A lick of paint

You probably noticed that Qasr al-Nil Bridge has been repainted in green and lavish gold. Just the other week, the glistering wet paint on the railings leapt out of the city’s muted color palette, not yet swathed in pollution nor buffed by the elbows of the city’s sweethearts.

Over in Zamalek, paintbrushes have been aslop with black and white to checker the curbs and garb the tree trunks, as if the Queen of Hearts sent out her pages overnight. I saw the pages, t-shirted young casual laborers, weaving in and out of the throng of street children, fruit sellers and shoppers flashing gold-handled carrier bags from Gourmet; as happy in the moment as casual laborers in a desperate economy might conceivably be.

That night, you would never have known that a mile down the road protests were gathering in three neighborhoods. The arrest that day of another six prominent Muslim Brotherhood members, including the media spokesperson Gehad al-Haddad, seemed miles away. So did the death of a Frenchman caught out after curfew and allegedly beaten to death in his prison cell.

Yet back on Qasr al-Nil, the bridge’s lions have been crawling with white-coated preservation experts. Like Lilliputian cosmetic surgeons clinging to the city’s bronzes, they fret over how to find Simon Bolivar’s disappeared sword and how to preserve these bronze felines, whose fierce nobility and thousand-yard stare only increase with all the indignities, whether they be eye patches or scrawled graffiti.

The last time things were tended to with such lavish abandon in Cairo was, of course, February 12 2011. Only the day after the announcement of Mubarak’s stepping down, about as much paint was poured as beer as people entered a joyful frenzy of cleanliness. Red, white and black were the colors of choice for the edges of curbs, the bases of trees and traffic islands.

I remember small, pink, plastic wastepaper baskets being tied quixotically to downtown lampposts, as though the infrastructure to empty and maintain this People’s System of Garbage Control was just around the corner. The people could do anything.

As I recall, however, a flood of the labor power that came in that great clean-up of mid-February 2011 later evolved — via the more paternalistic end of the People’s Committees — into groups like the Zamalek Guardians. Their revolutionary stance began with the protection of their island from those wild-haired prison escapees of lore, and more lately, getting handy with some white paint. Flying in the face of the Banksy-like potential for capital appreciation of some of their homegrown graffiti, they already removed Ganzeer’s beautiful work showing a confrontation between a military tank and a bread-seller.

But sometimes it’s nice, said my friend gently and fairly as she navigated her car around a rubbish heap, not to be constantly reminded of all the crap. I think so too. Cleanliness is nice, in the most basic sense. I far prefer my flat clean to dirty. The authenticity of dirt for dirt’s sake is as much a bourgeois fantasy as that of cleanliness-as-goodness. A whole lot of graffiti is thoughtless, ugly, done in spite of the community, rather than as a spur to its conscience and intellect. But as long as there are rubbish heaps in every neighborhood, I’d like the graffiti to remain.

These images, being about so much, can potentially speak to every single part of the country’s infrastructure that is not otherwise addressed. They speak to army-orchestrated massacres arranged purely to fling nascent political agency into the gutter. They speak to totally avoidable deaths when trains slam into school buses. They speak to trash heaps that will apparently be the only reality for that particular back street, if not that entire informal neighborhood. And they speak to the missing iron spar on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, stolen for scrap or for the idiosyncratic desires of some collector, in mid-2011 — which, by the way, has never been replaced, even as the entire city is given a makeover in paint.

The language of cleanliness is some of the most deadly in political history. The most furious doorstep-scrubbers in political life are the fascists, colonizers and the mass murderers.

Historically, all kinds of metaphors and actions have been used to appeal to the fears and desires of the groups that enable political power. It so happens that the cleaning metaphor is the ideal rhetoric for the aspirational bourgeois conservative, which makes up a major, vocal and empowered segment of Egypt’s population. I’m absolutely not suggesting a causal link, like having a shiny bridge is automatically going to have Egypt’s bourgeoisie brandishing machetes at the mere sight of political dissidence; but the broader association is unavoidable.

What is being sold is a back-to-front logic that says that functional states are clean states. Thus, if the state is clean, it must also be self-evidently functional; and therefore, those who object to the state as it is must be troublemakers, and how dare they hold us back with their dirty protest camps and petty violence, just when the country was getting back on its feet!

For the ruling powers, it is smarter than the other great ideology being offered right now, that of “the war on terror,” which you can either agree with or not. While one can at least present evidence for and against and debate the semantics of Brotherhood “terrorism,” nobody can particularly object to things being nice and clean in and of themselves.

Perhaps I wouldn’t make this connection if dissidents to the current political government were not being treated in a manner alarmingly similar to the opposition under the old regime. So the paint seems to be a mnemonic device; the army tags the removal of Mubarak, and then Morsi, with the same signifiers, using gallons of paint in municipal spaces. This way we might be convinced that, even while dissidence is suppressed, meaningful democratic change has taken place.

There is one cleanup that failed, and that’s Tahrir. Remember, after the last of the protesters were chased out by water cannons as bystanders jeered, remember the lovely green lawn that was put down? Remember the nice plants in tubs, placed like harbingers of the verdant well-tended beautiful infrastructure of the city to come? No? They lasted about a week.

Cosmetic measures can beautify the world temporarily, but Tahrir has a lot of scars to cover, and they keep getting reopened. For as long as there’s a reason to gather, there is no hope of that circle being anything other than dust and mud, and for sagging villages of now-blurry political affiliations from encamping there.

A lick of paint can cover neither revolutionary dissent nor gang rapes of indescribable intensity, so Tahrir remains resolutely, irredeemably ugly. Until something very profound changes, I’m not sure it should ever be pretty. Before it is pretty, it should be a civic space.

We want nice things. By god, Egypt deserves nice things. But while my friend is right, none of this is about stubbornly preferring chaos and disorder to order and cleanliness, just in the name of keeping it real. It is about the rhetorical uses of cleanliness, and the precise evocation of chaos and instability that is brought in the face of the country when this cleanliness is withheld, as if the only reason the city doesn’t work is because the railings weren’t painted.  

It is about what else happens beyond the blur of broomsticks: ironically, a witch-hunt.

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Mia Jankowicz