Stroll the streets of central Cairo today, and two faces stand out. The first is a symbol of resistance; Jika, a teenage protester shot dead late last year, whose likeness has been repeatedly stencilled across the walls of the city centre.
The second is rather less revolutionary. It belongs to SpongeBob SquarePants. The fictional marine sponge, historically found on kids’ cartoon channel Nickelodeon, is now the ubiquitous face of Egyptian tat – printed on everything from hijabs to boxer shorts, complete with spelling mistakes. (In Egypt, where western Bs are often confused with Ps, SpongeBob sometimes becomes a variant of SpongePop.) Name something cheap and tacky, and chances are that someone in Egypt can sell you a Spongified version.
His appearances have become so frequent that a blog – SpongeBob on the Nile – now documents his Egyptian adventures. Vice magazine was even forced to ponder: “Is SpongeBob SquarePants the New Che Guevara?”.
The explosion started about a year ago, SpongeBob on the Nile’s co-founder reckons. “I remember coming back in June 2012,” says Elisabeth Jaquette, a longtime Cairo resident who had returned from a year in America, “and walking through Tahrir Square, where you used to see T-shirts that said ‘Egypt’ and ‘Revolution’. But that June, half the T-shirts were just SpongeBob.”
Soon the craze spread to other wardrobe items. “Men would ask me for SpongeBob boxer shorts,” says stallholder Yasser Abdel Moneim. To meet demand, Abdel Moneim now sells three different SpongeBob pant designs – sourced from China – including one that overlays the sponge with the unlikely logo of Calvin Klein. “It’s still the thing that sells out first.”
Egypt is not the only country to have taken to SpongeBob. Jaquette’s blog memorably shows someone celebrating the Libyan revolution dressed as SpongeBob. But Jaquette argues: “People are reproducing it in ways that are very distinctly Egyptian; there are traditional hand puppets that have SpongeBob on them, tissue-box covers – a very Egyptian thing – with SpongeBob designs.”
How this all started, no one really knows. SpongeBob is shown on a private Egyptian channel, but most won’t have watched much of it. Whatever Vice‘s headline implied, SpongeBob doesn’t have any political resonance. One theory is that SpongeBob’s success is symptomatic of the way that urban space has changed in Egypt since the 2011 uprising. After the revolution, a breakdown in law and order made it easier for street traders to set up shop in city centres – a phenomenon that may have led to higher sales of Spongebob tat.
Jaquette, however, isn’t convinced. There may have been fewer vendors before the revolution, she says, “but there has always been one shirt or other that has been popular”. For now, SpongeBob’s presence is everywhere – but it may not be for ever. At the height of his popularity, Tahrir vendor Mostafa Hamed sold 30 SpongeBobs a week. But this week? Just three.
When I came to Darfur in 2009 to work with a United Nations agency that supports internally displaced people (IDPs), I spent a long time in IDP camps. There I grew increasingly intrigued by the incredible variety of colours and patterns of women’s clothes. Like many westerners, I had a preconceived idea of Darfur and Muslim women in general, and was amazed at how different reality turned out to be. I started photographing their fashion to show my friends back home. Eventually, it became apparent that this was a story waiting to be told from an angle the media rarely shows, and so I created The Darfur Sartorialist.
In Sudan, men’s fashion mostly consists of a white jalabiya (arab tunic) with or without a turban, and white or sometimes leopard-patterned shoes. Urban Sudanese men will often wear westernised outfits with pressed trousers and un-tucked shirts in soft colours.
Women’s clothing is much more diverse (as is often the case!). There is a mix of the traditional abaya (arab tunic), the toub (many metres of colourful cloth wrapped around the body and head), and western-influenced fashion such as long dresses with tight shirts underneath to cover the skin, or denim jackets and skirts to match the headscarves. You often see cheap versions of designer clothes, even in IDP camps, like this fake Chanel belt on a young woman.
Most of the photos I take are of either internally displaced people living in IDP camps, or Darfuris working with humanitarian agencies to assist them. It’s not always easy to distinguish between the two. I know most of the people in the photos, either because they were working with me or because I spent a long time in the camps and became friends with some of the residents.
