Between languages and realities

Editor's introduction to Cairography

Sarma Jan 2014English

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Contextual note
This text introduces the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt), edited by Adham Hafez and Ismail Fayed, and produced by ARC.HIVE with the additional support of Sarma.

Few people know that Egyptians do not speak Classical Arabic as a first language. Neither do the Moroccans, nor the Sudanese. The complexity of the history of the spoken languages in the so-called 'Arab World', is as complex as their political histories. As children in Egyptian schools, we all learn how to read and write Classical Arabic. This language is the official language of Egypt. It is the language in which books are published, newspapers announce their news, information is disseminated institutionally, and it is the language of the law, of course. Yet, what is daily spoken in Egypt is an amalgamation of Arabic, Egyptian and many other roots. The term 'Modern Egyptian Language' is one of the many names or descriptions given to the spoken language in Egypt now. It is a language that exists outside of discourse, since it is not admitted in academic books, it is not accepted as an official language by the state and therefore it is not the language of the constitution or of legal articles in books of law, and not the language of cultural institutions.

Classical Arabic is also not the language of those who cannot read or write in Egypt. Those people have no access to understanding law, newspapers, official state announcements on television. The proximity between Modern Egyptian Language and Classical Arabic is adequate enough for most Egyptians to understand the gist of a written or spoken Classical Arabic phrase. Given that both languages have lived together and one of them was influenced and shaped by the other. Yet this also means that a man who cannot read or write, or a man who can read and write but has not studied Classical Arabic in school (and they are many), cannot fully comprehend the contents of their own country's constitution, or for instance the contents of their holiest of books: the Quran. The condition of such subjects is a constant recitation of inaccessible distant texts, and a life in an undocumented and institutionally dismissed language.

With this as a condition, any researcher or writer from Egypt (or from other Arab countries) is always wondering what happens when we write. When an idea is pronounced in an Egyptian mind, it is born not in Classical Arabic, but in Egyptian. For this idea to enter into discourse, into books, into academia or merely be written down it has to pass through the 'adapter' of Classical Arabic, to be written in a 'proper way'. The transaction happens with many thoughts on one's mind dealing with cultural supremacy, with identity politics, and with colonialist histories that have not been coined colonialist. The transaction also happens often with a judgement on the spoken language – the language of the heart – as a meaner language and of one of a lesser intellectual capacity than the Classical Arabic. The same judgement takes place the other way in yet another light, for if Classical Arabic has more intellectual capacity in terms of word possibilities, it is a distant language. And, even though the history of Classical Arabic is tied to the history of Arab poetry, which is one of the richest bodies of poetic texts in our world, one sees the Classical Arabic language as the lingua franca, and not that of the heart.

While working on a research and a text to be read during the Dance Congress organized by the UNESCO's International Dance Council in 2006, I was unable to find any resources or references that I could consult while writing the text. This has to do with problematics of language, and what part of our life is admitted as 'pure' enough to enter the holy institutions that shape national memory and identity. But this also has to do with the general idea of ownership; ownership of space, of time, of ideas, of identity, or of legacies. National archives in Egypt are only accessible if the researcher works with/for the government, and has official titles or at least an official permit issued from one governmental entity or another. Therefore, freelance research, and research for the sake of knowledge and out of curiosity is impossible. It is dismissed. It does not exist, the way informal lives that happen daily in the undocumented language of the heart are also dismissed by the State. The realization was not as shocking when I got to realize that the archives contain nothing worth the investment of my time in order to get a temporary government job at a government institution in order to acquire a temporary visitor’s access to the archives in order to do my research. It would have been an exciting performance that certainly would have taken longer than the few months I had left to finish my research and the text itself. The text was being written in English, as this is the language of performance theory, and of critical writing on dance, if we look honestly at which institutions shape our world of performance theory, studies and publishing. This 'performance English' is also a very particular English, collectively constructed by Belgian, Dutch, German and other non-English speakers, during decades of forging what we now know as performance and dance studies and during the same decades were many texts were coined critical-icons, and shaped the world of dance and performance that we know now.

