Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American thinker and Pushcart-nominated poet, whose work has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. To date, Lababidi is the author of five well-received books, in four different genres: Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms), Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (essays), Fever Dreams (poems), The Artist as Mystic (conversations) and, most recently, Barely There, a new collection of poems from Wipf and Stock.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American thinker and Pushcart-nominated poet, whose work has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. To date, Lababidi is the author of five well-received books, in four different genres: Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms), Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (essays), Fever Dreams (poems), The Artist as Mystic (conversations) and, most recently, Barely There, a new collection of poems from Wipf and Stock.
This year’s Eid Al Fitr, the celebration to mark the end of Ramadan, will be subdued for many watching the ongoing devastation in Gaza. Poet and writer Yahia Lababidi offers these thoughts, and a poem, on what Ramadan, and its associated fasting, means to him.
‘There is only one religion, but there are a hundred versions of it,’ said George Bernard Shaw, and the same may be said of the practice of fasting. Besides Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, Catholics, Copts, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Pagans, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox believers all engage in some variation on the theme. The fast may take place anywhere from a day to around half a year, yet it appears to be conducted in differently similar manners, for similarly different reasons. People abstain from food and drink, or solid foods, or meat, dairy products and eggs, or fish (on some days but not others).
The reasons are as free-ranging as the human imagination: spiritual nourishment, spiritual improvement, and/or spiritual warfare. This translates into purification, freeing the mind, freeing the body, compassion, solidarity with the poor, practicing austerity, resisting gluttony, control of carnal desires, tempering the power of habit or the violence of instinctive desire, sharpening the will, enhancing concentration, penance for sins, closeness to God, petition for special requests from God, to advance a political or social justice agenda (as Gandhi made a way of life and diet) or even as a counterbalance to modern consumer culture (there is a television and entertainment fast). What emerges from this diversity is an innate human balancing system, feasting and fasting along the slippery road to moderation.
month of quiet strength and loud weaknesses
when our stubborn habits and discarded resolutions
are re-examined under the regard and rigorous slowness of fasting
testing our appetite for transfiguration
month of waiting and wading through the shallows to the Deep.
How are aphorisms different from proverbs or maxims? To my mind an aphorism can be a maxim if it is wise, universal and intended for instruction. Aphorisms try and breathe new life into an old truth. An aphorism is a proverb with a name tag (proverbs tend to be nameless).
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. Wit was sport, and a kind of national pastime, at the time of my youth. Never mind that over 50 percent of the population was actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. ‘Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks’ an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).
Which is to say, proverbs served as street poetry as well as philosophy. They were oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insight from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observation. Proverbs are like coral reef, that way, fossils of philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this, too.
We are responsible for our enemy. Compassion is to consider the role we play in their creation.
Paradox: where truth hides in plain view.
Revolutions are about overthrowing the tyranny of old fears – dictators are merely stubborn symbols of these.
You can't bury pain and not expect it to grow roots.
History teaches us, and world news reports confirm, that not all deaths are equal; there is an exchange rate for human lives, as well.
The right to free speech ends where hate speech begins.
Pity that, in the majority of alien movies, they are here to invade and destroy our planet. Perhaps, when we can conceive of more peaceful, curious, generous strangers, we will be less prone to invade and destroy other countries.
In wars, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is another name for conscience.
These aphorisms come from Yahia's upcoming collection entitled 'Speaking in Sayings'. His first collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press) was selected as a 2008 ‘Book of the Year’ by The Independent, in the UK.
‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’ Nietzsche
Lately, it seems that every time I sit down to write about Egypt, after our revolution, I am underslept and overwhelmed. Certainly, following this week’s horrific massacre, this is no exception. To date, and if the Egyptian Ministries are to be trusted (always a big if) the death toll stands at 638 (so about as many people as were killed during those historic 18 days it took to oust Mubarak) and a staggering 3,994 injured. This is to say nothing of the uncounted bodies still waiting to be officially processed, or numerous reports of families being pressured to sign statements saying the cause of deaths were suicide in order for them to claim the bodies of their loved ones.
Sickening, in this context, to hear Prime Minister El-Beblawi praising the police for ‘self restraint’. Which is, of course, by no means to excuse the pro-Morsi supporters/Muslim Brotherhood of the dreadful havoc they’ve wreaked. Frankly, I’ve not had the heart or stomach to watch any of the gruesome videos circulating, but on the basis alone of the dozens of churches they have burned, they have forgone the moral right to speak of ‘legitimacy’ ever again. How we respond to violence and injustice also defines us.
Yet, because I dared to share on social media news of Vice-President El Baradei’s principled stepping down, I have been drawn into exhausting virtual battles by ‘friends’ for supporting this traitor and told by otherwise gentle-seeming folks (cultured, liberal, even Sufi-admiring) that the army’s use of violence is completely justified, that the Muslim Brotherhood are cockroaches, a cancer (basically inhuman) and therefore deserve to die, unmourned.
Here are El Baradei’s closing words from his resignation statement:
I am afraid I cannot afford to bear the responsibility of a single drop of blood before God, and before my conscience and the citizens of Egypt. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of today’s events are the advocates of violence and terrorism.
