Monday, February 5, 2018

Where is Alexandria? (The East of the City and the Chinese Housing: A Fragment)

[This is a fragment from an article and a book chapter that I'm working on right now and that hopefully will be published in a year or two. So that you don't have to wait that long, here a preview. An earlier version of the entire article has already been published in Arabic. You can read it here: أين تقع الإسكندرية؟]

6. The East of the City

While public sector cultural flagships like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina have engaged in nostalgic celebration of “cosmopolitan Alexandria” (Awad and Hamouda 2006), a certain anti-nostalgic backlash has emerged in parts of the cultural scene: Interestingly, this backlash is produced partly by the very same people who twenty years earlier were trying to reconnect their urban present with its past non-Arabic inhabitants and literatures (e.g. Raouf 2016). And paradoxically enough, it is being articulated by people who are internationally well-connected and who read both English and Arabic literature and social theory (and some read French) – that is, people who would easily qualify as cosmopolitan by most counts.

Among them is Ali Al-Adawy, born in 1985 in the eastern suburb of Abu Qir, organiser of film and cultural programmes, writer and editor. Since 2014, he and some of his friends have been working to put together a research and film project about the East of the City which, in their view, has replaced the historical Downtown as the centre of the city. The East of the City – especially the district of Sidi Bishr – represents an anonymous, consumerist, at once conservative and individualist form of urbanity influenced by Egyptian migration to the Gulf, import-export business, Islamic revival, and unrestrained real estate expansion. If the old central districts stand for what Alexandria may once have been, Sidi Bishr shows what it is now becoming – and quite literally so: the race to demolish villas and smaller apartment buildings and to build 15-floor high-rises in their place began in the East of the City around the turn of the millennium.

Entering the east of Alexandria on 45 Street / International Road. Photo by Samuli Schielke, 2016.

After 2011, this demolition and construction boom has engulfed almost the entire city. Old popular quarters like Bahary, Ghurbal and others have become thoroughly transformed, a large portion of their older houses replaced by high-rises. Exclusive new projects on landfills are making the sea inaccessible and invisible in many parts of the Corniche (El Nemr 2017). Beaches already were not free since a decade or two of privatisation of public space, but until now, one could still look at the sea for free.

Some urban activists try to document and protect urban architectural heritage.1 But with government and private interests aligned towards making maximum profit from construction and real estate, a progressive erasure of the city appears unstoppable. And with the gradual disappearance of the sea shore behind resorts on landfill, one day Alexandria may no longer be a city by the sea for its non-privileged inhabitants.

In search of ways to overcome what he sees as an unproductive nostalgia in writing about the city, Ali turned to the work of Walther Benjamin. With funding by Goethe Institut he organised a workshop about “Benjamin and the City”. Ali hoped that Benjamin’s way of writing about Berlin and Paris (Benjamin 1991a; 1991b) might provide directions to overcome the cosmopolitan nostalgia, and to deconstruct all and any narratives of the city:

“The idea of the narrative of the city – be it an old and conservative narrative, or a contemporary one – is an ideological idea that constantly relies on the historical, political, social, and economic framework and context. It expresses the reality that it in a way produced despite all its attempts to disguise it.” (Al-Adawy et al. 2016: 6)

The main outcome of the workshop was a small collection of essays that was presented in El Cabina on March 10, 2016. It produced something more contradictory than what Ali may have aimed for. The texts were evenly divided between two approaches: Abdelrehim Youssef, teacher, poet and cultural programmer at El Cabina, and Yasmine Hussein, researcher in Alexandria Library and photographer, had each written childhood memories with an eye for minute details and personal experiences, inspired by “the dominance of the poetic” (in the words of Abdelrehim) in Childhood in Berlin. Hager Saleh, M.A. student in history, and Hakim AbdelNaim, actor and theatre director, produced more comprehensive critical engagements with the city. An expression that came up in the latter two texts was al-madina al-za’ila “the perishing/non-permanent city”, a vision of a city in constant process of erasure. In the words of Hager Saleh:

“Thus the city likes to show off its passing/perishing (za’ila) cosmopolitanism. It hides its history and covers it with dust as if it were a disgrace that deserves to be erased, and then again boasts of it with insolence. The city persistently reinvents itself, carrying a new face in every era and hiding its old face under rubble.” (Saleh 2016: 10)

A long discussion followed after the presentation. Although it had not been a major theme in the workshop, a controversy about “nostalgia or not” dominated that discussion.

The theatre director and manager of a performing arts NGO Ahmed Saleh claimed: “Also today’s writings were loaded with nostalgia, just like the writings of the past 20 years. What new does Benjamin offer?” Abdelrehim disagreed and pointed out that three of the five texts presented were critical of nostalgia; only his and Yasmine’s leaned towards nostalgia. Hakim commented that Ahmed probably intentionally played the role of the provocator. More important than nostalgia or not, he went on, was to question the classist aspirations of the specific nostalgia for a city by the sea. From what kind of societal configuration did that city emerge?

The poet and guest participant in the workshop Ahmed Abdel Gabbar defended a nostalgic relatedness to the past and its traces:

“Cavafy also didn’t write of Alexandria of his age, but of the Hellenic era. That history is still present, under the earth. Kharrat’s popular quarters and Durrell’s Cecil Hotel are still there in the city you move in. While I speak I see the ruins of the demolished Rialto Cinema. But it was there. Even if only in the layout of the streets, the traces remain with us. I see nostalgia positively, if it means that I know what I write about.”

Hager countered: “We are drawn to cosmopolitan longing because of its dramatic touch. Like classical tragedy, it is attractive.” Addressing the many historic periods of the city and its varying centres and dominant groups, she pointed out that the location of the city itself was constantly in the move: “The city is not something solid.”

Mohamed Elshahed, editor of the Cairobserver magazine on urbanity and architecture in Egypt, insisted on a more complex picture. The way we speak about the past reflects the way we speak about the present and reproduces its blind spots, he argued. What is left out in the binary of the khawagas (as in Durrell) and the popular quarters (as in Kharrat), he argued, is the social history of Alexandria from the 1940’s to 60’s, a period of major social mobility of urban inhabitants of Egyptian origin, when many rural migrants climbed into bourgeois society.

