Friday, August 26, 2011

Memories of 1977 in Cairo

            On a hot summer’s day in 1977 I walked from downtown Cairo out along the road parallel to the Nile, the Corniche, past Bulaq and over the bridge to Zamalek.   Egypt, under President Anwar Sadat, had made a few gestures in the direction of openness but in fact the country was still in the grip of a one-party state. There was, in those days, no elevated highway over 26th of July Street nor did the May 15 bridge exist.  Crossing the Nile meant using the now-dismantled Abu al-Eila bridge, an old-fashioned filigree of a bridge erected, I believe, by a French company specializing in cast iron structures at the beginning of the 20th century.  Further downstream you could see, as you still can today, the railway bridge that crosses from Shubra to Imbaba for the train traffic heading south to Asyut, Luxor and Aswan.  It was a perfect place to take a picture of the Nile.  So I did.  In fact, I took several and hoped that the heat would not affect the Kodachrome in my single-lens reflex camera before I returned to the United States in several months.

 No Pictures  Allowed in 1977

            I needn’t have bothered.  My reverie was broken when a man, probably in his 50s, tapped me on the shoulder.  My Arabic was not very good nor was his English but what he was able to make what he wanted perfectly clear.  It was illegal to take pictures of bridges or from bridges.  I had broken the law and I had two choices.  One, I could remove the film from my camera, expose it on the spot, and destroy not only the pictures I had just taken but all the rest as well.  Two, I could accompany him to a police station.   I was a foreigner with a very very limited command of Arabic; obviously I was on the verge of being accused of being a spy; I had plans to see a friend who was waiting his apartment.  The photos I had just taken had been completely touristic and had absolutely no value to me.  The choice was pretty clear and soon a ribbon of exposed film was curled up in the hands of a self-satisfied and self-righteous Egyptian citizen.  Memory can always play us false, but I seem to remember it gained a slightly pinkish tone as it overexposed in the hot sun.  Somewhat shaken I trudged across the rest of the bridge, stopping only for a juice at a small store that, forty years later, is still there with the same somewhat shopworn pictures of the Virgin Mary on the back wall.

            During that same summer of 1977 Shaykh Mahmud al-Dhahabi, the former minister of religious endowments, was kidnapped by an Islamist group.  The government press turned its attention briefly from the election of Menahem Begin, routinely described as a fascist and war-monger under whose governance Israel would move even further from peace, to the traumatic murder of a former high government official.  The state-controlled media was nearly useless for rendering a decent description of these kinds of events, let alone any understanding of why they occurred or what their implications might be.  Occasionally by comparing the nearly identical stories in the leading newspapers astute readers could glean additional bits of information.  It was therefore common, among those who could afford it to use a short-wave radio to listen either to the BBC Arabic Service or to Radio Monte Carlo.

            As a consequence when I arrived at my destination, still shaken, I was invited to listen to the news.  Listening to foreign radio broadcasts was not something lightly done.  I believe it was still illegal in those days (as was travelling off the main roads in the Delta for foreigners or taking pictures of bridges) to listen, but at any rate my host took appropriate precautions.  We retired to the kitchen, a room which shared no walls with neighboring apartments.  The short-wave radio was turned to the lowest possible volume compatible with audibility.  Even if it was legal, there was always the risk that the neighbors might inform the police or employers of activity which was certainly frowned upon. 

            It was, I believe, the following year that Gad al-Haqq Ali Gad al-Haqq became the Mufti of the Egyptian Republic, a post which he shortly relinquished to become the most prominent religious figure in Egypt, the Shaykh of the Azhar.  The Azhar was founded more than a 1000 years ago when Cairo as a city was first constructed to be the capital of a Shi’i empire whose roots lay in western North Africa.  Gad al-Haqq, during his career, issued a great many legal opinions or fatwas.  One, for which he is still known, dates from around this period and proposes that the common Egyptian practice of excising part or all of the clitoris is something good Muslims should do.  He did not say Islamic law required Muslims to do but he did argue that it was preferable that they do and that it was sanctioned by past practice and argument.

            The Egypt of the 2011 revolution is in many ways a very different place.  The focus on mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook as communications devices overlooks many dimensions of their use.  Because photography has long been so popular in Europe and the US both as an art and as a popular practice, it is easy to overlook the use of mobile phones as cameras even though since 2003 globally more cameras have been sold bundled into phones than as stand-alone devices. Relatively few Egyptians have dedicated cameras.  Mobile phones had already been widely used to record both video and still images, but they were nearly ubiquitous even in the early days of the revolution. 

