Detox | February 30: A tribute to the impossible
 
 
Painting by Omar Mostafa
 

WHAT’S UP?

A few decades back, someone sang that, on February 30, her searching heart would finally find comfort. The irony, of course, is that it’s a day that doesn’t exist. Due to this fact, February 30 has often been used as an expression to imply the impossible. 

In this issue of Detox, we highlight some projects that were impossible to realize, for one reason or another, namely Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film about Napoleon and Shadi Abdel Salam’s unmade Akhenaten project. 

We also pay tribute to a group that, 14 years ago, tried to make February 30 — i.e., the impossible — happen, made up of a few bloggers, who actually named themselves the “February 30 Group.” Here’s a song they wrote a decade ago — à la Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam’s “Guevara Is Dead” — when, for the umpteenth time, Hosni Mubarak was rumored to have died: 

Mubarak did die, however, as February drew to a close this year. He left the world with a military funeral and three official days of mourning, nine years after he was removed, also in February, by a revolution that overthrew him. Before his death, the former president spent three years in prison after being accused of embezzling state funds for the maintenance of personal family residences, in what has become known as the presidential palaces case

Former Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who served under Mubarak for 23 years, postponed his solo exhibition, which was set to open last Wednesday, while the current Culture Minister Inas Abdel Dayem announced the suspension of all cultural activities until the after sundown on Friday.

And as the month ends, we also acknowledge the mystery of February 29, a day that only exists once every four years, paying tribute to a musical icon born on this day in our Listen section. 

READ

-On the occasion of feminist philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler’s 64th birthday, we share her definitive essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” as well as this short video where she explains the “performativity of gender” as a concept. We also recommend this New Yorker review of Butler’s latest book, The Force of Nonviolence, which came out earlier this month. 

-As February comes to an end, we revisit author and researcher Amr Ezzat’s 2006 blog post about the February 30 group titled “When We First Entered the Garden,” where he describes the sit-in organized by the group, among others, in support of the judges battling for their independence at the time:

Alaa was answering questions from foreign journalists about the February 30 Group, which was on many of the signs being held. He said that the name was inspired by the night the signs were made and that Yahia Megahed was the one who’d come up with it. Socrata brought a medical textbook and a lamp. I doubt she read more than a page. Amr Gharbeia was the first to peacefully lie down, while Ahmed Gharbeia sat there observing all of us. 

Al-Nadim was busy with a story he had just started, while Wael Abbas kept disappearing in various corners behind the lens of his camera. Manal led a card game against the light of the lamp that Socrata had brought after all the lights in the square had gone out. Sharqawi, the troublemaker, was jubilant as he stood on my shoulders trying to hang a large flag on a lamppost, even though he had lost his jacket and his phone — he playfully claimed that there had been 2,000 pounds in his pockets (“all for Egypt’s sake, man!”). Baraa and Doaa kept making rounds around the space, probably wondering what they could write about the sit-in. 

Mohamed Teaima announced that the authorities and the weather had conspired against us because it was super cold that night. Ali al-Tayeb started an ideological rebellion against Negm and Imam and sang Nancy Ajram and Elissa instead with the other students of the democratic left who were present. Several other circles broke into song. The most energetic of them surrounded Malek, who was brilliant that night. Groups of protesters marched around the square, making noise. Even Iblis, who followed Egypt’s name with curses here and there, showed up and stayed for a while — I think he will later argue that he came for the love of his comrades and friends, not for the love of Egypt.”

-In 2014, blogger and activist Wael Abbas (mentioned in Ezzat’s blog post above) also wrote a piece about the February 30 Group in Huna Sotak: “These successes rang an alarm in Lazoghli, and it became a necessity for State Security to handle those ‘kids.’” The usual stereotypes didn’t work with us: We were neither Communists nor Islamists, but a mix of everything. How could they claim to their supervisors that there was a secret organization made up of bloggers?” 

