The aesthetic and political significance of the murals and the graffiti of Mohammed Mahmud Street continue to draw much attention due to their mesmerizing beauty and their crucial significance for the visual and artistic narration of the revolution. It is not only the murals’ aesthetic appeal that has captured the imagination of many observers, but also how they exemplify a fascinating fusion between a variety of cultural artistic traditions that portray Egypt’s rich history, namely Pharaonic, popular Islamic, and contemporary traditions. They all reinvent, adapt to, and adopt universal schools of painting, adding a fascinating “Egyptian twist” to express—sometimes humorously—the spirit of rebellion and resistance.
It remains debatable whether the Mohammed Mahmud murals represent a post-January 25 Revolution innovation, or whether the very idea of murals had already existed in the façade paintings of rural dwellings, as inscribed in Islamic traditions and ancient Egyptian temples. Yet, the fusion between popular Islamic, Pharaonic, and contemporary artistic traditions remains one of the most striking features of these murals.
This short photo essay is the beginning of a broader research effort to highlight the influence of symbols of popular Islam in visualizing the January 25 Revolution through the theme of the “Buraq,” which appeared in the murals by artists Alaa Awad and Ammar Abu-Bakr. Specifically, the essay examines two distinctively different visions of the Buraq; namely the Buraq of Alaa Awad in the mural facing Tahrir Square at its intersection with Mohammed Mahmud Street. Before it was erased on the week of 21 May 2012 the mural was located on the last Mohammed Mahmud wall to be painted after the rest of the Street’s walls were completely filled with graffiti. The second Buraq, which was painted earlier by Ammar Abu Bakr, is located on the walls of Mohammed Mahmud Street.
The Buraq is a mythological creature that is half-animal and half-human with wings. The body has often been described as representing a half-mule, half-donkey. In some Islamic traditions the Buraq is figured with the head of a woman, while in some paintings it appears with a male head. Earlier Islamic references do not seem to define the human element of the head. The Buraq is famously known as the creature that is said to have transported the Prophet Muhammed from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the night of the “Israa and Meraj” (the night journey). Associated with flying and defiance of gravitation, the Buraq is often viewed as a symbol of freedom and liberation.
Buraq also means lightening, and in some contexts the term denotes a vision or a dream. In the Persian and Indian traditions, the Buraq is represented as a beautiful looking half-woman, half-animal, with long black hair and a peacock tail. In some Indian paintings the body takes the shape of a cow.
The Buraq, we are told, also transported Abraham, who shared his time between one wife in Syria and another in Mecca. This evokes one interpretation of the Buraq as the state of being in an intermediate realm, somewhere between two worlds, such that one would be experience being in two places at the same time. One could further draw the analogy between the Buraq and the realities in Egypt, by underscoring the uncertain, seemingly intermediate state in which post-Revolution Egypt appears to be experiencing today.
Alaa Awad’s murals tended to heavily borrow from Pharaonic art. His first painting in Mohammed Mahmud Street depicted the scene of an ancient Egyptian funeral, in which women mourners are praying behind a sarcophagus that is being carried away while the soul of the deceased is ascending to heaven. The mourned were the Ahly Ultras fans who were massacred in Port Said on 2 February 2012.
[Alaa Awad Buraq mural. Photo by Mona Abaza.]
Alaa’s most recent paintings on the wall facing Tahrir Square differ from his previous work. Here he seems to combine several traditions, fusing Islamic icons with contemporary art. According to Awad, this mural depicts the internal conflict the revolution faced when it had to retreat from the battle after confronting violent attacks by counter-revolutionary forces. However, what the mural conveys clearly is the ordeal of a violent battle and death. The retreat of the revolutionary forces is portrayed in the mural by ancient worriers and horse-riders turned upside down. This seems to be happening at the same time as preparations for another attack are underway. Here a figure, resembling an infant dressed in white (possibly with white wings), is standing on the back on the Buraq, but without riding on it. Awad’s Buraq is accompanied by a few young black panthers, which, according to him, symbolize the protectors of the Revolution. Near the Buraq, a chariot’s weel, perhaps as a prison, is incarcerating the face of an officer that symbolizes one of the officers who had been imprisoned by the army after participating in an anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) Tahrir protest on 8 April 2011. Awad’s message is that the SCAF does not represent the entire army, which also encompasses the honest officers who sided with the revolution and were condemned by the SCAF for doing so.