To my ears, these are words of sanity and an ethical question we should all be asking ourselves. What becomes of us when we condone the excessive use of violence and mass murder? Are we not accomplices? And how is it that we are able to put our blind trust in the army after we’ve suffered their abuses of power in the not-too-distant past (Maspero massacre, virginity tests, etc…) Yes, I am one of many relieved, after the gross and dangerous ineptitude of Morsi’s leadership, for Egypt to have another chance at real freedom. But, might we also imagine that post people-endorsed coup, the army might have its own cynical agenda in mind (read: more power)?
Those who pit us against each other, or set churches on fire and terrorize us, are not our friends. This is not why the long-suffering Egyptians dared to dream of revolution in the first place; Egypt deserves better than having her hopes tossed between the devil and the deep blue sea. And, to be sure, we’ve other ‘devils’ besides six decades of military rule, or the perils of the Muslim Brotherhood to contend with. Lack of education is certainly one and, in the words of Aristotle: ‘Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.’ We would do better, then, to address these serious societal ills than allow ourselves to be distracted and deceived into more tragic battles.
Surely, there were other ways to ‘clear the sit-in’ besides mass extermination of the protesters. Violence is always a failure of imagination and compassion, and begets violence; just as fighting hate with hate only escalates it. This is the unravelling we are witnessing now, and how we ended up in this choiceless mess in the first place (between the Military and Muslim Brotherhood stalemate). Understandably, emotions are running high, and patience is wearing thin in the face of so much daily chaos, disappointments and seemingly no hope in sight.
But in the midst of all this, we must not lose sight of each other’s humanity, since how we respond to these soul-trying challenges is what will determine who we become. Which is to say, hard as it may appear at times to see past the divisiveness, hurt or fatigue, it is worth trying even harder to remember the noble goals of our peaceful Revolution. We are stronger when we unite around common goals, and focus on what we love: Freedom, Dignity, Egypt. All human life is sacred, equal; and we should see to it that in fighting the monsters of injustice, ignorance and oppression, we do not become monsters ourselves.
‘It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.’ William Carlos Williams
Physical distance is difficult because of the helplessness it engenders. To see one’s world unravelling continents and oceans away and feel that you can’t do anything can be terribly frustrating. But with distance, one also sees better. Art, as I understand it – and this includes philosophy – is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of it. Which is to say, one cannot evaluate the play while sharing the stage with the actors. Or at least, this is how I justified my decision, as an Egyptian, to remain in the United States, my adopted home of the past six years, during the Arab Spring Revolution.
Since the Egyptian Revolution began over a year ago, discerning the meaning of poetry in trying times has been a question very much weighing on my heart and mind. Until then, I pretty much viewed art and politics as separate spheres. Journalism, I thought, was better suited to tackle the here and now, like Kierkegaard’s parable of the matchstick men. Upon their head is deposited something phosphorescent, the hint of an idea; one takes them up by the leg, strikes them against a newspaper, and out comes three or four columns. Artists were creatures of another order, I suspected; they were closer to Nietzsche’s lovers of truth (in Zarathustra): ‘Slow is the experience of all deep wells: long must they wait before they know what fell into their depth.’
Of course, Kierkegaard is not being entirely fair to journalists, and there is a place and a need in this world for both: speed of coverage and slowness in reflection. For a journalist to achieve his highest function, which is to serve as a kind of moral watchdog, it might be necessary to rush – to the battlefield and to print – to keep their eye on the moment and to tell the story as it unfolds. Such near-sightedness is a virtue.
Art, as I understand it, is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of it
For their part, artists and thinkers excel in a form of far-sightedness, somehow seeing just past the moment, over its head, to tomorrow. That is how they are able to lend us their vision. And so it is that I have come to realize the role of poetry in times of crisis: vision.
Back to the here and now. There is a very touching story (one of many that do not receive media attention) that came out of the Egyptian revolution that I’d like to share. A middle-aged man learns of a young activist having been (deliberately) blinded in scuffles with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and calls in to a television show offering to donate one of his eyes to the unfortunate young activist:
‘I’ve heard the dead can donate their eyes for transplants,’ he reasons, ‘and so this should work since I’m alive.’
‘And, you’d do this? Donate one of your eyes for a complete stranger?’ the TV broadcaster asks incredulously.
‘Yes,’ the caller confirms, with feeling. ‘That young man lost his eyes fighting for freedom, for all of us. So, while I can’t offer him both my eyes, I’d like to offer him one, to split the cost of freedom.’ 1
Poetry, at its finest, can restore our sight. The pen is the seismograph of the heart, Kafka is supposed to have said in conversation with Gustav Janouch. If writers are equipped with sensitive instruments to register inner quakes, then how can they fail to note when the entire world itself is in a state of convulsion? Yet, in order for the art not to be poorly digested, it might take artists time to process what fell into their depths.
An excellent instance of such witness-art, a form of spiritual journalism, really, is Libyan American poet Khaled Mattawa’s poem on the aftermath of Muammar Qadafi’s death: ‘After 42 Years’.
More drawn out than the uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt, the human cost in Libya’s revolution was (and still is) sickening (not unlike the current carnage in Syria). Enough was too much, and there seemed no end in sight. Then, out of the blue, we learned of Qadafi’s capture. How to make sense of all the suffering, the waste of human lives, and to restore to the living their dignity, lost years and possibilities? This is the catharsis Mattawa’s masterful poem offers.