Culture plays a big role in the expected behaviour from women, so if you ask someone you don’t know directly for a photograph, their natural reaction is to refuse. Curiously, if I photograph children, it’s the mothers that come and ask enthusiastically to be photographed as well! For the most part, though, I have not encountered any problems – people are often flattered that a foreigner wants to photograph their clothes. It’s true that government is often suspicious of foreigners, and I was indeed questioned a couple of times for taking photos. However, most of my photos were taken in the camps where I worked side-by-side with security officials who were fine with it.
I did not expect The Darfur Sartorialist to be a success. I thought it would be a short-lived curiosity; people would see it and then move on to the next novelty. The fact that there has been constant media interest since its inception in June 2012 has come as quite a surprise. I’d say the highlights of the project so far have been the four-metre-tall exhibits of my photos at the Sines World Music Festival in Portugal in 2012, and a recent feature in the Guardian.
The fact is that my photos do not fit at all with the image most of us have of Darfuri African Muslims. I hope this will launch a discussion within us about whether the reality most media convey about the world is correct or complete. I hope the project gets people to question the reality they know. When we assimilate entire countries to one single idea (of Sudan, of Afghanistan, of Africa), we lose a lot of the complexity and paradoxes that exist in those societies. We forget that Burkina Faso, a poor country, has a thriving cultural scene with some of the best jazz and film festivals in Africa, or that Somalia and South Sudan have produced world-class rap musicians.
Click on the first image below to view the gallery. Pics: Pedro Matos
Egyptian graffiti artists are doing more than just painting art on street walls. They’re creating social awareness campaigns against corruption, media brainwashing, poverty and sexual harassment, and also using graffiti to beautify slum areas of Cairo to restore a sense of pride, ownership and hope to residents.
Nazeer and Zeft have launched a new awareness campaign called #ColoringThruCorruption, where they paint walls, water pipes and other public surfaces to raise awareness about corruption and how the Egyptian government is stealing money from its citizens. As Nazeer explains:
We’re not painting to make life pretty – on the contrary, this is our way of drawing your attention to the reality of the situation: the government is stealing your money, the taxes you pay every year to renew your car license, pay your traffic tickets, pay for the roads, bridges and highways to be maintained, pay for your water/gas/electricity bills and so on. This money goes into the personal accounts of the governors and the local councils. In the end, you find the roads ruined and full of holes that damage your cars. So many homes without access to water or electricity or gas. This is the devastating reality. We’re painting corruption to draw people’s attention and then tell them our message. This time we were ten people painting. Next time we’ll be twenty, forty, sixty, a hundred with God’s will. We will paint the slum areas. The biggest proof of corruption is when one man lives in a palace and across the road, another man lives in a slum.
Zeft’s previous campaigns include his Nefertiti mask graffiti, which was endorsed by anti-sexual harassment campaigns and spread to protests around the world in support of Egyptian women.
Nazeer’s previous campaigns include graffiti calling for a return to protests in Tahrir during 2011, and his graffiti of 16-year-old Iman Salama, who was shot dead in September 2012. Nazeer made the stencil for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO that wanted to draw attention to Iman’s murder, which had received little media coverage.
Nemo is a street artist in Mansoura who has made graffiti that raises awareness about street children, homeless people, poverty and sexual harassment. He is one of the most diligent street artists in Egypt and has dedicated pretty much every single graffito he’s made to honouring martyrs, advocating the revolution and drawing attention to the impoverished and disenfranchised millions of Egyptians. He is featured in the upcoming documentary In the Midst of Crowds, and all his images can be viewed on his Facebook page.
In his latest campaign, he plasters sliced photographs of Egyptian faces on the iron walls of Gamaa Bridge in Mansoura. This one below is my favourite. It’s of Abo El Thowar, who has become an icon of the Tahrir protests for his resilience and poetic protest posters.
Then there’s the Mona Lisa Brigades, who created the great ‘I want to be’ project. The artists painted on the walls of people’s homes in the Cairo slum of Ard al-Lewa. The children of the neighbourhood were photographed and their images made into graffiti on the walls of the narrow, grim alleyways.
Such a simple gesture can bring so much hope and joy to an otherwise neglected neighbourhood. Using graffiti to beautify an area has an effect on the entire neighbourhood because it restores a sense of pride and ownership. The project is a great example of using street art to help a community.
“After doing a great deal of research in Ard al-Lewa, we discovered there were thousands of children who have had almost no voice or representation throughout this movement, Mohamed Ismail, one of the founding members, told Egypt Independent. “We sprayed stencils of their faces along the walls. Under each image, we included the child’s dream. This way, whenever those kids walk by their faces on the wall, they will never forget their dreams.”
