Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Cairo

An act within a revolution: Egypt

Jack Shenker’s book wears its heart on its cover. From the top right hand corner, Nefertiti’s eyes above her gas mask fix you with a stern, sorrowful look, the nom de plume – or de guerre – of her creator, the street artist Zeft, on the spray-can pointed at her temple.

Possibly the most famous example of Egyptian revolutionary graffiti, here she’s been given a collar of blood, echoed in the bottom left hand corner by the red-dripping Egyptian flag – itself a graffito that appeared in November 2011 after the army and police killed dozens of people in downtown Cairo.

Since the regime in Egypt is stonily set against the merest suggestion – however playful – that walls should be seen as anything other than brutish enforcers of division, simply deploying graffiti puts you in the revolutionary (revolutiophile?) camp.

And this is where Shenker deservedly belongs.

Andrew Bossone shared a link.|By Ahdaf Soueif

By January 2011 he had lived downtown for three years, made friends, nosed out good stories and told them with style – so when the long-awaited revolution suddenly boiled over on his doorstep he was poised to be as bouleversé by it as any Cairene.

Describing his notebooks of the time, he writes:

“Two of the spiral-bound ones are twisted, their spines dislocated from the pages … The handwriting is hurried, messy – words have been snatched hastily to the paper amid drumbeats and shouts and gas and flight, and they’ve brought bits of that universe with them: grubby stains, smears of rock dust, strange ink … sentences appear in different colours and some of them are splotched by teardrops. Many pages are torn, and a few are missing.”

Can the description of a notebook wring your heart? Yes, if you see yourself and those whom you love, those thousands whom you learned – in the streets – to love, in them.

Bruised and dislocated, stained and splotched, some missing forever, but the ones who remain holding on – at least – to the narrative.

it had always been war, and it hadn’t started with the revolution; 25 January 2011 was just when everyone who had opposed Hosni Mubarak’s regime or who had wished they’d dared to oppose it came together and, for a long, miraculous moment, acted as one.

The Egyptians: A Radical Story is fully cognisant of both: the long struggle that fed that revolutionary moment – and the miraculous nature of the moment.

The revolution, as historian Khaled Fahmy has pointed out, is part of a sequence of turbulence that ebbs and flows but has never been entirely stilled since the mid-19th century.

Seen like this, it becomes possible to freely examine what it was like and why. We are able to give it its due as – in Shenker’s excellent phrase – a “leaderful” rather than leaderless revolution, and accept that it was “make-do” because “Make-do is all you have when you try to make and do something entirely new against the forces of old.”

It needs to be celebrated as a “revolution on the form of revolution” that, like 1848, exploded the old ways “though struggling, so far, to articulate the new”. And most importantly, we need to recognise it as a climactic and transformatory point in an ongoing revolution that is not Egypt’s alone.

The Egyptians positions the 18 days both within their national historical context, and within their political context in the world.

The central argument of this meticulous, carefully researched and passionately argued book is that the battle in Egypt, as in almost every other place in the world, is between a dominant global neo-liberal capitalist system and the people whose lives and livelihoods it is destroying.

It finds Egypt situated at the acute end of a global continuum of citizens struggling against the combined might of state and capital to find a formula for real, participatory democracy.

the revolutionary wave in Egypt has been beaten back for now by a powerful counter-revolution.

In November 2013, as General Sisi was moving towards the presidency, the well-known Egyptian open-source software designer, blogger and dissident, Alaa Abd el Fattah wrote:

“The trajectory of the revolution and the trajectory of the counter-revolution run together and influence each other. The counter-revolution is not just a defensive position taken by the enemies of the revolution; it is reactionary forces in their own right trying to profit from conditions of fluidity to shape the world to their liking – just as we are doing …”

The Egyptians pins down these forces and their backers with care and in chilling detail.

For all its revolutionist fervour, this is a work of painstaking research and investigation. Just one of the tens of examples cited of the international backers swinging into action is the formation of the Deauville partnership with Arab countries in transition under the auspices of the G8 summit in May 2011to keep multinational capital fused with whatever political models emerged from the countries’ massive anti-government uprisings”.

Everyone who is for the revolution in Egypt agrees that what it did achieve was to turn ordinary people into participants in political life rather than its passive subjects – or victims;

that it was about “marginalised citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practising collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them”.

But for more than six decades the state had actively barred people from political life – and in July 2013, weary, scared and disappointed in the Muslim Brotherhood they had elected into office, huge numbers of Egyptians chose to return to what they knew; they put their trust in what was presented as the one remaining pillar of the state: the military.

