A Rumbling Octopus: Egyptians Take to the Streets in Protest

Chip Rossetti - a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, and ex-senior editor at AUC Press, Tuesday 15 Feb 2011

A review of Arabic writing in light of the revolution

"The square’s full.  The streets feeding into it are full…There’s never been a demonstration like this before…Egypt appeared to be one great demonstration, united in one person and a single chant.”
—from Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by William Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny

So it’s finally happened.

The mass uprising by Egyptians against Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule has finally come to pass.  In recent years, there have been sporadic protests and demonstrations against the stagnant political order and against incidents of police brutality and rigged elections, but none have had the sustained and growing impetus that the current wave of demonstrations have had.  No matter what transpires in the next days and weeks (and with the situation so volatile, this blog post may be out of date as soon as it’s posted), it seems clear that Mubarak’s era is over, even if he somehow manages to cling to his presidency until the September 2011 elections.

Between 2005 and mid-2007, I lived and worked in Cairo as an editor at the American University in Cairo Press.  My office was right off of Tahrir Square, the site of the city’s largest demonstrations in the last six days.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their location, the AUC Press’ offices have reportedly been looted in the last few days.  While living in Cairo, I heard confident assurances (by international expats and even by Egyptians themselves) that Egyptians were too complacent, too unmotivated, or too inured to oppressive rule to do anything about it.  The argument often went something like this:  Egyptians have been used to strong rulers since ancient times.  When the pharaoh wanted a pyramid built, they were only too glad to obey.  Centuries of subjugation to foreign rulers—Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and British—left their mark on the national character.  Sure, there’s anger about Mubarak, and some brave activists willing to take him on, but the bulk of Egyptians too downtrodden and/or complicit to force a change.  One of Egypt’s best short story writers, Yusuf Idris (1927–91), satirized this idea of eternal subservience to authority in one of his most famous stories, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies as “The Chair Carrier,” in which an ancient Egyptian appears on the streets of modern Cairo holding a heavy chair he’s been carrying for millennia at the behest of a long-dead pharaoh.

But that self-defeating stereotype is belied not only by the events of the last few days, but by Egypt’s modern history.  As a student, a reader, and a translator of Arabic literature, I can’t help but think about how closely the scenes now unfolding on television remind me of scenes I’ve been reading in Egyptian fiction recently.  The widespread feeling of frustration seems to be mirrored in that country’s recent literary output.  Whether as prophesy, wish-fulfillment, or both, scenes of mass anti-government demonstrations seemed to have been a recurring feature in Egyptian novels and short stories in recent years.

In 2006, the journalist and writer Mohamed Makhzangi published a short story, “Enchanted Rabbits,” as part of a story collection called Hayawanat Ayyamna (Animals In Our Days).  Most of the story is narrated in flashback, as the middle-aged narrator recalls his role as a university student in a mass demonstration, echoing the kind of spontaneous organization and power of crowds that seemed to have surprised Egyptians themselves in the last week:

On Tuesday, news from the capital reached the city in the evening, and on the following morning, political graffiti, which I had helped to write the night before, covered the walls of the city, demanding freedom and justice.  Before noon, student demonstrations set out from the university, and they were joined by the residents of lower-class neighborhoods.  Floods of protestors made their way through police provocations and barricades along the Corniche, heading toward the provincial government building.  The numbers multiplied to tens and hundreds of thousands, and by midday, it had become a rumbling octopus of half a million demonstrators, who filled the streets leading to the provincial government building from all directions…  The anger and suffering of the common people had been let loose.

Last year, I translated the 2005 novel Sleeping with Strangers, by a young Egyptian novelist, Bahaa Abdelmegid, which ends with a demonstration in front of a political party building in downtown Cairo, told prophetically in the future tense, and ending with an ambiguous gunshot:

You will see Basim standing in front of the Nasserist Party building, shouting out with many of his fellow citizens as they demand free and fair elections… You head their way and approach them, and urge them to stay away from this place, since the police and Central Security have it surrounded.  It’s possible that violence will flare up between the people and the police…

In 2008, Ahmed Khaled Towfik, one of Egypt’s most popular science-fiction and horror authors, published the novel Utopia, which became a bestseller there.  (Bloomsbury Qatar will be publishing my translation of it later this year.)  Like Makhzangi, Towfik is both an author and a physician, and in fact is a professor of medicine at an Egyptian university.  Set in Egypt a few decades in the future, Utopia depicts a society in which the present chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots” has grown even wider, with disastrous results.  I have been itching to email Towfik in the last several days, not only to make sure he’s all right, but to ask him how he thinks current events sync with his novel.  But of course, with the Egyptian government’s decision to censor the country’s internet access, it’s been impossible to do just that.  At one point, a character in Utopia attributes Egypt’s future problems to

the dissolution of the middle class, which in any society, plays the role of graphite rods in nuclear reactors.  They slow down the reaction; if it weren’t for them, the reactor would explode.  A society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion.

Rereading these fictional passages now, they seem like eerie premonitions of this week’s events.  For myself, I am eager to reconnect with colleagues, authors and friends as soon as possible.  Whatever the outcome of the demonstrations, we can all hope it will soon lead to a fairer and more open political system for the Egyptian people.

Chip Rossetti was senior editor at American University in Cairo Press and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. He won a PEN American Center translation grant, and is the translator of Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers (AUC Press, 2010) by Bahaa Abdelmeguid.


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