Tuesday, April 24, 2007


"The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran" -- Charles Kurzman

I sent this a life-time (and a half) ago, and i was just skimming through the notes i took off the book and came across it again.

I really recommend the book. Not only does it cover the revolution in Iran nicely (from the people's perspective) but the author keeps trying to find the 'tipping point' when did the 'unthinkable' become 'imaginable' when 'possible'...
Where did it start.. what happened to the left... how did the numbers grow? Where did the workers and peasants derive their sense of agency. How did the balance of power start to shift... How did oblivion gain so mch appeal over the present..

I was just at the discussion regarding the effect of the constitutional changes on the socio-political, economic and int'l relation realm and agenda, and the question of where we go from here..

The discussion once again veared to the pheonomena of the spontaneous workers strikes that continue to inspire us all, and the picture that is dense dark and deep, and yet fascinating in its shifting dynamics once you step outside and take a broader more comprehensive look.

Whether it was this, the worker's symposium at the cairo conference, hearing the topics of chit-chat in the cafe's in maadi, the cab drivers, amongst the social workers in el sayyeda and the questions posed by the bedouins of Sinai, there is always the feeling that there is movement.
I leave you with Kurzman..

Tosbe7un 3ala... :)

"10 percent or more of the Iranian population participated in the demonstrations and general strike that toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. By Comparison, less than 2 percent of the population participated in the French Revolution, and less than 1 percent participated in the overthrow of soviet communism.
The Iranian revolution is deviant in an academic sense as well. According to social-scientific explanations for revolution, it shouldn't have happened when it did, or at all. These theories lead us to expect sullen quiescence in the face of the monarchy's armed forces or scattered protests in light of the radicals' lack of recourses or various other scenarios. The more we learn about the details of the revolution the more evidence we find that resists existing explanation. In particular we discover an atmosphere of overwhelming confusion. As protests mounted against the shah, Iranians had no idea what was going to happen. Would the shah's regime fall? Would protests be suppressed or peter out? Iranians polled friends and strangers ceaselessly to find answers to the questions, yet the answers careened unpredictably. In such momentous times, Iranians could not even predict their own actins, much less those of their compatriots.

Massive change cannot be known in advance, but only as it is happening. Widespread knowledge of change is part of the change itself. People sense that something big is occurring, and their responses help shape the event." Charles Kurzman - The Unthinkable revolution in Iran

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Endgame? Maybe not...

This entry is my take on the protests of the 25th of March that Sam blogged about.
Though i cannot speak for sam or 'those people' i can at least very quickly tell you about my experience.

This post is not a reply to any particular argument as much as it is the stream of thoughts and recollections of the protest instigated by the posted arguments.

The protest of the 25th was one of my most frustrating experiences ever, not really because of what happened in the protest ad ma that i myself felt completely un-represented, and not by anyone but myself. I went to express my frustration and anger at the constitutional changes but found myself thinking and battling a million other things that were completely unrelated.

As angry as i lef the whole thing, there were a few powerfully bright moments for me during the mozahra.

The first is that the first time i was shoved, there were three of us girls and whilst each reacted by shoving back very angrily, what i would have done before, i found myself in a 'how could you do this to me' confrontation, and i was genuinely genuinely hurt..
he had done nothing but push, but for some reason my reaction was that of a hurt 18-year old, and not a person that had seen and almost experienced this several times before. And for some reason, perhaps that i looked genuinely upset and not angry, the man spread his arms out as if to show he wasn't going to do anything, apologized and asked me to give him another choice.

At a later point in the mozahra, and with more conversations with the soldiers , not only did i feel 'tawasul' benna we benhom for the very first time, (at least for me) but they were reactive, and even PROTECTIVE at several points.. and this, to me, was HUGE!
At another teary point, i started asking how he could look at us and treat us in a way and not imagine someone doing the same to a sister or mother and they said 'wallahi, e7na ghalaaba, law ta3rafy benet2ezzey fel mawaqef dee ad eyh.. law bas ta3rafy..'

This is something i had always told myself 'they only hurt because they have to' but it was different to hear it from them.

At any rate, we some-how reached the point after conversing at such to lay out common fears.. not only did they let us stand in particular places, they told us when to leave or step back when they feared the zobaat or notorious plain-clothed footmen were coming. Once again i could be naiive, but i FELT genuine concern.

In Iran right before the revolution, the movement members, and particularly students in early 79 would take clothes with them to the mozahrat, and pull soldiers from the barraks into the crowds and dress them in normal clothes so they could escape in camouflage. And there was a considerable rate of desertion in that period, to the extent that higher ranks stopped sending soldiers of the barracks into the streets. They were increasing the mozahra in number.

