Egypt indoors, some days ago

February 14, 2011

Egypt Indoors
Images of Egyptians demonstrating on Cairo street, images of Egyptians praying on Cairo streets, local and international media picking up on the prayers image put on a quasi-loop and immediately subtitling it based on a political potential they read in it. The first question that came to my mind: Do we know anymore the differences between being a Muslim, and being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? Why do people seem to think that every person who was praying on streets since the eruption of the January 2011 revolution is part of some politicized Islamic party? What about Christians who prayed publicly when they needed to? Are they part of the Muslim Brotherhood as well? Or are they some Christian Brotherhood perhaps? What about those who are secular, and didn’t pray, are they part of the Secular Brotherhood? Can’t people pray in public anymore without being tagged as a “Political Extremist Dangerous” party? I think this has very little to do with the gesture of praying, especially in a country known very well for a public expression of religiosity. What is it then?

Perhaps this has more to do with the nature of Public Space in Egypt, rather than with praying and rather than with a particular religious practice. Public space has become very difficult towards hosting personal expression in Egypt. Artistic practices are close to absent within public space in Egypt, except for certain commissioned monuments usually of a nationalist content. Street performances, that were part of the Egyptian performative heritage: Karakooz, Story-telling, Ghawazi belly dancers in Moulids, has almost disappeared. Public space also seems to be hostile towards organized or improvized self-expression. For example political expression (demonstrating), as a form of self-expression, is frowned upon by the baton of Riot police.
Peddlers though seem to still survive more than others on streets, even though arresting street peddlers and confiscating what they have is a daily scene on Egyptian streets, exercised with the pretense of constructing a more civilized urban space.

It seems now though that public space in Egypt – this currently politically active and politicized Egypt- is becoming too tight to host a personal expression addressing the Absolute; praying. On the sight of a large group of people praying during the revolution days (a scene that happens five times a day) conclusions are being drawn by the international media as well as by local Egyptian media that this is the conservative and politicized side of Islam. Maybe it is not the prayer that is politicized (and we cannot ignore how politicized Islam itself as a practice and the image of Islam is becoming internationally, and even more and more so on Egyptian media part of their anti-revolution campaign). It is the public space itself that has become politicized, policed and regulated. It has been for a while. But with the eruption of millions of voices, for the first time in Egyptian modern history a revolution as massive as this is, public space became suddenly activated very differently.

Before the revolution started, I wondered what was left to do in the public Egyptian space except to transport oneself from one place to another. We couldn’t socialize, demonstrate, sing, dance, perform, pray… Public space has become a space of displacement, constantly inhabited but constantly abandoned. It has become constantly full but constantly empty and impersonal, constantly trying to excrete citizens who stepped into it towards some other place.

I wondered then what’s left out of a given land, out of a country, and I still wonder about when and how did Egyptians come to terms with the fact that Egypt is almost an indoors area, and that it is acceptable to have no active presence in the public urban space. Egypt then seems to happen at home. Pray at home, talk about how unhappy you are at home, talk about corruption and about freedom at home, hope for a political change at home, show physical intimacy at home. But don’t go out on streets, don’t pray collectively in front of western cameras, don’t hold hands in public, and surely don’t talk about politics loudly in front of local cameras if you are walking in a large group, it is too political for this big void of displacement; the so-called Egyptian public space.


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