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?
Mahmoud Khaled, A New Commission for an Old State, 2016. Installation view at Edith Russ Haus für Mediakunst, Oldenburg.
Image courtesy of the artist.
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). 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. 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.”
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’‘ – 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.
‘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.
 Malek Khouri, The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010). 117.
There is something powerfully raw and vivid about Hannah Arendt’s essay that came out in the midst of Europe’s darkness in the Second World War, before the worst horrors inflicted upon the Jews were fully unveiled. Originally published in January 1943 as “We Refugees” in a small Jewish journal called Menorah (shut down in 1961), the piece captures what it really means to be a refugee – the endless anxiety, ravaging despair, deluded optimism, jolting absurdity and even the humour of the “refugee.” What it is to be a wandering individual in search for dignity within a larger collective that “fight like madmen for private existences with individual destinies.” Arendt’s larger lesson is poignant: “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.” A message that projects a long arm into the present and can be read in the current global context that sees indifference and outright hostility to refugees, a political and social attitude that can only come at the price of exacerbating tensions and rupturing the moral fabric of the perpetrators of such indifference and hostility.
In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.” Our newspapers are papers for “Americans of German language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.
A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed. Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.
Before this war broke out we were even more sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own free will to countries of our choice, and we denied that our situation had anything to do with “so-called Jewish problems.” Yes, we were “immigrants” or “newcomers” who had left our country because, one fine day, it no longer suited us to stay, or for purely economic reasons. We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life one has to be strong and an optimist. So we are very optimistic.
Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.
Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved—and most of us had to be saved several times—we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine. In a friendly way we were reminded that the new country would become a new home; and after four weeks in France or six weeks in America, we pretended to be Frenchmen or Americans. The most optimistic among us would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like. It is true we sometimes raise objections when we are told to forget about our former work; and our former ideals are usually hard to throw over if our social standard is at stake. With the language, however, we find no difficulties: after a single year optimists are convinced they speak English as well as their mother tongue; and after two years they swear solemnly that they speak English better than any other language—their German is a language they hardly remember.
In order to forget more efficiently we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps we experienced in nearly all European countries—it might be interpreted as pessimism or lack of confidence in the new homeland. Besides, how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that; hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.
Even among ourselves we don’t speak about this past. Instead, we have found our own way of mastering an uncertain future. Since everybody plans and wishes and hopes, so do we. Apart from the general human attitudes, however, we try to clear up the future more scientifically. After so much bad luck we want a course as sure as a gun. Therefore, we leave the earth with all its uncertainties behind and we cast our eyes up to the sky. The stars tell us—rather than the newspapers—when Hitler will be defeated and when we shall become American citizens. We think the stars more reliable advisers than all our friends; we learn from the stars when we should have lunch with our benefactors and on what day we have the best chances of filling out one of these countless questionnaires which accompany our present lives. Sometimes we don’t rely even on the stars but rather on the lines of our hand or the signs of our handwriting. Thus we learn less about political events but more about our own dear selves, even though somehow psychoanalysis has gone out of fashion. Those happier times are past when bored ladies and gentlemen of high society conversed about the genial misdemeanors of their early childhood. They don’t want ghost-stories any more; it is real experiences that make their flesh creep. There is no longer any need of bewitching the past; it is spellbound enough in reality. Thus, in spite of our outspoken optimism, we use all sorts of magical tricks to conjure up the spirits of the future.
I don’t know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information, since I, too, had rather be an optimist. But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved. I could even understand how our friends of the West coast, during the curfew, should have had such curious notions as to believe that we are not only “prospective citizens” but present “enemy aliens.” In daylight, of course, we become only “technically” enemy aliens—all refugees know this. But when technical reasons prevented you from leaving your home during the dark house, it certainly was not easy to avoid some dark speculations about the relation between technicality and reality.
No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way. They seem to prove that our proclaimed cheerfulness is based on a dangerous readiness for death. Brought up in the conviction that life is the highest good and death the greatest dismay, we became witnesses and victims of worse terrors than death—without having been able to discover a higher ideal than life. Thus, although death lost its horror for us, we became neither willing nor capable to risk our lives for a cause. Instead of fighting—or thinking about how to become able to fight back—refugees have got used to wishing death to friends or relatives; if somebody dies, we cheerfully imagine all the trouble he has been saved. Finally many of us end by wishing that we, too, could be saved some trouble, and act accordingly.