In checkslovakia in the 80s i think, it was similar - the students collaberated with the soldiers so that they gave the soviet invaders wrong directions and helped confused them.

The difference between Egypt and both these cases is that there was always someone in these crowds who knew or was related to a soldier. That is where our divide is an issue. We come from different worlds. This was particularly clear in the autrocities of May 2005 - the NDP hired thugs, could not at all relate to the girls they attacked. There was no reasoning, they were somehow turned against us in hate.

In 2004 when i first started talking to people around the protests, the attitude was always fe3lan 'what are they doing' - 'why are they doing this..' - 'what is their problem with mubarak - da katar kheyr el ragel..' and later on there was the 'da ba2alu 24 sanna men gheyr agaza' argument - this changed slowly over time, until now when you will notice that people in the street sometimes jump into protests and 3asaker sing along iwth us, and even sometimes call out the slogans absent-mindedly.

At another teary point, i started asking how he could look at us and treat us in a way and not imagine someone doing the same to a sister or mother and they said 'wallahi, e7na ghalaaba, law ta3rafy benet2ezzey fel mawaqef dee ad eyh.. law bas ta3rafy..' this is something i had always told myself 'they only hurt because they have to' but it was different to hear it from them.

At any rate, we some-how reached the point after conversing at such to lay out common fears.. not only did they let us stand in particular places, they told us when to leave or step back when they feared the zobaat or notorious plain-clothed footmen were coming. Once again i could be naiive, but i FELT genuine concern.

The cab driver i went home with, talked to me about the importance of mo2at3et el estefa2, and the very same thing happened to a friend of mine in another cab.

In the mozahra itself, after the arrests and as the rest of us were walking down from tal3at 7arb to the neqaba, several things happened.

A very old woman with her daughter stepped in, and the girl hooked her arms with mine, they asked if we were protesting increase in prices. I explained the constitution, but before i started to talk abotu certain articles, it turned out they already knew about a considerable few. They talked for a while, then the mother told ehr daughter if she knew so much, why wasn't she with us? Could we please come do this in alexandria?? The old woman said she herself would be out in daily protests if need be, if only she found peopel who thought like her.

What seperates her from them is fear, and a very long period of silence, that can be accounted to a variety of reasons.

A while earlier upon a confrontation with a soldier, a random person from the street interfered between the soldier and me and told him off big time. Seeing him do this, another random one stepped out from the crowd and asked me if he touched me, if he did, she would show him. What, the constitution, and kaman hurt their children?

A third incident is a young girl and a young man who stepped in and said they would shout out any slogans we wanted and say anythign we said, as long as they were inside the crowd. Could we take their numbers and call them? They were in university and watned to be part of the movment but most of their colleagues were too scared.

I was away when the ammendments were anounced to be ratified so early... i was informed as soon as i came back by my grandmother. She was furious. She is not necessarily aware of any contention, but she rarely misses an opportunity to practice her right to vote. The fact that they rushed the date as such, annoyed her (as it made it more difficult for her to plan to go vote) and made her very suspicious of all the rush. So she found the ammendments and read them.

The situation has changed so much. Changed in the sense that people have become so aware of what's happening, and also changed in the sense that the cost-benefit analysis no longer calls for el mashy gamb el 7eyt. I think a factor that has contributed to the change is partially attributable to the protests in the street. Mainly to the development of 'alternative' spaces. The protests being carried out in the streets, made anti-corruption and anti-regime slogans so popular that people feel so much more comfortable saying it. It's like they linger in the background and are safe to draw upon. That was two years ago. Now people can tell you how corruption in a particular department is direclty affecting his/her life. It is no logner unreachable and far away, nor is it mystified.

Also, the blogs, garayed el mo3arda have created spaces where all these issues are openly analyzed and tackled.. and so all of us have become aware. Most people have newspapers read to them, or read them themselves. There's also el 3asherra masa2an and el qaherra el yom and the other channels that more openly contest and condone.. all these spaces are accessable to a great number of people.

And finally there are these initiatives like ours.. THere is Fat'het Kheir and Nahdet el Mahrousa, and Resala and all the other initiatives where we have come together and tried to create a little space where we can live and practice life the way we believe it should be. We found no agency in teh public cirlces and created our own. ANd it is happening all over the country. Look at the 3omaal.. and the falla7een.. look at the movements breaking out all over the country.

I am not calling, nor am i insinuating anything as big as i know my tone and enthusiasm will. I know i am an optimist, but i can say at least , at the very least, things have changed.

