c’è qualcosa di peggio, di patologico: la triste realtà che all’orizzonte non ci siano alternative. Quella speranza che in passato prometteva che l’infelicità sarebbe stata temporanea si sta affievolendo, e lascia spazio a una tristezza inevitabile. La depressione ti disarma prima ancora che la repressione abbia il tempo d’indossare la sua divisa.

E’ per questo che Salah è come un’improvvisa affermazione di valori umani all’interno di un sistema disumanizzante. Il suo mito non è esploso quando Salah ha contribuito alla vittoria contro il Congo nell’ottobre del 2017 che ha permesso all’Egitto di qualificarsi ai Mondiali di Russia: uno straordinario talento calcistico non basta a convertire i profani del pallone. E non è stata neanche la storia della sua ascesa dalle umili origini alla celebrità. Non c’era nulla di originale in una storia di successo individuale.

Ma poi è venuto fuori l’altro, altrettanto decisivo, aspetto di Salah. Due settimane dopo la partita contro il Congo, l’imprenditore Mamdouh Abbas gli ha offerto in regalo una villa di lusso. Salah ha educatamente rifiutato, suggerendo che una donazione al suo villaggio natale di Nagrig, nella provincia di Gharbia, lo avrebbe reso più felice. Questo gesto, insieme alle sue tante opere di beneficenza, per chi non è tifoso di calcio (come me) è stato a dir poco sconvolgente, e ci ha portati tutti dalla sua parte.

Per capire meglio le implicazioni di un gesto simile, dovete sapere che in Egitto le autostrade sono piene fino alla nausea di manifesti che pubblicizzano gli ultimi esuberanti edifici di lusso e complessi residenziali accessibili solo a chi ci abita. E’ un vero e proprio bombardamento visivo per milioni di egiziani, sconcertati dal fatto che possano esistere progetti simili in un periodo di austerità, in cui viene continuamente chiesto di fare sacrifici. Queste pubblicità, quasi sempre in inglese, e a volte con volti di europei, bianchi e con gli occhi azzurri in primo piano, proclamano a grandi lettere “ E’ il momento di pensare a te”, “Stavolta è una faccenda personale”. Il capitalismo all’ennesima potenza e la speculazione edilizia non solo stanno stravolgendo l’economia del paese, ma stanno anche spingendo al massimo l’individualismo sfrenato, l’avidità e varie forme di disprezzo di se stessi.

Il rifiuto di Salah ha inflitto un duro colpo a una certa cultura del grottesco e dell’eccesso, e ha rappresentato una conferma di quei valori che erano nati (o si erano concretizzati) durante la rivoluzione del 2011, valori che mettevano il bene comune al primo posto. Salah ha infranto una normalità fatta di clientelismo ed espedienti. Se già in molti lo adoravano dopo la vittoria sul Congo, quel gesto e le opere di beneficenza gli hanno fatto ottenere ancora di più il rispetto della gente, anche perché era evidente che non si trattava di una mossa pubblicitaria, ma di un atto coerente con il carattere e la storia del calciatore. L’amore e il rispetto sono due cose diverse.

Da tempo gli egiziani non riescono a guardare qualcuno con rispetto, qualcuno cioè che non sia in esilio, in prigione, o sottoterra. Devono assistere a uno spettacolo estenuante, in cui spesso la versione ufficiale è in conflitto con la realtà e con il senso comune.

Questa guerra di logoramento contro la razionalità ha fatto precipitare gli egiziani in una spirale di conformismo, scetticismo e indifferenza. L’idea di un bene supremo è svanita a poco a poco, mentre il potere ha continuato “non a stimolare la gente con la verità, ma a confortarla con le menzogne”, per dirla con le parole dell’intellettuale ceco Václav Havel. L’intervento di Salah non ha necessariamente cambiato tutto questo, ma ha contribuito a restituire un significato a parole che erano state stravolte: la dignità è tornata a essere dignità, i princípi sono tornati princípi, la generosità è tornata generosità, e la felicità è tornata felicità.

Salah ha toccato anche un’altra questione vitale per lo stato e la società egiziani: il bisogno di un riconoscimento internazionale. Questa necessità s’intreccia con la storia moderna del paese. L’Egitto del presidente Abdel Fattah al Sisi ha fatto innumerevoli sforzi per promuovere la sua immagine, come hanno dimostrato i cartelloni pubblicitari a times Square, a New york, che sponsorizzavano il nuovo canale di Suez con la scritta “Il regalo dell’Egitto al mondo”. Salah è riuscito a impersonare quello slogan in modo molto più dirompente e spettacolare, con un impatto ben più significativo di tutte le campagne turistiche, le conferenze internazionali e tutti i megaprogetti degli ultimi anni messi insieme. Ecco perché nominare Salah in una conversazione può provocare in molti egiziani l’impressione di restare senza fiato, un formicolio alle mani, e un senso di leggerezza.

Questo in parte ha a che fare con la funzione della felicità e del senso della vita. Il regime crede di poter monetizzare la felicità affermando di voler rendere gli egiziani “tra i popoli più felici al mondo”, o discutendo con il ministro della felicità degli Emirati Arabi Uniti sulla possibilità di esportare in Egitto un po’ della loro fantastica pozione.

Sentimenti panarabi

La questione della felicità ha attraversato la storia della filosofia, dall’Etica nicomachea di Aristotele all’Alchimia della felicità di Al Ghazali fino al Crepuscolo degli idoli e all’Anticristo di Nietzsche. Nessuno di questi filosofi avrebbe mai abbracciato l’utilitarismo d’ispirazione anglosassone di John Stuart Mill, che intende la felicità come il massimo utile realizzabile ed è stato riconfezionato dal neoliberismo moderno, rinunciando a una vita ricca di significato di cui la felicità è solo una conseguenza. In altre parole, non si può separare il raggiungimento della felicità dal rispetto per la giustizia, la dignità, la virtù. Eppure le autorità sembrano non mettere a fuoco che la felicità finisce per perdere di senso se non viene salvaguardato l’attivismo dei cittadini, non si apre la sfera pubblica, non si garantiscono processi equi, non s’incoraggia il pluralismo. Se non si evita che il senso dell’esistenza vada in frantumi.

Salah ci lascia sbirciare tra queste fratture, perché comunica non solo più concretamente attraverso il suo successo calcistico, ma anche con l’empatia e la profondità di significato che accompagnano l’onestà del carattere.

La fama di Salah e il suo approccio alla religione arrivano in un momento in cui molti egiziani stanno rimettendo in discussione la loro fede e la loro identità. Quelle norme che un tempo definivano l’osservanza religiosa stanno collassando sotto il peso delle contraddizioni del paese. Lo stato usa la religione per disciplinare in modo arbitrario lo spazio pubblico e i predicatori incoraggiano un islam barocco a discapito dell’essenza umile della religione musulmana.

