Youssef El-Chazli, ed. “Everyday Alexandria(s): Plural Experiences of a Mythologized City.” Special Issue of Egypt Monde Arabe, no. 17 (2018).
Jadaliyya (J.): What made you edit this theme issue?
Youssef El-Chazli (YC): When I started working on my dissertation in 2011-2012, I was astonished to find out how little scholarship we had on contemporary Alexandria. This is not to say that nothing was being published, but most of the existing scholarship revolved around the issues of heritage, as well as the so-called cosmopolitan era, and so on. Contemporary Alexandria, my Alexandria, the one I grew up in and knew, was absent from the literature. While spending a year as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, I was lucky enough to meet and get to know one of Egypt’s foremost historians, Khaled Fahmy, and became more acquainted with his work. I found out about several texts he had published, many of which consisted of a critique of most of the historiography of Alexandria, identifying key issues with it. Against a certain vision of history, he was calling for a social history of Alexandria. This became my baseline, in a way, my starting point.
The incentive to edit this special issue also came from people I was spending time with in Alexandria. Indeed, the city had witnessed a lot of cultural and artistic movements by the end of the 2000s and in the early 2010s, and people who were involved in those milieus were producing their own narratives and opening all the black boxes of the Alexandrian “identities”. Furthermore, a new generation of academics were working on and publishing research on the city that had a different, more complex, and more nuanced tone. I am thinking, for instance, of two recent books, i.e. Samuli Schielke’s Egypt in the Future Tense and Will Hanley’s Identifying with Nationality. In the introduction to the special issue, I try to sketch out the contours of these new perspectives and their relationships to the changing cultural and intellectual landscape of the city.
So, in a way, the idea blossomed at the crossroad of personal academic interests and engagement with the Alexandrian cultural milieus, and I was lucky enough to find a receptive and encouraging interlocutor in the CEDEJ, the Cairo-based French center of social sciences.
J.: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does this special issue address?
YC: The call for papers I had prepared for this special issue stressed several key guidelines and conditions for potential contributors: the papers had to be founded on empirical research and it had to relate to Alexandria in some way. Other than that, there were no restrictions on the methodology nor the disciplinary approaches, and papers could be submitted in Arabic, English, or French. Thankfully, the openness of the call was fruitful, and the special issue tackles a variety of topics and historical periods. The articles also follow very different styles and formats, ranging from the essay to the biography, as well as the photo essay and the experimental online app-based research.
A first set of articles is written by historians. They deal with subjects as varied as sex trafficking and political economic change in interwar Alexandria; the history of the Alexandrian workers' movement told through the biography of one of its protagonists; and the politics hidden behind Alexandrian Museums and the discourse they try to put forward.
A second set of articles tackles more contemporary issues. These stretch from assessing the current situation of Christian communities in Alexandria to student activism, as well as an in-depth study of alternative artistic practices in Egypt’s “Second capital.”
In a third part, two papers (unusual by their format) give us a peek inside Alexandrians’ everyday lives. A photo essay makes us walk through the city’s streets and look at its walls to find a multitude of messages left there to be read. The other paper, combining ethnography, photography, and an online application, shows us the pernicious effects of the economic crisis on women’s sexual health.
The final article takes us through the history of online radio initiatives in the Mediterranean City and how they have evolved (and tended to disappear) in the previous years.
J. Who do you hope will read this issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
YC: I think Alexandria has fascinated a lot of people for a long time. It has been the object of many literary and cinematographic productions as well as historical scholarship. Our collective volume has a clear statement, visible in its title: it seeks to shed some light on a different Alexandria, a real, everyday Alexandria. Because of the variety of the topics, the disciplines, and the historical periods, I think this volume will be of interest to specialists as well as the many aficionados of the city. But they must be willing to read a different story concerning Alexandria, one that doesn’t “cry on the ruins” of a lost and foregone cosmopolitan model, but rather strives to tell several different stories from inside.
