Defying Walls in ‘Popular Culture and the Revolution’

Dr. Mona Elnamoury attended the last session of this year’s AUC-organized Summer Academy. 

By Mona Elnamoury

“Popular Culture and the Revolution” was the title of  the last panel discussion of the Summer Academy organized  by Samia Mehrez and run by Dr Randa Abou Bakr, a professor of comparative literature at Cairo University. The panelists were a group of heroes of what Abou Bakr named “popular culture”: cartoonist Amro Selim, graphic designer Heba Helmy, and musician Yousra Alhawary.  The main theme of the panel was to investigate the relation between popular culture and its artistic production and the political changes that have been taking place in Egypt for the last two years.

It is implied that the Egyptian uprising is popular, in that we are now witnessing  various changes in artistic expressions as well as political structures.

Abou Bakr quoted Elias Khoury when he said that the revolution inaugurated pathways to follow that beget noticeable social, artistic, as well as political transformations. The current transformations, as Abou Bakr notes them, engage new actors for the first time; namely the marginalized and the apathetic. As the revolution did not result in a new political structure, there remains a conflict over representation and action. The outpouring of artistic production in post-uprising time reflects the insufficiency of official cultural organizations and the need to new cultural ones to work independently from the oppositional forces. The new popular artists who have challenged the past regime can reclaim the public spaces by refusing to make concessions giving more power to opposition symbolically. Abou Bakr reminded us that the ones who went out to protest on 25th of January did not merely go out to topple the regime but also wanted to reclaim public spaces that the regime had for so long confiscated and complicated.

An outpouring of artistic productions — like songs, graffiti, drawings, dramatic sketches and also virtually on the internet in the form of videos, animations  — filled public spaces. This outpouring of artistic expressions in the internet and in public squares showed the official cultural structures as insufficient and unable to live up to the situation.

Aware that she is moving among a punch of problematic concepts like popular culture, public space, Abou Bakr warns us that we need to investigate these concepts within the transformations we are living rather than closing them. A few questions to consider here are: what is the relation between artistic productions and commercialization? How action-oriented can an artistc production can be? What about the accessibility to a wide audience and to what extent can we judge this accessibility?

However, she confirms that we can safely say that these cultural practices are part and parcel of everyday life. They are youthful, sarcastic, iconoclastic and modest

Translating he concept of “popular culture” was equally problematic to Abou Bakr. She digressed for a while on her translation choice of the word “popular”. She dismissed “الشعبيىة  because it is not folk culture and she dismissed الجماهيرية   because of its bad reputation of being connected to the regime . After some discussion with professor Mehrez in which Abou Bakr suggested the word رائجة it was also dismissed and finally they preferred الدارجة  because for her it brings meanings of approaching people, or coming to the people regarding the origin of the word to be درج  , or the steps. In her opinion, this culture and its artistic representations prepare the way for change and keep the revolution spirit alive.

Graphic designer and photographer Heba Helmy talked about the graffiti all over Cairo and Alexandria before, during, and after the uprising expressing brutality of the police. She also referred to the police occupation of the public spaces; the kinds of authoritarian occupation that would turn every shooting in a public space an interrogation. Reclaiming that vacuum and that public space is the real achievement of the uprising and so it was only logical that graffiti would prosper.

She sees graffiti as an expression of resistance and a real form of popular culture. Graffiti breaks the rules of the ruling state twice: once while applying it on the wall and another time in expressing what cannot be expressed in official media or artistic representation. She showed various slides reminding the audience with famous graffiti that recorded the important events of the last 18 months.

Most important of all were the ones showing the role of women and the abuse they received. She also talked about how on each protective wall or fence that was erected by authorities, graffiti was drawn.

Cartoonist Amro Selim started his talk with an anecdote with a French journalist who interviewed him three months before the revolution. She asked him whether he was aware how the authorities were using him with other artists to show they encouraged democratic expression. His answer was positive. He also told her that the artists also exploited the authorities making use of every possible margin of freedom. Selim thinks that some of the talk shows, cartoonists, many journalists, and writers helped greatly in pushing things forward the revolutionary forces.

Selim talked about his long history of banging his head against the wall of authorities. In the past, it was the Mubarak regime, during the revolution it was the SCAF, and now it is the political Islam authorities.  But he believed that he would go on resisting the authorities with his street art, cartoons. He talked about being twice almost taken to the court room because of his cartoons. With a proud wonder, Selim questioned why should a simple colorful cartoon in a newspaper scare the hell out of the authorities to the point of trying to incriminate him!

Yousra Al-Hawary, independent  musician, song writer, and singer talked about the choir project and how it started before/during/after the revolution, roaming cities inside and outside Egypt spreading a persevere call for freedom and justice.  It is a simple idea of people gathering, talking, discussing ideas to write songs.

The song she showed, “Al-soor”, or “The Wall,” made everyone’s day. It was  a beautiful song that expresses a youthful resistance to the concept of authoritarian fences where a butterfly like Yousra sings joyfully from above one of the big Cairo stone fences built by the authorities, and chooses a rebellious common practice to defy the fences, which is peeing over it! Regarding the fact that Egyptian streets lack public rest rooms, peeing beside/over fences and walls is a common practice turned into a larger defiant symbol here. I leave you with her song, Al-soor:

Here is the translation:

In front of the wall
In front of its builder
In front of those who made it higher
Stood a simple man
On the wall
On those who built it
On those who raised it
On those who protect it.

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.