Revolutionary Performances

April 24, 2011

This text was created on the evening between the night of 2nd February and dawn of 3rd February 2011, Cairo, during the peak of demonstrations that lead to the Egyptian Revolution of the 21st Century…

Revolutionary Performances- by Adham Hafez
While the title of this article indicates that it has to do with performances and revolutions, it does not discuss performances that were intended for orthodox modes of presenting or understanding performing or performance art. It also does not deal with performances taking place within theatre contexts, and it does not deal with propagandist performances that were politically scripted to generate a particular mass national sense of identity or other, the way the 1960’s in Egypt for example would have exemplified such a practice.

January 2011, a glorious and momentous revolution in Egypt erupts. The unpremeditated revolution was a decentralized vivid fabric that was self-activated (and due to a particular socio-political and demographic realities) to respond to another stale and stagnant fabric; a corrupt ruling regime. The previous Egyptian regime (pre-January 2011) was a fabric that was very rich in performative content and strategies. It operated through the performativity of particular class qualities, Arabist and Nationalist qualities and a mesh of other performative aspects that manipulate and suspend the better judgment of the Egyptian layman, or so it seemed to be the case until the revolution erupted. From the first day of the revolution’s unfolding, and with how the regime fought to stay potent, and with how the demonstrating nation fought back to end its stagnant hegemony, the battle took place within performance and performative things.

One very dark evening, the bridge across the street from where I write, was populated by the self-alleged “Pro-Mubarak” supporters. At a certain hour the organized choreographed crowd descended from the bridge, and took metal rods and banged on the wall that separates between Abdelmoneim Riad Square (where the Egyptian Museum is situated) and one of the side streets that could lead into the heart of downtown, and hence into Tahrir square, where the anti-Mubarak sit-ins was taking place. The banging was rhythmic and was continuous (and as you may hear in the audio-file linked into this article) for hours and hours until dawn. At the same time, gunshots and explosions were heard, coming from the direction of those self-declared “Pro-Mubarak” supporters (according to what they were chanting of vulgar insults to the anti-Mubarak demonstrators). If I were to take an unemotional distance from the event and address it for its performative content: it was a very tight dramaturgy of sound and of actions. But, I was embedded in the fearfulness and threatening thoughts it offered at first.

The space was invaded and inhabited by their sound. Their presence was seated beyond where they stood, through the use of the continuously rhythmic banging on the wall, and through their gunshots and explosives. The space indoors was no longer protected. They were invisibly inside every room and every aural environment within a large circle from where their center was. Where is the exit, and how could one regain power and space?
The same question was a very recurrent question: How could one step out of this corrupt regime and its hegemony, and how could one regain (reappropriate) space again? Space for expression, the actual physical urban space, the streets, the square, the country… How could we exit hegemony and actively re-inhabit our own country when we are under this immense aggression.

One of the answers that the streets gave to this question was: Performance. The performative content and strategies of the fallen regime were very legible to every Egyptian demonstrator (and possibly read beyond this temporary self-organized community of demonstrators). A man carrying a large Agenda and a slogan on his T-shirt saying “I have an Agenda, come an arrest me” was the performative response to the dramaturgical insertion of the word “agenda” in every attack from the regime on the revolution. A woman handcuffed herself and painted her face with the colours of the flag of Egypt was the performative (almost exorcist) proposition to activate a conceptual and an emotional understanding of how the country was under siege by the ruling party. The performative responses were endless, from non-actors and from non-theatre goers even, one may dare say. It was this that we had in our hands. We are faced by speeches that say “My dear children” and speeches that say “I fight on your behalf”, and it all resides in a performative non-operative realm. We are faced by organized groups of thugs who spread terror through staged nightly performances of continuous banging on walls, shooting blanks at balconies and invading the private sonic spaces of homes each night.

”How could I step out of this? How can I sleep tonight? How can I ignore the sound of bullets, rhythmic war drum banging on the walls downstairs? How can I regain my own home and exorcise it out of those night demons?” The answer was “performance”. With a conceptual redefinition of their performance, I experience the sound as a dramaturgical tool for a horror performance (which was the case). I also decided that they are performative, and are not operative. I decided to dance to the sounds of bullets and rhythmic monotonous metallic banging, and in that sense I make those sounds operative (and not performing what they want those sounds to perform) in the way I select. I danced at home, with friends who were hiding here, reappropriating this sound as a soundtrack to our dancing and not as a soundtrack to a horrific dark performance of the fallen regime thugs, or better to say actors, in that case.

Next morning, on Tahrir square, coincidentally, object-based performances took the stage, redefining items from the “Camels Battle” as museum relics exhibited in the central garden, and redefining any Falafel sandwich as the Kentucky bribe that the national media spoke of. Next morning, and every day that followed, the performances were the constant response, taking back the space that we were deprived of, exorcising ourselves from terror and from control, and dismantling the dysfunctional regime by short-circuiting its performative strategies and firing it back at the enemies of rights.


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