Blogging From Egypt: ‘Light a Candle, Even If It Is Weak’

How did Egypt’s blogsplosion affect its literary scene?

By Tugrul Mende

Teresa Pepe, Blogging From Egypt, Digital Literature, 2005-2016, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019

For better and for worse, anyone can start a blog. With the right knowledge and tools, a blog can be set up in a few seconds. The form and aesthetics of blogging — which started in earnest around 2005 — are starting to influence literature, likely in ways that are not yet discernible. But, in the last few years, research has begun to emerge on this topic. Teresa Pepe’s Blogging from Egypt traces the lives and writings of a few Egyptian bloggers who helped trigger a new literary genre that is here called “digital literature.” Pepe’s book is part of a series from Edinburgh University Press that’s interested in a wide-angle view of the literary process.

The Egyptian writer Wael Eskander, who also wrote for Al Ahram, Daily News Egypt, and other publications, has blogged primarily in English at Notes from the Underground since 2006. He was asked to write a piece on the anniversary of January 25, 2011, which was co-published in Zeit. He wrote: “Our memory has been resilient in the face of seemingly infinite resources trying to crush it. It’s worth something to keep remembering. It’s worth something to keep trying to survive. It’s worth something to hold on to that one thing that was genuine in our lives, that we were blessed and cursed to witness and be a part of. I don’t know what that something is, but I often feel it when we connect. We shared something real that is somehow beyond words.“ This blog, a mix of the personal and the political, forms part of the environment that Pepe discusses.

In six chapters, Pepe analyzes forty blogs that were active between 2005 and 2011 and two blog-influenced novels. From these forty blogs, she chose six case studies that where representative for her research, selected both for their literary value and because of the lives of the bloggers.

The novels were Ahmed Naji’s Istikhdam al-Haya (2014), which was translated as Using Life by Ben Koerber, and Youssef Rakha’s Paulo (2016), which has not yet found a home in English translation. For her study, Pepe choose those blogs that focused more on the personal and less on the explicitly political. These two novels are included because they are influenced by the style of the author’s writing practice used in their blogs, which was further developed in their literary narrative.

The author brings us, as she puts it, “on a journey that takes the readers through an exploration of the blogging literary movement in Egypt.”

Starting from the first year of the twenty-first century, blogs have been a way for people to express themselves, creatively and otherwise, with minimal restrictions. With the emergence of a “blogging generation” in the early 2000s, as Pepe paints in the short history in her first chapter, the internet influenced the practice of writing. The framework in her introduction compares different narrative modes of blogs, building on work mainly by French scholars, such as Serge Doubrovsky (1928-2017) who coined the term “autofiction.” For Pepe, “autofiction” is one part of blogging culture, because “the ‘autofictional blogs‘ are the ones in which the blogger breaks the autobiographical reading contract, on which blogs are apparently based, and opens a grey area between the fictional and the documentary. The presence of this oxymoronic reading pact, which results in the readers’ uncertainty and confusion, will be considered the main essence of autofiction in this study.”

Both the digital and the offline influence each other, and they’re defining new ways of writing and new ways of practicing writing, both stylistically and essentially: what it means to write in a public space. “The number of books retrieved from blogs and of books reproducing Internet aesthetics has dramatically increased in the last few years and is almost impossible to track now, showing that Arabic literature continues to thrive between the online and the offline realm.“ Some of the earliest Egyptian bloggers were activist Alaa Abdel Fatah and novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji. The latter called the mid-2000s the “Flood Age,” because so many blogs started to emerge.

The landscape of Egyptian blogs is introduced in more detail in the second chapter, which focuses on the texts and paratexts of six blogs. Through those six blogs, which stand as representatives of the Egyptian blogging scene, Pepe shows what it is that makes them vital in the blending of Arabic literature and the blogging experience. She not only analyzes the content, but also the visual aspects of the blogs. The bloggers who are introduced here have become well-known for their online writings, and in some cases, such as Naji’s, for their novels and short stories as well.

