Detox: A decade ends
 
 

WHAT’S UP?

The decade is almost complete, and we feel we’ve suddenly grown ten years older; as though we couldn’t really grasp the weight of this time until we realized 2019 was actually ending. While preparing this issue of Detox, we called the document we worked on “Detox: The End of the World” — this is how big this moment seems to us right now. 

Ten years have flown by; and yet they packed so much. This feature on CNN lists the biggest global events of the decade in pictures — Can you believe all of this happened? Also, did you see the violent picture from Tahrir Square in there? These things may be difficult to remember, but must never be forgotten. 

Well, we pulled through, day by day, and now history has gained a decade, and we have lost ten years.

Here, Shadia wonders what the days will bring, and so do we. It’s not easy contemplating the passage of time, making sense of the past and trying to envision a future. Perhaps the answer to suffice with being in the present, but that’s not so simple either — it’s not the brightest of moments. And yet, we hope the year that’s almost upon us will prove us wrong, and make us happy. 

In this Detox, we initially wanted to write about ourselves, how we experienced those past ten years, where we started and where we find ourselves today — but that proved too daunting a task. Instead, we’re offering our usual sections with a twist: In Read, we share some literary moments that stood out over the past decade and question the importance of lists; in Watch, we present a brief overview of the Egyptian film landscape from 2010 until today; and in Listen, we give you a very long and diverse playlist of our favorite releases of the past ten years. 

There is no Chit-chat this week. The original plan was to ask each of our previous guests one single question — where they started and where they are now — but it seems the task was too daunting for most of them too, for the answers we got were very few. It is worth mentioning, however, that the only guest we were not able to send our question to (and who, ironically, would’ve probably been willing to take on the challenge) is Alaa Abd El Fattah, our very first guest in Chit-chat, currently held in remand detention with his lawyer in a new case. 

Alaa spent half of this decade behind bars, and during the brief time he was released, he had to spend half of each day in a police station, in total isolation from the world outside. His situation, perhaps — the injustice, the confinement, the undeniable hope in spite of everything — is perhaps the most fitting metaphor for where we all are today. 

READ

In Zeros

by Ahmad Wael

Alright, so let’s talk zeroes; zeroes as a marker of time. When the year 2000 came, we expected the world to change, but Man’s imaginaries were too big to be realized. After we piled years upon years of exaggerated expectations for the new millennium, reality dealt us the first blow; instead of the dazzling future we predicted, the zeroes in the in “2000” came to be manifested in our lives, metaphorically. 

After the disappointment of the first decade of the 2000s, we didn’t expect much from 2010, and for a while there it seemed we were right not to. (Speaking of zeroes, do you remember Egypt’s bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup? Oh, dear.) However, this time, things happened — big things. The new zero brought a lot more than zeroes; it brought a storm: revolution, elation, violence, hope, elections, disappointment, change and more change. 

With a new zero approaching, we’re totally drained. What can we expect from 2020?

We will see, but looking back I realize that over the past ten years, I nearly stopped writing about what I read, preferring to enjoy discovering my own preferences without analysis. I also learned that I shouldn’t negotiate someone’s taste or feelings; one might be able to change other people’s thoughts sometimes, through solid information and logical argument, but hearts and tastes are hard to change.

This decade, on the translation front, a new Arabic translation of Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) by Rime al-Rayes and Iman Mersal was published in 2013, as well as Charles Bukowski’s Pulp (also translated by Herzallah, in 2016) and Hans Fallada’s Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism (translated by Samir Greis in 2018). 

The decade’s highlights also featured Haytham El Wardany’s nonfiction gems How to Disappear (2013) and The Book of Sleep (2017), which were released after his third short story collection Daydream (2011). 

These past ten years, I went back to reading short stories with great enthusiasm. I even re-read Mahfouz’s beautiful short story collection God’s World (1962). The short story is an art that can be savored slowly and leisurely, as it leaves space for contemplation, and I think I have rediscovered its joy. Among the short works of fiction that I greatly enjoyed were Muhammad Abdelnabi’s Once Upon A Time [ and his novel In the Spider’s Room as well, published in 2016] and Muhammad El-Hajj’s Nobody Mourns The City’s Cats, both published in 2018.

