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On Egypt

I used to write a lot about Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East. I used to write regularly about the politics of the region on this blog; at my most productive, I would update it daily. When I moved to Egypt, I expected that this would at least continue as before, if not increase. Yet I found the reverse was true. I wrote less and less, and now have all but stopped completely. The longer I spent in Egypt, the less I found I knew about it, understood about it; the less I found, in fact, that I could express anything about it at all. This is, perhaps, how every thoughtful person feels (or at least should feel) when studying anything, and I don’t necessarily view it as a regression, though it has certainly made me less productive: in writing, even in discussion, my tendency has been to say less and less about Egypt, rather than more and more.

Perhaps this is a starting point (and I do not claim this as an original idea, merely one which has been forcefully brought home to me by my experiences in Egypt) for an ethics of writing which acknowledges uncertainty, even valorises it. Perhaps. We demand experts, and buy into expertise. This is not in itself a bad value system, even if it allows people to build careers on vacuous generalisations; I am certainly not making a case for the anti-intellectual politics seen increasingly (although probably not exclusively, and here I am perhaps making one of those self-same vacuous generalisations) on the American right-wing. Indeed, a lot of what is wrong with writing about the Middle East, if I am not coming perilously close to sounding sure of myself here, is over-simplification: easy, lazy polarisations, Sunni/Shia, Muslim/Christian, Islamist/secular, and so on. It is always refreshing to read or listen to someone who knows a little more, who can tease out the intricacies of these relationships, even just hinting at something beyond the antagonistic binaries which dominate the discourse. And this gets to the heart of it: anyone who knows a little bit more will, paradoxically, face a harder task in explaining Egypt, or Lebanon, or Syria, or wherever else, because they will (or at least should) reject the reductionism which pervades so many ‘explanations’. What is needed is an ethics of writing which does not devalorise knowledge but rather acknowledges its limitations. This is a hard task, and one which I could not live up to; in the face of so much uncertainty, so much complexity, all the tangles and knots of a real country in which I was now, finally, living, I simply gave up; a decision which I view as showing either integrity or laziness, depending on my mood.

There was, however, more to it than that. I also stopped writing about Egypt because of two events: the Maspero massacre in October, and the protests on Mohamed Mahmoud St in November. Both confronted me with an inexpressibility which defied my attempts to say anything about either of them. I was not at Maspero; a number of my friends and colleagues were. In the days that followed I watched videos, looked at pictures, and read testimonies. Several times, I tried to write something about it, and each time I backed off; it seemed so redundant, even arrogant, to write anything at all. Maspero brought a kind of affective inexpressibility. If you had seen the images, then you would know, or rather feel, what I could be (but was not) writing about; even more so, had you actually been there. If you had not seen them, then you would not know, and I did not see how anything I could write could capture that horror in a useful way – in short, I did not see the value in me writing anything at all. All I could talk about with any authority were my own feelings, which have never been particularly interesting things, despite the fact that I am currently consecrating an entire essay to them. I ended up translating Maspero witness statements from Arabic into English for a website documenting the massacre. This felt like something useful. And I realise, now, that I am making a distinction in validity between forms of representation which are mimetic, attempting to reproduce reality – the pictures, the witness statements, my translations of said witness statements – and those which attempt to interpret or comment on reality, i.e. any piece I could have written on Maspero. This is not a value judgement that I regularly make, or one that I am ideologically certain about; looking at it from this critical distance, I am surprised at its superficiality and naivete; so why the instinctive differentiation when confronted with Maspero?

Honestly, I am not sure. This is from an essay by Nathan Bracher on Charlotte Delbo, whose Auschwitz et apres is among the most famous testimonies to come out of the Holocaust:

Certes, il importe de ne point sous-estimer les difficultés qui se posent à tout écrivain qui ose aborder l’Holocauste. D’abord, on se trouve devant le défi qui consiste à faire dire au langage, ce commun dénominateur social, une expérience sans commune mesure et sans précédent. Aussi faut-il, pour rendre compte d’une horreur dépassant l’imagination, trouver les moyens textuels adéquats. Et l’écrivain doit, enfin, éviter que la violence ne se banalise, puisque, en effet, comme le constate Delbo elle-même, une fois écrit, ‘ça devient une histoire’.1

  • Nathan Bracher, Histoire, ironie, et imagination chez Charlotte Delbo, 1994

It is this last point of Bracher’s (or, more properly speaking, Delbo’s) which resonates the most with me: ‘once written, it becomes a story’. What, then, to do, in the face of this défi? Bracher warns against the ‘l’excès inverse qui consiste à souligner les lacunes du langage au point de dénier toute valeur descriptive aux diverse écritures de l’Holocauste’ (‘the inverse excess which consists of emphasising the lacunae of language to the point of denying all descriptive value of the diverse body of Holocaust writing’), and of course I agree with him. Indeed, I am not trying to denigrate the numerous excellent pieces of writing about Maspero, either ‘describing’ or ‘explaining’ it (and the more I think about it, the more it becomes obvious that the distinction between describing and explaining is a false one, and my earlier value judgement between the two becomes even more invalid). Rather, I was faced with a personal ethical tangle, which revolved around the fear that ‘ça devient une histoire’ , and which was compounded by not having been there; some might even argue that it was further compounded by my not being Egyptian, although I personally think that argument holds little water. Once again, I backed off; or rather, I took refuge in translation, that ‘straightforward’, ‘mimetic’ process of saying in one language what has already been said in another; a simplicity to it, a purity – of course problematic, a subject for another time, but at that point it felt like the right thing to do.

