Bahhibbik, ya bladi! – I Love You, My Homeland
Patriotism and Graffiti after the Arab Spring
In the light of July's mass demonstrations against what was – this time – a democratically-elected Egyptian president (Mohammed Morsi), and which led to a military coup that some people see as a counter-revolution by Mubarak's former elite, it seems entirely justifiable to ask whether the Egyptian 'revolution' of 2011 actually produced anything truly revolutionary. One answer to this question could be, 'Yes: street art.'
The emancipation of thought
The Egyptian street art phenomenon reflects the fundamental social change that observers of the Arab Spring viewed as the real triumph of the uprisings, even before Mubarak stepped down. At the heart of this change is an emancipation of thought. The revolution as a mental liberation from oppression also finds expression in a new artistic freedom. In this context, art and freedom are mutually dependent. On the one hand, the partially-won freedom strengthens art, because creative expression is suddenly possible at a variety of levels; on the other, art strengthens freedom because it stimulates a critical awareness in the beholder. Because street art is created and is visible in the public sphere, the number of people who get to see it is correspondingly high, which means it is predestined to be an extremely potent means of protest. This makes the question of its content an extremely interesting one.
If one agrees with the Lebanese sociologist Sari Hanafi, one would expect most of this street art to be nationalist in character. Hanafi assumes that there is a new political subjectivity in the Middle East. He feels that the young activists have become the source of a widespread sense of a common bond for all regime opponents, without raising any particularistic claims. According to Hanafi, they represent nothing less than the nation – which means that religious slogans have lost their effectiveness. According to Hanafi's theory, religion is a particular identity, which means that it is not suitable for forging a pan-national community. Consequently, its role in street art must also be marginal. Against the backdrop of the explicit religiousness of Egyptian society, this would be a surprising conclusion.
But what exactly is 'artivism'? A street art theme from Cairo best explains the phenomenon. A young man, innocuously dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, stands poised in front of a canvas, a paint palette in his left hand, a paint-drenched brush in his right. From behind the canvas, a powerful, giant-like creature in uniform – half human, half monster – rises up and prepares to strike the artist with an oversized thorny cudgel. The poem that goes with it has a powerful message:
'Oh regime, how can you fear the brush and the pen. You were unjust and kicked those who had suffered injustice; if you were honest, you would not fear those who draw. The best thing you can do now is to wage a war on the walls, to demonstrate your power over paintbrush and paint. Inside, you are a coward; you could never recreate what has been destroyed.'
The poem confirms that the 'artivists' in Egypt are aware of their power: they can damage the regime, which is why the regime is resisting them, if necessary with the use of arms. Just like all political resistance, the resistance through art – 'artivism' – will be crushed. What makes this new phenomenon so fascinating is the sheer impossibility of differentiating between the artists and the activists. After all, both enter into a fruitful symbiosis: political activism has found in art an effective tool for achieving its aims, while the political situation provides a rich emotional well from which art can draw.
Explosion of creativity
But what kind of messages are being transmitted here? What kind of symbols are being used? A brief survey of graffiti reveals three main categories: patriotic, nationalist symbols; Pharaonic, ancient Egyptian symbols; and Islamic religious symbols. It is instantly obvious that the patriotic, nationalist symbols dominate. All modern symbols of Egyptian nationalism fall into this category: the Egyptian national flag, which comprises three horizontal stripes in red, white, and black with the eagle of Saladin in the middle; the Egyptian eagle; the lion; the national colours themselves; portraits of national icons such as the world-famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1904–1975), who is loved and respected throughout the Arab world; as well as avowals of patriotism and love of one's homeland.
Of the roughly 470 photos of graffiti in Sherif Boraies' Wall Talk – Graffiti of the Egyptian Revolution, more than three quarters (i.e. the vast majority) feature nationalist symbols. Regardless of the actual subject matter, the colours of the Egyptian flag appear most frequently. The purpose of restricting colour to red, white and black in this way is to show that all issues highlighted in the images – regardless of what they represent – are a matter for the nation. Unlike the colours of the national flag, the symbol of the eagle is ambivalent and its use in graffiti is sometimes ambiguous: in most cases, the eagle is used to symbolise the Egyptian nation, which is in the process of liberating itself. In other words, it has positive connotations with which the artists identify. One example of this is the recurring image of the bird's triumphant liberation from chains or from a cage. The image of the eagle enthroned above the phrase miṣr tastaṭīʿ aṭ-ṭayarān ('Egypt can fly') is another theme with similarly positive connotations. The same can be said of the image of a human fist raised in defiance and with eagle's wings sprouting from each side. In fact, the combination of fists and eagles is in itself highly popular.