WATCH

This week, Ahmed Wael and Yasmine Zohdi recommend the unwatchable, two films that were never made: Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon and Shadi Abdel Salam’s Akhenaten (both working titles) –

After finishing his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick planned to start filming a project he had long been researching, a biopic of French general Napoleon Bonaparte. The film was intended to be at once a sweeping saga and an intimate character study of the man whose life Kubrick described as “an epic poem of action.” The writer-director planned to focus on Napoleon’s battles as well as his relationship with his beloved wife, Josephine, which he thought was “one of the great obsessional passions of all time.” 

Kubrick was no stranger to obsessions himself. He sent researchers all over Europe to follow Napoleon’s trail, asking one of them to bring a sample of soil from Waterloo so he could match it on-screen. “God is in the detail,” the director would famously say, a statement manifested in his notoriously meticulous research projects and the precision of his realized films. “Pre-production and editing were his joy – filming itself was a necessity,” says Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and longtime collaborator, who worked as a researcher on the Napoleon project.

The film was never made because MGM and United Artists, the two studios Kubrick approached for production, both withdrew, as the release and flop of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo in 1970 made them feel the film was too much of a risk, particularly with the budget Kubrick was requesting — he planned to hire 50,000 human extras from the Romanian army for the battle scenes. It is said that the director never stopped thinking of his unrealized project in the 40 years between the release of A Space Odyssey to his death in 1999 (he did use some of his research when filming his 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon, however). 

The material accumulated by Kubrick during his years of research has become a legend in itself: 276 books on Napoleon from all around the world, 15,000 scout location photos, 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery,  a collection of index cards detailing Napoleon’s life, from his diet to how his wife dressed to what the weather was like on certain days. So far this material — as well as the 149-page script written as a result — has been the subject of a book and an art exhibition, and there are talks of Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg developing the project as a TV miniseries. 

[For further information, we recommend this interview with Kubrick’s assistant, Tony Frewin, in which he discusses the late director’s research process, as well as this BBC piece on last year’s Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the London Design Museum, including insights from the curator and some of Kubrick’s collaborators.]

Around the same time that Kubrick started his research on Napoleon, on the other side of the world, Egyptian filmmaker Shadi Abdel Salam embarked on the journey of what he planned would be his second feature film, Akhenaten, after the release of his 1969 classic The Mummy: The Night of Counting the Years. The project, however, was never realized, mostly because the Ministry of Culture, which Abdel Salam had relied on for production (it had also produced his debut), would not take it on, and the budget for a production of that scale could not be guaranteed by anyone else at the time. Yet, Abdel Salam wrote the screenplay for the film, drew the storyboards in his usual elaborate fashion, designed its characters and their costumes. 

The illustrations left behind by the director, who started his career in film as a production and costume designer, offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the film could’ve been, particularly with our knowledge of how his actual compositions often matched his storyboards down to the smallest details (judging by his drawings for The Mummy). 

Abdel Salam spent the final decade and a half of his life — from 1971 to his death in 1986 — trying to make the project happen. After seeing Mohamed Sobhi in a stage performance of Hamlet, he decided to cast him in the main role. Sobhi says that Abdel Salam was “enamored” with his face and that he had asked him not to take on any other on-screen roles until the film was made so that the audience would not have any preconceptions of him before seeing him as Akhenaten. He also settled on Nadia Lotfi — who had starred in The Mummy — to play the role of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife. But after years of location scouting, mostly in Luxor, he changed his mind about the actress and opted for a fresh face. He came across a student in the High Cinema Institute’s acting department, Sawsan Badr, whose screen name was chosen by Abdel Salam. 

The pre-production stage lingered on. After the Culture Ministry declined it, Abdel Salam traveled to Algeria to explore the possibility of producing the film with the ONCIC (National Office of the Cinematic Industry), but that, too, didn’t work — neither did a French co-production opportunity he pursued in his final days. 

After Abdel Salam’s death, Salah Marei, who collaborated with him as a production designer during the research process, tried to revive the project, But he too was unable to get it off the ground, until his own death in 2011. 

[For more information, watch this video about the life and work of the late director. For more information, you might want to visit the Shadi Abdel Salam Museum in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.]

LISTEN

In 1960, on a day that only occurs once every four years (the latest being tomorrow), Khaled Hadj Ibrahim was born in the Algerian city of Wahran. Today, he is Cheb Khaled, a leading pioneer of Raï music, and one of the most popular musicians in the region.