So we are back in what Shenker calls “Mubarak country”, but with everything heightened a couple of notches – the glitz of the economic conferences, the grandeur of the promised projects, the severity of the proposed austerity measures, the scale of begging and borrowing, the war in Sinai.

And heightened also is the state’s distrust of the people and the level and spread of state violence against them.

But similarly heightened is the people’s sense of themselves as agents of their own fate. Shenker quotes a young activist, Nour, who, while admitting to exhaustion and the need for rest and recuperation, insists that “a significant proportion of the Egyptian population no longer think about themselves and about politics in the same way, and are no longer prepared to put up with the old crap.”

Shenker lists some of “the debates lived out by Egyptian revolutionaries – over what sort of governance structures their lives, whether or not they should aim to seize state power, how best human beings can find the space in which to imagine and implement alternative forms of sovereignty and the courage to stand up to the brutality that will confront them along the way”. These are, as he says, “debates that are playing out everywhere”.

The Egyptians is not just about the revolution, it is an act within it; making its case, documenting its achievements and tragedies, pushing forward its narrative.

It celebrates the collective and enacts it in its co-operation with texts and witnesses.

It exemplifies the social solidarity that recognises the global nature of our problems and the new and radical solutions they require.

Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed is published by Bloomsbury. To order The Egyptians for £12.79 (RRP £15.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

“The passionate story of my life”: Who is Olaudah Equiano (1745-97). (Feb. 11, 2010)

Olaudah Equiano (1745-97) was a slave; he describes how he was shipped to be sold.  Equiano published his book in 1789 at the age of 44 while a free man and settled in London.  He was kidnapped in Nigeria and sold to the British American colonies; he travelled with his “master” across the American continent, worked as sailor before set free. Equiano became very influential in the abolitionism movement.

“The first sight when I reached the shore was the sea that I was seeing for the first time. A slave ship was shoring up.  A few sailors grabbed me and threw me in the air to check my good health. I quickly felt that I am in the hands of evil spirits.  I had the strong impression that I am to be eaten alive. The sailors had long hair, red faces, and talked in strange languages. Black slaves were in chains and the demeanor expressed anxiety, suffering, and total discouragement.

I lost consciousness and then the black people who brought me in to be sold for salary offered me an alcoholic drink that plunged me in great torpor. I was led beneath the ship deck and the stench made me sick: I could no longer eat or drink and refused what I was offered.  Consequently, sailors tied my legs and they whipped me crazy.  Since I never drank water I could not drink any water extended to me.  My life of slavery in the village was no where as cruel as my current situation.  A few slaves tried to jump overboard and they were punished harshly.”

Negro trades were undertaken in most of Africa. In central Africa, slave trades were done within the African tribes.  In western Africa slaves were first shipped to south USA (the ports of Charleston and New Orleans), to Central America (Havana), Venezuela, and Brazil (Bahia and Rio de Janeiro) and then shipped again to Europe to the ports of Lisbon, Cordoba, Liverpool, La Rochelle, Nantes, Le Havre, and Amsterdam. The main ports of shipments in western Africa were done in Goree (Senegal), Ouidah (Ivory Coast), Sao Tome, Benguela (current Luanda).

Slave trades from eastern Africa were done by Moslem tribes in the ports of Zanzibar, Mogadishu, Cairo, Tripoli (Libya), Alger, and Marrakech on their way to Jedda (Saudi Arabia), Muscat (Oman), and then toward the Middle East and Turkey.

Women: Urban and rural (Cairo, Egypt). Part 2. June 23, 2009

Egyptian Urban Women

In the previous article I focused on women in rural Said of Egypt.  This post is on Urban Cairo, the Capital of Egypt, as reported by Laurence Deonna in ” Women: Struggle of the land and of sand” in 1968 for a project “Searching for the woman“.

Cairo keeps assimilating increasing numbers of rural citizens.  Cairo is a metropolis of over 20 millions and increasing at a high rate.

About one third of every new born will end up in Cairo Birth control policies, education, and facilities are not making any appreciable dent in Egypt.

President Nasser called the large birth rate as “politics of rabbits“.  A young woman says “as long as I am pregnant then my husband will take care of me”.

When Deonna tell her that her baby might die if not taken to the hospital, the girl replies “I will have another one, Inch Allah

Rural women have added superstitions to their heavy rural baggage; many ceremonies, traditions, and practices are pre-Islamic and of African origins.

Reading current novels and social accounts you realize that society in Cairo has not changed appreciably in customs and traditions since 1968 as of the accounts of Laurence Deonna.

