Photo by Michael Kennedy.

Michael: Let’s start with a basic question: how did all of this affect you? Were you inspired? Afraid? Did any of it make you question things you hadn’t questioned before?

Karem: For the first time in my life, I can believe that massive numbers of people are capable of suddenly collaborating in their own self-interest. I can believe that they can picture a common goal, collectively imagine the outcome of its achievement and fight till death until it is achieved. I can believe this even though there were so many who doubted Hosni Mubarak could be toppled, including those who participated in the protests. The question to ask of oneself in these urgent moments is: Am I acting in my own interest? Have I discovered how to act in my own interest? Individual people have found countless ways to serve the goals of the revolution, making themselves useful in a manner that serves the collective interest, which is each person’s own interest; you have to discover this usefulness in conference with yourself, which is actually connected to an array of other people.

I am struck by how the authority of the collective has persisted, in Midan al-Tahrir and beyond, despite numerous attempts to undermine that authority. It’s an anti-dogmatic authority. But it’s also interesting to me how revolutionary duty seems to recall religious duty. “How do you spend your time; are you working for your own salvation?” What seems difficult to talk about in secular language is the spirit of the revolution and what it has made possible in terms of belief. What can the secular do with emotion that overwhelms categorization?

Michael: We spoke on the phone shortly after those spectacular scenes were broadcasted from Kobri-i-Nil in which thousands of demonstrators prostrated in prayer while rows of riot police assaulted them. Those scenes have circulated around the world, well after the first 18 days of the revolution. Yet, at least in U.S. media coverage, these scenes remained strangely silent, even as they were shown. They were offered as scenes of political protest more than public acts of piety, suggesting the two cannot be thought together. By way of comparison, I dug up this video from the marches in Selma, Alabama led by Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965 with instructions:

1) Think about the scene on Kobri-i-Nil on Jan. 28 where the demonstrators were praying and being hosed by the police.

2) Now imagine how they might be narrated through this man’s voice.

Karem: The man’s voice in the second video is grainy, or maybe I’m confusing the image and the voice. It was a made-for-television voice of the day: solemn, respectful, authoritative yet earnest. His voice is a conduit for the reporting of events that mix only vaguely with their emotional content. There may be a tone of pride. His brassy gusto assures viewers a sense of objective transcription. And the people themselves appear to kneel in a manner that accords with the voice; there is an elegant reserve of emotion. The line “In Selma, there is a lesson to be learned” grants the march legitimacy, but is this in a language of the people?

We have seen footage of Egypt’s Jan. 28th bridge fight included again and again in montage videos commemorating the revolution. These videos are set to music that ranges from the soulful to the rebellious, from slow ballads to animated hip-hop. Comparing the video of protests in solidarity with the people of Selma, Alabama with those of Egypt’s Jan. 28th bridge fight, I wonder how the participants would have narrated the protests, the march and the prayer differently? What music would they have used to animate different scenes? What would they have juxtaposed and lingered upon? And if the participants had created the video, how would viewers have more readily understood that these participants were actualizing the impossible?

In both cases, a communion with God demonstrates subservience to a higher authority — one that knows justice. The video of the Selma protest is amazing because of the event it captures, but it’s easy for us to make this call today. We can see with presumed clarity from a position of historical distance – distance made obvious by the voice, the clothes, the black and white film. It is much harder to see oneself in the present as a figure of history among countless others. In spite of our conditions of universal time, we get caught up in the seemingly unique quality of everyday life and are persuaded to forget a historical view of human experience. For a moment to resonate today, to catch and inspire, it has to overcome everyday norms of signification. This includes spatially totalizing signification, such as in the Smart Village.

Spreading revolutionary spirit is frustrated by immanent readings and truth made by surfaces – those of bodies and buildings. In contrast, viewers of revolutionary montage look for the remarkable. A million-person protest in Midan al-Tahrir brings to life a righteous fantasy – maybe an activist’s wildest dream – though it was never actually dreamt as such by anyone. To watch these videos is to watch something once beyond imagination unfold as a radically re-constitutive reality. Everyday life lacks momentum, but the media and video clips disrupt the time of ordinary life by insisting on an alternative order of recognition. An order built upon anticipating admiration. Waiting for beauty, expecting righteous love. It means forgoing an immanent reading of everyday life.