I wept, as I imagine countless others must have, as the poet traced the outline of Libya’s pitiable history, beginning with the bloodless coup: ‘The country like a helpless teenage girl/forced into marriage hoping her groom will be kind.’ Sparing us no detail of the vicious atrocities, humiliations and daily deprivations endured by his people over decades, as well as the psychological toll:
What and who taught you O sons of my country to be so fearless cruel?
Him, they say, for 42 years, 42 years of him.
Who taught you to be reckless heroic?
The no-life we had to live, under him… there were holes in the air that was full of death.
We managed to hold our breath and live our lives.
And, then, after suffering of such magnitude the poet – with his pen-cum-seismograph-of-the-heart – knows that closure will not be easy or quickly forthcoming:
How can you say over when it took 42 years…
history like a rat, hiding in a sewer drain…
the astonishment unbearable, would kill you if it lasted too long…
O Lord how little our lives must be, when so much can be buried lost …
There is no ‘after’ until we pray for all the dead.
This is what poetry can do in trying times, to speak our silences and make sense of our pain, harnessing the anguish of so many souls – what Kafka, in a letter (to Oskar Pollak) says about books being ‘an axe for the frozen sea within us’. Someone once said, if you want to know what the moon is truly like, send a poet. Mattawa’s report from planet Libya, on the moral aftermath of Qadafi’s rule, is heart-rending and more meaningful, in a way, than any of the coverage in print or on television. Why?
Because it is journalism of both the outer and inner lives of a people; his poetry dares to carry upon its back the otherwise unimaginable agony of countless souls.
This is what poetry can do in trying times, to speak our silences and make sense of our pain, harnessing the anguish of so many souls
‘State of Siege’, by the late, great Mahmoud Darwish, is another magisterial instance of witness-art: a smashed vase of a poem, not unlike Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ (these are the fragments I have shored against my ruin) only in this case it is the very real wasteland of Palestine that Darwish surveys. It makes sense, in a time of war or siege, to speak in shards: as the world is shattered, fragments are what the artist is left with when they can muster the concentration, the energy, and the faith to put pen to paper and write something down.
Like Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’, the void is never far in Darwish’s ‘State of Siege’. Unlike the parched faith of ‘Wasteland’, however, ‘State of Siege’ is seared by a near mystical love; amid the rubble, an affirmation of earth and angels in the same breath.
Faced with the abyss, hope obstinately arises, hate is transmuted, and enslavement has the poet dreaming freedom: ‘A little, absolute blue / Is enough / To ease the burden of this time / And clean the mud of this place.’ But first pain must be set aside, as an unsteady burden preventing one from travelling light, ‘like those who ascend to God do’. Interestingly enough, trafficking as Darwish does here with eternity as the nearest hope, the poet refuses to relegate poetry to a secondary concern, lamenting the cost of violence on art:
…the work that remains to be done in language.
In addition to the structural fault that
Damage poem, play and incomplete painting …
words that besiege me in my sleep
words of mine that have not been said
that write me then leave me, looking for the remainder of my sleep.
Out of the other side of his mouth, though, Palestine’s national treasure expresses an ambivalence, warning us against loving (his) words overmuch, during trying times:
‘We do not care much for the charm of adjectives… Do not trust the poem... Writing is a small puppy biting nothingness…’ Instead, the poem expresses a deeper allegiance to the tribe of humanity, to beauty, to Home (in this case, Palestine) as a state-of-being. Things that people everywhere can appreciate, or should.
In this manner, the poet reconciles the false distinction between the active life and the contemplative life, since his words are also actions. Specifically, in those first heady days of the Egyptian revolution, a great deal of pent-up creative energy was unleashed in the streets, and much of it took the form of poetry. Before and after things got ugly – courtesy of the previous regime’s rent-a-mob – Al Jazeera reported spirited poetry readings at Tahrir Square. Protesters heartily sang the punchy poems of legendary Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm who, in his bold verse, has been using puns and colloquial speech to critique the state and mock its corrupt leaders for a few decades.
In those first heady days of the Egyptian revolution, a great deal of pent-up creative energy was unleashed in the streets, and much of it took the form of poetry
A much younger poet, Tamim al-Barghouti, also came to be regarded as one of Egypt’s revolutionary voices. Though he couldn’t be in Egypt during the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak, al-Barghouti faxed a new poem back home after the government-imposed internet blackout. His poetry was photocopied and distributed throughout the square and, when people erected two massive, makeshift screens in Tahrir, al-Barghouti was able to virtually participate in the revolution, after all, by reading his words to the gathered crowds.
Despite these instances of political poetry, I believe that, at its heart, poetry is apolitical – even if it is sometimes employed in the service of politics – since it cannot take sides. In addition to serving as a witness in times of crisis, poetry can act as a sort of (inner) alarm system, activated when we’ve strayed, trespassed or tripped into unholy territory. Reminding us, like American soldier-poet Brian Turner does in his exemplary ‘Here, Bullet’ that: ‘it should break your heart to kill… nightmare you.’
This is what I mean by spirit journalism, a report on the life of our collective spirit, a reminder of our higher estate, and allegiances to one another and to life.