I mentioned my ongoing work on this article and asked: “Where is the Alexandria that we write about after nostalgia?” Yasmine replied: “The question ‘Where is Alexandria?’ has no answer.” She pointed out that even the ancient, Hellenistic layer of the city (her specialisation as a researcher) has been given different locations by historians, some focussing on the intellectual and political elites, and others on the ordinary life of the illiterate majority. Mukhtar addressed Ali, asking: “Do you still want to work on the East of City, the ugly, modern, post-nostalgic face of the city?” Ali replied: “The workshop wasn’t an attempt of an anti-nostalgic manifesto, but of a debate, the more so since writing about the city is an established genre.” The East of the City was an ongoing project, he added: “How can we trace its unofficial history? How can we understand its ugliness as an aesthetic stance?”

Abdelaziz ElSebaei, one of the founders of Eskenderella association who together with Maher Sharef had left it in 2013, intervened to problematise what he called “the passion for the city”:

“It has become a sort of national disease. I’m not against engagement with the city. But we always try to reach back to times before us. Myself, I’m not as upset today as I was twenty years ago when an old house is demolished.”

The presentation of the Benjamin workshop in March 2016 marked a departure from the nostalgic tone that had dominated the photo exhibition and poetry symposium in 2011. It lined up with an emerging shift from the binary towards the fragmentary in writings about the city, such as in Alaa Khaled's Alexandrian Faces (2012) that brings together past and present characters of the city in a mosaic that combines both icons of the cosmopolitan era such as Cavafy as well as more recent eccentric outsiders such as the football fan and graffiti writer Gamal El-Dowaly. The Benjamin workshop also coincided with other cultural events and publications in 2016 that balanced between a nostalgic search for ways to remain connected to the city’s 20th century history and the positive values it might represent on the one hand, and a demand to recognise the self-erasing, conflicted, and divided character of the city’s present and past, on the other hand. Events I attended include a history workshop curated by Aliaa Mosallam that highlighted social conflicts and radical politics in the early 20th century (Nizar 2016), and a public debate on the curse and possible uses of nostalgia organised by Amro Ali.

What had changed? A generational shift is part of the story. Some participants in the Benjamin workshop, notably Hager Saleh and Hakim Abdel Naim, are young enough to have experienced their generational formation during the revolutionary period. But others had been active in the scene already before 2011, and Abdelaziz ElSebaei was born in 1949. Nostalgia is a reflection of the present against which it is posited, and the present had changed. For those who around 2016 questioned the nostalgia for old Alexandria, the very recent events of the revolution provided a more pertinent nostalgic relation to the present. Theirs was now a more conflicted and combatant longing for a future very recently lost, and the myth of an unchanging spirit of true Alexandria appeared less helpful to provide orientation in the city and country they lived in. By 2016, after a defeated revolution and a victorious construction boom, the topos of unsolved conflicts and permanent erasure had become more pertinent, and the nostalgic vision of connectedness and openness more difficult to maintain (see also Faruq 2017).

In a short text published a year later, Hakim AbdelNaim made explicit the link between his suspicion towards nostalgia and the trauma of the defeated revolution:

“All places are accompanied by trauma, by post-traumatic stress disorder, by an enormous affective experience that was not completed, that found no occasion to have a light ending, or even a heavy one but without a sudden cut, as if a person dies burning and remains in his final state, state of trauma... and who knows if he died of trauma or of heat? I detest longing and everything that has a relation with longing and everything that makes me feel that it is part of the longing I detest. I fear it and its closed circle.” (AbdelNaim 2017)

And yet the critical rethinking of the city and its myths also shows remarkable continuities – personal, institutional and thematic alike. The essays of the Benjamin workshop were published in the Tara al-Bahr magazine dedicated to literary, historical and theoretical reflections about Alexandria. It is edited by some of the same people who were present at the Walther Benjamin workshop – and mostly read by people in the same circles. Its authors include people like Khaled Abdel Raouf and Maher Sherif who in the past played a major role in the literary rediscovery of non-Arabic Alexandria. It was made possible by a European grant for three issues (which the editors stretched to make four), and while it does not serve the Euro-cosmopolitan myth, it does converge with a donor interest in cities and urbanity. The same magazine also published the above-quoted text by Hakim Abdel Naim – and the Arabic translation of an earlier version of this article (Schielke 2016).

Like Alaa Khaled's literary work and Aliaa El Mosallam's history workshops, also Tara al-Bahr is consciously aimed at producing a complex rather than a binary vision of the city. And yet by the very virtue of its intensive concern with the city as such, as its primary topic and focus, it, too, contributes to the mythologisation of Alexandria. It is a different myth, however. It tells of Alexandria as a perishing, non-permanent city made of conflicts, fragmentation and erasure.

The myth of the non-permanent city has the paradoxical advantage over the myth of the cosmopolitan open city that it is more inclusive. It has space for both Manshiya and Sidi Bishr, both Bahary and the Chinese Housing. The myth of the non-permanent city is cosmopolitan in its own way, in the sense that it tells about the urban coexistence of difference; however it highlights conflicts over harmony. I am definitely not impartial in this matter. Part of a wider shift of academic interest towards understanding Alexandria as an ordinary city in the present (see, e.g., El Chazli 2018), this article contributes to the narrative that highlights conflicts and erasure. With the publication of the Arabic version of this article in December 2016, it became a part of the conversation it tells about. And yet the issue at hand is not an opposition of a romantic fantasy of what Alexandria might once have been vs. a realistic recognition of what the city really is. The very question about what or where the city “really” is, is an exercise in fantasy. Every location of the city is the product of a certain politically and morally loaded work of imagination (Chiti 2016). Hamdy’s rewriting of the cosmopolitan myth from the point of view of the popular districts, Mukhtar’s emphasis on the ugly face of the city, even Ali’s search to deconstruct the narrative unilinearity of “the city”, are all expressions and draft blueprints of specific urban mythologies where sites, streets and fictional characters embody specific affective, political and moral visions and conflicts. They are blueprints with continuities, and yet as the change of tone in El Cabina events between 2011 and 2016 shows, they are also in a constant process of rewriting.

7. The Chinese Housing, once more

In June 2016, Omayma Abdelshafy, one of the editors of the Tara al-Bahr magazine where the essays of the Benjamin workshop had been published, reflected about the intertwining of telling of the city and imagining what it might be, in a prose poem she published on social media:

the imaginary one
that only exists in our pure illusions
is waiting for me
over there
in its heart a single drop of truth
I love it
and long for return to it
Alexandria has no power over it
but I left it there
so that I may not lose touch with the city
that I sometimes considered my mother
because I am stupid enough
to be the daughter of a city not yet told
it is made up entirely of immaculate dreams
and complex myths
Many compete to craft it
with poor fantasy
that suits all its beauty.