Since 1938—since Hitler’s invasion of Austria—we have seen how quickly eloquent optimism could change to speechless pessimism. As time went on, we got worse—even more optimistic and even more inclined to suicide. Austrian Jews under Schuschnigg were such a cheerful people—all impartial observers admired them. It was quite wonderful how deeply convinced they were that nothing could happen to them. But when German troops invaded the country and Gentile neighbours started riots at Jewish homes, Austrian Jews began to commit suicide.
Unlike other suicides, our friends leave no explanation of their deed, no indictment, no charge against a world that had forced a desperate man to talk and to behave cheerfully to his very last day. Letters left by them are conventional, meaningless documents. Thus, funeral orations we make at their open graves are brief, embarrassed and very hopeful. Nobody cares about motives, they seem to be clear to all of us.
I speak of unpopular facts; and it makes things worse that in order to prove my point I do not even dispose of the sole arguments which impress modern people—figures. Even those Jews who furiously deny the existence of the Jewish people give us a fair chance of survival as far as figures are concerned—how else could they prove that only a few Jews are criminals and that many Jews are being killed as good patriots in wartime? Through their effort to save the statistical life of the Jewish people we know that Jews had the lowest suicide rate among all civilized nations. I am quite sure those figures are no longer correct, but I cannot prove it with new figures, though I can certainly with new experiences. This might be sufficient for those skeptical souls who never were quite convinced that the measure of one’s skull gives the exact idea of its content, or that statistics of crime show the exact level of national ethics. Anyhow, wherever European Jews are living today, they no longer behave according to statistical laws. Suicides occur not only among the panic-stricken people in Berlin and Vienna, in Bucharest or Paris, but in New York and Los Angeles, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
On the other hand, there has been little reported about suicides in the ghettoes and concentration camps themselves. True, we had very few reports at all from Poland, but we have been fairly well informed about German and French concentration camps.
At the camp of Gurs, for instance, where I had the opportunity of spending some time, I heard only once about suicide, and that was the suggestion of a collective action, apparently a kind of protest in order to vex the French. When some of us remarked that we had been shipped there “pour crever” in any case, the general mood turned suddenly into a violent courage of life. The general opinion held that one had to be abnormally asocial and unconcerned about general events if one was still able to interpret the whole accident as personal and individual bad luck and, accordingly, ended one’s life personally and individually. But the same people, as soon as they returned to their own individual lives, being faced with seemingly individual problems, changed once more to this insane optimism which is next door to despair.
We are the first non-religious Jews persecuted—and we are the first ones who, not only in extremis, answer with suicide. Perhaps the philosophers are right who teach that suicide is the last and supreme guarantee of human freedom; not being free to create our lives or the world in which we live, we nevertheless are free to throw life away and to leave the world. Pious Jews, certainly, cannot realize this negative liberty: they perceive murder in suicide, that is, destruction of what man never is able to make, interference with the rights of the Creator. Adonai nathan veadonai lakach (“The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away”); and they would add: baruch shem adonai (“blessed be the name of the Lord”). For them suicide, like murder, means a blasphemous attack on creation as a whole. The man who kills himself asserts that life is not worth living and the world not worth sheltering him.
Yet our suicides are no mad rebels who hurl defiance at life and the world, who try to kill in themselves the whole universe. Theirs is a quiet and modest way of vanishing; they seem to apologize for the violent solution they have found for their personal problems. In their opinion, generally, political events had nothing to do with their individual fate; in good or bad times they would believe solely in their personality. Now they find some mysterious shortcomings in themselves which prevent them from getting along. Having felt entitled from their earliest childhood to a certain social standard, they are failures in their own eyes if this standard cannot be kept any longer. Their optimism is the vain attempt to keep head above water. Behind this front of cheerfulness, they constantly struggle with despair of themselves. Finally, they die of a kind of selfishness.
If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded. We fight like madmen for private existences with individual destinies, since we are afraid of becoming part of that miserable lot of schnorrers whom we, many of us former philanthropists, remember only too well. Just as once we failed to understand that the so-called schnorrer was a symbol of Jewish destiny and not a shlemihl, so today we don’t feel entitled to Jewish solidarity; we cannot realize that we by ourselves are not so much concerned as the whole Jewish people. Sometimes this lack of comprehension has been strongly supported by our protectors. Thus, I remember a director of a great charity concern in Paris who, whenever he received the card of a German-Jewish intellectual with the inevitable “Dr.” on it, used to exclaim at the top of his voice, “Herr Doktor, Herr Doktor, Herr Schnorrer, Herr Schnorrer!”
