The Creative Public (lecture)

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I will be presenting the final ‘Theatre of Thought’ lecture for the year on the Creative Public at 7pm, Tuesday 5 December 2017, at Goethe’s Tahrir Lounge, Cairo.

“Do publics simply exist or are they always created? This seminar takes on the latter in exploring how publics are summoned into being, that perhaps there is a way to explore the idea of new publics made through intellectuals, musicians, artists, books, proclamations, and events. Yet this session attempts to raise a further question, can we write for, or speak to, the public that does not yet exist? This session draws from Czech philosopher Václav Havel’s ‘Parallel Polis’ and French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of ‘gaps of silence,’ relevance and truth, to understand the role of independent thinking and its relationship to the idea of the public.”

هل هناك مجتمعات مبدعة ؟ هل يمكن تكوينها؟ علي من يقع تشكيلها؟”
اسألة تدور في اذهاننا ؟
يقدم مسرح الفكر بالتحرير لاونج جوتة هذا العام تجربة جديدة و تطرح الفكر والمفكرين بأسلوب شيق وجذاب .
ندعوكم للمشاركة في اخر ندوات هذا العام حول موضوع ( المجتمع المبدع ) هل هو موجود و أين وإذا لم يكن موجود ! ماذا نفعل ! هل لنا ادوار !
فكرة “مجتمع مبدع”، في السابعة مساء الثلاثاء 5 ديسمبر المُقبل، وتطرح تساؤلات: هل المجتمعات موجودة بالفطرة، أم أنها تولد من جديد دائمًا، لاستكشاف الكيفية التي يمكن أن يتم بها صناعة المجتمع المبدع والخلّاق من خلال المثقفين والموسيقيين والفنانين، بالإضافة إلى الكتب والأحداث.
إلا أن هذه الندوة تحاول إثارة المزيد من التساؤلات: هل يمكننا أن نكتب أو نتكلم مع هذا المجتمع الذي لا يوجد حتى الآن؟ هل يمكن للأفراد جلب هذا المجتمع إلى حيز الوجود؟
السيرة الذاتية للمحاضر الدكتور عمرو علي ، عو عالم الإجتماع في الجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة، محاضر في العديد من الجامعات والمعاهد في القاهرة والإسكندرية، تتناول أبحاثه دراسة المجتمعات، والحالة الإنسانية في ظل الإعتداء 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.
“في انتظاركم و بناء علي رغبتكم سيتم مد الندوة حتي ٩:٣٠ مساءً لنتمكن من ربط الثلاث ندوات كما وعدناكم

https://www.facebook.com/events/1519494751451895/

Materials

Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), lion scene. We will examine the role of silence, imagination, and the shifting of responsibility of voice and perception from actor to viewer.

في بعض الأحيان نعتقد أن هناك بعض الأشخاص لا يعرفون كيفية التعبيرعن أنفسهم، ولكن في الحقيقة أنهم يعبرون عن أنفسهم. أسوأ العلاقات هي التي تكون بها المرأة مشغولة البال أو متعبة ولا يقول لها الرجل “ماذا بك؟” أو “قولي شيئًا ما..”، أو عندما يحدث العكس، فإن الإذاعة والتلفزيون أدت إلى انتشار هذه الروح في كل مكان، وذلك بسبب التشويش ونشر كلام ليس له معنى، بالإضافة إلى الكم الهائل من الكلمات والصور. الأغبياء ليسوا عُميان أو صامتين أبدًا، لذا ليس هناك مشكلة في إتاحة الفرصة للأشخاص للتعبيرعن أنفسهم، ولكن مع إعطائهم القليل من مساحات العزلة والصمت، والذي قد يتيح لهم في النهاية فرصة للحديث. القوة القمعية لا يمكن أن توقف الأشخاص من التعبير عن أنفسهم؛ ولكنها تحفزهم على التعبير عن أنفسهم، نحن نشعر بالراحة عندما لا نجد شيئاً نقوله، والحق في ألا نقول شيئاً، لأن في هذه الأوقات تكون هناك فرص ومساحات لأن يكون هناك شيئاً نادراً والأكثر ندرة، الشيء الذي يستحق أن يقال. ما نعاني منه هذه الأيام ليس هناك ما يمنع عمليات التواصل، ولكن وجود عبارات ليس لها معنى. ما نعنيه هو الهدف من تلك عبارات. هذا هو التعريف الوحيد للمعنى، وينطبق هذا الشىء على العبارات الجديدة. يمكنك الاستماع إلى الأخرين لساعات، ولكن ما هي الجدوى الحقيقية من ذلك؟؟ هذا ما يجعل الجدال يشكل جهداً وضغطاً كبيرا. لماذا لا توجد أي نقطة جدال؟؟ لا يمكنك فقط أن تخبر أحداً أن ما يقوله ليس له معنى فتخبره أنه على خطأ، ولكن ما يقوله ليس بالضرورة أن يكون خطأً، المشكلة لا تكمن في أن بعض الأشياء خاطئة، ولكنها قد تكون سطحية أو غير مترابطة، وهذا ما تم الإشارة إليه آلاف المرات. إن مفاهيم الموائمة والأهمية والهدف من الأشياء تعد أكثر أهمية من مفهوم الحقيقة. فهي ليست بديلاً للحقيقة ولكنها تعد مقياسًا لحقيقة ما أقوله، وهذا ما يحدث في علم الرياضيات، بوانكاريه عالم الرياضيات كان دائماً يقول أن العديد من النظريات ليست مترابطة تماماً وليس لها أهمية (بلا جدوى)، هو لا يقول أنها خاطئة – وهذا ليس سيئًا للغاية. 

