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“A leather belt, with a rose stuck in it”

“For the first time in its history, the Egyptian Museum became a torture chamber,” fumed Seif El-Islam. “But we want to thank the military council for giving us Egyptians a cause to once again unite.”

 “Alice Doesn’t” deals with this “narrative pressure” or, more precisely, narrativity, the work of narrative in engaging and positioning the spectator.

I’ve picked those quotations quite randomly, without putting them in any specific historical, linear or referential order. The randomness and the seemingly decontextualized background of those quotations is, however, intentional and, similarly to my current research, it addresses the performativity of language and a military uniform, as well as their power to embody and enact violence. Here are some of my collected thoughts, widely scattered and perhaps a little obsessed with the subject matter.

I Friday, March 1, 2019
I discover “Alice Doesn’t.”

The first quotation comes from the book by Roland Barthes, “The Fashion System”, but it originally appeared in a fashion magazine of his choosing. He writes: “I open a fashion magazine; I see that two different garments are being dealt with here. The first is the one presented to me as photographed or drawn—it is image-clothing. The second is the same garment, but described, transformed into language; this dress, photographed on the right, becomes on the left: a leather belt, with a rose stuck in it, worn above the waist, on a soft shetland dress.” In his book, Barthes carries out a structural analysis of women’s fashion as presented in the fashion magazines published between 1957 and 1963. Barthes deconstructs fashion in French, through the semiotics of the verbal and non-verbal observations on fashion, and, as he puts it, through “reconstituting step by step the system of meaning.” A discourse presented from the perspective of a structuralist and a male philosopher is regarded one of the most significant studies of that time. Similarly to other structuralists like LéviStrauss and Saussure, who propose systems of rules that are hard to follow, Barthes’ dissection remains withdrawn and detached from its subject matter. His perspective on the body and garment is reduced to a series of semiotic enactments with no reference to anything beyond the flattened surface of linguistics. Such structures or systems of rules, as described by Teresa de Lauretis, “cannot but be obeyed if one is to communicate, speak, or participate in the social symbolic exchange; and precisely for this reason their theories have been considered pernicious or at least of little value to those eager to dismantle all systems (of power, oppression, or philosophy) and to theorize instead ideas of individual, class, race, gender, or group freedom.”

II Friday, March 8, 2019

As an Egyptian who grew up between Poland and Egypt, and was force-fed with various nationalistic and patriotic desires when in secondary school and then all the way into my adult life, I learned the skills of camouflage and adaptation. In school, just like all other kids in Egypt, I was obliged to wear a uniform; a white masculine shirt that was too big to fit me well, a striped tie, a grey skirt and white socks with black shoes. Any other colors were not allowed, be it on clothing or nails. My Arabic teacher would reprimand me for growing longer nails and remind me that they are home to the devil. For years I felt that my body was not mine, at least for most of the day, and that I was displaying behaviors that never felt natural or familiar to me; yet I somehow managed to enact them for years. As for today, all those traditions remain intact. A new anthem was introduced in 2018 − “Kalu Aa” or “What did they say?”; it soon became an obligatory part of every school day, and is now recited every morning before classes and during the break. “Kalu Aa” is an anthem that was born out of an urgent need to justify the military actions in Sinai and the war declared against terror − an ongoing conflict in the northern parts of the peninsula, started by the current military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “Kalu Aa” was glorified by the media as bringing people closer to the figure of a soldier − a new wave of representational propaganda that has been slowly escalating since the events of 2011. Most of the current propaganda videos depict the military from the perspective of a masculine and empowered individual, contrary to the videos from the 90s and 2000s which used to demonstrate the military power by employing the imagery of tanks and groups of soldiers storming the deserts of Sinai, and the F-16s flying over people’s heads.

from “Remarking January 25”, 6 videos, Intifadat Intifadat, 2011

This is what I read on an Egyptian online news outlet: “Kalu Eih” (“What did they say about us?”) anthem speaks of the heroic role of the army’s martyrs in the fight against terrorism, in conjunction with the “comprehensive Sinai 2018.” Due to its sincere lyrics, the anthem was admired by All Egyptians of different backgrounds and ages. … The decision comes to raise the students’ spirit of belonging to the country as well as their awareness of the army’s sacrifices for the homeland.”