In the discussion following the Benjamin workshop in March 2016, Amro Ali had suggested that “the curse of Alexandria is that it is more powerful in imagination.” But what is the thrust of that imagination? Is it one of a “crippling nostalgia” as Amro called it, or is there space for a forward-looking dreaming? In the final comment to the discussion Mohamed Elshahed called for “a nostalgia for the future, a radical vision. We live in a fascist era, so let’s long for the future.”

A longing for the future echoes Ernst Bloch's (1959) “concrete utopias”: visions of a better world that include a plan of action, or at least an expectation that they can be reached. For Bloch, Marxism provided the one true concrete utopia to strive for. But for those Alexandrian writers I know (especially those of self-declared revolutionary or leftist inclinations), crafting concrete utopias of the future is not literature’s main task. Especially the younger generations among them have less faith than previous generations did in the modernist ideal of “committed literature” (Jacquemond 2008; Pepe 2015). In a way resembling a wider tendency of liberal-left movements and thinking worldwide, they provide critique and alternative ways of life in the present rather than utopian visions for future societal progress.

Insofar the literary visions of Alexandria discussed in this article deal with concrete utopias, they are either located in a nostalgic past; or there are inspired by the experienced, transient utopian moment of the revolutionary uprising that in itself was a better world even if it failed to change the future of the country. Future visions that I have encountered in recent literary takes on Alexandria tend to be rather dystopian (Shehata 2017; ElToukhi 2014), reflecting a wider literary trend in Egypt towards dystopian fiction (Towfik 2011; ElToukhi 2014; Nagui 2015; Rabie 2016; Alter 2016).

Utopias of bright future are today more a thing of the right: be they militarist nationalist fantasies of grandeur, or Islamist promises of a moral society on the path to Paradise after death (although both also share each their own nostalgic past). Some of the concrete utopias proliferated by the regime in the shape of nationalist prestige projects and new cities, are all too similar to some dystopian fictions of a country divided between secluded rich suburbs and an urban hell (Towfik 2011). They only promise a better future for the better-off.

Future is in any case a tricky thing in Alexandria. If carbon emissions continue anywhere near the current rate and the climate change goes on as predicted, large parts of the city will be submerged due to rising sea levels by the end of the 21st century (Stanley and Clemente 2017). The parts of the city that are closest to the sea are higher and will less affected, but most of the inland sub-urban crescent is built on former lakes and marshes, and will become uninhabitable. Alexandria will again be a city by the sea, but it will hardly be a beautiful sight.

The news about the next, perhaps most catastrophic erasure in the long history of Alexandria's erasures are only beginning to reach the city's inhabitants. In the meantime, what concrete utopias, what imaginations for a thisworldly future,3 may be available for those inhabitants of the city who are not included in the regimes schemes of a new parallel Egypt for the rich?

Perhaps writers are not the right addressee for this question. Omaima Abdelshafy's imaginary parallel Alexandria was remarkably void of details: a critical companion of the materially existing Alexandria rather than a vision of what it could also be. The more important power of literary imagination is not to produce daydreams, but to give reality a twist.

And while one should view utopias critically, one needs to be cautious about urban dystopias as well (Robinson 2010). There are also other useful visions around.

In spring 2016, I visited Mustafa again in the Chinese Housing. He had made some progress. Since business in his original trade was bad and no improvement was in sight, he had opened a shop for household goods as the junior partner of a local trader. Business was acceptable, and he was feeling more at home than ever in the Chinese Housing, and yet he was disillusioned. He had put faith in the revolution in 2011, and voted for Islamist politicians in the elections that followed. In 2013, he had put faith in the military which he by then considered the best and only institution that could lead the country. In 2016, he was positive that there had been no change, and doubted whether any change could be expected in the near future.

Mustafa, along with millions of others, is part and parcel of today's actually existing Alexandria. He is a rural-urban migrant who built a house in an informal settlement. He sympathises with the Salafi movement and their vision of purity, but does not live that way. He says that in practice, the best he can do is approximately following the right path without losing it completely from sight. He is a conservative man who at the same time is open and attentive for different people and ideas. He has a strong entrepreneurial spirit, constantly in search for new opportunities. He lives in what constitutes the anti-city for those who hold to the dream of Alexandria the Open City. And yet many of the values and attitudes he embodies are not so different from those held by the inhabitants of the Open City myth. He is subject to the powers that are transforming the city, but he is also adding his own effort in crafting it towards his needs and values. He reminds us that there still is more to tell about Alexandria.

Rather than dreaming of the Alexandria that might be, Mustafa has been trying to imagine, in more pragmatic vein, what he may realise for himself and his family. He, too, finds it difficult to imagine how things might change for the better. Since a couple of years, his greatest longing is to migrate to the United States with his family to offer his daughter a better future. But while he has been submitting an application for the green card lottery every year, he also appreciates the opportunities that he has been able the find around him.

The next time I met Mustafa in autumn 2016, I showed him the Arabic translation of an earlier version of this chapter to check whether I had quoted him correctly and whether he agreed with the passages. He agreed, and added: “For me, the Chinese Housing was like America.” He explained: when he moved to the area, he did not like it much, and his wife (who grew up in the East of the City) liked it even less. But he found it full of opportunities, and he learned to like it. Manshiya with its established businesses and networks was already occupied. It had no space for someone like him with no history and no connections. The Chinese Housing and the surrounding informal neighbourhoods, in contrast, were still in becoming, not yet solid, not yet occupied, and therefore a place where one could find and seize opportunities. For Mustafa, it carried some of the mythological aura of the American Dream.

What makes Mustafa an interesting theorist of the city is that he does not try to provide a theory of “the city”. Instead, he has a handful of useful theories of different parts of the city, which he appreciates in different ways. His vision of Alexandria is not binary but rather plural, perhaps even pluralist. When asked, he was positive about Bahari being the real, authentic Alexandria. But he appreciates, even loves the Chinese Housing, Manshiya, and Bahari each for its own reasons: the first as a space of opportunities, the others as places for business but also for precious weekend outings, time out of the ordinary with his family or friends – each with different characteristics and qualities due to their different shape and history.

