Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Graffitied/Hummed/Acted

Artistic expression in the Middle East has always found its innovation in the dark alleys of despotism, with literary geniuses and artists ducking around corners to avoid the harsh hand of authoritarians trying to wrench away their freedom of expression.  Novels have told of Arabs trudging through a life void of jobs and bread, always stagnant, never progressing.  Poems have railed against the Israeli occupation and the acquiescence of every Arab regime to foreign powers, lamenting the lack of revolt among the populace.

And now?  Now, the revolutions will be spray-painted, sung, monologued, stanza-ed, brush-stroked, exposed in the dark room.  Naturally, art is one of the most meaningful ways to record and process the outpourings of expression that have bubbled over in this so-called Arab Spring (quite a long spring.)  In Egypt, art has been the constant camera throughout the revolution, faithfully recording Egyptians’ pride, persistence, and passion.

It has functioned simply to document what happened, to ensure no one in Egypt or the world ever forgets the Feb. 2nd battle between government-hired thugs on camels and protesters trying to enter Tahrir Square, or the unity on display between Copts and Muslims, or the hundreds of martyrs that fell during the bloodiest days. 
The Revolution Artists Union has made sure of that.  The group formed during the revolution, often creating work directly from Tahrir, and since then, they have had multiple exhibits, one of which is in the metro station at the square.  Egyptians gather around the paintings daily to stare in awe at their revolutionary handiwork; I have seen many a mother holding her child up to a painting and explaining lovingly explaining its salience.  No one will easily forget the spirit of unity pervasive throughout the square, thanks to “Sout al-Hurriya”.  The song is actually made up of a number of slogans shouted and held up on signs during the height of the uprising, and every single Egyptian knows the words, and I guarantee you every single Egyptian gets goose bumps and tears in their eyes when they hear it.  In the streets of my country, the voice of freedom is calling...

But I think the most important role the paintbrush, the pen, and the guitar can take up is that of the teacher.  The Revolution Artists Union states that among its goals are to teach the morals and principals of the revolution: social justice, freedom, and dignity.  A revolution must not merely fell the corrupt system, rather, it must rebuild, and that restoration of an entire society begins with the individual.  I recently read an op-ed of Alaa al-Aswaany’s (in Arabic!), author of the Yacoubian Building  (and whom I saw speak the other day!), in which he wrote of a lull during the height of protests in Tahrir, when he threw a cigarette box on the ground; a woman admonished him to pick it up.  He then realized, "We are building a new Egypt... it must be clean."  It is changing the way you live - picking up trash, not driving as to endanger others, not trying to rip others off - that paves the way for a society that will not stand for another dictator.  Art serves to remind Egyptians, and all of us, of the innate goodness we all carry within.  Art's raw beauty, its truth, its reflection of humanity, bring out the best.  Call me an idealist, but I think that this sort of integrity will save the revolution, and maybe start another one.

Graffiti has become a common sight on just about every block, chronicling the revolution and its sentiments.
Tear-gas poems, by Kareem Abdul Salam.
A tribute to all the literary artists of the Arab Spring, courtesy of Words Without Borders.
Tahrir Monologues, a performance of revolutionary testimonies.

Tomorrow is July 8th, another day of rage/persistence, a day to speed up trials of murderers, to demand a new constitution, to expose the police for their abuse, to tell the military and the still criminal system that the Egyptian people are still in the midst of their revolution, and that neither their voices nor their paintbrushes will rest until justice is achieved.  Please keep Egypt in your thoughts and prayers - may it be a peaceful and successful protest.  Please take a minute to also think of places like Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, where people are filling the streets with their cries for freedom and their blood.



  1. I will think of Egypt and the other places tomorrow - and of you, too, Yamila - with much love and hope for your well-being. You are a wonder - a beautiful, sensitive passionate writer and person. I am so fortunate to know you and to be able to read your words. Love, Gwen

  2. What a poetic and informative account! Thank you Yamu!
    Abrazos de,

  3. Great descriptions, Yamila. We appreciate your inspiration by what surrounds you there. Good luck and be safe.
    Abrazos, Ramón

  4. Dear Yamila,
    Yet another hopeful, encouraging and beautifully expressed post paying homage to the role of art, which needs to be in the service of social change for there to be social change. You've captured this with your many examples and I particularly enjoyed your reference to art's educative role.

    I am not sure if you know about the outstanding work of one of our local treasures, Claudia Lefko, and her Iraqi Children's Art Exchange since it has occurred since you graduated NHS, but they had a marvelous series of exhibits, talks, a film and a play reading ("Aftermath" which presents the voices of Iraqi refugees) all of which use art as a means of expressing a wide range of emotions as well as a means of healing.

    It is a great treat to receive your passionate and deeply thoughtful words. Keep them flowing.