 The troops came out and so did the cameraphones

            Since Foucault academics have come to think of photography as a form of surveillance and as a “gaze” of power.  This was not how I experienced photography during the demonstrations I was in. It was not uncommon on January 28 to watch Egyptians surrounding tanks in downtown Cairo, arms extended and holding mobile phones aloft to photograph soldiers and tanks.   This cascade of photography continued and I frequently saw parents photographing their smiling children standing on tanks next to soldiers in the days after Mubarak left Cairo.  Once, late in the spring walking back home over the span that replaces the old Abu Eila Bridge I even noticed a small bus pull over to the northern sidewalk.  A handful of weary, bearded protesters clambered out while their veiled wives remained seated.  They were heading for the circumferential highway after what must have been an organized trip to from either a suburban neighborhood or rural town for a bit of sightseeing and political activism.  They took pictures of each other to commemorate their day, got back into the bus and drove off into the sunset.

On several occasions people asked to be included in photographs with me and on many others smilingly asked with some insistence that I take their photographs.  None of these people expected to receive copies of the photographs. Rather I think people wanted a record of their participation.  The desired record, however, was at once public in the sense that it was freely and openly done and private in the sense that another person rather than an agency of the state possessed it.   In some cases people, especially those carrying home-made signs advocating highly idiosyncratic demands, would move so that I could photograph them more easily.  That, in immense demonstrations where concerns such as the fate of a single person who disappeared in police custody before the revolution, makes sense.   But people also asked me, even when my camera was simply hanging around my neck, to take their pictures.  Thus I have a lovely photo of two smiling men, one without a front tooth and wearing a baseball cap next to a friend, a burly man with a large beard that in Egypt is easily associated with Salafis and in the US with working-class conservatism.   On another occasion, a man who looked to be in his 70s, asked me to take a picture of him holding a picture of a demonstration from 50 years ago.  As he was explaining to me the significance of the photo he suddenly realized that I was not Egyptian and said with some surprise and to general laughter, “You’re a foreigner”. 

 Recollections of Earlier Demonstrations

Only twice did I run into problems taking photographs.  In late May during a Friday demonstration a very young man asked me take his picture.  He may have been in his very early twenties and he had very long, flowing hair.  For a second, indeed, I thought he might be a young woman.  I was leaving Midan al-Tahrir to meet a friend for lunch but since I expected it to take only a minute I agreed.  He smiled sweetly and I took his picture.  Suddenly a voice from ten yards away broke out.  It was a young woman, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt.  She was exactly the kind of middle-class Westernized woman that Americans routinely expect to be champions of liberal ideas, free expression, and unrestricted personal freedom.  She objected to my taking his picture.  I asked what reason she had to intervene and as the conversation meandered around it became clear, without any explicit statement from her, that she was afraid an effeminate young man would become the face of the Egyptian revolution.   More people gathered around and someone asked me what I planned to do with the picture.  It was just a picture I had been asked to take and we all agreed it wasn’t really an issue.   

A Picture That Wasn't Quite Forbidden
The people who refused to let me take their pictures were children.  Not children at demonstrations who were often as eager to be photographed as adults but the children on the streets of Cairo who sell matches, flowers, and Kleenex. 

If attitudes toward photography have changed at least in step with if not necessarily because of the wider availability of cameras, the availability of information has also increased.  It has become a cliché to think of information and the Arab revolts as connected at the hip to Twitter, Facebook and Al-Jazeera but these are, I think, far from the whole story.  In the 1970s the government-owned press consisting of Al-Ahram, Al-Gumhouria, and Al-Akhbar provided most of the news Egyptians consumed (as well as wrapping most of the bean and falafel sandwiches they consumed).  Nearly identical in coverage and adulation of the nation’s political leaders and their policies, these papers provided Egyptians with relatively little news of their own country or any other.  In the wake of President Anwar Sadat’s political liberalization a few new papers were given permits to publish and access to newsprint through the state import monopoly. The government thereby retained the right to manufacture occasional shortages of shipping space and Finnish log production which translated into silencing the critical and tiny newspapers of the left (Al-Ahali) and the Right.  The only other critical publications allowed were non-periodical, occasional, publications which required no license but which could, by the nature of the law permitting them to appear, only be published once.