Concrete utopias of the true, real city tend to pose and answer the question about where Alexandria is in a binary way. Mustafa's specific visions of different parts of Alexandria, in contrast, are not utopias but heterotopias, materially existing places that are qualitatively different from others – for better or worse (Foucault 1986; de Boeck 2004: 254-258). Heterotopias, too, carry the binary structure of mythology: they are “other spaces” as opposed to an assumed normal, primary space. But it is a binary where the roles of “real” and “anti” are not firmly fixed. The Downtown area and the seafront are heterotopias par excellence: areas associated with outings, shopping, a time out of the ordinary - and also counter-normative activities such as drinking in bars (see also Ryzova 2015). As a metaphorical America, also the Chinese Housing has heterotopic qualities – this time juxtaposed to Downtown as an established Old World. In similar way, Mukhtar's and Ali's writings and reflections about the East of the City evoke urban heterotopias that mirror (and are mirrored by) older forms of urbanity that are being erased. And while Hamdy's Ghurbal of his childhood and the House of Cavafy (the one where the museum is, not the one from which Hamdy and Khaled were kicked out) can be elevated into embodiments of a concrete utopia of true Alexandria, they could also be told about as heterotopic sites among others that mark the city's many imaginary locations.

Considering myths as social theories means considering the possibility that some of them may give a truer, more helpful account than others of the realities they describe. The essentialising utopias of an organic, true, better city that are evoked by cosmopolitan nostalgia in its popular-quarter and seaside varieties alike need to be recognised as what they are: dreams and strivings for beauty and ease of life that are made only more compelling by their increasingly counterfactual character. However, anti-utopian myths of erasure and conflicts, along with a specific appreciation of the heterotopic qualities of a fragmented city, can provide a better orientation to understand what kind of a city Alexandria today is, where it is and in what directions is it moving.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

حواران عن الأننثروبولوجيا على يوتيوب Two interviews about anthropology in Arabic

هنا روابط لحواريت طويلين معي عن علم الأنثروبولوجيا وعن عملي العلمي على يوتيوب، الأول قام به أحمد يعد زايد في صالونه الفلسفي في الإسكمدرية في فبراير 2017 والكلام عن أنثروبولوجيا أو علم الإنسان بصفة عامة، والآخر قام به بلال فضل في برنامج عصير الكتب على قناة التلفزيون العربي في ديسمبر 2017، والكلام عن كتاباتي العلمية.

Here are the links to two long interviews/conversations in Arabic with me about anthropology and my research, both on Youtube. The first is by Ahmed Saad Zayed in his philosophical salon in Alexandria in February 2017, discussing the scientific discipline of social and cultural anthropology in more general terms. The second is by Belal Fadl on his show Aseer El-Kutub (book juice) on Al-Araby TV channel in December 2017, focussed on my scientific research.

قصة علم الإنسان (الأنثروبولوجيا) مع أحمد سعد زايد، جزءان
The story of anthropology with Ahmed Saad Zayed; two parts

2. برنامج عصير الكتب مع بلال فضل، ثلاثة أجزاء
Aseer El-Kutub interview by Belal Fadl; three parts

Monday, November 27, 2017

Speaking out loud and remaining invisible (or: is graffiti literature?)

[Update 16 April 2018: The complete, final version of the entire photo essay is now published and can be downloaded here:]

This is a fragment from a longer photo essay about wall-writings in Alexandria. As part of my ongoing fieldwork on literary writing, I occasionally photograph graffiti in Alexandria, Egypt. They are usually what Thomas Northoff calls "word graffiti", writings in public space that have something to say. (So I'm not after "street art", and luckily there are enough others busy doing that.) Special thanks are due to Youssef El Chazli in whose forthcoming publication Everyday Alexandria the complete long photo essay will be published.

Are these writings literature? Some of them have undeniable literary or poetic quality. And even when they don't, they do contribute to something like a poetry of open spaces – poetry in the wider sense that they suggest imaginative and associative ways to restructure open spaces, give them symbolic depth and complexity. But literature is both more and less than the aesthetic, imaginative work of words: it is an institutional field (in the sense described by Pierre Bourdieu) in which some forms of writing, speech and reading are included, and others excluded (Michael Allan has made a good point about this in his recent book).

The question is thus not whether wall-writing is literature or not, but how some wall-writing may become literature. Social media is instrumental for such becoming.

The writings on the city's three-dimensional walls often mingle with the metaphorical walls of social media feeds as inhabitants of the city are engaged in poetic, transient conversations and commentary on their phones while they move through their city. Sometimes the different poetics and materialities of wall-writing also converge when social media memes reproduce photos of wall-writing. During the intense days of revolutionary political contestation, photos of expressive messages on walls were often shared and distributed to underline one's stances. I first encountered them as images of wall-writings in Alexandria or Cairo that were photographed and circulated on Facebook by people who lived in those cities. Increasingly, messages on walls have become distributed online as aphoristic texts out of context. This growing online circulation of wall-writings has in turn inspired new ways of writing on open-air walls. As the mood has become more subdued and fearful in the recent years, and political wall-writing rarer, a different genre has become more visible: poetic messages – often songlines by popular bands:

“And I wonder how your fragrance spreads without your presence”. Song line by Jadal, Jordanian pop-rock band. To the right of the song line is a stencilled advertisement for hearing aids. Corniche by Ibrahimiya, Alexandria, September 2017. Photo by Samuli Schielke.

This is a decidedly hybrid genre that thrives on the interface between the virtual and open-air walls.

Two young women I know (they both come from a family I know in a village and have moved to Alexandria to study) often post photos of wall-writing on their social media feeds, either as background images of their Facebook walls, or as individual posts. They collect and save images on the Internet, where one of their main sources is the Facebook site Gudran/Walls. The site had over 100,000 followers by summer 2017. It is administered by an Egyptian but some of the wall-writings posted recently on the site appear to come from the Levant. The writings are sometimes religious, philosophical or political, but most importantly romantic. They often have clear literary ambitions, tending towards an aphoristic or poetic form. Many are also signed, thus laying a claim to individual authorship.

S., a university student in Alexandria in her early twenties, told me why she often posted images of this genre of graffiti on her Facebook account:

"In my view, the images of graffiti are better because everybody sees them and they communicate what people want to say, while posts are not seen by all, because images draw the attention of the eyes. […] And besides, people interact more with the image than when you write text."

