Arise and bear witness: In memory of Mohammed al-Deeb

Friday was the arbaeen (40-day death anniversary) of Mohammed al-Deeb: director, activist, martyr, witness, supporter and critic of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian, Islamist, terrorist, revolutionary.

He died on Sunday August 18, 2013/the 11th of Shawwal 1434, gassed to death inside a detainee transport vehicle in the courtyard of Abu Zaabal prison, in the company of 36 other detainees. He was 27 years old. Friends and family who received his body — as well as the photographs of the corpse circulating in memoriam Facebook posts and YouTube tributes — testify to the presence, alongside signs of suffocation, of the familiar, even expected, marks of police interrogation: cigarette burns, wounds and bruises from severe beatings, physical traces of electrical shocks.

Alongside these signs of torture, his corpse also bore the wounds of previous violent encounters with state security forces under both Hosni Mubarak and Morsi: a cartridge he let remain embedded in his body as a memory of January 28, 2011, dubbed the “Day of Rage”; a scar from a bullet in the foot acquired during the Simon Bolivar clashes this past spring.

Deeb was arrested while filming the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in on the morning of August 14. Like many other Egyptian and international journalists and photographers who were killed, harassed, censored, shot at, and arrested that day, he came to Rabea to bear witness to the cruel and brutal effects of state violence, effects that states always attempt to deny, minimize, justify, and erase. Unlike many others, Mohammed was supporting a cause he understood to be a continuation of the principles and ideals of the January 25 revolution, and in his last Facebook post, written the morning/evening of August 13/14, he expressed his wish to be a martyr. 

A few days before, he had stood on the stage at Rabea, addressing the crowd with his camera in hand, deliberately pointing the long lens to the sky in imitation of a kalashnikov, proclaiming this camera his weapon. When Deeb refused to surrender it on an officer’s order just outside of the Tayaran Street entrance to the camp, he was apprehended and detained at the Heliopolis police station before being transferred to Abu Zaabal. Neither he nor his footage survived.

I met him once, this past May, in the office of an Islamist-leaning publishing house; we agreed that Morsi’s record was deplorable, we argued about the Ministry of Culture sit-in, and he showed me some of the short films he had made in collaboration with the Fikra (Idea) creative team he helped found in 2009. Part of a small circle of primarily self-taught, Islamist-leaning actors, writers, and directors who in their spare time and using their own funds collaborated on film and theater projects, Deeb and the Fikra group sought to produce creative, socially responsible work in the spirit of “al-fann al-hadif” (art with a purpose).

An obituary published in al-Shorouq newspaper the week he died describes his dream to open a production company, his charity work, his energy and kindness, his participation in the 18 days of the January 25 revolution as a protestor, photographer, and founding member of another group, the Rabitat Fanaani al-Thawra (Union of Artists of the Revolution). Led by Deeb and his close friend, poet Zaki Khilfa, this group organized the art corner in front of the KFC in Tahrir. In the early days of the Rabea sit-in, they resurrected the art tent as, in their thinking, an anti-coup, revolutionary space to draw and film and write and rehearse the songs, poetry recitations and dramatic sketches presented on the main stage in the evening.

Director, activist, martyr, witness, Morsi supporter and critic, Egyptian, Islamist, terrorist, revolutionary: Deeb called himself or has been called all of these things, but these appellations, so simple to read and say and write, are — like so much else about the events in Egypt since June 30, at Rabea and Abu Zaabal, at the Republican Guard and Ramses — a source of irresolvable contention. There will never be a shared narrative, never be agreement about what happened there, and who these men and women were who gathered at Nahda Square and Rabea Al-Adaweya in the name of what they called shar’iya (legitimacy), Islamiya (the Islamic way), and revolution.

After Deeb’s death, Al-Watan newspaper reported that both the Film and Actors’ Syndicates issued statements denying that he was ever a member of their organizations (it is true that he was not). But the intent behind this denial, I think, was to question that Deeb was a “director” at all, as the Morsi supporters had claimed that he was (after all, they have no art and culture…), as well as to imply that his lack of state institutional affiliation negated or lessened the value of the work he did to document Egypt’s political life and bear witness, with his camera, to the brutality of the state’s extra-judicial violence.