Khaled and his contemporaries used the title “Cheb” to distinguish their music from that which came before them. The new wave of Raï that started in the 1980s changed much in the Algerian music tradition. Instrumentally, it introduced percussive drums and electric guitars, as well as a new melodic sensibility. The genre, as reinvented by the chebab, took the world by storm, and its reign remains in Algeria. Although, it is currently being challenged by the fresh trend of Maghrebi rap sweeping across North Africa. 

We gathered some of our favorite songs by Cheb Khaled in the playlist below:  

And, finally, we leave you with some of his most memorable of music videos: 

Didi:

Serbi Serbi:

Chebba:

Lillah:

CHIT-CHAT

Our guest in this week’s Chit-Chat is Hani Mehanni, an Egyptian blogger and a father of two. Between 2004 and 2010, he blogged under the name Yahia Megahed, chronicling several aspects of the pre-2011 political sphere. We delve into the different forms in which political activism was practiced before January 25, and the role of the thriving blogosphere at the time, particularly when it came to the 2006 movement for judicial independence, which took shape in response to judges Hisham al-Bastaweesi and Mahmoud Mekki being referred to a disciplinary committee after demanding investigation into allegations of fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections. The small cluster of bloggers who took it upon themselves to support the judges in their fight for independence by organizing several protests and one iconic sit-in (and were later joined by many others), named themselves the “February 30 Group.”

Why “February 30”? 

In March 2006, Dr. Yahia Qazzaz, who was a member of the March 9 Group for University Autonomy, sent out a call to one of the Youth for Change groups online with the aim of exploring ways to support members of the Egyptian Judges’ Club in their objection to the expected suspension of Councilors Bastaweesi and Mekki. The idea of a sit-in in Tahrir Square started to crystallize, but it was rejected by the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kefaya), the Muslim Brotherhood and practically all the other groups who were active then. 

That is when the bloggers came into the picture. They decided to adopt the idea for the sit-in, believing it was an opportune political moment and that it was an important battle, one where the true power of “the street” could be displayed. We were naïve but filled with excitement. I remember that the call for the sit-in was posted on Manal (Hassan) and Alaa (Abd El Fattah)’s blog, and I was invited. Four of us got together: Alaa, Malek Mostafa, Sharqawi and myself, along with Amr Ezzat, who joined us via phone. We printed out the slogans we’d already posted on our blogs — as well as pictures of members of the Judges Club — on black and white A4 paper which we then plastered on cardboard panels. That’s when I noticed that none of the protest banners bore any names — “This sit-in has no ‘parents,’” we laughed. We didn’t have the right to speak in the name of the entire blogosphere, so I suddenly suggested we sign all the banners with the name “February 30,” and when Alaa asked me what that meant, I simply answered that it’s the day we will add to the calendar when Mubarak leaves. 

The next day, a Thursday, we took to the street as individuals. We met with our friends and made our way to the square with our banners raised, and cars started honking in support. We didn’t expect that anyone would come, especially since it was still cold. But suddenly people started joining us — they came from every corner,  including people we didn’t know, bloggers and otherwise. They started organizing themselves, they took the pictures and the banners we had and they raised them, and we just sat there in the middle of the square, in total disbelief, as the numbers increased. People began to discuss what “February 30” meant, we asked and they would guess. Soon enough, the media showed up. Then members of Kefaya, then al-Beltagy, Kamal Abu-Eita, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabahi, Khaled Ali — they all came, they were all photographed and they all spoke with the press. We spent the night in the square, and Amr Ezzat wrote his beautiful blog post. 

Later, I found out from Alaa that his father (the late human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam) had informed him that State Security had opened a file under the name “February 30” — that was the real joke. 

Tell us more about the political debates that took center stage at the time. 

Well, at the time, the conversation centered on two questions: Was the political movement we were witnessing at the time real, or was it merely a smart maneuver by the state, allowing a small margin of freedom as an outlet for frustration to avoid an inevitable outburst? Consequently, was it better to adopt a reformist stance — aiming to correct the regime from within — or a revolutionary one demanding the fall of the regime and the construction of a new one?