A., a university students in her late teens who lives between the village and Alexandria, saw the online images of graffiti as part of an emerging generational youth culture:

"I in my opinion find them very useful, especially after the revolution and the spread of underground artists, and they also have a better future because most people in my generation are interested in this kind of writings."

The two women's appreciation of such hybrid messages – analogue turned digital, writing and image at once – and skill in dealing with them is telling of the transformation of both written and visual culture in the digital age. The crossover between walls of brick, mortar and wood and the digital wall is central for the attraction of the genre.

Just like three-dimensional wall-writings, also their digital avatars are mostly anonymous. Additionally, they also become decontextualised and delocalised. Images posted on Gudran/Walls always contain a transcription of the message because the handwriting may be difficult to read. Some of the writings are signed, but their circulated images are never dated and never localised – except incidentally through dialect and references to events like the Syrian civil war. Their indexical and referential relation with specific persons, conflicts or issues is entirely or largely severed. They transform into travelling aphoristic literary texts that are appreciated as such by those who circulate them. According to A:

"The images I post are by unknown people, and I don't know what the motivation is behind the pages that upload them. … I select them on the basis of the similarity between what is inside me and what is written. … That is, I use these images to express what I don't know to write in a direct manner in a Facebook post."

For A., images of wall-writing work in a way that is analogous to the memorised verses of poetry, songs, and proverbs that have been part of the culture of expression in different languages since age immemorial. The digital walls of S. and A. respectively generate something like a poetic map of some of their stances, moods, and public emotions. In their wall-writing posts, they both appear often as romantic, sentimental, religious, and committed to their parents and families - and sometimes as ironical or sarcastic:

“Never mind.” (An expression used in Egyptian Arabic as an excuse or to soothe somebody who is upset). In the comment section, M. has posted a caricature where a person is surrounded by characters who all say “Never mind.” Posted by S. on 22 March 2017. Probably seafront of Alexandria. Date, photographer and original source unknown.

A. also often posts and circulates images that are explicitly political or socially critical, reflecting her more outwardly rebellious attitude, like this one which she forwarded to me sometime after  I interviewed her. It, too, is a song line:

“They sedated you in the artery and said: your apathy is good for the motherland”. Song line from Al-Watan (Motherland) by the Lebanese band Mashrou Leyla. Photography and original post by Fares Abdallah, 23 February 2017. Location unknown.

While the images of such texts are delocalised, for A. and others who circulate them, they resonate with a knowledge of the entire song as well as the class habitus and worldviews associated with the artists and style of music. The music of Mashrou Leyla in particular resonates with a liberal, even rebellious attitude but importantly also with (the aspiration for) a bourgeois, cosmopolitan habitus. But this is of course not the only story A. and her virtual wall have to tell. A different selection of her online posts would show her as somebody very committed to her mother. Like the poetry one cites, the images they post move in that productively ambiguous space where they are common popular culture and intimate expression at once, and may stand in contrast to other roles and expressions they cultivate, without necessarily entering a conflict with them (this something which was pointed by Lila Abu-Lughod already in the 1980's in her work on Bedouin women's poetry).

Speaking out loud and remaining invisible

Writings on all kinds of walls – those made of mortar, brick and concrete as well as virtual ones – combine disclosure, anonymity and intimacy, and cross over conventional limits of ordinary and literary language. This makes them interesting as historical witnesses of various kinds of conversations that go on among the inhabitants of a city, both straightforward as well as poetic.

Whenever I arrive in Alexandria (I live in Berlin but come often for shorter or longer visits), I take the minibus from al-Mandara to al-Manshiya and read the graffitis on the Corniche. Having read them often and knowing where to expect them, I also read their absences. For me, this has proven a good way to get a sense of the current mood and situation, because wall-writings tell me about issues that might not make it into the news (such as love affairs and job ads), and because they contain voices that I may not otherwise hear by people whom I may never meet.

The grand old man of Egyptian sociology Sayed Oweis (1903-1988) paid remarkable attention in his work to such writings in public space, which by the way have a long tradition in Egypt. In his book "The Chanting of the Silent" (هتاف الصامتين) he studied messages written on vehicles (something that is very common in Egypt today as well) that he documented in the 1960's. For Oweis, the people who wrote their messages on vehicles were “silent” in the sense of being sub-altern, not heard among the hegemonic voices of late Nasserist Egypt. And yet in Oweis' work, the sub-altern certainly do speak, and eloquently so. But they do so on the condition of their invisibility. I doubt whether the 21st century wall-writers generally speak from the sub-altern position in which Oweis located drivers and vendors of the late 1960's. The music of Jadal and Mahsrou Leyla cited in two of the above images speaks mainly to young people who either command or aspire to a cosmopolitan sense of global connectedness. Rather than a means of expression for people who are otherwise silenced, walls are better understood as a space that is accessible to subaltern and nonhegemonic voices, but not to them alone.

In that sense, wall-writings can be literature because they participate in a poetic making of moods and space that relies on words and imagination, and - most importantly - they are read and circulated in that capacity. But in another sense, they differ from the institutional meaning of literature, because "literature" in the institutional sense has aesthetic, formal, linguistic and other mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, which wall-writing does not have.

Wall-writing relies on the productive tension between speaking out loud and remaining invisible. This tension makes wall-writing a very effective means to communicate and to contest public moods and values, and also to express impolite and aggressive claims, as well as stances that may otherwise be censored. Wall-writing and street art therefore thrive in times of protest and conflict. Their ability to mark and occupy physical space makes them even more potent as means of conflict and contestation. The rise and decline of revolutionary graffiti in Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt since 2011 is a case in point. But wall-writing can be and is used also to legitimate those in power, as well as for altogether different aims. This open-endedness towards different uses – both contrary as well as unrelated ones – makes wall-writings a helpful entry point among others to understanding life in a plural but not pluralistic city like Alexandria that is connected by roads, railway lines, streets, circulations of people, goods, money, ideas, messages and images, while at the same time divided by lines of class, demography, religious and political faiths. They express and make visible a plurality of stances and views, but also point at the precarious, at times explosive nature of their coexistence.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Resistance to what?

