Signs of the Times: the Popular Literature of Tahrir

Protest Signs, Graffiti, and Street Art - a special issue of Shahadat

This issue takes as its focus the popular literature of the Egyptian Revolution. Drawing on protest signs, graffiti, and street art in Tahrir to read the culture of resistance particular to the Egyptian Revolution, the curators examine how protesters changed the political narrative through the use of images, memorials, and expressions of daily life.  Featuring examples from an extensive gallery of online images culled from the collections of several prominent Egyptian journalists and activists, the online piece is a visual tour of some of the creative production of Egypt's Revolution.  A collaborative curation project split between New York City and Cairo, this is ArteEast's first critical look at the cultural production related to recent political developments in the Middle East.
- Co-curators, Rayya El Zein & Alex Ortiz.

Watching a Revolution

In the bitter doldrums of early February, I'd relish the commutes that spit me out in Harlem with time to spare. Savoring the extra minutes before having to momentarily put Egypt from my mind, I'd tap my way to the live Al Jazeera stream from Cairo and cradle the increasingly familiar, grainy image of Tahrir Square in one palm. Leaning up against frozen banisters on icy sidewalks, February sported a less brutal cold than usual. Dare I say it? Pictures, feeds, and video of Egyptian protesters somehow warmed gloveless fingers. The nomadic nature of the teach and work schedule of a graduate fellow fit the structures of changing media and a smart phone ensured I could "have" the Revolution with me, wherever I was.

But evolving forms of journalism and the specific culture of Cairo's Tahrir Square also ensured that the primary medium of the information I would receive would be visual. Indeed, the palm-sized screen not only relays information; it often relays information visually. Following political developments in Egypt became, specifically, watching them. It should be obvious that the fact that I and thousands of others watched and followed Egypt's Revolution on computer and mobile screens does not imply that the abdication of Mubarak was a moment that owes its legacy to social media or the Internet. However, the activity of watching this political and social movement was directly related to the unique and specific culture of resistance that it embodied. The effect of the January 25 ? February 11 Revolution (the symbolic success of removing Mubarak from power and the encouragement of political mobilization in half a dozen other countries in the region) and its affect (the resurgence of a communal rejection of fear and the embrace of a collective hope for a more dignified future) are almost as indiscernible from each other as the terms themselves.

Assessing the framework of how the Revolution was watched becomes more grounded when we consider that both protesters and Mubarak seem to have been keenly aware of the potent politics of being seen. The regime's constant and brutal crackdowns on journalists and their equipment reflect an anxiety about the infectious power of specifically seeing resistance. And Tahrir protesters were constantly aware of the potential and the danger of being seen or remaining hidden. At night, panicked voices described what they feared others couldn't or wouldn't see. And in daylight, an outward, visual embodiment of resistance, a performance of defiance, was made apparent in cultural activity. When we - abroad and in Egypt - watched Tahrir as its peaceful occupation progressed, we were increasingly watching a particular culture of resistance.

Tahrir protesters expressed this culture in a variety of ways. Protesters held signs declaring identity and resistance that display an exponential capacity to riff, elaborate on, and embellish the basic articulation of political demands. They gathered in the millions, sustaining each other with song, comedy, murals, and memorials. In these creative gestures, Egyptian protesters invited others to watch them and implicitly, to join them. Creative output actualized the political revolution.

Fear is a cultural product. Pride is a cultural product. Humor is another. Which is not to say that any of these three are caused by culture, rather, that they are given specificity by collectively expressed behavior. Neither fear nor pride exists in lived situations except as enacted by human bodies. Fear is not a political tool unless someone is afraid ? that is to say, unless people, subconsciously or consciously, perform fear by cowering, staying silent, or actively or passively encouraging peers to do so. Likewise, but inversely, as more than a decade's worth of the work of activists and agitators in Egypt can attest to, "Revolution" does not happen unless it is enacted ? unless people physically embody resistance by taking to the streets, unless they buoy each other's courage with humor and music, unless they outwardly perform resistance for themselves and for others. Indeed, that's what, in one sense of the word, "Revolution" is. The slow, lasting change of political systems is only sometimes related.

That the ideas and emotions surrounding the Egyptian Revolution seemed to be "contagious" should not imply that one event caused another. The Egyptian protester holding a sign that said "Thanks Tunis" did not imply that the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit-vendor convinced Mubarak to step down. Rather, what that sign acknowledges is an exchange of cultural attitudes surrounding political activity and engagement.

This exchange is continuing to spark, grow, and evolve across the Middle East and it owes a considerable growth in momentum to the visibility of the culture of resistance in Tahrir Square in late January and early February. The eagerness that protesters in Cairo displayed to communicate visually to and with each other created a massive creative cultural output, one that very much deserves the careful attention of cultural critics, poets, and visual artists alike. Creative activities like graffiti and poetry, which may still be thought of as somehow less serious than "straight" political activity, are nevertheless the outward realization of resistance, the very embodiment of "Revolution."

We have proposed in these pages a site-specific examination of a spike in one kind of cultural production, specifically literary and visual, in Egypt, in Cairo, mostly in Tahrir Square from January 25 through February 11, 2011. While the media gorges itself at break-neck speed on one after another breaking story, we look back to examine the effect of affect, or the seduction of a specific kind of Revolutionary energy as it was expressed through protest signs and graffiti in Tahrir. For weeks, Egyptian protesters gripped the attention of political and apolitical people around the world but caught politicians off guard. And for the first time in a generation, from Beirut to Madison, we are beginning to see apathy abate. Whatever the actual political reality of uprooting Mubarak's regime, watching Egypt's Revolution has already done something. To be a spectator, we are all the more convinced, is anything but a passive enterprise.

Rayya El Zein, New York City
April 1, 2011


Shahadat is a  monthly online series designed to provide a platform for experimentation and promotion of short form writing on the web.  These stories, vignettes, reflections and chronicles, written by young or underexposed writers from the Middle East and North Africa, are published here  in translation and the original.

ArteEast is a leading international arts organization presenting work by contemporary artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and their Diaspora. Founded in 2003 as a New York based not-for-profit organization, ArteEast supports and promotes artists by raising awareness of their most significant and groundbreaking work and by bringing this work to the widest possible audience. We do this through public events, art exhibitions, film screenings, international touring programs, a dynamic virtual gallery, and a resource-rich website. Partnering with some of the most prestigious cultural institutions around the world-such as The Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and the Sharjah Art Foundation-ArteEast's film, visual arts, and literary programs reach thousands of new audiences each year.

The organization is committed to bringing the highest quality and form of artistic content on multiple platforms. Our innovative use of technology and partnerships to present programs that are highly mobile, rather than bound to a particular physical space, make us one of the most nimble, cutting-edge art organizations today. ArteEast is also consistently providing relevant context so that audiences can fully appreciate the work that is being presented.