The heavy international investments are not directly concerned with social improvement.  State institutions are not able to sustain the flow of immigration from rural Egypt and the high rate of birth that no laws or pressures could slow down.

The customs and traditions of rural Egypt are basically setting the tone for any kinds of reforms from the center to the periphery.  Unless reforms are focused on the peripheries then the major urban centers in Egypt will continue to drain any surplus of economic development.

Women demonstrated along side men in 1919 for self-autonomy of Egypt from colonial Britain. Women snatched the right to walk unveiled on streets in 1923.

Panels carried by demonstrating women in 1924 read “Educate your girls, respect your wife; a civilization is judged by the wife“.

Ceza Nabarawi was the right hand assistant of the first leader of women movement Hoda Chaarawi.  Ceza lived in Europe in her youth and refused to wear the veil when she had to be back to Egypt. Thus, she locked herself up for a month.

One windy day, Ceza had her veil and hat blown away; a kid returned them to Ceza saying “I bring your head back“.  Ceza said young girls were locked up in harem at the age of 12 (in rich urban families since peasants had to work).  Women drove out in closed carriages with heavy drapes drawn. In theaters, wood netting separated women from the public.

Hoda Chaarawi was the daughter of a pasha and was married at age 13 to her mentor. She separated of her husband for 7 years.

Hoda founded the magazine “L’Egyptienne” of her own money (father’s money) and Ceza was the editor-in-chief for 15 years; this magazine did not contain kitchen recipes or questionnaires such as “Are you sexually jealous of your girl” or “Do not forget your feet, the main seductive part of your body”.

“The Egyptian women” magazine exposed their rights, political analysis, art critics, and reports on women congress that the women association attended around the world. The “Women association” attended international forums and conventions on women rights and the Palestinian problems in the thirties and forties.

The magazine told stories of women conditions in Northern Africa, Iraq, Sudan, and even China.  Ceza met Gandhi in 1931 in Alexandria because the British authorities refused Gandhi to disembarque.  Gandhi handed Ceza a letter that she published praising the Egyptian women movement as the first messengers for peace and progress; the irreducible disciples for non-violence.

Ceza and Hoda struggled for closing down the privileges of the foreigners in Egypt.  The foreigners houses could not be violated by Egyptian police forces and there were two courts of laws; one for the Egyptians and another for foreigners.

In 1938, the movement held a gathering of the Middle East women in Cairo and discussed the Palestinian problem because Jews were dispatched to inhabit Palestine and form a majority.  The Palestinian problem was also discussed at length during the Copenhagen congress in 1939.

The “Arab Women League” was established in 1944. The Palestinian problem was also exposed at the “International Women Alliance” in 1946.

Hoda Chaarawi died in 1947, a few days after Palestine was partitioned.  Ceza founded in 1951 “Women Popular Resistance Committee” and worked for the Egyptian population to vacate the Suez Canal.

Deonna is visiting the Zoo of Cairo; there are hippopotamus, Indian Elephants, and monkeys among other animals. There is a seat sculpted in stone that fitted the behind of King Farouk who had a “pleasure grotto” in the park when he was King of Egypt.

A woman decked in a long white robe is praying in the zoo. Women are more superstitious than men here; is it because women have learned to be in intimate contact with invisible forces?

Women invoke the Imam or the Sheikh most of the time. Imam Shafeyi, dead 13 centuries ago is their favorite Imam: women line up in front of shrines asking favors; stamped letters are also sent to shrines in the present tense with the name of the sender and the name of her mother, as is the case in Pharaonic custom.  The complaints in the written messages concern mostly the treatments of mother-in-laws; retributions demanded go as far as gouging eyes of the nemesis. Many statutes of famous people are wrongly considered as representing saint “sheikhs”.

Among the superstitions is for families to keep secret engagement transactions for fear of the “spirits” meddling in the affair.  A young girl is readying to get wed; she dips her feet in water containing all kinds of green vegetables, a loaf of bread under her armpit, in her mouth a piece of sugar and a piece of money, and the Koran on her head with a lighted candle on top of the Koran; these things symbolize successively expectancy, food, a soft tongue, prosperity, protection and light that the wife will bring to her new home.

Exorcism and bewitching ceremonies are common. The “sheikh tariks“, including women, are specialized in mystic and magic ceremonies; they distribute hundred of magical recipes for any kinds of condition and situation.  The “sheikh tariks” have huge influence among the superstitious citizens.

The “zaar” is an African ceremony practiced by women as therapeutic outlets and for exorcism purposes. In a corner incense is burned to attract “djinns”.  A dervish turns, dances, and orchestrates the ceremony.  Women pick up the dancing tempo until they lose conscious.  There are the flutist, the tambourine, and the singing specialists. Sitting on straw mats, other women are waiting for their turn.

