Author of “Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani,” Samia Mehrez has her finger on the pulse of the writing scene in today’s Egypt. A professor of modern Arabic literature in Arabic and in translation for the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at the American University of Cairo (AUC), I had the chance to sit down with her this week at her home in Cairo as we talked about the writers and poets of the revolution.
SM: The events are still upon us. We are still with them, which is why the form that has least taken the foreground in the past two years has been narrative. We’ve seen these magnificent events translated into theatrical performances, songs, poetry, jokes… we are submerged in humor, I think we would die without it. Even the forms of joke telling have changed, it’s not the joke telling that we were used to as Egyptians. This is completely saturated in technology; graphic design, characters that have emerged on the internet, they tell the jokes. There are these cartoons that pop up and are shared via our facebook pages that comment on current events. Every single event that takes place on the street is translated into humor which is then shared via technology. This is what helps us laugh through what can be very bleak moments. It can be inspiring but also hopeful, because people who laugh have not lost hope.
UA: It has been called a cultural and emotional revolution moreso than political. How do you see it? Tell us about the social and cultural dimensions of what people in Egypt are going through.
SM: If you take a microphone to any street corner, not just in Cairo, but anywhere in Egypt, you will witness immediately how stunning it is to hear the kind of conversation there is in this country today. If you were to go to Tahrir (the most famous square of the “arab spring”) now you would find people standing on the street corners conversing, and they would be a very mixed group of people. When we were in Tahrir during the famous 18 days, we entered into similar conversations with people we would have never seen or spoken with before. We discovered that we speak the same language and that we have the same interests. We love this country and want a similar future. From this, a new kind of solidarity has emerged.
UA: Tell us more about scenes and songs from the revolution that most stick out in your mind.
SM: There’s a beautiful scene described in a novel of the revolution by Mona Prins. It is about her encounter with people from a poorer neighborhood called Buleh, who came to Tahrir in their tuc-tuc’s blasting this music that she had never heard before. She asks where this music is from and they respond that its “our music” from their neighborhood. So this music that had been ghetto-ized through these informal areas of the city, occupies a new public space that it could not acceed to before. And it becomes adopted by people from other neighborhoods and eventually the artists themselves become super stars on satellite television and on youtube. Their fans are tens of thousands of Egyptians from all over, who now listen and share their music regardless of class.
Samia Mehrez is a writer and the editor of 2 anthologies entitled: A Literary Atlas of Cairo: One hundred Years in the Life of the City and The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City (1994 and 2005, AUC Press).
Photo: khowaga1 / flickr