On that note, I will end with a beloved work that is emblematic of what poetry can offer in trying times. Here is an excerpt from WH Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’, a poem that many reached for after 9/11 and will continue to turn to, so long as we need reminding by the better angels of our nature:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American writer. He is the author of three collections: Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms), Trial by Ink (essays) and Fever Dreams (poetry).
This article originally appeared on the Mantle’s website. Reproduced with permission of the author.
As an aside, I’d like to add that the caller was Coptic, while the activist was a Muslim, to show another face to the sectarian violence covered by the media.
From Tahrir Square To Liberty Square, NY – Justice for all
17 November 2011
With Occupy Wall Street fighting for its life, Yahia Lababidi says that by supporting each other, Egyptian and US protesters can make the impossible possible.
Egyptians, as I’ve known them and grown up among them, have always been able to differentiate between governments and people – their own and others. This is true of Egyptians BR and PR (Before Revolution and After Revolution). They may be illiterate, but they are also shrewd. They may be uneducated, but they are not uninformed. Of course, the Revolution accelerated this and served as a crash course in political awareness because suddenly people discovered they could actually do something and participate in their own governance/destiny.
When last I was there, a few years ago, it was not uncommon to see a group of people gathered at a coffee shop to chat, or smoke or play backgammon while listening to the news on television. Instinctively, they filtered the truth from the propaganda as they sipped their teas, or took a drag on their water pipes. ‘Transparency’, a term much abused, elicited knowing smiles; ‘Freedom’ in any context – of the press, speech, and especially elections – was always considered a bad joke.
Recently, when I made the US my home, I was surprised to discover the extent to which most people here appeared confounded with their government and its policies. Despite Americans being generally better educated and enjoying comparative liberties, to question the powers that be seemed a kind of sacrilege. I suppose this is one of the paradoxes of Democracy – because you are represented, you don’t actually need to participate. In the end, despite the considerable differences in their circumstances, Egyptians and Americans came to share one similar response: apathy. Mercifully, this is no longer so.
Even before the mass protest known as Occupy Wall Street began to spread from one state to another, Americans were looking to the Middle East revolutions for inspiration. In those first heady days when the Egyptian uprising was unfolding powerfully and peacefully, it was strangely heartening to see protesters, in Madison, Wisconsin, carrying signs referring to Governor Scott Walker as ‘Mubarak of the Midwest’ or ‘Hosni Walker’. Opponents of the Governor’s stance on unions viewed him as dictator, and ‘Mubarak’ had become shorthand for a bully who threatens violence.
Now, with Egyptians experiencing a form of Revolution fatigue, and unable to place their full trust in Military rule to secure the way ahead, it is equally touching to see protesters in Egypt returning the favour by holding up signs declaring “From: Tahrir Square To: New York Square Justice for all. We are the 99%.’ It’s at times like this that it becomes inescapably clear how people are people, everywhere, and that we take courage from one another. Injustice is antithetical to human nature and courage is catching. The way that the fire from a burning man in Tunisia seemed to set an entire region aflame.
With the world increasingly becoming a smaller place, the US protest movement and Middle East upheaval seem to be converging. Just days before the NYPD swept in and evicted them, Occupy Wall Street approved $29,000 to send 20 observers to monitor Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections. This, in response to an invitation sent to the New York occupation from a representative of a coalition of Egyptian civil society monitors requesting their assistance. Here’s the exchange, on Twitter:
@LibertySqGA: “Dear #OWS, we are very moved by the warm welcome we received from you when we visited New York svrl wks ago.” #nycga #ows
@ LibertySqGA: Egyptians are vry proud to have bn the inspiration for yr movement and wish you the best in achieving yr goals.” #nycga #ows
@LibertySqGA: In the spirit of international solidarity,” request we go visit&observe their parliamentary elections! Also tht we send invite to networks.
Granted, the significance of this gesture is a symbolic one, but the ‘OWS Ambassadors’ also suggest that their participation will ‘work to protect and support the civilian monitoring efforts of Egyptian activists on the ground and constitutes a concrete stand against the use of American weapons against peaceful demonstrators’. Who is to say what will actually come of this but, in my humble view, the effects of such acts of solidarity are incalculable. As we are seeing again and again in the Middle East and beyond, when people come together in this way to safeguard their collective values and hopes, anything is possible. Liberty Square is, after all, not only the name of a square in Egypt…
The Museum-going Cannibal
25 July 2011
The Museum-going Cannibal
Upright specimen, looking to be fine-tuned on weekends by the civilizing influence of beauty, standing still and reflecting in the refracted light of another’s encounter with the sublime.
All polite smiles and hushed appreciation, sidling up to some mounted painting and tilting its head to sip and savor the brushstrokes, yet downright vicious throughout the week.
Hankering after a bit of meat and blood in the shape of a live woman or a dead man. Never mind that they know them or not, at times, any old body warm or cold will do.
What a mixed bag of bones: when not frenzied and teetering at the abyss of some bestial appetite, turning around and donating blood to unknowns: as charitable and vulnerable as a winged thing.
This poem was conceived in response to a strong and disturbing Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective. It was also my first iPhone poem, finger-typed on my phone since I had to leave my bag at New York Met’s reception.
