Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing anthropology of and for the revolution

Exactly one year after the I began writing this blog, here a more self-reflective essay about my experience of engaged anthropology, written after returning to Berlin and the academic everyday.

(Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar kindly motivated me to write it for a thematic section of Cultural Anthropology, where a more polished version can be read: http://www.culanth.org/?q=node/485.)

In the revolutionary year 2011, blogs and other online media have become sites where engaged researchers try to understand events as they evolve; researchers have themselves been engaged supporters of or activists in the uprisings. In my own case, engaged ethnography and analysis of events as they evolve has become a kind of anthropological theory in its own right. Throughout 2011, I have been writing a blog about the Egyptian revolution. Sometime in the spring of 2011, a colleague congratulated me for my blog and said that he was really looking forward to read my research output. I didn’t know how to answer because I then realised that the blog had become the research output. An academic article might never be able to convey what I think the blog did convey.

For me it started on January 28, 2011. On that day, still unaware of the terrible death toll that had resulted from the government’s attempt to violently suppress what probably were and still are the largest protests in the history of Egypt, I decided I had to go there. Having conducted research about the aspirations and frustrations of Egyptians for many years, and hearing friends in Egypt tell me that I really should be there, that “this day would have needed you”, I felt that going to Egypt was a kind of moral obligation. I could not remain a spectator. I was hesitant, however, knowing that the situation was unsafe. My partner Daniela Swarowsky said that if I really wanted to go, I shouldn’t do it just for myself. I should write about it, let the world know what I see. This I did, with the help of Daniela and my colleague Nazan Maksudian who regularly updated the blog during the first days. In the course of three subsequent trips to Egypt (two short ones in the spring, and a long one in the autumn), I have continued updating the blog and, thanks to the efforts of the translator Amr Khairy and the publisher Muhammad Sarhan, the part covering the first two trips was published in Arabic as a book last November (http://elshaab.org/thread.php?ID=9927).

My timing was often bad. On my first trip, I arrived in Egypt just days after 28 January. I left just days before 11 February when Mubarak stepped down. On my second trip, I returned one day before the constitutional referendum of 19 March - doing justice to the title of the blog “You’ll be late for the revolution” (I’m indebted for the phrase to the then five years old son of my friend M. who hosted me in Cairo). But covering dramatic events was never my intention in the first place. Rather, I tried to listen to different voices and look at various events that evolved in the revolutionary square as well as outside it. Most of the time, the blog follows very closely the format of my fieldwork diary, combining observations and discussions of the day with some preliminary analytical considerations. And judging by readers’ comments the blog’s value, if any, lies in this combination of ethnographic attention to detail along with the attempt to theorise events as they unfold.

What kind of theory is it, then? First of all, it is a very unsteady theory, changing from day to day. Times of revolutionary transformation are not good for high theory. In a time when one wakes up in the morning not knowing what the evening will bring, and when every day has a different mood and dynamics, one needs a situated theory that makes sense of the moment without making pretensions of explaining it all. Anything that I and other engaged academics have written during 2011 bears the mark of the historical moment - not just of the year, but of the day, even the hour - and is valuable not in spite of but because of its inherent historicity.

This also means that one shouldn’t be afraid of getting it wrong. I still think that one of the best essays in my blog is that written on 6 February, a very incoherent attempt to think through the accomplishments of the revolution while it was still happening (http://samuliegypt.blogspot.com/2011/02/now-its-gonna-be-long-one-some-first.html). In that essay, I quite mistakenly assume that the then vice president Omar Suleyman was consolidating his grip on the country and that the revolutionaries were facing a long struggle. While wrong on a number of key points, that essay also conveys the sensibility of that moment, during two or three calm days in which the sit-in in Tahrir was fairly small and it was very unclear how events would evolve. Those less dramatic days were later overshadowed by the cathartic climax of 11 February, but looking back now, I think they offer more insights about the complexity of what was going on than the celebratory moment of victory. And interestingly, while I was wrong about the firm grip of Omar Suleyman on power, I was right about the long struggle ahead.

Second, it was always clear for me that I was writing not just about the revolution but for the revolution. The same writing was intended both as anthropological analysis as well as revolutionary propaganda (directed mainly at a Western readership oscillating between enthusiasm and scepticism about the events). This is a tricky thing. Scientific research is obliged to an ethos of truth, while revolutionary action requires a tactical relationship with truth. At the same time, I also believe that a revolutionary uprising is one of those situations where one cannot speak truthfully about the events without choosing sides. When people are shot dead, there is no neutral ground for disengaged analysis. My account of the Egyptian revolution is an extremely partisan one, and I would consider it a failure if it were otherwise.

Curiously, however, Egyptian readers of my blog see things differently. Amr Khairy, who translated the blog into Arabic, told me that he found it valuable exactly because of its neutrality and objectivity. I heard the same comment from others who complimented me for drawing a complex and nuanced picture of different voices and stances that they themselves would be neither willing or able to produce in the currently highly polarised political atmosphere. Perhaps this is something that anthropology in particular is good at: taking seriously and doing justice to people with whom one disagrees.

Finally, the concept of revolution itself is an engaged one. From the beginning, sceptical voices have cautioned against revolutionary euphoria, arguing that the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere only counted as such if they are successful in fundamentally changing the system of government and economy against which the uprisings originally were directed. By such measures, the Egyptian uprising hardly qualifies as a revolution so far. But there is another, more experiential and moral aspect to using the concept revolution. My friend M., who works in one of Egypt’s leading independent newspapers, tells that a few days after January 25, an editorial decision was made to use the word “revolution” in the headlines. This was a political decision, a conscious act of propaganda to push forward a sense that what was going on was not just a protest for the sake of reform, but a revolution to overthrow the system. Thus when I write about the Egyptian revolution, it is not only to say there was a revolution, but also that there needs to be one, that the uprising that began on January 25, 2011, must end in victory.

7 comments:

  1. I'd advice everyone seeing this blog for the first time, to read this entry before reading from the start. As a reader i am grateful for the narrative you provided for days from the revolution, how people felt, how it tasted to be there on the ground. I consider that article on February 6 one of the best on the blog, and I will keep checking for new articles. The tale is not over yet.

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  2. And that comment was from Amr Khairy.

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    Replies
    1. And thanks to Amr, people can read it in Arabic, too. And the tale is not over yet, indeed!

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