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Revolution Bookshelf: Revolution is My Name

Posted on July 05, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 1 comment

(Mona Prince's Revolution is My Name)


By Elliott Colla

Mona Prince, Revolution is My Name. Cairo: n.p., 2012.

Reading, ’Riting, Revolution

Reading Egyptian literature this week might seem odd. What does literature—even literature about revolution—have to tell us about this particular moment? After all, revolutions are not stories. They are not poems. Revolutions are not texts nor are they primarily textual in nature. Revolutions are events. They are projects and processes, made and sustained by people insisting on living lives of dignity.  

But even if revolutions are not stories, they do have an organic tie to stories and storytelling (and poetry too, but that is for another day). Stories make revolutions insofar as they are part of what mobilize people to go to the street. Horrifying tales of torture, abuse and corruption. Inspiring fables of resilience, imagination and effort. At the same time, revolutions are good at making stories, or compelling people to tell stories about their experiences of revolt. These stories in turn become fuel for others to go to the street and so on.  

It is fitting then that we might conceive of the relationship between revolution and storytelling in terms of circles or loops. Reading, writing and revolution, then doing it again. Not so much separate activities, but stages in a single process of action and reflection.  

This is not so farfetched. The English word “revolution,” as Raymond Williams reminds us, has undergone a number of changes since it first appeared in the English language. [1] On the one hand, there is the sense of revolution as a sudden and radical change. This is largely our present-day sense of the word. But beneath it there is an older sense of revolution as return, boomerang, coming back around, revolving. The newer sense is rooted in an understanding of historical time as developmental and linear, with the capacity to be broken or transcended. The older sense rests in cyclical notions of time, of history as recurrence. It denies the possibility of total rupture with the past.  

Both of these senses of revolution are alive in Egypt to this day. Many witnesses to the Egyptian revolution have been struck by the apparent repetition of earlier events, alignments and outcomes—even as we note the differences. We compare the present day to 1977. Or 1952. Or 1919. This week we are even comparing 2013 to 2011. This double vision, Williams suggests, is a normal, though paradoxical component of how we think about revolutions.

Literature speaks to revolution also in its central role in the production of the historical record. Maurice Halbwachs famously describes the production of collective memory as an ongoing, complex process. Events are remembered by individuals who participated in them. These memories of mass events are then collected, edited and given shape and meaning by participants and others. As soon as this process begins we are firmly in the realm of storytelling. Some details of events are selected, others forgotten. Some memories are foregrounded, others relegated to the margins. All are recast along narrative arcs, reworked by convention and form. Thus memories of actual experience become stories, with beginnings, middles and ends. Some are written as tragedies, others as romances or comedies. These stories are then redistributed, read and refined. Readers see themselves and their own memories reflected or ignored, augmented or diminished, rounded or flattened out.

And it is here that literature comes to play its outsized role. Much of how revolutions are remembered collectively has to do with this process. Individual experience becomes memory. Memory becomes narrative in the form of memoirs, accounts and novels. Canonized and institutionalized, these narratives begin to form official and unofficial forms of history.

It is remarkable, but not unusual, that Egyptians imagine the 1919 Revolution through certain privileged literary texts, like Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit or Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, or their adaptation on film and in television. What needs to be remembered, of course, is that these authors did not create their novels out of nothing, but rather mixed and elaborated upon a vast number of revolution stories. These fictions, in other word, represent a distillation of many other memories, accounts, and memoirs. Analogs for 1952 and 1977 are also easy to recall, suggesting that Halbwachs’ model of collective memory may not be so foreign to the Egyptian experience of revolution.

Which brings us to the present. The first stories—the memories, accounts and fictions of Egypt’s present revolution—have already been told and retold many times by now. Writers did not wait to begin their construction Egypt’s collective memory of revolution. The first stories appeared instantaneously on Facebook as well as in electronic and print media. By March 2011, the first accounts and memoirs began to appear in Egypt’s many bookstores. Since then, the bookshelves have continued to fill, with notable new titles coming out each month.