New editions of Badr al-Deeb’s work were released by publisher Al-Karma. I loved A Personal Talk (2015, originally published 1982), a truthful confrontation and a lesson in bravery in which the author presents four confessions by four different characters, including a seamstress who kills her husband with a scissor and reflects on what she did from her jail cell and an American literature professor who twists the truth to serve Nasserist propaganda. Deeb’s hyper-sensitivity is manifested in drawing complicated human spirits and then analyzing them in a deep yet simple flow that reads like a tongue suddenly untied. The four stories weaved together in this theme of personal confession were among the best I read this decade, although they were originally published much earlier. That’s why I don’t think that a best-of-the decade list of releases is as useful an exercise as reflecting on what I’ve discovered this decade, regardless of when it was released, such as The Phoenix, or the History of Hassan Muftah by Louis Awad, originally published in 1966 and reissued by Al-Mahrousa in 2014. 

And just before the decade came to an end, Al Kotob Khan released Iman Mersal’s In Pursuit of Enayat al-Zayat: a research project so deeply rooted in the literary tradition it leaves one confused as to how to describe it.

When talking about “decades,” one can’t help but think about the notion’s connection to the formation of “literary generations,” the term devised by literary critics to refer to different writers who are contemporaries and close in age to one another and sometimes friends or part of the same community, assuming — quite lazily, I think — that their work shares similar characteristics even when it varies in perspective, aesthetics and style. Thanks to the 1990s’ generation, however (which Mersal belongs to), and the uniqueness of their singular endeavors, the idea of the “literary generation” is seen now as a reductive concept; an imaginary entity nobody is interested in upholding. No one links works produced during a decade that way anymore: the term has finally lost its weight. Writers today are liberated, at least, from this particular problem.

On the other hand, however, they remain hostages to censorship, perhaps more than ever before. A few novels had to be published outside Egypt as no one would publish them here (such as Alaa al-Aswany’s latest novel, The Republic, As If (2018), after the release of which he was sued by the state), and in another piece of news, a publisher was military tried and sentenced to five years in prison for publishing a translation of a book.

Life is not a race, I say, reading is all about pleasure and exploration, and so my relationship with literature has come to depend on the emergence of a nice text every once in a while, be it newly released or newly discovered. Yet there is a certain type of race going on: that of the best-sellers — books that make their publishers happy and bring their writers that particular brand of ubiquitous, non-elitist fame. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I will not, as I mentioned earlier, negotiate tastes, nor try to analyze the circumstances that have led to the rise of certain authors at the expense of others, but it seems to me that it’s all related to the willingness to conform to certain red lines. If you want to speak your mind, like al-Aswany, then your opinions might give you fame, not your books; for they won’t be published. 

With the decade coming to an end, and despite its hopeful beginnings, we have become emigrants, nomads, under threat, miserable, or simply indifferent.

WATCH

A subjective journey across a cinematic decade

[This retrospective focuses on the independent film scene and does not touch on more commercial releases from this period.]

I remember a cold day in November 2010. I had gone to watch the film Microphone at Family Cinema in Maadi. It was the premiere of the film at that year’s Cairo International Film Festival and I don’t know until this day why they chose this location for the screening.

The theater was completely full, some people were even sitting on the ground and the air was full of enthusiasm. I have a lot of issues with Microphone today (most of them related to its romantic and unrealistic depiction of Alexandria’s art scene), but that screening was an event. I looked around me, hardly able to believe that all of these people had come to see an “independent” film by director Ahmad Abdalla — whose debut film Heliopolis I had seen at Renaissance Cinema (RIP) the previous year, where there were just three others besides me at the screening. Perhaps the turnout for Abdalla’s second film had to do with the bands featured in it, as a large portion of his audience overlapped with that of Egypt’s independent music scene. 

In Microphone, a group of musicians try to organize a concert in Alexandria, which they prepare for throughout the film. Naturally, their plans fall through at the last moment when both societal forces (represented by a group of pious men who insist on holding Friday prayers in the same space where the stage is to be built) and security forces, who ban the concert for lack of the necessary permits. The film ends with a sad, somewhat reflective scene, with the protagonists standing along the dolosse on the shore, and from what I recall one of them releases the pet fish he’d been keeping in a glass jar back into the sea. For me, this was the beginning of the decade in cinema. 

January 25, 2011 fell on a Tuesday, just one day before the public release of Microphone in cinemas. Of course, the film did not do well at the box office, as all of its anticipated audience was out in the street — even the film’s director. However, the film — and especially its final scene— remained expressive of a particular sentiment of naïve frustration that we clung to during the final years of Mubarak’s rule, and the outbreak of the revolution on the eve of the film’s release (especially in light of how Abdullah chose to end the film) was, in a way, poetic.   

