Student newspapers are often the sites where journalists first try their hand at the craft. Protected from the demands of the outside world, they can also be sites of experimentation and exploration.
But this line between the outside world and what happens within the university is more illusory than real. AUC Times came to attention beyond the American University in Cairo’s walls at the same time as it became clear to the editorial team that their AUC privileges would not protect them. They grappled with undeclared red lines and indirect forms of harassment.
They wrote about LGBT issues and found that they were being discussed in Parliament. The lines between the university space and the political realities of the country turn out to be quite porous.
Established in Spring 2010, AUC Times is a bilingual student publication that describes itself as aiming to “produce a narrative of ‘truth’ to the readers in order for them to criticize, problematize, deconstruct and ask questions.” It is a goal not dissimilar to Mada’s, as we seek not to impose ideological narratives on what is happening around us, but to bear witness and produce critical and curious journalism.
And so, after having met a few AUC Times students, we thought of inviting the magazine’s editorial team to the Mada office for a conversation. We hosted a mix of current and former AUC Times chief editors, in addition to current writers and editors.
The spark for the conversation and desire to know more about AUC Times was their March 2018 issue, which was published under the theme of “Absurdity” and sought to engage critically with social and political realities around us entirely through satirical writing.
Mada is always interested in having conversations with students and in building meaningful relationships with them, both formally and informally, but this is by no means about caging students within the “student” or “youth” categories.
Lina (Mada Masr): Personally, I’ve been keeping up with AUC Times for a while, and some other colleagues at Mada have been too. Then we were privileged enough to get to know some of the people behind AUC Times, when I met Farida and Nada in [anthropologist] Yasmine Moataz’s class and then they joined us as interns. I have a starting question, but I also don’t want it to end up in a way where we are just asking you questions, so I hope this turns into more of a conversation. Obviously, the push that made this happen is AUC Times’ last issue, “Absurdity,” so walk us through its conception.
Nada (AUC Times): Just like everything at AUC Times, it is never an individual contribution. What I like the most about this entity is that it changes every semester; every semester there is a whole different editorial direction. During Omnia and Ashraf’s semesters, for example, it was very political, while other semesters were different. So we thought, how about taking a risk and have an entire issue written in a different, sarcastic way.
Farida (AUC Times): I was concerned that there wouldn’t be much capacity for people to write in this genre because I had never worked with it before and I don’t think anyone at AUC Times had either. I always felt like there was a lack of being in touch with reality — we sometimes write about very distant things, so I was a bit worried about how something sarcastic might turn out. But surprisingly, the contributions exceeded expectations. We usually have 64 pages but we increased our page count by around eight pages, which never happens. We are usually scrambling to fill the 64 pages. There’s always the problem of wanting to write about certain things but not knowing how to, because we do have a history of indirect forms of harassment, so we’re not sure how to maneuver around these issues but still talk about the things we want to talk about. We then had this idea of speaking about a parallel, alternate reality that is still very much part of our real world, but that gives us more space to discuss particular issues.
Amr (AUC Times): I think we have a problem with Arabic writing, whereby we always think that writing needs to be very serious and that there’s no room to joke. I mean, I’m new to the magazine but I think people write in a very romantic manner and usually about social and familial repression. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this issue was a good chance to change this. We were worried that people wouldn’t write, so we also left the door open for people who wanted to write seriously. I didn’t expect there to be so much content produced.
Nada (AUC Times): In the end, we found that there wasn’t much of a difference between the serious and satirical pieces, so we just mixed it together, because reality is this absurd.
Ashraf (AUC Times): Some students actually wrote posts online asking if we were serious and some people posted on [Facebook group] Rate AUC Professors, especially about the drug policy article, asking if it was real.
Farida (AUC Times): The fact that people thought that it might be serious says something.
Ashraf (AUC Times): Yeah, for it to be somewhere between reality and absurdity. Absurdity that sounds like reality.
Nada (AUC Times): I feel like this issue was very comfortable in terms of security. Things can always resonate in analogies and subtle things. I feel like the claim of a serious article has such a long history of it being bad and dangerous in Egypt. The non-serious article doesn’t have that kind of reputation yet, I guess, so we can work with it our way. We decided not to publish online and not to have a blog, because we are comfortable with the fact that our reach doesn’t extend too much beyond AUC. So we have no blog, we just post a PDF of the issue. When we did go beyond the community — well, Ashraf can talk about what happened during his semester.
Ashraf (AUC Times): In spring 2016, we decided to have a website and we actually paid for it and posted each article. We decided that the theme of our first issue would be sexuality. We had already covered rebellion and equality and stuff like that, and we were bored with preachy themes. It was our debut that semester. We were so confident that we were within AUC, even though we were working on the website, and it was the first time we hired a professional graphic designer. The issue was printed and distributed and things were okay, until about three weeks later when Omnia, our Arabic managing editor at the time, came running toward me in the [School of Humanities and Social Sciences] plaza. Parliament had issued a statement that the AUC was inciting debauchery and homosexuality. The parliamentarian who submitted the complaint went on air with Wael al-Ebrashy and he had a hard copy of the issue. We had gotten used to thinking we were at AUC — I mean, yeah, the administration gets a little annoying, but we thought we were still privileged enough to be able to write about these things. There’s a fund available for the magazine and all, so we forgot about the risk.