A video of a miraculous birth posted in a tweet by @kasinof on March 31 speaks to the alternative signification valorized by those who are ready for the miraculous: “@kasinof: according to this Yemen man, this goat was born with the word ‘irhal’ written on its head…” The Arabic word ارحل , meaning in English to “leave,” is of course directed at the dictators of the Arab world. Many feel this is a time of miracles, but revolution does not require a “religious” response. Those who cried when Mubarak stepped down did not necessarily resort to a coded, religious frame of reference. They reacted in ways that they themselves were surprised by. For others, a desacralization of power by cutting off the king’s head awakens a spirit that can only be thought of in terms of religious experience. It is that powerful.

Michael: We talked a lot about how people interacted with tanks on the ground, how the machines and their soldiers became a sort of novel occasion for family photographs. The revolution needn’t qualify as a war – to recall Walter Benjamin’s words on aesthetics and war – or war as the outcome of an aestheticization of politics. Do you think these scenes might be the product of a process that started well before January 25th?

Karem: One of the pictures on my desktop collected from links posted on Twitter and Facebook is of two girls posing on top of a tank. A third one is climbing up, lifting herself on board. A fourth girl is approaching the tank to possibly join them for photos and a fifth girl is taking a picture, which is being captured by someone behind her. Their clothing and demeanor suggests they are middle class. One girl up top holds her fingers aloft in a peace sign that is also a victory sign, smiling. When the photo was taken, many Egyptians still believed that the military had chosen to side with the people and support the revolution.

Photo taken by an unknown photographer in Midan al-Tahrir.

Compare this image of the girls with a single tank to the video footage that has also been included again and again in commemorative montage videos showing a standoff between a man and a tank-like security truck:

Hossam el-Hamalawy, among other bloggers and tweeters, picked up on how similar this scene is to that of the Chinese man who stood opposite a tank the morning after Tiananmen Square in 1989. (View Link to Video) Here, the tanks are cruel, unforgiving machines that appear to be automatic. But there are people inside. A protester stands before the tank as an army of one, challenging the tank and all its machinery but also staring through to the people inside. In the video taken in Egypt, the man does not surrender, even when high-pressure water cannons are unleashed upon him. Then he is joined by others.

Michael: It’s baffling how, in scenes of confrontation with an urban population, the tank is a machine that carries the threat of death; and, moments of embrace (in the same streets, with the same population) they come to represent protection, even a familial relation with the crowd. A child set atop the barrel of a tank is almost too cliché to be thought (or photographed) with nuance. I tried to get at some of this in the few days I spent in Cairo after Mubarak resigned. What do you make of these?

Karem: The videos and photographs show that the tanks can convey radically different symbolism. They can represent the army as unthinking enemy or as guardian of the revolution; they’re a symbol of revolutionary victory and of a revolutionary break from ordinary time. Up close, the materiality of the tank does more than convey symbolic meaning. Its actual shape, structure and size stand in relation to the body. Up close a person can become curious about the details of the metal, the treads, the platforms, the lethal tubes. In a victorious moment, a passerby realizes the tank is usually asleep, and it can be climbed. So the tank is a playground and a scenic backdrop. It’s big enough for both. Walter Benjamin quotes F.T. Marinetti, “War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks.” In this case, I think the tanks are more a novelty than something beautiful, and they wouldn’t remain so if they stayed around for years. People wanted to commemorate the revolution in their family photo albums. And I think they also wanted to assert command over the tanks — to say that the tanks (and therefore the military) are subject to the people. The photo of the girls on the tank manifests the desire for what Benjamin in his Critique of Violence alludes to as the popular appropriation of the means of violence. The girls express this desire to appropriate the means of violence with beaming smiles.

Photo by Michael Kennedy of children with a tank near Midan al-Tahrir.

Photo by Michael Kennedy of an area beside the Egyptian Museum, near Midan al-Tahrir.

Michael: Revolutions always leave in their wake monuments, those permanent fixtures in public space that come to mark the limits of what is, and what is not “the revolution.” But that takes time. For the moment, it seems celebration and commemoration collapse through proliferating street performances of all kinds. What do you think of what’s happening at present and the course it might take in the future?