The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed an overlooked print media explosion in Egypt.  The 2004 appearance of Al-Masry al-Yawm as the first commercial daily in Egypt since before 1952 was one crucial event.  The newspaper proclaimed itself devoted to factual coverage verging on exposes just as the ideal of newspapers as objective reporters was under assault in Europe and the United States.  It was soon joined by an array of other newspapers of a variety of political viewpoints none of which were easily categorized by party as had been true of the media until that point:  Al-Dustour, Al-Karama, and Al-Shorouq which seems to have been born as a venerable newspaper of opinion.  These newspapers continued to push boundaries and create tempests, not all of which were contained in teapots.  Al-Dustour made a point of directly criticizing Hosny Mubarak and his family while Al-Masry al-Yawm was filled with accounts of government shortcomings in the provision of clean water, sewage facilities, and education to Egyptians in the capital and the provinces.  Al-Masry also provoked one of the major political crises of the Mubarak government when one of its reporters, herself wearing a headscarf, was berated by the former Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, for belonging to a generation of women less liberated than, as he put it, “our mothers and grandmothers.”  For a month the Egyptian parliament was consumed in a debate about the veils, headscarfs, and whether Egyptian women were more liberated or less than previous generations.  Not since the 1940s when Al-Ahram was a privately owned newspaper to which outstanding liberal intellectuals such as Taha Hussein had contributed had Egypt’s press been so lively.  Those were also the days when Egyptians could choose between Al-Ahram, Al-Balagh, and Al-Wafd al-Misri among others. 

Because the circulation of Al-Masry al-Yawm is about 200,000 (Al-Ahram is still believed to have a circulation of 300,000 and may in fact draw a larger audience since it became more independent in the wake of the revolution), it is plausible to argue that Al-Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter are more important sources of news, especially in a country where there is still widespread illiteracy.  What I find more important, however, is that (parallel to the point I made about photography) Egyptians can in large numbers openly access news from abroad (BBC Arabic is also available on-line and through satellite and no longer requires a short-wave in the kitchen) as well as receiving a broad range of critical views and information from at-home. 

Shaykh Gad al-Haqq might be pleased that more women are wearing headscarves than in his day, but he might be less pleased at changes within the institution he once headed.   In 2007 the Azhar Council on Islamic Research issued a statement that female genital mutilation is neither required nor desirable from the point of view of Islamic law.  The death of 12-year old Badour Shakour that June as a result of such an operation shocked much of the country’s conscience although it is also estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of Egyptian women in the 15-49 year old age range have been subjected to one or another variation of it.  The procedure was medicalized in the 1990s and only physicians could legally perform it until it was completely criminalized in 2008.  If the Azhar and the present Mufti of the Republic, Ali Gomaa, are on board, the parliamentary delegation of the Muslim Brothers was not.  They opposed the 2008 legislation on the grounds that it was yet another measure imposed on an unwilling society by an authoritarian state and that the procedure was not, in fact, in opposition to classical Islamic law.  One of the deeper ironies of their stance was that it not only contradicted the Azhar but was in opposition to the expressed opinion of Gamal al-Banna, the now elderly younger brother of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers.  Gamal al-Banna was considered a stalking horse for the Islamist movement in the 1940s when, as a trade union official, he regularly had run-ins with the left and he spent much of the Nasser and Sadat eras in a kind of splendid isolation writing books on Islamic labor law, the increasingly violent Islamist movements that murdered Shaykh Dhahabi, and the failure of the Weimar Republic.  Western commentators tie themselves in knots trying to discover whether his grand-nephew, the Francophone scholar Tariq Ramadan is truly liberal, truly open, and an important spokesman for Islamic movements.  Al-Banna meanwhile has emerged as a strikingly open defender of Islamic liberalism who work is exclusively published in Arabic for Arabic-speaking audiences.  Many of those engaged in violent Islamist movements of the kind that first emerged into public view in 1977 are now seriously considering engaging in electoral politics.  Nowhere is this more striking than in the transformation of two cousins convicted of participating in the assassination of Anwar Al-Sadat, Tariq and Abboud Zumr.  They were released from prison after the revolution not because the new regime was particularly well-disposed to them but because they had served their prison terms and were being held without any legal justification whatsoever.  Unlike many Egyptians they claim to have found the late Mubarak era less problematic for Egyptian hopes of democracy than the period when Anwar Sadat was president.  At all events, they now expect, if not themselves to run, at least to be members of an Islamist party (not the Muslim Brothers) in politics.

There is a peculiar debate about democracy waged in the American and European press these days and much of it centers on whether Egyptian society is conducive to democracy.  This debate remains curiously frozen in opposing and highly ideological camps to my mind.  Where some observers see very little change in an Islamic social ethos that drove protests for justice in medieval Cairo and during Napoleon’s invasion similar to those of the past century, others see a vibrant democracy now encompassing almost all the organized political forces in the country including the Muslim Brothers and the so-called Salafis.   On that summer day in 1977 when I destroyed some innocuous film, Egypt still echoed with the slogan “No voice higher than the voice of the revolution” which had been used to choke off debate and discussion.  Egypt is, in many ways a different place than it was then and Egyptians are, in equally many ways, trying to make it more different still.  This revolution, unlike what occurred in 1952, has allowed a plurality of voices to be heard.  That’s a very important and wonderful thing to my mind but by the very nature of plurality they’re not all singing the same song. 

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