La diffusa passività spirituale si contrappone alla fede di Salah, che è parte della sua vita pubblica. Anche dopo essere stato catapultato in cima al mondo, non ha mai sentito il bisogno di mettere da parte o modificare la sua identità musulmana. Vedere Magi, la moglie velata di Salah, al suo fianco su un campo di calcio in Europa è stata una scena ipnotica per gli egiziani (e per il resto del mondo), proprio perché è qualcosa d’insolito, soprattutto in un periodo di paure esasperate verso i musulmani in occidente.

Per questi stessi motivi Salah suscita sentimenti di unità in tutto il mondo arabo e musulmano. Ha fatto la sua comparsa sulla scena dei writer libanesi e nelle schede elettorali annullate per protesta in Libano (proprio come in Egitto), ha scatenato una bizzarra manifestazione pacifica fuori dall’ambasciata spagnola a Jakarta dopo il fallo che ha subíto da Sergio Ramos. L’immagine, un tempo diffusa nel mondo arabo, di un Egitto, forte, vivace, nobile, con un ruolo di guida e aperto al mondo – un paese che promuove le arti, dimora del pensiero sunnita, fautore del panarabismo e difensore della causa palestinese – oggi viene proiettata su Salah. Quando s’inginocchia sull’erba e alza gli indici al cielo, centinaia di milioni di musulmani sono attratti da una devozione che è familiare ma che va oltre la cultura e la religione. Mentre il mondo occidentale sprofonda nella sterilità neoliberista, nel consumismo, nella solitudine, negli scandali, nel populismo, nella xenofobia contro i rifugiati e i migranti, nell’islamofobia, nell’antisemitismo e nelle notizie false, il Salah poliedrico (calciatore, padre amoroso che gioca con la figlia) si staglia come un momento di verità e di universalità.

L’alternativa possibile

Albert Camus, immaginando di rivolgersi a un destinatario tedesco, nel 1943 scriveva: “Io vorrei poter amare il mio paese pur amando allo stesso tempo la giustizia. Non voglio per lui alcuna grandezza, soprattutto non una grandezza fatta di sangue e di menzogna. E’ facendo vivere la giustizia che voglio far vivere il mio paese”.

Forse Salah incarna questo ideale: l’amore per un paese non chiede grandi cerimonie o di battersi il petto, ma vuole bellezza, sincerità, umiltà e benevolenza. In un panorama senza modelli degni di rispetto, Salah ricorda agli egiziani che esiste una natura umana migliore. Per l’Egitto e per il resto del mondo l’anomalia Salah mostra che l’alternativa al nazionalismo non è il tradimento ma la responsabilità civica, l’alternativa al conservatorismo non deve essere per forza l’apatia o lo scherno verso il sacro, e l’alternativa all’ingiustizia può essere il perdono. In fondo, in molti avevano quasi dimenticato come le celebrità potessero essere umili.

Salah è quella rara festa di bentornato che gli egiziani aspettano da tempo. Il suo volto sulle lanterne illumina i vicoli bui, i suoi poster colorati coprono i manifesti elettorali sbiaditi.

Anche se è chiaro che Salah non potrà influenzare la situazione politica in Egitto, la sua esistenza vivace indica degli spiragli per il ritorno a una sfera di autenticità. Salah espande l’immaginario etico di un pubblico vigile, mostra delle possibilità, lasciando intuire che il ritmo della vita è qualcosa di più delle nascite, dei matrimoni, delle morti, e perfino dello sport.

E solleva una domanda, con cui prima o poi i potenti dovranno fare i conti, perché ci sono delle ragioni se le persone hanno bisogno degli eroi: cosa avete fatto per renderle così infelici?

Passport, the fallen

This prose poem was inspired by the stories and witnessing of countless friends and strangers traveling on less mobile passports and the torment they have had to endure at airports and consulates. 

Illustration by F.T. Janes, from the novel “Angel of the Revolution,” George Griffith (1893) pg. 371. The fantastical tale explored the future of air travel, warfare, inequalities and social responsibility. 

Passport, the Fallen

I never met that medieval Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, for I would have beset his world travels with heartache crueler than the sea storms that unsettled him,

Known as a travel document, I am more document than travel,

For I am not of the blessed.

They played with my ancestry: I went from world to third-world, developing world, and global south,

As if colourful names ever granted me admission to the geographies of privilege.

I catch a glimpse of my compatriots squeezed between sweaty nervous human hands at passport controls where humanity sheds the pretense of fraternity and re-glues inequalities,

I watch desk officers execute the parochial wave of the times,

A predatory international relations system telescoped into an arbitrary being void of thought,

I am reminded that I have so much power of disdain,  

I keep security needlessly occupied and transits an end in themselves,

I make borders out of iron and visas out of alchemy,

I prolong queues into creeping anacondas,

while turning immigration controls into life stations,

Did you know I can unravel life’s plans?

I make families miss their flights,

Laborers forgo their grandmother’s funerals,

Couples reschedule their honeymoons,

Students skip their graduations,

Scholars show up late to conferences,

Journalists lose their story,

Merchants scale back their dreams,

Refugees. Die.

I turn Africa into Alcatraz with no parole,

remake Asia into arcades with no fire exits,

Cast the undesired Americas into an ailment with no remedy,

while watching Europe send her Marco Polo tribes to a playground called Earth.

I dance with fate, whispering in her ear: who can fall in love with whom, who can discover a new realm where, who can seek sanctuary when, who can question their very being and why.

I am the butcher of stories, curiosities, aspirations and encounters.

I am the sorcerer that makes the Indian backpacker invisible,

I am the heirloom of the troubled nation-state, the algebra of colonial logic, the archangel of a geopolitical apartheid,

Bordering. Ordering. Bothering. Othering.

I trigger a silent cry across the planet: “We never asked for this world.”

~Amro Ali (2018)

Denmark is Entering Frightening New Territory with “Ghetto” Policies

Published in TIME magazine

At the blazing apogee of the Second World War, a poignant essay on the embattled life of refugees and immigrants was published in an obscure 1943 journal. Written by Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist, and, by then, embittered refugee, the essay closed with the words: “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.”

Arendt’s message was soberingly simple: Targeting a vulnerable group is the start of unraveling processes that bring greater and far-reaching ruin.

This year, Denmark’s xenophobia and move to the right has entered frighteningly new territory to supposedly prevent immigrants forming a “parallel society.” Let’s not forget that Denmark already has the Bohemian autonomous Christiania—which has caused decades of headaches for the Danish government but whose inhabitants are still less stigmatized than immigrants.