Never too Early to Narrate

The process of turning public events into collective narratives takes time. Collective memories emerge only after sifting and editing. It is ongoing and messy, always under construction, always being revised, and never complete. But to say so is not to call for delay, even though there are some who have argued that it is still “too early” to write “good” literature about Egypt’s revolution. Last summer, Ahdaf Soueif suggested this in an essay reflecting on the precarious balance between working as an activist and writing as an author:

In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction. Fiction will come again, I hope… Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form. For reality has to take time to be processed, to transform into fiction. [2]

 

If Soueif meant to say that it was too early to write the definitive novel of revolution from beginning to end, she was more than right. It is even still very early now twelve months after she wrote these words, and Egypt’s revolution looks younger today than it did then. But if the experience of Egyptian writers is any indication, it is not impossible to be a talented storyteller and a committed activist at the same time. Given the sheer number of works of fiction coming out in Egypt over the last thirty months, it would seem that many Egyptian writers reject the idea of having to choose between telling stories and making revolution. Given the thoughtfulness and creativity of these works, it would seem that these writers are right to write.

In this regard, we might recollect one of the most powerful accounts of modern revolution, Karl Marx’s narrative of the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France. Marx’s account is a masterpiece of storytelling, and concludes with a disturbing account of the gruesome massacre of Communard heroes and heroines. It is designed to enrage audiences, to provoke them into action, as in this short passage from the concluding chapter:

The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. Each new crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the producer brings out this fact more glaringly. Even the atrocities of the bourgeois in June 1848 vanish before the infamy of 1871. The self-sacrificing heroism with which the population of Paris — men, women, and children — fought for eight days after the entrance of the Versaillais, reflects as much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilization, of which they are the mercenary vindicators. A glorious civilization, indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over! [3]

Throughout this story, Marx recounts the rise and fall of the commune simultaneously from the point of view of the victors and the defeated. The mode of narration swings from high tragedy to satire, effectively showing that the so-called forces of civilization were actually those of bloodthirsty barbarism. His rhetoric is self-conscious, but never mannered. Even some of the overblown figures seem to work in this account, as when he uses fiery language to describe the use of fire as a strategy by unarmed combatants defending their neighborhoods.

Marx’s story of revolution is difficult reading in many ways—the intensity of rhetoric, the attention to detail, the commitment to tragedy then satire as narrative genres. It is also difficult because it is embedded in the unfolding moment in which it was written and not privy to the wisdom of historical hindsight. And yet, for all the frantic, occasional quality of Marx’s story, it remains timely—the kind of thing we all need to be reading right now if we seek to understand the way modern states mobilize violence against their own people.

More important for our purposes here, Marx did not wait. He submitted his account to the General Council of the International on May 30, 1871. That is, two days after the Commune was defeated, while the streets of Paris were still littered with smoldering bodies. Far from being a detailed analysis, it remains a powerful and complex literary call to arms. Far from taking Marx away from laboring as an activist intellectual, his story serves as living, breathing monument to solidarity. In other words, Marx’s example suggests that it may never be too soon to tell the story of revolution, and there is no reason to wait.

All of this is to say that the process of narrating revolution is not secondary to the meaning of revolutionary events. This fact is already well known by anyone reading these words. Indeed, from 25 January there has been an intense struggle over how to tell the story of the Egyptian Revolution. One can also visit the bookstores of Egypt to see this in action. In addition to dozens of works of analysis and reportage, there are countless literary memoirs, novels, short story collections, art books, diwans of poetry and graphic novels all of which take as their explicit subject the narrative of revolution. What this suggests is that the struggle over narrative does not wait for events to end, and it does not come secondary or after the fact. Revolution and its stories happen at the same time.

One of the great strengths of Egyptian activists has been the way they have been able to narrate the story of their revolution as they make it. Without stories of revolution, the events in Egypt would not be called by that name. And as it turns out, giving the name, capturing various events under a name both singular and definite—“the Revolution”—has mattered quite a bit, giving scale and scope to the chaos of a mass and variegated social uprising. The degree to which revolutionaries talk about their projects in a coherent way, the degree to which they can make their revolution coherent, rests on their ability to tell their own stories in the way they see fit. And so, while revolutions are not primarily textual, we can admit that stories, like cobblestones, are part of the Midan.

Revolution is My Name

For thinking about how the collective memory of revolution is being created right now, even as the revolution regains its steam, there is no better place to start than with Mona Prince’s remarkable memoir of the 25 January Uprising. Self-published (and largely self-distributed) by the author in 2012, Revolution is My Name (Ismi Thawra) tells the story of revolution as it unfolds over eighteen days. It is a literary memoir in the best sense of the word. By this, I mean that it expresses and reflects on, rather than documents a set of lived experiences. Moreover, it is not merely a story about the unfolding of a revolution as told by a participant who was there. Arguably, the more important story is about the character of the narrator developing as an evolving, complicated revolutionary.

