From boredom to labor and labor to boredom

You were sitting, smoking a cigarette, in our new office space underneath a canvas bearing the words: “this sea is mine.” The line comes from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, A Mural, popularized in poetic resistance to political and corporate colonization.

The canvas is now four years old. Back then, some weeks after Mada Masr was born on June 30, the day of a military political take-over in Egypt, the bloodiest event in the country’s modern history took place. Over a thousand people belonging to or sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood were killed when their sit-ins were cleared out.

A curfew was imposed by the military to contain the ensuing chaos. It started at 7 pm and ended at 6 am everyday. After work, we often gathered at one of our homes, some of us cooking, some of us painting to kill the time and the boredom.

We had been dramatically laid off as a team a few months earlier. Fearing the boredom of being without a newspaper in the midst of an imminent and radical political upheaval, we started an online publication. At the time, I wrote, “We wanted to re-appropriate our journalism on this heated day, because it is through the prism of this craft that we engage with politics and activism.”

I might as well have also said that it is through the prism of this craft that we resist existential boredom.

That crisis of our having been made jobless and the broader crisis of the surrounding political violence somehow gave a thrust to our collectivity and its productive arrival into a media institution.

Is there a way I can productively practice my penchants inside the institution? At times, I feel like a traitor.

Thanks to this institution, running under a rain of bullets the day of the massacre, I was far from boredom. Through it, being present as a witness, uttering in different ways the words: “I swear I saw this,” was a break from the withdrawal of the majority. With it, the long hours of the curfew that followed were filled with a process of building a community, an outward looking one with many stories to tell.

In labor, there was solace from the haunting images of political violence and it is on the back of this comfort that building an institution, as fragile as it is, was possible. I do not know if this comfort comes from a sense of political rightness, one that emanates from being present and doing something when many others were withdrawing. I do not know if this comfort comes simply from the creation of a sense of belonging to a political project, with a mission and a responsibility. I do not know either if the comfort comes from a certain voyeurism, inherent to the field of media.

In my head, there is a memory of me frantically hiding behind a camera when troops descended with all sorts of weapons on activists trying to break the siege of Gaza in a small border town back in 2009. Caught in the crossfire, I held my camera high, as though it was a shield of protection from the rubber bullets and stones flying in the air. That day, I fought my fear by pretending that it was all happening on my small camera screen.

Today, the massacre is passed and its memory resisted. Traumas are dealt with in silence, at the margins, while at the center there is a strong state and a great void.

Today, we are four years old, still fighting boredom through the act of watching and producing, while grappling with the meaning of our existence.

We keep asking how to develop the infrastructure that makes it possible to produce stories out of this act of watching and witnessing, how to believe in the relevance of this act at this point in time.

How to acknowledge the inevitable fragility surrounding this project, a fragility nurtured by that loose quest to use the crisis to resist the boredom of constant crisis, a fragility exacerbated by the dangers of habit? How to survive a moment when crisis has become normalized and boredom has reconfigured itself?

That day in my office when you sat smoking under the canvas, we were talking about outreach and building audience as a means to build power. To the audience, we veer our accountability. Behind them, we hide anonymously.

Four years ago, we started to interface with the world of user-centrism, social media, algorithms and analytics as the magic tenets of digital media. The internet has become less a space of speculation, experimentation, surprise and emotion, the way we witnessed it a couple of decades ago. It is morphing into a space of expertise, of the oppressive authority of corporates, of fewer words and more images that don’t have to give you the experiential invigoration that cinema can, of fewer hyperlinks and less getting lost like you may at sea or in the desert. The internet is going from being a home to being the new state, and we have to make peace with this.

But whatever happened to the audience as a weapon?

You pointed me to Hannah Arendt and the public rendered visible, its bodies individualized and present. Her writing counters the notion of the audience as a virtual mass, as a click that makes an algorithmic calculation thinkable, as active receivers of knowledge turned, with a blink of an eye, into the product that makes advertising possible.

The audience is breathing and is alive and it is as though we are in a theater, with all the unpredictability that live theater can bring.

I acknowledge that though a journalist, if I have a tendency, it would be to encrypt messages — not because I love encryption, but because it can be a metaphor for how complex life is. Boredom was looming again when pre-determined and expert knowledge filled the space of speculation, the substance of my politics, and when habit replaced imagination.

Is there a way I can productively practice my penchants inside the institution? At times, I feel like a traitor.

I tame the violence of the thought that I am a traitor by thinking of the perils of institutions as producers of habit. Habit breaking, as disruptive as it can be, is also key to the life of an institution that lives as a harbinger of its substantive practice and not for its own epidermal self.

Today there is no massacre that we latch onto or that compels us to break habits. Crisis is the new currency. We have to find a new territory for peace. I resort to Walter Benjamin’s meanderings about the storyteller. There, he likens boredom to sleep, as the “apogee of mental relaxation” and where he calls it “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”

I flirt with the idea that boredom can become a new productive space.

I resist the violence of the idea that I am a traitor by temporarily exchanging it with being a smuggler, a smuggler of Benjamin’s tribute to boredom into the newsroom, a smuggler of Arendt’s portrayals of the public into our outreach conversations. That’s it. Having covered border towns and irregular migration by sea in the early days of my career, having spoken of how smuggling people can be a service not so different from that provided by travel agencies, having treated smuggling goods as a subversive underground economy, I find an element of personal legitimacy in being a smuggler.

Can we think of a certain form of embodiment in the space between practice and theory, arts and politics, the way Irit Rogoff proposed in her treatise on smuggling? Can we speak of journalism and everything else, of institutional building and art making? In her thoughts on embodiment, I found some of the best articulations that resist the immanence of meaning, opening up a whole array of possibility in our practice as knowledge producers.

Do you remember we talked about Florian Schneider’s portrayal of the coyote, the agent that facilitates illegal border crossing, creating the perfect model of collaboration, one that is full of potential? As much as his work is about bringing the outside to the inside and vice versa, it also reveals the chaotic nature of working together, of being organized, of becoming an institution, of moving forward, of progressing.

Today there is no massacre that we latch onto or that compels us to break habits. Crisis is the new currency. We have to find a new territory for peace.

I was hoping to sign off this text with a note on withdrawal as the lead figure of this institution, experimenting with forms of detachment, a retreat that can be ascribed to productive resilience. But I am trapped. Mada has been offline in Egypt for over a month now, with the fixed legitimacy of the fait accompli. We don’t know what else will come. Crisis has re-emerged within the wave of crisis as currency, less as an eruption, but more this violent fait accompli. We are fighting a legal and technological battle using the same tools that are made to oppress us, be it the Egyptian court system or Facebook. This time, crisis has not managed to defeat boredom the way it usually does. Instead, in its redundancy, crisis has been stirring boredom.

It is maybe time to stop running away from boredom and to remember how it is a window to different curiosities that can only open through that gentle act of retreat.

On that festive day of June 30, 2013, Mada went live as people came into the streets to demand the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Grappling with an impossibility of engaging much with a redundant spectacle of joy, I found myself retreating to the camp of the defeated, in a moment where my identity and belonging were lost on the fault lines of the revolution and counterrevolution. It was perhaps a return to the position we had before the revolution, the margin, as the place of the unorthodox, the unconventional and the critical.

Like a traitor, or a smuggler, I walked through this foreign cartography, which will become a few weeks later the site of the massacre, the site of erasure. There, the sounds of the revolution were muted, the lights were gone and the sights became uniform: lines upon lines of men and women kneeling down and murmuring prayers for an end that is not so painful.

I spent the rest of Mada’s anniversary hanging the art you offered me on my walls.

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