معنى التضحية

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

 

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What Are We Sacrificing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alexandria’s anti-Fellah problem

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Caricature mocking the less privileged visitors to Alexandria

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

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

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

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

2. “Fellahin are the worst sexual harassers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Originally published in Ibraaz

II. On Nation Building: Alexandria, Egypt.

Mahmoud Khaled in conversation with Amro Ali

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 
 

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Alexandria’s church bombing and the deepening of melancholia

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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.

Image by Sara Younes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Alexandria’s Church Bombing and the Mourning After

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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.

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Alexandria and the Search for Meaning (The City Dialogue Series)

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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.
Speakers:

Speakers:
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 register@swedalex.org

* This lecture is in English language.

* Limited seats available. Priority for early registration.

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/955615517882221/

Next Events:
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).

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Giulio Regeni e gli italiani in Egitto che denunciano il regime (Italian translation)

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Published in Italy’s Internazionale magazine. Originally published in Mada Masr (in English).

 

Tra il deserto immobile che “incessantemente si consuma” e il mare perpetuo che “manifesta furiosamente il rinnovamento” si è formata la “mia prima visione della realtà”.

Sono le parole di Giuseppe Ungaretti, poeta italiano nato ad Alessandria. Le scrisse nell’Egitto degli anni trenta. Oggi nel paese è presente una comunità transnazionale sempre più numerosa, emersa all’ombra delle rivolte arabe, soprattutto dopo la rivoluzione egiziana. Questa comunità si colloca tra un’Europa vuota di ideologie e in preda all’austerità e un Medio Oriente politicamente spietato e radicale. Ma chi sono, e qual è la loro “visione della realtà”?

Gli italiani transitati in Egitto negli ultimi anni illustrano bene le caratteristiche di questa comunità che con le sue idee supera le nazionalità e i rapporti geopolitici.

L’orribile morte di Giulio Regeni, il dottorando italiano torturato e assassinato mentre si trovava in Egitto per fare ricerca sul sindacato, ci impone di osservare più da vicino i saperi prodotti da queste persone sullo sfondo di rapporti storici, politici e sociali spesso tesi da un capo all’altro del Mediterraneo.

“La ribellione era necessaria nell’Europa delle politiche di austerità, e l’atto di ribellione stava accadendo in Egitto. L’Egitto ci stava ispirando a sfidare la nostra realtà”, mi ha detto Lucia Sorbera, una storica e femminista italiana di Pisa che per molti anni ha fatto ricerca in Egitto.

Prima delle rivolte arabe nel 2011, l’interesse degli attivisti italiani in Medio Oriente si è concentrato soprattutto sulla lotta palestinese. Dopo le rivolte però, dopo che piazza Tahrir ha esportato una forma di protesta spettacolare, tanti intellettuali italiani hanno cominciato a preoccuparsi dei paesi a sud del Mediterraneo, soprattutto l’Egitto. Nel giro di poco tempo i nomi di rivoluzionari egiziani come Alaa Abd El Fattah e Mina Daniel hanno cominciato a circolare nelle università italiane e tra le comunità di attivisti.

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