About ml

A comparative literature professor interested in how Arabic literature has worked, throughout its history, as a part of world literature

Some technical issues

I am trying today to write a conference paper, for delivery on Friday, “On Some Paradoxes of Memorializing a Revolution in Real Time.”  (My point will be about the unintended consequences of artists’ efforts to record and re-perform, i.e., fix or reify or freeze in place, the 18 Days or any part of what has followed.) Talk about a self-describing challenge!  Every half-formed thought is overtaken by events. I have not been to Cairo since June – and so much has happened. In the symbolic sphere there have been ups and downs and more downs, reversals and revolts, appropriations and transmogrifications: impossible for me to follow in detail from afar. Who could have thought that in just six months the “spare tire” Morsi would grow into a many-tentacled octopus as widely loathed and yet accepted as the one he replaced? (On the day he gave himself trans-judicial powers I was in Boston teaching, fittingly, Saadallah Wannus’ 1977 play The King is the King.) This image from Claire Cooley’s wonderful blog – bless her for being there.

Anyway, the technical issue is this. I need to figure out how to make “Cairo” a page on this blog rather than the whole blog. Because until my next trip, I don’t have much to say about it, whereas there are other things I do that may be fun to write about, such as leading a seminar on literary translation, starting up some research on Arab-Soviet cultural exchange, and so forth. Some of these things need their own pages. For instance I just tried to import some entries from my Arab Shakespeare blog to a new page under this blog – without much success. They came up on the front page.  “Tags” or “categories” are not what I’m looking for. (Does this impulse to organize stem from some New Year’s stock-taking? Or maybe just procrastinating that MLA paper, which since it might end up as a provocatively self-undermining manifesto like “Against Performing the Arab Spring” – why even write it, then?)

This seems like a simple issue – much easier than compartmentalizing one’s different responsibilities and interests IRL. But I’m stumped. Advice on manipulating WordPress much appreciated!



July 23 is coming up. Who will celebrate – the fewish remaining Nasserists, or those benefiting from the military’s continued rule? Will there be a rhetoric of comparing the “two” revolutions, or does everyone now realize that it’s one big power grab, continued ad nauseum

“Perhaps SCAF’s biggest achievement to date has been to lower the popular standards of an acceptable transition through a relentless combination of legal manipulation, ad hoc decision-making and sporadic violence that has left opponents confused and exhausted, and the public yearning for a return to normality,” Sherif Abdel Kouddous writes in “On the 60th anniversary of the coup” in the Egypt IndependentHe finds a silver lining in the military council’s nervousness, even desperation. But surely the spectacle of nearby Syria in flames will make most Egyptians less eager to reclaim their revolution than ever?

Pics from the waiting period

Reflections on the Brotherhood’s chances and challenges to come, hopefully later this week. Meanwhile, some pictures from before, during, and after the elections.

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That one of the billboard with the soldier holding the baby creeps me out. For more info on the Mohamed Mahmoud murals, see the excellent Suzee in the City blog (linked in the blogroll at right).

Disclaimers, departures

Flying out early tomorrow morning. It has been a vicarious emotional rollercoaster of a trip, but weirdly productive in terms of work meetings too. If I’ve told you about certain all-too-familiar Cairenes rather than pretend to show a representative cross-section of Egypt, it’s because 1) I’m not a reporter and 2) I’ve mainly been going about my business here, which is with intellectuals (interviewing people for research, working out arrangements to get my book translated, etc). The great majority of my peers and interlocutors, whatever their reactionary or revolutionary convictions, earn their living through the state culture sector: media, public higher education, theatre, translation.  It’s all state-funded and more or less continues to function.

Today I took the day off, visiting friends. (Sorry, people who wanted souvenirs: totally forgot to shop.)  On my way from one privileged neighborhood to another, I took the metro from Maadi and got off the metro in Tahrir. It was precisely time for the noon prayer. Vendors were selling miniature red-black-and-white umbrellas and, I think, umbrella hats. The Brothers and their allies were massing, many carrying water bottles and snacks, some wearing baseball caps against the furious sun. Some hurried a bit. One man walked slowly across the October bridge with a folded green prayer rug balanced on his head: some shade at least.  With the MB’s trademark courtesy and efficiency, the guys guarding the entrances to the square barred motorcycles from entering and frisked all the men.  I walked in the opposite direction, across the bridge toward what journalists usually describe as the “upscale island neighborhood” of Zamalek, where expat life seems to be thriving and a number of new restaurants and cafes have opened (exploiting the breakdown of the permit system I guess) just since I was here in December. All the statues on the bridge have been covered up with scaffolding: under reconstruction.

