Uprisings in Translation
I recently met someone who is a former student of the American University in Cairo, and has been working on an interesting cultural study. While most of us read about Arab Spring in US news, its always more personal and interesting to hear something first hand. Here's a project by an American student that tracks the dissident voice by translating Egypt's graffiti:
Uprisings in Translation is a blog that chronicles the graffiti that has appeared on the streets since the January 25 uprising. The author, who now lives and works in the Egypt said she "became very committed to Egypt during the and continuing revolution." As a student of Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic, she explains her initial idea for starting the blog:
What initially started out as project to educate non-Arabic speakers about different Egyptian candidates and political parties soon became much more 'culturally' focused. I found contextualizing the graffiti to be very enjoyable and educational."
Here's a little online interview that I got with the blog's creator that explains some of the ideas behind her project:
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What brought you to Cairo - how long have you been studying there?
I first came to Cairo in 2009 to study for a semester at the American University in Cairo; I was a Middle Eastern Studies and History double-major and Arabic minor in college so wanted to spend some time in the Middle East before graduating.
I returned to Egypt in November 2010, six months after graduating from college, to continue learning Arabic and gain some more working/'living' experiences in the region. My original plan was to leave Cairo after half a year or so and go to Lebanon or Syria, but became very committed to Egypt during the January 25 uprising and continuing revolution.
When did you start UprisingsInTranslation - do you have any help from friends?
I started Uprisings in Translation at the beginning of November 2011. I'd been thinking of some interesting project ideas or topics for potential articles about Egypt when my friend suggested I translate the campaign posters and flyers that were suddenly all over the city in the run-up to the first round of elections (which started in late November). What initially started out as project to educate non-Arabic speakers about different Egyptian candidates and political parties soon became much more 'culturally' focused. I found contextualizing the graffiti to be very enjoyable and educational.
I was hesitant at first to devote my blog almost entirely to graffiti. Street art has become a very 'sexy' topic since the revolution started in January and there have been endless articles about graffiti and changing perceptions of public space. Additionally, several of the more famous Egyptian street artists have resented how much attention they've received and how they and their art have become so politicized.
Despite my reservations, I found that explaining the cultural significance and references in the graffiti could offer a different individual, and nuanced perspective than what we often see in the news. Understanding what's going on in Egypt is difficult enough for a foreigner living here, therefore I can't imagine what people who are in America, or anywhere else outside of Egypt, must think. I think the blog offers a unique insight.
I often ask Egyptian friends for help translating phrases and understanding cultural references. I certainly could not do a lot of the work without their help.
Was it more of your background in language, or an interest in street art that sparked the idea for your project?
Prior to starting the blog, I'd taken few pictures of the graffiti I'd seen around Cairo (something I really regret now since government employed maintenance workers are continually painting over graffiti - some very good artwork is now 'lost') and just enjoyed looking at it while wandering around Cairo. I've been studying Arabic for 5 years and wanted a translation project, so it was definitely more my background in language that sparked Uprisings in Translation. I eventually plan to get my Master's and PhD in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, so am toying with somehow incorporating Uprisings In Translation into my graduate work.
What was the first time you remember seeing street art - how do you think it differs from what it seen in...say New York?
It could be because street art wasn't talked about at the time, but I don't recall seeing street art in Egypt prior to the revolution. I'd seen phrases such as "God Is Great" written on bridges and benches around the city, but nothing too political. Although freedom of speech in Egypt is still essentially non-existent, Egyptians' fear of publicly discussing politics and criticizing the ruling regime has really been "broken." I clearly remember how hesitant my Egyptian friends were to criticize Mubarak and his regime in public. Now, everywhere you go people are talking about politics, and you see "down with the military regime" and "Tantawi is a traitor" written on public spaces throughout the city.
Just like with citizen journalism, there has been an explosion of street art in Cairo throughout the continuing uprising. Perhaps in comparison to what we see in New York, almost everything I've seen in Cairo makes some sort of political statement.
What do most students at your school think of the protests? Do you agree?
(I'm actually not in school right now, studying Arabic with a private tutor, was interning at a refugee services NGO, and am now hoping to get into journalism)
Peoples' thoughts on the revolution are all so dependent on their personal situations. The economic situation is bad, many businesses aren't doing well, people feel that there is a lack of security, etc. The excitement and optimism in the immediate post-Mubarak Egypt is fading, especially now that people realize how long and difficult it will be to change the system, re-configure entrenched mindsets, and achieve the goals of the revolution. These feelings, combined with the skewed information that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and Egyptian state TV and radio present, have made many Egyptians resent the continuing protests (but not the "Revolution" as such). There are a lot of people who long for the 'stability' of the past, and while they are proud of the January 25th uprising and the toppling of Mubarak, think that Egyptians should obey the SCAF and trust that the military will 'protect' the revolution.
There are also Egyptians who cannot afford to protest - not everyone can leave work to go to Tahrir Square. In addition, many people just don't have access to correct information (whether because they are illiterate, don't have the internet, etc.), and rumors spread like wildfire.
But, as can be seen from street art and emerging activist groups, there are many Egyptians who are continuing to protest, form networks and coalitions, and spread information about different political parties, the SCAF, etc. Street art has provided an outlet for this.
I also just want to say that my perspective on the uprising - and that of many journalists- is very Cairo-focused. Many people would like to see more journalists reaching out to other districts and provinces in Egypt, especially since situations there are very different from those in Cairo. Protests in smaller cities such as Port Said have been much more violent and the crackdowns much more brutal, but this is something we don't really hear about since the media is so obsessed with Cairo and Tahrir Square.
What are your plans for the next couple years...after graduation?
I've actually just applied to Master's/PhD programs in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic and a year-long Arabic program here in Cairo. So there's a possibility that I'll be heading to school this fall, or staying in Egypt a for another year. I'm waiting to hear back about my applications, but right now I'm leaning towards staying in Egypt!