Yet, during these attempts of mine, I got to learn that several of those colossal archives had very few documents on performing arts, and not a shred on contemporary performing arts. I wondered where to go. Between the Music Library at the Cairo Opera House that had a few recordings of performances that took place at the Opera House, and between the many phone calls one had to make to reach into people's private collections and archives, it was clear to me that the practice of researching performing arts in Egypt, and in the Arabic speaking region, is either quite impossible, or is carefully dismissed by State institutions.

Eventually, the research was written through the kind support of many professors, friends and colleagues. A research on masculinity and dance in Egypt. The research was written in English, and I presented it as a talk in 2006 to an audience of many nationalities, without a single Arab in the audience. It just merely happened to be so. The story continued when the text was picked up to be translated and distributed, in more than ten languages by now. The text was never translated into Arabic, as I had a hard time reading it in Classical Arabic, and I knew if I would write it in some version of Modern Egyptian, it would not be taken seriously by any Arab publisher.


ARC.HIVE – Cairography

That same year, together with my colleagues we established HaRaKa, a platform for the research and development of performance and dance in Egypt and the Arabic speaking region, where we wanted to start the journey by establishing an archive for contemporary dance from Egypt, and failed to do this. Yet, we managed to do the other things that were not planned at the beginning: lectures, productions, festivals and documentaries. Years later, in 2011, L'Institut d'Egypte was set on fire on Tahrir. On the 17th of December 2011 we were standing by the burning building, and the burning documents and books, with an improvized rescue team of friends, colleagues and people who were on the streets that terrible day, a reminder of the fragility of memory and of knowledge struck our hearts and minds. The decision to do what HaRaKa never managed to do, building an archive, was clear at that point as a necessity, and as a survival tool. The dysfunctional cultural edifices and their infrastructures, the institutions of hegemony, the language that is official and dismisses the quotidian, the market that is shaped and driven by cultural centricity and economic powers, the educational programs that forgets performance history from more than twenty Arab capitals when it talks of the map of world performance, the violence against knowledge and those who carry it: the mesh revealed itself. An interrupted and interrupting archive was to be created. The ARC.HIVE was to be created; an Arc that carries what is there away from oblivion and tyranny, and a Hive that generates new forms and products in a constant battle with hegemony and dismissal.

With the many institutions that such project is to deal with, 'Cairography' emerged as the main negotiation surface that thoughts could mingle on, talk through, or reconstitute scenes and recollections. Collecting and commissioning texts from several writers, and working on multi-lingual editions was a clear necessity, on the local, regional and international scales. Texts that are coined historical and iconic have not been accessible to many of the graduating art students in Egypt (or in other Arab countries), merely because of language barriers. Texts that are written by Arab performance thinkers and critics are often residing outside of the European and American circles, because of language barriers. And, while the Arab student of performance is expected to refer to a history of dance or theater she/he never witnessed, or even read about, the world of education and production seems often to be myopic to this crucial condition.

'Cairography', of writings from Cairo, and through Cairo is here. Produced by ARC.HIVE, texts by writers and thinkers that have changed the way we understand and present performance in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking region would be collected and translated in English, to then be presented to the international circles of scholars, artists, critics for the first time. Texts that are seen as key references in critical and theoretical studies of performance, dance and theatre from non-Arabic countries are collected and translated into Arabic, so that those who do not speak English (and they are the majority of the inhabitants of the Arab world) would have access to this field of thoughts and discoveries, and would serve as a way to contextualize and situate relations and references.

With many questions on translations, languages, institutional hegemonies and blindness, ARC.HIVE produces Cairography's edition of Autumn 2013, launched in memoriam of the second anniversary (if this is at all the word to be used here in this context) of the burning of “L'Institut d'Egypte”. As a reminder, as a humbling reminder of the fast erosion of any edifice.

Here's to Shahira Issa, Rami Attar, Ismail Fayed, Reda Gharib, Amanda Kerdahi Matt, Myriam Van Imschoot, Shayma Aziz and Jeroen Peeters, who did not stop believing in the importance of making those projects happen, during a process of seven years. This issue deals with language, with moments of difficulty and self-exile, forgetting and remembering, solitude and finding intimacy.