J. What other projects are you working on now?
YC: I have just finished writing my dissertation, which consists of a monograph of contentious politics in Alexandria from the 1990s until the 2011 Revolution. I intend to partly transform it into a book. The project will depart a bit from the dissertation to be a sociology and a history of a multitude of spaces (from the Bibliotheca Alexandria to the private social clubs, from the Corniche to the occupied street) that have been used by Alexandrians from the 1990s onwards to be together. In that work, which hopefully will open up to comparisons with other countries (Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco), the idea is to link the materialities of spaces and infrastructure, the politics that constitute them, and what they mean to the youths who engage in them and appropriate them.
It is important to also underline that this special issue, in addition to being a novel take on the city, is the product of a change in the way a lot of young academics, scholars, and activists are engaging with Alexandria and are writing about it. I very strongly encourage the readers to look for and read the contributors many other publications, projects, websites. It is upon hearing of and reading some of this exciting research as it was ongoing by multiple colleagues that I wished to regroup them in this collective endeavor.
Excerpts from the Special Issue:
Excerpt from “Introduction,” by Youssef El Chazli:
« Timothy Mitchell souligne que les champs d’études développent souvent des conventions pour introduire leurs objets. Ces tropismes deviennent si évidents qu’on cesse de les questionner. Souvent adossés à des « imageries poétiques » (Mitchell 2002 : 210), ces discours établissent une relation complexe entre l’analyse et son objet, fournissant des cadres interprétatifs récurrents et établissant des frontières, des bornes, des lieux communs. Les réflexions de Mitchell, fondées sur son analyse des études en développement portant sur l’Égypte du xxe siècle, s’appliquent particulièrement bien aux travaux sur la deuxième ville du pays, Alexandrie. (…) La volonté première derrière l’élaboration de ce numéro de la revue Égypte/Monde arabe était d’éviter ces lieux communs : point de nostalgie et de « cosmopolitisme endeuillé » (Hanley 2008), mais une volonté de donner voix au chapitre à une Alexandrie par le bas et/ou contemporaine. Et en n, ni Corniche ni bâtiment de la « belle époque » sur la couverture du numéro. »
Excerpt from “Challenging the Narrative of “Arab Decline”: Independent Music as Traces of Alexandrian Futurity,” by Darci Sprengel:
In a top-floor apartment next to the Qaid Ibrahim Mosque, guests begin arriving for a night of jamming (known more formally as a jalsah or jalsât, pl.) at around 10 p.m. Mostly Egyptian men but a few Egyptian women and foreigners, in their 20s and 30s, trickle in throughout the evening and number about a dozen. The majority in attendance are independent arts enthusiasts but are not trained musicians. Cushions, chairs, and pillows hug the three walls that form the living room. Scarves or semi-transparent cloth cover the lights, dimming ocular sense.
All are welcomed and encouraged to jam, whether s/he is a musician or not. In an environment where sociality is the most important value, musical ability does not matter much (Taylor 2015: 112). The attendees are a mix of people from neighborhoods spanning Bahari to the upscale parts of Smouha, representing some of the poorest and wealthiest areas in Alexandria. Before the music begins, it is a social affair, much like any house party. Eventually we take our seats in the living room, sitting in two rows facing each other.
The music that emerges depends on who shows up and with what instruments. Today we have an ‘ûd (plucked lute) player, violinist, bass guitarist, acoustic guitarist, and a trained vocalist. Given the musicians’ musical backgrounds, the group improvisation emerges as a mix of Arab art music (al-mûsîqa al-‘arabîyyah), blues, and rock accompanied by various voices and percussion. The violinist begins an improvisation that draws from some elements of the Arab art music taqsîm but is not limited to this framework. The bassist plays a four-tone riff to accompany him while the guitarist adds blues chords where appropriate. The trained vocalist joins by singing a layâlî, a vocal improvisation that explores the maqamât (melodic modes) using only the words “ya layl” (night) or “ya ‘aîn” (eye). Others contribute to the improvisation with their voices, sustaining tones, adding vocables, or singing melodies in a call-and-response style with the violinist. Others contribute by any means possible, such as by hitting metal service trays or taking a lighter to a glass bottle. Some chat casually, continue to drink and/or smoke, or just listen. With the violinist’s and vocalist’s uses of maqamât and ornamentation as well as improvisatory techniques such as the lâzimah and gawâb, the music at this particular jam clearly draws from Arab music aesthetics; but, with the bass riff, rock-in uenced guitar chords, and various vocal and percussive elements, it does not sound like typical Arab art music.
