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Art in Egypt's Revolutionary Square

by Ursula Lindsey | published January 2012

On January 7, under a clear chill sky, the monthly culture festival al-Fann Midan (Art Is a Square) took place in Cairo’s ‘Abdin plaza. In the sunny esplanade facing the shuttered former royal palace, spectators cheered a succession of musical acts, took in a display of cartoons and caricatures, and wandered from tables selling homemade jewelry to others handing out the literature of the Revolutionary Socialists or the centrist Islamist party al-Wasat. The drama troupe Masrah al-Maqhurin (Theater of the Oppressed) put on a series of skits requiring audience participation. In the first, a daughter left the family house against her father’s will, and with her mother’s connivance, to attend a birthday party. She was caught and reported by her brother, and then beaten by her father. In the participatory iterations that followed, a young woman from the audience chose to play the brother and, to much laughter, told the sister: “I won’t tell Dad I saw you in the street if you don’t tell him I was at the café.” Another audience member played the mother, working arduously but in vain to convince the father to allow the girl out of the house under her brother’s supervision. Interestingly, no one in the audience chose to incarnate -- and change the behavior of -- the authoritarian and violent father.

The cultural event occurred about three weeks after army and police forces had killed at least 16 protesters outside the cabinet building, not far from ‘Abdin, and wounded hundreds of others. The mood was a mix of light and dark, of hopeful respite and melancholy. Children spread out on the ground for free painting lessons. A few young men danced in a circle to the music of a marching band. In the evening, a small open-air theater showed footage of the recent army assaults.

Al-Fann Midan is one of many artistic initiatives that have sprung up since the uprising that began on January 25, 2011. Although the legal framework in Egypt has not changed (Emergency Law and laws against defaming religion, the army and the state remain in place), what Egyptians call the January 25 revolution has undoubtedly ushered in a new sense of freedom, as well as a determination to use public space to congregate and to connect, and to demonstrate support for the uprising through cultural activism.

Not Yet a Subject

When his group began recording songs in 2006, says 25-year old rapper Mezo teMraz, “There were limits. We would comment on society in a funny, indirect way.” Today, his label Revolution Records (accessible on Facebook) puts out tracks with titles like “Our Revolution, We’re Gonna Finish It” and “Down with Military Rule.” The refrain of the latter runs: “It looks like you forgot who we are / You think we’re still scared / We saw death and just smiled and stood there / Let me remind you since you’ve forgotten / We’re the revolutionary generation.”

The revolution has accelerated the valorization of Egypt’s burgeoning youth culture and its “underground” and “independent” artists. “After the revolution people started looking to independent artists more,” says teMraz. “Everyone feels that new independent groups will be heard now.”

The uprising has also, not surprisingly, led many artists to explicit political engagement. That desire for relevance has inspired some truly innovative work, alongside plenty of well-meaning but forgettable “revolutionary art.” Revolution Records’ songs are earnestly on message, with little of the verbal playfulness one expects from rap. “The revolution made us feel that we love Egypt,” says teMraz. “We try to put our point of view through music,” to create “very political direct songs that make people rise up.”

It is not easy to combine aesthetic and political ambitions in order to creatively address the revolutionary moment. For one thing, many artists and writers have continued to be active in the protest movement itself -- they have little detachment from the events of the last year, and their energies are depleted by their participation in protests, organizing meetings and advocacy campaigns. In their political work, they can face significant personal risk, like their fellow citizen-activists. In late December, at a press conference convened to deny army responsibility for the horrific violence visited by soldiers upon protesters near the cabinet, a blustering member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suddenly denounced Muhammad Hashim -- head of the independent and widely esteemed publishing house Merit -- as one of several conspirators being investigated for instigating attacks upon the army. (His crime, it appears, consisted of supplying protesters with blankets and helmets.)

For another, it is too early for artists or anyone else to map the contours of the current juncture with any clarity. In late January 2011, there was a rupture in the reality Egyptians had known for so long. Many artists and novelists, returning home elated if exhausted from weeks of protesting, simply scrapped whatever work they were doing. Since then, the rapid pace of events -- or, many would say, of reversals -- has rendered it nearly impossible to fix a vantage point from which to consider developments. The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.

