From the Editors
The New York Times says Jadaliyya "Brings New Life to Arab Studies." Read about it by clicking here.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Marwan Kraidy (MK): I received an invitation from the editors to write an essay with a brutal time frame (if I recall correctly, an author had dropped out two weeks before the copy deadline, and I was asked to fill in). But that was just technical. What really made me write the article was that I had been preoccupied with the implications of Alia al-Mahdy’s action for several days, because it came on the heels of other performances in the Arab uprisings that highlighted the role of the body as political medium, an issue in which I have had a keen interest for a number of years. I felt an urge to grapple with the issue in writing, partly as an implicit critique of the techno-fetishism about Twitter and Facebook that arose with Tunisia and has not abated.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
MK: Considering the body as a political medium opens up issues of agency and representation that I felt had been discussed in obtuse and superficial ways in journalism and academe. We do not need to rehearse and critique the ideologically loaded, substantively ignorant, and technologically deterministic ways in which the uprisings have been interpreted. Suffice is to say that a focus on the body resituates issues of hunger, pain, truth, representation, repression, and dissent, enabling a consideration of human agency beyond Western technological gadgets. The essay also argues that responses to al-Mahdy raise important questions about the nature of Arab liberalism, in addition to exposing the misogyny inherent in the neglect of the male nude picture posted alongside Alia’s.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
MK: I wrote the essay as a stream of consciousness in one sitting, the first time I had ever done that. I was in Beirut for the year, a passive-aggressive city at a time when other Arab capitals are in upheaval. Being in Beirut, I had a visceral experience of the uprisings, especially in Syria. So in hindsight I think the essay reflected that. This is why the essay is a bit raw, even though I reluctantly added some citations when I edited it later. So it was a new writing experience for me, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and hope to repeat soon, maybe in book format. So stylistically, this was unlike anything I had done before. Substantively, it is a continuation of my previous work, especially my 2010 book Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life, in which I used the reality television controversies that shook the Arab world from 2003 to 2008 to develop a performative-contentious model of the Arab public sphere, one in which the human body, as bone of contention and medium of expression, played a major role.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MK: I have received many emails about it, mostly from graduate students and “young” scholars. Beyond the content and argument, people reacted positively to the style, though some professed that they would not dare veer too far from the traditional academic format. I do hope the essay contributes to a discussion of the body, gender, and sexuality in the massive ongoing academic production about the uprisings. More narrowly, I do hope that we develop broader definition of media, beyond electronic gadgetry.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MK: There is a long-standing book project about Arab music videos that is on the back burner, and a text on global media studies that needs to be completed in the next few months. My central project is a book about the Arab uprisings as battles of representation, and related essays about Beirut graffiti, the body as medium, and Turkey’s shifting image in Arab public discourse.
J: What parallels do you draw between Aliaa al-Mahdy's act and other performances of the body by major players in the Arab spring?
MK: If we consider that the Arab uprisings began with the ultimate bodily performance, Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation, then al-Mahdy’s act can also be understood as an act of semiotic self-immolation. They are both provocative yet sacrificial acts that triggered wide-ranging debates about important issues. Whatever the intentions behind these acts, they cannot be neglected, as communicative utterances grafted on larger political issues. It is possible that such an act may have been intended as a facile exhibitionist gesture, one that can undermine the revolution and Arab feminism; but once such an act begins circulating and attracting political and moral pronouncements, it is imperative to analyze it systematically, and debate the questions it raises about activism, feminism, postcolonialism, etcetera.
J: What neglected topics did writing this article make you think about?
MK: As I wrote the essay, I kept thinking that there was something peculiar about the way Aliaa’s picture and annotation communicated with its audience. Though I did not have the time to explore that in the essay, I think that the aesthetics of Aliaa’s blog posting require further analysis and criticism. We are often so invested in deciphering what cultural expressions mean that we neglect to investigate how they make us feel, which is an important aspect of their impact. Ever since Benjamin’s writings about the aestheticization of politics under fascism, many academics have stayed away from aesthetic analysis. I think Aliaa and other Arab creators compel us to rethink that, and I am interested in looking at politics and aesthetics in tandem when examining revolutionary cultural expression.
