What Happens After a Revolution:
Stories From Egypt

In Government by Salma El-Zamel

It was the summer of 2017 and I had just graduated from my MA in Globalization. It had been 6 years since the Arab Revolutions, and 7 years since my last visit to Egypt. By then I had developed a hobby out of documentary photography and was yearning for a good adventure. I was torn between capturing the aesthetics of Córdoba, Spain or capturing chronicles of everyday life of the long unvisited homeland.

In anthropology, we learn to harness two fundamental tools of communication, the language of the people we are researching and the language of the heart. Given that the latter is a harder skill to cultivate,  knowing Arabic in an Egyptian dialect was my asset for communication in Egypt. And so homeland it was. I packed my very first DSLR and decided to roam Egypt for three months—the longest period of time I have ever spent there. I visited villages, slums, and three cities in an attempt to capture fragments of an Egypt post-revolution.

Truth be told, I am not really sure what I was thinking. Capturing emotions through portraits is already difficult enough. Capturing daily habits, people’s interactions, time and space in a land surviving the instantaneous political and social changes in the aftermath of a revolution is a whole other tasking experience.

My aim was to try to capture the intimate emotions behind people’s habits and lifestyles. I wanted to explore the idea of kifah [resilience/ struggle] in Egypt beyond the powerful photojournalistic imagery of violent confrontations between the people and security forces, or beatings and mass gatherings that have bombarded our social media and TV screens. The goal was to hunt for those expressions of survival and coping mechanisms of daily life while being mindful of the traumas of the aftermath of a revolution. I was also sensitive to the almost lifelong post-colonial reality of the continuous re-imposition of emergency status and martial law lingering in the shadows of its political history.

In Egypt, Qanun al Tawariq [emergency law] is usually accompanied by Qanun A’skeri [martial law] to justify military intervention in times of social unrest. This combination of urgent laws are wrapped in their abrupt nature of sudden and fast legal changes due to sudden sociopolitical transformations. Emergency law was often imposed at times of revolutions, constant mass protests, war, coup d’etats, a rise in union strikes, economic instability, environmental crises, or even poverty. The instantaneous characteristic of such legal order has justified numerous arrests of anyone deemed a threat to the system, whatever their affiliation is. This magnificent portrayal of governmental power was first introduced to Egypt in 1914, under the British colonial administration (1882-1922). The purpose was to assert Egypt’s potent inclusion to the British Empire. Other than forceful arrests of colonial resistors, this allowed for an urgent imposition of new increased taxes of non-British foreigners who resided in Egypt during its colonialism. Subsequently, almost every single Egyptian president has announced emergency status one way or another.

For generations of Egyptians, it has become a norm to face the realities of emergency law. The question is thus, how do Egyptians cope with uncertainty? Egyptian Kifah embraces a subtleness that is not necessarily confrontational, yet remains resilient.

 A woman sitting at the entrance of a koshk [kiosk] of a small village, as children walk back home from school.

A common adage often repeated during my short stay was, “حط على قلبك مراوح بارده [Fan away your heart with cold air].” This pretty much means to chill. Chilling is a necessity to survive the instantaneity and anxiety of socio-political abruptness. It can also be entangled with an Islamic spiritual sense of tawakkul [trusting in God’s plan]. You need to harness the wisdom of chilling to survive Egyptian traffic, bargaining with almost everybody, or dealing with social services. People have become accustomed to starting their day with a plan knowing all too well that anything can happen to disturb it, political or not. This weariness was manifested in the most unique forms of psychological survivability. Allow me to introduce you to Egyptian satire (or dark comedy).

Friends joking and conversing while being served tea and coffee in front of their stores at Khan al Khalili, Cairo. A very common sight and form of ‘chilling’ in Egypt.

Egyptian humour is bittersweet. It is just the right amount of bitterness wrapped with the right amount of honey. This has always been reflected in Egyptian movies and shows such as Asl Eswed [Black Honey/ Molasses], Alzheimer’s, al Irhab wa al Kabab [Terrorism and Kabab] or Excuse My French, just to name a few. Sociopolitical satire reached its pinnacle through Bassem Yousef’s show, el Bernameg (2011-2014). Like all good pieces of satire, it was equally a source of national pride and national shame. Egyptian movies and TV shows are artistic platforms that address international and national political conflicts in metaphorical and symbolic means, such as tensions between Coptics and Muslims, Egyptian political factions, terrorism, immigration, police brutality, even mental illness and sexual assault. All of which reflect an Egyptian culture of comedy and satire that is adopted in the streets to ease the people’s harsh trials of life.

For instance, on the 8th of October, my trip to a grocery store was punctuated by a customer complaining to the store owner about the newly imposed increase in taxes. In response, the store owner joked about how all that does not matter so long as Egypt makes it to the 2018 World Cup, winning against Congo. Low and behold, Egypt did secure a spot in the 2018 World Cup! The game ended 2-1 in favour of Egypt.

Egypian traditional street cafes are usually arabesque in design and are a common hub for particularly Egyptian men to gather and watch soccer matches together. El Moez Street, Cairo.

In celebration, people were crying, teens fled the streets blowing cheering horns and waving flags. And the cars! The cars did not stop honking rhythms of victory all night long. And yet the next day, taxes increased despite people expressing anxiety over price inflation. What happened? Humour, and maybe a borderline national soccer fanaticism served as a form of group bonding and solidarity. They serve as a form of collective resilience in the face of adversity.

The Egyptian flag hung to dry out a day after hefty celebrations of Egypt qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, The City of the Dead Necropolis, Cairo.

That does not mean that Egyptians lack critique, or a seriousness to their oftentimes challenging reality of maneuvering revolutions, poverty, national instability and now the anxiety of a grim environmental and water crisis. Rather, I was amused by a much more personal form of private survivability – stillness. Stillness was a frequent state I found many people in. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Cairo, there were those exceptional moments of stillness.

Two women sitting in front of the entrance of al Hussain Mosque, Cairo.

I cannot fathom what those people were thinking, but I could not help but snap away in hopes of capturing those unusual moments of quietness in the midst of all the noise and the rowdiness of the crowd. In all the villages, the slums, the cities, and towns I visited, there was always someone who either stood or sat still observing their surroundings, lost in their thoughts, or just breathing.

A senior woman sitting at the entrance of her apartment building at the City of the Dead, Cairo.

There was a captivating spirituality to such silence. I am not sure if it tapped into an inner feeling of contentment, perception, tranquillity, or maybe even resentment, but to be part of such silence is one of those gifting moments of rootedness for a photographer. To Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental studies, they are one of those seldom moments of contemplation – a moment with the Creator and creation leaving impressions that would possibly last a lifetime.

 A man sitting  at one of the enormous medieval windows of the Madrassa-Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo.

To me, there was an overwhelming grace in the rootedness of stillness as a form of personal resilience that intricately compliments the collective resilience of dark comedy. I hope that through these photos, there is an acknowledgment of the power of the less confrontational modes of survivability and social habits. Even maybe a form of subtle activism of perseverance through the uncertainty of life. I went to Egypt expecting to document defeat, only to be taught by the Egyptian people the power in dignifying daily resilience through living with humour, chillness, and stillness.