Recently I attended a public lecture by Douglas Blum, a political scientist (with ambitions to be a cultural sociologist) who is involved in youth studies. He told that in current debates in youth studies, the old “agency” vs. “structure” debate has made a remarkable comeback. I found that somewhat surprising, since I have learned from anthropological debates in the past two decades that it makes little sense to pit “agency” against “structure”: Conformity and submission to power require a lot of agentic effort, too. And who am I to determine which of the different structuring powers humans live with is “structure” and which may support their “agency”? I was therefore surprised that scholars in other disciplines would still hold to a conceptual opposition where “agency” meant only and exclusively individuals' capacity to act differently from, in opposition to, or in ways not anticipated by “structure.” (What is meant with “structure” here are the traditions, mores, habitus, and relations of power that shape the individuals who grow up in a given society.) I told this to Blum after the talk, and he was somewhat surprised that anybody would think of agency in any other way than that. From his point of view, „agency“ without a its structural counterpart would explain nothing. It would then be simply identical with the ability to do something. And why invent a jargon word for something that is already clearly expressed in plain English?
In Egypt, to reach full adulthood is a highly conventional and pre-structured affair, but the path towards ideal normality is a rocky one. It takes resources, effort, wits, initiative and innovation to do become the kind of woman or man who is good, normal and respectable in a conventional sense. And some people fail. Many are critical of the cost and effort it takes, but few question the underlying aims and principles of the process. So adulthood in Egypt is not a story of the binary of the society's power to shape me versus my ability to do something different (except if you belong to the few who question the whole conventional package). It is a story about the ability to do something that from the point of view of the people involved is important to do.

The consequence has been that I have largely stopped using the word „agency“ in my academic writing because in the way I understand it, it indeed would not add anything to the plain English concept of being able to do something. Many others have had this insight way before me. Saba Mahmood credibly questioned the assumption that the exercise of agency would automatically imply a striving for freedom. James Laidlaw proposed abandoning the concept altogether because it comes with the underlying assumption that the researcher knows better what is and is not structure and what kind of action counts and what not. I agree with both.

And yet anthropology (and social sciences in general) remains haunted by this binary because it points at something that is close to the heart of most scholars in a very leftist academic discipline: the possibility of resistance.

In some of my own work, I have tried to take distance from resistance, and instead I have followed trajectories of people who rather than resisting the compelling „grand schemes“ (such as religion, other moral ideals, love and marriage, social mobility and migration) which they subscribed to, lived along with them in a sincere but half-hearted way: not resisting them, but also not crafting their lives consistently according to them. Evasion, ambivalence, and ambiguity were words I often used when writing about their life trajectories. In some cases I had expected to find resistance, but found none. While some of my friends in urban intellectual milieus would question the theological foundations of the Islamic revival, in the village where I did fieldwork, those theological foundations were beyond questioning and doubt, irresistible and highly compelling – so much indeed that they were also shared by and argued for by people who nevertheless would not live according to them. In other cases, I encountered acts that looked like resistance but did not seem to pose a threat to the powers they were aimed at. Some people I met were proud of their ability to manipulate the corrupt regime in which they were forced to live. They worked badly, diverted ressources, and told me that doing so gave them a sense of dignity and power. I preferred not to interpret this as resistance against the regime, but rather as a form of scornful accommodation that unintentionally became a part of the way Egypt was – and still is – governed.

But then came the revolutionary uprising of January 25, 2011. Along with many other anthropologists, I tossed all my misgivings about resistance and enthusiastically shifted to a much more engaged mode of writing: not just about the revolution, but for the revolution. Now there was open resistance against an oppressive regime, many of my friends and aquaintances were involved in it. How could I not support them? Their story became the last chapter of the book, and it is a chapter that does not fit in well with the rest. Analytically, it is weaker than the preceding ones, written very much still in the moment of the contestation, openly partial (which I'm OK with) and at times bluntly partisan (which I'm not OK with). But I could not leave it out either. It was a part of the reality I encountered, and it was perhaps the part I sympathised with most.

Interestingly, different readers have interpreted the theme of ambivalence, accommodation and resistance in the book quite differently. On the one hand, Maria Golia, a journalist who reviewed the book, highlighted it as a work that shows that while some Egyptians are revolting against the state, many others work hard to be part of it. On the other hand, the anthropologists Nadia Fadil and Mayanthi Fernando mentioned the same book in a critical essay where they argued that my work was part of an approach that privileged resistance towards the Islamic revival and failed to take seriously my interlocutors' ethical work to fit in to conservative values and institutions. (Personally I find the second reading distorting. They read a binary of discipline versus resistance into my work, although the argument I make in that work is that there is a wide field of accommodation, evasion and ambivalence that is about neither resistance nor discipline in a consistent manner. But evidently my book could be read in a binary way, too.)

Perhaps different readers saw different things depending on the specific struggles which they themselves cared about. And while I may not have intended to write about resistance, I certainly did phrase my argument explicitly in opposition to the theoretical take Fadil and Fernando subscribe to. In the spirit of academic debate they replied by highlighting their arguments in opposition to others, including mine. Could one say that I was resisting their preferred way to understand what was going on, and they were resisting mine and others'? It does not sound like the right way to phrase it. We would usually not call academic difference and disagreement resistance. To speak of resistance implies that there is an asymmetry of power, and only when I'm in the weaker position acting against those in the stronger position, it is resistance. This asymmetry gives „resistance“ a moral high ground in exchange for strategical disadvantage.

Therefore it is a common rhetorical trick to depict those one criticises as more powerful than oneself. I have not been innocent of using that trick. It goes easily unnoticed because people who use that trick commonly don't think that it's a trick. They understand that this is what is really going on: my position is the weak and truthful one against your strong and oppressive one.

So when we as academics question the romantic search for resistance (and let me repeat: I agree that we should), we are also questioning somebody's (possibly our own, possibly our peers', possibly our interlocutors', possibly our society's) taken for granted assumptions about who is powerful and oppressive, and who weak and righteous. (And we may also question whether all power is oppressive, and whether the weak are generally righteous.) Or to return to the “structure” and “agency” debate: we are questioning claims about what actually constitutes the relevant “structure” against which we are supposed to measure “agency”.