“Evolving” and “complicated” are keywords insofar as they signal a basic tenet of modern humanism, namely that incompleteness and ambiguity are core to the experience of being human. This version of humanism is a source of strength in Prince’s account of revolutionary times. Her character and the characters around her struggle not just against an oppressive state, but also with the fact that they have no sacred texts to guide them. Lacking the confidence of righteousness or assured victory, Prince understands that humility and humor are even better. Hers is an improvised revolution, with nothing but a loose set of pragmatic, humanist precepts to follow: treat fellow Egyptians with respect; appeal to reason, not force; be generous when possible; understand that laughter bends swords. This brand of pragmatic humanism has been one of the core strengths of the Egyptian revolution all along. When ascendant, the revolution moves forward, inclusive, utopic, realist. When eclipsed, chaos ensues.

Though a strength in the Midan, this kind of humanism is also a vulnerability as Prince has come to experience in her own life. In recent weeks, a series of spurious charges have been made against her by Islamists at the campus where she teaches, Suez Canal University. Though the case is serious—and involves threats to Prince’s life—the charges themselves are ludicrous, the product of a wider effort on the part of empowered Islamists to clamp down on the kind of humanist discourse we see in her memoir. [4]. But odds are that Prince will endure and triumph. Already before the publication of Revolution is My Name, Prince was an dynamic author, translator and literary critic. With this memoir, Prince’s presence on the Egyptian scene is now firmly established. [5]

Like other published narratives of the January 25 uprising, Revolution is My Name struggles to decide where to begin: Does it begin with the story of Ben Ali’s overthrow in Tunis? With Muhammad BouAzizi’s immolation, or with the wave of self-immolations that soon followed in Egypt? Does it begin with the story of Khaled Sa‘id and the “We Are All Khaled Said Facebook Page” and the silent protests of the summer of 2010? With the fraudulent elections of Fall 2010? With the New Year’s Day bombing of the church in Alexandria? With so many possible sparks, one might conclude that the revolution was bound to happen, but that is not Prince’s point at all. Rather she leaves the question of roots and causes wide open in order to capture a sense of uncertainty even amidst a preponderance of signs.

The opening pages of her memoir are a collage of rendered news items, cartoons, jokes, warnings and Facebook posts by friends, each offering insight and opinion, but not definitive judgment. In recounting Facebook invitations to protest on 25 January, Prince does something very interesting, as she poses the possibility of revolution as a set of questions that intensify over pages into a clear answer:

 
“Are we going to make a revolution on January 25? Who knows?”

“Will we revolt on January 25? Don’t know.”

“Revolution on January 25? It’s possible.”

“January 25, We are going to make a revolution!!!!!”

This prelude is an organic part of the story of revolution—it captures the uncertainty of the situation as she goes to the street to rebel. It captures too the risk of the moment—that revolutionaries might lose and suffer serious consequences. This sense of risk and uncertainty is one of the core, experiential truths of revolution she develops throughout the memoir. It is an especially delicate truth, and one usually lost in the process of creating collective memory.

One of the main plotlines of the memoir is the description of Prince’s initial hesitation to join in with protesters. Prince describes the moment of arriving at Shubra at 2PM on 25 January, and watching protesters. She writes, “A woman and girl rushed in to the middle of the group and began to enthusiastically chant the slogans. But I remained over to the side, watching.” Prince continues watching, standing by the cordon of Central Security Officers. One of policemen grabs her by the arm and tells her to join the protest, but she declines, saying, “I’m not going in.” Throughout the memoir, this interaction with the police—this crossing and re-crossing of lines—is a recurring motif. The police detain and hit the author, but she always insists on understanding the complexity of their position, Her enemy is, in the end, a human. Prince’s revolution is the harder kind, impervious to cheap dichotomies, with one eye fixed on the kind of utopia where all might meet as equals.

After standing on the sidelines with the police, Prince writes, “Maybe because moving around would be more fun than standing still, I join the group, not exactly with them, but next to them.” This begins a wonderful description of the author’s experience of negotiating her own feelings about the collective with whom she wants to march. When she arrives at Tahrir Square, this negotiation intensifies and develops, as she periodically loses herself in the first-person plural (“we”), and then retreats again to the singular (“I”). And this is one of the other central themes of the book: how does an individual navigate the revolutionary collective.