This does not come as a surprise though. To a certain degree, raising people’s spirits and giving them false hopes is what determines the economic premise which is highly dependent on Egypt’s military power and geopolitical position in the Middle East and in Africa. Those kinds of performances impact people’s behaviors and beliefs by exposing them to the obsolete yet powerful performative gestures of the army men (both as a mediated representation of their heroism on the frontlines, and as providers or forefathers of a fair livelihood and equality to all people). The anti-colonial paradigm, which dates back to 1952 and the birth of nationalism, resulted in the autocratic military regime lead by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, a military leader who redefined the idea of Egyptian statehood. His propaganda revived and fueled the myths about “the noble coups that aimed at genuine ‘nationalist’ goals. The origin of the myth of ‘good coups’ goes back to the ‘Urabi revolt of 1881.”

It is 1957. Barthes is in the middle of his research on French semiotics. The Suez Canal reopens and puts an end to the crisis, marking the end of the colonial era and cementing the nationalistic goals for the decades to come. The Egyptian movie titled “Rudda Qalbi” (“Return My Heart”) is released, promoting nationalism by addressing a different kind of desire; it is “a romantic epic of a poor, young army officer who falls in love with a daughter of aristocratic pasha in colonial Egypt” − a film that will be televised every year for the anniversary of Nasser’s coup, reflecting the new socio-economic reality of Egypt following militarization. “… A marriage of convenience, which did emerge between the old aristocracy, recently bereft of their property, and the new ruling elite, bearing uniforms and with low and middle class origins and seeking social refinement. This officer’s marriage reflected the reality of military personnel’s rapid social mobility.” It also reflected the birth of a patriarchal system of power that will resonate in films, music and people’s every-day perception of the military for the upcoming decades.

III Friday, March 15, 2019
I go for a walk.

Two weeks ago, on Friday, I was strolling around the city, visiting some of the streets and neighborhoods that felt significant to me during different periods of the Egyptian revolution. That morning I took a series of pictures with my phone, mainly of men dressed in military and police uniforms, standing or sitting, in a less formal and less performative fashion than those depicted in magazines and online propaganda channels. A mundane beginning of the weekend. Such a setting is not unusual. In fact, the every-day reality is mostly comprised of underpaid labor − the by-product of the corrupt system. I saw dozens of men on military or civic duty; the defenders whose job is to guard buildings, streets, sidewalks, ministries and embassies next to the Mogamma and the Egyptian Museum. It was a day off, so the streets were quite empty, and taking pictures with my phone, although not allowed, was easy and weirdly pleasurable. I was capturing the obvious motifs of the every-day reality, which no one longer notices; the fetishized, scary, and often exciting image of the authority. My semiotics were narrowed down to those of an onlooker. Although I was in a familiar city, everything felt unfamiliar to me. I felt like a thief. I was taking pictures without any further inquiry − I didn’t know who were the people on my photos. I wasn’t trying to counter any narratives per se, I was simply registering the surrounding reality without altering it or interacting with it directly. The image of a uniform no longer caused anxiety like it used to after the events of Mohamed Mahmoud.

“A leather belt, with a rose stuck in it,” a short part of a longer sentence written originally in French, torn from a fashion magazine from the 60s and deconstructed by Barthes in his book; it appears randomly here, as an almost completely unrelated thought… But it did remind me of those 18 days when the military was celebrated in Tahrir, with women, children and whole families coming to Tahrir to distribute roses to the soldiers that guarded entrance to the square, to decorate their tanks with flowers, to take pictures with them while smiling at each other. It happened almost out of nowhere and lasted just for a day; a sudden celebration of peace and love, and admiration for power; a product of a romanticized momentum in which the army positioned themselves as the protectors of the revolutionaries. Roses and belts; a leather belt that may become a weapon used by the police and military during protests and tortures; or a belt that keeps the uniform flawless, with the attached instruments of violence, worn in the center of what is, in most cases, a masculine body.

It is the day of roses. Thousands of people will be soon tried by the military tribunal, a council formed by the military to pass quick judgments on the protesters, without the presence of a civil legal representative. Many of them will disappear.


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