I walked through downtown Cairo on a quiet Friday morning in March 2015, late to a conference I had helped organize and a little bit anxious. The conference was about the political importance of translation—of language and concepts—in connecting protest movements to one another and allowing them to be narrated from within. We had tried to make the conference sound mundane to state authorities, who had issued our permits, but I was not entirely sure it would work.
Cairo neighborhoods are always empty before Friday prayers; few shops are open, and cars stay parked as people sleep or linger over breakfasts. During these times, the city seems a little bit more open; moving around becomes lighter and more feasible in the absence of the usual punishing traffic.
Downtown—normally a dense jumble of unfiltered sensory assaults—is completely transformed by this stillness. The cars and bikes, bright shop lights, car mechanics, rows of chairs at sidewalk shisha cafes, and the loudness of street life, all disappear overnight. The effect can be eerie or blissful or both, like a long pause in a story.
For almost three years, from 2011 to 2013, there were also long periods of consecutive Friday protests in downtown’s Tahrir Square. Those mornings were sometimes exciting, sometimes fatiguing, sometimes violent. Often, I felt I could not bear to miss it, to not be there in those streets; other times, I dreamed of being anywhere else. That story and those times now feel long over, until an event or a conversation brings a memory back for me to confront or to try, impossibly, to reconcile with the present-day.
Dissent by any other name
The conference I helped co-organize was titled “Globalizing Dissent: Translation and the Many Languages of Resistance.” It brought together speakers of varying backgrounds: historians, anthropologists, filmmakers, journalists, and rights workers. While the main focus and inspiration for the gathering was the Egyptian revolution, there were also discussions about struggles and collective efforts for change in India, Turkey, and Spain.
In the weeks prior to the conference’s start date, organizers worried and worked around various security concerns—like the possibility of being shut down, about the line between being pragmatic about Egypt’s political atmosphere and censoring ourselves, about participants pulling out (some did) or, for those coming from abroad, being denied visas (which happened to one key speaker, queer activist and writer Leil Zahra Mortada).
We were trying to fly under the radar, to garner attention but not too much attention. We had to submit paperwork to the Egyptian National Security ahead of the conference. For this purpose, we altered the Arabic translation of the conference title to read: “Translation and the Many Languages of Expression.” It was, perhaps coyly, an attempt to disguise ourselves as a technical convention of translators. What, we hoped the security officers would think, could possibly be political about translation?
It struck me as slightly comical and absurd that I was now nervous about a quasi-academic conference being held in an art gallery space in the same neighborhood where, in 2011, 2012, and 2013, we had lived through anti-government protests, street battles with police, collective intervention in cases of sexual harassment, and other efforts that might be described as radical “revolution.”
Convening in Cairo
It is hard to pinpoint when the crackdown in Egypt truly began. Was it immediate? Did it begin as soon as Morsi disappeared in early July 2013 and the military resumed direct control of the country? Or, shortly thereafter, during the massacres that followed that summer?
The authorities started by rounding up Islamists or anyone who looked like one, before moving on to critics of all kinds. The end result, the one we live in, is an atmosphere where people are arrested for Facebook posts, for writing articles, for thoughts or beliefs they have articulated or are just assumed to hold because of their family background, their beard, or their job. Most mainstream Egyptian media outlets have publicly pledged allegiance to the regime and its interests, promising not to critique, or threaten “public morale.” Globalizing Dissent was attempting to construct a space for conversations that could only have taken place in Cairo, despite all of this.
The conference’s strength came from the breadth of its understanding and presentation of “translation.” The topic was approached as a bridge between languages, as a way for activist movements to connect and learn from one another, and as a way of transforming narratives about struggles and places. Salma el-Tarzi, cinema director and member of the Mosireen film collective, talked about the ethical and intellectual struggles she faced when confronted with her own perspective on translation in filmmaking. Journalist Jonathan Guyer discussed translating Egypt’s political cartoons. Dalia Abdel Hamid, head of the gender unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, spoke about translation in the context of struggling against an epidemic of sexual violence in and around Tahrir. Amro Ali, a scholar of Alexandria’s urban politics and public spaces, examined the various ways in which activists in Khaled Saeed’s home city have transformed its history into a revolutionary tool.
For me, much of the conference’s significance lay in its location. This was a gathering of people who had engaged with Egypt’s revolution in different ways, who wanted to think about it, in the very place that had been working so hard to eradicate its effects.
A need for collective reflection
In her talk on the first day, Samah Selim mentioned the collective trauma that those who witnessed or participated in the Egyptian revolution have suffered, and continue to suffer.
So much of how the revolution was experienced was collective and much of it was public—people protested together; they followed one another to jails and hospitals and morgues; they formed emergency groups together; they created and published videos and essays and films in an attempt to remember together. People looked to one another and knew that the things they had seen and felt were true, even when the state and its media outlets insisted they were not.
Now, those who are excluded from Egypt’s mainstream narrative exist in a sort of atomized state. We are made to mourn and to make sense and to learn from the life-changing events of the past four years more or less in private, on our own. In terms of personal reflection, perhaps this is the only way it can be.
But, there is much that demands discussion and collective reflection. It is necessary for the sake of understanding our own various histories, our societies, and for the sake of the work that is still being done by rights workers, researchers, journalists, and activists. The fight is not over. As Sherene Seikaly discussed in her conference talk about the genealogies of revolution, our societies are not asleep.
Resilience in difficult times
Until the conference’s first day, I had not appreciated how pervasive the atmosphere of censorship had become in Egypt. I was on a panel and found myself pausing, mid-sentence, struggling to use the word “coup” to describe the trajectory that ultimately brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military to direct power in 2013.
If we are not careful, the repression and fear that surrounds us will creep into our own words, muddle our own thoughts. It will do so by default. Such is the insidious power of dictatorship to tie our tongues.