Karem: Sounds and images are the best forms of commemoration at the moment and this has been ongoing. Video clips, photographs, collages, musical performances, graffiti and murals around city spaces have been produced at an inexhaustible rate. Bloggers and tweeps have been collecting online materials and ethnographers have conducted interviews with protesters. It’s an ongoing process. The permanence of a stone monument seems inappropriate, not least because the revolution is far from over. Statues would appear to single out a few people, and aside from those who have been killed, this makes no sense. The Choir Project has created a song called “Life of Tahrir” that manages to capture a sense of the collective – of a crowd with lots of voices chanting and speaking at once. The camera filming the song also conveys a sense of movement and multitude. The sounds of crowds seem vital to any commemoration of the revolution.

In terms of urban space, structures and stone objects are mere impediments to the collective. Maybe they are objects to climb upon, but the real thrust of a million-person protest is in the vast leveling property of the human scale, ranging from the height of children to the tallest Egyptians. The massive gatherings in Midan al-Tahrir signify the celebratory filling and completion of urban cavities, articulating the human scale in contrast to the massive buildings that frame this space. What is needed to commemorate this revolution are more public squares, throughout Egyptian cities and towns. If you look at the new, exclusive areas of New Cairo and 6th of October, on opposite ends of Cairo’s periphery, you see a noticeable absence of public squares. There is one place called Juhayna Square in 6th of October — named after a dairy company! It’s clear this is not a place designed for inclusive gatherings, not only because of the design of the square itself, which is filled with palm tress, but also due to its location opposite a planned shopping mall and the layout of the surrounding area. It is not meant to be a destination for everyone in Cairo as is Midan al-Tahrir. So purpose, routes, circulation of traffic, surrounding spaces and design all should to be taken into account in constructing additional public spaces.

Michael: A whole lot of young Egyptians who now self-identity as “the youth of January 25th” with a very genuine impulse to beautify and clean their city: sweeping streets, picking up cigarette butts, painting curbs and so on. Yet they are covering the graffiti with paint that almost never matches the exterior of the building it was on. And so you look at all the mismatched paint swatches on walls across Cairo and think: why cover the graffiti like this? If it needs to be removed, does it imply something about the “dirtiness” of the revolution? Why not preserve it?

Karem: The cleaning of Midan al-Tahrir actually began prior to Mubarak stepping down. There are video clips that show how protesters poured buckets of water onto the midan, using brooms to wash and clear the square of dirt. This was a symbolic extension of the sentiment conveyed by the protesters who joined hands to form a cordon around the Egyptian Museum. That sentiment was, this place is ours, it belongs to us, and you, Mubarak, must leave. In cleaning the square, they were claiming it as the property of the people. The love they expressed for this urban space was novel and remarkable when compared to the long-standing practice of dropping trash in the street. No one was removing graffiti before Mubarak stepped down.

I think it makes sense to critique a desire for cleanliness and purity, especially when taken to an extreme. Even before counter-revolutionary forces emerged post- Feb. 11, critical voices wondered who had infiltrated the ranks of voluntary cleaners around town. But it’s likely that these were middle class folks who were eager to apply their notions of civic beauty. I don’t think their aim was to forget, but for them, a certain notion of urban beauty took precedence over forms of commemoration that could be categorized as informal. I think preference for what looks formal vs. informal cannot be ascribed to differences in social class alone, since this division also exists amongst the privileged, in Egypt and elsewhere. The ongoing aesthetic battle seems to be about renegotiating notions of beauty and propriety in urban space. Murals around town have multiplied, and these have mostly been accepted as artistic forms by would be “cleansers.” (Note, one mural of a revolutionary martyr was painted over in late April. View link.)

The murals include one of Amr Abdullah Al-Beheiry, the first of hundreds of protesters to be detained by the military post-Feb. 11. It appeared days after his detention. Amr was rushed through a speedy military trial and sentenced to 5 years in prison, setting a precedent for the other detainees. New graffiti continues to appear, such as this poem posted in a metro station, tweeted by blogger and activist Sarah Carr on March 14 (View link to poem). It translates as: “My brother died in the square / and there is no punishment / until now – when – when – when / I don’t sleep – I don’t sleep.” Thankfully, photographs have captured a lot of the graffiti, but it’s not the same as encountering scrawled messages in urban space. Parts of Cairo may be subject to a negotiation over aesthetic value so long as a discourse of propriety poses protests and graffiti as markers of disorder. That which is categorized as informal or illegitimate remains vulnerable in this context, but I doubt the graffiti artists or the protesters will be silenced.

Published August 28, 2011.