It was the fashion among the high classes, but now is practiced by the lower classes.  By the mosque Al Hussein blind women assemble. Frightful women mumble unintelligent words accompanied by gesticulations; they are the “megazibs” or fools who pretend to be possessed by the spirit of Allah but do not respect religious holidays.  They are usually simple minded who have been patients in asylums. Many women avoid prosecution by joining this “sanctified” crowd.  The “zikr” is a ceremony practiced by men, close to mosques, and has mystic and religious meaning.

Note: Read part 1 on Egyptian rural women

Of Sand and Land: Women to keep up the struggle (June 4, 2009)


            It is 1968. Syria is undergoing a state of socialism after the humiliating defeat in the war of June 1967.  Aida is forty years old and has so far five kids; the oldest boy is 16.  Aida got lost boarding a bus and the family had hard time locating their mother.  Aida had to confess that she is illiterate and could not read the name of the stop stations.  The eldest boy was angry and refrained to talk to his mother because Aida had given him the impression that she could read.  Actually Aida used to get herself busy in the kitchen when asked about school homework.  One day, one of Aida’s daughters brought her the good news: the women syndicate is opening a school for the grown up illiterate.  A year later, Aida is helping her younger babies with their homework. (You may read my post “The Blemish”)

            The Union of Women in socialist Syria was very active and opening schools and artisan shops all over Syria and encouraging women to learn about their legal rights and responsibilities.  One lady teacher said “The Bedouin women are the brightest.  They are like blank pages needing to be filled.  The Bedouin women come to school with dignity and confidence wearing multilayer of colorful and bright clothes, compared to the drab and plain clothes of urban older illiterate women; the Bedouin women proudly shake the gold bracelets on their forearms.”    


            It is mid July 1967.  Nada is trotted by three urchins, bare footed and oversized blouses.  Nada is heading to the “potable” water truck; a long file of women waiting for their turn.  Nada lives in tent #56, street #7 of a makeshift refugee camp 40 kilometers of Amman.  Nada lived a week ago in a house by the foot of a hill and tended a small garden across from the Jordan River in the town of Bethlehem.  Nada’s husband Kamal is back to Amman for the nth time searching for a job.  The eldest daughter Amina is ten and attending the refugee’s school tent run by refugee instructors.  The eldest son Farid is twelve: Farid is not seeing life in roses; life to Farid will be scarlet red: he is getting military training with the Fedayyins after school.  What was taken by force will be recovered by force: International Diplomacy has proven its efficiency 20 years earlier when Nada’s parents were chased out of her home in Jafa, never to return.

            The Israeli soldiers kicked her door in Bethlehem while sitting for supper.  The neighbor called wolf “they are going to blow the house”; the same kind of “caring” neighbor who called wolf 20 years earlier.  Nada is wearing her gold bracelets on her arm with pride: her husband and parents loved her and she showed her loving pride. It cannot look any poorer around the camp but Nada’s Palestinian robe with golden brocades fits a princess.


            Mounira is a young and fragile looking woman; she is a delicate flower sitting on a oversized couch in a villa in the Capital Amman.  Mounira was chased out of her land in Palestine; her husband has been studying and working in the USA for two years now and is asking her to join him. Mounira is a militant with Al Fatah, the new Palestinian resistance organization in the Diaspora.  During the failed incursion of Israel in the village of Karama on the borders in Jordan in 1969 Mounira and 15 other women fighters and nurses joined the battle when they heard the news on the radio.  The Palestinian fighters could not believe their eyes; the militant women fighters can late but resumed the task of taking care of the wounded and the transport to nearby hospitals.


            Cairo, Egypt 1968. Basna is a young social assistance.  She says: “the emancipation of women in Egypt might have progressed quickly. Our husbands do not consider us vulnerable and need protection but still not as equal.  Marriages are still based on economy: the man wants to know how much the job of his prospective wife will compensate his misery salary.  Many women rent their flat and could enjoy the luxury of not moving in with their mother-in-law.  Men are consulting their wives on important decisions, especially in financial matter.  Thus, as social assiatant I have to figure out courses on how to educate women in handling money and family accounting.  A few years ago, the eldest girl had to sacrifice education for the cadet because of lack of resources.  Many school girls have to supplement university expenses by prostituting with rich people in between courses.


Note: These accounts were extracted from a French book published in 1970 by Laurence Deonna who reported on the conditions of Palestinian refugees after the June 1967 war.




January 2023

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