Graffiti in Egypt and the Failed Rhetoric of Rebellion

Graffiti in Egypt and the Failed Rhetoric of Rebellion

“Ahmed + Mona = Love Forever”, “Abbas for President”, “If women don’t veil, rising prices will prevail”, “Have some respect and don’t litter, you animal”.

This is where the thoughts of Egyptians come together. This is where they are free to write and draw as they please. In a simplified vernacular, grammatical mistakes and all, an arbitrary selection of Egyptians’ hopes, dreams, and apprehensions come together, without fear of censorship or reprisal.

Egypt-wall3_Gigi-Ibrahim_flickr

After the revolution in 2011, walls acquired new meaning in the Egyptian psyche, as a canvas and a gallery for graffiti-lovers, and an open platform for political groups, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. There, they could come together in their opposition to the regime, and following the power change in 2013, they could express their dreams of reinstating the deposed Mohamed Morsi.

With time, these hopes would be washed over in fresh coats of paint, with paintbrushes wielded either by security forces or regime supporters.

Egypt-wall_Gigi-Ibrahim_flickr

Ahmed Loves Mona

Expressions of love are ever-present on Egypt’s public walls; after all, a message sprayed on a wall costs far less than a gold bridal set that would set them back thousands of pounds. Nowhere is this more evident than on the steel railings of Cairo’s bridges, where many a lover will stroll hand-in-hand against the backdrop of the waste-infested Nile.

At a considerable distance from his Kasr al-Aini office in Downtown Cairo, psychiatric specialist Mostafa Abdel Fattah points to one of these graffitied walls, embellished with the words “Ahmed loves Nada”. He pauses, then says, smiling: “There’s an important point to be made; many psychiatrists, when treating patients, will give them a pen and paper to write on while speaking, asking them to draw their reactions on the paper.”

“If patients don’t visit a psychiatrist, naturally, they will resort to any other outlet to express their emotions, and the easiest way to do this is by writing them on the walls, be they positive or negative emotions.”

He contends that Egyptians’ wall graffiti is a more accurate explanation of their psyches than one would get if they dissected their brains with a scalpel. Through it, he says, the sense of bravado that characterizes Egyptians is evident, whereby these graffiti “artists” are not deterred by considerations of aesthetic value or talent. There are no conditions to the act of self-expression through this medium.

“There are also the contradictions, manifested through the presence of religious slogans, in an effort to direct fellow compatriots to piety, all the while paying no mind to the fact they are polluting the walls or trespassing on private property,” he notes.

According to Abdel Fattah, those who fill or distort walls with largely ineffectual slogans likely suffer from behavioral disorders, albeit temporary ones. Such disorders can presumably be overcome through proper guidance, given that they are not associated with other forms of disorder or illness. Oftentimes, what prompts an individual to write on walls is the wish to express something that cannot otherwise be expressed through the appropriate channels, according to Abdel Fattah.

“As with the profession that ‘Ahmed loves Nada’, Ahmed resorts to writing it on the wall because he cannot express this emotion to those closest to him, perhaps because he is not [financially] ready to propose to his girlfriend,” he adds, noting that this individual resorts to graffiti because of the anonymity that it offers.

Abdel Fattah further affirms that there are various obstacles that prevent people from professing their feelings through appropriate channels, such as the sense of repression young people feel subjected to at school or at home. This often prevents them from expressing their opinions fully and properly, or presenting their ideas freely.

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As Abdel Fattah notes, graffiti expresses a plethora of different ideas or phenomena, from pointing fingers at or defaming certain people, or intentionally damaging public property. Conversely, it is often used in an attempt to immortalize an individual’s memory, or to express fanaticism for a certain football team.

As for phrases such as “Abbas for President”, he explains that “we will most certainly never find out who Abbas is, but we can nonetheless deduce that this person is satirizing contemporary politics and politicians. He probably wrote this to express his opinion regarding any current or upcoming elections, as though to say nobody is suitable for the position, or to call on people to drop the pretenses.”

“As for religious slogans, they generally express notions associated with popular notions of piety. They may not even be written by people belonging to specific religious groups; it could simply be a regular person wishing to gain extra points to get into heaven,” adds Abdel Fattah.

“These superficial religious slogans exemplify the contradictions that many Egyptians suffer from,” he concludes.

Egypt-wall2_Gigi-Ibrahim_flickr

Chaos on the Walls

As he walks through the streets of Egypt, amid an endless assault of colors and writings on the wall, visual artist Megahed Al-’Azab invariably feels a sense of panic.

“I feel anxious and disturbed; all these absurd scribblings everywhere that have nothing to do with art in the least. I dream of the day that all this will disappear and be replaced with real art,” he says.

Al-’Azab points to the writings on school walls as the most disturbing example of this phenomenon. In Egyptian schools, it is common to commission a person, perhaps a calligraphist or art teacher, to inscribe phrases with pictures promoting education and religion on school walls. At times, these even include hadith (Prophetic traditions) and Qur'anic verses, in an attempt at adding a sense of artistic flair to the façades. However, according to Al-’Azab, these often come with the side-effect of promoting a sense of exclusion among non-Muslim, or non-religious students, staff and teachers. 

“The phrases painted on the walls of our schools cannot be considered art; this is simply chaos,” he says. “Wall-painting or muralism is an independent form of art, with its own rules and principles. Key among these is that it is a free form of art. Pop art, in general, bears the slogan of freedom. But what we have here in Egypt is completely different. Schools receive instructions from the Ministry of Education to reproduce clichés and empty slogans. For example, the phrase ‘My school is clean’, which is repeated everywhere. Whereas, in reality, this type of art is directed at the public, and not students specifically.”

“What is the point of these slogans? A phrase such as ‘My school is clean’ may have some use inside a school, but outside it, paintings should express the environment surrounding the school in a creative way. And yet, students are not encouraged to paint; it is only the teachers who paint these distorted pictures,” he continues.

He further contends that these walls should be made available for students to paint on freely, and to express themselves in their environment, under the supervision of someone specialized in this field.

“For example, a student of Fine Arts could supervise the children, and this could be a graduation project.”

He concludes with a sense of puzzlement: “At the Nile School, there are paintings of the Nile on the walls, even though if you turn your head, just yards away, you can see the actual Nile. Art is meant to give people an opportunity to be creative, not to copy and paste the things around you.”

Self-Confrontation Trumps Wall Art

As for Abdel Fattah, he does not view graffiti itself as a problem. “On the contrary, it is very beneficial for someone who has accumulated negative energy. Thus, we find many spaces specialized for writing/scribbling, in countries like Norway, for example. These spaces are offered by the government to allow individuals to do whatever they wish. In Egypt, however, the practice occurs arbitrarily, in the wrong places,” he says.

In conclusion, he advises these amateur graffitists to first attempt to confront their own feelings, rather than jotting them publicly and anonymously on a random wall.

Mostafa Fathi

Mostafa Fathi, Cairo University Graduate, Managing Editor at Cairo 360 and fellow at International Center for Journalists.

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