Bahia Shehab, You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution (Gingko Library, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Bahia Shehab (BS): You Can Crush the Flowers was written to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution. Looking back at the intensity of emotions felt during that time and the fact that it was a life-changing event for many people, I was disappointed to discover, a decade later, students coming into my classroom who knew little to nothing about the events that unfolded on 25 January 2011 in Tahrir Square. Discussing the revolution has become a taboo topic for many households in Egypt. Thus the book came out of my feeling that there has been a systematic effort to remove every trace of the revolution. All we have left of it is our memories, so it is very important for us to document those memories for upcoming generations.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
BS: The book is a personal narrative, a history-from-below, and a memoir, styled to make it accessible to the general reader interested in learning about the events that were unfolding during the years of the revolution in Cairo. It is the story of a woman who begins by going about, day to day, noticing the changes in the city and how this affects her and her life. From the mass demonstrations of millions of people in squares all over Egypt, to the toppling of a dictator, the change in the regime, and the aftermath of all that, events were unfolding so quickly that documenting the moment became the biggest challenge. Consequently, the character in the book becomes a street artist because of what she witnesses. So, the book explores how the revolution changed someone’s life, but it also records the everyday roller coaster of the revolution.
The book is based partly on my own street art, and that done by other artists, and the motives behind each intervention. It also reflects on the rapid political and social changes that were unfolding. It is part memoir, part visual documentation of ephemeral works that no longer exist. It was important for me to create a document that preserves this kind of knowledge, and it was important for me to pass it on. When we look back at the revolution, historians will try to narrate facts and some scholars will look at statistics and data; I felt that the emotions might be neglected. I wanted to preserve how we felt, the intensity of emotions of happiness, sadness, shock, and disbelief.
So, these are more or less the topics in the book: the motives behind my practice as a street artist, and the street art itself. The work of other artists, including some of my colleagues, who were practicing on the street and whose work affected mine. The book is a record of the visual conversations that took place on the streets and on the walls during the revolution in Cairo.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
BS: This book connects to At the Corner of a Dream (also published by Gingko last year), by being a kind of prequel. After the revolution I found myself painting in different cities around the world—this is the experience, the aftermath of the revolution, documented in At the Corner of a Dream—while You Can Crush the Flowers deals with everything that led up to that: what unfolded on the streets of Cairo, and the story of how my focus shifted from producing work for museums and galleries to becoming an active citizen on those streets.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
BS: I would like anybody who is interested in the concept of change and revolution to have access to this book, but especially those who are looking for a way to peacefully create change. What we lived through in Cairo was historic and monumental and important—an experience that needs to be shared, because for me the great question we are always struggling with is peaceful change, change that is not violent. And this is the most difficult kind of change to bring about, because historically it has been part of our nature to crush the opponent, to kill the other, and to enforce our own point of view—hence the long history of wars and revolutions all over the world. But how do we effect change, how do we make those transitions peacefully? We have very few examples of this, and I think this is our biggest struggle.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
BS: My upcoming project is again with Gingko, on the history of the veil. If everything goes well, I will hopefully be conducting an artist’s residency at the Islamic Museum in Berlin later this year, to further research that project.
J: Will this book make a difference?
BS: After looking at the bigger picture of everything that happened in the revolution, and seeing how all of our stories disappeared, my question has to be whether this book will make a difference to the general narrative remaining on the revolution, now and a few decades from now. And, of course, I am posing that question because I do not know the answer. Right now, I feel that all we have left are our stories and these stories are like small seeds. All I can do is hope that we leave seeds of change for others, and that these seeds and ideas grow in someone else’s mind—and maybe eventually we create the change that we are hoping for. It is a gamble, because a seed is tiny. There is always the fear that the wind might blow it away, it might disappear, but at least I can say I have had the honor of trying to plant it.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)
I am not a rebel. When the revolution started on 25 January 2011, I was in Cairo watching the events unfold like so many others all over the world: on a screen. I was never in Tahrir Square during the first 18 days of the revolution. I neither smelled tear gas nor was beaten with a policeman’s baton. Snipers did not take out my right eye. Armed thugs did not chase me with hatchets. My face was not the last sight seen by a dying stranger as I held him in my arms while he breathed his last. I never chanted for the ousting of Mubarak. I never served in a field hospital set up in a nearby mosque. My blood did not leave a trail on the asphalt for others to document and share on social media.
If I were to meet myself ten years ago, I would tell her: ‘Brace yourself! Everything is going to change. Not for the better and not for the worse. But inside you walls are going to come crashing down and you will walk out a free woman.’ To me this might be the most meaningful outcome of a revolution: it shakes our being and shifts the course of our lives. Because it is only in shifting an individual perspective that real change can ever happen, no matter how long it takes.