There are more and more spaces we can 'all' pitch in into. No one can claim to represent anyone. The inherent flaw in teh concept of a democracy is that it cannot represent all, and manges always to marginalize those it does not speak for. When teh forefathers sat to write the first constitution 'democratically' they were white male landowners.. and i'm sure they weren't thinking of women, non-landowning, or even african americans as they scripted it. It just doesn't happen.

I was interviewing a leadership figure from the MB once and we were going through several issues of concern in terms of the laws with which they would rule, should they develop a poltiical agenda to rule. After a certain point, he waved his hands in frustration and bent over closer and said;
'Enty mesh lama tetweldy fe balad.. fe 7adara, betemshey 3ala qawaneen el balad dee..'
His argument was that you are born into a civilization or country and follow and abide by the rules and laws in that country. If they do not represent you, you might as well leave.

As creul as it sounded and as infuriated as i was, particularly that he waved any argument i made, having lost his patience... i could find sense in it later on.
Not because i believed in what he said, but because even 'democratic notions' as we preach of them are EX and not INCLUSIVE. Just saying 'we the people' 'na7nu el sha3b' means there is a we and a not we. We cannot all be spoken for.

Someone , also an outsider joined the protest and somehwere in the middle screamed in frustration, "FEYN EL SHA3B?!?!??!!"

E7na el sha3b. And we are so many.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

...صح النوم

On the lives we lead and the imaginative forms of resistance/non-resistance :)

السائق: اسمع دي: "واحد ماشي في الصحراء لقى مصباح علاء الدين...دعكه...طلع له جني...قال له شبيك ابيك أمرك بين إيديك, الراجل مصدقش عينيه وراح طالب ميليون جنيه...راح
الجني مديله نص مليون... قال له طب وفين النص التاني؟ إنت حتخنصر من أولهاو الجني رد عليه وقال له أصل الحكومة مشاركة في المصباح فيفتي فيفتي", تم إنفجر ضاحكاً: أضحكتني ضحكته أكثر من النكتة.

السائق: إنت عارف إن الحكومة فعلاً بتاخد ييجي نص مكسبا؟
أنا: إزاي؟

السائق: عن طريق التأليب.... كل شوية يطلعوا لنا في حدوتة جديدة...بس صراحة أحلى واحدة بتاعة الحزام
أنا: ماله الحزام؟

السائق: ما إنت أكيد عارف إن الحزام ده أصلاً كدب في كدب, الكل عارف إن الحزام ده ديكور, يعني بنركبه أونطة (....)
إحنا عايشين في كدبه ومصدقنها...والحكومة دورها الوحيد إنها تراقب إن إحنا مصدقين الكدبة

من "تاكسي :حواديت المشاوير" لخالد الخميسي

I think this last sentence is powerfully descriptive of el wad3 in general..
This particular story was the one presented at the back of the book - out of respect for the writer's copywrights, and an effort to get you to buy this book! A book, i believe we've all been wanting to write forever :)
(How many of us have scribbled a mental or written note to write down all they've learnt, all they've heard of jokes and tales and experiences from cab drivers....)

James Scott presented this notion of 'public transcripts' that a hegemonic/ruling power enforces, be it rhetoric, habit or procedure to make sure it maintains rule over its 'subjects'.
In the late 19th centry, the falla7een on certain areas of ba7arey, wrote petitions to the ministry of interior and sometimes even directly to the khedewy, complaining of el 3omdas or the governmnet officials that cheated them as they measured and taxed their lands. Needless to say, these farmers , in the late 1800s, could not right. However, it seems, when they found that the prevailing system was one of petitions (or the system set by the governemnt) they tried to buy into the existing system in order to ensure htey got their rights. So, they would hire a petition writer, (someone who claimed to be able to write, as the petitions are drenched in spelling mistakes) and used a language and terminology that was clearly government rhetoric and not what they were used to. The idea or notion that they were 'adopting' a language or rhetoric was also particularly clear in how the details of the petition itself were oh-so-difficult to decode. It reads like a thousand people are 'talking' and not 'writing' at the same time. In the eye of my mind i can see 10 or twenty standing around the 'petition writer' shouting out what they have been subjected to...

Their power is an oral one - it was one that relied on gestures, tone of voice, facial expression and details.. it was obviously difficult to encapsulate it all in words that were to reside on a piece of paper and speak on their behalf. Also, although they seemed to enjoy a clear sense of pride and 3azeema, there was alot of referece to the almost 'majestic' or Godly ministers, and a reference to themselves as slaves or subjects.
There was alot of 'cunningness' between the lines... these were not stupid people, nor were they mazluleen in anyway. It was more of a , 'if this is the way you work...' or 'if this is how you will listen, then in the name of my taxes...i am here to claim my rights...'