Among the many changes, children from “ghetto” areas—where more than 50% of the population are non-Western immigrants, mainly Muslims—will have to attend obligatory daycare for 25 hours or more a week from the age of 1, so that they learn “Danish values” and traditions, like Christmas and Easter. A law under consideration would impose a four-year prison sentence for parents who commit “re-education trips”—sending their children on “extended” visits to the parent’s country of origin.

The legislation reads like a 19th century missionary enterprise, a colonial experiment to civilize the brown folks.

The peril is that this form of divisive politics will seep deeper into the tapestry of the illiberal anti-immigrant pan-European movement. Denmark is not just setting a precedent; it is sparking a game of one-upmanship in the performance of transnational bigotry.

If immigrants fully “assimilated” or vanished from the land, then the logic might follow the xenophobic movements would close shop and populist parties would scale back their rhetoric and shift policies to mundane domestic affairs. That rarely happens.

Such movements and parties stake their existential politics on discriminatory and exclusionary practices (despite the claim of inclusionary intentions of wanting to assimilate the immigrants) which are then further reignited along election cycles. Unabashed political interests, not humane social policy, is what matters to them.

As soon as the initial victims are exhausted, new targets are sought out. Hatred and fear never operate within rational boundaries. It’s all-pervasive; passions take over level-headed policy deliberation—not surprising, the Danish government did not involve experts, researchers and residents in the discussions. It echoes Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: “For the only thing that counts in a movement is precisely that it keeps itself in constant movement.”

Prior to Britain’s 2016, referendum on membership of the E.U., some in the pro-Brexit campaign focused on trying to end Muslim immigration. But quickly after Britain voted to leave, racial vilification and attacks quickly spread to target Poles, Latvians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Jews and, perhaps the least expected, the Swedes.

Norway-based Muslim intellectual, Iyad el-Baghdadi, points out that “minorities are the canaries in the coal mine.” The state of their well-being, fear, anxiety, flight, is a bellwether of their overall society—whether it be Muslims in Europe, Christians in the Middle East, Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Kurds in Turkey, Baha’is in Iran, Hindus in Pakistan, or African-Americans in the United States. When the toxic gas of populist exclusion is diffused through society, the minority is the first to succumb to it. However, others soon follow. Fractures appear in dominant groups, and the fabric can go to pieces.

Denmark’s policies should make us all wary. This idea of cleansing society of immigrants marks the dismantling of higher ideals, pluralist values, and ethical standards. The mishandling of the “ghetto” question may just be the embryonic stage of a bigger ominous current yet to come—one that could make Muslims and non-whites the least of Denmark’s perceived problems.

Unhappiness and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt

Football in Minya, Egypt.

 Published in Mada Masr, republished in openDemocracy, and Internazionale (Italian print edition)

“Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero,” Andrea cries in the 1938 play, Life of Galileo, by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, to which Galileo responds: “No, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Egypt can be that unhappy land, a land where farewell parties have outstripped homecoming parties. Where a young female doctor laments she wants to leave because “to give birth to a baby here feels morally wrong, it feels sort of illegal.” Where a juice seller sarcastically quips, “We no longer have time to think of anything else but survival, we don’t even have time to contemplate suicide.” When a country is mired in endless social and economic problems, and smothered in despair, the yearning grows for that batal (hero), that one human figure where all painful and complex abstracts will be realised within and resolved without.

Something happened in Egypt that short-circuited a sport that is often treated by governments of all persuasions as a distracting bread and circus for the masses. Something interrupted the despotic drive to stamp out the uniqueness from the flow of Egyptian life.

Enter Mohamed Salah armed with a moral code.

Mohamed Salah banners and merchandise (Sporting, Alexandria).

While Salah is seen to bring hope to many, he is an unsettling spectre that silently haunts the establishment, for he has options, international prestige and the perception of untouchability. He has grown to be more than a hero of football success. Salah is a different sort of hero, he is a hero of disruption, and a living paradox of a political voice without talking politics. Salah operates in a politics of juxtaposition in which his perceived immaculate persona is unconsciously contrasted with the familiar polluted forces of high politics.

While many of Egypt’s prominent and established figures seem to have an answer for everything, Salah shows up and we’re faced with difficult questions. Namely, why are we investing so much hope in one man? This is more than about the World Cup.

Salah is not a substitute for viable high politics. He is, after all, a football player, and a very good one at that, but his insertion into the volatile Egyptian climate sheds some light on what has gone wrong and why the current fervor around him can illuminate the question of Egyptian unhappiness.  

Salah’s stance to steer away from politics, or from inadvertently disclosing his political leanings, has given him an amplified united base. Since the 2011 revolution, Egyptians have had to live with binaries: revolutionary versus counter-revolutionary, secular versus Islamist, civilian versus military, liberal versus hyper-nationalist, pro and anti-Brotherhood, among others. While many of these binaries have diminished under the shadow of the generals, the unity that has come in its place is a negative unity. It is almost always against something, such as terrorism, and when it stands for something, let’s say Egypt, it’s a nationalist straightjacket that is imposed, with no room for plurality of thought or voices.

Salah might just be the first figure in a while behind which pro- and anti-regime supporters can unite. In the words of an Egyptian doctoral candidate studying in California, “Salah is the reason I’m mending my relationship with Egypt.”

It has become commonplace to argue that unhappiness in Egypt is caused by high unemployment, poverty, dysfunctional education, censorship, a crackdown on independent voices, and overall human rights abuses. While there is no doubt these factors contribute to the misery of many Egyptians, there is something worse and pathological that lurks behind them all: The grim reality that new possibilities no longer emerge on the horizon. The dilution of hope that once offered the promise that unhappiness was a temporary moment, now feels for many like the ink of sadness has dried. Depression disarms you before repression even has time to put on its uniform.

For this reason, Salah is like a sudden assertion of human values within a dehumanising system. This did not arise when Salah helped defeat Congo, propelling Egypt into the World Cup last October. Astonishing football talent is not always enough to convert non-football watchers. Nor did his story of humble beginnings to stardom take hold in this moment. There was nothing original in any of these individual success stories. Perhaps because they remained just that: individual.

But then came the other, and equally decisive, side of Salah. Barely two weeks after this victory, and because of it, Salah was offered a luxury villa by entrepreneur Mamdouh Abbas. He politely declined the gift and suggested that a donation to his village Nagrig in Gharbia would make him happier. This move, along with many of his charitable acts, for non-football fans, including myself, was thunderous to say the least, and swayed us to his camp.