As those familiar with Bacon know, his work is a pretty damning verdict of the human condition, featuring nightmarish unravelings of violence and pain. But staggering throughout the museum halls for a few hours, assaulted by so much powerfully rendered unpleasantness, I also began to meditate on the deep contradictions inherent in human nature.
On one hand, there were these horrible paintings doubling up as giant distorting mirrors and, on the other hand, these deeply affecting and endearingly cultured museum-goers, straining to understand or recognize themselves in these works of art.
Hence, the hissing menace in this poem, war/bloodlust, versus the sublime, art/charity. While this is not an overtly political poem, as an Egyptian currently based in the US, it is nearly impossible for me not to be caught up in the fever of our Arab Spring. Obviously, much has already been achieved that is inspiring the world over.
But, at the same time, again because of the complexity of human nature and indeterminacy of politics, it’s far from certain which way things will go. Poetry, the will to create it and the act of reading it, I regard to be edifying and it is my hope that it may also remind us of our better angels: Peace, Justice, Liberty.
Yahia Lababidi reflects on a triumphant People’s Uprising.
The following was written hours after Mubarak’s frankly contemptuous last speech, and several hours before the exhilarating news of a Free Egypt, the next evening. Everyone was crest-fallen that the President, who had once boasted he had ‘a PhD in stubbornness’ had not announced his resignation, and rumours were circulating that things were going to turn vicious the following day. It was even suggested this was all part of the regime’s cynical strategy: to raise hopes, and frustrate them, until demonstrators lose patience and turn violent. Then, those in power would have the excuse to fire on them, Tiananmen Square-style. I was not convinced. I believed with all my being that Love – for life and Egypt – would prevail and the peace, civility, and tenacity that marked this People’s Uprising would triumph. And so I wrote this piece…
Overheard in Tahrir Square – Muslim brotherhood man to secular woman: ‘There was a curtain between us that made us fear each other and misunderstand each other. After spending these days here, fighting together, eating together, and bearing the cold I can see that we are not different and that we may have different ideas but we can easily communicate and respect each other.’
The mark, and success, of a true revolution is not merely overthrowing an old regime, but ushering in new ways of thinking and being
I know I’m not alone when I say my heart has been, and remains, full-to-bursting with the remarkable series of events taking place back home. The mark, and success, of a true revolution is not merely overthrowing an old regime, but ushering in new ways of thinking and being. Which is why it’s so uplifting for me to see so many of the false barriers being toppled: say, between men and women, whom we saw out at the protests, chanting for equality, in unison, and even praying side by side in the streets; or Muslims and Christians, who came together as Egyptians, in respect, and protected one another. As Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief says: ‘They said we were divided, extreme, ignorant, fanatic – well here we are: diverse, inclusive, hospitable, generous, sophisticated, creative and witty.’
Unleashing a pent-up creativity
With the promise of freedom in the air, we witnessed a renewed vitality in the streets of Egypt and a sort of cultural revolution, or the unleashing of previously pent-up creativity. From the start, Egyptians’ playful spirit and irrepressible wit were on full display during the 25 January People’s Uprising. ‘Please leave, my hand is hurting me,’ read one banner; ‘you must leave because I need to cut my hair,’ read another. Mubarak’s paltry concessions were answered with pithy ridicule: a banner depicting a computer and the message ‘cannot install freedom, please remove Mubarak and try again’. Our fabled love of language was a mainstay, before and after things got ugly – courtesy of the regime’s rent-a-mob. Al Jazeera reported poetry readings at Tahrir Square. Egyptians heartily sang the punchy poems of Fu’ad Nigm, who in his verse uses puns and colloquial speech to critique the state and mock its corrupt leaders.
As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive – singing, dancing and staging improv-theatre –showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even. Demonstrators not only camped out in the square, dubbed Liberation City, they set up open-air clinics, barber shops, hosted a wedding, shared food, jokes, news, and frisked one another for concealed weapons. To the naysayers, who insisted that the uneducated masses were not ready for democracy, the Egyptian uprising, which has been referred to as a Dignity Revolution, paradoxically demonstrated that civilized behaviour was not the monopoly of the educated. On the contrary, our illiterate were educators in courtesy and a kind of natural sophistication. Speaking of the awe-inspiring scenes in Tahrir Square, another acclaimed Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, summed it up thus: ‘Revolution makes everyone more beautiful, it’s like love.’
Clever, and often bitingly witty, the street verse that proliferated was spontaneous and does not really survive translation. But, to anyone listening, it was obvious that these were a people for whom poetry matters, and, considering the immense personal risk involved in protesting, that words were also actions. To offer just a flavour of this ephemera, here are a couple examples: ‘Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr’ (‘Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs’; or the more blunt ‘Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!’ (‘Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!’)
Overthrowing old fears
On a psychological note, I think it fair to say that fear has ultimately been at the heart of these past decades of state-sponsored psychological warfare. Which is to say, this People’s Uprising has really been about, finally, overthrowing the tyranny of our old fears – Mubarak and his henchmen representing just a particularly stubborn symbol of these – no more, no less.