جيل دولوز، المفاوضات، 1972-1990

Translated from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/864042-the-couple-overfloweth-we-sometimes-go-on-as-though-people

الانحياز التأكيدي، يُدعى أيضًا ا لانحيازالذاتي، هو الميل للبحث عن، وتفسير، وتذكُّر المعلومات بطريقة تتوافق مع معتقدات وافتراضات الفرد، بينما لا يولي انتباهًا مماثلًا للمعلومات المناقضة لها .هو نوع من الانحياز المعرفي والخطأ في الاستقراء. يُظهر الأشخاص هذا الانحياز عندما يجمعون أو يتذكّرون المعلومات بشكل انتقائي، أو عندما يفسّرونها بطريقة متحيّزة. يكون تأثير ذلك أقوى في المسائل المحكومة عاطفيًا والمعتقدات الراسخة بشدّة. يميل الأشخاص أيضًا إلى تفسير الأدلة الغامضة بشكل يدعم موقفهم الراهِن. استُشهد بالانحياز في البحث، والتفسير، والذاكرة لتأويل تضارُب الموقف (عندما يُصبح الخلاف أكثر حِدَّة برغم توافُر الأدلة نفسها لدى الأطراف المتنازعة)، ورسوخ الاعتقاد (عندما يستمر الاعتقاد بعد توضيح أن الدليل الذي يدعمه خاطئ)، تأثير الأسبقيّة غير المنطقيّة (الاعتماد بشكل أكبر على أوّل ما وُجد من سلسلة معلومات) والربط الوهمي (عندما يوجد اعتقاد خاطئ بارتباط حدثين أو موقفين).
الانحيازالذاتي

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The Scourge of Shapelessness (Lecture)

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The second lecture (in Arabic) at Goethe’s Tahrir Lounge will take place on 28 November 2017, at 7pm, in Cairo, as part of the ongoing ‘Theatre of Thought’ project. The upcoming seminar draws inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s ‘loss of aura’ concept to understand the effects of neoliberalism, hyper-capitalism, and skewed globalisation, that are negatively erasing the differences and contours of the Egyptian cultural and social landscape. One after the other: buildings, cafes, malls, decor, fashion, weddings and so forth, exhume a toxic similarity that is leading to the socio-philosophical problem of shapelessness. The homogenisation and ironing out of character in the cities raises the question, if not yearning, on how does one engage and formulate meaning, form and shape out of an increasingly bland and shapeless urban terrain?

النيوليبرالية،الرأسمالية المفرطة و العولمة تمحو بشكل سلبي الإختلافات والملامح في المشهد الثقافي والإجتماعي المصري واحدآ تلو الآخر، فالتشابه بين المباني، المقاهي، المراكز التجارية، والديكور والأزياء إلى آخره غير مريح حيث يؤدي ذلك إلى استنساخ شخصيات متشابهة دون أي هوية فردية لكل منهم مما أوجد المشكلة الإجتماعية الفلسفية في طمس الهوية، وهذا يدفعنا إلى سؤال كيف يمكن للمرء أن ينخرط في المجتمع ويتشكل في ظل هذا التشوه المتزايد.

تقام الندوة يوم الثلاثاء 28 نوفمبر من الساعة 7 وحتى 9 مساءً في مقر مشروع التحرير لاونج جوته داخل معهد جوته بوسط البلد.

مسرح الفكر كل يوم ثلاثاء من ٧ الي ٩ مساء. في التحرير لاونج. جوتة 
٦شارع البستان متفرع من طلعت حرب وسط البلد داخل المركز الثقافي الألماني

للمزيد من المعلومات يرجي زيارة الرابط التالي

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1519494751451895/

Presentation slides: The Scourge of Shapelessness

Readings: 

العمــل الفنـي فــي عصر إعــادة إنتاجــه تقنيــاً – والتر بنيامين

The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction – Walter Benjamin (1936)

مرفق بالرابط التالي سلسلة كتب بالعربية PDF  (دفاتر فلسفية) هذه السلسلة مكونة من 26 كتاب يتناول كل كتاب مفهوم على حدة، الكتاب فى حدود 100 صفحة.
هذه المجموعة صادرة عن دار تويقال، الدار البيضاء المغرب.

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The Idea of Beginnings (lecture in Arabic)

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I’ll be giving a series of lectures (in Arabic) under a new project, Theatre of Thought, at the Goethe Institute’s Tahrir Lounge in Cairo. The first session, 6pm, 21 November 2017, brings Hannah Arendt and Edward Said into a conversation on the notion of beginnings. Entry is free.

This seminar explores the phenomenon of how new beginnings occur in this world, what dynamics underpin the disturbance of the known order that interrupts the “predictable” flow of history and enables for something novel and new to come into existence. Yet beginnings do not always need to be this dramatic. Think of conversational lines, literary openings, and memorable moments: “once upon a time”, “in the beginning”, “good morning”, sunrise, love at first sight, or the birth of a baby. Humans are fascinated with beginnings as it is intimately tied with novelty, suspense, the chance to recreate something anew, and it is also the furthest extreme point from mortality (literally and figuratively). This session examines why the idea of beginnings is important to understand in the context of Egypt, how new beginnings set the pace, how they can eventually take a life form of their own, and how they can cause a breach and break up of previously known patterns of cause and effect.

‘فكرة البدايات’

فكرة البدايات قد تكون غير مفهومة فالبدايات لها فلسفتها الخاصة .. نوع البداية يتحكم في سير الأمور سواء إلى الأفضل أو الأسوء، لذلك يميل أغلب البشر الى اختيار بداية لليوم تدعو للتفاؤل، كما نرى على سبيل المثال بعض القصص والحكايات تبدأ بعبارات تفاؤلية مثل “صباح الخير “، “شروق الشمس ” ، “الحب لأول وهلة”،”ولادة طفل”..