After the revolution, there were several attempts to portray the events on the big screen: 18 Days (an anthology of short films by several directors, including Ahmad Abdalla), which was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival but never shown in Cairo for a still-unknown reason; Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician, the 2011 documentary by Ayten Amin, Amr Salama and Tamer Azzat; Winter of Discontent by Ibrahim al-Batout (which was chosen by The Guardian’s chief film critic, Peter Bradshaw, as one of the year’s most important films, though many here in Egypt disagreed); Yosri Nasrallah’s After the Battle (which competed for Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, which, again, many of us here disagreed with); and The Square (2013), which presents a reductive vision of the first years of the revolution lacking in depth or complexity, leading up to the Muslim Brotherhood taking power (the film was banned from screening in Cairo). It’s also worth mentioning that it was the first Egyptian film to ever be nominated for an Oscar. 

Apart from The Square, and despite the crushing political defeat we suffered, 2013 was a good year for cinema. A number of promising films were released, including Villa 69, the narrative feature debut for Ayten Amin (which late film critic Samir Farid named as his top film of the year), Chaos, Disorder, the first film by director Nadine Khan (the film was actually produced in 2012 but not released until the following year, and I think that to this day it has not been as widely viewed or discussed as it deserves), and Ahmad Abdalla’s third film, Rags and Tatters (2013).

In one panel discussion that I attended about navigating massive political events in fiction, one of the guests said something that I keep returning to — that the only way one can write about such events without being reductive is to look at them “sideways.” Perhaps this is why Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters stands out among the films that featured the revolution because in this film, it remains on the periphery. It doesn’t try to capture the spectacle, rather, it shows how it reflects on the life of one character who is not politically engaged; a prisoner who escapes in the aftermath of January 28, and we don’t even know why he was in jail. Some of the director’s artistic choices didn’t really work (his insistence that the film remain dialogue-free, for instance, even in certain scenes that came off feeling contrived and unconvincing), yet I view Rags and Tatters as one of the decade’s most significant films, for its experimentation in form and narrative technique. The presence of a star like Asser Yassin among the film’s cast didn’t create better chances for it commercially, however: It got one week in cinemas, and one more when ticket sales surpassed expectations. As small as it was, back then it seemed like a victory for a new, alternative kind of cinema. 

With Zawya’s opening in 2014, we no longer had to worry about whether this type of film would get a theatrical release, as the new project provided the space for that to happen, not only as a screening space but also as a distributor. Although Zawya’s programming of foreign films has become less adventurous now than its first two years, its’ role in supporting independent Egyptian cinema remains pivotal. Without Zawya, we probably wouldn’t have had the chance to watch many Egyptian films that were met with critical praise in international film festivals during the second half of the decade, such as: Hala Lotfy’s Coming Forth by Day (2015); Muhammad Hammad’s Withered Green (2016), Mahmoud Lotfy’s Experimental Summer and Hala al-Qoussy’s Cactus Flower (both released in 2017), Ahmad Fawzi Saleh’s Poisonous Roses (even though it won two prizes in CIFF and was chosen to represent Egypt in the Oscars race for best foreign-language film this year) and the documentary Dreamaway By Marouan Omara (both released in 2018). As for Ahmad Abdalla, his films took a relatively commercial turn after Rags and Tatters; both Décor (2014) and EXT. Night (2018) were screened in a large number of cinemas for successive weeks without any problems.)

But Zawya’s distribution arm was dealt a rough blow in 2016, when director Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City  (2016) was banned from screening in Cairo after its initial selection to participate in CIFF’s official competition. For me, In The Last Days of The City is the Egyptian — perhaps even Arab — film of the decade. In this film, which took Said ten years to make, the director reaches a level of cinematic maturity that I do not recall seeing in any other recent films from the region. Moreover, the film’s central theme —  the protagonist’s complicated relationship with Cairo — is one I relate to very personally. I don’t want to be redundant, so you can read what I wrote about my experience watching the film in the introduction to our interview with Said from last year.

Besides Said’s conflict with the censorship board and CIFF management, the other major cinematic debate of that year revolved around Mohamed Diab’s Clash (2016), which was inspired by the real-life murder of 38 detainees in the back of a police truck after security forces shot a tear gas canister inside the overcrowded vehicle in the aftermath of June 30. In addition to the cardboard model of the police truck installed by the distribution company in cinemas for people to pose in for pictures — which naturally caused backlash on social media — the film generated a heated discussion among filmgoers for how it chose to engage with the crucial moment it portrayed, and especially its representation of the police. Clash was selected to compete in Cannes’ revered Un Certain Regard lineup at the time and was considered “a significant political film from the region” in international media, yet its the writer-director insisted that his film is “humanitarian” rather than “political,” believing that this might draw in a wider audience would help him evade any friction with authorities. 

