Personal Revolutions in North Africa

This week I find myself in the Northeast of the United States, home for the holidays and also to process all the audio, video, and photos from the Middle East – North Africa journey. Being back in the US means being subjected to the local and national media context, which makes American stories seem larger than life, and Egypt feel like another planet. At holiday gatherings and reunions with old friends I am often asked things like “So is it all falling apart in Egypt or what?”  Sometimes its put in nicer terms, but the tone is most often one of skepticism and as if their minds have already been made up about what is happening in that part of the world.

Images from Mohamed Mahmoud St.
Images from Mohamed Mahmoud St., Tahrir Sq.

In the American press I see the other standard reaction towards the events taking place in Egypt, including conclusions about what took place in the weeks that I was in Tahrir Square – the revolution has been hijacked, a new dictatorship has emerged, the opposition is falling apart. When I read and hear such analysis, by both intelligent and less well-informed individuals, I again feel like I left Egypt and landed on another planet.  In this world everything has to fit into categories and boxes. There are either winners or losers. Things are either successes or failures. So whatever those countries are going through, they must fit into one of these easy to understand categories.

What I wish most is that I could, even beyond my work here on the website and on radio open source, show them examples of the changes that have taken root on the personal level in Egypt and Tunisia. (and beyond I suspect) It never makes it into headlines or fancy mainstream news analysis, that metro workers went on strike last month, an action that would be unthinkable under the dictatorship.  Women, long plagued by street harassment and oppression at home, are now organizing themselves to adopt tactics to neutralize such harassment and get out of abusive situations.  Lower class people, long barred from ever working in higher skill and prestige jobs, are starting to demand equal opportunity and an end to prejudice based on what your father’s profession is.  The list is actually much longer than this, but in my many conversations over the course of three weeks in Cairo, it was impossible to avoid stories of individuals carrying out personal rebellions against an old and oppressive tradition.

Is the process complete and successful? Are the oppressed finally getting the justice they deserved? No. Sadly, these changes are slow to reach everyone and there is no guarantee that they will take hold for everyone everywhere.  Is there resentment and push-back from those who don’t want to see these changes come to fruition? Yes. Many people fear what is to come and would prefer to keep things the way they were.   But beyond all of this, no matter what happens in the future or what is happening now, something has changed in Egypt and that something is the individual mindset. And as so many people reminded us, over and over, once you reach this change and start thinking like a free person, there is no going back.

The Freedom of Baladi Dance with Alexandre Paulikevitch

Photo by Patrick Baz AFP
Photo by Patrick Baz AFP

It was one of those beautiful nights in Beirut were I found myself sitting at a table with new friends sharing stories, teaching each other about the world, and finding humor in unexpected places.  And even after a long day of teaching and rehearsing, Alexandre Paulikevitch is a natural at all these things.  As we sat around the table of the outdoor cafe he talked about projects he’s working on and the challenges that keep coming his way, and after several minutes of conversation he looked at me and my portable recorder and said “OK Mark, I understand what you’re doing and what kind of conversations you are seeking.” A clear and reassuring statement I wish I would tell myself every now and then.

This would end up being one of my favorite conversations of the entire journey, as the young but already legendary Baladi Dancer and human rights activist patiently moved from the beginnings of his interest in dancing and gender expression to his eventual realization of both who he is and what his performance art is all about.  Even beyond the stage, we discuss the issues he is active with in both Lebanon and in other parts of the Middle East.

Listen and enjoy to what I believe is an important conversation and an education when it comes to challenging conventional wisdom and self expression throughout the world.

You can watch a performance by Alexandre from earlier this year on youtube. 

From the Military to the Stage in Egypt

In the early days of the 2011 revolt some young Egyptians found themselves at the beginning of their military service. While in Tahrir square and on the streets the winds of change blew away a dictator, in the barracks soldiers knew little of what was going on outside and what their fate might be as soldiers.  Would they be deployed to the streets to confront ordinary citizens? Do they still answer to the same president or is there someone new? The questions were many and the information was scarce.

In the lead up to and during those days in the military, Ahmed El Gendy wrote notes to himself and when the rare chance presented itself, on facebook.  He wrote as he thought about his own life, his experience as a soldier, and how it relates to what is happening outside.  And when he finally got out, his writings eventually became part of a theater piece, set along side letters from a political prisoner incarcerated during that same time period.

Beyond the theater and since his military service, Ahmed has also become part of a small but growing group of young Egyptians involved in contemporary dance.  Something that a few years prior was virtually non existent.

Today we sit down with Ahmed El Gendy in a little garden high above Zamalek, Cairo, to talk about military service during the revolution, creating a theater piece based on that experience, and the evolution of his young career in contemporary dance.

The Play: No Time for Art III directed by Laila Soliman

The Dance: Celebration of Differences and Existence (CDN2)

Unexpected Encounters in Egypt

We’re at the nearby art gallery speaking with a talented and kind-hearted painter who is struggling to fully explain his project in English.  After a few minutes of explanation and some translation he turns to us and says “Why don’t you come to Nasser City tomorrow, my friend Khaled holds an open studio every Friday and you’ll meet great artists who are good at explaining things in several languages.”