A number of years into this, the government stopped collecting taxes from el falla7een, and thus robbed them of their negotiating power - teh taxes somehow helped them buy into the system.. 'if i'm paying anyway...'
and the petitions stopped.

Another thing this reminded me of awey, was Fairuz's play 'Sa7 el Nom'..
It was presented in Lebanon, just as the current protests were exploding in late November. Lebanon was tight, and bursting at the seams.. the air was tense and no one had any idea what was going to happen.. An explosion was coming and this was clear.. bas what would it be? A huge protest? A civil war? Riots? Even when it was anounced as a huge protest/strike.. the puppeteers behind it were still not clear. People were stocking up on basic food items, jobs were being lost, tanks were strolling down narrow lanes.. There was an air of tight suspense, and a period of suspended lawlessness keda.. as if all the thin lines of discipline, legality and all those strings that keep us together, were suddenly and momentarily suspended, and no one could really tell what was going to happen.

"if you want to buy anything, buy it now... i don't know when and if i'll open again..." An old shop-keeper called at us as we contemplated buying a book.

In the play (sorry for diverging and divulging!) El Sultan el 7akem, slept all month 'round and woke up when the moon was full. He would wake up, sit in his court and people would come up to him one at a time with their pleas and requests - they needed to buy a piece of land, open a store, get married; in Fairuz's case she needed a new roof.. all these requests large and small had to be stamped by the sultan to be processed. THe issue of whether or not the petition was passed depended greatly on the kind of gift he was presented..
Moreoever, by the time he reached the third or fourth petition he would start getting sleepy, and all would have to wait till the same time next month!!!

The deal is, Fairuz steals the stamp after he sleeps, and stamps the rest of the petitions away. She then panics about being found with the stamp and throws it in a well. Come the next month, the sultan cannot find the stamp and the village errupts in panic. PANIC.

This was as hillarious as it was ironicallly and eerily true. THe sultan was wailing and wailing how he had become just like his ra3eyya... no different. He no longer had any power over them. It was the stamp that symbolized and encapsulated his authority and now that it was gone what authority did he have over them? they could all live on without needing his monthly permission. and get this; teh whole village paniced with him!! THe priority then, to EVERYONE was to FIND the stamp! Otherwise, what system would we have. Everyone was thrown in utter confusion and the stamp had to be found for life to continue. :)
Ya3ni with a tyrant this lazy you would expect a revolution of sorts... no more stamp! hip hip....!
But it was more like " Oh -shit... now how does it work???"

And so it seems there is sometimes a comfort in this sort of system... In a tyranny that can be expected, and one that you can build or construct your life around. If htis is the way you work ( it doesn't really matter how ridiculous or unfair it is) you're in control; you're the boss, so here you go...

Scott and others speculate tab3an that folklore, arts, plays, songs, poetry, is what people use, (the populace ya3ni) to express the truth of how they feel/think of things...
Ironically though in a country like ours; plays, songs, poetry, are used and have been used for a very long time to get us to think and act in a paritcular way. Notions of nationalism and patriotism and the values and zeal of the revolution for eg were very well fed to us and our parents as such.

Those social scientists believe people find ways to express' their own true 'hidden trascripts' at home or through their very own creative channels. I think in casese like ours, we very knowingly and cunningly adopt the transcripts, buy into the system and find our way around it. El 7ede2 yegebha. And then we talk , quite openly about whatever it is we believe in. Let them dictate their lies, and we will nodd and lie along with them... like the cab driver indicated
...والحكومة دورها الوحيد إنها تراقب إن إحنا مصدقين الكدبة...
أنا أعتقد إن دورها التأكيد على إننا كلنا بنلعب اللعبة كويس - وكل حد عارف إن محدش مصداْ حاجة.
All said; i think one of the most powerful effects of social movements, and of these particular movements in Egypt in general, is that the infaliability of such regimes, and such transcripts,slowly but surely falls apart. The realization that it is all a lie and a game becomes so blatantly clear to us, that it becomes difficult day by day to play along.. especially when you realize that you wait and work all month long, and never actually ever get your turn... How much we could do without the stamps becomes clearer and clearer to us...

And then? After the tipping points?
Let's wait and see :) we're living it out!
Till then though as an ethiopian proverb in one of Scott's books relates;
"When the great lord passes by, the wise peasant bows low and silently farts..."

And they get louder, and smellier.