All of these initiatives are good examples of putting street art to good use, diverting it from its usual political course to spread positive messages, educate, raise awareness and help others that are completely ignored by the state. These artists are great people and deserve credit and recognition for their hard work. I hope they get it.
Soraya Morayef is a journalist and writer in Cairo. She blogs at suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com, where this post was first published. All pics above have been sourced by her. Connect with her on Twitter.
A crowd of young women in burkas and some men gather outside a café in Zanzibar, bewildered by the sight: an African woman, in a West African mumu (kaftan) and covered head, playing Ghazal poetry as an Islamic call to prayer.
Sitting on the café terrace and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Nawal’s clear voice captivates the audience – until it is broken by the cry of a visibly upset street vendor. “How dare you use the name of Allah in a song?” he shouts.
“You use keyboards in your praise of Allah,” Nawal retorts calmly.
Striking a chord with the community: from sandy Zanzibar to sunny Sudan
In 21st century Zanzibar, as in much of Africa and the Muslim world, music has the power to inflame as it did in ancient Persia when music, mosaics and poetry were created to be ‘nearer to Allah’. And the old divisions – between the more tolerant Sufi branches of Islam, which believe that art and music can be expressions of meditation, and the more conservative branches, which believe devotion should be silent, personal, and contemplative – continue to raise existential questions about the nature of faith and spirituality.
Although there is much disagreement over the role of music or prohibition of it in Islam, Nawal, a practising Muslim from the Comoros islands, is adamant that there is nothing in the Qur’an that forbids singing.
“I sing for my hopes, my values,” she says. “It’s like a communion. I want the public to forget I am an artist. I don’t say ‘Let’s go pray’, I just say ‘God is big, there is nothing that is not God’. So if someone kills me for saying that, they kill me for praising God. I am not here to change people – I am here to shine.”
She continues, “The Western media must show me as I am [and] show Islam as vital, spiritual, productive, subtle and positive – not just extremist.” She recounts a story at an international festival in Belgium when the predominantly Muslim crowd complained and nearly revolted. However, after the gig, she recalls, Turkish, Palestinian, Tuareg and Syrian Muslims – both men and women – came up to her with tears in their eyes, saying they had found her songs moving and profound.
These divergences also reverberate in Sudan, where the vibrant and dynamic musical group Camiraata uses music to address social issues. Far from seeing music as unreligious, the group uses music to bring together families, tribes and clans in Sudan, north to south, to sing their way through serious political and domestic challenges.
Indeed, for many Muslim Sudanese, music is integral to community dispute-resolution, initiation rituals, the unusual and the everyday. Da’Affallah, director of Sudan’s Music and Culture Academy in Khartoum and band member explains, “Music and culture is about understanding. If you know my music, my religion and my culture, you respect me.”
“We never ever stop singing!”, Da’Affallah continues, before breaking into song. “Music in Sudan is absolutely everywhere, and has been for many, many centuries. Music is life in Sudan, from birth to death. When a woman makes tea or coffee in the morning she has a special song [he starts singing]. She has a song and she grinds out the pestle in time as she grinds coffee. Then we have special ‘albaramka’ for tea – this is a group song.”
He demonstrates – and it sounds like Mongolian throat-singing – before continuing, “We sing love songs to our camels because we depend on them. We sing to the desert so it won’t kill us. If we have problems in the community, we bring together everyone to solve the problem, we consult the elders, we talk, we sing, we talk more!”
Facing the music in northern Mali
A couple of thousand miles west of Sudan in Mali, the tensions between contrasting interpretations of the role of music for Muslims was been brought into particularly sharp, and often tragic, focus following the takeover of the north by Islamist militants last year.
Khaïra Arby, looking regal in her striking head wrap and plush blue dress, her face lined and tired, just got off a plane from Mali. “Yes, it’s true, I’ve seen it myself; they will cut off your tongue if you sing,” she says. “I’ve seen friends who’ve had their hands cut off for the ringtones on their mobile phones.”
Arby, adored across Mali, is affectionately called the nightingale of the North. Born in the village of Abaradjou, north of Timbuktu, her parents came from different ethnic backgrounds – her mother Songhai, her father Berber. Arby’s music, which is more popular at home than the music of her internationally famous cousin Salif Keita, captures northern Mali’s diversity of ethnic groups, styles and poetry.