Keeping Up with the Revolution

Cairo bookstores are packed with titles about the January 25 revolution. There is a great deal of poetry. But so far, the books are almost exclusively works of non-fiction: collections of photographs; anthologies of essays or newspaper columns by well-known public intellectuals, spanning the months before and after Husni Mubarak’s ouster; and yawmiyyat (diaries) born of direct experience of the uprising. Even poetry and fiction about the revolution does not dare stray far from the historical record.

The content of this literary production focuses almost entirely on the momentous 18 days at the beginning of 2011, from January 25 to February 11, at the end of which Mubarak resigned the presidency. There is little attention thus far to the muddled year that followed. The style is very often documentary, with writers intent on transcribing their personal experience of the historic events. Poet ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf compares himself to a “cameraman” in his Yawmiyyat Thawrat al-Sabbar (Diary of the Revolution of the Patient). “And what the dear reader reads is what my ‘camera’ snapped,” he writes. The tone of such work tends to be wholeheartedly celebratory of the “Republic of Tahrir,” as the mass sit-in at the iconic downtown Cairo plaza was dubbed.

In many cases, a nostalgic note already rings out:

The revolution’s faith is enough now
For her house of worship is the square
And her Qur’an today is her Testament
And her Testament is her Qur’an

So runs the opening “Fatiha” (referring to the first chapter of the Qur’an) of Hasan Talab’s collection of verse, The Revolution’s Testament and Its Qur’an, whose plaudits for the original uprising’s religious tolerance will strike some as bittersweet in view of the sectarian clashes and state-directed incitement against Copts in the autumn of 2011.

Talab’s volume is composed of matter-of-fact renderings of major revolutionary themes, with poems called “Enough,” “Bringing Down the Regime” and “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id,” invoking the name of the Alexandrian young man whose summer 2010 beating death at the hands of police galvanized one of the seminal pre-revolutionary Facebook campaigns. In such direct, literal references to the revolution and its heroes, Talab is not alone. As Negar Azimi, who writes often on Middle East arts and culture, notes in ArtForum magazine: “A survey of titles of works from recent exhibitions in Cairo reveals the following: ‘Freedom,’ ‘Drink Freedom,’ ‘Shadow of Freedom,’ ‘People Demand,’ ‘Man Crying’ and so on. … This, it turns out, is the sort of revolution-kitsch the market seeks. To be blandly political is in vogue and to be apolitical risks flirting with philistinism.” [1]

For many Egyptian artists and writers, the revolution looms too large to ignore; yet it also seems to confound the imagination. The compulsion to comment on an event that overwhelmed the country’s political barriers and expectations, and whose final outcome is still uncertain, leads to trite, bombastic statement art that inevitably appears static and shortsighted amid the rush of history.

Yet a few display the grace and insight of the Egyptian-Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouti in his epic colloquial poem “O People of Egypt” (Ya Sha‘b Masr), recited on several occasions but, it seems, not yet out in print. [2] Barghouti, like Talab, uses religious references, but in his verses they suggest the restless motion of the future, how the revolution remains to be achieved and lived and told:

By the Prophet, I beg you, don’t say: That will do
Rejoice and keep going, don’t say: That’s enough
This revolution is a beginning
Like a migration, like a birth
This revolution is a bismillah,
Come on, finish the aya,
See how it improves on every reading
How each verse runs to the next
Passing the torch, without pause
So that tomorrow our lives will be the story of those
Who went to bed barefoot and woke up lords

Truths Stronger Than Fiction

In film as well as in writing, the documentary has largely trumped the fictional.

In the wake of one of the most televised revolutions ever, a flurry of documentaries, amateur and professional, local and international, have been released. The three-part Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician, appearing in December, is a well-intentioned effort that captures revealing details: one protester’s “body armor” fashioned ingeniously out of cardboard; the treatment of several others for hysteria in Tahrir Square’s field clinic on February 10, date of Mubarak’s penultimate speech, in which he announced that he would not step down. (One day later, he did.) Most interesting are the troubling interviews with defensive, arrogant, disingenuous state security officers in the movie’s middle section. But the film feels slapdash, relying much too heavily on footage widely viewed on the Internet. Why, Egyptians seem to have felt, go to the movies to watch YouTube clips? The film played to nearly empty theaters at two upscale cinemas in December, even as protesters fought the police in downtown Cairo. 