Excerpts from “The Revolutionary Body Politic: Preliminary Thoughts on a Neglected Medium in the Arab Uprisings”
To my mind, interesting questions would focus on why there has been almost no mention of the male nude photograph, posted directly under the photo of al-Mahdy standing nude, her right leg open to emphasize her pubic area—so much so that one feminist blogger claimed to discern al-Mahdy’s clitoris (Abu Ghazal 2011)—wearing glossy red shoes and above-the-knee socks. Is it because the man is kneeling, exposing less of his body? Maybe, but maybe not, since his genitals, including the tip of the gland of his penis, are visible. Is it because she is the “author” of the blog, and therefore claims agency for posting both pictures? Possibly. Or is it perhaps because she is a woman and he is a man, and therefore they are subjected to vastly different standards of morality and judgment? Assuredly.
Another fascinating question, or more appropriately, series of questions, would apply to the ways in which newspapers, blogs, and Facebook pages remediated the photograph, and I write the photograph because it is the frontal nude of al-Mahdy, not other pictures, presumably of hers, exhibiting her body in different poses, and most definitely not the photograph of her male partner, that were circulated. A semiotic analysis of these “re-mediations,” examining what media platforms covered which body part and what graphic device was used to cover it (a red oval? A yellow band? A blurring of the picture? White lines?), showcasing different ways of parceling out a woman’s body in the public sphere, resonating with the wave of moral indignation that rhetorically tore al-Mahdy to shreds. A third compelling line of questioning would pursue al-Mahdy’s call to Egyptian men to wear the hijab in solidarity with Egyptian women, therefore threatening socially constructed, religiously enforced gender boundaries and hierarchies (Tanzizi 2011). These questions are all related to the theme of the human body as a communicative agency—the body as medium.
Al-Mahdy’s jolt to Egyptian public discourse can be understood as an example of what I elsewhere called a performative-contentious model of the public sphere, one in which the gendered human body is at once a medium of expression and a discursive battlefield (Kraidy 2010). Against that model, bien pensant journalists tend to invoke the Habermasian rationalist-deliberative ideal of the public sphere, as this al-Ahram journalist does when he writes, rather patronizingly:
First, I would like to assure sister Aliaa that she is not the first rebellious young woman…and this is intellectual freedom with which we may agree or disagree, but we disagree with the style of presenting this thought. A leader of rebellious thought against society’s view of women is Nawal al-Sa‘dawy but she said that she was “against veiling women and also against laying women bare; I am in favor of respecting woman as a rational being that can neither be veiled nor laid bare….” (Sabry 2011)
Feminists like El-Saadawi, in this reading, are acceptable because they abide by the rules of public discourse, participation in which occurs via the reasoned, disciplined and cerebral deployment of words. In contrast, Aliaa al-Mahdy’s radical speech act falls outside the spectrum of acceptable participation in public discourse, because it uses what Peters reminds us, is “the mother of all media, the body” (Peters 1999: 187).
Perhaps the most important moral of this episode is to remind us of the importance of the human body as a medium. Journalistic, academic and activist hyperventilation about the allegedly central role of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube would do well to remember that it is ultimately the human body that, at a basic level, operates all these platforms. More importantly, communicating contention through one’s body reflects a radically superior commitment to one’s cause because putting one’s body in harm’s way reflects far higher stakes. The words of a columnist in the pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi constitute an apt conclusion to this essay:
Aliaa, by the simple fact of displaying her nudity, is trying in her bold way to raise questions that embarrass society in its most embarrassing locus, which is the example of youths that direct their bare chests to bullets, and leaving their bodies exposed does not only receive bullets from the government alone but also from society. This is an act that to many may appear like madness, but in madness, sometimes, there is a lot, a lot of reason (Muhammad 2011).
Abu Ghazal, Sara Emiline (2011). Who Is Afraid of Aliaa’s Nudity? Sawt al Niswa (18 November 2011). Accessed 12 December 2011.
Kraidy, M. M. (2010). Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Muhammad, Hussameddin (2011). Fadwa Slayman Makes History on al-Jazeera and Blogger Aliaa Lays Bare Both Government and Society. Al-Quds al-Arabi. 16 November 2011.
Sabry, ‘Adel (2011). An Invitation to View the Body of an Egyptian Girl. al-Ahram (21 November 2011). Accessed 21 November 2011.
Tantzizi (2011). Men Wear the Hijab Heeding Aliaa al-Mehdy’s Call (2011). Television Tantzizi (17 November 2011). Accessed 12 December 2011.
[Excerpted from “The Revolutionary Body Politic: Preliminary Thoughts on a Neglected Medium in the Arab Uprisings,” by Marwan M. Kraidy, by permission of the author. © 2012 by BRILL Publishing. For more information, or to order the article, click here.]
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