After persistent threats and attacks from Islamists militants – including smashing up stereo systems in markets and people’s homes, confiscating radios and even SIM cards with music on them – Arby escaped to Bamako to stay with Salif Keita on his island on the river Niger just outside Mali’s capital of Bamako. Many Malian musicians are among the thousands who fled south since the crisis began.
Keita is also resigned. Before the international intervention against the Islamist rebels, he commented, “If there’s no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali.” Indeed, Timbuktu is regarded as part of a chain of African kingdoms that had a long history of education, literature and intellectual life. It was the site of one of the largest Islamic libraries in Africa and a meeting point for scholars who debated and interpreted the Qur’an.
However, last year the Islamist rebels who took over the towns declared the shrines to be idolatrous and restricted forms of expression, such as music, that had been part of the fundamental fabric of everyday life. Like many Malians, Arby was bewildered. “There’s not a single part of the Qur’an that forbids music,” she says. “I’ve read it all, I can tell you honestly, there’s nothing in there that says don’t sing. I’ve never seen, never, that music is forbidden.”
In fact, Arby is highly sceptical as to the importance of religion at all in the motives of militants. “This war is about drug-running and arms trafficking. It’s about controlling important routes through a very long term trade area. It’s about money, politics and control. It’s not about religion,” she insists.
Cheikh Lo, a Senegalese veteran and arguably the Miles Davis of African music, is also angry about the rebels’ attempts to ban music in northern Mali. Lo is a devout Muslim of the Baye Fall Sufi tradition. “These people misuse the name of Islam,” he says. “They are nothing to do with Islam, they are terrorists and we must have the dirigence [direction or composure] to drive them out.”
Clearly, Africa’s Muslim musicians – from Senegal’s Cheikh Lo to Mali’s Khaïra Arby to Sudan’s Camiraata to Zanzibar’s Nawal – are not about to give in and succumb to pressures against their singing. In fact, to the contrary, they see music as the very means of social change.
“The real musician does not go out to nightclubs, but he stays in the community, and leads to the right way,” says Da’Affallah. “This means peace, unity, understanding, communication.”
Meanwhile Arby states defiantly, “We have an obligation to sing, to dance, to respect, and to show appreciation for the suffering and the endurance and bravery of the people who are fighting for us, for those who cannot sing. We must compose beautiful songs before the war, during the war, and after the war, to celebrate what we have.”
I’m still trying to make sense of it. There are days when it doesn’t feel real, days when I can’t quite convince myself that it happened. It is on these days that I find refuge in the past, in the years of political asylum around which my entire life has been framed, the time when all we wished for was freedom. Be careful what you wish for, they warn. But of course, this has never stopped us from wishing.
I was born to a Libyan man and a Libyan woman who decided early on that as long as a madman ruled Libya with a bloody fist, we simply could not live under his thumb, and neither could we accept that fate for our aunts, uncles, cousins and countrymen. My father brought his young wife and my older sister to California in 1974 on a student visa to study soil science and agriculture in America’s big and bright universities. I was born in the same state. After a brief return to Libya, we moved back to America in 1981, and we would never return to Libya again. At least, not as a family. Not with Dad.
My father, a gregarious, witty, passionate Libyan from the mountains of Gharyan, joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), one of the first and largest of the dissident organisations against Muammar Gaddafi. When we thought he was on graduate school field trips to California, he was actually in Chad, recording sessions of a pirate radio program where he played the role of “The Patient Pilgrim” – clippings of erratic Gaddafi speeches interspersed with my father’s colloquially scathing commentary. My grandmother, unaware of his dangerous political activities, listened religiously to these programs – a rare voice of clarity in a country ruled by maniacs – oblivious to the fact that the outrageous firebrand reducing the “Brother Leader” to a political punch line was her errant son who could never give a good reason for why he hadn’t returned home for a visit. I witnessed many of these long-distance phone calls as a child – my mother wringing her hands, my father rubbing his forehead as my grandmother’s pleading voice came over the scratchy line. “Why haven’t you come home? How long do I have to live? I will take my last breath before I see you again.” “Soon, soon, Insha’Allah (God willing),” he would promise, again and again. He could not tell her why he couldn’t come home. And “soon” would turn out to be a broken promise.
