An Overview of Cairo’s ‘Narrating the Arab Spring’ Conference

Mona Elnamoury: Radwa Ashour on the Train of Images in the Egyptian Revolution

M. Lynx Qualey: Tamim al-Barghouti on the Triumph of Narrative and Who’s Ruling Egypt

Assmaa Naguib: Narrating the ‘Arab Spring’: Who Owns the Story?

Mona Elnamoury: Radwa Ashour’s ‘Siraaj’: A Trip into the Past that Ends in the Present

Below, Dalia Ebeid shares an overview of the three-day conference, which took places at Cairo University from February 18-20.

By Dalia Ebeid

In the aftermath of the revolutions witnessed throughout the Arab world, scholars and researchers have attempted to capture the meanings behind these uprisings, and to analyze and attempt to understand the reasons behind them.  “Narrating the Arab Spring” centers around the revolutions which have taken place in the Arab Spring, i.e Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The conference is the production of joint efforts by Cairo University, University of Manchester, and the NGO Women and Memory Forum. The conference was inaugurated by the keynote speaker Prof. Radwa Ashour, celebrated English Literature professor, novelist, and political activist. Ashour’s word was delivered in classical Arabic and was imbedded with high rhetoric which she is widely known for, and she set the tone for the rest of the conference perfectly. She touched upon incidents during the Egyptian revolution, relating anecdotes made by street vendors, which displayed their own sense of ingenuity and that famous Egyptian humor that has sustained the people through many trying times.

Prof. Radwa also quoted a few bloggers and political activists who called for martyrs’ rights and for the impoverished not to be forgotten amidst a sea of political chaos and hackneyed debates regarding the constitution and presidential elections.  One of the blogs she referenced was entitled “El- fokoraa awelan… ya welad el kalb” which loosely translates into “Poor people first… you sons of bitches” which offered a strong critique of the so-called Egyptian “elite” and reprimanded the general populace for forgetting all those who lost their lives in order for the revolution to be realized.

Day one: The recurrent theme of the first day’s sessions seemed to focus on the role of social and visual media during the revolutions. Egypt in particular garnered special attention in relation to this issue, and the question of whether or not it was a “facebook revolution” was raised by many different presenters, a few who challenged and subverted this notion in its entirety by claiming that the revolution was born on the streets and continued to live on through them, Facebook and twitter as well being helping tools, but no more.

English Department professors Sally Hammouda and Heba El-Abbadi delivered a presentation called “From Spectators to Spect-Actors: All Tahrir’s a Stage,” which revolved around the transformative effect of the revolution through the transformation of people from mere observers to play actors who performed and affected change, with Tahrir Square being the quasi-stage for this transformation and subsequent performance.

Dr. Walid El-Hamamsy’s presentation “Egypt…. Isn’t that in Switzerland? American Cartoons and the Egyptian Revolution,” Dr. Walid presented cartoons by numerous American cartoonists as an expose of western perceptions regarding the Egyptian revolution, as the cartoons were riddled with images of pyramids, deserts, and mummies in a stereotypical and orientalist  fashion.  Dr. Walid proposed that these cartoons only serve to remove the revolution from a relatable setting for any American and to transfer it to a by-gone era which is completely removed from the consciousness of any contemporary American. These cartoons were presented in contrast with cartoons of South American cartoonist Carlos Latuf  who sketched cartoons portraying an accurate and up-to- date account of Egyptian politics and reality.  His cartoons displayed a number of political figures such as former Minister of the Interior, Habib El- Adly, as well as the former president and other members of his cabinet.

Another recurrent theme in today’s sessions was the role of images, whether moving or still, and how they were utilized in resisting the oppressive regimes while at the same time expressing the people’s latent desires for freedom and social justice. One of the common elements touched upon in a few of the sessions was the use of humor by the oppressed people and how it was implemented as a transformative weapon of resistance, while at the same time becoming a coping mechanism to deal with the more harrowing and disturbing experiences of the revolution.

Another English department professor, Dr. Randa Abo Bakr, had a presentation entitled “The Role of the Image in New and Social Media in the Egyptian,” Dr. Randa showed clips which parodied several of the ousted leaders including Mubarak, Ben Aly, and Qaddafi and theorized that the song is subversive while also providing people with a way to deal with the trauma.

Day two: Today’s sessions reverberated a few of the themes of yesterday’s sessions, as the internet’s role was widely discussed.  However, new topics were presented such as the uses and effects of song, music, and dance Women’s role during the revolution was also mention as a few presenters brought women into the foray through their narrative experiences in regards to the revolution.

PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, Alia Mosallam, discussed the use of songs and chants and her belief that they expressed fear and sacrifice along with determination and resistance.  Her presentation espoused the notion that we were attempting to find our own voice.  She provided examples of street performances which consisted of plays and songs which expressed a “non-romanticized version of reality.”  The presentation also attempted to explain that these myriad performances allowed people to “develop new experience and to find one another, forming a collective consciousness and entity.”  Songs was presumed to have many functions such as “dealing with pain, healing, and struggling against animosity in order to rise above it.”

Freelance journalist Sarah Al-Mojaddadi’s presentation “To Tweet or not to Tweet” also addressed the role of social media.  Sarah argued that the West tried to paint the Egyptian revolution as a facebook or twitter revolution, a theory she vehemently refutes as she states that “statistically only around 40% of Egyptians have net access”.  In this way, she undermines the Western media’s portrayal of the Egyptian revolution.

Images, music, and performance are all utilized once again in Doaa Embaby’s presentation, a Ain Shams University professor.  The presentation propagates the notion that cartoons, songs, and music in general connote the “playful Egyptian spirit”, while at the same time containing “subtle irony.”

The use of the internet was also touched upon as she argued that there was no “monopoly” of it, and that it became a “public space of battle and conflict.”

From the Women and Memory, researchers Maissan Hassan and May El-Sallab delivered a presentation under the title of “HERstory: Women Voices of the Revolution.” Their presentation centered around an oral history which detailed various accounts of women’s experiences during the revolution.  These stories present a first-hand account of what it was like to be a part of the revolution and the general scene on the streets during that period.

Day three: Egypt was at the forefront of the sessions, a scene echoing the first two days.  Although a few of the sessions dealt with other countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and the Gulf area in general.

Of particular interest was Karina Eilernas of Wesleyan Univeristy and her presentation which focused on the nude blogger Aliaa Mahdy.  Aliaa caused quite a stir on both the national and international levels as she posed nude on her blog in a bid for individual freedom.  Karina referred to the heavy presence of nude portraits and images in Egypt and ponders why Aliaa’s photo caused the stir it did.  Karina points out that male bloggers were particularly vicious and she posits that they are more open to Islamist feminists while being non-receptive to third-wave feminists as represented in the person of Aliaa.

Mona Elnamoury’s presentation around Radwa Ashour’s novel Siraaj revolved around the image of the mother of the martyr and how it is a “stimulating revolutionary figure.”  Dr. Mona demonstrated how the martyr’s mothers became symbols within themselves that instigated action .

“Narrating the Arab Spring” delved into topics of personal interest for everyone who experienced and are still experiencing immense changes in their respective countries, and managed to transform them into a collective experience which may be shared across borders of race and geography.  The other remarkable effect of the conference was how the feelings and observations of the streets and squares became translated to the world of academia, giving them a more cohesive form, while at the same time maintaining the organic and real nature of the experience.

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