To put the implications of this act in a wider context: Cairo’s highways are nauseatingly choked with billboards flaunting the latest exuberant luxury real estate and gated compounds. It is an assault on the senses of millions of Egyptians who are puzzled as to how such developments take place in an era of painful austerity measures, in which they are being asked to continually sacrifice. The billboards, almost always in English and at times with white, blue-eyed European faces, loudly proclaim, “It’s time to think about you,” and, “This time it’s personal.” It is not enough that Egypt’s capitalism on crack and real estate speculation is skewing the economy, but it also ramps up hyper-individualism, greed, and various strands of self-hatred.

Salah’s rejection of the villa was a violent piercing into a culture of the grotesque and excessive, and signified his upholding of the values born, or crystallized, during the 2011 revolution that put the common good above all. His refusal was a significant breach in the business-as-usual patronage and wheeling and dealing circles. If Salah was loved for his victory over Congo, he was now respected more for this move and the many charitable stories that emerged, making it obvious that this has been his character for a long time, and that he didn’t reinvent himself for PR purposes. Love and respect are two different beasts. Egyptians have long missed looking up to someone who commands respect, at least someone who is not in exile, in prison, or long dead.

In recent years, Egyptians have had to live with the exhausting spectacle of doublespeak in which official interpretations are often in conflict with lived realities and common sense. The train heading to Alexandria is declared to be on its way to Aswan, as veteran journalist Yosri Fouda once put it. This war of attrition on rationality has plunged Egyptians deep into a spiral of conformity, scepticism and indifference toward each other. The idea of the higher good receded as officialdom continued, in Czech philosopher Václav Havel’s words, “not to excite people with the truth, but to reassure them with lies.” The intervention of Salah did not necessarily change all that, nor did it reverse the Orwellian trend, but he did help restore meaning to terms that had become scrambled: dignity became dignity again, principles became principles, kindness became kindness, and happiness became happiness.

Salah touched on another existential question within Egyptian state and society: the strong desire for international recognition. This phenomenon weaves its way through Egypt’s modern history. There have been concerted efforts to export Sisi’s branded Egypt, for example, with the new Suez Canal project billboards dotting New York’s Times Square with the slogan “Egypt’s gift to the world.” Salah, instead, lived up to fulfilling that slogan in a much more dramatic and compelling way. In fact, Salah has arguably had more impact on the world’s positive views of Egypt than all the recent years of tourist campaigns, international conferences and mega projects combined. In light of this, mentioning Salah in conversation can give many Egyptians a feeling of breathlessness, tingling hands and a sensation of weightlessness.

Ramadan lantern (Camp Shezar, Alexandria)
Ramadan lantern (Maadi, Cairo)

This in part has to do with the function of happiness and meaning. If the regime is not suffering from cherophobia (fear of happiness), it believes it can commodify happiness by stating it intends to make “Egyptians among the world’s happiest,” or through the recent discussions with the UAE’s Ministry of Happiness to “export” some of their cool psychedelic juice to Egypt.

Happiness is a question that spans a history of philosophical musings, from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, to Al-Ghazali’s Alchemy of Happiness, to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and the Antichrist. All of them would shun the Anglo-inspired utilitarianism of John Stuart Mills that speaks of happiness as the ultimate net objective and has been largely repackaged for neoliberal modernity, rather than a meaningful higher life that produces happiness as a by-product. In other words, you cannot separate the attainment of happiness from respect for justice, dignity, honour, etc. It doesn’t seem to phase the authorities that happiness is meaningless without rescuing vibrant citizenship, opening public spaces, providing fair trials, encouraging pluralism, and preventing overall existential meaning from being fragmented.

Salah offers glimpses into the voids spawned by the above fractures as he communicates not only on the instrumental level of football success, but with meaningful and empathic qualities that come with an honourable character. It is no wonder that Salah was able to inspire calls to a drug user helpline to shoot up by 400 percent.

Salah’s fame, coupled with his stance on religion, comes interestingly at a time when many Egyptians are renegotiating their faith, identity markers and boundaries. The norms of what once constituted a religious person are breaking down under the weight of the country’s endless contradictions. All this takes place beneath the purview of a state that uses religion to arbitrarily police the public space, and preachers who continue to push a baroque Islam at the expense of the religion’s humble essence.

The rise of a widespread spiritual passivity contrasts with Salah’s faith, which has come to animate his public life. He saw no need to dismiss or distil his Muslim identity, even after he achieved a turbo-charged social mobility and stardom. This is not lost on many. The sight of Salah’s veiled wife, Maggie, by his side on a green oval in a European city before the eyes of millions, is a hypnotic sight to Egyptians (and the rest of the world) precisely because it is unusual, particularly at a time of heightened anxieties toward Muslims in the West. “I respect him as he is not embarrassed nor does he try to hide his veiled wife after all that success,” an Alexandrian barber says.

It is for the same reasons that Salah can sprout pan-Arab and pan-Islamic wings across the Arab and Muslim world. He has made it into Lebanon’s graffiti scene and protest ballots in the Lebanese elections (just like Egypt) to a bizarre planned peaceful protest outside the Spanish embassy in Jakarta after the injurious tackle by Sergio Ramos. The Arab world’s traditional idea of a leading, strong, vibrant, noble and outward-looking Egypt – one that spearheads the arts, preserves the seat of intellectual Sunnism, champions pan-Arabism, and stands up for the Palestinian cause – is projected onto Salah with deafening force. Between prostrating on the grass and raising his index fingers to the heavens, hundreds of millions of Muslims are drawn to this well-understood language of piety.

But this attraction transcends culture and religion. As the western world is bogged down in neoliberal sterility, rampant consumerism, loneliness, high-level scandals, populism, xenophobia against refugees and immigrants, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism and fake news, the multi-layered Salah – the intimately relatable footballer and loving father who kicks a ball with his daughter Makka – stands out like a moment of truth and living universality, with a mammoth mural recently going up in Times Square reflecting his larger than life image.

Albert Camus wrote to an estranged German friend in 1943: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”

Salah perhaps embodies this ideal. That love of country does not require drums and chest-beating, but grace, sincerity, modesty and charity. He is a reminder to Egyptians that there exists a better human nature in a landscape barren of prominent reverential role-models. To Egypt and even the rest of the world, Salah is the outlier that proclaims the alternative to nationalism is not treachery but civic responsibility, the alternative to stifling religious conservatism does not always have to be apathy or mockery of the sacred, but breathing faith into a sound value system, and the alternative to injustice can be forgiveness. Ultimately, people had almost forgotten what humility among those with renown looks like. Particularly, a humility that is relentless and consistent, despite being trialled under the stadium floodlights and the stars sprinkled across the Liverpool night sky.