Deeb was not well-known outside of Islamist circles; he did not mingle with other independent directors at Beirut in Cairo or the Greek Club; he was at the beginning of his career and to many eyes, his films will seem amateurish. But perhaps, in these times, the work and life and death of an independent amateur filmmaker does more to bear witness than scores of prominent artists and filmmakers and literary figures whose talented and perceptive ears and eyes and tongues have never once, in the past three months, publicly condemned or even acknowledged the violence of the state.

Deeb never joined the Brotherhood; he voted for Morsi and then spent a year criticizing Morsi, but for him what happened on June 30 was decisively a coup and a counter-revolution, and to sit at Rabea was a continuation of the project begun in Tahrir Square on the 25th of January. He was obviously a minority in this; for most Egyptians, Rabea has become a symbol of sectarian incitement to violence; the lies and intransigence of Morsi and the Brotherhood; their Machiavellian leadership, willing to lead their own followers to slaughter, even their own children; and perhaps even a kind of karmic retribution for their betrayal of the January 25th goals of reforming the police and Interior Ministry and limiting the political role and economic privileges of the army.

So on this, the 40-day anniversary of his death, not even the injustice of that death — stuffed inside a police transport vehicle designed for half the number of prisoners, denied water and ventilation, suffering in the heat of the August sun (an image that recalls the damning ending of Ghassan al-Kanafani’s Men in the Sun) — is agreed upon and borne witness to.

Alongside those who condemn the torture and the negligence and brutality of the police (as they also condemn the harassment of Christians and the burning of  churches, the lack of police protection of Coptic communities, the destruction of homes in the Sinai and the mass arrests of the Bedouin), many others find sufficient and reasonable the narrative provided by the Interior Ministry and widely disseminated by state and privately-owned television channels and newspapers: The men who suffocated to death in the transport vehicle were terrorists and enemies of the nation-state; they took an officer hostage and were attempting to escape; justice will be served, the officer who threw the tear gas canister into the vehicle has been charged with “accidental homicide” of the prisoners…

In certain ways Deeb lived a life that defies many of the conventional but persistent narratives that circulate widely about political and social life in Egypt: He was an Islamist, but also a scruffy, long-haired filmmaker and artist, and he was a January 25 activist from the revolution’s inception yet also a constant presence at the Nahda and Rabea sit-ins. In a different political moment, he focused his talents on creating and documenting forms of collective action that traversed the tired Islamist versus secular-artist-revolutionary divide. This traversal was the legacy of Tahrir Square that he tried to embody in his life, until the events of June 30 and July 3 made that impossible.

And now, in remembering his death, we are forced to ask: How is it possible to think and remember a martyr over which the community is so deeply divided? What do we do with these silenced bodies and chants and energies that are not our own, that push our tolerance to its limits? In the complete absence of agreement as to the righteousness of his cause, his status as a martyr, and his value to the community, can Mohammed al-Deeb’s life and death symbolize anything other than how divided Egypt’s political life has become?

In his powerful lectures on martyrdom (shahadat) and revolution, the great Iranian thinker Ali Shariati wrote that shahadat does not simply mean being killed for a just cause; rather, it is the exposure of that which is being denied, of that which is being covered up (“Al-shahadat istizharan ‘alal-mujahadat”). In an age of tyranny and injustice, the shahid (martyr) is the candle in the darkness who exposes the corruption and oppression of the regime and that which it seeks to hide from the public eye, of that which it would like to remain hidden in history. Istizhar: exposure; this is the work of the martyr.

And the revenge of the martyr? Not the killing and torturing and suffering of the enemy, but the negation of its despotism; this is the work of the ummah, the community — the ummah that is resuscitated, called to itself again, reinvigorated in its struggle, by the life and death of the shahid. This is the revenge and message of the martyr: Arise, and bear witness, and in this, you will never die.

Patricia Kubala 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism