Radwa Ashour on the Train of Images in the Egyptian Revolution

By Mona Elnamoury, PhD, Tanta University

The Arab Spring Conference, 18th of Feb., 2012.

“I will speak Arabic.”

Those were Radwa Ashour’s first words in the keynote speech in The Arab Spring Conference, held Feb. 18-20 at Cairo University in collaboration with the Center for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) and The Women and Memory Forum. Though many of the foreign guests in the hall were familiar with Arabic in one way or another, they started to listen more carefully while small groups of volunteer simultaneous translators formed themselves in different corners of the semi-circle hall. Was it a sign of respect to Arabic, her mother tongue, or was it the hidden subaltern talking back to the empire and forcing it to seek translation? I asked myself.

Later during the day came her answer: “I chose Arabic because I was a good critic in English, a better creative writer in Arabic.”

The lecture was another of her creative pieces. At that, my mind started roaming to what she said about her own writing: “I was a woman. The eye that sees and the perception that classifies and organizes the vocabulary of experience, both impose their different constraints which are in turn reflected in the purport of the experience and the writing of it.” (Ashour, Radwa, “My Experience with Writing”, The View from Within.1994)

That illuminated my mind to her lecture and arrangement of ideas: Radwa Ashour delivered the Egyptian Revolution as she perceived/ classified/organized it in images.

Previously, revolutions had to wait for months, even years to be told and shaped into stories or poems. Now, revolutions are instantly covered and documented in news and in images. The images seem to have the stronger effect.

Tunisia is definitely the first image.The image of Bou Azizi burning himself and
inflaming the region stopped Radwa to gaze. He was, like millions of Arab youth,
dark, thin, poor, hopeless, and symbolic. The second image was of an old Tunisian man who, though he wore a modern training suit, looked like a prophet coming out of the Old Testament. He walked a narrow dark street, damned the fleeing Ben Ali, hailed the martyrs, and recited Abu Alkasem Alshabi’s important poem on freedom. The third image was of a Tunisian woman crying while talking on the phone right at the moment when a thrilling cry of joy came from a nearby
balcony, pain and joy mixed.

Those images flew in the air of the satellite channels and vibrated in the
internet connections, instantly inflaming revolution in Egyptian hearts and minds that were already under the weight of another image: Khaled Said’s. Egyptians had two images of Said, one as a handsome well-dressed young man and of himself after being beaten to death by heartless officers. The contrast between the two images was horrifying. Then the revolution came with its famous pictures of which Ashour recalls the image of the heroic frenzied dance of the Egyptian protesters in Tahrir square when Mubarak’s helicopters were hovering above.

The protesters started shouting: “Husni has gone mad..Husni has gone mad.. Condoleezza, Condoleezza give Husni a Visa.” Ashour sees that dance as a fabulous heroic act of turning fear into sarcasm and oppression into freedom.

The Tahrir Square‘s beleelah seller is another important image for Ashour.
The way he interwove his revolutionary slogans while attracting attention to
his merchandise (grains of peeled wheat in milk with sugar, nuts, and raisins)
is fascinating to her. “ Jesus is a prophet, Moses is a prophet, Mohamed is a
prophet. Let everyone place their peace and prayers on their prophets,” the seller would shout.” The beleelah carriage sends greetings to the Egyptian people. Our beleelah is with nuts, raisins, and almonds,” he would continue.

The parallel state of the square, the smoothness of its daily details,
the breath-taking mixture of political protest and the mawlids (popular
celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet and his family members and saints, where the street contains practically everything: food, drinks, dances, entertainments, musical shows, barbers, dancing, sleeping places). Sticking posters and taking picnic family pictures was a fascinating show of how Egyptians assimilated the military tanks and cars when they ambivalently saw them on the streets for the first time in decades.

To Ashour, in this outstanding carnival-like cultural confluence the Egyptians are marvelously employing all the inherited and acquired energies in service of the revolutionary act. This merging of an inherited culture together with a fundamental act of change is a new modernity that calls attention to itself.

Another aspect of cultural confluence is the inevitable mixture that took place between the youth of the middle class and those of the marginalized poor (so-called lower classes) in the protests. The first had realized, after Khaled Said, that they were by no means far from the hands of the merciless police state. So,they came to unite with the latter, the commonly crushed poor in the square.

Here Ashour moved to her final image from the revolution testimonies. A famous blog, “The poor first, sons of bitches!” by blogger Mohamed Abou Al-
Ghait, together with many others, drew her attention. The bloggers focused on
the images of martyrs, or ‘shuhadaa’: their poses, their smiles, their before and after pictures. Oddly enough, it has been repeatedly reported that during the days of Mohamed Mahmoud street, many of the poor young men preferred to be in the front lines protecting the weak or the better educated. They explained that the latter are better capable of leading a new free Egypt! They always fell first!

My head was now crowding with various images of familiar martyrs; they
became a cherished part of our daily lives. At this moment when her image-like
words indirectly posed the disturbing question:” If the one important life does
not matter, what does?”– to quote Ursula K. Le Guin, another humane creative
American writer — Ashour ended the fascinating lecture by saying, “We either revenge them, or we die like them”.

An enthusiastic female voice from the further end of the room came, shouting : “Down with the officers.”

Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.

1 Comment

  1. Very good sum up of Radwa Ashour’s keynote. Thanks for sharing it here.
    Just a small intervention: don’t you think a better translation of “yasqot yasqot 7okm al3askar” is “down with military rule”?

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