In our last issue of Detox, we said goodbye to the summer, in preparation for fall. And the fall came in strong, and angry. For days, the air was filled with tension, excitement and, at times, panic. We chose to be absent last weekend, because we weren’t really able to Detox in light of what was happening. Now we’re back, and the anger is still here, but we’re better able to process it. We thought long and hard about what to include in our weekly guide under such circumstances — we have a list of songs and poems that correspond with what’s happening, which you will find in our Listen section. And in addition to our usual recommendations, we have a short interview with writer and novelist Ahmed Awny in Chit-chat.
-Leila Arman analyzes the interplay of money and image in the videos of Mohamed Ali, the contractor-turned-actor who played a major role in stirring this latest wave of protests at the center of the current unrest: “Ali is not the classic poor, honest hero, nor is he the educated, middle-class striver who stands up to oppression. The trope he employs, and to which a broad swath of the public is receptive, belongs to a different moment borne of a new reality. It’s significant because it breaks with the major rhetorical theme underlying the good guy narrative in mainstream Egyptian dramas of the post-independence Nasserist state: we may be poor but at least we live decent, honest lives. It’s the trope of honor and decency as a form of class solace, consolation and solidarity, a discourse firmly backed by the state as a guarantor of social control and, in turn, class discipline, used to manage public discussion of class conflict by transforming its material crux into a moral or symbolic one. But Ali’s fight is actually a fight over money … it is a fight that gets to the heart of entitlement to wealth and does not view acquiescence as an option.”
-In the New Yorker, Haruki Murakami writes about his father in a sprawling text titled “Abandoning a Cat.” Starting with childhood memories, the Japanese author goes on to recount his father’s history as a priest, then a soldier in the Japanese military during various political moments, touching upon the gradual estrangement their relationship eventually devolved to as time went by. It is a vivid and touching personal account, but also a lyrical reflection on trauma, memory, and death. And while we’re on the subject of Murakami, read this piece by Mieko Kawakami on the author’s women characters, particularly the narrator of his short story, “Sleep,” published in The Elephant Vanishes.
-On Literary Hub, author and Washington Post senior editor Steve Luxenberg writes about the tension between storytelling and journalism, particularly the highly coveted “scoop,” that he has encountered as a writer of narrative nonfiction after years of working as a reporter: “The fastest way to slow down a narrative’s locomotive power is to stop the natural flow with a detour to a ‘discovery.’ It lifts readers out of the historical moment and brings them back to the 21st century … After years of coveting scoops, it feels odd to dread discoveries. Well, not dread, exactly. My natural competitive juices make me want to shout them out. But my narrative instincts tell me to run in the other direction.”
-The Sudanese film You Will Die at Twenty, which just scooped the top prize at the Gouna Film Festival and is also the winner of this year’s Lion of the Future award for best debut feature at the Venice Film Festival, is screening next Thursday (October 10) at the Artistic Creativity Center in the Cairo Opera House. In his review of the film, which is based on a short story by Hammour Ziada, Sudanese author Hussam Hilali describes it as a “deeply authentic Sudanese tale, incorporating personal elements and taking the local setting as the starting point for a foray into the mythical worlds embedded in the country’s landscape.”
-Keeping up with the latest developments on the Egyptian political scene, Netflix is streaming the film Al-Barr al-Tany (Other Land, Ali Edrees, 2016), produced by and starring the now-infamous Mohamed Ali. The film doesn’t offer much in terms of cinematic quality, but you might want to check it out if you want to know more about the man behind the “secrets.” Also read Rowan El Shimi’s review, published upon the film’s premiere in the 2016 edition of the Cairo International Film Festival.
-Yasmine Zohdi recommends La Haine (1995)
Twenty-four years after it premiered to massive critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate) remains as relevant and as urgent as ever. Its influence is clear in one of this year’s most celebrated films, for instance: Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, which borrows much more from Kassovitz’s film than the suburban setting and the racial tension that permeates it.
The film follows three young French men from the Paris housing projects known as banlieues on the day following a violent riot that breaks out when an Arab youth, a friend of theirs, is shot by the police. All three protagonists are the descendants of immigrants: Said is Arab, Hubert is Afro-Caribbean, and Vinz is an Eastern European Jew. When the latter — who is the most impulsive of the three — stumbles across a gun left behind by a policeman, the film finds its tension, and the plot unfolds.