[Alaa Awad Buraq mural with focus on the chariot’s wheel. Photo by Mona Abaza.]
Alaa Awad’s mural shows a Buraq featuring a female head with wild, curly hair. The Buraq is green (which is often interpreted as the color of Islam) and displays the body of a mule or a horse, with three front legs, perhaps to convey speed. Staring faces, some of which are upside down, appear on the Buraq´s body. Black panthers are protecting the Buraq, which appears to be standing in the middle of a battlefield. Looking backwards in the direction of its protector, the Buraq seems to be between defeat, retreat, and possible resurgence. The Buraq’s depiction could possibly also symbolize the struggle of the women who have encountered humiliation, virginity tests, and beatings in Tahrir Square. The Buraq is conflicted about what to do: run away, escape, or advance toward freedom? The mythical figure of the Buraq, for Alaa Awad, appears to epitomize freedom, the symbol of the revolution.
[Ammar Abu-Bakr’s Buraq Mural. Photo by Mona Abaza.]
Ammar Abu-Bakr’s Buraq on the other hand, evokes the image of the facades of the rural dwellings in Egypt. In contrast to Alaa Awad, the body of the Buraq in Abu-Bakr’s mural is sky-blue. The head of the woman is staring at passers-by. Her black braids and her ornamented headscarf are clear references to the traditional fellahin garment. The Buraq speaks to the Egyptian fellahin culture and in this case it would be mostly often associated with the hajj (Muslim pilgrimage) journey. The Buraq is often painted on the facades of houses in the countryside when celebrating one’s return from hajj, and as a way of narrating the sojourn. It is perhaps another way of reminding us of the significance of the fellahin popular tradition in the revolution.
Alaa`s mural vanished this week thanks to the “professional whiteners” whom Egyptian authorities usually commission to erase graffiti art from streets. The mural and the buraq, mentioned in this article turned this week into an archive that could be resurrected through the efforts of photographers.
[Alaa Awad Buraq erased on Mohammed Mahmud Street. Photo by Mona Abaza.]
The obsession with whitening walls persists all over the city. On 21 May, as I passed in front of the murals of Mohammed Mahmud Street, I found out that some local officials had started to paint over the mural on the American University in Cairo (AUC) wall facing Tahrir. By the time AUC security personnel noticed it, the entire mural facing Tahrir and one bit of the Mohammed Mahmud mural, which was painted only last week had vanished under a thick white paint. AUC security personnel managed to stop the workers from erasing the rest of the wonderful mural.
[Silhouette painting before it was erased. Photo by Mona Abaza]
[Silhouette painting after it was erased. Photo by Mona Abaza.]
The government-commissioned workers justified their actions by stating that they were only interested in erasing insults against SCAF. What they targeted though, apart from Awad’s wonderful mural, which included no words or insults, was the infamous half-Mubarak, half-Tantawi portrait and the most recent drawing of a faceless military uniformed silhouette with a joker’s mouth, holding with threads headless marionettes wearing suits and ties. Perhaps too, these professional whiteners thought to start erasing graffiti from the Tahrir side so that they would be unnoticed by AUC security. Last month, the AUC administration had decided to preserve the murals and graffiti by painting the walls with a protective layer, though it seems that their efforts to protect the art were partly unsuccessful.
Shortly after the incident was announced on Facebook, the Square was filled with numerous photographers and graffiti hunters who were already filming the next round of politically subversive graffiti art. The artistic struggle to preserve the revolution remains strong.
[Photographers document making of next round of graffiti on Mohammed Mahmud Street. Photo by Mona Abaza.]