The conclusion we drew from such unpleasant experiences was simple enough. To be a doctor of philosophy no longer satisfied us; and we learnt that in order to build a new life, one has first to improve on the old one. A nice little fairy-tale has been invented to describe our behaviour; a forlorn émigré dachshund, in his grief, begins to speak: “Once, when I was a St. Bernard …”
Our new friends, rather overwhelmed by so many stars and famous men, hardly understand that at the basis of all our descriptions of past splendors lies one human truth: once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable. We have become a little hysterical since newspapermen started detecting us and telling us publicly to stop being disagreeable when shopping for milk and bread. We wonder how it can be done; we already are so damnably careful in every moment of our daily lives to avoid anybody guessing who we are, what kind of passport we have, where our birth certificates were filled out—and that Hitler didn’t like us. We try the best we can to fit into a world where you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food.
Under such circumstances, St. Bernard grows bigger and bigger. I never can forget that young man who, when expected to accept a certain kind of work, sighed out, “You don’t know to whom you speak; I was Section-manager in Karstadt’s [A great department store in Berlin].” But there is also the deep despair of that middle-aged man who, going through countless shifts of different committees in order to be saved, finally exclaimed, “And nobody here knows who I am!” Since nobody would treat him as a dignified human being, he began sending cables to great personalities and his big relations. He learnt quickly that in this mad world it is much easier to be accepted as a “great man” than as a human being.
The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles. We were expelled from Germany because we were Jews. But having hardly crossed the French borderline, we were changed into “boches.” We were even told that we had to accept this designation if we really were against Hitler’s racial theories. During seven years we played the ridiculous role of trying to be Frenchmen—at least, prospective citizens; but at the beginning of the war we were interned as “boches” all the same. In the meantime, however, most of us had indeed become such loyal Frenchmen that we could not even criticise a French governmental order; thus we declared it as all right to be interned. We were the first “prisonniers volontaires” history has ever seen. After the Germans invaded the country, the French Government had only to change the name of the firm; having been jailed because we were Germans, we were not freed because we were Jews.
It is the same story all over the world, repeated again and again. In Europe the Nazis confiscated our property; but in Brazil we have to pay 30% of our wealth, like the most loyal member of the Bund der Auslandsdeutschen. In Paris we could not leave our homes after eight o’clock because we were Jews; but in Los Angeles we are restricted because we are “enemy aliens.” Our identity is changed so frequently that nobody can find out who we actually are.
Unfortunately, things don’t look any better when we meet with Jews. French Jewry was absolutely convinced that all Jews coming from beyond the Rhine were what they called Polaks—what German Jewry called Ostjuden. But those Jews who really came from eastern Europe could not agree with their French brethren and called us Jaeckes. The sons of these Jaecke-haters—the second generation born in France and already duly assimilated—shared the opinion of the French Jewish upper class. Thus, in the very same family, you could be called a Jaecke by the father and a Polak by the son.
Since the outbreak of the war and the catastrophe that has befallen European Jewry, the mere fact of being a refugee has prevented our mingling with native Jewish society, some exceptions only proving the rule. These unwritten social laws, though never publicly admitted, have the great force of public opinion. And such a silent opinion and practice is more important for our daily lives than all official proclamations of hospitality and good will.
Man is a social animal and life is not easy for him when social ties are cut off. Moral standards are much easier kept in the texture of a society. Very few individuals have the strength to conserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is completely confused. Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity. And this curious behavior makes matters much worse. The confusion in which we live is partly our own work.
Some day somebody will write the true story of this Jewish emigration from Germany; and he will have to start with a description of that Mr. Cohn from Berlin who had always been a 150% German, a German super-patriot. In 1933 that Mr. Cohn found refuge in Prague and very quickly became a convinced Czech patriot—as true and loyal a Czech patriot as he had been a German one. Time went on and about 1937 the Czech Government, already under some Nazi pressure, began to expel its Jewish refugees, disregarding the fact that they felt so strongly as prospective Czech citizens. Our Mr. Cohn then went to Vienna; to adjust oneself there a definite Austrian patriotism was required. The German invasion forced Mr. Cohn out of that country. He arrived in Paris at a bad moment and he never did receive a regular residence-permit. Having already acquired a great skill in wishful thinking, he refused to take mere administrative measures seriously, convinced that he would spend his future life in France. Therefore, he prepared his adjustment to the French nation by identifying himself with “our” ancestor Vercingetorix. I think I had better not dilate on the further adventures of Mr. Cohn. As long as Mr. Cohn can’t make up his mind to be what he actually is, a Jew, nobody can foretell all the mad changes he will have to go through.
