This guest post is published as part of our blog series related to the Middle Eastern Studies Association annual meeting November 14-17 in New Orleans. #MESA2019
By Maria Frederika Malmström, author of The Streets Are Talking to Me: Affective Fragments in Sisi’s Egypt
How to tell a story of the aftermath of the “failed revolution” in Egypt and what happened through the prism of sound and gendered political prisoner bodies? How to pay attention to sonic memories, exploring the lingering affective power sound might still have for how, for example, memories are preserved and communicated through affective relations? How to make sense of my fieldwork in a surreal Cairo during the fall of 2019? Not only was my book The Streets Are Talking to Me: Affective Fragments in Sisi’s Egypt (which presents new theoretical and analytical insights into the momentous events in the Arab world that began in 2011 and, more importantly, into life and politics in the aftermath of these events) published, the journey of which began after the ousting of President Morsi and the beginning of President Sisi’s rule, but I was engaged in violent fieldwork for a new project, when Egyptians – despite extreme immediate danger and state prohibition of demonstrations – took the street for the first time since the autocratic regime of President Sisi came to power. The Egyptian exile businessman Mohamed Ali, who had worked for President Sisi’s regime as a contractor, sparked scattered protests with videos accusing Sisi of corruption. The street protests started on 20 September 2019 across Egypt, with mass arrests as an instant state response in a new era where all citizens of Egypt are unsafe, not only (former) political activists.
This is a first effort, in this era of extraordinary danger and vast political instability and suspicion, to make sense of why (former) political activists have such a strong desire to disappear in order not to disappear again. The aftermath of the heated revolts in 2011 and onward created many embodied strong reactions among politically active Cairene men – many years after their lived prison experiences when they were tortured – in which depression, sorrow, stress, paranoia, rage, or painful body injuries and memories are prevalent. One common agential act during prison is for prisoners to whisper their name to their fellows, to ensure, if someone was released before the others, they could contact the family to let them know the imprisoned one is still alive. However, the family may not have believed the friend after such a long time has passed, or they might have already buried (and grieved) a body they thought was their loved one, or they assumed the call was part of the torture system, as it had been before. Equally surreal is the day if/when the prisoner is released and calls his family, but they do not believe him for the same reasons. One daily sonic practice is thereafter to repeat the names they have heard to always remember them. These are my first findings (which are part of a new project focusing on competing Cairene masculinities through the politics of the ear) where I am trying to explore how the sound of life is continuously transformed into the sound of death; where the desire to disappear in order not to disappear again produces silent “ghost bodies” alienated from not only the cityscape, but from the family and the self too.