For those of you who know me, this is no surprise: poetry is my literary Achilles’ heel. But my contrary nature occasionally gets brave enough to try again, and the few times I eke out some level of comprehension, you’ll read about it here. [Any illumination offered will be much appreciated and, even more so, encouraged: Please don't make me beg.]
So a (renowned) poet friend alerted me to this slim collection when I mentioned that contemporary Egypt was my latest literary destination for my other major project, 10×10: Educate Girls | Change the World. The tiny book itself is an exquisitely bound creation – designed by Allison Hanabusa, a just-out-of-college artist clearly talented far beyond her youth – that is as much about its sparse content as the experiences not included, missing, forgotten, overlooked. I’m still not quite sure if I should read it as one epic piece or many related snippets … I decided (perhaps because of my penchant for prose) to go with the former.
Defying categorization, Revolution is part travelogue, part mocking commentary, part surprised questioning, part cultural rediscovery. Over not-quite 70 pages, the Seattle-based Maged Zaher journeys twice to his native Cairo, his travel commencing six months after the Egyptian Revolution initially erupted in January 2011. “The revolution happened and you didn’t call me,” he expounds.
Like most of the world, Zaher’s revolutionary participation happened virtually, from a great distance: “if you follow the attached link / The state will happily deliver its violence to your computer screen.” Zaher seems to both channel and contrast the oft-cited 1970 poem by Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which demands immediacy: “You will not be able to stay home, brother / You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out / … The revolution will be no re-run brothers; / The revolution will be live.”
Zaher’s transnational identity makes him both insider and other in both the U.S. and Egypt: “It is Cairo,” he writes during his first return. “So I am up all night / Texting flawed translations.” His multi-lingual, postponed participation of what happened in his homeland is both privileged and distanced, as he questions, “What would it look like without this second language”? He watches with sharp eyes the latest mutations of “a city under heavy rebranding,” complete with “bearded men / And lovers / Walking to McDonald’s / (The one next to the armored vehicle).” He finds himself in a “coffee shop,” “[s]urrounded by judgmental cops / And fear of imagined violence / … As I am watching the world go digital.”
Fear looms. Uncertainty remains certain. But that ubiquitous digital connection will make sure that the next revolution, every revolution, will be televised, an infinite loop playing over and over again, live participation ever optional.