A man who wants to lose his self discovers, indeed, the possibilities of human existence, which are infinite, as infinite as is creation. But the recovering of a new personality is as difficult—and as hopeless—as a new creation fo the world. Whatever we do, whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire to be changed, not to be Jews. All our activities are directed to attain this aim: we don’t want to be refugees, since we don’t want to be Jews; we pretend to be English-speaking people, since German-speaking immigrants of recent years are marked as Jews; we don’t call ourselves stateless, since the majority of stateless people in the world are Jews; we are willing to become loyal Hottentots, only to hide the fact that we are Jews. We don’t succeed and we can’t succeed; under the cover of our “optimism” you can easily detect the hopeless sadness of assimilationists.
With us from Germany the word assimilation received a “deep” philosophical meaning. You can hardly realize how serious we were about it. Assimilation did not mean the necessary adjustment to the country where we happened to be born and to the people whose language we happened to speak. We adjust in principle to everything and everybody. This attitude became quite clear to me once by the words of one of my compatriots who, apparently, knew how to express his feelings. Having just arrived in France, he founded one of these societies of adjustment in which German Jews asserted to each other that they were already Frenchmen. In his first speech he said: “We have been good Germans in Germany and therefore we shall be good Frenchmen in France.” The public applauded enthusiastically and nobody laughed; we were happy to have learnt how to prove our loyalty.
If patriotism were a matter of routine or practice, we should be the most patriotic people in the world. Let us go back to our Mr. Cohn; he certainly has beaten all records. He is that ideal immigrant who always, and in every country into which a terrible fate has driven him, promptly sees and loves the native mountains. But since patriotism is not yet believed to be a matter of practice, it is hard to convince people of the sincerity of our repeated transformations. This struggle makes our own society so intolerant; we demand full affirmation without our own group because we are not in the position to obtain it from the natives. The natives, confronted with such strange beings as we are, become suspicious; from their point of view, as a rule, only a loyalty to our old countries is understandable. That makes life very bitter for us. We might overcome this suspicion if we could explain that, being Jews, our patriotism in our original countries had rather a peculiar aspect. Though it was indeed sincere and deep-rooted. We wrote big volumes to prove it; paid an entire bureaucracy to explore its antiquity and to explain it statistically. We had scholars write philosophical dissertations on the predestined harmony between Jews and Frenchmen, Jews and Germans, Jews and Hungarians, Jews and … Our so frequently suspected loyalty of today has a long history. It is the history of a hundred and fifty years of assimilated Jewry who performed an unprecedented feat: though proving all the time their non-Jewishness, they succeeded in remaining Jews all the same.
The desperate confusion of these Ulysses-wanderers who, unlike their great prototype, don’t know who they are is easily explained by their perfect mania for refusing to keep their identity. This mania is much older than the last ten years which revealed the profound absurdity of our existence. We are like people with a fixed idea who can’t help trying continually to disguise an imaginary stigma. Thus we are enthusiastically fond of every new possibility which, being new, seems able to work miracles. We are fascinated by every new nationality in the same way as a woman of tidy size is delighted with every new dress which promises to give her the desired waistline. But she likes the new dress only as long as she believes in its miraculous qualities, and she discovers that it does not change her stature—or, for that matter, her status.
One may be surprised that the apparent uselessness of all our odd disguises has not yet been able to discourage us. If it is true that men seldom learn from history, it is also true that they may learn from personal experiences which, as in our case, are repeated time and again. But before you cast the first stone at us, remember that being a Jew does not give any legal status in the world. If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews, it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who, unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings. I can hardly imagine an attitude more dangerous, since we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while, since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction. It is true that most of us depend entirely upon social standards, we lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us; we are—and always were—ready to pay any price in order to be accepted by society. But it is equally true that the very few among us who have tried to get along without all these tricks and jokes of adjustment and assimilation have paid a much higher price than they could afford: they jeopardized the few chances even our laws are given in a topsy-turvy world.