و يميل أغلب الكتاب الى بدء رواياتهم وقصصهم بمقدمات مشوقة لاضفاء اجواء من التفاؤل والتشويق لجذب القارئ، حيث أن البدايات لديها القدرة على تغيير الواقع الذي يعيشه اي انسان و تغيير مسار حياته..

تقام الندوة يوم الثلاثاء 21 نوفمبر من الساعة 7 وحتى 9 مساءً في مقر مشروع التحرير لاونج جوته داخل معهد جوته بوسط البلد.

Facebook event link: https://www.facebook.com/events/1519494751451895

Here is the link to the presentation slides (English and some Arabic). There is no accompanying transcript but a podcast will be posted soon: The Idea OF Beginnings (presentation slides, PDF)

Reading: حنة أرندت – الوضع البشري

 

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An Enquiry into the Destruction of the Beautiful

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The philosophy talk and conversation will examine the forces behind the degrading of aesthetics and the normalization of mediocrity in everyday life. 

This event is not so much about urban studies and public space as it is about delving into the toxins of modernity and its relationship to the human condition under assault. It will explore themes of shapelessness, powerlessness, meaninglessness, responsibility, alienation and asks, above all, what is ugly? Questions will be raised to help absorb the nature of the problem, and how do people refuse this malaise? The session will introduce concepts from the writings of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Václav Havel. 

The event will primarily be in English, however, an Arabic session will be followed up in the next month. 

Venue: French Cultural Institute Alexandria (L’institut Francais D’Egypte A Alexandrie)
Date: 7 October 2017
Time: 7.30pm 
Facebook page

 

 

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Do you still remember him?

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Do you remember him? That boy? do you remember the video? That date of 30 September 2000 when if you didn’t cry for the Palestinians before, you learned to cry then. 

Muhammad Al-Durrah? The 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot dead in his father’s arms and over his lap by Israeli gunfire in Gaza? The boy that became an icon for the Intifada, the boy who made the world slowly realise that maybe there were no “two sides”, that there was an occupier and an occupied.   

I will not take up space repeating what happened nor the contested claims of who killed him. That has already been done, nor will I entertain Israel’s obfuscation of the issue. 

At a time when the world still desperately grasped onto the mesmerising millennium hangover and its promise of a new dawn, this tragedy snapped us back to deal with a disturbing omen. 

We praised the cameraman from the France 2 network at a time when cameras couldn’t stretch themselves wide enough to capture the ruining of Palestine. We hoped the camera would from now on hold the oppressor to account. But we were deceived.

We now got our wish of having crimes filmed, but it left out the desired response of accountability and accompanying moral questions. Every fortnight in this age, the camera captures a Palestinian killed by an Israeli soldier, but such videos will not get international condemnation, but it will get a retweet, subtweet if someone really cares. This is not including the invisible Palestinians who die daily and away from the camera’s lens. 

Al-Durrah was killed at a time when the Israeli government could at least partake in a charade that it gave a damn for the innocent killed and would address the matter. A time when traces of a moral crisis could be seen in then Prime Minister’s Ehud Barak’s words. When the IDF could actually apologise, even if they would later retract it. We knew the Israeli state was lying, but they had to make an effort to lie, they had to make an effort to explain to the west why they were still part of the west,  they had to explain why torture was legitimate. Now the world accepts this as normal, and therefore no need for further explanations from Israel. It’s raw unadulterated brutality.  

In fact, Israel can even deny the reality when its officialdom came out in 2013 and proclaimed the whole tragedy was “staged.”

The Palestinian death toll since 2000 has reached 9511 as of 26 September 2017, out of that figure, 2167 have been children. That is, 2167 Al-Durrahs who will not be remembered because pie charts and bar graphs do not sing nor weep to the human heart. 

The hyper-wired world has driven societies toward outrage fatigue, and Palestinians pay the price. Again. 

But we continue to raise our voices and hope for the tone-deaf cries to cave into, and be subsumed by, a resurgent and dynamic voice of justice that reanimates the moral landscape. Because the current state of indifference can only mean the self-inflicted shattering of our souls.

We march on. 

 

