A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Muhammad Mahmoud Street Becomes Graffiti Central

This and other stills below from suzeeinthecity.com
I've noted before that Muhammad Mahmoud Street, the street in downtown Cairo where I ;lived back in 1977-78, became a key battleground in November and then again earlier this month after the Port Said football deaths. It has also been a major venue for Cairo's revolutionary graffiti scene, with the American University in Cairo's walls providing the canvas. Al Jazeera English takes note of the fact and provides this video:

A lot of attention has been paid to graffiti in all the Arab revolutions, and especially in Egypt. (Not njust in countries in open revolt either: here's a site on Saudi street art.)  I've posted the occasional photo or link, but haven't talked about it in detail. Perhaps the Muhammad Mahmoud development is a good reason to do so. Besides the pharaonic themes I'm reproducing here, the walls also contain portraits of the dead supporters of the Ahly football team who died at Port Said, often depicted with wings.

Blogger suzeeinthecity, whose blog regularly posts collections of graffiti and who occasionally interviews the artists, has an appeal to AUC to leave the current art up on its wall. The photo at top, much of the Al Jazeera video, and the pharaonic themed paintings below are all on the AUC walls. As she puts it:
Dear AUC,
You will probably not listen to me – why should you? I’m clearly no art expert with any weight to throw around – but please don’t paint over this wall. These artists have worked tirelessly for two weeks to commemorate the deaths of 75 young men, including a student of yours, working days and nights through tear gas and riots to pay tribute to the dead.
This, in my humble opinion, is a masterpiece. And you clearly have bigger things to worry about, such as the fact that every single side street down Mohamed Mahmoud has been blocked by concrete slab walls, or that the military has turned your area into a war zone and has no problem shooting students, doctors or journalists. Or the fact that your Greek Campus SS Building has had a fire on its upper floor, and probably several other properties have been harmed in the past months of clashes. And who knows what more violence the future will bring?
As an institution that teaches art and publishes books on Egyptian art, including one on graffiti soon, please take pride in this mural on your walls, and instead of removing it, protect it. Show it off as a symbol of how your campus was in a pivotal location in so many historical events that have shaped our country for the past year.
But clearly this will fall on deaf ears and you will paint over it all. NB: painting a wall gives a new canvas to a graffiti artist. They will keep coming back. Just so you know. You might as well save the paint. Your effort is futile.
I don't know her identity, but I'm sure AUC knows Al Jazeera English's identity, and while I have no particular clout there either, I see no reason not to note that preserving this work of street art seems worth doing. She has a much fuller collection of the Muhammad Mahmoud photos here.

One of the interesting things about the Egyptian graffiti is that a number of graffiti artists with distinctive styles have emerged, often signing their work and gaining a following, such as Ganzeer. Someone could write a book on the subject and if AUC press is up to their usual quality, I imagine they'll publish it.

The pharaonic themes are recurrent: this by Alaa Awad:

Another pharaonic theme:

And this by Muhammad Alaa:

There are good views of these in the AJE clip above, as well. I find the pharaonic theme intriguing, since the vast majority of the graffiti I've seen has been standard revolutionary street art: some of it stenciled, some painted, but mostly contemporary, political, and often aimed at either demonizing or insulting authority. That's worth preserving too, and some of it is clever. But this seems to transcend that. It evokes the deep past and the Egyptian identity.

The walls along Muhammad Mahmoud saw plenty of graffiti in November and December, most of it quickly painted over (hence the above plea to leave the current art in place). Here's an interesting palmpsest of graffiti along the stret from late last year, also from suzeeinthecity. It's more the typical mix of slogans and scrawled graffiti, with one quite clever item (and one crude one). Although I mainly want to talk about the Arabic, it needs a language warning due to an English expletive on the same wall, which English readers will naturally gravitate to first:

The most interesting part is not the profanity, though I'll address that too, but the part on the right, painted to resemble one of the plaques used to give street names. It reads "Street of the Field Marshal's Massacre (Formerly Muhammad Mahmoud)."  No doubt long since painted over,the mimicking of the street sign struck me as notable (and others, as I've seen other photos of it from differing angles).

The painting to its left, in the colors of the flag, with the manacled hands, reads "Freedom Must Come." On the left, under the obvious "Fuck SCAF," (sorry: there's little point in my using asterisks here, as it's right there in the picture), is something about the Field Marshal in Arabic, possibly (?) Tiz ya Mushir, which would be rude, but not as rude as the English,and hard to translate exactly (possibly in the "Up yours" range of offensiveness).

This brings up a delicate subject I've noted, at least from my long distance perch, though discussing it may offend some readers. I can't really talk about it without giving examples, so first, strong language warning in both English and Arabic. Nor do I wish to suggest that most of the graffiti is vulgar: from what I've seen, it's not, and I hope mentioning it here doesn't offend too many readers (if the photo above upsets you, stop reading) nor do I want to imply that profanity is common. But I think it's an interesting linguistic observation, even if I have to cite offensive language to make it: at least in terms of the graffiti photographed by bloggers, English profanity (mostly "Fuck SCAF," and before that, Mubarak) has seemed much more common than Arabic, at least as graffiti if not in speech, despite Arabic's rich wealth of vocabulary for cursing and obscenity. I've seen the same "Fuck SCAF" phrase in photos of a tent in Tahrir, and on lots of walls (and #FuckSCAF became a common Twitter hashtag). On the other hand, strong language in Arabic, while heard on plenty of YouTube videos and angry Twitter posts in Arabic, doesn't appear as much on walls, at least in the graffiti photos I've seen (exception below). Once again, I'm not there, and perhaps those taking the photos are self-censoring in Arabic, or the authorities are painting over Arabic profanity before it can be photographed. Or perhaps it's the revolutionaries themselves, more willing to curse in English than in Arabic (what if grandma found out?). I suspect in all seriousness it's an attempt not to alienate and offend the less-educated populace (who are conservative and would object) but who would be unable to read the English, combined with the cachet among many young elite Egyptians of English, especially transgressive English.

But they definitely don't appear to be as quick to use profanity in Arabic on walls (again: they seem to use it in their chants, though). Also from one of suzeeinthecity's earlier collections, I found one graffiti use of very strong Arabic — but it uses the equivalent of asterisks:

In small script at the top: "Connect the dots:" then "*** umm al-Maglis al-‘Askari." Anyone knowing Arabic (probably even the hypothetical grandma mentioned above), will know that the missing three letters are kuss (the u is not written), the most vulgar Arabic term for the vagina, followed by "of the mother of SCAF" (profanity rarely makes sense in any language). It's easily the functional equivalent of "Fuck SCAF," and arguably even more taboo, given recent trends in English. Yet it's censored with the dots instead of the word. It's the equivalent of "**** SCAF." Readers know what is meant, but unlike the English above, it's not actually written. Standard for newspapers, perhaps, but on a graffiti wall?

Apologies for the brief diversion into revolutionary cursing. There's a scholarly article in there somewhere, perhaps for comparative linguists. I hope I haven't detracted from the genuine art above.

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