There is a story I tell, when people ask me about ‘the revolution’, about protests, about street violence. It’s a funny story; it gets laughs. The story goes like this. During the Mohamed Mahmoud protests of November, I went to give blood at Kasr el-Aini hospital. Everything went smoothly, but I came out of the hospital feeling a little dizzy from the blood loss; it was dark, and I was trying to find a cab, and I stumbled into a tree, the sharp leaf of a palm tree, to be precise, which cut me over the eye. The cut was not deep, but it bled a lot; I got into a cab and as we drove up Kasr el-Aini I began to feel blood running down the left side of my face. I got back to my office and my colleagues were shocked; they immediately assumed I had been attacked by a xenophobic mob. I went to a pharmacy, where I was bandaged up rather excessively, the dressing covering my entire left eye; walking back home through Tahrir Square that evening, I got a lot of attention, some suspicious, some openly congratulating me. The joke is, of course, that I sustained this injury walking into a tree; in the midst of violent clashes between protestors and security forces, my own clumsiness was what got to me; a fraudulent hero, walking through Tahrir with an eyepatch as protestors were having their eyes shot out. (Put that way, the story isn’t so funny, but I guess it’s the way you tell them.)

Mohamed Mahmoud presented a new inexpressibility, which Maspero had not; how to convey being somewhere. I was at Mohamed Mahmoud. I went nowhere near the epicentre of the violence, but I was nevertheless drawn into the events in three different ways: firstly, by virtue of the fact that my apartment was a few blocks from the ‘action’, so to speak, and so just by moving around the city I was necessarily entangled in the back and forth of street battles, safe zones, barricades, and so forth; secondly, out of voyeurism or a desire to ‘bear witness’, however you want to construe it, I went to the square a number of times to ‘have a look’; and thirdly, through the organisation I was working for at the time, I became involved in the supply networks bringing medicines, drinks, and food to the field hospitals set up in Tahrir Square and around. The memories of that period are incredibly vivid, like any time in your life when adrenaline is running high and you are seeing things you have not seen before. When the street lights were turned out in Bab el-Luq, and the only lights were the fires burning on the pavement, by which you could see the tear gas drifting in clouds through the air, and the men with masks and sticks standing on street corners. Waking up in my old apartment on Nubar Street and listening to the tear gas guns going off, and climbing up onto the roof to see the white puffs shining in the morning sunlight. Delivering medicines at three in the morning to the field hospital in the middle of the square, and handing them over to a tall Salafi-looking doctor, who thanked me politely before turning back to the patient convulsing on a blanket next to him.

None of that captures what it was like to be there. And I hope this will not be confused with romanticising the experience, because it was at once less ‘exciting’ and more ‘exciting’ than the previous paragraph’s descriptions manage to convey. Certainly, walking through streets lit by garbage fires while street battles raged around me was ‘exciting’, but not really in a sense that I can hope to describe; I could call the fires eerie, say that the tear gas looked like ectoplasm, like ghostly shapes drifting through the air, talk about how my heart beat faster every time I drew near one of those groups of men, hoping they were revolutionaries rather than baltageya, but that wouldn’t get to it, and that would be so much dubious ‘literarisation’ of the whole affair. Conversely, of course it was less ‘exciting’ than all of that; people were dying, and I wasn’t ever sure I was doing the right thing, and a lot of the time I was just sitting in my apartment following the events on Twitter, and a lot of the time I was just doing my Arabic homework or making dinner or watching TV on the internet. ‘Exciting’ isn’t even the right word; I’m using it as a stand-in for something else, perhaps ‘a high level of sensory intensity’; ‘exciting’ puts it in the paradigm of narrative, of anecdote, of storytelling, which feels inappropriate, even insulting, when all of those people were killed and others suffered so much. Yet anecdote is the easiest way to deal with it. So when people ask me about it, I tell that anecdote, about walking into the tree and cutting my eye, and people thinking I was a revolutionary, and it gets a laugh, and then I leave it there.

Had you told me two years ago that I would be present at events like those on Mohamed Mahmoud, and that afterwards I would not only be unable, but possibly unwilling to write about them, I would have been sceptical. I am still not sure why I do not write about Egypt: whether I cannot, or just don’t want to; whether my concerns are about the inadequacy of language, or about the ethics of anecdote, the banalisation of violence, the ‘ça devient une histoire’. Layers of uncertainty: I don’t know enough about Egypt, I don’t write about Egypt, and I don’t even know why exactly I don’t write about Egypt. If I can draw any satisfaction from this state of affairs, it is that at least I am fulfilling my own ethical conditions for writing: an acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge. But, as Bracher says, ‘on se contraint à garder le silence’ (‘we constrain ourselves to keeping silent’). If no-one tried to convey to others what it is like to be somewhere, to witness something, then the world would quite clearly be a poorer place, and quite probably be a more dangerous one. The role I have to play in this is still something that I am working out.

1Very rough translation: ‘Certainly, it is important not to underestimate the difficulties which face each writer who dares to deal with the Holocaust. Firstly, you find yourself faced with the challenge of saying in language – that social common denominator – an experience without common measure and without precedent. You must also, in order to give an account of a horror exceeding the imagination, find adequate textual methods. And, finally, the writer must avoid the banalisation of violence, since in effect, as Delbo herself states, once written ‘it becomes a story’.

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