Growing up in North Carolina, a generation removed from the Civil Rights Movement, I was certain from a young age that boycotts were important. But it wasn’t until I learned to spell boycott in Arabic, many years later, that I began to fully understand why.
Image: Woolworth lunch counter, site of the Greensboro, NC sit-ins of 1960
By the time I entered kindergarten in 1990, the civil rights chapter of Southern history had been whitewashed and edited for general consumption. The version I remember learning in elementary school had been emptied of controversy, even when it came to civil disobedience: one of my teacher’s assistants was the daughter of activists who had been arrested in the ‘60s for their politics. She was proud of them; I was proud to know her. Civil disobedience wasn’t ever described as something “illegal;” it was merely something good.
In the unexamined universe of my childhood, voting was another universal good. The right to vote was something people had given their lives for—very recently, it seemed—and was therefore enshrined so far above the details of one’s actual political choices that voting seemed not only a privilege, but a solemn duty.
In other words, votes and boycotts were simple and straightforward—but they were also separate. Because another thing was very clear: boycotting was not something you did to a vote. In the narrative I’d been handed, that would defeat the point.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011. I was living in Tangier, Morocco. Uprisings across the Arab world had unseated dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and shaken up politics elsewhere—including Morocco itself, where the February 20th movement was gaining momentum and demanding reform.
The monarchy had preempted demands for more radical change by swiftly producing a new and vastly overhauled constitution packed with all sorts of progressive peace offerings: it strengthened the powers and independence of the prime minister, parliament, and the judiciary, expanded personal rights, and even recognized long-marginalized Amazigh as an official language of the kingdom.
Proffered from above like manna from heaven, it was a master stroke from a king who for years has successfully bet his political survival on moves like this—which simultaneously brand him as a reform-minded, liberal monarch in the West and buttress his position of power as a beneficent patriarch within Moroccan society. Each carefully calculated concession he grants works to reinforce his position of strength as the guardian of the state, positioned above the political fray.
The constitution was put to a popular referendum (this all being done in the name of democracy, of course). Witnessing the vote that summer forced me to reconsider my thinking not only on voting itself, but on boycotts, too.
Flyer: Yes to the Constitution
Immediately after the new draft constitution was announced, the government and its supporters launched a massive campaign of marches, rallies, and flyers encouraging everyone to vote yes.
Yes to the Constitution shouted billboards and signs—along with dozens of children who waved them like flags and chased us through narrow alleyways, begging us to photograph them. I don’t remember seeing any flyers that said to vote no (though I’m sure there were some, somewhere).
What I do remember seeing were hundreds of pro-constitution flyers thrown like confetti through the air, flying out of cars and littering the streets of the city. I remember pro-constitution chants sung at marches that wound through the streets. Yes to the Constitution was printed on the banners and flyers that were plastered everywhere — not just in Tangier but in other cities as well. The message was all over the airwaves of radio and television, too. I even came across it in online banner ads.
The most visible messages countering this onslaught were calls to boycott the referendum entirely. These did not appear on neat uniform flyers or slick media campaigns like the “yes” vote materials, however. Boycott the Referendum was scrawled hastily as graffiti nearly everywhere I looked.
My gut reaction—the one I had been conditioned to produce—was a dismissal of this strategy. Boycotts were for other things; surely a no vote was a much clearer rejection of this constitution and the circumstances of its drafting, with no room for ambiguity about apathy or voter turnout. The vote was certainly going to pass; why not work to make its margin of victory a little less colossal?
Graffito: Boycott the Referendum
But as the persistence of the graffiti everywhere began to pull apart my assumptions, it was the morphology of the Arabic word for boycott that forced me to toss them aside so that I could view things from a wider and clearer angle.
In Arabic, the word for boycott occurs in a verbal form that often indicates actions undertaken mutually or communally. Through the insertion of a single letter, an alif—the first letter of the alphabet, written as a single upright vertical line (ا)—the root of a word takes on a new layer of meaning. The addition of this particular alif is what makes the difference between “write” and “correspond,” doing something and dealing with something, “convey” and “communicate.”
The essence of muqataʿa, the Arabic term for boycott, is not an individual action—but the accumulation of the actions of many. The contrast between the tidy pro-constitution flyers and the calls to boycott scribbled in spray paint was not a reason to write off vote boycotting as the recourse of disaffected youth too lazy to participate in the process. It was the opposite. It was the entire point.
This was not a command to قطع, to disrupt or interrupt or break something off. It was a call to قاطع, to participate in a communal action that constituted its own message. To boycott.
It sounds simple, perhaps, but it was the first time it had occurred to me that sometimes the best way to amplify one’s voice in a conversation is to refuse to sound it at all. It was a radical discovery.
To residents of Egypt—where I live now, and which just experienced its second constitutional referendum since 2011—the atmosphere surrounding the referendum in Morocco probably sounds familiar. Here and now, though, the political climate is even more charged. Political dissent is scarcer and scarcer, anyone with a camera is treated with suspicion, and so many activists have been arrested nobody can even keep count anymore.
A few weeks ago, when I brought my parents to see the Pyramids at Giza, we were greeted by a prominently placed banner in English and French (no doubt for our benefit) assuring us that Egyptians were both for the constitution and against terrorism. If not logically connected, these two stances have been juxtaposed so incessantly in Egyptian public discourse that they are now stuck together by sheer force. Following political developments in Egypt over the past seven months has led me back to considerations of voting and boycotts, but at times it all feels too overwhelming—or depressing—to grasp or process.