We couldn’t go back even for a visit, of course. The Libyans who would join the NFSL would be branded “wild dogs” by Gaddafi, their members hunted down and assassinated, their families in Libya financially punished, imprisoned, hanged. Libyans living abroad avoided associating with active dissidents even though they were similarly politically aligned, knowing that to be tainted with that association would have very real repercussions back home from Gaddafi’s far-reaching spy network of informants.
But I didn’t know all of this, not in Oregon, swimming in a lazy creek, or swinging from the large oak tree that stood anchored by thick rolling roots in the centre of the graduate school housing where I spent my childhood. At the age of 14, my father moved us from our little collegiate haven to Kentucky, where we joined the larger group of NFSL families living in the heart of Bluegrass Country. It was here that I finally felt I was part of a community of peers. Libyans from Tripoli, Benghazi, Zawya, Misrata, Zintan, Derna – all these names now made familiar by endless news updates from the war – came together after years of displacement as Gaddafi made alliances with previously hospitable government hosts. America was the last refuge. We were corralled, far away from Libya’s immediate borders, just like Gaddafi wanted. The wild dogs were no longer nipping at his heels. But they continued to growl, even as infighting eroded our numbers and Western rapprochement left us without powerful sympathisers, if not allies. And through it all, my father represented all that was good about Libya: dignity, honour, faith and relentless optimism in the face of certain defeat; an optimism born of undying faith in a higher power.
We did not buy a house. Our cars entered our garage within months of their demise. Everything good would be saved for ‘home’. Boxes of plastic flowers, pretty dishes and colourful curtains sat collecting dust and going out of style while awaiting use in the life that was to be lived only in Libya. Existing in a perpetual state of asylum meant that we never really lived life to the fullest, but it also meant that we never lost an integral connection to a country and culture that most first-generation expat Libyans had, despite never having stepped foot in their homeland. Our social gatherings centered around our anti-Gaddafi activities. We signed petitions, drafted constitutions, printed magazines, demonstrated at embassies. In between these efforts, we struggled to deal with the pain of missing family weddings, family funerals, every holiday celebration. Brothers and sisters joined our growing family, even as my hopes for ever returning to a free Libya diminished.
In the end, it would not be Gaddafi that killed my father, but stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme. It was in the cold winter of 1994 that he was diagnosed with an aggressive terminal brain tumour. I was 18 years old, and I had never known anyone who had died. My father would be the first. That’s what happens when you are a political refugee – you miss out on the normal parts of life, the good and the bad, leaving you ill-prepared to deal with them when life happens to you. As the cancer spread, he could not walk unassisted and had to be fed, bathed and cared for around the clock by my stoic mother.
The jarring loss of life as I knew it came into clear focus when I brought up Libya one day, telling him about a demonstration or some such event. He didn’t let me finish. “I don’t care,” he said. I sat stunned, dismayed. This was the man who devoted his entire life to this cause – gave up his olive trees, the sage-covered mountains dotted with grazing sheep, the camaraderie of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews – and it was all dismissed with those three words I had never heard him utter before. “I am dying, Hend.” Death, the great equaliser, had already shifted his priorities. Gone was my anchor, my motherland, my ancestors, my past, my future – all wrapped up in the single symbol of my identity and raison d’être, my father. My world crashed around me, in a fog of doctors’ visits and physical therapy for a dying man. We buried him 13 months later, next to a small Japanese maple in a cemetery far away from where he was born.
I don’t resent cancer. Cancer kindly gave us over a year to get used to the idea of death. And as it turned out, he never really left. As I grew older and had my own daughter who started asking me “How can I be a Libyan, if I’ve never been to Libya?”, I heard my father’s voice in my answers. I’m sure he smiled when I looked into her eyes and said: “We can’t go back until we stop a bad man from hurting our country, from stealing from her people.”
He sat close to me when I followed the unfolding of events in Benghazi, Tripoli, all the cities where Libyan men and women freed from fear faced Gaddafi’s bullets so that those standing behind them could lead the second charge for freedom. He held me tight as I cried on October 23 2011, when independence was proclaimed in a newly freed Libya. And when I finally returned to Gharyan this summer, after decades of absence, he sat next to me on the rocks along the path to the well he would use to wash up before performing his daily prayers. I scanned the horizon, passing over homes, well-worn paths, twisting olive trees … it was all so familiar. It felt like I’d never left. And I knew, then, that my dad had brought me home.
Hend Amry is an artist and freelance writer, living in Doha, Qatar with her husband and two daughters. Follow her on Twitter.