Egypt, why?

February 14, 2011
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“Okay, I get it,” said a friend recently, “Egyptians have a repressive government. There’s corruption. I understand… But you still haven’t explained why all of this is happening.”

True. I’ve explained until I’m spent what is happening, how it happened, the government’s response, the historical context, poverty, hopelessness: everything but a definitive why. This is partly because all of that contextualization is already the why, and short answers don’t work. But also partly because there is no singular why. Real life doesn’t always have a proper narrative, at least while it’s in the process of composing itself.

But ‘real life’ rears its annoying head as I prepare to teach my intro film class. Real life requires I temporarily put aside troubling thoughts of my family in Alexandria and Cairo. It doesn’t work: I think of the darkness and moral corruption within Egypt as I put together my notes on film noir. Tahrir Square becomes dimly lit and punctuated with melancholy. It becomes the urban nightmare populated not by Humphrey Bogart but by his anonymous Egyptian doppelgangers. Egyptians, like those troubled subjects of bleak 1940s films, yearn for an innocent past before the ravages of experience stole their innocence. For Americans it was the brutality of WWII. For Egyptians, how could anything be the same after their government unleashed the full brutality of the police on them for the crime of asking for their rights?

But the protests go on another week, and my job doesn’t stop because I’m busy worrying about Egypt. Film noir shifts to horror, which is even more appropriate. I think of the pain of Egypt as I watch televised images of bodies being eaten up by the state in its various forms; as if the state were Count Dracula in need of blood to carry on. In class I show clips of zombies, vampires, killers, and the insane and tell the students about film theory. “Psychologically speaking, we can view cinematic horror as a mouthpiece for the socially repressed…”

I see in my mind’s eye images of Egyptians protesting. Images of Egyptians being run over by police vans, shot by security forces, beaten with sticks, tear gassed, smashed in the face. “Blood!” screams Anthony Perkins as I show a clip from Psycho (1960), feigning surprise at the murder ‘his mother’ has committed; just as Hosni Mubarak feigns surprise at the blood his forces have spilled in Egypt’s dusty streets.

The return of the repressed. You beat people when they ask for their rights, yet someday they will return. You laugh at people when they demand an education, yet they will return. And just like horror movies, I can’t take my eyes away (though I sometimes cover them with my hands). As I watch these images spilling across my various screens: iPad, laptop, television, telephone, I find myself caught up in their aesthetic essences. Watching these horrific images is compelling.

Here I am trying to talk about Egypt and why this is all happening, but all I find myself talking about are movies and TV. Horror, film noir… But of course this is the answer. This is the why that I can’t really fully represent to my friend.

Benedict Anderson talked famously about “Imagined Communities” in which print capitalism allowed Europeans for the first time to see themselves addressed as national groupings. People from Manchester could open up a newspaper and have pretty good idea of what the folks down in London were thinking about at that exact same moment.

Satellite television, Twitter, Star Academy, Jersey Shore, Lost, iPhones, ESPN… these things blow Anderson’s Imagined Communities out of the water. And even more, they don’t function in a national context, but a transnational context. The imagined communities have been replaced with imagined worlds.

I’m not the only one watching Humphrey Bogart movies. I’m not the only one watching the Big Lebowski. So are Egyptians. And Sudanese. And everyone. The borders that limited imagination have been erased, and by things as seemingly inconsequential as a soccer game broadcast from London, a British comedy, or an Al Jazeera broadcast of the revolution in Tunisia.

Just as we can put ourselves in the worn sandals of Russell Crowe in Gladiator, so too can Egyptians and Tunisians and Saudi Arabians and Chinese. They, too, are capable of imagining themselves challenging Cesar for justice. They, too, can imagine a world different than this awful one that we live in, the brutal one of tyrants whose reality is now not the only game in town. That is the why.


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