The attitude of these few whom, following Bernard Lazare, one may call “conscious pariahs,” can as little be explained by recent events alone as the attitude of our Mr. Cohn who tried by every means to become an upstart. Both are sons of the nineteenth century which, not knowing legal or political outlaws, knew only too well social pariahs and their counterpart, social parvenus. Modern Jewish history, having started with court Jews and continuing with Jewish millionaires and philanthropists, is apt to forget about this other trend of Jewish tradition—the tradition of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen, Sholom Aleichemn, of Bernard Lazare, Franz Kafka or even Charlie Chaplin. It is the tradition of a minority of Jews who have not wanted to become upstarts, who preferred the status of “conscious paria.” All vaunted Jewish qualities—the “Jewish heart,” humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence—are pariah qualities. All Jewish shortcomings—tactlessness, political stupidity, inferiority complexes and money-grubbing—are characteristic of upstarts. There have always been Jews who did not think it worth while to change their humane attitude and their natural insight into reality for the narrowness of castle spirit or the essential unreality of financial transactions.
History has forced the status of outlaws upon both, upon pariahs and parvenus alike. The latter have not yet accepted the great wisdom of Balzac’s “On ne parvient pas deux fois”; thus they don’t understand the wild dreams of the former and feel humiliated in sharing their fate. Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.
An extended piece of my former blog post for Mada Masr on the ways in which pain, anger and grief are being internalized vis-à-vis the state and the city after the tragic church bombing in Alexandria.
It was not supposed to be like this. The week leading up to the annual Sham el-Nassim holiday is usually filled with joy and elation as we welcome the spring. And it certainly was not supposed to be like this for Christians on their holy Palm Sunday. Twenty-eight victims lost to the bombing at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta, and 17 lost to the bombing at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria.
Dark clouds had spread on Sunday morning, and I had remarked to a friend that this was quite unusually gloomy for April weather in Alexandria. It turned out to be fitting for the events that were to come in a few hours. Alexandria, historically, seems to understand itself as a city when it is confronted with tragedy.
In the wake of the bombing, the downtown streets were on lockdown and traffic appeared frozen in time. This was not the average traffic standstill, as rarely was a car horn sounded. It was as if everyone had sensed, or was in the process of being informed through their mobile phones, what had just happened. Now, the trademark noise-sutured impatience of traffic dissipated as drivers perhaps realized that arriving late to your destination may not be the worst that can happen in your day. The scene along the Mansheya corniche could have been ripped out of a Hollywood blockbuster in which immobilized commuters had transfixed their gaze at some impending meteorite about to strike their city. A bombing in Tanta, a bombing in Alexandria, a reported (but later dismissed) second bombing in Alexandria. Where next?
The subtext was the reemergence of the eve of 2011, when a devastating terrorist explosion targeted the Two Saints Church in the eastern district of Sidi Bishr, leaving 25 dead and over 200 injured. This was supposed to be the last tragedy of its kind, giving birth to a new civic spirit to counter the infamy and set the tone for the 2011 revolution a few weeks later. In a stage by stage process, it went roughly something like this: shock; melancholia; outrage; refusal of the status quo (which was illustrated, for example, through the adoption of the cross and crescent logo as a social media avatar or draped over one’s balcony); joining up with the growing street vigils; publicly denouncing the Mubarak regime as many mourners shouted at the funeral of the victims, “We want to fire the president and interior minister!;” as well as, significantly, the re-appropriation of the idea of Alexandria from the state by the public.
A new civic-driven discourse placed the city at the heart of political problems. This can be understood when, following the brutal security crackdown after the Sidi Bishr tragedy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sobhy Saleh cried, “It’s like we’ve been occupied by a foreign power. Alexandria has become an occupied country.” Or at times the tone was subtler, as AUC’s linguistic professor Reem Bassiouney pointed out in her recent work of an Alexandrian journalist who broke linguistic conventions and used the Alexandrian dialect in her reports, to imply “a shared identity that surpasses religious differences.” Therefore, a robust civic identity based on the popular trope agda nas (Bravest people) that the reporter is “authentic, tough, and, first and, foremost, a typical ‘Alexandrian’.” In other words, if the Egyptian identity could no longer furnish inter-religious cohesion and agency, the Alexandrian identity would have to step in.
But the mood was different this time. People’s reactions and emotions seem to be trapped in the intermission between shock and melancholia. In the days leading to the Palm Sunday tragedy, the biggest complaint dominating Alexandria’s conversations was the military’s economic project in Sidi Gaber, which has severely disrupted traffic flow. (This project has been perceived as negative enough to even sway pro-military supporters I know from their traditional positions.)
