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Radio conversations with the liveliest minds inside an ongoing revolution
Radio conversations with the liveliest minds inside an ongoing revolution
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With John Hockenberry today on NPR

I'm gabbing here this morning with John Hockenberry about "Arab Artists in a Revolution."

Thank you, dear sponsors.

And thank you for the gift of podcasting -- which lets these conversations run on:

Chris Lydon

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Coffee Hour on Cairo: A Collective Work of Art

Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It happens because it had to happen...
Victor Hugo, in the thick of the people's revolt in Paris in 1832, in Les Miserables, the prized Norman Denny translation, Penguin edition, p. 720.

Click to listen to Chris' conversation with Barbara Massaad (32 min, 15 meg)

Mark Fonseca Rendeiro and I are comparing impressions here of our "conversational immersion" in Cairo toward the end of last year. At the two-year mark, the Egyptian "revolution" is still young by the measure of the 18th Century models in France and America. To have felt the paroxysm of people power in Tahrir Square again last month is to know that nothing about the upheaval in Egypt is "over." Charles Dickens prepared us, of course, to see flashes of paradox in these "best of times" and "worst of times" when history comes unhinged. We saw chapters of a very dark story, the evidence of horrific injuries and cruel losses of life, and revelations of deep old distortions in Egyptian society, also in American policy. We also got close to a lot of thrilling stories of the shit people won't take; of blind courage and human intuition of the moment to act, to put their dignity and their lives on the line.

The rockets of big news as soon as we got to Cairo were astonishing: the mighty renewal of mass protest in Tahrir Square; the Israeli descent, guns blazing, on defenseless Gaza; the gruesome, preventable train-bus collision that dragged 51 Egyptian children to excruciating death; President Mohamed Morsi's reach for dictatorial power; then the popular ratification of a pot-luck constitution... We'd come looking for reflections and connections and found them, too. Mark puts it forcefully here. American-born, with lively roots in today's Portugal, he's an esteemed solo practitioner of digital journalism, based in Amsterdam. In Egypt he came to realize "I was amongst family and people I could relate to -- and a struggle that doesn't seem so alien to me."

Here's the kernel of it for me. I went looking for artists to reflect on events in Egypt. I came back thinking of the ongoing mass revolt in Tahrir Square as, in itself, more like a work of art than anything else. It marks a moment of desperate insight into "the real" (in Victor Hugo's sense above) and contagious courage in facing it. I was making a connection (before Greg Buchakjian mentioned it) with Picasso's Guernica. It's not a peaceful picture. It is a sustained cry from a tortured imagination of blind fury, doubt, agony and decision. It represents an inspired stab in the dark -- not by Picasso in the case of Tahrir Square but by a million or more people scared reckless. It was something more than a political event: more like a communal birth, or death, an organic explosion. It seemed to speak for the whole species, a resolution "to act," in Tony Judt's phrase, "upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe." I kept thinking: what if a million goats had shown up in Tahrir Square? Or a million earthworms? Or a million Glossy Ibises? We would still be looking up in wonder. We'd know: they're saying something! They're on to something we haven't seen clearly and they don't spell all the way out. But in truth, as Mark says, the brave mobs in Tahrir Square are our close cousins, voicing pain and fear that billions of people know -- under tyranny, in extreme poverty, under a mortal threat to their habitat and ours, to our common future as human beings. We will not forget that uncanny resonance of Tahrir Square -- the aura of a collective work of art.

Greg Buchakjian in Beirut: On a Course of Catastrophe

Click to listen to Chris' conversation with Greg Buchakjian(45 min, 21 meg)

Gregory Buchakjian looks at the Arab uprisings of the last two years and sees not an exception but an extension -- at best a pause, not a change, along a course of catastrophe. The pattern of the Middle East since 1945, he's saying, has been warfare that resolves nothing: that always stops short of treating the agony of Palestinians displaced and more recently occupied by the young state of Israel. Do we know yet what it means that tyrannies have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia? Or that vicious close-up war has broken out in Libya and Syria? "In Lebanon," he says, "we are used to saying -- 'we don't know.' We're in a region that gets relief now and then, but not reconciliation. We're scanning the Arab upheavals from the intersection of Greg Buchakjian's artistic passions, photography and history, and from the views not far from his window of war damage and construction cranes in his hometown Beirut. He is my kind of informed, digressive, mercurial talker with angles that could sound unconventional in America, but not unrecognizable...

