Sunday, February 20, 2011

Egypt's Oasis in the Desert: Cairo's Lost & Found?

In her 1963 book, On Revolution, Hannah Arendt wrote poignantly of the "revolutionary tradition and its lost treasure." What was this trove of priceless gems and relics, with a noble pedigree few are aware of and without a name? Why was it lost? And what's this got to do with the events of January-February 2011 in Egypt?

Political freedom--the collective power of shaping the world we share by means of word and deed--comes and goes, Arendt observed. It springs up and disappears, like a fata morgana, though it's no illusion. Real but ephemeral, it's something that few think to tell the story of, in terms so consequential as those of History (capital-H). Its effects--unlike those of bombs, bacteria, or the birth of the internet--can be difficult to trace with certainty. Although, its unpredictable presence from time to time, here and there, can hardly be gainsaid, even by the most pragmatic, literal-minded or trepidatious souls.

For while History, after the postmodern "death of grand narratives," might have started to seem like a monotonous desert we are lost in--a confusing if not empty space without guideposts, direction, purpose, or hope of getting anywhere--, the desert in fact contains more life than some imagine, or are taught to expect. Deserts, Arendt observed, also harbor their sheltering, refreshing oases.

So is this--what philosophers call "political liberty," object of so many of Arendt's lovingly extended metaphors--the performance-art that the Cairenes have reinvented, belatedly, for the age of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? (And incidentally, is it true that these giants of new social media have merged, to form YouTwitFace?)

To read accounts in The New York Times is to believe so (all kidding--which, in the age of "Tweeting the Viral Revolution," not only intrudes, but seems inexorably a part of the otherwise deadly serious phenomena given to us to understand--aside).

"My relationship to the country has transformed," a young Egyptian filmmaker, Omar El-Zuhary, tells Mona El-Naggar. "People never used to talk to one another. This has been broken, and this is why I now want to stay--because I have a right to be here, I have a right to my identity, I have a right to this place" ("The Legacy of 18 Days in Tahrir Square,"

This two-fold legacy, then, Egypt has, apparently, for the moment, recovered: That of individual identity discovered in the exercise of collective agency, and the priceless experience of dignity that goes along with it. To wit: The streets of Tahrir Square are clean tonight. As one protester among many with a garbage bag explains, "I am cleaning because this is my home."

What comes next, no one yet knows. For now it is enough to be grateful that the United States long ago purchased Mubarak's army in exchange for peace with Israel, and so in effect bought a lease on life for Egypt's fledgling, still much beleaguered, civil society. A glance at the carnage in Bahrain and neighboring Libya is enough to remind one of the "price of freedom," and the uncertainty of the housing market in the Middle East.


Scott said...

A thoughtful and elegant opening piece! Very perceptive to bring in Arendt here! By the way, you look very BHL with that open silk shirt and exotic pendant -- nice! And should we read something subtle in the image of the overturned and unused goblet?

Michelle said...

Good that you're reading Arendt. I love those lines about the lost treasure, though I thought that was from Between Past and Future. I have spent some time pondering what she means by that....