Yet there was an exposed fracture that could not be easily hidden. To the average resident, the military appears focused on its exclusive economic ventures, often to the detriment of the economy and the public good, while the police have developed a rapid method of cracking down on political protests and imprisoning countless activists, or in the case of bread-driven protests, swiftly negotiating them away. All the while, 17 dead bodies were strewn at the gates of a church of historical magnitude. These are questions the authorities will need to deal with — when they promise security in return for the citizen’s forfeiting of progressive governance, but are now unable to deliver that security.
However, the high talk on regimes, Sisi, the Islamic State, terrorism and geo-strategy, can be lost on the day-to-day life of an individual who struggles to survive and make meaning of forces beyond his or her control. The day following the bombing, life attempted to go on as normal but with a broken spirit and tinge of despair under the, still, grey skies. The men at the coffeehouse in front of my place smoked shisha without conversation, at times looking down to the ground; customers calmly bought their ful and falafel breakfast without the usual jostling; the fruit sellers did not yell to market their produce, and the signature smiles across the bakers’ faces were all but gone. No visible public argument or fight broke out on the streets in a very long time. There was a shared language of mourning that consisted of frequent silences, occasionally punctured by the innocence of cheerful children running around. Yet, melancholia deepened its claws to stunt the growth of any budding civic flower.
Even in these dark times you need to seek out a spirited hope and consolation. In the context of this discussion, it’s never far. I’m blessed to live between a Coptic Orthodox Church and a Catholic Church, both stand strong and resilient, and as a powerful reminder that this is, and will always be, one of the things that is beautiful about Alexandria and Egypt. The sound of church bells is a message to the forces of fanaticism and sectarianism (and even to the smug individual who deems Christians as second-class citizens) that churches, as well as the Christian life and evocative prayer chants within its heart, will not be silenced.
As a Muslim, these churches are my churches, they complete my identity, colorize my worldview, and deepen any understanding of my faith. Any harm that comes to them, its worshippers, and those who protect them, is a savage assault on my very being.
I wish I had clear answers to give. I don’t, and I hate to admit a sense of helplessness in all of this. I can only, along with others, ask questions, and keep asking questions, in the hope that the sinister matrix that oppresses and exterminates human lives in different manifestations — in Alexandra, in Egypt, in the Middle East and elsewhere — is eventually and somehow unravelled.
Following yesterday’s horrific bombing in Alexandria, life is attempting to go on
as normal in the coastal city but with a (more than usual) broken spirit and tinge of despair. The men at the coffeehouse in front of my place are smoking their shesha without conversation, at times looking at the ground; customers are calmly buying their ful and falafel breakfast without the usual jostling; the fruit sellers are not yelling to market their produce; the signature smiles across the bakers’ faces have been temporarily erased. No visible public argument or fight (so far) has taken place on the street in a very long time. Melancholia is deepening its claws.
However, a spirited hope and gratification is never far. I’m blessed to live between a Coptic Orthodox Church and a Catholic Church, both stand strong and resilient, and as a powerful reminder that this is, and what will always be, beautiful about Egypt. The sound of church bells is a message to the forces of fanaticism and sectarianism (and even to the smug non-Christian who deems Christians as second-class citizens) that churches, as well as the human Christian life and evocative prayer chants within its heart, will not be silenced.
As a Muslim, these churches are my churches, they complete my identity, worldview, and an understanding of my faith. Any harm that comes to them, its worshippers, and those who protect them, is a savage assault on my very being.
I wish I had clear answers to give. I don’t, and I feel terribly helpless. I can only, along with others, ask questions, and keep asking questions, in the hope that the sinister matrix that oppresses human lives in different manifestations – in Alexandra, in Egypt, in the Middle East – is eventually and somehow unravelled.
Many are disappointed in seeing Mubarak walk free,
but perhaps we can look at it from another perspective – Mubarak’s perspective?
Since 11 February 2011, Mubarak has had to live with the fact that he has been condemned by history, being toppled in such a humiliating way and vomited out by the body politic. The court decision is not his redemption and never will be unless he is reinstated as president.
In June 1974, White House reporter Lawrence M. O’Rourke speculated that US president Nixon would have wished to be assassinated on his state visit to Egypt’s Alexandria rather than go through the inevitable and ignoble resignation as a result of Watergate. Nixon did not want that moment of shame and degradation to come. Martyrdom suddenly looked more appealing (it worked well for Kennedy). But that moment did come. And Nixon died a painful metaphorical death that he never recovered from until his actual death 20 years later.