Together, the three friends navigate feelings of rage and a city adamant on keeping them on the periphery, edging closer to disaster with every passing hour (the film takes place over the course of one day). Although Kassovitz was only 26 when he made the film, he captures the time and place with a masterful intensity — a stylized specificity that makes the film timeless and universal. It isn’t only the La Haine’s biting statement on the impaired power structures of a modern urban society that makes the film such an achievement, but a myriad of ingenious artistic choices and stark technical innovation as well.
From the gritty black and white imagery, which effectively emphasizes the central conflict, to the archival footage used in the opening credits, firmly rooting the film in its context, and unforgettable scenes like the aerial shot of the neighborhood against a mash-up of Cut Killer’s “Nique la Police” and Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”, or Vinz mimicking Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (many have wondered how the cameraman doesn’t appear in the bathroom mirror here. Hint: they used a body double) — the director’s visual language speaks volumes, and his conscious stylistic approach enhances the film’s realism because everything there to perform a function.
La Haine is the ultimate film about anger, not just hate. The film validates the anger of the downtrodden individuals at its core, it treats them with compassion, and it is firm in its condemnation of their oppressors. But it is also uncompromising in depicting the tremendous cost of that anger, and how all-consuming it almost always is. It’s a perfect film for the current moment, as angry and unsettling as it is.
This week we offer you a list of songs and poems inspired by the turbulent political climate we’re experiencing at the moment.
-Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’”: Written and performed by the American music icon and Nobel Prize laureate in 1964 as an anthem for the waves of social and political change that were sweeping the world in the 1960s.
–Al Basha, by Palestinian-Jordanian rapper and songwriter El-Far3i
-Many songs by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila are very relevant right now, but we choose three: “Aal Hajiz” (At the Checkpoint, from their debut album, Mashrou’ Leila, 2009), which describes the experience of a young man being questioned at a security checkpoint in Beirut; “Wa Nueid” (And again and again, Raasuk, 2013), an ode to the Sisyphus-like struggle of the groups calling for change during dark, brutal times; and, finally, the hopeful “Ghadan Yawmon Afdal” (Tomorrow Is a Better Day), first released during the initial 18 days of the Egyptian revolution.
-“Prayer of Fear,” a poem by Mahmoud Ezzat, which he wrote in the aftermath of the Rabea al-Adaweya massacre in 2013. Ezzat’s poem, a desperate plea for salvation during the violence and polarization that permeated the country back then, is still relatable today, as we live with the consequences of that fateful moment.
-Mostafa Ibrahim’s “Manifesto,” a poem from his book of the same name, also published in 2013: “History is among the spoils, and it is written by the victors.”
-Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida,” a beautiful portrayal of a fallen king. On the album, the track segues straight into the song “Violet Hill”: “When the future’s architectured by a carnival of idiots on show, you better lie low…”
-“Kaddesh” (How Many), by the Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi: “How many fires have burnt/ How many stifled revolts/ How many tears shed/ How many cires carried away by the wind…”
-After Mohamed Ali’s videos went viral, as well as the president’s comments at the Global Youth Forum last month in response to Ali’s allegations that Sisi misused state funds to build palaces, many began revisiting Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam’s iconic protest song, Shayed Osourak (Build Your Castles). Here’s a new take on the song by the Syrian-German trio Shkoon, released in 2017:
-“Matalib” (Demands), by Sudanese artist Sammany Hajo, inspired by the uprising in Sudan. And this old Sudanese protest anthem by Mohamed Wardy, which is featured in You Will Die at Twenty.
-”Wallé” (Burn), the latest single by Syrian rapper Bu Kolthoum
-Cairokee’s “Ana al-Soat” (I am the Voice), from their latest album The Ugly Ducklings, released earlier this year: “A lifetime that doesn’t end with my martyrdom/ is not worth living.”
-Nubian icon Hamza El-Din’s “Law Geit fi Yom Arsemek” (If One Day I Try to Paint You), for the kind, hopeful future it envisions.
-“Beyoulo al-Rayes Aaed” (Revolution Fantasy), produced during a workshop by The Choir Project in Alexandria in July 2011, when the euphoria of January 25 was still in full swing. The Arabic title directly translates to “they say the president isn’t leaving.”
-And, finally, Abla Fahita’s individualistic anthem, fit for all times and places:
Our guest this time is novelist Ahmed Awny, author of the novel Prizes for Heroes, which came out in January.
