Body of the State

Al Arabi Al Gadid 4 Aug 2020English

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). More precisely, it features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed, and Myriam Van Imschoot and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes. The translation into English is by HaRaKa platform. The Arabic version can be accessed in Sarma.

We begin our comparison between two fundamental scenes, separate in their political context but meeting over one goal, which is the body. During the brief rule of the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, his minister of culture issued a decision to shut down what used to be the ‘Modern Dance School’, which at the time was called ‘Cairo Contemporary Dance Center’, at the Cairo Opera House, on the basis that dance is the ‘art for women’, the way it was described then by a parliamentary representative known to be a Muslim Brother. Or that it is an art form for different ‘kinds of women’, as the late president Morsi has stated once. This was about seven years ago.

A few days ago, an Egyptian court sentenced two young women to jail on the basis of their production of ‘dance’ content on the internet  (1). The attorney journal requested to perform a virginity test on these two young women (2), in an attempt to protect the 'values of Egyptian society’. One could argue that the same values that apparently were not threatened by forced disappearances of activists, the numbers of political prisoners and of executions performed, as well as incidents of group sexual harassments, have now been threatened by this art form of different ‘kinds of women’.

The human body is not merely a physical entity with a physiological material composition that passively resides at a distance from the gaze of its onlookers, like a painting (while even paintings address the human body with a degree of analysis and deconstruction). The human body is composed of discourse and performative constituents that are capable of being charged with signifiers, or being loaded with other mutable unstable charges, be it from different positions where we stand in relation to such charges, and from where these charges are to our positions. The body is a carrier to the symbolic value that is formed through individualistic subjective identity from one side, and the social cultural constructs and its power dynamics on the other side. The body therefore is the interspatial distance, the transactional limit, or the negotiationality of the singular self and the society’s self, and hence the body is involved in both parties discourses and arguments.

The simplest way to define discourse, and there are many ways to define what discourse is, is that it requires a degree of multiples or multiplicities circulating. The more multiples there are, the more democractic and open a discourse there is, and then the ‘text’ of this discourse is at the center of what needs to be done, what needs to be done to, done through and done with. And in our case here, this text is the body. This body has become a form of discourse exchanged between the individual and society, culture, or sovereign power in ways that would require a certain taming of the body. A more realistic term would be ‘engineering’ that body to correspond to the values of the state/ sovereign power, and able to express and perform them. We should remember the group dance parties (3) outside of the voting poll sites of President Sisi’s elections in Egypt, and how the state’s media apparatus welcomed it as an unpremeditated expression of joy. This perhaps reminds us of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, when he argued that the body is the subject of power and its operations through dynamics of discipline and surveillance.

The body is essential in keeping these symbolic and materialist confrontations with power, and to sustain the dynamics of roles and of social relations from the position of sovereign power and the individual. And hence, it is why it must be surveilled or patrolled. Or then, what does it mean for the state to punish certain bodies with the accusation of movement (dance), and celebrate other bodies practicing the same kind of movement in a different context? This aforementioned movement is happening within two spatial realities, which a limited political reading would portray them as polar opposites: the ideological space of the Muslim Brotherhood’s religiosity, and that of the seemingly secular military that has successfully performed a coup against the Brotherhood. But, isn’t this but a proof to the identical position of these two camps in relation to the body?

The ‘modern’ state presents itself as the only answer to questions of belonging, of homeland, and of religious and moral values. Its crisis stems from its self-proclaimed position that it is the sole source of bestowing legitimacy over the spatial and geographical ecology with the bodies inhabiting it, giving this ecology and its bodies legal and legislative meanings. From here stems the expression ‘protecting the values of society’, in order to control the body, this of society and that of the individual, and their movement. In the name of protecting such values, the state allows itself to penetrate the pores of our bodies, once to perform virginity tests, and another time to disappear dissident bodies, execute them, or even assassinate them in one of the largest massacres in the history of contemporary Egypt, the Rabaa Massacre of 2013. These bodies were portrayed as traitors and apostates, and were deprived from the symbolism of a burial. And between these two models, patrolling and controlling, or imprisoning and massacring, a myriad of body politics symbologies emerge.

And while it is easy to say that the modern Arab state has perfected the arts of patrolling our bodies, it is problematic to use this statement in a general context. Several days ago it was announced in the West Bank of occupied Palestine that a murder crime was unearthed after ten years, accidentally. The father had killed his daughter, and buried her body in a subterranean sewage reservoir under his home. The following questions are rife with the absence of the modern state, and of its surveillance practices on the body of this girl, noting that we assumed that the sovereign state is also a monitoring apparatus: Where was the state when the body of a legal resident, a state citizen was made absent and obfuscated? Where are all those diverse tools and media of patrol, surveillance and censorship? Has the body of the father undergone symbolic substantiation to replace that of his daughter, and on that symbolic plane it overpowered her disappearance, by covering up its absence by his presence? The same question applies to what’s known as ‘honor killings’ in several Arab countries, of which Jordan is an example, where a girl fearing her families threats oftentimes ends up being murdered, or physically brutalized and home-imprisoned (another form of patrolling bodies), without any legislative or legal constituency to such acts.

Here we say that the sovereign state has a body, and it has its gendered biases. It is a virile male, threatened by women and non-women alike whenever these bodies move outside its domain of control, and its materialist or symbolic planes, or negotiatory fields, such as dancing at voting poll sites, or at the Opera House. When the modern Arab state pretends to face the phenomenon of sexual harassment, by enforcing enflated punishments, it only does so from the positions of surveillance and sovereignty, choosing to ignore that the problem rather falls on an axis of body politics. It is a phenomenon that is created economically, politically, socially, historically and culturally. These fundamental elements of discourse have sprung out of the body of the modern Arab state, postcolonially. That state model that has legalized and edified what was described by the late Hesham Sharabi as: modernist patriarchy. A patriarchy that has legalized and fundamentally edified tyranny on the public and private spheres, protected this by law, and took sole control over what ethical and moral values mean, to placemake for a male in the position of origin and beginnings, from which comes forth all meaning and value, that position is for him alone, the alpha male.

