19 January 2014

Love for The Square

When you leave the Arab world, when you leave grad school to follow a job where you work primarily with well-to-do white people, it becomes very easy to let yourself be caught up in the day to day minutia of your daily life.  It becomes very easy for you to focus on yourself, and your career, and building an adult life for yourself.

I'm not ashamed of what I am doing, because I chose to leave North Africa and I chose to follow a career.  But I have begun to realize as of late that I do not want to leave the MENA region behind, like I did with the Spanish-speaking world when I chose to follow my passion for Arabic.

Fortunately, there's a Middle East section on Netflix.  And there's an Arabic professor at the Naval Academy who has taken an interest in me.  So I've begun to cobble together bits and pieces of the Arabic world into my life.

Today, these bits and pieces brought me back to Egypt.  Ever since I began to learn about Egypt while living in Morocco, it has been a bit of an enigma to me.  I visited in 2000, and questioned from a tour bus, "Why are those little kids throwing rocks at us?" and the smell of diesel-filled air mixed with sandstorm was forever imprinted into my mind (thought it took me another 12 years to be able to identify that it was actually diesel exhaust that I had been smelling).

While I was there in 2000, I also was in Tahrir Square, though I only remember walking through the large pink doors of the National Museum, and how hot it was in the place in July.  It would be another 13 years until I truly understood the significance of this place.




Enter my review for today, the documentary The Square, or in Arabic, Al-Midan.  Watching this film was incredibly personal, not only because of the handful of Egyptians I've come to known and care for (a teacher, a friend, a blogger, and a student), but because of the way it was told from the point of view of al-shabab or the youth.  These are the real Millennials.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been in the Arab world on January 25, 2011, and have spoken here before about it.  There was never any doubt that I would be on the side of the 'revolutionaries' as this film calls them, and I have gotten in fights over whether or not revolution and protest is the answer.  In fact, whilst defending the revolution was the only time I ever felt unwelcome in Morocco.  But I digress.

This film reaffirmed my belief in revolutions, in youth, in social justice, and in the power of listening to the other side.  In the characters in this film, I saw the ones I've loved in Morocco, and remembered how much I wished for them to have the will to fight for something better.  In Ahmed, I saw my students at the youth center who yearned for both employment and meaning in their lives.  In Aida, I saw one of my best friends from my small town, Latifa, who was fighting for a better life for her as a woman.  In Khalid, I saw the frustrations of my intellectual friend Simo when faced with backwardness, violence, and conservatism.  And in Magdy, I saw the best of my religious friends and the fathers of my students who would do anything to create a better life for their children.  There was a quality, a passion, a sparkle in the eye of everyone I met in this film that reminded my heart why I've committed myself to investing in Arabs, Middle Easterners, and their world.

On a more critical level, I also appreciated this film for both recognizing its biases, and attempting to overcome them, to give a voice to the under-represented groups in this film (I can't believe I just used the world 'under-represented' to describe the Egyptian army).  One particularly powerful scene where a high-ranking officer claimed, after a cursory glance at a photograph, that a bullet didn't look to him to be an Egyptian army bullet, did much to illuminate just how in denial these people are.

Moreover, many secularists I've read and talked to about Egypt automatically dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood as jihadi or terrorist, whereas this filmmaker humanizes the struggles of the people on the ground, perhaps trying to give an uneducated viewer a glimpse into the complexities of the Egyptian political landscape.

This film is available on Netflix, and is also the first Egyptian film nominated for an Oscar.  Inshallah, because of its many ties to the intelligentsia and the rich (if not the powerful) of many Western nations, and of course a very well-connected, well-designed, targeted social media campaign, this film will reach out just enough beyond Arab and Arabist circles to remind people that the struggle in Egypt did not and cannot end with the resignation of two strongman leaders.



Next time on Arabesques, a eulogy.  Or perhaps musings on Iran.  Stay tuned!



News and Links Related to The Square

Khalid Abdulla writes for Jadaliyya on how Egyptians can and need to make sure their voices are still heard.

Al-Jazeera English considers violence in Egypt as it grew over the summer of 2013.

Omar Robert Hamilton mourns the early days of the revolution.

YouTube page of Ramy Essam, the 'bard' of the revolution.

A discussion of The Square focusing on the contributions of artists to the revolution.

The director, Jehane Noujaim, discusses her film on the Daily Show.

Washington Post and New York Times reviews of the film.

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