A Salah poster in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria.

Salah is the rare homecoming party Egyptians have long awaited. His face on dangling lanterns lights up dark alleyways, and his colourful posters germinate over the debris of fading election posters in a country that sees official and media-manufactured heroes reckon with publicly-anointed heroes.

While it cannot be implied nor expected that Salah could impact the political situation in Egypt, his animated existence spotlights entry points back into the realm of authenticity. He widens the moral imagination of an attentive public and parades the possibilities that infer that the rhythm of life involves more than birth, marriage, death and even sports. He also raises questions that many power-holders will have to grapple with eventually, someday: That, above all, there are reasons why people ache for heroes in the first place. — What have you done to make them this unhappy?

 

Storytelling as Human Agency: Understanding, Community, and Embodiment

Modern life seems to have consigned the notion of wisdom to oblivion, and in its place, knowledge has become more about information. Storytelling allows for authentic communication between individuals, and to integrate or exchange personal experiences. Yet the story, the epitome of wisdom, has diminished as experience becomes increasingly fragmented, events are torn from their underlying context, and the individual becomes distant from the physical world of lived experience fuelled by social media and smartphones.

Through oral and writing strategies, the three-day workshop will develop the individual’s capacity to formulate a story by understanding the problem of separate experiences (Erlebnis) that are accumulated, but often lack the profound kind of experience (Erfahrung) in which we are transformed by what we encounter.

The workshop will seek to move beyond the individual’s self-conscious and reaction, and understand the ability to integrate experience that develops across society, history and time. As well as how we need to incorporate a moral, maxim, proverb or practical advice away from the current information models and into the authentic realm of storytelling. This endeavour echoes Walter Benjamin’s line of thinking that sees stories as open-ended that can provoke reflection and inspire recollection. The essential aim being that stories can contribute to human happiness by restoring possibilities that were apparently closed.

If you are interested then please follow the instructions to apply (deadline: 8 May 2018), which will then be followed by an interview at the offices of Tahrir Lounge Goethe. The workshop will be conducted primarily in Arabic.

Salvaging Walter Benjamin’s Loss of Aura and Reconstructing the Realm of the Beautiful (workshop)

I will be conducting a three-day workshop titled “Salvaging Walter Benjamin’s loss of aura and reconstructing the realm of the beautiful” on 30 April and 1, 2 May 2018, at Tahrir Lounge Goethe, Cairo. If you are interested then please follow the instructions to apply (and to read more details of the workshop), which will then be followed by an interview at the TLG office. The workshop will be conducted primarily in Arabic. 

Understanding Alexandria as a Second City (lecture)

 

Understanding Alexandria as a second city can shed light on how historical imaginaries influence present-day experiences, as well as the cultural practices and social norms that arise; as the very notion of “second,” and the inevitable comparisons with other cities that it spurs, can drive decisions and shape a peculiar approach to one’s city.

Time: 7pm
Date: Sunday 22 April 2018
Venue: Institut français d’Egypte à Alexandrie

Click here for the Facebook event.

Animating Spaces of Meaning (seminar)

Alexandria lecture (Arabic): 4 April
Cairo lecture (Arabic): 10 April 
Cairo lecture (English): 11 April
Minya lecture (Arabic): 26 April

In the wake of last year’s successful projects, Tahrir Lounge Goethe (TLG) continues the Theater of Thought series. In 2018, it returns to take on the widespread problem of mediocrity by engaging with sociology, literature and philosophical concepts and various intellectual topics in an informal conversational manner that audience members will find approachable, fascinating and interactive.

The array of familiar toxic social problems did not simply enter the world by announcing themselves with drums, fire and brimstone. Rather, they crept up as “common sense” or it becomes repetitive until, eventually, they appeared as “tradition” or a “way of life.” Many will even defend the questionable status quo as part of one’s duty. The rise of mediocrity and fragmentation of meaning has become an intimate part of everyday life.

With this as a backdrop, the Tahrir Lounge Goethe launches the second season of the Theatre of Thoughts titled “Animating Spaces of Meaning” with the sociologist Dr. Amro Ali. Dr Ali will engage with the concept of utopianism, a term that has, understandably, been disparaged in the twentieth century in light of the totalitarian nightmares. But this route adopted utopia to looks backwards towards an imaginary past, a prelapsarian paradise, in which life was different, better, innocent, harmonious, and one of plenitude and sensual gratification. A vague future is staked in a reductionist past. 

While this might be a utopia from the perspective of its proponents, it often turns out to be a dystopia in reality. The second utopia that the seminars will explore is not the utopia that looks to the restoration of a lost past, but imagines utopia as the intentional product of rational action and human agency through which the good society might be realised in the future.

A sociological-philosophical approach will guide the three seminars, each in Alexandria (4 April), Cairo (10-11 April) and Minya (26 April), that will discuss the pitfalls of modernity and the utopian lines of thinking that can shed light on how to understand the modern problem of mediocrity: dehumanising individualism, loneliness, and, in effect, the fragmentation of meaningful spaces and narratives.

The month of May will see three-day workshops, each in Cairo and Alexandria, and will telescope into story-telling as a utopian form of agency. A process that centres on social transformation for a better society would be sought out but it would be conditioned on not postponing that end towards the future, rather, it would be keeping that end everyday throughout the process. So the problem is not the transition but what that transition involves. It would not be a transition that involves deferring our ends; rather, it’s instigating utopia everyday to the best of one’s human capacity. To do this, the workshops will focus on creative expressions and engaging with German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s concept on the loss of aura. 

Given the limited spaces, participation in the workshops will be given to those who attended one of the seminars. This will be followed by a publication of the workshop outcomes in Arabic and English. The Theatre of Thought welcomes artists, bloggers, filmmakers, writers, directors of developmental and cultural projects and members of the public who are interested in incorporating sociological and philosophical questions into their activities.


مسرح الفكر
الموسم الثاني “صعود المعاني”

يستكمل مشروع التحرير لاونج جوته سلسلة حلقات مسرح الفكر بعد النجاح الذي حققه العام الماضي، وفي 2018 يعود من جديد بشكل مختلف وبمفاهيم فلسفية وأبعاد فكرية جديدة تطرح موضوعات وقضايا أكثر عمقًا ولكن بشكل مبسط معتمدًا على التفاعل مع الجمهور، فهو مسرح للأفكار الفلسفية بطله الأساسي المفاهيم المتعلقة بالوجود والمعرفة والعقل والمنطق والبحث عن الأدلة والقيم والأخلاق واللغة وغيرها من الموضوعات التي تفتح آفاقًا جديدة للخيال والابتكار والإبداع والتفكير النقدي.