Two of the featured blogs from the case studies are by women: Mona Seif’s Maat (Ma3t’s Bits and Pieces), and Emraamethlya’s Yawmiyyat Imra’a Mithliyya (Diary of a Gay Woman). First, Pepe gives an overview of each author’s background, and later she goes through the contents of the blogs. While all these blogs present a part of the authors’ personal experience to the public, they are also “political, in the sense that the political situation does not act as a background, but every individual matter is immediately plugged into the political.“ The importance of this analysis is that it shows what matters most for those young writers, the environment for which they’re writing, and where their writings are coming from. It’s not only about the act of blogging itself, but what is written in the blogs, and by whom it is written. Most of the writings in these blogs follow a new style of writing and content.

What new style?

What does the language of the blogs studied in this book look like? In the third chapter, “Mixed Arabic as a Subversive Literary Style,” Pepe addresses this question by tackling the language the bloggers are using. The importance of writing in Arabic and not in English is one of the many aspects dealt with in this chapter. This chapter brings to light the background of the bloggers’ use of language and how it shifted literary style.

In the opening pages, Gamal al-Ghitani is quoted criticizing the literary style of blogs, rather the supposed lack of style. Critics like al-Ghitani said that, “bloggers were tainting Arabic literary production by writing books in poor language, and ‘they even express ideas making fun of language’.“ By the lights of those critics, bloggers aren’t true parts of the literary ecosystem, but instead are working outside of it. By discussing the varying registers in Arabic literature, from colloquial to a Modern Standard Arabic, Pepe engages in an important discussion on how choice of language is critical to the literary style of the blogs. These blogs represent a mix that “expresses the freedom afforded by the medium and has become the voice of a generation that does not recognize themselves in the language of mainstream media and discourse.“ They use all a combination of formal literary Arabic (fusha), colloquial Arabic (aamiya), and sometimes English, too.

The book could be loosely divided into two parts. The first part is the analysis of blogs in the light of their appearance, the context in which these blogs were established, and how readers reacted to the blogs. The second part is the analysis of the content. Throughout, Pepe makes a clear statement on the importance of blogs to Arabic literature, and how they have influenced one another other. The strength of the book is in the analysis of these particular blogs, which became an important part of the Egyptian blogging scene. In addition, interviews with bloggers, journalists, and editors set the analysis in a broader context of the conditions in which they blogs operate. Pepe show how bloggers become authors – and how these authors operate as novelists, using some of the same techniques as in their blogs.

Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji plays a central role in Pepe’s book — not only because of his writings, but because of the circumstances of the lawsuit sparked by his book and his arrest. He is often quoted in the book, and his second novel Istikhdam Al-Haya (Using Life), is one of the main literary lenses through which she looks at the relationship between literature and blogging. She writes that “autofictional blogs and other forms of online literary manifestations may be seen as the expression of globalised youth, who are willing to rise from the ruins of previous decades and to reconnect with their own bodies and imaginations; youth who are fed up with the isolated intellectual circles and power games that afflict the cultural field. Rather, they want to catch up with global trends to bring society forward. In order to do so, they are aware that they have to find new voices, new language, and new forms of literature to depict the reality they live in, and imagine a better one.”

The book is an important addition to our understanding of the importance of Egyptian blogs: not only for their literary style, but for the role they played in the cultural environment between 2005 and 2016 and how they affect the lives of bloggers. The blogs that evolved during this time tackled social, political, personal, and religious issues, largely from the personal point of view of their writers.

Pepe writes, in characterizing Egyptian bloggers: “A common reason given for blogging is also the love of writing and the desire to be read. Many of the bloggers make it clear that they did not start blogging to get published or to become a writer, even if blogging eventually proved an inroad into print literature. What drove them to blog was mainly the will to cultivate their passion for writing and receive feedback.“ The blogs presented in her study paved the way for future generations to develop their own content, language, and style. This first generation of bloggers made it possible to access a new narrative and literary engagement that was different from the mainstream media and literary circles.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher. 

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