Dispatch

The Cultural Revolution

As Egypt's artists struggle with a newly repressive military regime, the creativity that flourished after this year’s revolution is taking on some new targets.

This year at the Venice Biennale, one of the international art world's yearly dates, Egypt's official entry was the artist Ahmed Bassiouny, who died while filming and participating in the uprising earlier this year that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. For his work "30 Days of Running in Place," Bassiouny attached electrodes to himself to monitor and chart his stationary jogging.

Egypt under Mubarak could easily be described as "30 Years of Running in Place." Egyptian artists and writers faced challenges ranging from small audiences to censorship to the nepotism that dogged state-run institutions. (I remember once being surprised, at an official art exhibition, to see a prize go to a terrible painting of potted flowers: "The minister of culture's secretary," an artist friend whispered.) In one sense, stagnation itself was an inspiration: Films, novels, and artworks took the decay of the late Mubarak years as their main subject.

Now, however, Egyptian artists suddenly have a new chance to connect with audiences, and to stake a new claim on public space. The ongoing revolution has inspired and enabled an unregulated explosion of cultural activity, a great outpouring of artistic energy that takes a great many forms: Between attending rallies and protests, artists in Egypt are organizing "culture caravans" to poor neighborhoods, launching online magazines and new publishing ventures, putting on photo exhibitions in subway stations, and holding open-mic nights. Some are simply celebrating the chance to create freely; some are wondering what role art should play in the transitional period; and others are busy using their talents to wage a critique of the country's military authorities, fighting a revolution that seems destined to carry on into the foreseeable future.

Egypt is seeing a "Niagara Falls of art production of all different levels," says artist Lara Baladi. "So many repressed voices are contributing and participating in revolution."

The film Microphone, by director Ahmad Abdalla, offers a look at those repressed voices in the days before Egypt's revolution. Released on Jan. 25 -- the day the protests began -- the movie features musicians, skate-boarders, graffiti artists, and film students in Alexandria, playing themselves. It's a charming, kinetic work, a celebration of its protagonists' youth and talent. But all the music and motion goes nowhere -- and that is the point. A smarmy official declines to include bands in a government-sponsored concert and attempts to organize an informal neighborhood performance are thwarted by the police and the regulars of a nearby mosque.

These days, the artists in Microphone feel they have a much better chance to make themselves heard. "The country is ours again. Public space is ours," says Aya Tarek, a 21-year-old graffiti artist featured in Abdalla's film.

A highly visible legacy of the revolution is the graffiti and street art with which young Egyptians are signing their surroundings. Walls across the country bloom with witty, scathing, and melancholy messages -- a running commentary on the political situation that delights some and startles many.

Some of the most arresting work has been done by a 29-year-old graphic artist known as Ganzeer. Like others, he has memorialized the revolution's martyrs -- as those killed during the revolution are known here. With the help of volunteers, he's created three beautiful red yellow and black murals portraying the young men in their home neighborhoods. His dream is to create portraits of all the nearly 1,000 martyrs in their hometowns across Egypt.

But, like many of Egypt's post-Tahrir artists, he has been sidetracked by current events -- in particular, by the need to express his opposition to the generals that rule the country.

One day this spring, Ganzeer put out a call for volunteers on Twitter. Dozens of people showed up to create a mural under a bridge in central Cairo, depicting in striking, life-size, black-and-white detail an army tank facing a bread delivery boy on a bicycle -- a stand-off between the army and the people.

Other graffiti artists have created stencils of Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Allied Forces and the de facto ruler of the country, next to Mubarak and surrounded by hearts, behind bars, and sporting the low, untrimmed beard of an Islamic fundamentalist. These images are quickly effaced, only to have new ones take their place.

"There are people who come up with chants; there are people who are good at setting up tents," says Ganzeer. "People who have artistic talents need to figure out how to contribute with their tools to the cause." Responding to popular demand, Ganzeer has made a selection of stencil patterns available online to any would-be graffiti artists.

Other artists are also drawing directly from their experience of the revolution. In his new collection Tear Gas Poems, the poet Kareem Abdulsalam recounts extraordinary scenes from the uprising; the art gallery Darb 1718 is currently hosting a show dedicated to Egypt's state-owned media, which during the uprising spewed spectacularly vicious and ridiculous propaganda; the excellent new comic book TokTok features stories drawn from post-Mubarak life, including an artist's odyssey through protesters, tear gas, and police, carrying hundreds of issues of the magazine.