It is not without significance, then, that the youth should have led the way in the revolt of the insulted and injured masses. After all, it is the nature of youth to be fearless, and laugh in the face of danger; just as it is the nature of each successive generation, through subtle rotations, to act as a corrective to the previous generation. (With around 60 per cent of the Egyptian population under the age of 25, we had a lot of youth to count on.) First, the young held our heads still to show us a new vision of Egypt, and then they gently took our hands and showed us how to achieve it. That the youth helped us realize our dream is because, against all odds, they dared to care.
Mubarak’s paltry concessions were answered with pithy ridicule: a banner depicting a computer and the message ‘cannot install freedom, please remove Mubarak and try again’
To be sure, on 25 January 2011 we surprised ourselves as much as the rest of the world. Our passivity is legendary, and it has been said that the Sphinx is more likely to lose its temper, before the Egyptian people revolt. Yes, our resignation ran deep and, moreover, was justified by an equally entrenched fatalism. Yet, suddenly unburdened of our obstinate insecurities – or ‘mind-forged manacles’ in the formulation of Blake – people came together with a newfound sense of their own possibilities, and discovered the invincibility of unity.
One of the many arresting images that emerged from this revolution is a photo-shopped close-up of a man’s chest, mid-costume change a-la-Superman. Except, underneath his unbuttoned shirt is not the iconic S (for Superman) but rather a luminous image of the million-strong demonstration in Tahrir square. This is how we all become heroes, by drawing on our considerable strength in numbers or transcendent power of The People.
The whole is greater…
Nor has it been a weakness that this has been a leaderless revolution, since people seem to have intuitively grasped, early on, that here the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wael Ghonim, a key figure in sparking the revolution online, wisely shirked this mantle and underscored the point in his address. Before a surging sea of demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square (which earned back its name, Liberation Square) to grant the recently released activist a hero’s welcome, an emotional Ghonim spoke briefly and from the heart:
On 25 January 2011 we surprised ourselves as much as the rest of the world. Our passivity is legendary, and it has been said that the Sphinx is more likely to lose its temper, before the Egyptian people revolt
‘This is not the time for individuals, or parties, or movements. It’s a time for all of us to say just one thing. Egypt above all.’ At which point he and the crowd chanted those three words several times: Egypt Above All. Egypt Above All. Egypt Above All!
Those, like myself, who watched from faraway parts of the world (where they thought they were building new lives) suddenly felt distances collapsing and were sucked into the vortex. It took an (inner)quake like this for us to realize that maybe ‘you can never go home again’ but you can never leave home, either. After having nearly lost hope in the possibility of change, I’m now beyond proud of all those gallant Egyptians cleaning our streets, literally and metaphorically, and paving the way for a Free Egypt – soon, now – where we may live with liberty and dignity.
Considering how many people were involved, it is remarkable how little blood was shed, and how it seemed to unfold naturally. The nonviolent protests in Ukraine came to be known as the Orange Revolution, the peaceful regime change in Czechoslovakia, which overthrew the communist government, was referred to as the Velvet Revolution (or Gentle Revolution). Fairly early on, and fittingly, the almost flower-like people’s uprising in Egypt was given an evocative name: The Lotus Revolution – the lotus being a flower that was highly appreciated by Ancient Egyptians.
Return of the repressed
Somehow, I am reminded of Freud’s ‘return of the repressed.’ What’s a few decades in a civilization of several thousand years, like Egypt, I find myself thinking? The Egyptians have not quite been themselves, lately, and now they’ve decided to take back their country and their lives. This is who they always were: tolerant, patient, honourable and free. Despite the corrosive apathy of recent years, this incredibly peaceful, civilized revolution is how they are now proving, to themselves and the world, that they are heirs to greatness and citizens of the Cradle of Civilization.
The Egyptians have not quite been themselves, lately, and now they’ve decided to take back their country and their lives
Religious extremism and chaos, the bogeymen cited by East and West alike to justify an unfree Egypt for far too long now, can only grow in conditions of oppression and hopelessness. There is no reason to believe that is any longer the case. Egyptians marching towards the horizon of their hopes, pride and ownership of their country have a different agenda, and we’ve seen much to support this. As a case in point, a flyer from Tahrir Square reads: ‘This country is your country. Do not litter. Don’t drive through traffic lights. Don’t bribe. Don’t forge paperwork... Don’t harass women. Don’t say, “It’s not my problem”. Consider God in all your work. We have no excuses any more.’
Despite the drawn-out stalemate, I believe that every day Egypt is closer to climbing out of the dark hole that it’s been in, and blinking in the light of a New Dawn of its own making. What a difference a couple weeks have made! The Uprising truly has been the ultimate antidote to impotence or despair. If there’s one thing this has taught us – from Tunis to Egypt, to the Middle East and the world entire – it is that you never know when enough is too much, and also that one (Tunisian) man and one gesture (burning) is all it takes to get a Revolution in motion!
I believe that every day Egypt is closer to climbing out of the dark hole that it’s been in, and blinking in the light of a New Dawn of its own making. What a difference a couple weeks have made!
Kafka writes: ‘There is a point of no return. This point has to be reached.’ I believe that point of no return has been reached, and crossed (in our hearts, at least). Or, to put it in other words, also overheard in Liberation Square: ‘Whatever happens next, things will never be the same.’ Even amidst all the tense anticipation, there was no denying this shy, nascent sense of moral victory.