When the revolution started, I thought that it had nothing to do with me. I was not born in this land and none of this is my business. I watched and documented as a historian and the outsider I believed I was. But the walls, they started falling, and I had to rationalise my actions and understand my reactions. I had to realise that the walls that were falling inside of me were bigger than my small self. We have been conditioned to accept what is unacceptable; to live in a society that has been groomed to give up on freedom in exchange for security; to accept poverty as a given and apathy as strength; to pray for the wrong gods and celebrate the wrong achievements….
When the walls fell, the world got smaller and not bigger as I had expected. I thought, as a prisoner of the ideas that were imposed on me by society, that this liberation would be the ultimate freedom. I never expected the burden to be so heavy. You being to see, and you realise that the chain of oppression runs long through history and it is a chain that continues up until today.
When the revolution started, I was alone. I had family and friends of course, but I was alone, or at least I felt that way. Those in my circles disregarded my questions at the time. Why are there children begging on the street? Why can’t I walk on a clean and even sidewalk? Why do I and other women have to think about what to wear ten times before we decide to step out of our doors for fear of harassment? Why can’t we drink clean water from our taps even though we live in a country with one of the biggest rivers in the world? Why are some of our most beautiful historic monuments in such a horrible condition and being destroyed? How can I escape the feeling of guilt when my fridge is full and others are hungry? Is it okay to have access to resources and to be safe yourself when others do not and are not? Why am I still sometimes regarded as an outsider even though I have an Egyptian passport, have given birth to two Egyptian daughters and even speak with an Egyptian accent? And if I do not belong here nor back in Lebanon then where do I belong? And then there is the question my eldest daughter asked me when she turned seven: why can’t I (meaning herself) be president of Egypt?....
After the revolution, the walls fell and the world got smaller. I will tell you the story as I saw it, but bear in mind that we were millions and this is only one point of view…. Even if now it all seems like an illusion, for a few months that same illusion felt real and emitted enough light to inspire the whole world.
[…] From “Rooms in an Imagined Museum”
25 January to 11 February 2011
It took eighteen days for our president of thirty years to fall.
After he had gone, I began to imagine those days as a museum, arranged over eighteen rooms. In April 2011, I wrote up a detailed proposal and sent it to the relevant ministry. I actually got as far as attending a series of meetings with the minister, who seemed surprisingly enthusiastic.
The Egyptian revolution was ignited in the cybersphere and kept alive through a plethora of different forms of communication. The internet was a hero of the revolution. I wanted to preserve as much as possible of the images and sounds — video recordings, chants, posters, banners, slogans and street art — documenting the revolution and serving as its driving force. I wanted to create a space in which people from around the world could see what it was like to be in Tahrir Square, and Egyptians could relive the tumultuous experience of those eighteen days, unfolding across eighteen rooms.
In the end, the museum never came into existence. But it still exists in my imagination.
The visitor enters a room painted in black. Everything is black: the walls, the floor and the ceiling. The visitor’s first impression is one of darkness and uncertainty. Throughout the exhibition black colour represents the old regime.
In this big black room, a single small flat screen is flickering on one of the walls. The screen is showing different clips of video messages, songs, newspaper headlines, flyers and so on, that were circulating on the internet before the 25 January demonstrations, calling for action. This one small screen is a window of light.
25 January is a national holiday in Egypt; it is celebrated as Police Day. I see calls for protest demonstrations in Tahrir. What for, I am not sure.
Ten days ago, when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was ousted, I posted on Facebook the sentence ‘Bye bye Ben Ali’. For a month we have watched the demonstrations in Tunis online after the young street vendor Bouazizi set himself on fire in public and died a few weeks later. But this will never happen in Cairo. Gamal Mubarak will probably be the president next. His mother has been preparing the ground for him for a couple of years now. The online calls for action are very emotional, but it all seems impossible. Egypt is not Tunisia.
In the second black room, the screen has multiplied into three screens playing any footage we can find, from people’s personal cameras, news agencies, the internet, newspapers to various digital media.
The next morning, we wake up to no internet access on our mobile phones, but the landlines are still working. The demonstrators have been chased away from downtown, closer to my area of residence. I hope that they don’t lose their momentum. My friends and family are checking on me either by phone calls or email. I guess everything looks quite amplified on the media. But we are fine. I keep refreshing my news feed and then checking what is being said on TV, and I feel like I am living in two different countries. This is becoming surreal very quickly.
In the following rooms the screens keep multiplying, eventually covering the black of the wall, with each room screening the events of the corresponding day. This represents the build-up of events and the development of the revolution.
The following morning there are no signals on any of our mobile phones. Everything is down. I laughed out loud in the living room. The regime is so out of tune with the world. They did not get the memo that the internet is now a basic need.
I am crying and watching one of the biggest marches I have ever seen in my life on TV. They are killing protestors on the street with live ammunition. Protestors call this day ‘Friday of the Martyrs’. Hundreds of people have been shot or wounded. Police forces have been withdrawn from the street, unable to face the increasing numbers of protestors. The military is deployed across the country, and I don’t feel good about this as I don’t have good memories of seeing tanks in the city, but for some reason the crowds are cheering so it must be a good thing…