What the modern Arab state pushes for here, under the name of combatting sexual harassment, is condensing its patriarchal sovereign patrolling hegemonic role, the alpha male. This is done through anchoring the common belief that to move beyond violence, and to end the violence against women, strict legistlations are required that would merely encriminate violence itself as an act. And here the modern state, or the alpha male, jumps over complex constructs of human doings with its many tiers, and turns it all to mere individual acts of violence that require punishment, or atonement. Humans/ citizens are then categorized in herdal models, those who obey the alpha male, and those who disobey him. To be divided to different atomized individuals that have nothing in common beyond punishment and reward. Good individuals who deserve reward, and evil individuals who deserve punishment, simply. And that is when sexual harassment, or a body violating another body, or ‘honor killing’ is not seen as a complex system, but becomes individual practices, explained through the simplicity of abiding by the law or being outside of it. A relationship between the value of justice and the value of individual life is severed. Women could live without being murdered, but also without justice. They could live without harassment, but within social, cultural, economic, and professional unfairness. And it is a form of chauvinist male competitiveness. The patriarchal state punishes/ kills the male that threatens its women, but also allows itself to oppress them, and to oppress them all on the economic, political and cultural levels. In our countries, there is always those above the law, and those under its power. It is not body for body, or ‘eye for an eye’, or else we all would end up blind without a body, being shepherded by the alpha male wherever he wants.

Does our bodily movement threaten the notion of the modern state? Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for 2016’s slogan was: let’s make America great again, let’s build a wall around it. A wall in its simplest meaning is a separation between two bodies, one is the self, and the other is the other. Trump’s wall then extended to prevent the Muslim other from entering the United States of America, considering him an other. The wall extended to delay naturalization laws, prevent asylum seekers and immigrants, and then it continued to draw new definitions to the “body” of the American self, while facing the movements of the body of its ‘other’.

In the Arab context, the relation to the body is similar, but it differs in execution. The Arab state now is experiencing an unprecedented quavering to the limits of its moral/ ethical regime in relation to its peoples, and to their bodies (female and male). The state does not rule our bodies through quotidian basic life needs, on the lived material level, or even on a plane of circulating symbolism. Our Arab states that have lost their sovereignty are caving in under corruption, poverty, subordination, rations economy, and sectarianism. It was not enough that we had been turned into symbols of the state and property of its moralistic regime, but it has hijacked us to itself, raked through our personal subjective signs and symbols, even those built on blood. It has unearthed the graves of our grandparents and lovers, the way it is happening in Cairo now in the demolishing of the Memluk cemeteries that are hundreds of years old (4), for the sake of constructing highways that serve the state’s discourse by and for itself. This took place without any international consensus! Worth mentioning is that the Egyptian government during the Mubarak era performed a similar action, which was narrated in the novel ‘Bombing Brains’ by the late Egyptian author Khairy Shalabi. The book was banned by Mubarak’s minister of culture then. In “The power and the people”, Charles Tripp points out to the vectors of dissidence in the Middle East, to the occupation of public space by revolutionary crowds in Arab cities as a movement that has gone completely outside systems of control and patrol of the modern state. More precisely, the physical movement of the bodies of Arab people both on the level of the material physical body and the symbolic one was a stepping out, outside of the physical and symbolic ensnarement of the state, and that is when the Egyptian regime started its war on cultural organisations and artistic practices.

Here we may want to remember what dance represented for African people as a form of resistance against the power of the colonizer and other sovereigns, on the material and symbolic planes. This also invokes different forms of danced physical expression, including Belly Dance (Raqs Baladi), and the late dancer and choreographer Tahia Carioca, and what Edward Said said about her and her exemplary political history.

If we used the same logic and applied it to the movement of our bodies, we would understand that the movement of the body from Sovereign State “A” to “B” is a test of its own moralistic utterances through which it gives itself legitimacy and legality. For instance, if we think of Europe and the refugee crisis today, and what this brought up as another test to the utterances of the modern state, and of its imagination and its imagined people, we may see how this contributed to the development of ideologized far rightwing tides, stepping in with their own text/body as well.

To go back to the question of the movement of our bodies and if it poses a threat to our Arab state, it is enough to contemplate the numbers of state security personnel with their machine guns, their armored vehicles, the mouths of their rifles aimed at us, in the spaces of our Arab cities, to realize the magnitude of fear that these regimes of power undergo facing our bodies, physical or symbolic, and the movement of our bodies.



(1) At the time of publishing this essay in the summer of 2020, several more women were arrested and convicted, some fined 20,000USD and sentenced to two years in prison, over producing dance content on the internet application Tiktok. Tiktok use is legal in Egypt, as well as the production of dance content online and offline.

(2) Virginity tests in Egypt are banned under Egyptian law.

(3) During several incidents, Egyptians voting for General Sisi started dancing, mostly Belly-dancing outside of the voting poll sites, in group parties, and uploaded these videos to the internet.

(4) During the last ten days of the month of July 2020, Egyptians woke up to the sight of demolished centuries old historical cemeteries in Cairo, unearthed coffins and remains of corpses on the streets, as the government continued digging to build a massive highway, and causeway over the old city.


Abdullah Al Bayyari is a writer, cultural anthropologist, researcher and medical practitioner based in Amman, Jordan.