Egyptian storytelling: a vessel for power

Writing has come to mean place and presence, and presence gives us power to force those who don't acknowledge our existence to admit that they can hear the sound of our breath, says the young Egyptian writer Zainab Magdy

Zainab Magdy
22 December 2011

Two years ago, when I wrote about my story with writing The power of storytelling, I knew it was a story with an open ending, one that I didn't really want to end. What I didn't know was how much it would change.

Looking at the past year which is almost ending - so much has changed, and I am amazed. I am amazed at everything that has happened and at how bewildered I am at the change itself that came by so suddenly and unexpectedly.

Stories have taken on a new meaning during the past two years. They have taken a new shape and lots of new reasons for being. My writing has changed and it has changed me.

Writing has come to represent a vessel for power, and power changes things - to the better or to the worse. Writing has come to mean place and presence. Presence gives you power to force those who don't acknowledge your existence to admit that they can hear the sound of your breath.

Stories bring light

Since my first feminist writing workshop in 2007 when I wrote about positive anger , I have written more of stories: in different languages and different genres. I joined other young writers in Ana El Hekaya ( I am the story) a writing group for reading, writing and performing literature and stories from a gender balanced point of view, and wrote and later about Women and memory: I'm the story, when other storytellers told the stories I had written. In November of 2010, in a storytelling evening called "Waiting for the Light" I performed "Kufuf" (Palms). It was the last text told that night; and while it was very personal, it still felt to me, as I got up to tell it, that it was very collective. It has come to represent the least of any emotion one could feel towards all those women whose stories were told before I spoke that night; women who gave up dreams for their children, who stood up to abuse for the sake of tomorrow, and of course the women who sacrificed everything to be heard.

The patriarchal society I have always spoken against has changed in my perspective. It has grown into something uglier with the passage of time and I have realized to what extent it can cause harm. With this knowledge, I have also learned the extent of the power of a story. Stories which speak out challenge the blind prejudices of this patriarchy and the hegemony behind it: the superiority of a specific masculine, Muslim and heterosexual behaviour. In every story that is told, we find a piece of us, so that stories of women who refuse this hegemony by speaking up, who have done miracles with their lives, make their way into the stories people write. These stories travel to break other chains, chains no one ever dreamed of breaking.

Stories move mountains

It was the story of Khaled Said, the 28 year old Alexandrian who was killed by police officers under the Emergency Law on June 6, 2010, that charged a whole generation with anger, and with power. As Khaled's story became the story of each one of us, other stories were unravelled - whispered with the wind - to move things even further.

Words come alive in a moment; they are heard and they illuminate a centimetre or two in our hearts. They are carried in a smile, a touch, from one who has heard to another who needs to hear: another who is hungry for light.

Writing continued - a flow - whether stories for telling, or reading, as time passed and things were slowly shifting. The beginning of the New Year 2011 came and instead of bringing hope for tales with happier endings, it brought about unbearable pain and injustice with the bombing of AlQuidiseen (Two Saints) Church in Alexandria. Once again, as they did to mourn Khaled, people wearing black, gathered facing Egypt's waters, seas and river, to carry one more story from soul to soul in mourning.

Our new year began 25 days after the rest of the world. We changed our calendars.

Stories change

With the weight of our Revolution always at the back of my mind, it seems sometimes trivial to speak of women's rights or equality for women when lists of our martyrs are being updated promptly: the massacre on October 9th and then the list of 50 plus names who were killed between the 19th of November and up to the present moment with the battle going on at the Cabinet and all under the meticulous supervision of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Up to this moment, people are being killed and SCAF is denying the use of live ammunition while bodies are photographed in the morgue with bullet holes: military bullets.

Yet, it has amazed me how on the million man protest on Friday 25th we were as concerned with harassment, and catching anyone who attempted it in the crowds, as much as we were concerned with chanting against SCAF and calling for the rights of our martyrs. Tweets on Twitter from Tahrir Square were updating the world about what was happening in the heart of Cairo, and also discussing the best way to catch a harasser: giving him a beating that will make him think twice before he does this again and taking his picture and defaming him.

Army soldiers harassed women and stripped a young veiled woman almost naked in the middle of the street in the events of the last five days, and the picture of her bare torso and blue bra with not less than 5 soldiers kicking her spread. I assumed that this would enrage those who were so keen on covering women and protecting them. But somehow, those who are against the revolution managed to find her at fault as she is wearing only a bra under her abaya (a long black dress). While people who are pro the Revolution and the revolutionaries are sharing this sketch telling her "To the dearest, purest and most honourable sister, friend and comrade: this is how we have seen the pictures". They do not see her naked body, but they see only the inhumanity of those trampling all over her dignity.

An injustice is an injustice.

That is what stories have taught me. There is no way to measure which injustice is more unjust. There are priorities yes, there is no question about that, but even the prioritising is collective. That is what stories do; they create a delicate unseen web between people that connects us beyond our own selves.

I remember the sessions of the Ana El Hekaya workshop after the revolution: our subject has been since then January 25 and everything that happened. It was a bit confusing at first, to be coming to a feminist workshop interested in writing from a gender sensitive perspective, and writing about the Revolution. I think I was embarrassed to ask how we were supposed to write about the Revolution from a feminist perspective. It was so simple; we were going to write stories about the Revolution by just being us: each with his/her own feminist perspective.

The Egyptian Revolution has after all proven to be feminist - my apologies to all Egyptians who hate the word - because it has been about injustice whatever form it takes.

My writing has changed as time has gone by. My stories have made me stronger. I have moved away from the personal - stories about what I know - to the larger picture, and performing stories has been a huge force behind this move. I never believed I could actually write a story about something I don't know, something I could never know. But during the Revolution workshop I found myself writing "1" without feeling alienated from it. It was inspired by my participation in Laila Soliman's interactive performance "No Time for Art" to honour the martyrs and relate testimonies of those tortured by Police and Military forces. I wrote a story about someone I will never know; about something I have not witnessed personally but yet it felt as much a part of me as anything else I have ever written.

The feeling I felt as I told "Kufuf" last year was close to what I feel as I perform the testimony of my friend Aly Sobhy during "No Time For Art" a feeling of saying this personally, but also saying it so that it may make someone who is listening feel the same way.

And perhaps this fleeting feeling will make those who listened tell

To read "Kufuf" click here

To read 'I' click here







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