The eagle is always used as a symbol of strength, will-power, and superiority. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is also used in conjunction with the remembrance of 'martyrs' who lost their lives in the revolution; paying homage to them goes hand in hand with the emphasis on strength and superiority. In this way, the martyrs themselves are associated with the eagle, and the eagle with the nation or its struggle for liberation. One image calls on the eagle to beware of impending danger: in this case, the eagle is framed by the words iḏā raʾayta anyāba l-laiṯi bārizatan fa-lā taẓunnanna l-laiṭa yabtasimu ('If you see the flash of a lion's fangs, don't be fooled into thinking he is smiling'). In this case, the eagle stands for the nation and the lion for the regime.
Although the eagle is generally used as a positive symbol, isolated graffiti images use it to symbolise the state or the regime, against which resistance is forming. One example of this is an image that shows the eagle upside down beneath the call to isqāṭ an-niẓām! ('topple the regime!'). The rapid descent of the eagle here symbolises the desired decline of the regime.
The Egyptian flag
In order to indicate that a particular graffiti theme is of national relevance, many feature the Egyptian flag in the background. One example of this is the famous series of portraits ʿuyūn al-ḥurrīya ('The Eyes of Freedom') by ʿAmmār Abū Bakr, which show numerous revolutionaries who lost their sight during the demonstrations, wearing blindfolds. They are all lined up beside one another in front of an extended Egyptian flag. In another piece of graffiti, a lion with an eye-patch is depicted in front of the national flag, with the invocation to stay strong: ḥattā lau ḫisir ʿīnī litnīn bardu ismu ʾasad: ʿāšat ʾusūdu miṣr! ('And were he blind in both eyes he would still be a lion. Long live the Lions of Egypt!') As an independent, Egyptian symbol, the lion is associated with strength, cleverness, and superiority. This theme also points to the fact that the lion, which here represents the Egyptian nation, loses nothing of its superior, lion-like nature and remains indomitable in spite of major setbacks.
The countless graffiti slogans that evoke national pride, such as baḥibbik ya˽blādī ('I love you, my homeland'); lau lam akun miṣrīyan la-wadidtu ʾan akūna miṣrīyan ('If I weren't already an Egyptian, I would want to be one'); miṣrī wa- ftiḫir ('Egyptian and proud') or irfaʿ raʾsaka fauq ʾanta miṣrī ('Hold your head high, you are an Egyptian') fit the Egyptians' self-image. The face of Umm Kulthum also belongs in the category 'national pride'. Graffiti artist Keizer makes a dig at the regime by spraying the words al-fann miš ḥarām ('Art is not a sin') alongside the portrait of Umm Kulthum. The use of the religious category ḥarām is worth noting; it establishes a link between the use of religious arguments and the restrictions placed on art. This theme reminds the beholder that an icon like Umm Kulthum, of whom all Egyptians are enormously proud, can only rise to the top if there is freedom for the arts. As the examples show, nationalist symbols are largely viewed positively by Egyptian artists, who use them to emphasise their own message. By absorbing nationalist symbols in this way, 'artivism' is accusing the state of having positioned itself outside the nation. In other words, the citizens of Egypt obviously identify strongly with their nation, but not with the state or the state authority. The combination of both, nation and state – i.e. the Egyptian nation state – would appear to be brittle. The graffiti clearly illustrates that nationalist symbols are used not only to strengthen an inner bond between the people, but also to line them up in opposition to an assumed external force, the regime. In this way, the collective Egyptian identity and, therefore, the nation are being built up as the basis of the fight against the unjust regime. This testimony to unity is also a main feature of a graffito in which the Arab letter mīm is the first and linking letter of the terms muslim (Muslim), masīḥī (Christian), muwāṭin (citizen), and miṣrī (Egyptian).
