How Egypt Functions in the Moroccan Imagination (photo essay)



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

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 Amazingh Berbers (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. 


When the Debris of Paradise Calls (Philosophical concept for a play)


The below concept was adopted for a contemporary theatre play in Cairo and Berlin 


Below is my philosophical concept that underpins the play (it is not a description of the play)

When the Debris of Paradise Calls
There is a deep-seated crisis within Egyptian society, the youth no less, that sees the human condition under assault by global consumption and material culture. An assault largely fanned by elites invoking market-driven economics to justify perpetual development and redevelopment, as well as the erasure of heritage and vibrant communities. The impact goes beyond the citizen facing chronic underemployment, poverty, and the entrapment within a predatory economy dominated by opaque forces beyond their control or understanding.

The individual has been torn away from a sense of cause and effect; suspended above time and its continuity by a severing from historical awareness; developed a deteriorating association with aesthetical standards; all forms of logic have been degraded to shades of ad hominem and confirmation bias; and conspiracies have become the lingua franca. Survive rather than thrive has become the norm. What is needed is to restore the individual’s dignity and agency by “recalibrating” it to relate to the city.

This, in part, can be addressed by raising philosophical thinking that unpacks the core areas of philosophy –  aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic and metaphysics – and narrowing them to digestible, understandable and fundamental questions that can be engaged with through the arts. Some of these questions can include, in the face of neoliberalism’s dehumanisation, how do publics sustain or retrieve meaningful communities? How can historical imaginaries, ideas, persons, sensibilities, and aesthetics, work their way into renegotiating the citizen’s relationship to the city? How can a crippling nostalgia be appropriated for a forward-looking civic vision? How do these themes make one better understand the familiar spaces such as neighbourhoods and coffeehouses? How do groups understand their role in endowing their urban terrain with a clearer identity and coherent narrative?

This concept is driven by the view that the public should be recognised, and elevated, as the primary ideal, and the individual’s present difficulties in experiencing or attaining pluralism and civic responsibility is tied to the city’s loss of meaning and the citizen’s alienation from one another. The development of philosophical thinking, and its performance, can help address this malaise.

The use of “paradise” alludes to the beauty that weaves its ways through the urban terrain; in social relations, love, language, buildings, decor, music, books, among others. Yet what happens when that paradise crumbles? The sight of tangible and intangible debris is a call to intellectual arms, an artistic awakening required to alert the citizens that something is not quite right. The broken paradise should not be normalised.

There is a need to humanise Egypt, animate the idea of citizenship, and flesh out plurality, biographies and stories from a landscape under assault by the forces of homogenisation and mediocrity. A grand vision is required to nurture the creation of a vibrant public that will demonstrate to other publics that there is another way, a viable way, of looking and dealing with Egypt.


The Creative Public (lecture)


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


Presenation slides: The Creative Public: How new publics are born

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:

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).


The Scourge of Shapelessness (Lecture)


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:

Presentation slides: The Scourge of Shapelessness


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.


The Idea of Beginnings (lecture in Arabic)


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:

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



An Enquiry into the Destruction of the Beautiful


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




Do you still remember him?



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. 



معنى التضحية

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.



What Are We Sacrificing?


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.


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


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:

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.