Fictional filmmaking, meanwhile, has lagged behind. There were no Ramadan musalsalat (soap operas) about the revolution in the summer of 2011, partly because production schedules did not allow it, but also because the airwaves were dominated by gripping political talk shows on the many new satellite channels.

Tamantashar Yawm (18 Days) -- an amalgam of shorts by well-known young Egyptian directors -- is so far one of the only feature-length cinematic treatments of the revolution. It was produced very soon after the original uprising and screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; it is scheduled to show in Egypt on the anniversary of the revolution’s launch. [3]

A few of the shorts turn on a joke, such as “When the Flood Hits You,” written by Bilal Fadl and directed by Muhammad ‘Ali, in which the denizens of a streetside café come up with a series of schemes to profit from protesters and counter-protesters. At first, “Revolution Cookies” is also funny, as when a flustered, naive tailor locks himself in his shop, convinced that the revolution is the beginning of a war with Israel.

“Curfew,” directed by Sharif al-Bandari, featuring a grandfather and grandson escaping home confinement to drive the empty nighttime streets of Suez, is surprisingly affecting, carried by the talent of the actors and a naturalistic pace. And “Tahrir 2-2,” which portrays the February 2 “battle of the camel” -- when hired toughs rode camels and horses into the protesters’ ranks -- from the point of view of one of the thugs, is quite good in depicting the genuine confusion and indignation of poor or apolitical Egyptians when told that “kids backed by the US and Israel” wanted to remove the president. “Get rid of him how?” exclaims the protagonist’s wife, in shock. “Who have they got to replace him?”

Most of 18 Days’ stories are not set among the protesters or in Tahrir. Instead, the screenwriters and directors circle around the revolution, looking for outside angles, coming at the uprising indirectly. But almost all of the pieces suffer from indifferent cinematography and -- much more gravely -- make use of political symbolism so pointed it amounts to assault by metaphor. Even the better ones cannot seem to resist final shots that thuddingly overplay their hand: an embrace in front of a tank; a blood-soaked banknote; a confession by a murdered political prisoner that simply reads: “Freedom... freedom... freedom.” Ironically, both Tahrir 2011 and 18 Days -- with their rehearsal of the same well-known dates and reprise of the same oft-viewed news footage -- make the revolution seem familiar, even stale. 

Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona, on the other hand, has produced a lovely documentary, Tahrir: Liberation Square, the realization of a complete and deeply personal vision. [4] Savona spent almost the entirety of the original uprising in Tahrir Square, at times at considerable peril to himself. His film has no narration and no interviews. Instead, it immerses the viewer in the mysterious and awesome flow of the revolution -- through shot after stunning shot of the action in the square, where the filmmaker followed one group of youths, capturing everything from their conversations about the country’s future to their battles with the ubiquitous thugs, and every mood from anxiety to communion to laughter. One long, almost dreamlike sequence simply registers the endless stream of faces passing by the square’s welcoming committee, who flank its entrance and chant: “Al-Masriyyin ah-hum! Al-Masriyyin ah-hum!” (Here they are, the Egyptians!) The committee members are commending the new arrivals, but -- for those watching months later -- their cheer also refers to themselves. These are the Egyptians, indeed. It is the most moving paean to the ecstatic, transformative solidarity of Tahrir that I have seen.

Another dynamic body of work is that of the Mosireen collective, a band of young videographers and filmmakers who take to Cairo’s streets whenever protests or clashes with police break out. (The group’s name means “determined”; in Arabic it is also spelled almost the same way as “Egyptians.”) Mosireen makes its films available on its website, as well as in free, open-air venues like Tahrir Cinema, on Facebook and even as mobile phone downloads. One recent short is Four Days of Death in December, about the deadly fighting between the army and demonstrators near the cabinet building. [5] In the final shot of this 12-minute documentary, the names of the dead scroll up the screen, while the camera follows a trail of blood to a field clinic, a pathway that the protesters have carefully bordered with stones, turning it into a formal marker of suffering and remembrance. The film preserves this extraordinary tribute, a public memorial all the more beautiful and terrible for the fact that it is destined to disappear almost immediately.