The play on themes drawn from the golden age of ancient Egypt is also very popular in Egyptian street art. Such themes fall into the Pharaonic, Ancient Egyptian category of symbols. Such references to a glorious bygone age are typical of a desire to strengthen nationalist sentiment. In a country like Egypt in particular, which looks back on an ancient civilisation that left its mark on the history of humanity, symbols from this era really lend themselves to the formation of collective identities through art. ʿAlāʾ ʿAwaḍ is the most famous artist to use Pharaonic symbols in his work. As a successful painter whose works are regularly exhibited in Cairo's galleries, he followed the call of the revolution onto the street in 2011. He has been painting on walls instead of canvases ever since. His most famous mural is a burial scene in Muḥammad Maḥmūd Street. It shows women dressed in the ancient Egyptian style mourning the loss of their relatives, stretching their arms out to touch a sarcophagus out of which the souls of the deceased rise up towards a floating muse. The scene symbolises the grief felt for the young people killed in a football massacre in Port Said in early 2012, a tragedy that is viewed in the political discourse of the country as a counterrevolutionary act by the old regime. The painting not only imitates ancient Egyptian styles of painting, it also features elements of Pharaonic mourning that are still widespread in Upper Egypt. In general, ʿAwaḍ uses ancient Egyptian symbolism to illustrate superiority and wisdom as a means of subtly discrediting the policies of the regime. This is particularly evident in his painting The Hostesses, a reaction to a mural painted by Abū Bakr in which the artist portrayed the military council as a metre-long snake with three oversized generals' heads. The portrayal of the military council as an oversized snake is self-explanatory. ʿAwaḍ added to the image in a most interesting way: next to the heads of the snake, he painted seven Pharaonic hostesses bending towards the monster in a gesture full of friendliness and hospitality. This feminine gesture of welcome symbolises the centuries-old wisdom of Egyptian women, and is in stark contrast to the falsity of the snake. The message here is superiority through wisdom. The use of hieroglyphics – yet more typical elements borrowed from the golden Pharaonic age and used in contemporary Egyptian graffiti – to the left of the women also underlines the reference to the ancient Egyptian past. Above all, these references to the age of Egypt's pharaohs, an era that is long gone, are used to build up a sense of national pride by reflecting on the past. This is confirmed by the combination of ancient Egyptian death masks and modern V-for-Vendetta masks in another graffito. The rhyming slogan that goes with it runs: sauriti˽l-aḥfād ha-traggaʿi˽l-amgād ('The revolution of our grandchildren will restore our past glory'). In other words, the revolution is seen as an opportunity to bring the country back to past form and strength, two characteristics associated with the Age of the Pharaohs. With a view to bolstering their strength, the citizens are understandably guided by episodes from their own national past that fill them with pride. The famous phrase maṣr ummi˽d-dunyā ('Egypt is the mother of the world') is just as popular a symbol as the Pyramids. But there is a certain amount of ambivalence in the use of ancient Egyptian symbolism: for example, a widely-used stencil shows the face of President Morsi in Tutankhamun's death mask, above the word bāṭil ('invalid'). Because Pharaohs went down in history as tyrannical autocrats, and despite the pride in the civilisational achievements of the ancient Egyptians, the term 'Pharaoh' has established itself in modern-day Egypt as a derogatory word for dictators. The graffiti theme described above reflects this very statement: it puts Morsi on a par with Tutankhamun, and accuses him of being a dictatorial autocrat.
Another famous image, on the other hand, features as its ancient Egyptian element Nefertiti, with a grim expression on her beautiful face, disappearing behind a gas mask. Nefertiti has positive connotations: she stands for the Egyptian nation. She is, as it were, forced to hide her beauty behind a gas mask in order to secure her survival. This image symbolises the threat to the beauty (and femininity) of Egypt posed by the violence of the repressive authorities. What these few examples illustrate is that the purpose of using ancient Egyptian symbols is to criticise the regime, underpinned by a strengthening of national pride. The subtext describes the identification of the citizens with their own country and, therefore, the unity of all Egyptians under the mantle of a large nation with a glorious past.
Unity through revolution
It is clear that religious symbolism is being deployed in no small measure on behalf of the revolutionary cause. It is important to note here, however, that the purpose of the work of art in this case remains entirely political. (Attempts by groups of Salafists to exploit the graffiti euphoria for religious propaganda purposes by creating Islamic folkloristic images were not a success: they lacked the wit and originality so typical of graffiti.) Religious symbols are, therefore, used in graffiti art to add a punchline to political messages. Take, for example, the mythological creature known as the buraq. According to Islamic tradition, the buraq was the steed on which the Prophet Mohammed rode to Heaven. As an Islamic symbol of liberation and freedom, it is used in much of the graffiti painted by the artists ʿAwaḍ and Abū Bakr. A mythological symbol that is actually associated with a religious story is used as a freedom icon of the revolution in political art. In other words, the revolution is subtly transformed into a religious matter in the graffiti.