Prince’s revolution is anchored in details of the everyday, and this is no accident. Like the revolutionaries around her, her character is not extraordinary but just the opposite. These are revolutionaries who live ordinary lives in a thick social context. They have mothers and fathers and families who try to prevent them from protesting. They have jobs they have to go to. This is revolution imagined in lived reality, not revolution not as an escape from family life, the workplace or the neighborhood. This is revolution with and through those local affective ties and associations that make us who we are.

Similarly, the demands of Prince’s revolution—“Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”—are not abstract ideals. They are concrete and have to do with friendships, parents, neighbors, colleagues and so on. Admittedly, these ties make for complicated situations, like when Prince’s mother attempts to lock her inside their apartment, or when she agrees to stop by the pharmacist to pick up prescriptions for her father before going downtown to overthrow the state. Prince teaches us that making revolution is not just tiring, it is a pain the ass—and you have to be a pain in the ass to do it.

Media analysis of this week’s revolutionary crowds will focus on them largely as mass phenomena. We should expect metaphors of fire, oceans, rain, rivers, forests and wind in the descriptions of these historic protests. [6] Commentators will also continue to speak of “the people” and its demands as if that category was a  naturally occurring phenomenon. [7] Prince’s memoir reminds us of something very different, namely that revolutionary crowds are composed of individuals. They are made and there is nothing natural about them. The individuals who protest may take brave risks for ideals they believe in, but they are not actors in the abstract, nor are their struggles about ideas in the abstract. Prince asks us to imagine revolutionary freedom not through abstraction, but in terms of recognizable relationships, in places already inhabited, in families that already exist. That Prince imagines all this possibility, and reflects on it so calmly and frantically at the same time bodes well for the revolution.

These then are some of the assorted lessons of Revolution is my Name: there is no guarantee of success, but that should not stop you; for revolution to be real, it must be rooted in the particulars of your ordinary life; you should not attempt revolution if you are not interested in also working on your own character as a person; revolution entails rebellion against your family as much as it does against the state. And, for all those wondering about violence—Prince’s narrative is quite clear: it is about non-violent protest.

The subject of violence brings us to what is perhaps the most jarring aspect of reading Prince’s memoir in the context of the 30 June protests. In Prince’s revolution, women protest side by side with men, and the fact is relatively unremarkable in her account. Yet in the months the followed the 25 January Uprising, that possibility of women’s participation could no longer be taken for granted. Protest events in Egypt have since become a site of systematic and brutal sexual violence against women. Despite valiant and creative efforts to contest it, this sexual violence continues to the present. The sustained thought and organization behind this strategy of violence suggests that counter-revolutionary groups understand an important truth about the revolution, namely that it cannot continue without the participation of women activists such as Prince.

Prince’s memoir ends on February 11, in a carnival celebration of Mubarak’s ousting. The author, who earlier hesitates to chant even those slogans she believed in, now joins in a collective song and dance in which it is impossible to tell the audience from the singer from the song, the dancer from the dance. It is fitting that she ends the memoir with lyrics from Souad Hosni, “Life’s color has become pink. Pink, pink, pink, pink.” The song ties together the event in a way that captures joy and sadness. Joy because of the words and melody and the feeling of singing as a collective. Sadness, because of its association with the tragic, naïve beauty of the actress who once sang those words. And so, we come back to the two senses of revolution: on the one hand, the promise of a definitive break with the past; on the other, the intimation that we are returning to a moment we have experienced before.  

 

 

1. Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 270-274.

2. Ahdaf Soueif, "In Times of Crisis, Fiction Has to Take a Back Seat," The Guardian (August 17, 2012).

3. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, in The First International and After: Political Writings, Volume 3 (London: Verso, 2010), 226.

4. On Prince’s case, see Rana Muhammad Taha, “Suez Canal University Criticised for Not Protecting Professor," Egypt Daily News (May 16, 2013). And the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Statement on Mona Prince (April 30, 2013).

5. Samia Mehrez has produced a gripping translation of the text in English. An excerpt may be found at the Cairo Review.

6. On the metaphors of crowds and contentious gatherings, see Elias Canetti’s monumental work, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1984), 75-90.

7. On the construction of “the people” in the context of Egyptian street politics, see Sherif Younis’ groundbreaking study, Nida’ al-sha‘b: tarikh naqdi li-l-idiyulujiyya al-Nasriyya (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2012).


This article was published in collaboration with Jadaliyya. The original article can be viewed here

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Comments

  • Sune Haugbolle

    Fabulous review and text. Kudos.

 

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