Street Art vs. Art Art

Tahrir Square has from the start been a space for performance of the most serious and passionate kind. If over the period from one January to the next the thrilling drama seems to have deteriorated into an absurdist play, in which the same despair-inducing violence is staged over and over again, it remains daunting for art to compete, in relevance and power of expression, with the midan itself.

Graffiti -- fleet, anonymous, contextual and irreverent -- has emerged as the signature art form of the revolution. It flourishes wherever protests and sit-ins are held, but is also to be found in many quieter neighborhoods of Cairo (and, increasingly, in other Egyptian cities). Graffiti was practically unheard of before 2011, but now suits the moment, being, all at once, an act of defiance, an appropriation of public space and a running political counter-narrative. [6]

But attempts to channel the creative energies of the street into more conventional settings have largely fallen flat. Several Cairo galleries have had shows featuring graffiti artists, but the work they have produced in designated art spaces has been listless and superficial, lacking the jolt of discovery that is so much a part of the form.

While for the most part established cultural producers have tried to harness the street, there has also been some interesting movement in the opposite direction. In December, when many of the protesters battling the police in Muhammad Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square lost eyes, an arresting image began to circulate online in solidarity with the maimed: One of the twin lion statues at the mouth of the Qasr al-Nil bridge had been PhotoShopped to sport an eye patch.

The artist Mu‘tazz Nasr had actually created the one-eyed lion in April 2011, for the magazine Rawi. [7] “Every time I walked across the Qasr al-Nil bridge,” he says, “I felt the lion was a witness to what was happening in the square.” As the image was shared on the Internet, someone (or several someones) began to apply real eye patches to statues around Cairo: to the lion, of course, and to other figures immortalized in downtown squares, like Naguib Mahfouz, Simon Bolivar and Tal‘at Harb, the early twentieth-century captain of industry and banking. Nasr is modest about whether the street artists had seen his photograph. “The inspiration just spread,” he says. “Maybe there were many of us thinking the same way.”

New Audiences, New Ventures

In these tempestuous and trying times in Egypt, art projects that engage with the revolution as an ongoing process, rather than an event to be encapsulated or commended, seem to be the most fruitful. Open-air movie screenings, free cultural festivals, touring theater troupes, street art -- these forms and events create new venues and new audiences, mix art and politics, and start conversations. Many of these ventures have unabashedly gone about the business of consciousness raising. But, generally, they do not seek to make programmatic statements or issue manifestoes; they simply want to show and to share. A slew of novels and films that address the revolution in more conventional terms is no doubt around the corner, but it will probably take time for the true classics of the historical moment to emerge.

In the meantime, Egyptians have productions like the Tahrir Monologues, a fluid, unadorned enactment of personal stories from the bounteous 18 days. Actors -- a few professional, but most of them amateur -- take turns stepping on stage and delivering short, often poignant accounts of solidarity, enlightenment, fear, violence and change. The stories were collected in Tahrir Square itself, as well as solicited online and through social networks. Sundus Shabayik, the young actress and director who started the project, says it was born from the sense that everyone had a story to tell after the toppling of Mubarak. “People loved hearing and telling these stories over and over again.”

Shabayik is a veteran of Bussy, an Egyptian version of the Vagina Monologues, and has experience drawing out and shaping personal narratives. She would often sit with the storytellers and help them find the emotional kernel of their tales, she says. Quite a few of them tell their own stories on stage, or attend a performance where actors tell them.

The Tahrir Monologues troupe continues to receive submissions, and each performance is therefore a bit different from the previous one. They are considering the incorporation of more stories, from after the 18-day uprising in early 2011. The actors’ morale tends to rise and fall with the tenor of reports from the street, says Shabayik: “Sometimes, when things are going well, we feel that what we are doing is meaningful. At other times, we wonder: What is the point?”


[1] Negar Azimi, “Regimes of the Image,” ArtForum (December 2011).
[2] Watch Barghouti recite the poem here:
[3] See the trailer for 18 Days at:
[4] Learn more about Tahrir: Liberation Square at:
[5] See Four Days of Death in December at:
[6] There are several websites dedicated to documenting the huge output of graffiti from young Egyptians. One is:
[7] See the lion here:

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