Later, at the dusk prayers, my friend and I passed through Tahrir again on our way to eat downtown. Now there was a separate entrance queue for women, with female volunteers checking IDs and bags. People were milling around or praying. One Salafi couple carried their toddler daughter, who kicked off her little shoes and was about to lose them. I noticed and picked them up,  handed them back; the man thanked me very politely.  They went back to their rally, and we went back out of the square, toward dinner and a beer.  Several places were closed; everything seemed subdued. The suspense is really getting to people. But as a foreigner I could also find the scene beautiful, noticing the sliver of crescent moon above the square in the smog-purple sky.

The afternoon we skipped, between those two glimpses of Tahrir, was of course the huge rally: leftists standing hand in hand with Brotherhood leaders and two hundred thousand Egyptians in the blazing sun shouting “Down with military rule!”  At some point, Morsi gave a press conference at a hotel in Heliopolis, reiterating the Brotherhood’s demands and pointing out the leftists it had enticed back into the fold. Meanwhile we had been visiting the Refugee Day festivities at the Sawy Culture Wheel and eating ice cream at Mandarine Koweider.  Because when it’s 95 degrees out I recall that I’m not a journalist and don’t have to go where the “news” is.  But it’s still a funny feeling to be living one’s little life and thinking of a major national narrative at the same time, in parallel.  I don’t think this will work for very long in Boston.  (For one thing, I can’t keep sleeping 3 hours a night.)

Always sad when I leave this place.  But the naughty little Salafi kid (she was cute too) made me miss my own. So: maybe soon, again, and inshallah (though realistically this is very hard to imagine) in better circumstances.

Timely misappropriation of al-Hakim’s “Return of the Spirit”

Why is “Return of the Spirit,” the title of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s revolutionary 1933 novel, being borrowed for a festival of religious chanting?  You tell me.  I have no idea what this is about, just saw the sign across the river from the Sawy Culture Wheel.  BTW the festival was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.

“Awdat al-Ruh (Return of the Spirit) festival of religious hymns”

Singing about revolution for abna el-felool

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Last night I went with two friends to see a not very good hip-hop show by Ali Talibab and El Deeb, “one of the voices of the revolution.”  The good thing is, it was at Al-Azhar Park, which (because of political uncertainty and people avoiding downtown) was a LOT less crowded than on a usual Thursday night.  Isn’t the park gorgeous?  We had much of it to ourselves except for the Genaina outdoor theatre, which started out almost full.

The bad thing is, the group’s lyrics were uninspired and, despite the enthusiasm of many young fans, its anti-SCAF and plight-of-the-poor posturing rang hollow.  (Video to come.)  This stuff has become, as Brecht would put it, “culinary.”  My friend Maha was not impressed. I caught her tweeting something like: “Revolution is everyone’s bread and butter. Singing about social justice for the children of the felool, whose daddies have sucked this country dry.”

Links from my n+1 piece

I wrote the Cairo dispatch as a blog post, not realizing they don’t post links. So here they are – go learn about the situation from people far better informed than me.

generals’ efforts

Tocqueville put it


mea culpas

Mahmoud Salem’s perverse optimism

members of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces

posponed until Sunday

Sonallah Ibrahim’s conspiracy theory expressed elsewhere

Brotherhood’s solidly capitalist views (Shater)

“I’m not Brotherhood and I voted Morsi for the revolution

Omar Suleiman t-shirts confiscated at the airport

full text of the middle-of-the-night constitutional addendum

cartoon: Morsi needs SCAF’s permission to go to the toilet:

WSJ column: opposition’s trying to re-unify

Nathan Brown analyzes the new (non-)institutional situation

Theatre critic Nehad Selaiha

Not Dead Yet

My Cairo diary of this week’s post-elections, pre-results limbo is now live at n+1.

I returned from the Cairo Jazz Club Tuesday night (a friend had dragged me to see a small but enthusiastic rich-kid audience bopping to a Cyndi Lauper–wigged Egyptian pop band) to find Al Jazeera reliving the ’80s too. The news showed highlights of Hosni Mubarak “legacy” footage, and was quoting Reuters saying the former president was “clinically dead.” His heart had stopped beating, apparently after a stroke; electric shocks and other efforts had failed to revive him.