Lina (Mada Masr): How has this experience affected you and your writing and your personal politics?
Nada (AUC Times): Talk about your lovely grades that semester.
Farida (AUC Times): I will say that, point-blank, this was the worst period of my life, in terms of both my academic and personal life.
Ashraf (AUC Times): It was my worst semester academically. We were fighting with the university. They told us to censor ourselves and to be careful not to advocate — they drew a distinction between tackling issues and advocating for issues, which violates Egyptian law.
Farida (AUC Times): There’s this fine line they’re trying to tread between not wanting to be the ones who tell us explicitly not to write but ultimately finding other ways to make sure we don’t write. There are also good cop/bad cop dynamics. I feel like it has influenced our personal politics. I can talk about my experience last semester — our first issue happened to be at the same time as the crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt after the Mashrou’ Leila concert. We had some issues pitched: a personal narrative of conversion therapy in Arabic, an article I wrote that was a bit of a discourse analysis of what the media was saying and the third one was an interesting take on queerness. One writer wrote, “Okay, I don’t believe they should be arrested, but I understand parents being upset and disappointed.”
Nada (AUC Times): It was well-written actually, and was a response to a previous article that created some controversy. The first one was called “To be queer in the country of fear,” and this article was called, “To be queer in the society of morals.”
Farida (AUC Times): We were stuck between whether to publish this piece or not, because not only do we have to take into account things like Parliament, but also issues that touch our personal lives and how to maneuver between staying safe and sane but also writing about the things we want to write about. We were in conversation with our faculty adviser and a lot of faculty members, who were very helpful in this process of thinking about what the repercussions would be of whatever we decided. Sadly, we ended up deciding to sit this one out and not publishing. What we ended up doing was writing, “Dear reader, we felt crippled and were unable to publish three articles that were too colorful for our black-and-white world,” on the cover.
Farida (AUC Times): This was a reaction to the attack that was launched during Ashraf’s time. We thought about what we were willing to risk and what we weren’t.
Ashraf (AUC Times): I mean what happened to us wasn’t during a moment of crackdown; I wonder what would happen during one.
Farida (AUC Times): There were lots of absurd things happening around us — things you wouldn’t expect at all and ones that would happen in a heartbeat. You really wouldn’t know what could happen if you published this. We were going in blind.
Nada (AUC Times): In our recruitment applications this semester, we were actually reprimanded for our stance at the time, that it wasn’t what they expected from us on this issue.
Farida (AUC Times): We were told that for a publication that claims not to shy away from tackling thorny issues, we were too silent, and that if we were being subjected to pressure from AUC, then we should tell our readers. Otherwise, we would be betraying their trust. There’s this obsession with transparency as if it can happen in a heartbeat; that, in a second, I can openly talk about everything that happens.
Ashraf (AUC Times): It isn’t necessarily that AUC directly pressures us, but we also think, would the university take a step and advocate for us if something happened to us? We’re quite doubtful about this.
Farida (AUC Times): We have a history with this. When students were arrested, the university didn’t interfere at all. They were giving students a very direct message: “If you get into any trouble, you’re on your own and we don’t care.”
Lina (Mada Masr): I’ve had this question since the sexuality issue. It was clear that an identity crystalized for this project and this publication that had to do with defending and triumphing personal freedoms and standing against the moral system that governs our, or your, lives at university. I was wondering about the central battle for each of you.
Amr (AUC Times): The main reason I wanted to join the magazine is that I don’t speak to anyone in my [chemistry] major. The closest thing to a discussion we have is that I say something and the professor just tells me I’m wrong. It doesn’t get any better.
Hamama (Mada Masr): It’s chemistry. There’s no other way.
Amr (AUC Times): I am not condemning the nature of the field, or the fact that it’s right-and-wrong, but I do want to write to escape this a bit. I want to escape the idea of being absolutely right or wrong — maybe I can be right and wrong at the same time. If I will continue in the field of publishing when I graduate, this will be why.
Mahmoud (AUC Times): People tend to talk about the same old stuff over and over again. Just rehashing — there’s mainstream thought and mainstream resistance, there’s also mainstream hipster. My personal struggle is that I want the writer to add something new. Otherwise, what are we doing? We aren’t trying to create a review of what’s around, we’re trying to add something to the discussion.
Farida (AUC Times): I feel like so many things escape our consciousness, or realization that certain things are happening in these mainstream or everyday spaces. So, for me, during my semester, I felt like I wanted to take a second look at these things and to figure out are what we might have been missing in these everyday spaces. And that’s maybe what anthropology stamped me with, this idea of paying more attention to things I thought were just ordinary. For me, it was more about interrogating the things that we treat as normal and natural and unquestionable. I mean, why do I feel a certain way when certain things happen, without interrogating why I feel like this?
