Last December, when the Institut d’Egypte was burned down, I thought immediately of Edward Said. Napoleon’s expedition to Europe is described at the beginning of Orientalism, where it is a classic example of how academic and scientific discoveries anticipate and enable imperial conquest. The Institut was established shortly after Napoleon’s invasion, and remained a powerful reminder of that episode until it was set on fire by a Molotov cocktail thrown during protests between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and anti-SCAF protesters.
The act, presumably the work of a pro-SCAF provocateur intending to libel the protesters (more on that here), seems to represent a revolutionary image of transition from a region which, in 2011, started to disseminate a mass of images to the rest of the world, images authored by civilians in those countries which demonstrated an assumption of political agency by the people, sadly absent today in the capitals of the ‘free’ world.
In January, Al Jazeera published Hussein Omar’s forceful response to suggestions that Egypt was incapable of protecting its own cultural heritage. The volunteer operation to order and restore the rare holdings of the Institut library after the fire is an important part of this narrative, as is the huge donation of books by Sheik Sultan al-Qasimi. In both instances the preservation of Egypt’s cultural heritige is not a condition of Western imperialism, and in this spirit Omar wrote that:
More than ever, a deep engagement with Egypt’s heritage will allow them to engage in the important and political role of questioning the totalising narratives that the Egyptian state has long attempted to impose.
The rejection of these totalising narratives appears to have been a consistent characteristic of the ongoing Egyptian revolution, in which state imposition appears increasingly legible, and undermined by individual acts of protest, graffiti, art. The imposition of a totalising dialectic which Said sketches out in Orientalism has receded in this mass of new images from North Africa.
Shortly before his death in 2003, Said reasserted that the “orient”, in the context of George Bush’s Middle Eastern adventures, was still a potent political force: the “orient”, he argued, ‘that semi-mythical construct which since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century has been made and remade countless times.’
More recently, however, Hamid Dabashi has theorised the end of orientalism – and postcolonialism – in two books: The Arab Spring: The end of Postcolonialism (2011) and Postorientalism: Knowledge and Power in a Time of Terror (2008). You can watch a video of Dabashi discussing the Egyptian revolutions with David Harvey and Anthony Alessandrini, here, in which he claims that: “this is a book that comes out of a deep sense of belonging with this revolutionary moment … and contrary to what metropolitans call the participant-observer, I am not an observer in the Arab revolutions, I’m a participant …”
This Thursday (one day after the first round of Egyptian presidential elections), Ahdaf Soueif – Egyptian émigré novelist and founder of Palfest, now based in London – will give the Edward Said lecture at the British Museum. Her title is “Mina’s Banner: Edward Said and the Egyptian Revolution”, which takes its name from “Mina Danial, the young Coptic activist killed by the military in Cairo on October 9, 2011, in the Maspero massacre.” Maspero, the building in downtown Cairo which houses the state television and radio station (and named after French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero) was where Soueif had her first job. In February, Yasmin El-Rashidi wrote about encountering the novelist in Tahrir Square:
I approached her myself when I too, realised who she was; she spoke first of women and their extraordinary role in the revolt, and then looked me in the eye and said that she had dreamt of this. “I had a vision of revolution. It happens in Tahrir – Liberation Square.” (Guardian)
Soueif’s book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution begins:
Many years ago I signed a contract to write a book about Cairo; my Cairo. But the years passed, and I could not write it. When I tried it read like an elegy; and I would not write an elegy for my city.
If it was Soueif’s presence in Cairo which enabled this departure from the elegiac vision of Cairo towards an conception of the city in the revolutionary present, it will be interesting to see how far she agrees with Dabashi’s theoretical sense that the conditions of ‘orientalism’ have vanished from contemporary political cartographies.
* Soueif’s lecture, with contributions from Omar Al-Qattan and Jacqueline Rose, is on Thursday at the British Museum (more details here).