In a poetry slam in the UK in 2017, the poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan presented a powerful poem about the pressure she as a British Muslim faced to fulfill a public expectation of how and what she ought to be in order to be accepted as a human among others. In a passage that received large applause from the audience she said:

because if you need me to prove my humanity
I'm not the one that's not human

Her poetic performance is precisely the kind of resistance academics are best acquainted with: speaking truth to power. In fact I became aware of her poem because some fellow anthropologists posted the Youtube video and accompanied it with words of recognition and praise. They were among precisely the same anthropologists who have made a credible point against the romantic search for resistance, and who have argued that the search for those who resist excludes those who don't. But now they were very supportive of creative resistance.

So clearly the debate was not about resistance as such, but rather about the question: resistance to what?

Manzoor-Khan expressed in powerful poetic words that which some anthropologists have argued in academic prose. They have worked to question and unsettle (or should I say resist) taken-for-granted secular-liberal assumptions that they (for a large part rightly so, I would say) see as dominant and hegemonic in western societies. This is why they find it important, when writing about Muslims, not to privilege those Muslims who critique, rethink or resist their conservative or established religious traditions, because such privileging would in fact only reproduce the liberal-secular hegemony's bias, and put more pressure on European Muslims to be what the secular public sphere wants them to be instead of being themselves. But this is of course not a fundamental critique of resistance. Rather, theirs is a demand for a different target of resistance: not conservative values and religious traditions, but an all-pervasive, silencing secular-liberal hegemony should be resisted in order to make visible its underlying mechanisms of exclusion and violence.

Which resistance should be recognised and supported, and which claims for resistance need to be taken under critical scrutiny? This is a question that can and indeed should be part of social scientific inquiry, debate, and questioning.

In my view, such questioning is most convincing and truthful when it is empirically based, grounded in the knowledge and awareness of concrete social contexts and conflicts – because otherwise we will keep conveniently questioning only those claims we already find questionable. Some examples of what I mean:

At the time of its emergence in western Europe at the end of the 19th century, Zionism was a liberatory protest movement insofar that it rallied for Jewish self-assertion against hegemonic European anti-Semitism. But when it turned into a successful colonising project, Zionism became the ideological foundation of a regime based on violent conquest, dispossession and dominance over Palestinians. Opponents of Zionism rightly assert that the colonising spirit was ingrained in the movement from the beginning. And yet many current liberation movements also carry chauvinist and supremacist tendencies that may or may not become actualised depending their success and changing historical circumstances. Zionists today may in turn claim that Israel is a precarious and small David facing the hostile Golyath of the Arab countries, but this claim becomes questionable to say the least when we consider that Israel is in possession of nuclear weapons, has unconditional support by the world's leading superpower, successfully and continuously occupies territories it has conquered by wars it has won, and routinely cooperates with the secret services of neighbouring Arab countries.
Liberal secularism is powerful enough in Europe to naturalise some forms of pluralism and difference as good, while problematising and scandalising those forms that don't fit into its own logic. Liberal media in Europe may celebrate Muslims who prefer not to follow ritual obligations such as Ramadan fasting as ”courageous”, but in fact it takes no less courage to refuse to shake hands with the opposite sex when doing so causes a moral panic in the same liberal media. However, a liberal secularist spirit of not only accepting but also embracing plurality and difference, also is an enabling condition of possibility that made Manzoor-Khan's audience in the poetry slam appreciate her words, and applaud her lines that questioned the questioning of Muslim humanity. That is, much of the critique of liberal secularism is itself grounded in liberal-secular values and structures of public sphere. Furthermore, it may be questionable if there exists such a clearly definable object as liberal secularism in the first place. Quite different stances are being taken and claims are being made in Europe in the name of secular and liberal principles. Secularism comes in varieties, and especially the absence of socialist secularisms in the scholarly debates on Islam and secularism is striking. Liberalism, in turn, is neither internally unified, nor is it the only powerful discourse of moral and political being around.

Even if we agree that there indeed is such a discursive formation as liberal secularism, whatever its specific contours may be, we need to carefully ask where and when it is powerful and where and when less so. In places like, say, Egypt, liberal secularism may not have that unchallenged power, and it is questionable if the same discursive-institutional structures that can be found at work in western Europe even exist in much of the Middle East. Not shaking hands with the opposite sex causes no scandal, but breaking the fast in daytime during Ramadan often does, and in some countries (not in Egypt though) it is a criminal offence. In most parts of Europe being a Muslim is a stigma, and hatred towards Muslims is the currently predominant form of racism. But in most of the Middle East, being a Muslim is an unmarked category of normality. Christianity, heterodox Islamic faiths, and non-religion come with a stigma of difference and require declarations of loyalty. In Egypt at least, contemporary political and religious common sense places Jews almost automatically into the category of the enemy, and explanations and justifications are needed when representing Jews as not enemies.

Some supporters of Islamist movements in Egypt have claimed that Muslims are the persecuted religious group in Egypt. Followers of certain Islamists movements (especially the Muslim Brotherhood) in fact are severely and brutally persecuted, and some of the followers of those movements would like to identify themselves as ”the Muslims” in exclusion of other Muslims, such as those who support the regime, or those who work in the security apparatus and persecute them. Theirs is a claim that is sincerely made and it needs to be taken seriously as such, and yet it should not be taken for granted, unless we are also willing to take for granted claims by white supremacists that white people are being discriminated in the USA.
All of this has been stated by others many times, and may not be new to any of my readers. Nevertheless, I find it important to remind myself as a researcher that I need take distance to analyse and understand the specific desire and romance of resistance that I may be most drawn to. This is not a call to unideological impartiality, which would be an illusion anyway and usually only hide my ideological bias without overcoming it. Rather, a reflective distance to my own desires and causes may first of all help me to recognise the tremendous work that goes into conformity, and also to recognise that overall, pursuits conformity and adaptation probably are vastly more prevalent than resistance among most humans. Second, such reflective distance may also help me to take seriously stances that go against the grain of the stances I hold. This, by the way, is not the same as taking them for granted. Taking someone seriously means to engage with them and to consider the possibility that their claims might be true or at least effective, and this can be an engagement in agreement and disagreement alike (impartiality, paradoxically, can also be a way to not take people seriously). Third, such reflective distance warns me of the danger of useful dichotomies. If I put all my effort into challenging, for example, either a liberal-secular hegemony in Europe or a conservative identitarian hegemony in the Middle East, I will miss out the fact that neither really are that hegemonic in either place, nor are they the only important discourses around, nor are they clearly distinct from one another; and they are also far from united internally. And what is a hegemonic power at my workplace maybe quite different from what is a hegemonic power at my home. Last but not least, such reflective distance may help me to inquire about the specific balance of power in a given time and place that makes some people and positions powerful and others less so – even if it means that those who I thought to be the courageous resisting ones may turn out to command a fair share of hegemonic power and privilege.