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معنى التضحية

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Originally published in Mada Masr, click here for the English translation.
منذ صغري، اعتدت على رؤية المناسبات الدينية تُفرّغ من معناها، سواء كان هذا في رمضان المتخم بالتسالي، أو في الكريسماس المتمحور حول الشراء. 
ولكن عيد الأضحى يتعدى ذلك، فهو يقوم على مشهد دماء الخراف والمواشي السائلة في شرايين المدن المصرية. أن تسكن مثلي في أحد أحياء الإسكندرية المحاطة بالجزارين يشبه أن تجد نفسك في الشريان الأورطي للمدينة. 
عيد الأضحى، والذي يمجد تضحية إبراهيم، مفعم بالمعاني والرمزية، من مثابرة النفس البشرية والالتفاف التقليدي للمجتمع، بالإضافة إلى كونه فرصة للانفتاح الرمزي على المسيحيين واليهود الذين يفهمون هم أيضًا محنة إبراهيم.
يضاف لذلك أن العيد هو فرصة لجموع المصريين، الذين قد أصبحوا نباتيين رغمًا عنهم، لكي يعيدوا اللحم إلى سُفرتهم، بالإضافة للعيديات والعطايا التي يجود بها ميسورو الحال في هذه المناسبة. 
عيد الأضحى مثال للصدقة، ولكن ينقصه الكثير من التضحية. 
أدمن المجتمع المصري عبر السنين المظاهر الفاحشة للتدين. تدهور عيد الأضحى حتى أصبح مناسبة يصل فيها المجتمع إلى قمة الالتفاف حول المظاهر، بشكل يدمر فرصة وجود أي أثر للحياة العامة. تعود جذور هذه المشكلة إلى التمدن، حيث انتقلت الطقوس من المزارع والمذابح إلى الشوارع. وانتقلت شعائر ذبح الخروف بالتالي إلى مناور المباني لمدة طويلة. ولكن مع الرغبة في التباهي بالثروة أصبح الذبح يجري على نطاق شديد الاتساع، وبدون رقابة أو تنظيم. 
رغم معارضة السلطة لتلك الممارسات وتغريم البعض بمخالفات هنا أو هناك، إلا أن الدولة ظلت أسرع كثيرًا في التحرك ضد متظاهر مسالم يرفع لافتة، من سرعتها في إيقاف المسؤولين عن سد نظام الصرف بآلاف اللترات من الدم، مع إطلاق رائحة الحيوانات الميتة في الهواء وتجاهل أدنى معايير الصحة العامة.
تجرُد الذبح من الأخلاقيات الإسلامية يظهر في غياب عدد من الأسئلة الأساسية مثل: «لماذا يُحتفظ بالحيوانات في ظروف رديئة قبل أن يواجهوا مصيرهم؟»، «لماذا يشاهد الأطفال المجزرة؟» وبعد كل ذلك، «ما هو الحلال أصلًا؟» 
في النهاية، يصبح الخروف هو بطل الاحتفال الذي يطمس الرسالة الأصلية ويستهين بالإدمان غير الصحي للحم. 
كان أكل اللحوم محدودًا جدًا في العصور الأولى للإسلام؛ كان الرسول وصحابته شبه نباتيين، وكان أحدهم نباتيًا بالفعل. تتفق المصادر على أن الطعام المفضل للرسول كان البلح والشعير والتين والعسل واللبن وأكلات نباتية أخرى. لم يأكل الرسول لحم البقر أبدًا، بل وقد قال: «البقر لحمه داء ولبنه دواء». كما حذر الخليفة عمر: «إياكم واللحم، فإن له ضراوة كضراوة الخمر». تاريخيًا، كان أثرياء المسلمين وحدهم هم من يملكون شراء اللحم، وكانوا يأكلونه يوم الجمعة، بينما ينتظر الفقراء وجبة اللحم كل عيد. 
يجب أخذ هذه العوامل التاريخية في الاعتبار، لدى التطرق للحاجة لانتشال عيد الأضحى من الارتباك المحيط به. ربما يجب التعامل مع اللحوم كرفاهية تؤكل بشكل غير منتظم في كل الطبقات الإجتماعية. 
لست نباتيًا، ولكن الإفراط في إنتاج وتناول اللحم، بالإضافة للضغط الذي يسببه ذلك على الكوكب، يشير إلى ضرورة تنويع الطعام وإعلاء شأن ما هو نباتي منه.
ما يحدث لم يعد يخص قصة إبراهيم، ولكنه مجرد شيء تفعله لأنك فعلته العام الماضي، وستفعله العام القادم. بعض هؤلاء الجزارين، والمؤتمنين على تنفيذ طقوس مقدسة، لا يجدون حرجًا في الجلوس أمام مجازرهم لشرب الشاي، بينما يصطف المصلون قربهم يوم الجمعة. يبدو أن صلاة الجمعة المفروضة ليست مربحة بشكل كافي لهم.
بشكل متصاعد، نشهد عيدًا عدميًا كل عام. لا يعرف الجزارون لماذا يذبحون، ولا يعرف الناس لماذا يشهدون الذبح، والفئة الوحيدة التي يبدو أنها تدرك أن هناك شيئًا ليس على ما يرام هم الخرفان والماعز والماشية.

 

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What Are We Sacrificing?

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Published in Mada Masr. (Click here for the Arabic translation)

I have grown accustomed to gradually seeing religious festivities being disemboweled of their meaning, whether it’s the entertainment-saturated Ramadan, or the hyper-commercialized Christmas. But the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) stands out starkly, as it has been built on an all-encompassing annual spectacle, with the blood of sheep and cattle running through the veins of Egyptian cities. To live in a part of Alexandria surrounded by butchers, as I do, is to be unfortunately placed at one of the city’s aorta.

Eid al-Adha, which celebrates the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice, is rich in meaning and symbolism, from the perseverance of the human condition to the traditional binding of families and community, as well as allowing, at the very least, a metaphorical reaching out to Jews and Christians who can relate to the tribulations of Abraham. More so, given that many poor Egyptians are “vegetarian” by default, as they can rarely afford meat, Eid is an opportunity to put meat on their tables. This is not to mention the money and other charitable gifts that are given out generously on this festive occasion.

When it comes to charity, Eid Al-Adha is an exemplar. When it comes to the actual sacrifice, it has become frighteningly lacking.

Egyptian society over the years has developed an unhealthy obsession with ostentatious displays of piety. Eid al-Adha has regressed to the point where public piety meets peak voyeurism, leading to the collapse of any semblance of a public sphere. The origins of this problem came with urbanization that saw the ritual move from farms and slaughterhouses to the streets. And for a long time, the practice was undertaken in the building’s manwar (interior) by a few families. Now, driven by the flaunting of wealth, it has reached an industrial scale, with minimal supervision, regulation or consensus. The authorities, despite being against it and issuing fines here and there, would rather react swiftly to one innocent protester holding a sign than the instigators of thousands of liters of blood clogging the fragile drainage system, overwhelming the minimal sanitation standards and releasing the smell of dead animals into the air.