Nada (AUC Times): I think my fight more than anything is just for young people to get to write.
Farida (AUC Times): Generally, we used to have a shortage of Arabic writers and articles. That changed when Nada started managing the Arabic section last semester.
Nada (AUC Times): We had this online Facebook page.
Amr (AUC Times): It depended mainly on memes.
Nada (AUC Times): Yes, viral culture! We adopted this rhetoric of, “Everyone says AUCians don’t know Arabic, but we do. So come show them that you can write in Arabic.” And it worked. This is a concern we have, that we don’t have enough Arabic on campus.
Farida (AUC Times): I think there’s always this complaint that AUC Times writes about things that nobody wants to read, in a language that nobody understands and that things aren’t relatable. There are also certain topics that are always written about in English, and we wanted to change that.
Nada (AUC Times): AUC’s demographics eight years ago, when AUC Times started, are completely different than they are today. Some people do write in Arabic, so there’s an Arabic section, but, right now, it’s really shrinking. We’re laboring to find people who write in Arabic and we can’t. I don’t know if this has to do with the fact that we’re becoming even more of a bubble and that people coming from international schools who don’t speak Arabic are the ones who can afford AUC now, so the demographics have shifted.
Amr (AUC Times): Even if the number of Arabic writers decreases next semester, the section’s presence is still important. I want to write in Arabic and I want to have deadlines for Arabic writing. There’s this idea that certain topics aren’t spoken of except in one language, and this is something I wanted to pitch in toward changing.
Hamama (Mada Masr): You said something in the beginning about the submissions you got for your last issue and how the language Arabic writers used seemed a bit romantic or problematic. I am curious to know more about this.
Amr (AUC Times): We ask for samples, we assess them, then we respond to applicants. The pieces I got for the Arabic section were all very similar: they all spoke of their writers’ personal and emotional struggles and they were all creative writing pieces. This is what I meant basically.
Nada (AUC Times): I wish it was even creative writing. It’s just too classical.
Amr (AUC Times): As Nada said, they look very much like formal essays. Some of it isn’t even creative writing. People write as though they are writing in an exam, where someone will grade their work. This was part of the problem.
Lina (Mada Masr): I think Hamama has a bit of a radical position with language, in the sense that language is just a vehicle in the end.
Hamama (Mada Masr): This is mainly why I asked the question. I always wonder what gets to be called “good Arabic writing.” When we say Arabic writing is good, we are usually referring to the form — things that have to do with beauty and aesthetics and that are sometimes harmful to the function that language is supposed to play. Not just delivering meaning, because we could never restrict it to that, but let’s agree that if the function is to deliver something, regardless of what it is, then focusing on form at the expense of functionality in Arabic can largely be detrimental. There are always progressive ways to experiment with Arabic and to push it forward toward functionality, but I am personally resistant to aesthetics that have to do with form or appearance. Sometimes, I have to check myself and sometimes, ideas come to me in English. I am generally not an English speaker — it isn’t my main language, unlike many AUCians. But sometimes, words come to me in English, not because I was raised in English, but because the Arabic alternative is dysfunctional. This is the thing — how can language evolve on all levels, from words to sentences and everything in between, so the sharpness of an aesthetics of form can be replaced by an aesthetics of functionality?
Lina (Mada Masr): The issue I have with this — without going too much into the philosophy of language, even though it is one of our favorites topics to discuss — is that we are very interested to offer writing spaces in Arabic that challenge the limits of what’s offered in journalistic writing. We don’t want to make an absolutist judgment on Arabic cultural production, but the ways in which Arabic journalism is written is definitely problematic. I am staunchly against the dichotomy that Hamama draws between form and function — it is our role to destroy the space between these two elements and to always target both registers to create a new language. When a word comes to mind in English because its Arabic equivalent is dysfunctional, this is an issue of aesthetics. How can I find an Arabic equivalent that is aesthetically “cool” enough in ways that will allow me to use it as frequently as I use its English equivalent? This is an aesthetic issue. Form is content and content is form.
Hamama (Mada Masr): I’ve started to become aware of how extreme it is to have such a big issue with form, because as Lina said, it can become functionality fascism. The approach of destroying form at the expense of functionality isn’t ultimately what I want. On the contrary, I want a mix of both that moves the language forward, as opposed to being classified in the ways we see it is. It’s not just about not finding an alternative, but also about a language being flexible enough to use in different contexts.
Leila (Mada Masr): But Hamama, I think your starting point is Arabic as a language — that this is where the problem lies. To me, this problem is very much related to this awkward relationship we have with modernity in the Arab world, that people don’t want to move forward and they want to stand somewhere in the middle. You are right to say that some words do come to mind in English first, but this is to be expected because you read about it in English, not in Arabic, so it makes a lot of sense. This is a larger crisis that has to do with thought in this part of the world. So we need to challenge the ideas that we are used to writing about in Arabic and I think language will somehow happen in this process.