Whether in a democracy or dictatorship, the forced surrender of power is an excruciating pain that a leader can be put through – more than facing prison time or even the death penalty. For every one of them is obsessed with the historical legacy they will leave. A perceived noble legacy cannot happen if they feel they have been short-circuited by a different form of power arrangements. When the facade came crashing down bringing the leader down in the process. The point is the leader lived to see, and bludgeoned by, a politically quintessential and unerasable humiliation.
The days between the moment they are forced to step down and the moment they breathe their last – are the most harrowing days they will live through, as every single day they will murmur and mumble at how they have been wronged. Their toppling from power should never have happened – they are haunted by it in their living days, tormented by it in their sleep.
It does not take much imagination to realize that Mubarak, being the narcissistic monster he is, hates his political successors more than he hates the revolutionaries who overthrew him. Because the (faceless to him) revolutionaries have receded into the background, while al-Sisi and the military generals have come into the limelight – the very limelight that was exclusively reserved for Mubarak. Every newspaper’s front page and news broadcast will agonizingly remind Mubarak of his stupidity and utter failure to hold onto the power he loved most.
His current existence is his ultimate prison, if not death, sentence.
And yet, irrespective of Mubarak’s status or pain, our work that began in 2011 still continues. Often limping with much difficulty in these repressive times, but it continues.
(Click here for flyer link)
The Swedish Institute Alexandria partners with Alexandria Scholars in facilitating an intellectual project that brings together international and national figures to converse with local Alexandrian actors from academia and civil society.
The aim is to discuss and explore prospective solutions to Alexandria’s challenges through the terrain of historical, urban, and philosophical analysis – derived from Alexandria`s pluralist origins. The question we raise is how can the city better understand itself and its positioning in Egypt, Mediterranean basin, and the world given what it used to be as well as its current potential?
The monthly sessions are driven by the view that the public should be recognized, and elevated, as the primary ideal, and Alexandria’s present difficulties in attaining pluralism and civic responsibility is partially tied to the city’s loss of civic meaning and identity as a pivotal and dynamic metropolis on the southern Mediterranean coast.
The first of these monthly sessions will be held at SwedAlex premises on Monday 10h of October at 6:30 pm. It will raise a key question attributed to Alexandria`s contemporary challenges: How can Alexandria reposition itself in the modern world and what are currently the city’s strengths, limitations, and sense of identity?
The four monthly sessions will each, respectively, raise a key question attributed to Alexandria’s contemporary challenges: (a) How can Alexandria reposition itself in the modern world and what are currently the city’s strengths, limitations, and sense of identity? (b) Can the specter of nostalgia that haunts Alexandria be refashioned into a forward-looking civic vision? (c) What ideas and methods can be undertaken to plug the gaps in the dysfunctional education system, and ensure students acquire conceptual thinking and critical skills? (d) What approaches can be implemented in order to endow, or sharpen, Alexandria with a clearer identity and coherent narrative? The sessions will be in English with Arabic translation provided.
Yahia Shawkat – Co-founder & Research Coordinator of 10Tooba).
Reem Eltaib – Manager at Radio Tram and former assistant to governor of Alexandria, Hany el Messiry.
Karim-Yassin Goessinger – Founder and program director of the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Curated by Amro Ali (lecturer in sociology at the American University in Cairo, and founder of Alexandria Scholars).
Please register your attendance by sending an email to email@example.com
* This lecture is in English language.
* Limited seats available. Priority for early registration.
Session two: Alexandria and the “Curse” of Nostalgia (13 October 2016).
Session three: Alexandria and Miseducation System (10 November 2016).
Session four: Alexandria and the Reconstruction of a Civic Ethos (8 December 2016).
The legendary African-American novelist James Baldwin once noted on his trip to France, in 1949, the extent of violence “Paris policemen could do to Arab peanut vendors.” The crime of an Arab, it seems, was to be visible, and therefore it was safer for Arabs to be invisible, with the help of the French authorities – be it through the prison cell or the ironing out of their cultural distinctions in the public sphere.
Yet I have always found it quite peculiar this French manner of discriminating against the visible in order to make them invisible – often the people France needs the most.
My encounter with French racism and hypocrisy came about when I stayed in northern Paris in the autumn of 2009, at a bed and breakfast place. I was hosted by an upper-middle class mother who, during a chilly October morning over breakfast, told me about her work in art/decor and went on to disclose her politics as “left and progressive.”
