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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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Translation problems

I don’t know enough about law, or technology, or the Arabic language for this shit. When I was a volunteer translator, I had a folder in my documents marked, semi-jokingly, ‘ABOVE MY PAY GRADE’ for all of the translations which required more than usual amounts of caffeine, spasmodic scrolling through Hans Wehr, and the last resort of the underqualified, plugging the whole thing into Google Translate and then rearranging what comes out into some kind of sense. When I actually started getting paid, I renamed the folder ‘HUMAN RIGHT$ DOLLA’. Slowly, I am becoming a good translator. Slowly.

Translation has taught me words in English: usufructuary, to yaw, Secure Sockets Layer. It has shown me a whole heap of enjoyable, even quaint differences in expression and syntax between Arabic and English. (To take into consideration, in Arabic, becomes ‘to take into the eye of consideration,’ which I like.) In the way that studying advanced French taught me never to end an English sentence with a preposition (for what is merely sloppy in English becomes impossible in French), translating advanced Arabic texts has taught me new ways of thinking about gerunds, passives, apposition, relative pronouns, and so on, which I will not go into here, because it will be dull. (Gerunds, though! They need a special mention. Arabic can sometimes be a mess of gerunds, as though there is no other way to express an idea. It can be neat, an incredibly elegant and concise way to express complicated concepts, or it can be repetitive and stale. After a day spent with Arabic I find myself inserting gerunds into English which should not be there. ‘The mentioning of it is forbidden,’ that kind of thing.)

I still don’t want to be a translator when I grow up, but I am enjoying being one at the moment.

When I translate from English to Arabic, it is of course much, much harder. No amount of dictionaries, grammar books, or Google T can fill the gaping hole where a native command of the language is lacking. I formulate clauses and then Google them in Arabic to see if anyone has written anything similar. I do this, painstakingly, for every sentence I write, casting my net over the Internet, searching for someone whose words chime with my own. My supervisor at work says my English-Arabic translations are ‘strange but serviceable’. Some of them, he says, are better than a native speaker’s efforts. I silently thank all the denizens of the internet who just happened to be writing about probable cause or the frequency spectrum in Arabic, in the same words as me, and who, as before, saved my ass.

I am compiling a glossary so that the next translator who takes over from me at my organisation can save some time finding accurate translations for things like ‘rocket-propelled grenade warhead’ or ‘universal jurisdiction’. It is divided up into sections: medical, legal, security, espionage, prisons, weapons, and so on. Finding a good word for the glossary is very satisfying. I now have three different types of knives, five different guns, and a plethora of small arms including chains and sticks. It is a morbid little list. Each word recalls the case, the particular translation, from whence it came; the word for drug poisoning, for instance, inevitably reminds me of the Essam Atta press release I translated, after Atta died in prison from having bleach pumped into his mouth and anus through rubber hoses. The Ministry of Interior claimed that he had ingested drugs and died of poisoning. My translation work is the last stage in a process where each stage becomes more refined, more removed from the original violence and horror of the thing.

In October, I volunteered for a website which was gathering testimonies from witnesses to the Maspero massacre, and then translating them into English. This translation work presented an initial problem for me in that all the testimonies were in transcribed Egyptian Arabic, so my dictionary was little use and I often had to read them out loud to figure out what they were saying. Rendering colloquial expressions into English was difficult and the results felt awkward. I didn’t know what level of expletives were permitted: I shied away from ‘I’m gonna fuck you up,’ sticking with the slightly milquetoast ‘I’m gonna mess you up’.

I was not at Maspero. I was in a friend’s apartment in downtown, far away enough to be assured of my safety, perched on his balcony reading Twitter. In the days that followed I watched the same videos and saw the same pictures as everybody else: the woman clutching her dead fiance’s hand, the heads smashed in, the horrifying videos which emerged later, the close-up shots of APCs running people down. These images of Maspero stuck with me, like I imagine they did for many other people. It was a horrific event, a horrific time afterwards, and of course I was upset and disturbed by it.

Yet it was translation, in the end, which really got to me. It was only after I began translating testimonies that I began having nightmares about Maspero. I would sit at my desk with all the simple comforts of work around me: a soft light, a cup of tea, maybe a blanket over my knees, and I would begin. Each testimony would begin the same way: we were marching from Shubra, and it was a lovely day. As I typed out my translation, my stomach would begin to tighten, for I knew what was coming, the point at which – not death, but the possibility of death, would start to seep into the text. Somehow, I would find myself on the Corniche, right inside the videos and photos I had seen; among the howling darkness, the blood and teeth and brains, the bodies jerking epileptically under the wheels of APCs. I would reach the end of the translation, look up from my laptop, and steady myself with a hand against my desk; reassuring myself that I was still here, in the light, and still breathing.