The withering of Islamic ethics regarding the practice of slaughter is obvious when basic questions are not even asked as to why animals are kept in dire conditions in the lead-up to their fate, why they are forced to witness others being slaughtered and why are children watching this bloodbath. What is halal anymore?

Moreover, the implication is that the animal is the centerpiece of the festivity, obscuring the underlying message and normalizing our problematic addiction to meat.

Meat consumption was extremely limited in the early days of Islam. The Prophet and his companions were semi-vegetarians. One, in fact, was an outright vegetarian. The sources consistently showed the Prophet’s favorite foods to be dates, barley, figs, grapes, honey and milk, among other non-meat foods. The Prophet never ate beef, going as far as saying, “The meat of a cow produces sickness, but its milk is a cure.” The Caliph Omar warned to, “Beware of meat, because it is addictive like wine.” Historically, it was only rich Muslims who could afford meat, and it would only be eaten on Fridays, while the poor had to wait for Eid to eat meat.

These historical factors ought to be considered in light of the need to reframe Eid Al-Adha away from the morass it has been dragged into. Perhaps meat can be treated as that rare luxury that is eaten infrequently across the social strata. I’m no vegetarian, but the excessive quantity of meat produced and consumed, the social signifiers that accompany it, the deep inequalities that it sharpens and the troubling medical problems that it exacerbates, not to mention the additional pressure meat production places on the planet, means that there is an urgent need to diversify cuisines and elevate non-meat options.

Whatever is happening, it is no longer about the story of Abraham, it is something that you just do because you did it last year and you will do it next year as well.

More and more, each year, we experience a nihilist Eid on the streets. The butchers don’t know why they are slaughtering, the donors don’t know why they are paying for it, the public doesn’t know why they are witnessing it, and the sermons have hit a tone-deaf level. The only ones who seem to have some awareness that something is not quite right are the sheep, goats and cattle.

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The Vanishing Videos of Arab History (and what can be done)

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I have noticed over the past year that archival footage on Egyptian history and post-2011 videos on Egypt’s events are (mysteriously?) disappearing from YouTube, even when the issue could not be one of copyright. Similarly, the vanishing act is reportedly happening to content produced in other Arab countries. A video that is deleted is an assault on our collective memory and our post-2011 quest to build an unfettered archival culture (despite how contested archives can be). 

*The mythical river of Lethe, that appears in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, caused forgetfulness when drank from (Painting by Salvador Dali). English poet John Milton described Lethe as the river of oblivion that “whoso drinks forgets both joy and grief.”

We have long taken for granted that a video on YouTube was left untouched unless it violated copyright rules like a song, TV program, or film. It was always assumed that historical footage, even the most mundane type to the authorities like 1950s village life, would be unharmed given it posed no political threat. However, even these videos are fading. We can no longer take for granted that such videos will remain in perpetuity. 

The four possible reasons for this that I can think of include:

  • Egyptian authorities or pro-regime trolls are misleading YouTube into thinking an Arabic video in question is violating copyright. Perhaps the content’s language barrier would stifle YouTube’s ability to verify the claim.
  • Such ambiguity enables videos to be deleted and because of “multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement” which also raises a question as to who owns a Nasser speech given at a stadium in 1962 or a protest video from 1950s Alexandria uploaded by a former Greek resident?
  • Certain YouTube users have been identified by officialdom and are being threatened into deleting their content.
  • YouTube Users are removing any digital traces for safety reasons (Similar outcome to the third point, but I find this one highly implausible as the termination message often shown is the user being suspended or deleted for some violation, not “user no longer exists”). 

Irrespective of any reason, the end-result is the same and fits a pattern: The authoritarian attempt at drowning Arab publics in the mythical river of Lethe (forgetfulness).* 

How can the situation be resolved? For the time being, and I say this with a sense of urgency, if you think a video is worth saving for posterity, then it would be wise to download such videos through this link: http://www.clipconverter.cc

It’s quite a simple three step process. This is the most important step even if you don’t carry out the next steps. In any case, you will probably require these videos in some personal or work capacity in the future. 

The next step is to make it accessible by uploading it to Google Drive, OneDrive, DropBox etc, and setting access permissions for that specific folder or video to public. Then notify the web by sending out the link and using the hashtag on social media: #SaveArabHistory (Or any universally agreed hashtag). 

This is an ad-hoc approach until there is a concerted, organised and collective way to preserve, catalogue, and offer video access for offline and online use. But once they are gone, they are gone! There is no guarantee that the original user (who may have passed away) will upload them again or can be contacted. If there are already existing initiatives doing this, then they are welcome to advise and get involved. 

When I assign my sociology students certain videos to watch but it turns out the respective videos have perished, then it not only means my students have been partially deprived of a comprehensive understanding of their subject matter (which is worrying enough), but the way we deal with technology, in an era that is seeing censorship and blocked websites slowly normalised, needs to change. 

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Alexandria’s anti-Fellah problem

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Caricature mocking the less privileged visitors to Alexandria

It’s that time of year, the “let’s dehumanise the Fellahin” season (or any rural visitor for that matter), as they escape the villages for some summer relaxation in Alexandria. The above-circulated caricature feeds into all the vile remarks made daily about the Fellahin, and echoes their ill-treatment on the corniche. 

Let’s just go through three of the tired and misleading statements that Alexandrian residents frequently make. 

1. “Fellahin make a mess of the beaches and the city.”

Because Alexandria is generally clean the rest of the year? The issue here is a lack of rules being applied and the shrinking public beaches that forces them to squeeze into tinier plots of public beaches. This is a governorate problem.

2. “Fellahin are the worst sexual harassers.”

Because Alexandrian sexual harassment is more refined? Nothing beats winter sexual harassment? By making such accusations, the responsibility is shifted away from the rule of law being applied equally to all, in order to fight harassment, and pushed, rather towards a particular group. This is a governorate problem.