لم تكن مجموعة المشاكل الاجتماعية السامة المألوفة تدخل العالم بإطلاق النيران أو عزفها على الطبول، ولكنها تسللت إلى عالمنا على أنها “شعور عام” وتكررت أحداثها حتى أصبحت في النهاية ما يعرف “بالتقاليد” أو “أسلوب حياة”، سيدافع الكثيرون عن الوضع الراهن المشكوك فيه كجزء من واجبهم، ولقد أدى موت الأيديولوجيات أو إضعافها منذ التسعينيات إلى حدوث فراغ كبير، الأمر الذي دفع اقتصاد السوق الحر الغير خاضع للرقابة إلى تقييد مفهوم المواطنة، بحيث أصبح من الصعب تخيل ووضع مجموعة البدائل.

وفي إطار ما سبق يطلق مشروع التحرير لاونج جوته الموسم الثاني من مسرح الفكر تحت عنوان “صعود المعاني” مع دكتور علم الاجتماع عمرو علي – مؤسس مبادرة “أكاديمي الإسكندرية” ويركز مسرح الفكر على مفهوم المثالية، فهو مصطلح تم التخلص منه في القرن العشرين في ضوء الكوابيس الشمولية، لكن هذا الطريق اعتمد المثالية كوسيلة للنظر إلى الخلف نحو الماضي الخيالي والجنة، حيث التمتع بحياة مختلفة أفضل، بريئة، متناغمة، ويتم وضع مستقبل غامض في أعماق الماضي الاختزالي، وربما يكون هذا هو مصطلح المثالية من وجهة نظر مؤيديها، إلا أنه غالبًا ما يُحول الأمر إلى واقع مرير، إن المثالية الثانية التي ستستكشفها في حلقات مسرح الفكر ليست هي التي تتطلع إلى استعادة الماضي المفقود، ولكنها تتخيل المدينة الفاضلة كمنتج مقصود للعمل العقلاني والطاقات الإنسانية التي يمكن من خلالها تحقيق المجتمع الجيد في المستقبل، كما يلقي مسرح الفكر الضوء على كيفية فهم مشكلات المجتمعات الحديثة مثل الفردية واللاإنسانية، والشعور بالوحدة، والوسطية، وتفتيت الروايات المدنية.

يتضمن مسرح الفكر هذا العام أربع حلقات يعقبها ثلاث ورش عمل الأولى حول المفاهيم الفلسفية التي تحدث عنها بنيامين والتر عالم الفلسفة والاجتماع الألماني الشهير، والثانية تدور حول الحكي، أما الثالثة تركز حول الأداء المسرحي للموضوعات الفلسفية السابق ذكرها في مسرح الفكر، ستكون الأولوية لحضور الورش لمن شاركوا بالحلقات النقاشية، وعقب الانتهاء من ورش العمل سيقوم مشروع التحرير لاونج جوته بإنتاج كتيب يضم أعمال وإبداعات المشاركين بالورش، ويستهدف مسرح الفكر الفنانين والمدونين ومخرجي الأفلام التسجيلية والكتاب ومديري المشروعات التنموية والثقافية والمهتمين بالموضوعات الفلسفية والفكرية.

يذكر أن “المثالية” حلم راود الفلاسفة والمفكرين لإنشاء مدينة فاضلة يعيش مواطنوها في سلام ووئام، الهدف منها هو تأسيسها إنسانيًا وليس عمرانيًا كمختلف المدن، تركز على أهمية ترابط أفراد المجتمع وترسيخ مبادئ الانتماء والهوية، وتكون الدولة بمثابة كائن حي وجسد واحد يتكون من عدد هائل من الخلايا التي تمثل أفراد المجتمع، وتعتبر المساواة والعدالة من أهم القواعد والأسس التي تُبنى عليها تلك المدنية الفاضلة، لتحقيق التكافل والتكامل بين أفراد المجتمع.

انطلق مسرح الفكر العام الماضي بالتعاون مع الدكتور عمرو علي، ناقش خلالها العديد من النظريات والأبعاد الفكرية والفلسفية، واستهدف المهتمين بالقضايا الفلسفية والفكرية، وذلك من خلال ثلاث حلقات وهي: -“فكرة البدايات” و”آفة الطمس” و”مجتمع مبدع”.

الدكتور عمرو علي هو دكتور علم الاجتماع في الجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة، محاضر في العديد من الجامعات والمعاهد في القاهرة والإسكندرية، تتناول أبحاثه دراسة المجتمعات، والحالة الإنسانية في ظل الاعتداء من قوى الاستهلاك العالمي والثقافة المادية، وآثر ذلك على الهوية، ومعنى المدينة والحداثة والمواطنة، حصل على الدكتوراه من جامعة سيدني وكانت الرسالة البحثية الخاصة به عن دور الخيال التاريخي في تشكيل الإسكندرية الحديثة ومواطنيها.

Why do authoritarian regimes love elections?

Published in Mada Masr, republished in openDemocracy 

This might prompt further questions as to why Egypt would waste tens of millions of pounds on posters and banners for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, when his rivals have been muzzled and no credible candidate stands to challenge him?  After all, these posters cost, according to one company I spoke with, from LE800 to LE5,000 each, mostly paid for by businesses — money that could have been better spent on hospitals and schools, or even the government’s Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) philanthropic fund. But the costly flooding of images across cities makes sense when one considers them to be a symptom of a deeper pathology, one in which political despotism elevates the ruler’s will and passion over rational action and debate and scuffles public welfare by turning the citizenry into a homogenous mass without any real representation. But even the most anti-democratic election can reveal much about the system and its key players.

Rigged elections come in all varieties: ballot-stuffing, the arrest of opposition figures, intimidation of opposition supporters and miscounting of votes, among other imaginative techniques. Yet at the heart of it all remains a consistent factor — the regime views elections not as an institutionalized mechanism within an accountable governance process, but as a carefully orchestrated event wrapped in a spectacle to reinforce the regime’s strength and test the oppositional waters.

By the very nature of their positions, authoritarian leaders project extreme insecurity, as their legitimacy is not reaped from popular representation and democratic accountability, but from the support of elites and the security establishment. This type of support is extremely precarious, as it is not only suspended above responsible political cycles, but also makes for potentially messy endings such as coups, revolutions and imprisonment. Therefore, elections are often a safety valve to manage threats.