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Marinab to Maspero?

In a small village in Aswan Province in Upper Egypt, a group of Christians want to rebuild their local church. They apply for, and are granted, the necessary permits. They are then told they can build their church, but it is forbidden from having a cross, a bell, a beacon, or domes on the roof. They agree to all these conditions, except the domes, because they have already been built and to remove them would necessitate rebuilding the entire roof. A group of Muslims from the village lay siege to Coptic houses. The Christians are told they must remove the domes in fifteen days or the whole church will be destroyed. They agree, and begin demolishing the domes. Eight days later, after incitement from a local preacher, a mob firebombs the church and begins demolishing it. Fire services are prevented from entering the village. The soldiers who were assigned to protect the church stand by and watch. Ten days later, the governor of Aswan Province goes on Egyptian state television and states categorically that there is no church in the village and no churches burning in the district.

As a vignette, this story sums up quite succinctly the mixture of petty humiliations, bureaucratic obstructionism, and sporadic violence faced by the Copts as a matter of course in Egypt – to say nothing of the official complicity in all of this. These types of stories, while not uncommon and certainly not unnoticed, are not front page news in Egypt. I only knew the intricate details of Al-Marinab – the village in question – because I spent a day translating a detailed report on it, in a slightly bad mood as it was Armed Forces Day and I was supposed to have the day off work. At the end of the report, my colleague had written: ‘With the confrontation continuing, and demonstrations escalating…it is not unlikely that matters will flare up again.’

They did, and the next part of story was front page news. On the 9th October, a demonstration against the Al-Marinab affair turned into nothing short of a massacre in the heart of Cairo. Outside Maspero, the Egyptian state television and radio building, the criminals in the army mowed down demonstrators with machine guns and crushed their skulls under armoured personnel carriers, while the criminals inside the building spouted poison on the airwaves. Sitting in my flat, I listened to an Egyptian state TV anchor reporting that Coptic demonstrators had seized weapons and turned them on troops, and urging ordinary Egyptians to go to Maspero and defend the army. I switched to Twitter and read that my boss was in the Coptic Hospital and had just personally counted 17 corpses, some without facial features or heads from being run over by APCs. In the most traumatic and horrifying event since the uprising in January, Egypt’s armed forces had done what they claimed they would never do, and killed their own people in the most brutal and indiscriminate of ways.

Al-Marinab is evidence that there is still a ‘sectarian’ problem in Egypt, to the extent that the religious majority in Egypt still imposes humiliating and oppressive conditions on the religious freedoms of the country’s minorities (not just Christians, but Shi’a, Ahmadis, Baha’is, and Jews as well). At their worst, the ever-present tensions erupt in incidents of horrific violence, such the Nag Hammadi massacre in 2010 or the Alexandria church bombing at the beginning of this year. The problem is perpetuated, exacerbated, and exploited by Egypt’s government and security forces; indeed, the Alexandria bombing is now widely believed to have been the work of the Egyptian security services themselves. The Copts who marched on Sunday, and the many Muslims and others who joined them, were demonstrating against a state which systematically and relentlessly discriminates against them and, worse, exploits prejudices and inter-religious tensions to make them feel like second-class citizens, aliens in their own country.

Maspero, however, was different. One of the most blood-boiling things that I read on Sunday night was one of the most trivial: a Facebook status posted by an acquaintance in Alexandria complaining that her planned ‘relaxing weekend’ in Cairo was now coinciding with ‘Muslim-Christian riots’. Leaving aside the sheer noxiousness of such a remark, the assumptions it makes about what happened on Sunday night are both ignorant and damaging. The events outside Maspero were not riots, but a massacre. They were not a crime committed by one religious group against another, but a crime committed by the state against its own citizens. There is a line which can, and should, be drawn between Marinab and Maspero. Yet to characterise this as the latest outbreak of sectarian violence in Egypt is to swallow hook, line, and sinker the excuses peddled by the generals themselves, who in an Orwellian press conference on Wednesday claimed that they had been drawn into clashes between Muslims and Christians and had never opened fire on anyone, despite all evidence to the contrary.

What happened at Maspero was more proof, as if any were ever needed, of the hollowness of the army’s pretensions towards being the ‘defenders of the revolution’. The more conciliatory argument says that SCAF are just inept; that they have little experience of policing demonstrations, much less running the country; that on Sunday they lost control of a volatile situation. The less conciliatory and far more accurate argument says that SCAF had ample time to prepare for Sunday’s march; that they deliberately chose to terrorise peaceful demonstrators; and that they must take full responsibility for the bloodshed that ensued. They are not the defenders of the revolution, but the protectors of the ancien régime. On Sunday they showed that they had inherited not just its authoritarianism and political stagnation, but its brutality, too.

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