Re-reading myself: On writing the revolution

Editor’s note: We found it hard to solicit pieces commemorating the January 25 revolution, mainly because we seem to have hit a certain boundary in revolutionary prose. A moment of deep ambiguity accompanies three years of thinking, doing and rethinking. But in the spirit of resisting this submission to boundaries, we went back to what our columnists wrote us at our previous publisher Egypt Independent during the 18 days of the revolution and we asked them to revisit their writings. Some wrote reaction pieces, others edited them and others rewrote them.

It has been five weeks since I deactivated my Facebook account.

Over the new year I made a promise to myself to read more, and to watch more films, and to watch them more intently.

Since the summer, I find that I am surrounded with self-absorbed friends. The crises we face are ones that are personal. They are private meanderings, interrupted by bad sleep out of which we arise anxious. Never did I encounter so many instances of discussion defining a panic attack.  

I have been writing more for myself, less for others. An overbearing sense of distance surrounds what is an ongoing political reality. The aftermath of what — three years ago, almost to date — we imagined as a revolution. On television people speak about the first and the second revolution, and in my mind I am almost embarrassed at how time is able to trick us laughing at our myopia. I feel, myself, shortsighted, awkward.

We are limited in our own individual capacities. I re-read what I would have been writing then and feel alienated by a believing subject, a character that I was at a certain moment, and am now shy to speak back to.

“The revolution is an investment of a lifetime, perhaps the only investment I will ever make, and I will not survive its abortion.” This is what I wrote.

Though, I survived the stillbirth of political imagination, of hope that is romantically undone in a manner that it is too trite and cliché to speak of.  And in rationalizing the current on-goings of a strangely complacent people who are tired and unknowing, we become disenchanted and lost.

“It has reconfigured my life.” The revolution. I almost have to remind myself that it is not possible to edit out experience.

I stop as I read these words, unable to hold onto the narrative continuity of what was then. There was an almost intellectual fascination then, and an insatiable curiosity to put theory back into the street: To test the essence of power, of strength, of force, of authority and of violence. Of readings we had read. Of Hannah Arendt, of the comfort we find in continental philosophy, in passing time, of others.

Maybe we hadn’t read closely enough. Violence lingers. Its aftertaste is void. Our power, as people, lacking strength, we draw on those we imagine might have it, or we stop articulating, stop writing. We are at a loss for words.

Now, I rework my writing as I write, in an effort to expand a sentiment. It is hard, and consuming. This time, scrambling for meaning-making comes with a sense of dysphoria.

There is all but one experience that I will hold onto. A scripted memory of being euphoric and terrified of what was to come: Caught in a march of millions, feeling the pinnacle of claustrophobia tipping into a panic attack — an experience that then I didn’t know how to describe in words, as I struggled to find my breath in an effort to overcome the piercing feeling of dying. I want to live. And the crowds reverberate in a loud disordered cacophonic unison: “Horreya!”

The memory abruptly stops. Like a frame in a film that is endlessly extended, the image stays on screen. A deep voiceover with practiced oratorical skill recounts in English the event of an uprising, of a revolution. The nuance of what we felt and what we feel is lost. The only thing that remains is a promise of fidelity to the image. The telling of what happened, of what we witnessed. It is a story that is scripted and edited for a self-absorbed audience of millions, here and elsewhere, wanting to find depth or stumble in their minds on a truth that evokes meaning in why we want to live, why we wake up in the morning, to do what we do, to fabricate desires, to make our simple and solitary life bearable.

Three years ago on a Thursday in February, I was trapped in the crowd. Today, it is a Wednesday; I sit in a makeshift office, I am trapped in my own disillusion.

“Now, as I make the decision to write, two weeks into the revolution, I ponder this decision. This is the longest thought I have had in weeks.”

All I have now is thoughts. This is the most concise thought I have had, in re-reading myself from then. “In democracy, a decision, the use of power, is always urgent, yet democracy takes time.”

Democracy takes time. Authority is divided. What holds true then, and now, is that we are speaking less and less, not only to each other, but also to ourselves. The halcyon is gone, gone is the imagery of protestors armed with blankets, sleeping in the tank tracks, using our bodies to imagine a new means of government, using our bodies to stand in for the demands of freedom.

But we are still alive. We still have our bodies. We are not ethereal souls that can only live sleeping and dream. The anxiety is physical: you feel it. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, the bodily overwhelm of dying, then you know that it exceeds all reason, in some miraculous way, at times in just minutes it passes. This too shall pass.

Rather than write, I draw on the apparition of the Sufi poet Al-Attar, inviting you to read his “Conference of the Birds.” In the poem, the birds of the world gather in search of a king. The wisest of them suggests they find a mythical bird, the Simorgh. The birds represent us as humans, each bearing a fault that holds us back from attaining enlightenment, or revolution. They are led to the dwelling place of the Simorgh, only to find a lake, hovering over which, the only thing they encounter, is their own reflection. 

The original version of this article was published here on February 10, 2011. 

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