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut. Photo by Leonardo Matossian.[/caption] The French have an expression, le sens de l'histoire, the direction of history, mainly based on the French Revolution and the American Revolution that preceded it. The meaning is that history moves from dark ages to enlightenment and the liberation of people. Well, I don't agree with that 'direction of history.' We are living today in an era of neo-liberalism when the world is commanded by brokers and bankers... We are not moving toward enlightenment and humanism. The world is going toward the enrichment of a category of people who are ruling over economic empires. So if the direction of history is to let some companies take the place of states and empires, I don't see myself in it. I don't find it a good direction... We are talking about the Arab world, which is one of the most violent regions in the world. I am not optimistic about the Arab world because I am not optimistic about the world as a whole.
Gregory Buchakjian in conversation with Chris Lydon in Beirut, December 2012.

I am trying out on Greg Buchakjian my romantic notion that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were pushing a "universal panic button" for all of us -- about their habitat and ours, their economics of inequality and our, about blind state brutality far and wide. He hears rather "a cry of despair" in the revolts today and two years ago, speaking directly for a population that is young, poor, angry and out of luck in its current prospects. Either way, is the ongoing Arab rebellion a signal that the world can hear? Greg Buchakjian is drawn to smaller readings and smaller gestures -- toward the planting of walnut trees in Lebanon; or, in Japan, to the farmers who are engaging ducks to fight insects that infest rice plants. Or in his own case, to making a photographic record of the houses and lives being crushed and abandoned in the real estate war -- "and it is a war" -- in Beirut as we speak.

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian[/caption]

Barbara Massaad in Beirut: Make Food, not War.

Click to listen to Chris' conversation with Barbara Massaad (19 min, 21 meg)

BEIRUT -- Barbara Massaad, writer and chef, in her kitchen, is telling us a terrific story about the all-conquering cult of food in Lebanon. And I am asking her: no kidding, what if we demanded that cooks and musicians run this ugly world, starting here in Beirut and, by all means, next door in Syria.

When you talk about food to a Lebanese, you bring them back to their childhood with a big smile. Once I was in Nabatiyeh, deep in the south of Lebanon, and I was taking pictures of a sign that said "Garlic" or something. And this guy from Hezbollah comes up to me and starts screaming! Like, 'Yaaaah! You're not allowed to photograph that! What do you think you're doing?' And I said: Look, food! This is what I am doing. And I started showing him my book on Man'oushé -- about local varieties of 'thyme pie' in Lebanon. And suddenly this ferocious guy became like a little boy. 'Aaah,' he said, 'you've got to come and visit my mom. She makes the best food in the world.' And then it was like: 'I promise I will come back and visit your mom.' And he said: 'take as many pictures as you want. I'm really sorry.' This is the effect that food has on Lebanese people. It's a maternal thing. It's childhood. It's the root of everything.      Barbara Abdeni Massaad in conversation with Chris Lydon and Mark Rendeiro in Beirut, December 2012.

At the ragged edge of the Arab upheaval, Beirut is enjoying yet another constuction boom. Gracious old Ottoman-era houses are disappearing fast near the ever-bustling Hamra Street. New luxury apartments are sprouting up next to shot-up shells of 1960s hotels, described as too big to tear down, too damaged to repair...

Talking about food is, of course, a way of not talking about everything else on Lebanon's mind. Thousands of refugees are turning up from Syria. There's a palpable dread that Syria's civil war could run as long as Lebanon's (1975 to 1990). And there's a real danger that Lebanon's politics -- aligned for and against the Assad regime in Damascus -- could go haywire again. Then again, food talk reflects and connects with everything else -- village cheeses match local and tribal loyalties in this dense mosaic of minorities.

