Learning from Cairo – Our first 60pages writers Workshop
This was an experiment. We were going to Cairo for a workshop on the art of longform writing, with the generous support of MiCT and at a time of new tensions between the government and the press.
The workshop was hosted by Townhouse Gallery, not far from Tahrir Square. Sep 1–3, 2015, morning, afternoon, dinner, tea and talk in between. 25 writers, activists, journalists. We wanted to talk about what stories need to be told and commission five to eight of them and publish them.
We always believed that part of today’s problems, both politically and journalistically, was a limitation of scope and perspective. What Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra called “the West and the rest” turns into a true liability if it comes to describing this world and how it changes. The West looks at Egypt and sees first an uprising, violence, a revolution; then change, the end of the old, the beginning of something; democracy? The election turns out differently. The Muslim Brotherhood is not what the West bargained for. So when the new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over, there was a very loud silence from the part of Western governments.
It has been a rollercoaster ride and we came to listen and learn. Probably the most fascinating thing somebody told me in the last two days here in Cairo, the thing with the most far reaching implications, spanning the private and the political, the family and the state, regression and aggression and an overall unease with the way men are, was Egyptian writer, performer and director Nora Amin who said that Egyptian men are so spoiled by their mothers, so doted upon, so smothered with love that they go through life expecting this to never end.
Would the Middle East be a different place without these men? Probably. Is there a chance of that happening? Probably not. Do they care? No. Do they know? I guess not. Nora’s text was the first one that we published, it was a strong, moving, vulnerable text about rape and Tahrir and the everyday sexism of the Egyptian society. It was also about survival.
“Migrating the Feminine”, Nora Amin’s text, was published just after there were attacks by supposedly refugees on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve of 2015/2016. Her text was like a commentary to everything that went wrong in the German debate after the events, the blame, the prejudice, the xenophobia and islamophobia that was growing more and more at the time. We were proud to publish this text, and the German newspaper “taz” picked it up as well.
The next text was Youssef Rhaka’s very daring essay on “Arab Porn”, a provocative and mindful examination of the fundamental changes the Egyptian society is living through as seen through the prism of sexuality and home-made porn — it is also a questioning of the self-understanding of protest and activism about producing change versus the change that is happening anyway, away from the streets, apart from the news.
“It has been a rollercoaster ride and we came to listen and learn“
We will publish two more from the Cairo workshop in the coming weeks. One is by Alia Mossallam who tells the story of loosing friends in the Arab Spring, of torture and fear of oppression and the deeper story of migration across the Mediterranean — all channeled through her very difficult and painful childbirth; only this pain, it seems, allowed her to access the other pain.
The final text by Amr Ezra will be the most genre-bending, an account of a double-life, to say the least, the life of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood turned activist in the Arab Spring movement — without telling his father about it. It is a story about the basic contradictions that run through every society, but those in particular where religious fanaticism is ruling; the basic contradictions that run through every family, but those in particular where the fear of the open and the other is cultivated to a degree that encourages lying.
What can we take away from all of this? There is so much we don’t know. It is best if we just come to learn and listen.