The comic book artist Shennawy, one of the founders of TokTok, says there is a greater margin of freedom after the revolution, but that it hasn't changed much in terms of his and his colleagues' work. "Most of the artists have been working in opposition newspapers," he says. "They are used to criticizing the government." TokTok, which launched a few weeks before the revolution and already has an enthusiastic following, is above all an example of the flourishing youth culture that powered the revolution and whose enthusiasm -- for connection, enterprise, self-expression -- may act as a bulwark against more reactionary forces that are also making their influence felt in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Thrilling as the revolutionary period may be for artists, it is also fraught. Their current expanded freedom of expression and assembly is by no means guaranteed. They must work in the shadow of an extraordinary historical event and an ongoing political struggle. "Since the Revolution, Egyptian artists have been running about like headless chickens," writes visual artist Doa Ali at the new online culture and politics magazine Rolling Bulb. "Their concerns have taken an almost existential dimension. What do we do now? Do we keep doing what we used to do? Where do ‘we' end and our art begin?"

Many Egyptian writers and artists long worked in spiritual or overt opposition to the ruling regime, wearing their marginalization like a badge of honor. Back in 2003, renowned novelist Sonallah Ibrahim declined a government prize and the sizable financial award that came with it, telling stunned dignitaries "this government doesn't have the credibility" to bestow cultural awards. Today, there are plans to honor Ibrahim -- who acted as the country's pre-eminent and satirical literary conscience -- once again, with an award he will not feel compelled to refuse. But in July, the event was postponed, as the organizers (a new group called the Independent Egyptian Artists) were too involved in street protests to proceed.

In any case, for many, it is much too soon to celebrate. That's the feeling at the downtown offices of the small independent publishing house Dar Merit, which for years has been a smoke-filled den of cheerful dissidence. Publisher Mohammed Heshim has put out works by a generation of young writers who tended to write scathing exposes of the moral collapse of the late Mubarak era (Alaa Al Aswany's Yacoubian Building was first published by Merit) or elliptical accounts of alienation and stasis.

Heshim was a regular at the 2005 protests of the Kifaya ("Enough") group, the first to call directly for and end to the Mubarak era. During the revolution, the offices -- with their welcoming couches and TV -- were a command center for writers and poets participating in the protests.

Today, Heshim and his colleagues and friends are still busy protesting -- worried that the revolution will be stolen from them by the elderly generals and conservative Islamists who have come out in force since Mubarak fell from power.

"We still don't have more freedom," says Heshim. "We won't as long as there are military trials, as long as we don't have a constitution, as long as there is religious bigotry and extremism. We're still fighting. We haven't won."

The battle is being fought on many, unexpected fronts. Lara Baladi is one of the artists behind Radio Tahrir and Tahrir Cinema, an open-air movie theater organized this month in the famous square. The venture -- set up with filmmaker Omar Hamilton and actor Khaled Abdalla -- came together in the span of 24 hours, says Baladi.

Baladi and others provided a projector and a screen; a passerby volunteered to get a mat for the audience to sit on; electricity was jury-rigged from streetlights. And soon hundreds of people were sitting, entranced, watching footage from the revolution that various amateur and professional filmographers contributed.

Baladi points out that a lot of artists in Egypt have been working for years to reclaim public space in creative ways (she herself is well-known for several memorable public installations). "We were moving slowly toward change," she says.

"Art under dictatorship and censorship is one thing, art during revolution is another," she says; "and art post-revolution will be yet something else." Like many artists here, she is living and working fully in the -- exhilarating, promising, nerve-racking -- moment.

Ursula Lindsey

Dispatch

The Taliban Come to Mazar

Last month, NATO forces ceded this northern city to the Afghan army, calling it safe territory. But insurgent forces are on the doorstep.



Jaweed, right, and his brothers, Farhad, middle, and Favat, left, tend the stall their father opened in Mazar-e-Sharif 10 years ago. Their father was killed in a bombing on July 20.


MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The provincial police spokesman called the bombing "unplanned."

As though the bomb had strapped itself to the back of a bicycle last month and then went off on its own volition in Dasht-e-Shor, a neighborhood of dusty walled compounds in working-class, northern Mazar-e-Sharif. As though this palliates the deaths of the man and three boys who were killed when the explosion ripped through an unpaved intersection.

As though there is anything left to be gained from another year of magical thinking as the Taliban methodically expand their reach in northern Afghanistan.

