He has two hours of fresh air and 22 hours of cell air.
He discusses the constitution draft with other inmates from across the wall of his cell.
And then he reads. He mostly reads.
He is not receiving letters this time. Letters are barred.
But he is receiving books. Some books, not everything. Some are novels. Others are comics. And others are social theory.
He reads both comics and theory because he believes that we are both plumbers and philosophers; we, the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. We work and work and work on bits and pieces and then sit back and reflect on the whole that our work is gazing at. And sometimes we write about it.
When the revolution broke out and everyone celebrated the kids that came out of the Internet, Alaa, who had tirelessly spent years on the forefront of organizing online activism, reminded us how our encounter with technology became a way of living. Everyone celebrated the Facebook, the Twitter and the Blogosphere. Alaa was thinking of the community and the way in which activism was changing and differing from what he had heard about from his folks and from tales of the 1960s and 1970s.
Alaa rose to fame with the hype of the Egyptian blogosphere in the beginning of the millennia, the stars of which have been mostly young middle-class Egyptians. He believed in this new wave of activism and created with Manal, his partner, the famous Omraneya aggregator, which collected and archived blog entries and which was at times the house of alternative expression and at others the amplifier of muted voices. He often reminded us how at the same time that he and others were blogging in the heart of our cities, the youth of our slums scrambled to buy locally assembled computers. This all happened while the government announced the forming of colossal partnerships, promising to provide a laptop for every child in the context of some grand 2010 scheme. He also reminded us how bandwidth was already being shared by hundreds and supporting the livelihoods of dozens in the countryside and the slums every day, while it took years for the government and its service providers to promise connectivity for all.
While he spent years building websites around causes and campaigns and developing Arabization tools to make that sea of knowledge accessible, he sat back and observed how our social and political work is evolving on a multiplicity of levels: organization, the production of narrative, and ambition. He would talk about this evolution, and eventually write about it, but most importantly, he was actively thinking of how Internet tools should serve these changes.
When we set out to create Mada, which we commonly describe as a product of crisis and inevitability, Alaa and Manal naturally became our technology partners. When they sat with us to brainstorm on the website we would build, they made us think about the different ways we want to tell our stories, at a time when a mainstream narrative is dominating the news from Egypt. Being both techies and tellers, they made us think of technology as more than a sheer logistical tool, and more of a vehicle of possibility. For us, web development became less of a list of technical requests but more a process of carving out a space for expression, where prose would unfold in performance, and so would the visual narration, and other unknown forms of storytelling.
What happens when you confiscate a computer from a kid for whom technology has become a trigger for thinking, an entry point to philosophy, to a new and emerging social theory?
This is not theory crafted by academics or theorists, but rather by the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. And this is theory born out of practise. The computer and the tools are no prison companions. But the thinking is. It is a prison companion for Alaa and also for us, who strive to fetch for his presence in his absence, through written correspondence, memory and imaginary conversations.
In his incarceration, Alaa continues to exist, by reading, by talking, by eventually writing and most importantly, by staying in conversation with us. It takes a leap of faith to be in conversation with a prisoner today. We do it because we are capable of imagining and because his thinking transcends time and space.
In the grandeur of analysis and punditry, we are deemed the losers of the margins today in Egypt’s dazed revolution. But we remain the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. That is so long as we read and write and talk and continue to exist.