Words – such as Hope, Will, Change, The People, Freedom, Dreams, Future – after having been corrupted and nearly losing their meaning in our public discourse in Egypt, are now charged with so much lived idealism and practised heroism they have become incandescent. Poetry is suddenly the domain of the average person in the streets, and everyone seems to have awakened from a long slumber, more alive, with senses tingling brightly. In this struggle for the soul of Egypt, its personal and political destiny, between the power-lust of an 82 year old versus the longing of 82 million souls, I never wavered which side I was betting on.
What is to give light
8 February 2011
If I could say something to the brave souls back home, I’d say this:
Remember, you have Youth, Truth and Love on your side; the old regime only has Hate and Lies. Let that give you courage to forge a New Future; they represent a stubborn past. Do not let them divide you or put fear in your hearts. And let the young lead, the young are still immune to fear. Keep your spirits high and clean and you will keep the protests beautiful.
You make us all proud. You’re our hope and inspiration!
27 January 2011
What is to give Light
What is to give light must endure burning, a man once said Another man became the matchstick that set a nation aflame
But fire, and its appetite, cannot be calculated, like freedom Injustice and desperation make men combustible, like dry wood
When words lose their meaning and an entire people their voice – so they can neither laugh nor scream – death and life begin to taste the same
From Tunis, to Egypt, to Lebanon to Yemen the light from a burning man proved catching And those with nothing to lose, or offer, but bodies fanned the embers of their hopes into a blazing dream.
In an Egypt where sexual feelings are kept buttoned up by religiosity, *Yahia Lababidi* observes an all-pervading sensuality that will not be denied.
How nicely that bitch Sensuality knows how to beg for a piece of the spirit, when a piece of flesh is denied her. Nietzsche, ‘Of Chastity’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Drives denied a natural outlet will not quietly die, but rather cunningly exit in masquerade. In contemporary Egypt, on account of a volatile cocktail – unequal parts societal, political and economic – sexual repression is absurdly rampant and its expression has gotten considerably out of hand. Faced with a desperate situation at home, aggravated by a people in the grip of a spiritual crisis, and an unexemplary international context, Egyptians have chosen to cut off their noses to spite their faces by insisting upon an identity not theirs.
Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. One has only to witness local film stars of a few decades ago – happily prancing around in minis and bikinis – or hear rueful stories from members of past generations to know how open-minded and cosmopolitan Egypt once was.
It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity. By defiantly accentuating a superficial religiosity, contemporary Egyptians downplay their natural strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses. Seemingly innocuous everyday activities acquire sexual connotations, such as: the slapping of slippers on a woman’s feet, the smacking of chewing gum, or smoking of a cigarette.
The heat on an abandoned public seat, for example, is to be avoided. Wait a few minutes for it to cool before sitting, lest you are aroused by the phantom ass. Or how about this: a man goes to a sheikh and asks him if television is forbidden. Depends how you view it, replies the sheikh. To watch soccer, the man says. Alright, provided you are not ogling the players’ thighs. The supposedly hot-blooded, heterosexual male returns home and gives away his TV set. I do not jest.
Such stories are not as rare as one would hope. With the sexes increasingly segregated, when they play and where they pray, unsurprisingly the air is charged. Recently, a women-only beach has been inaugurated, presumably to shield women from the denuding male gaze. As it is, Egyptian woman opt to enter the sea, if at all, in gallabiyyas (full-length traditional dresses) – paradoxically producing a more revealing, clinging, wet t-shirt effect.
On land, things are not much better. More and more, we are witnessing single-sex lines at the cinema, market, or train station for fear of ‘inadvertent’ rubbing. On the subway, there are women-only carriages. Yet, random rubbing does take place in crowded places, such as on claustrophobic public buses.
Battle of the sexes
Mutual mistrust is mounting to ludicrous proportions. Today a man cannot get away with the courtesy of holding the elevator door open for a woman. If the woman is monakabbah (veiled from head to foot in black with only her eyes peeking out, and gloved), close quarters are considered a threat. So after holding open the elevator door, the proper thing to do is step aside and let her enter alone (or with her veiled sisters). For fear of what: a frantic quickie between the ground and second floors? What’s more, even shaking a veiled woman’s hand has become an awkward proposition. Yet why envaginate one palm and make a phallus of the other? This is not religion, and certainly not spirituality.
Matters are further complicated in a culture that discourages premarital sex, and where a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality – you break it, you buy it. Then, consider that serious economic difficulties prevent most couples from getting married. With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact often manifests in intense same-sex intimacy.
It’s not the least bit unusual to encounter men holding hands, pinkies interlocked, hugging and kissing, while calling each other unusually sweet names: sokkar (sugar), a’assall (honey) or rohe albi (my heart’s soul). Equally common to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age. What is at play here is not unlike what Freud terms ‘polymorphous perversity’ or the infant’s indiscriminate total responsiveness.
Tailoring religious principles to suit one’s biases and needs, liberties are assumed in interpretation. For example, while the number of girls taking the veil is on the rise, so is the artful dodge of what the idea(l) of the veil stands for: modesty. So, we get flocks of teenagers ‘fashionably’ veiled and wildly overcompensating: with faces heavily made-up, as though coloured by numbers, figure-hugging ensembles and eye-catching accessories.