Such elections offer a “dignified” way for presidents to purge strong popular supporters who can emerge as a threat (even if their staunch loyalty was never in question), and reshuffle Cabinet ministers. This can give the illusion to the public that a reset is taking place, and that economic problems should be blamed solely on such ousted ministers, not the president. Elections signal to supporters why they need to be co-opted, and to opponents that broad support for the regime invites further crackdowns. The post-election period often sees security apparatuses reorganize to intimidate real and potential opponents. This is made possible in the first place because an election enables the regime to test the strength of its opposition, and to learn more about them. In an ironic twist, elections can prolong dictatorships.

Elections signal to domestic and international audiences that a “popular mandate” has been renewed, and the establishment is united behind the head of state in question, so foreign leaders need to primarily deal with the president, not the defense minister or to flirt with opposition figures. Also, it is slightly more compelling (albeit still comical) for a president to say, “My people support me and that’s why I won the recent election,” rather than just mouthing a non-concrete, “My people support me” platitude. It is for this reason that authoritarian figures can largely end up, and often do, detached from the public. With the Arab revolutions as the backdrop, the idea of not touching base with the public is unsettling for many leaders. But rather than gain legitimate consent, which is not guaranteed, they would still prefer to manufacture it.

But staged elections also come with a huge risk. According to a University of Oslo study, 50 percent of regime breakdowns or “dictatorship deaths” have occurred during an election year. This is because elections act as a meeting point on which oppositional individuals and groups can focus their attention. Therefore, elections enable coordination, and amplify certain voices. In effect, the election resolves the “coordination problem” that usually plagues oppositional actors at other moments. They also reveal a regime’s vulnerability. A surprising result that shows a loss for the ruling party would lead the people to believe they had overestimated the regime’s strength. Empty voting stations and short voting queues can prove embarrassing enough to break the spell of a leader’s indomitability and allay the fears of activists. This was demonstrated in the 2014 Egyptian presidential election, which sent pro-regime media anchors into a frenzy of begging citizens to vote and the authorities had to extend voting by another two days. Elections unleash forces that cannot always be anticipated or controlled.

Biographers of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser noted that he was obsessed with jokes being made about him and was briefed daily about the latest jokes in circulation. Egyptian humor seems to spare nothing, including ancient Egyptian statues who changed confessions about which historical dynasty they were from — under Nasser’s torture. According to writer Anthony McDermott, one account narrates how Nasser, unusually, intervened in a particular instance in the 1960s when mocked for his near hundred percent referendum victories. The jester in question was brought before Nasser, who reprimanded him and reminded him of his achievements and popularity by adding, “And remember, I was elected by 99 percent of the electorate.” The man replied, “I swear, this was not one of my jokes.”

If this anecdote can perhaps illuminate something, it is that the peak charade — the “election” — in a regime’s lifespan can often be its most vulnerable moment.

How Egypt Functions in the Moroccan Imagination (photo essay)

 

Street art of legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum at the old medina, Tangier.

Republished in openDemocracy

I cracked a self-deprecating joke to a friend in Cairo upon my return from Morocco, “I think Moroccans have a highly favourable view of Egyptians because many have never actually met one.” I did not encounter a single Egyptian through my travels through Morocco. What it often means is that you might be the first Egyptian a Moroccan ever meets. A matter not unfamiliar with my colleagues who have experienced this.  This was surprising given the intimate history between Egypt and Morocco. Therefore, the idea of Egypt in the Moroccan worldview was not usually based on tangible encounters as much as it was based on popular arts and religious discourse. 

The Egyptian dynamic accentuated the already quintessential Moroccan hospitality. I was overwhelmed with the warmth and openness. From the heartfelt greetings to the insistence of staying over peoples homes, to the complementary desserts and soft drinks at restaurants. Egypt’s soft power at the geopolitical level may lay in tatters, but at least it has enough spark to result in receiving free caramel tiramisu and Miranda lime.

Facetiousness aside, I thought the recent Economist article on the decline of Egyptian Arabic (read: Egyptian culture) over the Arab world failed to capture the complexities of how influence works. The article certainly makes valid points, particularly with the decline of the linguistic monopoly Egypt once held, but answers cannot be sought from the Dubai International Film Festival and Arab Idol. To neglect, for example, how Egypt functions in the lower socioeconomic strata and religious discourse in areas of the Arab world would be to distort the image.  

While I am not claiming to have done a comprehensive methodological study (although I would hope to do so in the near future), I have sought to diversify the spaces I engaged with to see how Egypt themes and references operate in Rabat, Marrakesh, Fez, Chefchaoun, and Tangier. I focussed on lower-socioeconomic neighbourhoods, upscale cafes, but the heaviest focus was given to mosques and coffeehouses, simply because it was the expected and common space of discussions.  I preferred the free-flowing conversations and story-telling format, in which I extracted themes and meaning from the pattern of discussions.  Unfortunately, I did not spend enough time in Casablanca to gauge substantial perceptions (which I feel is a weakness in my notes given it is the largest city). While I did some questioning, it is not wide enough and deep enough to merit writing it. In light of the above factors, this piece should be looked upon as an essay with meaningful indicators.

Egypt appeared to hold the strongest sway among the poor, middle class poor, and the religious streams of Morocco. This was reflective in the appeal to the popular arts, literature, or religious texts. Statements such as “Egypt is our dear brother”, “Egypt and Morocco are like this” (with hands clasped strongly together) or masculine-fuelled lines such as “Egypt has real men” were commonly heard. There is even a cross-sectional friendly inside joke among Moroccans to the timeless Egyptian claim Masr Um al-dunya (“Egypt is the mother of the world”)¸ they respond weh Maghrib abuha (“and Morocco is [Egypt’s] father”). It was partly funny because everyone telling me thought I was always hearing it for the first time.

My Marrakesh neighbours who never tired of saying “we love Egypt, and they love us”
Grafitti artists in Fez
They were mesmerised by the Egyptian dialect (Fez)

The favourable view of Egypt begins to fragment as you move up the socio-economic ladder. Residents of Tangier who portrayed themselves as socially mobile, liberal, globalised and tinged with a Euro-centric view, could at times express a ridiculing view of Egypt (the above “inside” joke now takes on a different meaning) as a backwater of poverty and extreme conservatism.

However, this alternates among these same social groups who might identify with a clear religious, Arabist or leftist bent, or have a liberal arts background. Accordingly, there was a sort of sympathetic heartbreak expressed at “what has become of Egypt,” with Cairo’s declining regional influence, harmfully erratic position on Palestine, the diminishing quality of films and a media circus gone crazy. 

Om Kalthoum songs could be heard in shaabi (common, working class) restaurants and AbdelHalim Hafez in the souks. What surprised me was to hear the mahraganat music played by Chefchaoun’s disenchanted youth from their mobile phones. Adel Imam was still it seems the most popular actor, Ramez Galal was disdained not just for the mindless pranks he played in Morocco in Ramadan but may have come to symbolise the disheartening state of Egyptian entertainment. Egyptian authors, from Naguib Mahfouz to Youssef Ziedan, featured prominently in bookstores and were read by the Moroccan reading public that I encountered. 