3. “As soon as they arrive, I’ll leave Alex” or “they need to put a fee of 50 pounds at the city’s gates to reduce the numbers coming into Alex.”

The obvious bigotry and classism aside, putting blame on the citizen for over-population and lack of public space will continue to give a green light to the businessmen and mafia who keep eating up what is left of the city’s spaces. Once again, this is a governorate problem. 

Don’t forget that similar insults were hurled at middle-class Cairenes who came in the summer up until the 1980s, that is before they gradually decided Sahel, Ain Sokhna etc were more fitting. It seems allowing rural visitors and the poor to access the sea, often for the first time, is beyond many to even contemplate.

Perhaps this denial of their rights can be put in perspective. The below photograph shows two middle-aged Ṣa’īdi men seeing the sea for the first time in their lives. They slowly entered the water with a profound curiosity and glee, and when I asked them how it felt, one turned around and shouted with a big smile: “meya meya!” (a hundred out of a hundred). 

With all the economic misery and hardship that Egyptians, especially the poor, are enduring, do you really want to be complicit in the web that worsens their plight? By denying them their right to view, touch and enjoy the sea? To deny them access to the last remaining strongholds of beauty that has already been mostly privatised? 

Two middle-aged Ṣa’īdi men seeing the sea for the first time.

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On Nation Building: Alexandria, Egypt. (Mahmoud Khaled in conversation with Amro Ali)

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Originally published in Ibraaz

II. On Nation Building: Alexandria, Egypt.

Mahmoud Khaled in conversation with Amro Ali

 

Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Installation view at Edith Russ Haus für Mediakunst, Oldenburg.
Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Installation view at Edith Russ Haus für Mediakunst, Oldenburg.

 

I have been familiar with Mahmoud Khaled’s artistic works for a number of years, and his creative output never fails to astound the observer. Alexandria, the city we both herald from, can often be a political tempest and urban dystopia that deepens a chronic melancholia within the public realm. This, in turn, foments nostalgia through the citizenry who long to live in a sepia-tinged so-called golden age. What romance is to Paris and ambition is to New York, nostalgia is to Alexandria. Yet perhaps because the city functions in a world of intangibles, one where the mythologized metropolis is drowned in a long glorious history that torments the human imagination; will as a result, ruthlessly press the artist, poet, writer, and thinker against established boundaries; at times breaking them.

Political theorist Fredric Jameson noted that nostalgia is an ‘alarming and pathological symptom’ of a modern world unable or unwilling to engage in any meaningful way with its own historicity.  This is where Khaled’s work comes in: he seeks to engage this symptom by confronting the Alexandrian spectre of memory. His latest work A New Commission for an Old State (2016) propels the progenitor of nostalgia, memory, into a new site-specific exhibition. A form of commemoration that embodies complex narratives in the young artist’s new body of work, through three iconic artefacts within the Egyptian context.

The first is a gated summer resort in Alexandria called Maamoura built by the state shortly after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power to accommodate the new elite of the ‘rebranded’ (post-1952) Egypt. The second is a landmark text titled Maamoura’s Victims written by Judge Hassan Jalal who was a harsh critic of the Egyptian monarchy. The third artefact is a 1961 film by Youssef Chahine titled A Man in My Life, which started production in Maamoura a few months after it officially opened in 1959. The story revolves around the life of a fictitious architect who is known for his remarkable modernist style and who has built one of Maamoura’s most memorable buildings, which is used as a backdrop in the opening scene of the film.

Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Detail, C Photograph (15cm X 10cm).Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Detail, C Photograph (15cm X 10cm). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Amro Ali: Your recent solo exhibition in Germany last summer is highly fascinating and it certainly overlaps with my work in political sociology. The driving question that intrigues me is: Where does Alexandria, as an autonomous entity, fit in the artistic narrative that you have developed? My understanding of Nasser-era rebranding has more to do with how Alexandria was divorced from its Greco-Roman heritage, and pushed more towards its Arab heritage. I don’t see this as a phenomenon that happens immediately after 1952, but rather gains traction in the 1960s when, for example, Alexandria saw the rise of statues of Arab figures in the public space such as Ibn Khaldoun and Sayeed Darwish, among others. How does the rebranding in Mammoura fit in with this? When you speak of re-branding, is it a matter of the state homogenizing the entire landscape across the country, without any consideration for local factors and idiosyncrasies of a city? 

Mahmoud Khaled: I also don’t see this rebranding as happening immediately after 1952.  As you said it did take almost a decade for this process to physically and visually exist in the public sphere and Mammoura as a project is evidence of this, as it officially opened in 1959 and was promoted afterwards as one of the regime’s achievements towards the promised social democratic state and assuring the official support to the middle, working class and farmers.

We also know, this rebranding process was not only about erecting buildings with new architectural aesthetics and sculptures of significant Arab and national figures in public spaces, but included the establishment of agrarian reforms and ambitious industrialization programs that led to a period of infrastructure building and modern urbanization. There was a political need to have these social and architectural projects to form a new Egyptian identity that served the new elite of the republican era. Theses projects included housing complexes, theatres, cultural palaces, parks and summer resorts. Architecturally, aesthetically and functionally, then,  all these projects were designed in sharp contrast to the lavish lifestyle of the former royal aristocracy which added a strong political connotation to the style of these buildings and projects, and more generally to the introduction of ‘Modernism’ in Egyptian architecture. At least that’s how I understand it.