Less than 24 hours and a memorable taxi ride later, we’re walking into a first floor apartment that looks less like a house and more like a secret hide out for talented and funny artists.  The walls are covered in art, which includes plentiful collage material pasted on the doors and walls in seemingly every corner of the room. The ceiling is cleverly lined with old acrylic paint tubes that look more like festive lighting. A look into the bathroom reveals a giant white plaster hippopotamus covered in magazine clippings.  At the little round table, 4 friendly people are seated with laptops opened, phones on display, and a few big professional cameras strewn about.  They drift in and out of conversation and presenting things on screens to each other.  Over at another work station, a dedicated music laptop plays the music of Lebanese legend Fairuz, while another few people sit in the next room chatting about a project.

We’ve wandered into an artists’ studio where every friday a group of friends gather in what they describe as a weekly ritual of conversation and camaraderie. And despite our presence disrupting the usual flow of conversation, the group is pleased to have us and we are each immediately greeted with explanations and examples of their work.  The youngest among them is 22 years old and she shows me her interactive art installations that focus on surveillance culture.  She clicks through the images and explains how it works and where it is on display now.  “If I had known you were coming I would have brought my marionettes” she later tells me.  Meanwhile one by one they explain their work and their feelings about the past two years.  In the difficult events at Tahrir in 2011, they lost friends, including one of their regular colleagues of the Friday open studio, who was killed by a sniper.  They speak about him and how they lived those days, all of them at the square of course, where they still return to as part of the Friday ritual.  “We will have tea, finish our discussions, and head over to Tahrir later today,” we were told several times.

Both the work and the people were extremely inspiring, as this group not only specialized in innovative art, but they also obviously looked after one another.  It was like visiting a family of different generations, dedicated to helping one another succeed in life and art. And lucky us, on this day they welcomed us with open arms and plentiful pastries, pleased to have another chance to get to know visitors and communicate their story to whomever would be interested in listening. (or reading)

Unspoken Egypt: Violence at Home

The issue of domestic abuse is a huge yet unspoken problem in Egypt.  Despite all the stories of the great social liberation that is taking place on the street when it comes to self-expression and liberty, at home women are still beaten by their husbands. Between the social acceptance and the legal indifference of this terrible tradition,  it would seem to be an extremely difficult reality to overcome.

Jenny Montasir is an Egyptian-American who came to Egypt to learn more about her family and her heritage, in the process she also began working on raising awareness and documenting things happening in Egyptian today, including domestic abuse.

Follow Jenny’s work on Trigger Happy Media or via twitter

The Front Office of Tahrir

It’s almost 1pm on a Friday  and the normally jam packed streets are quiet and strangely empty. Many are taking part in Friday prayers, and on this the day after the big speech by President Morsi where he announced new sweeping powers for himself while decapitating the judiciary branch of government.  On the heels of this bold and disturbing announcement, you can feel the calm before the storm, as by this afternoon hundreds of thousands will re-occupy Tahrir Square.

Last night and into the early morning hours, the cafe’s of Cairo were packed with people outraged over the announcement, and determined to take the square as a show of force by the people who during those legendary 18 days in 2011, did the impossible.  This morning, just a few blocks down from Tahrir, I’m at café Riche, the more than 1 hundred year old establishment that is known as the home of the writers, thinkers, and perhaps the cultural elite of Cairo.  I say perhaps because when you sit down at this historical landmark, you feel like everyone talks to everyone, and someone new strikes up a conversation every time.  At the front end of the cafe, the owner sits in front of his flatscreen TV watching the news.  Oddly, he often keeps the screen set to the live video feed from the square, which is physically only 2 blocks down the street. People periodically rise from their tables and stand transfixed on the screen. Customers walking in do the same before they take their seats. Everyone is looking at what is happening and wondering what may happen yet today.

In the back of the otherwise empty cafe, just as outside a constant stream of people walk by in the direction of the square like there is a magnet pulling them there, a group of older, seasoned veterans of the cultural scene have gathered for breakfast. Its their usual friday gathering and you can tell its THE place for debates and discussions about the week’s events and the big questions of life.  They will eat, argue, laugh, and then on to the main event – off to the demonstration.

Engineer Abbas, our new friend who helped design the current incarnation of this cafe that dates back to 1909, is seated at our table telling us stories of protests and the old days under previous dictators in Egypt. I ask him, “does it feel like those magic days in 2011 today?”  He smiles, “Those were the days my friend… those were the days.”  He goes on to sing “Those were the days” which I think  was a song from the 60’s that we all kind of know.   After his song Abbas smiles again, “Egyptian people have no schedule… they are.. how do I say.. unpredictable.  It may not be today, it might be tomorrow, you never know!”

In my time here in Egypt I find not everyone likes Cafe Riche. Its considered old, tired, elitist and perhaps even touristy.  I me be just the latest outsider to be charmed, but the friends I have made, the stories I have internalized in this place, it is for me as unforgettable as the square itself. It is better than any University I have ever attended and more lively than most rallies I have ever been a part of.  All day long and well into the night, the flat screen TV stays on and the front desk remains occupied, the writers and thinkers go back and forth, to protest, and back for tea. Rinse and Repeat. Day after day.  Just like in that those wonderful 18 days, – I’m told.