There is no escaping the fact. Since 2011, I haven’t been in downtown Cairo except twice, heavily sedated and only for as long as it took to run my unavoidable errand. With the help of medication, my condition had improved enough for me to go there frequently when the protests started in January that year, instead of being confined to Heliopolis as usual. After I was shot with a pellet gun and had to run away from hospital on the first day of protests, for a few weeks I returned to the hotspots of the revolution, but tear gas, shooting and all kinds of attacks often forced me (along with everyone else) to run for my life. This fucked it all up again, in time. Protest hotspots became indistinguishable from vast, crowded spaces too far from home. And, succumbing to my terror of both, I confined myself to Heliopolis.
A cloudy haze slowly subsides, making way for less blurry vision. Everything is opaque white. The 35m2 studio, the walls that make up its confines, even the ceramic wall tiles that adorn the open kitchen. The white-painted wooden desk neighbors the open kitchen. It looks onto a mini-balcony with a view of a small patch of greenery. It occurs to me that the yellow-turquoise color combination gentrifying the façades of nearby buildings is a grave mismatch, especially with the oliveness that commands the space. I push my sluggish body out of the side bed and onto the parquet floor whose hue is a confused mix of hazel and grey. My feet brushing against the ground is a daily exercise in groundedness. In my mind it is so intertwined with the whiff of floral spice that always follows minutes later. Tchibo’s African Blue brewed in a French press. I make my way to the grey couch, ceramic mug in one hand, a slice of Spinat-Knoblauch Quiche in the other. I don’t have much time this morning. It’s a busy Monday and I have two classes to attend at Freie Universität. I like being in Berlin, getting up early to read snippets from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah, discuss theories in Arabic Studies, and study patterns of city making in the “Muslim” world. I am struggling with my Deutschkurs. I don’t like the academicness dictating second-language teaching. I despise the words Hausarbeit, Test and even the kleine Pause, together they enshrine language-acquisition in a chronic anxiety. To me, acquiring a language is a deeply personal endeavor. It is the danke, tschüss and bitte that despite being inundated with the “wrong” accent grant me a temporary, maybe fake, sense of integration. Luckily, Berlin knows better than to single anyone out on account of ignorance of German, or so I think. I give way to cowardice and make temporary peace with my verbal ineptitude.
Go to the street, ask for anything, it will be given to you.
BARA will have seized the monarchies and set their palaces ablaze.
There is a fellow population suffering.
To have lived it, later generations will assume it caused great conflict of the heart.
But, take my trials, they are too good for me.
Remember, the videos passed around.
I am guilty.
There is nothing left to say.
White sheets compound the pavement.
Chemicals in the territory.
The revolution is a farce.
Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017
Arabic novels are so frequently described as Kafkaesque or Orwellian that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two authors were themselves Arab. It is a small wonder that noone has yet tried to uncover their secret Arab origins by etymologizing their names (قفقاء and الروال) in the way that the Turks have for Shakespeare. It is true that both of their names have become literary shorthand for a type of writing dealing with dystopia, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. It is also true that Arab societies have continued unabated to live through dystopias, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. But the label flattens out what is particular and new about so much excellent Arabic writing, and suggests that everything you need to know about the daily experience of living in a dysfunctional and cruel system can be captured by the term “nightmarish”.
One: Instagram Dreams
Sleep-deprivation is like being high. I know because I was high for a long time, then I started sleeping irregularly. It’s supposed to have something to do with lack of sugar in the brain, which is also the theory of what LSD does to consciousness. Things grow fluid and dreamlike, but at the same time there is a paranoid awareness of motion and a heaviness in the heart. Colour and sound become a lot sharper, and time feels totally irrelevant. Normal speed is fast but fast can pass for normal. A moment lasts for days, days can fit in a moment. Talking and laughing are far more involving, especially laughing. The grotesque animal implicit in each person comes out, sometimes messing up the conversation. And then it’s as if you have no body. As in the best music, an uncanny lightness balances the overriding melancholy. There is joy in flying when you don’t need to move. All through this, what’s more, every passing emotion turns into an epic experience.
In an age when video journalism is increasinly paramount and printing is arguably no longer necessary, how do you feel the still image is still pertinent to documentary or news work?
Video journalism serves its purpose and is growing as it is easier to create and distribute, but photos haven’t lost their power in this new environment. A single strong image can be viewed and summarize a situation in seconds. In our fast paced world there will always be a place for the still frame.
Do you think documentary and art photography are important for the development of photo journalism? Is there enough of that going on in Egypt (with the Cairo Image Collective, for example) to create a photographic culture?
As a photojournalist I often steal style from art and commercial photography. We must be aware of their modern visual language in our work to stay relevant and interesting. But even though the internet has broken down barriers it can be impossible to find many documentary or art photo books in Cairo. While in the west you can pick up a thick fashion magazine at almost any store and get inspired by the commercial portraiture it takes conscious effort for photographers to suss out inspiration in Egypt.
Cairo, 15 January 1850
[…] Here we are then, in Egypt, the land of the Pharoahs, the land of the Ptolemies, the kingdom of Cleopatra (as they say in the grand style). Here we are, and here we abide, with our heads shaven as clean as your knee, smoking long pipes and drinking our coffee lying on divans. What can I say? How can I write to you about it? I have scarcely recovered from my initial astonishment.