Coffeeshop in Tangier

On the political front, not a single Moroccan had a positive view of Egyptian president Sisi when his name was mentioned. However, it was not unusual for imams and worshippers at mosques to tell me the religious precept “do not rebel against the ruler,” alluding repetitively that Egyptians would have lived “better” if they did not overthrow Mubarak.

Gamal Abdel Nasser was surprisingly only mentioned twice (mainly in a neutral way). A few references were made to his era. While Morocco had a marginal role in the pan-Arabist wave of the 1950s and 1960s, it was interesting to see (or not) its lingering effect.

University students and recent alumni developed a shared narrative with Egypt as a result of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the Arab uprisings, but this identification has become more ambivalent over the chaotic years (This area I did not pursue in any worthwhile depth but there are studies that have explored the question of Moroccan identity after 2011).

When it comes to religion, Egypt performs the strongest. With even children in the kasbahs mentioning Abdul Basit Abdus Samad (a prominent Quran reciter, 1927-1988) in the same breath as the pyramids. Al-Azhar was, predictably, mentioned frequently. 

Pharaoh Ramses II was the most commonly referenced figure in regards to Egypt. The pharaoh of the Quran and Old Testament projects an unusual hold over the imagination. While in urban Egypt, the use of ‘Pharaoh’ in the popular discourse can often serve no more than a superficial labeling of every dictator who shows up on the scene; he was treated by Moroccans, however, as a sort of existential question on evil and oppression. 

Tour Hassan Mosque, Rabat

In mosques, the imams and congregants alike frequently invoked the following Quranic verses to not only frame Egypt, but, at times, to position their conversations with me. 

“And We revealed to Moses and his brother, saying: Take for your people houses to abide in Egypt and make your houses places of worship and keep up prayer and give good news to the believers.” Jonah 10:87

“And the Egyptian who bought him said to his wife: Give him an honorable abode, maybe he will be useful to us, or we may adopt him as a son. And thus did We establish Yusuf in the land and that We might teach him the interpretation of sayings, and Allah is the master of His affair, but most people do not know.” Jonah 12.21

“Then when they came in to Yusuf, he took his parents to lodge with him and said: Enter safe into Egypt, if Allah please.” Yusuf 12.99

And Pharaoh proclaimed among his people, saying: “O my people! Does not the dominion of Egypt belong to me, (witness) these streams flowing underneath my (palace)? What! see ye not then?” Zukh’ruf (The Gold Adornment) 43:51

Apocryphal accounts arose when you tapped into Moroccan folklore.  While Abdullah, a farmer in Chefchaouen, narrated some sound and verifiable stories such as “..A big part of our community migrated to the city of Alexandria over the centuries.” It was the tales that I found quite interesting: “[Pharaoh] Ramses came here and gave Morocco its name. Yet he preferred to die in Egypt.” 

Abdullah (Chefchaoun)

The hadiths on Egypt and other matters were also quoted, but it was the below hadith by Islam’s prophet that struck me because of how it I understood its function in Egyptian discussions.

Abu Zar reported that Allah’s Messenger (Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam) said: “You will conquer Egypt, a land where Qirat (a measure of weight and area) is used. When you conquer that land, you have to treat its people kindly since they have a right of kinship upon you.” [Reported by Imam Muslim Ahmad]

I developed a different relationship to these hadiths in Egypt (here I mean mainly Cairo and Alexandria). When they were quoted, it was difficult to tell how much of it was clothed in nationalist sentiments. The absence of humility, at times, of narrating it did not help. But my concern grew at how it can be used to disarm activism and accept the status quo, as if the divine simply takes care of Egypt, the Prophet blesses it, and thus human action need not apply to better a situation, for eternity. 

However, voiced by Moroccans who are not entangled with Egypt’s endless political problems gave it a somewhat impartial sincerity. For example, Imam Ahmed, a warm and humble man at a small mosque in the mountains of Chefchaoun, repeatedly used the word Qirat to drill into me the gravitational importance of Egypt, at least how he understood it. 

Imam Ahmed, his smile will brighten your day
Local children at Chefchauon’s mountains

The religious and mosque-attending Moroccans correlated strongly with a positive view of Egypt. In fact, I did not find a single exception to this rule. While the Amazigh people (mainly in Fez and Chefchaoun) emphasised the Islamic relations with Egypt at the expense of the Arab dimension, they did not necessarily shy away from the latter (it’s complex to explain, but I will be reductionist and say that it came down to the perceived problem being with Moroccan Arabism than the Egyptian version). 

Transnational groups like Islamists and Sufis had visiting relations with their counterparts in Egypt. These relations were formed either on the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, visits to key mosques or educational spaces popular with Sufis. For Islamists, it was not unusual for friendships to have been formed in France where they once worked (but returned to be in a “Muslim country”). Their lived experience of Egypt seems to be fundamentally shaped by these close relations.

Final Thoughts

Some 700 years ago, the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta narrated his encounter with Cairo. What is fascinating is that today’s Moroccan descriptions of Egypt can easily paraphrase his account. 

“I arrived at length in Cairo, mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendour, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the halting place of feeble and mighty, whose throngs surge as the waves of the sea, and can scarce be contained in her for all her size and capacity.”  (1326 CE) 

One should also take into consideration how the Moroccan imaginary of the Arab and Muslim world developed over the centuries:

“For many centuries, the pilgrimage caravan was the most important, if not the only means of travel to the Holy Lands. On their way, Moroccan pilgrims were forced to cross the majority of Arab Muslim lands. This fact alone gives the Moroccan travels a complexity that is reflected in the texts and colours the perception of sacred space and time.” 
Abderrahmane El Moudden, “The Ambivalence of rihla: community integration and self-definition in Moroccan travel accounts, 1300-1800” in Eickelman, Dale F (eds.) Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination Comparative Studies On Muslim Societies (1990) p 73.

Modern Morocco is a vast social reservoir that needs to be explored further in juxtaposition with Egypt. The other side of Egyptian influence is that Morocco shaped Egypt over the centuries, among them: dynasties, architecture, religion and philosophy. I do not see why we cannot better examine some of their concepts and approaches to help address questions that trouble us in Egypt’s urban, social and religious settings. That is for another essay.

Finally, the street art of Oum Kalthoum shown at the start can put matters in perspective when you see it as part of a larger mural in Tangier. Instead of simply the decline of Egyptian influence, it can perhaps be said the stage just got more crowded.