Searching for the Secret of Egypt’s Uprising in Her Literature

Many commentators—presumably alert neither to Egyptians’ struggles against wildly rising prices in the latter half of the ’00s, nor to the April 6 movement, nor to our shock and outrage at the pictures of a brutally beaten Khaled Said, nor to repressive parliamentary “elections”—have suddenly noticed Egypt on their global landscape.


Many have portrayed pre-Jan25 Egypt to be passive or dormant, stupefied or sleeping. Thus, the search for “clues” to the 2011 protests. What could possibly lead these sleepy Egyptians (or, as The New Yorker Books Bench says, “‘innately’ docile”) to revolt against 30 years of stupid, cruel dictatorship?

The New Yorker Books Bench heads back to Naguib Mahfouz, where Macy Halford finds criticism of Mahfouz to stand for something. This criticism talks about “Egyptian exceptionalism.” Sure, there’s a sense of Egyptian exceptionalism. Why wouldn’t there be? Which people, at core, doesn’t find themselves exceptional? Tunisian author Kamel Riahi recently referred to Tunisia as “the most civilized Arab country”—and don’t Americans find themselves pretty fabulously unique? However, to centralize the role of “exceptionalism” at this time, when Egypt finds herself part of a wave of pan-Arab hope, seems an odd textual analysis.

Over at Words Without Borders, translator Chip Rossetti—who is familiar with the Egyptian landscape as well as her literature—looks at multiple Egyptian novels and short stories, from literary authors such as Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris and Mohamed Makhzangi and Bahaa Abdelmeguid to popular sci fi novelist Ahmed Towfik. The latter three are authors Rossetti has recently translated, so we can assume he’s given them a pretty close reading.

But these are not the only ones talking about the revolution: many recent Egyptian novels feature protesters, and the possibility of clashes between people and police.

The National particularly cites Mohamed Salmawy’s recent novel Butterfly Wings:

The protagonists are “digital youth” who communicate through their own world and launch a broad rebellion against an authority they are estranged from. The government immediately accuses the opposition and arrests its leaders. This helps the real opposition in the streets.

“Employees join in the revolt, and the situation worsens. Even though the army is deployed, it refuses to repress protesters. As a result, the police lose control, and the end is known.”

Indeed, there’s something real-feeling in Salmawy’s “predictions,” which parallel at least the beginning of the movement. Unfortunately, a novel is not a world, and Salmawy’s novel—unless we’re living in some Borgesian universe—must necessarily be smaller and different from life.

In this case, simpler: One wishes the army had sided with the protesters and that we’d already somehow gotten this thing done.

But there’s also another side to the relationship between art and the “real” world. It’s not how protests show up in literature, but how art effects the course of a movement. We can look at the new wave of popular satiric novels, or at the new graphic-novel magazine TokTok, or at other recent literature that opens up humor and possibility.

Elliott Colla talks about the particular effects of protest poetry in Jadaliyya. He gives a glimpse of the beautiful chants that my children walked down the streets shouting with hundreds and thousands of others: inspiring us, warming us, often making me cry. These chants, which creatively morphed and grew across the city, gave voice to feelings that before had insufficient shape; they gave confidence; they warmed tongues; they set up a zone of creative license and freedom. Language here was important.

In Colla’s words:

The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before.

Indeed, when we walked with a protest in our—yes, affluent—neighborhood, pictured right, my husband turned to me with great love and respect. He said, “These are our neighbors.”

Colla talks about a number of colloquial protest poets who have fired the Egyptian imagination over the last decades. Many of these poems have circulated on TV or YouTube, and are appreciated even by one’s most non-literary friends. Colla discusses briefly what protest poetry and chanting can accomplish.

But something I really appreciate about Colla’s commentary is his acknowledgment of the many protests and revolts in Egypt in the last half-century, giving lie to the image of a previously “docile” Egypt. (Edward Said, in this moment, was not rolling in his grave.)

Whatever happens next—and we must still hope that the best poetry is yet to come—#Jan25 did not come from nothing.