Married veiled women are not without their secret pleasures, judging by the proliferation of lingerie stores in downtown Cairo brazenly displaying the kind of underwear that in other countries you’d only find in sex shops: glow-in-the-dark, feathered, sequined, transparent, you name it. And no-one blinks; the way no-one blinks in Europe or the US at seeing exposed tummies or cleavages. Yet try showing an arm or leg around here if you’re a girl or a boy, but especially if you’re a girl, and you’ll experience all the attention reserved for an unwanted visiting celebrity.
Eroticization of the everyday
El mamnua’a marghoub, the forbidden is coveted, goes an Egyptian saying. When very little is permitted, everything becomes eroticized. Take the example of a malnourished, sun-crazed soldier in heavy black uniform, guarding an embassy between naps, and leaning against a machine gun that he handles like a plough. ‘Oh boy,’ he lustily shouts to no-one in particular, ‘did you see that girl? She’ll be a rocket when she grows up!’ The girl in question is a prepubescent child, and it’s just like ‘that bitch Sensuality’ to anticipate the femme fatale in the infant.
If sex is hard to come by for most Egyptians in this forbidding climate, so is regularly eating meat on their lean incomes. Which is why calling a woman mozza, or a prime cut of lamb, is the ultimate compliment guys can conceive of paying a sexy woman. Where sex is on the mind, aphrodisiacs are not far behind. Seafood, which is also not within average means, is thought to improve potency; shrimps double up as the poor man’s Viagra (several popular sandwich chains carry ‘Viagra sandwiches’ – basically just shrimps and mayo).
Matters are complicated in a culture that discourages premarital sex, and where a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality – you break it, you buy it
If there is an inherent link between food and sexuality, it is made apparent in TV commercials, where a generally starved imagination is fed all sorts of silly teases. But then commercials are the stuff male fantasies are made of, and women in ads are never more frolicsome than in the kitchen, as they feed each other between giggling fits and prepare meals for their famished and expectant husbands. Second to the kitchen is the bedroom. One emblematic ad, for blankets, features three flavours of foreign women – blonde, brunette and redhead – all writhing suggestively under the covers and inordinately happy to be warm at last.
But this is soft porn. The hard stuff is to be found on the streets. Cheap CD copies of American movies are sold on street corners, with all the hustle of porn trafficking. That’s because these Hollywood blockbusters are ‘uncut’, unlike the versions shown in movie theatres. One vendor, let us call him ‘King Leer’, plays his part overly well: laboured breathing, googly-eyed, all sly winks and nudges. It is customary for him to touch himself as he congratulates me on a ‘good choice’, or recommends one himself. I remember a family approaching him. The woman and child maintained a safe distance, with the man of the house shielding them as he bravely negotiated the bestial business of hunting a good movie.
Following the horrible earthquake in Turkey in 1999, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, one heard that this was what they ‘deserved’ for broadcasting their racy satellite TV. More recently another natural disaster, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, was given ethical accents by local fanatic Islamists posing as disinterested scientists. The devastating catastrophe that claimed over 200,000 lives and left Southeast Asia ravaged is just punishment, we were told, for the decadent lifestyles of the Swedes (the largest number of foreign fatalities).
Confessing in code
Literature under restrictive regimes has tended to develop a flair for allegory – confessing in code, or through the use of symbolism. As Borges shrewdly notes, ‘Censorship is the mother of metaphor.’
Similarly, in repressive societies, means of indirect communication tend to thrive. Egyptians have a gift for this sort of thing. Past masters at innuendo, they deftly employ double meanings to get past the censors on stage and in life. Slyly they vent their sexual (and political) frustrations in jokes, songs and video clips that manage to hint at everything without really saying anything.
But, pent-up frustrations will have you seeing things and petty jealousies fan the imaginings of the deprived. More often than not, a feverish fantasy life and sexual projection is at play when Egyptians view foreign couples (or locals, if they dare) holding hands. Unconsciously, they embellish the picture with their own thwarted longings and desperate cravings. This applies to all activities that the average Egyptian is excluded from; so that unfortunately they cannot conceive, say, of a mixed crowd spending an innocent weekend at the beach or a night out dancing, without an eruption of dark depraved desire colouring everything.
In After Zen, Jan Willem van de Wetering’s thoughtful and humorous account of his time at a Zen monastery, we meet monks behaving like adolescents in an all-boys boarding school. ‘Girls threw rocks into the… courtyard with invitations attached with red ribbons. Monks climbed the walls at night.’ A little later, we learn from the gently disillusioned author that ‘Pam-pam was what the monks called the Western-type sandwiches I sometimes prepared in my room. The way the sliced bread got cut, buttered and smacked together reminded them of what they went after when they climbed the temple walls at night…’
Although Jan’s Zen monks and the morally embattled Egyptians are not subject to the same cultural, religious or philosophical manacles, their truths agree with each other. Which points to larger human truths, namely the incredible lengths to which imagination will go to conjure up what is forbidden, as well as this deeper wisdom, also from After Zen, ‘[that] the sex drive does not get sublimated spiritually… sexual longing is programmed into human genes; frustrate it and it becomes demonic.’