As the night turns to morning, the jamming has moved outside onto the top- oor balcony that overlooks the harbor. More and more of its participants fall asleep. Some retire to another area of the apartment, sleeping on any available bed, chair, or oor. Others simply fall asleep in their places in the middle of the jam session. As more and more of its contributors drop out, the music gets quieter and calmer, eventually fading away entirely. Living in Alexandria for a year between 2010 and 2011 and again for the summer of 2012, I attended many such jam sessions that were still going as the morning sun rose, with its most enthusiastic contributors not stopping until 9 or 10 a.m. the following morning. Such gatherings gesture toward a concert, but lack many of its organized and public aspects. Nonetheless, such a gathering forms the backbone of the independent music scene in Alexandria that is largely hidden from view.
Excerpt from “A City of Walls. A Photo Essay on Writing on Walls in Alexandria, 2011-2017,” by Samuli Schielke:
“Writing on walls is as old as writing, which has a very long history in Alexandria and Egypt. The story might begin, if not with the invention of writing, then at least with the spread of literacy that made writing in the open widespread, pragmatic, and plural in its uses. The story might also begin with the availability of spray paint, which made it possible to write large, visible messages very quickly. The story could also begin with Alexandria’s iconic wall-writer Gamal El-Dowaly (Khaled 2012; Abu El-Ma‘ati 2016), a dedicated fan of the Ittihad football team, who wrote and signed his messages on walls of Alexandria from the 1980s until the 2000s, and even drew the regime’s attention when he wrote of his intention to run for the presidency on a wall. Another beginning might be messages like “Would you accept it for your sister?” that warn youths on the Corniche against romantic encounters, and which spread along the seashore when the Islamic revival gained societal dominance over the city and the country. Yet another beginning could be the line of poetry borrowed from Amal Dunqul that was sprayed on the Corniche in autumn 2010: “Dream not of a better world / Behind every Caesar who dies is another Caesar”.
January 2011 is therefore an arbitrary starting point for a history of Alexandria’s wall-writing, but there are two reasons behind it.
The first is that it almost coincides with the beginning of my fieldwork on literary writing in Alexandria, in March 2011. I had already developed an interest in the aspirational, moral, and political dimension of visible surfaces such as graffiti, stickers, and posters some years earlier (Schielke 2012). When my fieldwork turned towards issues of text, language, messages, and communication, it was logical to continue to pay attention to writings on walls; however, I began to pay more attention towards graffiti as texts: slogans, announcements, denunciations, declarations of love, invitations, advertisements, lines from songs, or the marking of a space with one’s name. What can these texts tell us about the claims, struggles, and strivings of the people who live in the city? What kind of relationship – if any – might there be between wall-writing and literary writing?
An important methodological and aesthetic choice that resulted from this research interest was that I shifted to working in black and white, consciously avoiding colour, which is usually the preferred method of photographing graffiti. I initially worked with a medium-format analogue camera, and later shifted to a faster-to-use analogue SLR camera. Restricting my vision to black and white and taking fewer pictures (due to my reliance on lm) was a way of training myself to be a reader of writings and walls rather than a spectator of graffiti.
The parts of Alexandria where I took my photos are broadly those areas of the city around which I would regularly move: El-Mandara, El-Asafra, and Miami in the east, the Corniche Road, Ramleh Station, El-Manshiya, and El-Shatby quarters, the Abu Qir train line, and the Chinese Housing in Agami. I cannot present a representative survey of wall-writing, and indeed have never aimed for one; rather, my intention has been to document continuities and changes in messages on walls over time.
This leads to the other reason for beginning the story in January 2011. The revolutionary uprising of 25 January marked the beginning of an intensive and highly-politicized period of wall-writing that tells a story of the struggles and shifts of mood in the city during and after the failed revolution. The story of this photo essay continues until the autumn of 2017 (the moment when this essay was completed for publication) to include the depoliticization that followed the establishment of El-Sisi’s new old regime as well as the ongoing societal dynamics that are reflected in wall-writing. It is important to note, however, that even at the height of the political contestation and its various expressions on walls, political writings never dominated exclusively; they mingled with a remarkably constant use of wall-writing for religious, romantic, personal, commercial, legal, and other purposes.