Even though Clash does stand out in visual and technical terms, it was essentially no more than an extension of a certain trend of films that’s come to constitute a sort of new mainstream over the past ten years. These films always play it safe: they are relatively solid craft-wise, different in content and style from the average commercial film, and yet always ensure they have the necessary crowd pleasers; they tackle seemingly controversial subjects yet they avoid any real confrontation, adamant not to offend anyone. (The films of Amr Salama, including Asmaa (2011), Excuse My French (2013), and Sheikh Jackson (2017), also fall within this trend).

Speaking of confrontation, recent censorial transgressions didn’t stop at In The Last Days of The City, they extended to include other films over the next two years, among them Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident (which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, and was scheduled screen at Zawya during the 10th Panorama of the European Film) and the documentary Happily Ever After by Nada Riyadh and Ayman al-Amir (set to screen during  Cairo Cinema Days in 2018). Unlike Said, the filmmakers of those two films chose to avoid a public battle with the Censorship Board, for understandable reasons. With each year the spaces left for us to move grow smaller, and caution becomes an essential condition if you want to continue working in this place.

2018 was a rich year, however, as — in addition to Poisonous Roses, Dreamaway, and EXT. Night, all films worthy of discussion — it was the year Abu Bakr Shawqy’s Yomeddine was released. An exceptionally crafted film, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or, a very rare occurrence for a feature debut. And yet 2019 was a disappointment, without any noteworthy productions on the independent scene, to the point that the competition lineups of both CIFF and El Gouna Film Festival were devoid of Egyptian films, with the exception of Marianne Khoury’s Let’s Talk, which should be released next month. Things are just as bad on the mainstream side of things: at least half the companies that monopolized Egyptian cinematic production for decades are now inactive, in light of increasing restrictions and excessive security interference in the cultural sphere. In no way was this sad state of affairs more clearly manifested than in the ultimate cinematic event of 2019: The screening of Al-Mamarr (The Passage) on two intelligence-owned satellite channels on the anniversary of the 6th October War. 

LISTEN

A decade in seven hours

By Ahmad El Sabbagh

Before the start of the new year, I curated a playlist that doesn’t necessarily include the best songs of the past decade, but one that might be expressive of the evolution of the music industry over the past ten years. The recommendations draw from personal memory and tracks that I’ve picked among my favorites (even though if I’d chosen them days before or after, they could have possibly been different). The list also tries to pinpoint the most notable waves and trends we witnessed and are constantly trying to understand.

In one Pitchfork piece by Jason Green, he argues that, in the 2010s, indie music came to imitate pop and vice versa. The modes of owning and listening to music have also developed, after we had to buy MP3 files or physical CDs or pirate the albums we wanted to listen to, we now rely mainly on platforms that offer selective song streaming, such as Spotify, Anghami and Deezer. As a result, individual tracks have become the primary unit of music consumption rather than albums. At the same time, the huge advancement in music production techniques have allowed independent artists to produce music at low budgets and competing head-to-head with artists signed with record labels.

With the onset of the 2010s, electro dance music slowly made its way into mainstream pop, especially after some of the best producers collaborated with mainstream pop artists like David Guetta and Calvin Harris. This merging of musical genres also manifested in the emergence of producers such as Major Lazer and Disclosure, and new artists such as Tove Lo and Grimes.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, this fusion took place in several remarkable attempts at mixing mahraganat and shaabi music with electronic music and trap.

Throughout the decade, another question persisted: Is rock dead?

We’re still trying to understand what’s happened to rock over the past few years, but what’s certain is that rock, like other genres, has massively changed. Rock bands have come to depend on electronic instruments as much as the guitar, bass, and drums. Year after year, the lines between pop and rock, pop-rock and art rock, are gradually disappearing, in both music and lyrics. 

Yet this decade has seen the release of some very solid rock albums, such as Radiohead’s latest album; A Moon Shaped Pool; Younger Brother’s 2011 album, Vaccine; and Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s mid-decade singles, in addition to their joint project, Lotta Sea Lice (2017).

On the other hand, hip hop and trap have been on a constant rise worldwide, one could say they’ve come to rival pop in its popularity. In Arab nations, a new wave of the genre took over North Africa in the second half of the decade, extending to Sudan, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. [You’ll find many hip hop and trap tracks in the playlist.]

Overall, I think this decade was the best so far in pop music, in terms of diversity and openness to new experiments, which promises interesting possibilities for the genre. 

SALAM

Until next time, we leave you with EL KemeK’s latest track, “Ma Fa He Mi,” written and performed by Omar Mostafa and produced by A Q Laizar: 

AD
 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism
survives.