What do you write? And for whom?
I write stories of different lengths, and they are always inspired by events or feelings I experienced, or heard of from those close to me. Those experiences haunt me, so I try to work on making them relatable for other people.
I write my stories for people who are generally bored, like me — for anyone passing by who would like to stop and listen. For my little brother, who keeps asking me questions I’m unable to answer directly. And for those who I know share the same anxieties as me, but we’re too anxious to admit it to one another.
How do you see the future?
I envision the future as a day for which we can’t predict the climate — will it be hot? Will it be cold? We can’t tell, so we don’t know what to wear. We don’t know whether we should head to the beach or turn on the heater.
I also see it as a day when we keep lamenting the past, and worry about the future, just as we are right now.
The future is when an airplane will be able to take me to the United States in two hours tops. But as soon as I get there, I’ll still be met with a racist white man at passport control.
I think I will keep writing stories in the future. I don’t think there will ever come a time when one will understand life so clearly that they won’t need to deconstruct and reconstruct it in a story.
What is the thing you love most?
Affectionate physical communication is, for me, a very beautiful human activity. I love swimming and drinking beer on the beach, traveling to new places, and the moments I feel that I’m helping another person in any way possible. I also love reading novels that feel incomplete, the ones that leave me with even more questions than when I started them, and where I feel like I am an actual part of the idea or of the author’s obsessions. And mostly I love the novels that force me to sit down and finish reading them, no matter how many other things I have to do.
What is the thing that scares you the most?
Being sick — I am terrified of the idea of going under anesthesia in an operating room. Loneliness. Losing my capacity for compassion; becoming a purely individualistic person. And reaching a point in my life where I might imagine that I have found wisdom, where I am no longer critical of the ideas I hold.
What is a “homeland”?
I think it’s the place where you feel most comfortable, and the one you feel you can change for the better. But if the question is intended the same way Mohamed Fouad sings it in Amreeka Sheeka Beeka, then I’ll have to quote Yousra in Mercedes: “Let’s not talk politics, please, it ruins my complexion.”
The past is over when …
I don’t think the past is ever over, it just knows how to hide, but it always comes back again.
Is it true that the world doesn’t change, but we do?
When I think of this question as a random individual going through life, I feel like Mohamed al-Helw singing “O, time, why couldn’t you have left us innocent.” Because it’s true that we’re always adapting to changes that are bigger than us. For instance, you could be used to walking home on a certain street, and then other people, for reasons that have nothing to do with you, decide to close off that street, and so you find yourself using another street. But when you look at it from a wider perspective, you realize that it’s actually another person who made the decision to close off the street, not really the imaginary creature we call “the world.” So maybe we need to contemplate the concept of change with some humility, acknowledging that changes beyond our reach could indeed change our life, and hoping they don’t change it into something we don’t want — but I don’t really know what “the world” is to claim that it’s responsible for changing anything.
Let’s talk about time.
Time is the most annoying, most troubling thing in the world actually. On one hand, if I try to imagine a life where time is indefinite and infinite, I feel that it would be incredibly boring, suffocating, even terrifying. On the other hand, we fall in love and we know that time will eventually dampen that love, we take pleasure in certain things and we know that in time they will also disappear. We are living in a constant absurdist struggle with time, unable to preserve any state of being that comforts us — we simply know time will eventually change it. But time can also be a reason for hope, in a political situation like the one we find ourselves in right now in Egypt, for example — we’re powerless before it, but we bet on the inevitability of time changing our lives, somehow, without our intervention.
Over the past two weeks, authorities have arrested over 3,000 people, some of whom are fellow journalists and writers. PEN America, a literary organization with a focus on human rights — particularly freedom of expression — has issued a statement condemning the current crackdown. Novelist Muhammad Aladdin, poet Amina Abdullah and writer and journalist Abdullah Ghoneim have fortunately been released, but Alexandrian playwright Ezz Darwish remains in remand detention. So does activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and lawyer Mahienour al-Massry. We’re hoping this won’t be the case for long, but until then, read Lina Attalah and Sarah Rifky on the absurdity of the current moment, and the strange feelings brought about by the disappearance and/or imprisonment of loved ones: “What happens when one climbs up a tree and can’t get down?”
Until next time — stay safe, everyone.