An Enquiry into the Destruction of the Beautiful

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

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

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

Venue: French Cultural Institute Alexandria (L’institut Francais D’Egypte A Alexandrie)
Date: 7 October 2017
Time: 7.30pm 
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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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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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Power, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

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Deposed President Hosni Mubarak, Bibliotheca Alexandrina Director Ismail Serageldin, widow of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, Jehan, and former first lady Suzanne Mubarak; oversee the Library.

Click here to read my feature piece in JadaliyyaPower, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
(also republished in Ahram Online)

The piece examines the foundational politics and abuse of power behind the resurrected Library of Alexandria. “The library rests at the heart of international power plays seeking to carve out a stake in the ‘sacred drama’ of the Alexandria myth, Egypt’s political repositioning with the West, the Mubaraks’ unabashed narcissism, coupled with the self-styled “culture wars” of Alexandria’s elites. The foundational drama that midwifed the Bibliotheca would give way to a decade of corruption, abuse of power, while also positively shaping the socio-cultural landscape of the coastal city, even making it a vital player in the post-Mubarak environment.”

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