Yet soon enough she mouthed off racist statements against Arabs (apparently I was the “civilised” Arab that would be sympathetic to her rants). Then she moved onto, specifically, abusing Algerians, then onto Muslim women who wore the veil. The only “concession” she could make was that French colonialism brought its “subjects” back in the form that France has to do deal with today. Before I could reply, she had to “urgently” leave for work. Exhausted from her conversation, I sat back at the breakfast table, in a beautiful 1850s apartment from the Baron Haussmann era, trying to wrap my head around all that she had said (I usually hear bigots out to the end, and try to deconstruct their line of thinking).
At that point, I heard the echoes of Arabic singing reverberating through the courtyard of the building’s interior. I peered out the window to see a group of Algerians/Moroccans fixing the broken pipes. I gazed down with despondence and voiced to myself: “How utterly sad France is, many of you are the backbone of this country. The French need you but don’t want to see you.”
This set off a series of questions that I would ask Arab residents of the city and make careful observations of race relations.
There was something haunting and disturbing about the necessity and invisibility of these workers. This shed some light on French hypocrisy and their craven need for cheap labour that often comes out of France’s thriving shadow economy, that mutually complements the official economy, which is populated with immigrants, their descendants, and refugees.
The French need Arabs for service and maintenance, but only when such Arabs are doing so out of sight.
The French need black Africans in restaurants, but as long as they are in the kitchen and not the ones serving the customer (more than enough East Europeans to do that).
The French don’t mind the poor Muslim woman who is veiled as long as she is scrubbing their apartment and office floors on her knees but God forbid if her kind invades French recreational spaces and attempts to be equal on her terms.
The Burkini was a non-issue elevated to a political and identity war. It took a non-issue to expose, again, the hypocrisy of France’s ideals and understanding of liberalism and feminism.
The poisonous sting of hypocrisy will not only consume the intended target – Arabs and Muslims. But it sets irreversible precedents and opens up pores in the nation’s body politic to illiberal infection from all directions. The rise of the far right is one obvious example, but they are just one manifestation of a larger ominous current that is yet to come. One should never think the xenophobic tide will stop at Arabs and Muslims. Hatred never runs on rational thought, it is irrational and all-pervasive, and will seek new targets once it exhausts its initial victims. Supposed liberals and feminists are not only aiding and abetting in this assault, but are conducting a grievous self-harm that will see their legitimacy undermined, value system compromised, and ethical standards dismantled. The consequence is that it will leave them vulnerable, in a worst-case scenario, to French anti-democratic political forces that will seek their destruction or cooptation. French history is testament to such undesirable possibilities.
When Baldwin was imprisoned in Paris for an unintentional petty crime (he used bedsheets that his acquaintance had stolen from another hotel!), he observed that, unlike the other lifeless clay-like prisoners in his cell, the “North Africans, old and young, who seemed the only living people in this place because they yet retained the grace to be bewildered.”
The woman on the beach in her human quest to be visible, had the grace, understandably, to be bewildered. A large swathe of your citizens are bewildered, France. The world is bewildered, France.
References James Baldwin, “Equal in Paris” in James Baldwin, Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998) pp. 101-116.
If a self-proclaimed Catholic group bombed the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica and constantly killed scores of innocent Catholics, then we would deem such an entity, in various degrees, as an anti-Catholic terrorist group.
Likewise, ISIS is not a radical Islamist movement as much as it is an active anti-Muslim, terror movement.
ISIS kills more Muslims than any other religious followers, bombs Muslim-majority cities, fights against every known Islamic principle, destroys the heritage of centuries that was not harmed by earlier Muslims, and they actively pervert the peaceful month of Ramadan.
ISIS is not misinterpreting Islamic texts, it is burning Islamic texts.
ISIS is not seeking Muslim hearts, it is ripping out Muslim hearts.
ISIS is not hijacking Islam, it is actively at war with Islam.
ISIS is anti-Quran, anti-Islamic tradition, anti-Islamic history, and anti-Prophet.
ISIS sees nothing sacred, neither time, space or place.
This is the same ISIS that hates Muslims but loves the European far-right and Trump. For who else will indirectly help ISIS thrive?
Now they bomb, among other cities, the holy city of Medina where Islam’s Prophet rests.
How many more sickening anti-Muslim, if not anti-human, acts does it take for a diabolical group to be dissociated from a religious body in the eyes of the world?