In other words: Was it more important to bring down the head of the regime, or to support and empower the disenfranchised in a move for social rather than outright political change? Unfortunately, this question was never answered by anyone — or let me say it never has its fair share of reflection and discussion. The reason why I say “unfortunately,” is because I believe that this lack of an answer was the main reason why the January 25 project was defeated. 

How do you view, today, the practices you adopted back then?

What we did back then would be naïve and illogical today. We were dealing with a dumb, dysfunctional and ignorant regime. At the time, security forces didn’t even know what email was. In my opinion, people don’t change, only time and tools. 

If you now consider me a representative of the youth at the time, I can honestly say I found an outlet in the growing blogosphere at the time. We weren’t a coherent entity, we weren’t an organization. We were just a group of people searching for alternative forms of expression, education and ways to exchange experience and information. We had a sweeping desire to feel that we were part of a network, to not feel alienated. It was very difficult at the time, especially in a society where all forms of authority — at home, in colleges and religious institutions and even on the street — treated young people as though they lacked agency. They were either Satan-worshippers or drug addicts or simply kids who didn’t know what they were doing and therefore always had to be monitored. We scared them because we rebelled against the patriarchal power of society, and subsequently that of the security apparatus. 

On our blogs, we wrote about our daily life, our feelings. We did so using a very spontaneous language — like that which we’re using now as we chat. We didn’t pay much attention to the rules of syntax or grammar; that wasn’t what it was about. We shared our anger, our alienation — we found each other. I remember the first comment I got on a blog post of mine from Alaa. I had written about the government’s decision to raise the price of the Metro ticket from 75 piasters to one pound, and I got a comment asking: “Have you read Foucault?” — “Who?” I asked in response, and Alaa’s answer was the link to Michel Foucault’s Wikipedia page.

I remember I stayed up all night trying to translate the content on the page into Arabic. Wikipedia was an amazing discovery at the time. Today you just type in something or someone’s name and it’s the first link that comes up in whatever language you choose. It was an entirely different time. 

The past was over when… 

I remember a scene from a protest called for by Kefaya for the unemployed. Instead of creating programs for rehabilitating these people and empowering them so they’d be able to integrate into the labor market, the movement simply called on them to protest with the demand of founding a union for the unemployed in Egypt. Anyways, I had just graduated, and it was the first protest I participated in that was organized by the movement. It was after the presidential elections, I think, in June 2005.

The protest started at 5, moved from Bab al-Louq to Abdeen, and there security forces surrounded us. I saw Sharqawi beaten by the authorities, his clothes being ripped, and passersby throwing him a t-shirt to wear afterward. Meanwhile, two of the movement’s leaders, George Ishaq and Ahmed Bahaa Shaaban, were asking protesters — who were actually fenced in by security — to go home because their agreement with security entailed the protest would end at 7. I didn’t get it at the time, but I later understood that every single thing happening in Egypt at the time happened in coordination with security. 

That was when I decided that I would never belong to any of those movements or political parties; that I would only represent and express myself. And that I cannot allow anyone to take advantage of me, not even “for the greater good,” as it was often said back then.

Let’s talk about time. When does February 30 take place? 

February 30 is an idea, and ideas don’t die — this is not just a cliché. In Egypt, February 30 happened twice, and it could happen again. The reality now is that political practice in Egypt is dead. The notions of activism and opposition as we know them are through. In short, February 30 will come again if people answer the question they’re always trying to avoid: Why is Alaa Abdel Fattah more dangerous than Wael Ghoneim? Because he had a project, to spread open-source programming in Egypt, to teach young people what Linux is, what privacy means — what logic itself means. To me, this is a lot more important than overthrowing a president. 

SALAM

If you feel like going to the movies this weekend, director Hisham Saqr’s debut feature, Certified Mail, has just opened in Zawya. The film premiered in last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and centers on a  protagonist grieving a dead father while dealing with postpartum depression.

Meanwhile, Gypsum Gallery’s group exhibition Codes of Coupling, curated by visual artist Mahmoud Khaled, is running until March 24. Read Mariam Elnozahy’s review for Mada here

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