The clearest illustration of this is the fact that the demonstrators who lost their lives as a result of police violence were given the name 'martyr', a term that now has considerable Islamic religious overtones, even though its original meaning was not purely religious. All stencil portraits of those who were killed feature the word šahīd (martyr) and the name of the deceased. Most of the 'martyr' images have angels' wings, another religious symbol. Muḥammad Maḥmūd Street in central Cairo, which is home to a large number of these martyr portraits, now resembles a religious place of worship.
With reference to the religious symbols included in graffiti, the use of the Koran also stands out. On the one hand, verses from the Koran that could be read as supporting the revolution are sprayed on walls. A quote that is often used in conjunction with the martyrs is an extract from sura 14, verse 42: 'And never think that Allah is unaware of what the wrongdoers do.' The use of this verse should be understood as an indirect threat to the powers that be. Those in power are being cast as the 'wrongdoers', and the violence used against numerous demonstrators is what they have done. Allah will not allow their deeds to go unpunished. In an oversized graffito in the same quarter of the city, the threat directed at the rulers is more explicit. Quoting sura 33, verses 67–68, divine punishment is called for: 'And they will say, "Our Lord, indeed we obeyed our masters and our dignitaries, and they led us astray from the [right] path. Our Lord, give them double the punishment and curse them with a great curse."'
New use for calligraphy
In addition to quoting actual verses from the Koran, the use of a calligraphy such as the one used for Koranic calligraphy (including careful decoration with vocalisation points and decorative characters) is a noteworthy trick used by the 'artivists'. Some messages such as the slogan that shaped the revolution, Kullunā Ḫālid Saʿīd ('We are all Khalid Said') are written in a style of calligraphy that is reminiscent of the Koran. This automatically gives the impression of a verse taken directly from the Koran. The same also applies to the message of rejection directed at the rulers, lā taṣāluḥ ('No reconciliation'), and the colourful sign maidān aš-šuhadāʾ ('Martyrs' Square') close to Tahrir Square. In this way, worldly slogans are made to resemble the Word of God. As far as the use of religious symbolism is concerned, the approach adopted by the 'artivists' is clever: although the revolution itself is not portrayed as a religious battle, which would run contrary to the demonstrators' secular political objectives, by calling the victims martyrs and by using Koranic verses and calligraphy, the secular revolution is shown to be in God's spirit. In this way, God is made an accomplice of the revolutionaries; their secular concern is given religious legitimation. If art is to be believed, the revolution has both the nation and religion on its side.
To conclude, it is safe to say that art in (post-)revolutionary Egypt has become a popular means of expression and protest. The theory that nationalist and community-forging messages are key to this development is confirmed by Egyptian graffiti. The phenomenon of a 'new patriotism' described by sociologist Mohammed Bamyeh, i.e. a popular atmosphere without political leaders that expresses itself primarily in a feeling of collective similarity, is also evident in the graffiti. Patriotism and a sense of community are the central themes of Egyptian subcultural art. They are defiantly held up in the face of the threat that Egypt might just fall apart. Accordingly, the political fight for the future of the state in contemporary Egypt is linked to a profound dispute about the divided foundations of the nation. It is as if the citizens of Egypt want to at least make sure that their collective identity is stable in the face of the political and economic instability of the country, in order to counteract its potential disintegration. In view of the current battles between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood about the legitimacy of Morsi's government, this concern is certainly highly relevant.
In a different way than one might expect, however, religion or religious symbols do indeed play a role, albeit a subordinate one. Here and there, religion is used to underpin messages, which are mostly patriotic and nationalist in nature. To put it another way, religion is generally used as a theme whenever the graffiti artists wish to show that religion cannot be allowed to be an issue when it comes to the unity and the equality of people. However, as we have seen, direct criticism of the form of government, for example, is also expressed in religious terms. This points to the fact that the Islamic religion remains hugely significant to the Egyptian identity. In Egypt's more recent history, no ruler – not Nasser, not Sadat, not Mubarak – could afford not to rhetorically line his policies with Islamic references. It is possible that the same now goes for the revolutionary youths and the messages conveyed by their graffiti art.
studied political science, Islamic Studies, and public law in Münster, Cairo, and Geneva. She is currently working as an academic in the Faculty of Oriental Philology and Islamic Studies at the University of Erlangen.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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