And so, as I did in Morocco in 2011, I’ve turned to Arabic for help. Starting in the wake of June 30, 2013, I’ve done this through translation—rendering into English voices and opinions that speak truth to power and are too often relegated to the margins, or too easily drowned out. The act of translating is political, but it is also deeply gratifying; some days, when my Twitter feed is too depressing for words, it’s working through the words of others that keeps me going.
In the most recent piece I translated, an op-ed originally published in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk, Egyptian scholar and anthropologist Reem Saad defended the principle of political refusal. “As both a personal decision and a political choice,” she wrote, “boycotting is a perfectly legitimate course of action.” She warned that that the fierce repression experienced by opponents of Egypt’s newest constitution, including those calling for a boycott of the referendum, does not bode well for the future of politics in Egypt.
Indeed, in the lead-up to Egypt’s referendum (which, like the Moroccan referendum of 2011, ended up passing with roughly 98% of the vote), boycott graffiti in Cairo seemed (admittedly, anecdotally) less prominent than it had been in Tangier. This was owing, no doubt, to the harsh measures taken against the referendum’s opponents, many of whom were either detained or accused of treason. But the violence of that repression also points to the power of the boycott and the real threat posed by a particular kind of dissent—of point-blank refusal; of opting out. With presidential and parliamentary elections on the horizon in Egypt, the issue of electoral boycotting is not going away anytime soon.
It’s not only on the Egyptian scene that boycott politics have been in the news lately; the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which began with a call from Palestinian civil society and targets Israeli human rights violations, has been gaining momentum and ground—and attention. Although U.S. foreign policymakers still squarely reject any calls to boycott Israeli anything, all Secretary of State John Kerry had to do to unleash a firestorm of controversy and accusations was drop the word “boycott” into a public statement last week.
BDS has also risen to prominence in the American academy as university divestment movements have grown, and as the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association recently adopted resolutions to boycott Israeli academic institutions (it’s worth reading the ASA’s direct and useful set of FAQs on the issue).
Despite the vitriol surrounding the reactions these movements have unleashed, they speak to the power of boycotting and illuminate its importance. In this atmosphere, a boycott takes on not just a tactical importance, but a strategic and symbolic one: it gestures towards a broader act of refusal, of rejecting current frameworks or structures and shifting the conversation. Many call the movement to boycott Israel ugly. If it is, that’s because it is targeting a very ugly reality. Boycotts are not romantic or pretty or glamorous, except in history books.
Romantic, pretty, and glamorous: Lebanese mezze on the Tangier corniche
Over the nearly ten years I’ve spent studying the Arab world and/or living in it, I’ve gradually come to abandon any ambitions I once had of being a political analyst, operative, scientist, or anything else remotely connected to Politics with a Capital P.
I’ve turned instead to a research agenda that is neither contemporary nor overtly political: I’m exploring how to better understand the history of food in the Middle East—by weaving together a string of historical pearls as diverse as classical medical encyclopedias, centuries-old guides to dream interpretation, and medieval sex manuals.
Despite the many reasons I believe this kind of work is important (and even political) in its own right, it’s also true that the turn is something of a lifestyle choice. Delving into the worlds of the literary and the historical offers a brief respite from the tragedies of the present. By the time I moved to Egypt last summer, I was sure I’d never again want to write about politics, let alone feel compelled to. And yet, here I am, writing about politics. Why?
Yesterday afternoon, while stuck in traffic, I put down my newspaper and picked up Akhbar al-Adab, a weekly literary journal. In its pages, I read that one of the recent explosions in Cairo had damaged a thirteenth-century manuscript that I had been hoping to study this year. It was a rare practical guide to the profession of an attar, the pharmacist-apothecary-herbalist figure that is still, for many, a cornerstone of Cairene life.
Headline: “The Destroyed Manuscripts”
(nb: thankfully, an article published after the one pictured here notes that none of the manuscripts were damaged beyond repair)
Adding to the many layers of tragedy surrounding the bombing (in which four people lost their lives, many more were injured, and Cairo’s Islamic Art Museum also sustained severe damage) is the fact that this particular manuscript had been written by a Jewish attar.
Sadder still is that in medieval Cairo, this would not have been read as exceptional—merely another facet of the pluralistic reality of urban life in pre-modern Egypt (another classic medical work recommended to me by today’s attars was an Ottoman-era handbook written by a Syrian Christian physician). The novelty, and practical impossibility, of a Jewish Egyptian attar in today’s Cairo lends the manuscript’s near-destruction a sobering symbolic dimension. The vibrant and glorious cosmopolitanism that once distinguished this part of the world has been eroding for decades—that much I knew from reading history. I’d thought that this legacy was just at risk of being forgotten; it turns out that it is also at risk of being destroyed.
This week, it was not SodaStream, graffiti, or opinion pages, but a literary journal that forcefully reminded me of something I had almost forgotten: that even by purposely avoiding the study of Politics with a Capital P, by opting out, by rejecting the status quo, by pointedly not voting, there’s really no escaping politics—even when we want to. However else it makes me feel, though, this truth also fills me with hope and the courage to continue writing, creating, doing, speaking, and translating, with no fear of irrelevance and no qualms about being marginal. The ironic and unstable truth at the heart of the boycott is not merely that it constitutes its own legitimate political and personal choice. It’s that there really is no boycotting politics, after all.
All photos by the author except for the image of the Greensboro lunch counter, which appears courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and the “No For Terrorism” banner picture, which was snapped by her father, John Gaul, from the front seat of a taxi.