Barbara Massaad has published two handsome books of slow-food lore, both rich with social implications. Mouneh is the old Lebanese folk science of preserving food -- drying and pickling, for example -- to survive war and other disasters. Man'oushé used to be every Lebanese person's daily bread, in infinite local varieties, dressed with onions, olives, tomatos, spiced with zaatar, or not. Man'oushé is her dream remedy for almost everything that ails the Arab world. "It's a poor man's food, but you see the richest people eating it," she is telling us. Man'oushé is the work of magnetic, gossipy local bakeries where, as in England's "local" pubs, "you find out who's going out with whom, what the president said, and what Hassan Nasrallah spoke about last night." If she could summon the energy, Barbara Massad says, she'd open a place with food for everyone. "It wouldn't be that expensive -- food for all walks of life. Something with lentils -- but this divine lentil soup!"

So, what if man'oushé, lentil soup and good music are the basic program?

Guy Talk in Cairo: the "heavenly gift" of Tahrir Square

Click to listen to Chris' conversation with three young activist-thinkers in Cairo (21 min, 10 meg)

So three Egyptian guys walked into a coffee shop in Cairo... and this is what we talked about. (1) The culture of fear in a "securitized state." (2) The burden of spying, torture, cynicism, suspicion, anti-solidarity in Egypt under the late Mubarak dictatorship and (3) the despair that transformed itself finally -- maybe miraculously -- into a revolutionary force. (4) The 'heavenly gift' of Tahrir Square and (5) the dread that it may be running out.

Thinkers and activists Fouad Halbouni, Ali Al Raggal and Amr Abdel Rahman at Groppi's in Downtown Cairo. Mark Rendeiro Photo

We are in Groppi's, a faded old Swiss tea-room in Downtown Cairo -- in the bustling "lost European dream of Cairo," as my friend the anthropologist Fouad Halbouni puts it. The talkers here are three educated activists: social-science-minded graduate students. I am asking about shifts in the emotional ground that may run deeper than politics, transformations that come out as personal.

What broke the culture of fear in Tahrir Square was ... a miracle in some sense. All of a sudden there was that glimpse from the future, that a new collectivity is possible. It's as if you have seen a future that you can identify with, a model you can show to the people saying that: here in Tahrir Square there's a vision from a country where we can all win, if you come to Tahrir Square... Suddenly, there's a place in the city where something different is unfolding, and it's worth fighting for. Definitely the change has been very little since the 25th of January [2011]. Very very limited, and confined to certain areas. But there's something for sure that we can tell people, that we have Tahrir Square behind us. That moment is in the back of everybody's mind -- and nobody could exclude it from the public memory. It is our "Yes We Can," if we can put it this way. It exactly is. Now the new system is again manipulating that same old cynicism, the fear. But now we can confidently say: we're fine. Guys, we did it before. It is possible. 

Amr Abdel Rahman, "another miserable graduate student" in politics. 

If anything would last out of that revolutionary spark in Tahrir, it would be a different relationship between the people and the state. The security apparatus has taken a strong blow. The Muslim Brotherhood has been in many ways trying to resurrect it -- what we call "the dignity of the state," the thinking that the rule of law always has to take a certain brutal force or blindness. This has been broken with the people, to the point where the state can appear very weak. Such as: they would use that discourse of might, and "state dignity," about the graffiti. A month ago you had the state wanting to erase the graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, for instance. They wanted to put trucks to guard, after they'd repainted the wall, that no one would draw again. What kind of state would have all those trucks feeding this question about the graffiti painters? Actually the graffiti artists went back while the trucks were there, and they repainted the wall. This could be a small gesture, but it shows something monumental coming between the state and the people. We have begun a new chapter. 

Fouad Halbouni, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. 

The conversation is moving, but it's in a bit of stagnation. There is an insistent question on us: how are we going to march forward on this path of emancipation? What's needed more than this? Now there is a clear problem within the society itself. It's how we convince other sectors to push forward. It's a difficult question now, because a lot of people are emphasizing stability again -- too much -- and we're seeing the same old tactics and methodologies. 

Ali Al Raggal, political sociologist, focused on conflict and security.

Actually the revolution is continuing in some form, and that's what gives me hope. But things are not clear. This is what makes me more hopeful. We'll see. 

Fouad Halbouni.