Since last summer the Taliban have been rapidly gaining control of Balkh province, which until then had been one of the safest regions in the country. Village by drought-stricken village they advanced, virtually undeterred, from the peripheries toward the provincial capital, where the shimmering turquoise tiles of the 15th-century Blue Mosque quiver in diffraction beneath an undulating, sinister billow of smog. Village by village, my friends and hosts told me of masked motorcyclists who arrived at night, summoned the elders, and announced their dominion over the withering cornfields, the parched orchards, the people fatigued by a lifetime of violence that torments their land.

Several days before I last left Balkh, in June, the Taliban claimed sovereignty over villages just a few miles outside of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Last month, initiating a gradual transition that, according to the Obama administration's plans, should somehow wind down America's war in Afghanistan by 2014, NATO troops transferred responsibility over security of Mazar-e-Sharif and six other provinces and cities to Afghan forces. NATO officials have picked Mazar-e-Sharif because they consider it safe.

* * *

I returned to the city last weekend. My bus from Kabul, the 2:30 to the Blue Mosque, crept through the granite scallop of the gorge at Balkh's southeastern border, zigzagged past the ancient pomegranate orchards of Kholm, and wheeled out onto the alkaline Khorasan plains. Cauterized desert unscrolled before us and curved toward the northern horizon. Hot air throbbed under the merciless summer sun.

I called my friends.

"The situation is not good," said Mohammad Alemi, one of the country's leading psychiatrists who runs a psychiatric hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, immediately after we exchanged the mandatory long, synchronic string of polite Farsi greetings. "But we have to live here."

"Security is getting bad," said Amanullah, a hunter in Oqa, a village about 35 miles north of the city. "There are lots of Taliban."

"It is not safe as it was before," said Qaqa Satar, who works as my driver, as I climbed into his beat-up Toyota Corolla. "Even in Mazar-e-Sharif things are bad."

Shir Jan Durani, the provincial police spokesman, said the transition has gone "well." When I asked about the bicycle bombing in Dasht-e-Shor, which took place on July 20, three days before Afghan officials took over security from German-led NATO troops stationed in the city, he replied:

"Things like this happen even in developed countries. There was an explosion in Norway recently, too."



The police's investigation into the bombing was brief; the investigators filed their report within 24 hours of the incident. The bomber was Ainuddin, a sharecropper in his 20s from a district in western Balkh that has been under Taliban control since last year. He had tied the bomb to the rear rack of his Chinese-made bicycle, the kind hundreds of men and boys ride along the city's potholed streets. The bomb detonated at 11:45 in the morning, wounding 14 people and killing four. The bomber was still alive when the police arrived, but unconscious. The explosion had torn a giant gash in the right side of his torso. He died in the police car.

The police did not record the names of any of the victims. In the vast Central Asian battlefield ravaged by never-ending violence since the beginning of recorded history, what are four more dead?

"Afghanistan has a history of violence," shrugged Durani. "The problem is in this soil and it keeps cropping up."

* * *

At the intersection where the bomb blew up, the septic wound of the crater overflows with putrid water and rotting refuse. Above it gape the glassless windows of a real estate agency and the office of an after-school tutor, their concrete walls flayed by shrapnel. A few paces away, a gray-bearded man and a teenager sell groceries and household staples from two adjacent stalls. They were not here when the explosion struck: The teenager's father, Abdul Dayan Ghul, and the man's son, Hamidullah, were manning the stalls that day. Shrapnel from the bomb killed them both.

Abdul Dayan Ghul was 45. He had opened the shop a decade ago, after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime and Mazar-e-Sharif was abloom with hope. Other vendors on the street called him Ghul Agha, or, sometimes, "the old man on the corner."

They called Hamidullah "the grandson of Baba Murat." He was 11 years old.

The survivors stand in the shadow cast by the new tarpaulin they have strung over the stalls' beams to replace the sheeting ripped by shrapnel. They reopened their bodegas after five days of mourning: The stalls are their families' only sources of income. When there are no customers, the teenager, Jaweed, who is 19, worries two bulbs of fresh garlic in his right hand. Hamidullah's father, Abdurrakhman, just stares, empty-eyed, at the suppurating street.

"Security is getting worse, but we can't do anything about it," Abdurrakhman says with the resignation of the doomed. Garlands of single-use packages of shampoo, the kind you'll find in hotels, hang from a string behind him. A cheesecloth over an aluminum basin of fresh yogurt crawls with flies.

I ask about the two other victims. One, Mohammad Gul, was a 16-year-old boy on his way to school from his family compound down the street. The other was a teenage ice vendor. He was new on the street corner, I'm told.

No one seems to know his name.

Anna Badkhen