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Barbara Yelin: Kairo© Barbara Yelin (Detail)

Jens Wiesner on "Travel sketches from Kairo""
Signs of Hope

Barbara Yelin was there in 2011 when the people of Egypt chased out President Mubarak and spread hope for democratic reform from Tahrir Square to the entire Arab world. Eight years later, the consequences of the demonstrations are grim. This also alters the way her comic book is received.

One way to praise a work of art is to say that it’s timeless. Take the Mona Lisa, for instance. Possibly the best-known oil painting of the era has been enchanting its viewers for half a millennium. And yet in 2019, we look at the smiling lady with completely different eyes than the people of da Vinci’s time did.

The case of the “tranquil pictures from stormy times” (Jens Mühling) in which the Munich comic artist Barbara Yelin processed her experiences from Cairo in transition at the end of 2011 is quite similar. Yelin was there for several months to conduct a workshop for comic artists in the country and recorded brief vignettes from her everyday life there in a travel diary for the Goethe-Institut. In addition to all sorts of amusing everyday stories about defective washing machines and sometimes more, sometimes less racing car rides, readers would have noted one thing in particular: hope for change, freedom and a better world.

Or was it just what we wanted to see? After all, the images of the Tahrir Square demonstrations that went live around the world on Al-Jazeera were still fresh in our minds. And we Europeans watched nervously in front of our television and computer screens, somehow in the middle, and yet not there, hoping for a good outcome of the events for this colourful crowd of people who took to the streets at risk of their lives because they had had enough of dictatorships and nepotism, oppression and censorship.

Eight years later, the hope for real change lies in ruins. It is devastating to see how much more suffering was ultimately born out of the hope for more freedom, out of the hope for more democracy and self-determination.
The names of the despots have changed, but there are no signs for democratisation of the country. After the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood under Mohammed Mursi won the first free presidential elections in June 2012, the army overthrew the unpopular president a year later after mass protests. Anyone who expresses criticism towards Egypt or the current ruler, then-army chief Al-Sisi, can expect criminal prosecution. According to the Foreign Office, there have been hardly any demonstrations since the election of Al-Sisi in May 2014. In addition, terrorist attacks are on the rise, especially on Coptic Christians and churches.

The reader’s knowledge of this grim future accompanies Yelin’s drawings, giving them a retrospective gravity and tragedy that may already have been perceptible then, but is now in even harsher contrast to Yelin’s style. Her pencil rushes over the paper as fast as the Egyptian taxi drivers on their way to Tahrir, sometimes with more force, sometimes gently, so that the often turbulent and noisy everyday life of Cairo literally jumps at the reader from the pages. At the same time, the extensive use of speech bubbles, stacked, squeezed, on top of each other over and over in the panels, tells us of the people’s urgent need to be able – and allowed – to speak freely at last.

One scene described by the illustrator now looks like a portent. Yelin is a spectator at an art performance, modern dance, videos, music and words.

“The dancers start to run, they run – and throw themselves with full force against the wall. At first, it’s only a few of them, and then more and more of them, running together against the wall! It’s as if they want to knock the wall down. Again and again they start running, and again. When the light comes on, I realise that I forgot to breathe. Maybe I never understood it like I do now.”

Barbara Yelin, what emotions does the Cairo Diary trigger in you when you read it now eight years later or think back on that time?

The six weeks in Cairo made quite an impression on me and were also very complex. The whole mood was euphoric on the one hand, rarely aggressive, but always very emotional and again enormously encouraging. But as an outsider, it also became clear to me how difficult the situation was after the days of the revolution. The huge euphoria after these feelings of common strength, but it was already quite clear then that the strings were being pulled by others (the military, the fundamentalists) in the background.

For me personally, I was surprised how easy it was (for me) to live alone and walk around the city alone even at night, at least in busy areas. But I also learned that this freedom applied to me as a western woman, but was socially accepted to a far lesser extent for Egyptian women. Even during my stay, there were riots that were reported on in Spiegel, and I got lots of worried phone calls from Germany. But in Cairo, everyday life went on and we didn’t notice what was happening in the other parts of the city.