Dear worker-bees of the world, we hope your weekend was one of rest and nourishment — and if it wasn’t, well — things are bound to get better.
This weekend coincides with Labor Day (May 1), which prompted us to think of the deeper meaning of work. How has the coronavirus crisis altered how we see it? The occasion marks the revolutionary moment that led to limiting the workday to eight hours — only one third of the 24 hours in the day — so that the other two thirds would be split between sleep and leisure.
As we planned this issue, we found ourselves contemplating how we work, and the space work takes up in our lives, and wondering whether the definition of work as we’ve always known it “works.” Are our days actually split into the above mentioned three thirds? Not really. In reality, work ends up taking over more than the eight hours it’s allocated — an average worker will spend their life working, thinking about work and recovering from work. And with the current state of lockdown and self-isolation, it feels like we’re in a constant state of work. Meanwhile, according to the International Labor Organization, the impact of COVID-19 is likely to cause the loss of 195 million jobs worldwide.
At Mada, we’re working and we’re hopeful, but we’re operating differently. We’re trying to adapt to the new reality the pandemic has created, to engage with it from every angle we can in our coverage. Our plates are rather full, and so when we started to prepare for this edition, we couldn’t properly delve into the “idea” of work, because each of us was already busy working on something, practically. And this here is the irony: Work, inevitably, constricts the space in which one can think about work.
This continuous state of work has forced us to postpone this week’s Watch section, since our team is busy co-writing our annual Ramadan story, which reviews the first few episodes of Ramadan series and recommends which of them — if any — are worth following. Meanwhile, in our Listen section, Ahmed al-Sabbagh presents his monthly Tafneeta — which he curates during his free time from work — while in our Read section we share some thoughts about various aspects of work life.
Below are a few of the pressing questions regarding work that we’ve been thinking about. The answers are excerpts from a work-in-progress by Ahmed Wael, titled Work Surface.
In most mythological depictions, humans are judged in the afterlife for their deeds — i.e., what they do — during their lifetime. The scales determine the value of their life: if the good side of the scale is heavier, then the deceased was a good person. If we go back to our original question, work does not have a specific definition because it’s every action that we do; thus, work is everything. In Arabic, for instance, the same verb is used to signify the meaning of “to work” and “to do”: تعمل/يعمل.
Perhaps one of the best depictions of the weight of work can be found in ancient Egyptian mythology. In the afterlife, the human’s heart is placed on one side of the scales while the feather of Maat — the goddess of harmony, justice and truth — is placed on the other, to see which is heavier. In this mythology, the weight of the heart is not measured by the goals the worker sought to achieve but what lies deep in their heart: their passion and their ambition. The worker tells themself that their heart will save them when it’s time for them to be evaluated. But the worker’s heart is also filled with hate and contempt toward those who have wronged them. They carry anger, jealousy and rage. It’s very hard to get over such negative feelings. Perhaps the feather is aware that the human heart must be defective, limited, complex — that there’s no way to avoid that.
Might the feather of truth regard us, workers, with compassion, regardless of how damaged our hearts could be?
Amidst the current crisis, all work has taken the rhythm of freelance work. It has morphed from the idea that work is something we do in specific hours of the day, focusing our undivided attention on, to an activity we can perform at any time during the day, while we are cooking or doing household chores — pretty much whenever we can. We can take part in a virtual meeting while baking, or cooking our pasta; we can have a conversation with our boss while stirring onions on the stove. Today, the worker can’t remember the last time they went to their office or met with their colleagues in a non-virtual setting.
We drown in overtime, but we don’t always realize it since we’re working from the comfort of our homes. According to Italian philosopher Franco (Bifo) Berardi’s The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, the worker considers work the most exciting part of their life, and therefore they do not object to a longer work day, but are actually willing to lengthen it of their own personal choice and will. He points out that work is often the only space that provides support to the narcissism of those who have grown accustomed to the rules of competition. The worker seeks recognition in the heart of an illusion: the myth of self-accomplishment.
During college, I worked at a student magazine. One time, the leader of the group that was producing the magazine asked me to copyedit the poetry section. This guy generally didn’t like literature — he found that expressing one’s feelings went against the very definition of manliness. I refused to edit the texts — how is one meant to proofread poetry, after all? — and told him we should either publish them as they were or just reject them. He got angry with me and decided to edit the section himself. I, meanwhile, decided to quit the magazine.
Afterward I worked at a literary newspaper, escaping my desire to write fiction by writing about it instead. And a few years later, I became engrossed in Arabic copyediting. A copy editor in journalism thinks of themselves as a linguist, because they know the common grammatical mistakes — they become a walking style guide. The longer you spend in this relationship, the more you learn and can anticipate these common mistakes. And the longer you steer clear of writing, the more you avoid making these mistakes yourself. But you make other ones. The longer the writer stays on the copyediting desk, the more restricted their knowledge of language becomes. Their language becomes safe, free of experimentation.
The worker devotes their life to work, but also to love, and to dreams — not least the dream of retirement. Sheikh Imam says it best here: “I’ve given my life to hope, but it never showed up.”
After weeks of confusion, musicians are back to work. A myriad of live or recorded performances have been organized and made available, and tracks upon tracks are being released, many of which you can listen to in this month’s Tafneeta, curated by Ahmed al-Sabbagh.
This time, we especially recommend you check out Tafneeta on YouTube, not only Spotify, since many of the videos accompanying the releases Sabbagh chose this week are quite different from the usual: home videos filmed with handheld cameras and the bare minimum of tools are the norm here, reflecting life in quarantine.
Other videos show empty streets and other deserted public spaces, while some resorted to animation as a way around the restrictions posed by lockdown. Even the lyrics in some songs, Sabbagh notes, reflect the state of social distancing that’s become such an integral part of our reality.
And now, without further ado, we present our latest Tafneeta. Shuffle away!
In the end, we leave you with a story by comic artist Aly Galal, whom we lost this time last year, published in the latest issue of Mangaha. The visual world Galal left behind only serves to tantalize us, as we imagine what more such a talent could have produced had he had some more time with us. We also remind you of Andeel’s obituary of the artist: “A non-eulogy for Aly Galal.”
Finally, we bid you farewell, dear readers/workers. May this pandemic bring forth a new definition of work, and a new era of prosperity.