If the Egyptian revolution were a person, I could say that its case is just the opposite. Despite the thousand (unnatural) shocks she has received in the past eighteen months, despite the generals’ efforts to stifle and strangle and shock and drown her (thawra—revolution—is feminine in Arabic), her heart continues to beat.

But the metaphor quickly collapses. Any real revolution is not a single organism. Perhaps it’s more like water, a raging current replacing old debris with new, becoming soiled in the process. Or as Tocqueville put it, as though speaking to Egypt’s would-be revolutionaries and old regime remnants alike:

The first duty which is at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs is to educate the democracy; to warm its faith, if that be possible; to purify its morals; to direct its energies; to substitute a knowledge of business for its inexperience, and an acquaintance with its true interests for its blind propensities; to adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it in compliance with the occurrences and the actors of the age. A new science of politics is indispensable to a new world. This, however, is what we think of least; launched in the middle of a rapid stream, we obstinately fix our eyes on the ruins which may still be described upon the shore we have left, whilst the current sweeps us along, and drives us backwards towards the gulf.

Obituaries for the revolution have multiplied in recent weeks, as have revolutionaries’ mea culpas, but there are some new and stubborn statements of optimism. (Read the rest on the n+1 site.)

Waiting games

Hot and unnaturally quiet again in Cairo today.  It looks like the announcement of the presidential results will be delayed by “a day or two” (the Presidential Election Commission) or “indefinitely” (the Middle East News Agency, same folks who prematurely announced Mubarak’s death last night). Just to wear people down a bit to temper any possible violent reaction – or maybe to allow time for bargaining, horse-trading, you-get-the-presidency-we-get-the-constitutional-commission or something?  I don’t necessarily buy the latter theory (what would either SCAF or the Brotherhood stand to gain by negotiating this?) but heard it floated tonight, thought I’d pass it on.

Just came from dinner with a big table full of journalists, Carter Center election monitors, political scientists, etc. They are all exhausted from a very active regimen of waiting for news: running around to Tahrir, MB headquarters, Shafik’s house (apparently he is very warm and cuddly, quite the family man), the Military Hospital where Mubarak is laid up, etc.  Lacking new rumors, they’ve moved on to theories.

Earlier I went along with a friend to a reception at the Polish ambassador’s house. Professor Hanaa Abdel Fattah was receiving an order of merit for his contributions to the advancement of Polish literature and theatre in Egypt.  Faced with a very depressed little crowd of Brotherhood-fearing artist and intellectual types, the ambassador reminisced about his time in Poland in 1989: “Yes, I remember the foreigners saying this was a fascinating historical moment, but for me — it was our destiny.”  And later, less diplomatically: “You know, the things people say now about the Brotherhood, how these people will ruin the country if they gain power… these are the same things people used to say about Walesa and Solidarnosc. And indeed, it did take a few years to get Poland onto the right path.” But of course this only made the Egyptians feel worse. Poland had no third, religious party waiting in the wings to take over from the secular revolutionaries: it was not a three-cornered struggle like this one is shaping up to be. The word on paranoid secular intellectuals’ lips last fall was Turkey; three days ago it was Algeria; now it is pretty much Iran.  As in: “You think it can’t happen here? They never thought it could happen in Iran either.”

I have ridden with a variety of interesting cab drivers so far, but the most vehement was the Copt who wanted George W. Bush back because he considered him the protector of the Christians. “Tell them not to re-elect that Obama Hussein (sic). He came to power, and turned a blind eye on the Islamists, and now look what we have all over the world. These people are terrorists. Bush was like this (thumbs up). He protected human rights. But Obama Hussein came to Cairo [in June 2009] and visited a mosque, but not a church.  Why would you do that, not visit a church also?  And why did he kiss the hand of the Saudi king? Kiss his cheeks, greet him, okay, but kiss his hand? The president of the united states?  And now see what these Muslims are doing.”

Oh, and at tonight’s dinner I ran into a colleague from my undergraduate Yale Daily News days.  He’s now an editorial writer for a respected national publication.  I was like, holy shit, it’s been 20 years.  He was like, wait, did I… edit you?” It was hilariously awkward for a second.