Maamoura is located strategically next to the former royal Montaza palace and gardens, which I read as an intentional political statement to show that the new state can also design and build a protected gated space for its won elite. This beach resort is considered to be the prototype for modern bourgeois summer destinations and is one of the first gated community projects in Egypt, functioning as a city within the city with its architecturally unique residential villas, houses, and cabins mostly owned by generals, businessmen, and celebrities that came to form the new upper class. At the same time, more modest buildings were targeted towards the middle-class with public sector companies having access to properties that they rented out to their staff for affordable prices.

Mammoura Beach, Alexandria, 1995. Black and white promotional video of Al Mammoura resort project, found on YouTube.

AA: The problem of political branding is that it tends to destroy pluralism, as the state imposes a narrative from above, rather than allowing an organic story to develop through civil society. How does your understanding of branding, in an architectural sense, equate with oppression and the destruction of civic meaning?

MK: Personally, I don’t see any contribution from the civil society in this whole process at all; everything was done by the state to the people, and mainly most of the projects were executed by the army itself which is something happening until now and my generation can definitely relate to it.

Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Installation view at Edith Russ Haus für Mediakunst, Oldenburg.Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Installation view at Edith Russ Haus für Mediakunst, Oldenburg. Photo courtesy of the artist.

AA: You touch upon an important aspect regarding Youssef Chahine’s films. From my readings, the struggle between Alexandria and the state extended to films: for example,  Nasser-era cinema tended to reflect narratives that domesticated Alexandria. This in turn subverted the city into the national narrative. Chahine’s films were not an exception, although it as only with his 1978 film Alexandria, Why? that he was able to challenge this trend, by breaking with the conventional narrative and realigning it with an emerging novel tradition that represented Alexandria as a place of “utopian desire.” The renowned director started to see a relative change in the political culture of 1970s Egypt – if not the Arab world – that enabled his cinema to “recognize and redress marginalized social elements within Arab national identity…[by revisiting and engaging] the cultural and historical elements of distinct groups he thought integral to the appreciation of a collective Arab identity.”[3]

In light of this, how much innovation and independence was Chahine allowed in the making of the 1961 film A Man in my Life? Was the film geared towards supporting Nasser’s project? Or did Chahine situate the idea of justice in a national (or perhaps nationalist) narrative at the expense of local civic factors?

MK: I think in this film Chahine tried to abstract the ideologies and the principles behind the “free soldiers” movement by staging a melodramatic love story that contains a lot of guilt, pain, and heroism to highlight the struggle for social justice amongst the working class (here, a group of fishermen in Alexandria) in the year of 1938, when the country was still a royal monarchy. It is very obvious to me how he was very influenced by these ideas, principles, and hopes for the establishment of a modern and socially equal state, like many other artists and intellectuals in Egypt at the time. For example, I still remember many of my painting professors in Alexandria who are associated with or known as the sixties generation of artists, were preoccupied with producing art that was heavily engaged with the ideas of social justice, class struggle and full independence from colonialism.  I honestly don’t think these artists, including Chahine, were doing this work to compliment the political power, or as a sort of a contribution to the propaganda of the new regime. Rather,  I think they – or let’s say most of them – believed in these ideas and wanted to dedicate their production to contribute to the cause.  

This is, in fact, the most interesting point for me: how can we now look back at the art production of this period, especially given the radical shifts since 2011, to how we understand the regime today? How does viewing the situation as a continuation of the 1952 state, reshape our relationship with our home country?

In terms of innovation, I am not sure to what extent the film was an original, given it was an adaptation of the 1954 American film  Magnificent Obsession by Douglas Sirk,  But I am personally not so crazy about this idea of originality; I find it clever how Chahine kept the structure of the story from Sirk’s film but  adapted the sociopolitical content  in order to respond and engage with the political and ideological moment in Egypt at the time.

Video collage by Mahmoud Khaled of two films, both of which were important source material for him during the formulation of this comission: A Man in My Life, dir. Youssef Chahine, 1962, Egypt, and Magnificent Obsessions, dir. Douglas Sirk, 1954, USA.

AA: Fascinatingly, this recent body of work metaphorically touches upon building materials such as glass and marble, which you argue have been widely utilized in state-sanctioned architectural projects in Egypt over the past thirty years. Here, I specifically want to point to the piece A Rare Glimpse into the Recent Moments When People Lived in a World Turned Upside Down (2016) in which you used eight computer-generated images of carrara marble printed on wallpaper and sixteen double glass panels, accompanied by images and texts that occupied almost half of the space of the exhibition.

Is there a particular state logic behind utilizing building materials such as glass and marble? Does this have any relationship to Mubarak’s political projects and neoliberal policies?

MK: Yes it does. I wanted to do something physical, imaginative and semi-fictional, using material that would speak directly to the content of the installation.  I decided to use the format of the memorial as a site from which to stage the content of the project; of course here, marble makes perfect sense, as a permanent noble and monumental material that has been used excessively in most of the governmental projects in Egypt during the past thirty or so years, which is of course, the era of Mubarak.

When I looked back at the use of the material and its existence in state-owned or run buildings, I started to see the sharp contrast between marble and the kind of modest, humble and relatively cheap building materials that was used in the late 50s and 60s by the regime. For me, this shows how the state wanted to manifest itself and assert it’s power architecturally and in public spaces, whilst pointing to the shift in aesthetics and values from the 60s to the 90s, and so I was keen for the installation to reflect this.

 

AA: The ‘Maamoura’s Victims’ text by Judge Hassan Jalal, published in Al Hilal Magazine in February 1955 just few years after the ’52 state’ started, presented a report on the atrocities, horrendous conditions and systematic tortures in a prisoner camp on the King’s properties, which later became the land on which Maamoura was built. It is an insightful artifact from a very romanticized period in the Egyptian and Alexandrian popular imagination. Would you say that your work in this regard is a strong statement against nostalgia?

