Cairography #2: Emergency Edition

Sarma 25 Jan 2020

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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). It features as an introduction to 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 overall presentation of the project and a table of contents is available here.

It has been a year like nothing we have seen before. A summer that was not restful, joyful or sexy, and a new year looming with dark clouds. It is horrible, it is difficult, and it continues.

It is also a moment to reflect and think back on the tenth anniversary of the Arab revolutions, a cataclysmic event whose aspirations and promises were crushed by a global order that is driven by its continued petty and delusional interests and desire to survive. The betrayal of revolutionary ideals by despotic, corrupt regimes and conservative political and social forces continue to haunt our communities in ways that are catastrophic as they are oppressive.  And yet the memory and experience of the revolutions continue to animate thinking and practice in ways that are as urgent and tragic as the events that have been unfolding recently. A second revolutionary wave in 2018-2020 fueled by this moment started unfolding in Baghdad, Khartoum, Algiers, and Beirut.

And then, Beirut exploded. Lebanese bodies that are threatened by a potentially fatal virus are now further mutilated by glass shards and debris from the explosion, with Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in the background. Lebanon is the world’s third-most indebted state today, and its public debt was equal to 169% of GDP at the end of 2019. The hospitals that are overloaded with debt and dying bodies from Covid-19 are now filled with injured bodies from the explosion, and injured bodies from the violent protests after the explosion, where the state shot live ammunition at the people. Lebanon, that has been on the brink of famine this year with over one third of its population literally about to die from hunger, has sustained major damage to its port from the explosion, further complicating the possibility of the transport of essential goods, from medicine to food.

Egypt has demolished a crucial part of its historical Islamic cemeteries in a demagogic statist performance of ‘let’s make Egypt great again’, sacrificing everything on the way for the sake of a 5-minutes of fame, in the historical fabric of hundreds and thousands of years. Cairenes woke up to the mausoleums of their grandfathers demolished, and those were the lucky ones who did not run into the coffins of bodies thrown on the sidewalk when the earth was turned upside down by a political-urban redesign earthquake. At the same time, as a successful side show, a new code of morality which was stealthily introduced into the Egyptian legal system, with the vague term ‘Egyptian family values’, which if you breach you can end up in jail. By now, nine women who have used Tiktok platform in Egypt have been thrown in jail in July 2020, and some were even fined 20,000 USD, and sentenced to two years in prison, for posting online digital performances of songs, lip-syncing or makeup tutorials. This is happening in a country with both the first Opera House on the entire African continent and the Middle East, and the oldest and largest cinema industry in the entire region. Egypt is not a theocratic state, yet religion has been constantly and consistently used to buttress, and legitimate politics. Even at the expense of that religion itself. Such crude pragmatism means one could commit the sacrilege of unearthing dead bodies from a historical mausoleum in the old Islamic quarter, and yet imprison young girls because they were “violating family values”. Going as far as threatening to perform the illegal ‘virginity test’ on them before they were sentenced, as another patriarchal choreography of disciplining female and queer bodies.

Palestinians are losing land, by the minute, with the new legalization of settler colonialist encroachment on what’s left of what once was Palestine. In the night after the announcements, soldiers of the IDF were seen placing and moving historical relics and monuments around, in a practice of recreating archeology, editing earth-time and falsifying historical chronicles on this embattled ground. A practice that has long been performed by the Israeli forces on Palestinian territories, and has well been documented both by Israeli and Palestinian artists, architects, archeologists and activists like Dima Srouji, Emek Shaveh collective and several others. Palestinians are still not allowed full access to the sea. The fragments of sea allowed to Palestinians are filled with waste, and their movement in the sea is curtailed to a predetermined distance imposed by the navy. In 2015 Gaza was declared to become uninhabitable to humans by the year 2020. This was last year. We are living in the uninhabitable future. Something to think about the next time we see a poster of sunny Tel Aviv beaches on a bus in Berlin or a tram in Amsterdam, selling cheap holiday packages to the capital of sunny apartheid.

And a virus is going around infecting and killing millions.

At times when we sense no clear order of priorities, as sovereigns continue to practice their ‘let die’ and ‘make die’ politics. At times when Black Lives Matter is reduced to tokenism and only confined to symbolic gestures, as removing statues or renaming streets, while still keeping major educational programs, policies of governance, and cultural institutions under the control of the agenda of the already entrenched elites who don’t care much about a decolonial discourse. At a time when celebrities promote fascist politics (as in Madonna telling the world that Covid-19 is the greatest equalizer, from the comfort of her milky bathtub filled with rose petals in her mansion). At a time when every woke academic says ‘we must never go back to normal’ from the comfort of their celebrity university departments on their tenured contracts, this edition of Cairography is merely to say that most people on this planet cannot afford a rose petaled bath. The stakes are way too high. And the time to act is right now: this is a continued attempt to create room for more voices from the Arabic-speaking community of artists, academics, activists and specialists to write. To write from within the crisis, not thinking if the essay is too long to be called an essay, and to certainly not give two damns about APA or Chicago Manual of Style, as the world continues to collapse around us, and as we lose more of the ones we care about, and as we lose sense of orientation completely as our cities are bulldozed, our homeland is annexed, and our bodies besieged.


This edition is against instrumentalizing death and fear, against instrumentalizing rape and abuse, against the imprisonment of free voices and of integral bodies.