A Thousand Times No

Creativity and resistance

By Judith
Naeff

For the
occasion of the Prince Claus Award Ceremony on December 15, Lebanese born Egyptian
artist, scholar and activist Bahia Shehab visits the Netherlands. I have the
privilege to receive her with a group of students at Leiden University this
week.

image

Bahia
Shehab is specialized in Arabic calligraphy and typography, both historical and
contemporary, and has developed a Graphic Design major and the University of
Cairo. She currently heads this department and continues to teach there. In her
2010 art work A Thousand Times No she collected a large number of samples
of the word “no” – in Arabic “لا” – in Arabic calligraphy, which also
led to a publication that meticulously documented each sample with information
about the original context and the date of the inscription. In 2011, large
scale protests erupted in Cairo, following the uprising in Tunisia. Shehab took
to the streets and used stencils to spray the various NOs she had collected on
the city’s walls. “No to military rule.” “No to a new Pharaoh.” “No to beating
women.” One of her stencils shows a blue bra referring to the footage of a
woman who was ripped of her abaya (traditional black robe and veil) by
military police revealing her blue bra. The military police proceeded to drag the
woman along the street and stamped on her bare belly with their boots. The
footage went viral under the name “blue bra girl.” Shehab’s stencil reads “No
to stripping the people.” The footprint is itself a piece of calligraphy too, reading
“Long live the peaceful revolution.” You can watch her TED talk about these
projects here.

The
masterclass that I organize around her visit forms the incentive to reflect on
the role of artistic and creative practices in the context of political dissent.
To stick with the context of the Arab spring, there has been a tendency in both
academic and popular literature to understand revolutionary arts as “weapons”
in the struggle against repressive regimes and disenfranchisement. For example,
the BBC has decided to use for its item on the creator of a children’s magazine
the heading: “Syrian woman using ‘art as weapon’” (19 March 2016). Likewise, the
scholar, activist and journalist Donatella Della Ratta wrote in 2011: “It may
seem like a strange time to talk about music and films in Syria, but artists, armed
with a renewed creative mindset, are taking an active role in the struggle
against the Syrian regime and the violent crackdown it has launched” (“Creative resistance challenges
Syria’s regime
Aljazeera
25 December 2011, my emphasis).

If arts can
indeed function like a weapon, what is its target and how does it attack? Egypt
today suffers under a violently repressive and humiliating new dictatorship;
Libya, Yemen and Syria have spiralled down into full blown war; only Tunisia
managed to move into a new but highly precarious democratic order. Images and
texts cannot remove a regime nor can they protect bodies from bullets and
bombs. Yet, looking at Shehab’s blue bra stencil, I am still touched by the
revolutionary spirit of Egypt in 2011. When I watch the finger puppet show Top Goon, I still feel elevated by the wittiness with which it mocks Bashar
al-Assad. When I watch the videos of Abounaddara I feel
enlightened by their portrayal of human dignity and compassion amidst the
unspeakable violence and suffering in contemporary Syria. These works
continue to radiate a powerful embrace of life against the odds and despite the
desperation and exasperation of the present. I want to argue that claiming a
voice against suffocating repression, and advocating life in the face of death
asks for a vocabulary that defies war and militarism.

There is a
long tradition of thinkers who have tried to give meaning to forms of
resistance that do not seek direct confrontation with the authorities. Michel
de Certeau, for example, pitted the concept of “strategies” against “tactics”
(1984: xix). If the former refer to administrative, policing and military
actions to control and discipline the population, the latter refer to everyday
practices with which individuals appropriate, reclaim and at times subvert the
paths laid out by a ruling system. Olifantenpaadjes constitute a benign but eloquent example of such everyday civil
disobedience. In the context of the Middle East, Asef Bayat long before the
Arab uprisings erupted, pointed towards what he called “the quiet encroachment
of the ordinary” (2010: 14-15) meaning the “non-collective but prolonged direct
action by individuals and families to acquire [the] basic necessities of their
lives (land for shelter, urban collective consumption, informal jobs, business
opportunities and public space) in a quiet and unassuming illegal fashion” (2010:
45). In other words, the prolonged survival tactics of large swathes of the
urban dispossessed has been transforming the urban environment, and society in
general, in sometimes subversive ways, without any concrete political agenda or
pivotal leadership.

De Certeau’s
“tactics” and Bayat’s “art of presence” hence both conceptualize creative forms
of resistance that do not seek direct confrontation. Yet, their
inauspiciousness does not allow for an inclusion of revolutionary graffiti,
banners and posters, or satire in theatre, television and cartoons, or rallying
music, rap or chanting in the streets. Are these not precisely meant to carve
out a presence that is to be heard, seen and felt; that disrupts the routines
of everyday life, rather than uses these routines as a cover? Helle Malmvig
when reviewing creative practices in the Syrian context, instead proposes the
Foucauldian concept of counter-conduct. Counter-conduct, she maintains, is
never directly targeting sovereignty. Rather, it is characterized by performing
behaviour and imagining ways of being that refuse to conform to hegemonic forms
of conduct. It is therefore also risky, in the sense that it disrupts the norms
and exposes the subject as “other”. For example, Abounaddara’s refusal
to clearly distinguish between victim and perpetrator, right side and wrong, is
a form of counter-conduct in the context of military sectarianism in
contemporary Syria.

Finally, in
order to understand how counter-conduct finds its place in larger patterns of
resistance, I would like to turn Marwan Kraidy. In his latest book, The
Naked Blogger of Cairo
, he distinguishes between radical and gradual modes
of what he calls “creative insurgency.” The radical type occurs in outbursts,
violent and spectacular in their life-threatening open challenge to the
sovereignty of the ruler. The gradual mode “is distinctive in the incremental
and cumulative ways it chips away at power” and largely coincides with
Malmvig’s understanding of counter-conduct (2016: 18). Kraidy’s crucial insight
is that the two modes entwine. “They fuel and shape, prod and pull each other.
Gradual rebellion expands prerevolutionary dissent […] [and] sporadic radical
actions fuel waves of gradual infractions that reverberate widely, setting
grounds for the next radical gauntlet” (ibid.). Even if speaking about arts and
culture in terms of weaponry fails to do justice to the affirmation of life
they perform, they still function in tandem with violent forms of confrontation
in complex and unequal ways.

With these
insights, I look forward to hear Shehab discuss her work – then and now. I am
particularly curious to learn how she looks back on the exhilarating
revolutionary period from the perspective of a bleak present. What role does she
see for herself and others like her in the current situation in Egypt and the
Arab world at large? If you want to find out, check the
announcement and send in your motivation before Monday 12 December
. The deadline has already, but if
there is still space, I am sure we can accommodate you.

Image

courtesy from the artist.

Bayat, Asef
(2010) Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East.
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
De Certeau,
Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans.
Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kraidy,
Marwan (2016) The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab
World
. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Malmvig, Helle
(2016) “Eyes Wide Shut: Power and Creative Visual Counter-Conducts in the
Battle for Syria, 2011–2014.” Global Society 30:2, 258-278.

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