MK: William E. Jones, who is one of my favorite artists said recently in an interview that ‘Nostalgia is a sympathetic feelin’[4] – and I completely agree with him.

Unfortunately, Alexandria has been always romanticized in the popular imagination. I can even sense this when I talk about the city with my friends and colleagues from Cairo. It’s something I used to be very sensitive about it.  Nostalgia became the scary ghost that I tried to kill while I was developing and working on the exhibition, and I hope I did that  –  though I don’t know.  I think the problem for us Alexandrians is that we have been over saturated with nostalgic narratives and representations of the city in books, films, and photographs (and now even on social media) but it’s still the city we live and work in. And so, it is hard to ignore the overarching sentimentality. 

That is why I tried for a long time to avoid working on anything related to Alexandria and its history – near or far – because you can never escape the language and aesthetics of nostalgia when talking about the city in the field of artistic and cultural production. This idea shifted for me in 2011, when I saw everything in the city becoming highly politicized and very active, instead of being forever decaying and romantic; it was then that I realized that I can talk abut the city in a way I was unable to before, mainly because of my own self-censorship towards this fear of being nostalgic. 

Jalal’s text was also a huge discovery for me –  it made everything feel similar and yet different all at once, and that’s why I wanted to use it in full length in the installation.  First of all, it gives us a glimpse of Maamoura when it was just an empty, neglected wasteland, and how even during this time (late 1940s/early 1950s) it was a stage for human rights violations, torture and the exertion of power by the state. Secondly, the fact that it was written by a judge, whose profession is to protect the values of social justice and dignity in society, he is also fully supporting the 1952 state (which I believe we are still living an extension and the continuation of this era).

I also think my fascination with the text has a lot to do with the fact that I was born around a bunch of structures, monuments, and buildings which are gradually vanishing from the cityscape, yet I still don’t know much about the socio-political history of Maamoura or how things were before these structures were built.  At the same time access to information as an artist or a researcher is restricted by state authorities; you will find a lot of intentional obstacles in your way, so as not to ask or uncover anything that may conflict with the state-sanctioned narrative.  Here, the act of knowing becomes a highly politicized endeavour and pushes this persistent nostalgia out of the frame.

AA:  The use of the Maamoura’s Victims as a textual document/ testimony is described in the exhibition text as an element that is highlighting and activating the “haunting similarities” between the methods of the monarchy and republic, which you argue, puts the document in a completely different light, making it even more relevant when read in the present.  Based on this reading, I would like to ask: could not the observer of your work suggest that in attempting to condemn the monarchical period as being just as bad as the republican era, you have indirectly vindicated the latter? Historians would probably not disagree with your account, but they could argue that oppression and torture increased exponentially and systematically under the Nasser regime, making the King Farouk era pale in comparison.

MK: Well, I don’t think the work is trying to vindicate or blame one era or another as both eras are very difficult to understand or judge in their entirety.  I also hope the artwork works to complicate and problematize moments in our history, instead of just giving a statement about who was more oppressive than the other, because things are far more complicated than this.  This is especially the case for artists; perhaps it is easier for researchers, academics, and historians because they have a clearer methodology for how to draw their conclusions. Yet for most of us – and by us, here I mean the artists whom I am close to and am in dialogue with – we are all producing and speaking from a position in a world that does not make any sense at all, and art seems for some of us, still the only possible long-term attempt to deal with this mess that we are collectively sharing.

The work is imagining a memorial, a space for remembrance, which as an act includes thinking and reflecting with a strong sense of monumentality and spectacle. Memorials are traditionally built after long civil and grassroots discussions, and to remember key social and political events.  Yet my generation only inherited memorials; we never experienced or witnessed the building of those we inherited, and so the aim of my work is to both consider and commiserate the absences in constructing our own history, emotionally and meaningfully.

Mahmoud Khaled (b. 1982, Alexandria, Egypt), lives and works between Egypt and Norway.   He studied fine art at Alexandria University in Egypt and in Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. His work traces the boundaries between what is real and what is hidden, disguised or staged. His artistic practice is both process oriented and multidisciplinary. Mixing photography, video and wall painting with sculptural forms, sound, and text, his works can be regarded as formal and philosophical ruminations on art as a form of political activism, as an object of desire and as a space for critical reflection. His artistic vocabulary is composed of appropriated forms that have been displaced from their original context thereby proposing alternative meanings.  

Khaled’s work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions in different art spaces and centers in Europe and the Middle East, including Whitechapel, London (UK); Edith-Ruth-Haus, Oldenburg, Germany; BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK; Galpão- Videobrasil, São Paulo, (Brazil); Gypsum Gallery, Cairo, (Egypt); Centre Pompidou, Malaga, Spain; Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA), (Netherlands); Bonner Kunstverein, (Germany); UKS, Oslo, (Norway); Salzburger Kunstverein, (Austria); Contemporary Image Collective/CiC, Cairo, (Egypt); Sultan Gallery, (Kuwait). His projects have been featured in several international biennales such as LIAF Biennale, Lofoten, (Norway). BManifesta 8: European Biennale for Contemporary Art; Biacs 3, Seville Biennale, and 1st Canary Islands Biennale, Spain. In 2012 Khaled was awarded the Videobrasil In Context prize and he was shortlisted for the 2016 Abraaj Art Prize.


[1] Alexander Reid Ross, ‘A New Chapter in the Fascist Internationale’ in CounterPunch, 15 September 2015: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/16/a-new-chapter-in-the-fascist-internationale/

[2] ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx 1852. 

[3] Malek Khouri, The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010). 117.

[4] Quoted in Mousse Magazine. Issue 56. December 2016–January 2017

 
 

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