But to give up resistance as a value and an aim altogether would mean to accept that the power of the strongest rules the world and it's okay. Yes, the power of the strongest largely does rule the world. But it's not okay.

Friday, October 27, 2017

In Defence of Our Universal Double Standards

I'm reposting this old essay that was published originally in 2015/2016 by Allegra Lab and Qira2at because it related to an new essay that I'm writing right now and that I will post soon.

In English:
In Defence of Our Universal Double Standards

دفاعاً عن معاييرنا “العالمية” المزدوجة: الأخلاق والنقاء والارتباك والعداوة بين “نحن” و”الآخرين”
(ترجمة عمرو خيري)

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Love with the Ugly Face of Alexandria

(This is the beginning of an article I'm preparing for publication that is called "Where is Alexandria: Myths of the City and the Anti-City in Alexandria after Cosmopolitanism. This excerpt was published by Cairobserver in February 2017: A first version of the full article is already published online in Arabic by Taralbahr: أين تقع الإسكندرية؟ أساطير المدينة والمدينة النقيض بعد المرحلة الكوزموبوليتانية.

In March 2015, on one of my many journeys between Berlin and Alexandria, I landed in Borg El Arab airport west of Alexandria late at night. The airport is 50 kilometres away from the city centre, but close to many thriving industrial areas, holiday villages, and up-market suburbs that have been built west of the city and along the North Coast in the past two decades. At the airport I was picked up by my friend Mustafa who moved some years ago from his native village to the district of Agami at the western edge of Alexandria. Agami is known among the Egyptian bourgeoisie as a pleasant beach resort. Mustafa, however, lives three kilometres away from the coast in an informal neighborhood on a small hill right behind the Chinese Housing (al-Masakin al-Siniya), an area of large public housing blocks. The Chinese blocks were built in the 1980’s as company housing of public sector companies by an Egyptian-Chinese joint venture. For decades, the Chinese Housing has been an area where poor and marginalised people would live, people who lack the means to build a house of their own in an informal settlement. It has a bad reputation as a place marked by gangs and crime, but the reality is much calmer. Mustafa and I moved in the area with no sense of risk even late at night. He quite likes it there. Two years earlier, an Egyptian employee at a foreign research institute in Alexandria had been shocked to hear that I frequented the Chinese Housing. She said that she was surprised that I was still alive. For her it was a no-go area, definitely not a part of her Alexandria.

Next evening, I continued my journey on a minibus to the opposite end of the city, the neighborhood of Mandara where I usually live in Alexandria as a guest of the novelist Mukhtar Shehata. The distance from Agami to Mandara is 35 kilometres on the direct route through the city centre. To avoid congestion, the minibus takes a longer but faster detour via the International Road south of the city. The International Road crosses Lake Marioutiyya on a landfill bridge where the nauseating smell from pollution occasionally compels passengers to hold their noses. The road passes poor informal areas in inland Agami, the up-market suburb of King Mariout, vast chemical and cement factory complexes, and the up-market City Center shopping mall (far from the historical centre of the city). Finally, the minibus enters the city again along the 45 Street in what is known as “the East of the City” (Sharq al-Madina). Approaching the end of the line, the minibus turns to smaller streets, passes the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the al-Azhar University (one of the main sites of learning for foreign Muslim students who come to Egypt), and finally enters the busy Mallaha Street surrounded by shops, market stands, and congested by private cars, taxis, minibuses and toktoks.

Eastern Alexandria is symbolically divided class-wise by the Abu Qir suburban train line, the seaside being relatively well off, and the inland often poorer. I live almost exactly at the class border, next to the railway line. On the wealthy side of the railway are the Montazah Gardens, the Fathallah shopping mall, the Sheraton Hotel, and the beach. On the poor side begins a concrete jungle of both poor and middle-income areas, informally built in the 1990’s and in perpetual construction, where 15-floor towers are now replacing older five-floor apartment buildings.

In Mukhtar’s words, this is “the ugly face of Alexandria.” And it would be difficult indeed to find the Chinese Blocks, the International Road, or inland Mandara beautiful in any conventional sense. However, It is not simply the poor face of the city. The suburban crescent that surrounds the old coastal core of Alexandria is made up of poor, middle-income and upmarket districts alike. Millions live and work in the suburban crescent and only enter the iconic sites of the city on the seafront and the old centre on weekend and holiday outings. The ugly face of the city has little on offer for a romantic weekend, but those who want to understand what kind of city Alexandria is today and what it may become, should not miss it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stability as a Utopia: Revisiting Egyptian youth as they grow older, and the future tense as time passes

"Most people are weird, and they need to work really hard to be like everybody else"


Individual humans are usually strange and peculiar in many ways. In consequence, they need to spend great effort to be like everybody else, with varying degrees of success. This visible and invisible effort at conforming, at being accepted by others, and at living a normal life, is one of the most daunting tasks of coming of age and crafting an adult life. In northern Egypt where I have conducted fieldwork for many years, many people take this work for granted but struggle to succeed. Others are critical of it but pursue it all the same. Few search for alternatives.
Recent public and academic interest in youth and especially Muslim youth (what about Christian youth, one may wonder) has often highlighted three kinds of youthful figures: actively pious people searching to fashion their lives according to religious ideals; revolutionary activists who seem to embody the desire of „the youth“ for freedom, dignity and a better life; and migrants and refugees who take risks and face hardship in their search for a better future. All these figures embody transformation and change. They all do deserve attention indeed, but what they leave out of sight is the fact that much of the time, young and not so young people alike are busy with realising taken-for-granted expectations and striving for „stability“ - that is, the means to realize a full conventional adulthood. The paradox, however, is that just like pursuits of transformation may fail or be successful in unintended ways, also pursuits of stability may produce something else than expected. The attempt to reproduce the known good – same as ever, only better – propels societal dynamics that can have unsettling consequences.
Based on conversations with a handful of Egyptian men in their 20s and 30s who are in the process of establishing themselves socially, the presentation revisits some themes and arguments of my book Egypt in the Future Tense, sketching possible questions for future research.

Sound recording of a lecture I held at the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University, 21 September 2016. Listen here: