Writing the Revolution
The following piece was originally published in Sophomore Mag , an in-print and online magazine that we admire for their bold and thoughtful pieces, filled with creative voices from a multitude of backgrounds.
I. City on Fire
I spent the week of my 15th birthday watching 24-hour CNN news coverage of my hometown self-combusting. From our small apartment in the suburbs outside of Toronto, I watched as Cairo met its fate during the Arab Spring that erupted and spiralled into a domino effect throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Nine thousand kilometres away, girls who looked like me and women who looked like my mom were getting dragged by their hair through the streets, beaten and sexually assaulted then thrown onto a pile of bodies like garbage. Doctors refused to treat the survivors of assault because they were considered shameful and dishonourable women. Some of the women who were refused medical care succumbed to their injuries in the waiting rooms of overcrowded hospitals, while others continued to resist despite the nation seemingly working against them.
There is no special conversation your parents were told to give you when your hometown is crumbling. There is only silence, phone calls, more silence, more phone calls, stifled tears and quiet nights without sleep. Sobbing on the phone, begging my uncle not to go out to the protests, and failing with words. Failing to communicate the shock, the doubt, the worry, the fear. In the morning, there will be more women abused and discarded, and I will walk to school and go to classes and panic quietly.
II. Edge of Seventeen
I am filled with pure, unbridled, and incomprehensible rage. The hormonal charge of puberty married with the less-than-pleasant experiences that come with immigration are slowly reaching their climax. I cannot sanction the buffoonery of the pantomime that is high school. Everything is hyperbole, I am never okay and I think I’m better than everyone because I’m 17 years old and a Capricorn.
A class creatively titled “World Issues” forces me to be introspective about my position in the world, and I have to confront the clusterfuck of events that unravelled in Egypt. I never managed to string the words together to articulate my pain and the feeling of utter and complete loneliness that hovers over my head like a grey cloud. My heart feels like a wind-up monkey with cymbals on the verge of combustion. I have nowhere to look for answers because I have no way of communicating my questions. I voice my frustrations and nearly melt down in front of my World Issues teacher who is a painfully cool Black Masters candidate with a curly pixie cut and perfect skin. She hands me a book called Revolutionary Women: A Book of Stencils, and I find her.
III. The Perfumed Leader
I met Doria Shafik in the pages of the stencil book given to me by my teacher. Her shiny black pompadour, sky high arched brows and assured stare captivated me. She seemed to be present in a place between our earthly realms, like she knew something otherworldly we didn’t understand. And she was a deeply misunderstood woman. Shafik wore many hats, both literally and figuratively.
She was a poet, an academic, a writer, editor, mother, political activist and a revolutionary. She was born in Tanta, educated in Paris, and continued her life’s work in Cairo from the 40’s to the 70’s. She watched as Egypt underwent explosive periods of political and social transformation — from British occupation, colonialism and later decolonization, to the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and declared our country a republic.
Shafik witnessed firsthand the subjugation of the Egyptian woman in the harems of Tanta and the peripheries of Cairo and beyond. Imbued with a subtle bravado and the nominal independence gained by a scholarship to the Sorbonne, Shafik used the platform provided to her by her Western education to amplify the voices of the voiceless, so to speak. During the 40’s, she burst onto the public stage in Egypt and openly challenged every social, cultural, and legal barrier and more that subjugated women and demanded the full equality of Egyptian women in the eyes of the state and constitution.
Shafik did everything, from rallying up 1,500 women to storm parliament to an eight-day long hunger strike at the Press Syndicate to defend the cause. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then Shafik was wielding a literary morning star. Shafik was offered the role of editor-in-chief of the French language Egyptian magazine by Princess Chevicar, La Femme Nouvelle, and later founded the Arabic language magazine Bint-il-Nil (Daughter of the Nile). Using the magazines as her primary platform, Shafik began to articulate her vision for the modern Egyptian woman, as Egypt broke free from British occupation.
Despite her immense influence and critical role in the advancement of the women’s liberation movement of Egypt, Shafik struggled to be taken seriously as she was denied teaching positions and ridiculed for her hyper-femininity and political demands. Awaiting an interview at Al-Azhar university for a teaching position, Shafik accidentally spilled her bottle of perfume on her dress and was incidentally and infamously nicknamed “The Perfumed Leader” — an epithet meant to diminish her role as a political activist and take a jab at her connections with the upper echelons of Cairo.
Shafik charts her struggle to be taken seriously through her journals, where she blended her poems with her prose, both intertwined to produce a romantic voice that resists tradition, and challenges the patriarchal edifice that suppresses the woman’s voice.
In her journals, Shafik’s writing is both anti-authoritarian and authoritative, much like her activism. There isn’t a discrepancy between Shafik the public persona, and Shafik the writer and poet. Merging the political with the personal, she evokes a familiar melancholy as she struggles to synthesize her French education with her Egyptian identity amidst the reconfiguration of Egyptian national identity during the revolution of 1952. Her writing is romantic rather than entirely political. Magda Al-Nowaihi refers to this type of writing as “a new way that challenges and reconfigures the masculinist aesthetic expectations that had consciously or unconsciously stifled the Arab woman writer”.
She affirms her identity as a political activist and poet by refusing to relinquish the romanticism that imbues her voice with the poetic tenderness she uses to articulate her pain.
IV. The Absolute
Four years have passed since the revolution, and Doria Shafik’s story haunts me for more than one reason. Mainly, the unfamiliarity of her story in contemporary Egyptian feminist history. After staging a second hunger strike in the Indian embassy in Cairo under the protection of president Nehru, Shafik seemed to have struck a nerve with Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The strike would be Shafik’s last political act as she was later placed on house arrest by Nasser’s regime, her name banned from the press and her magazines from circulation.
Despite the end of her house arrest and the subsequent death of Nasser, Shafik chose to lead a solitary life. The reason behind this decision was two-fold; her comrades had betrayed her, choosing the safety of neutrality over continued resistance, and her nation had failed her by contributing to her silencing. She spent her last years writing poetry, translating the Quran in English, French and Arabic, spending her days in the company of her children and grandchildren. Eventually she came to her death after walking off her balcony in 1975.
She represents to me all of the versions of myself that I ever could have imagined, like she was sent to guide me amidst the incoherent chaos, the cliché identity struggle of being a child of the diaspora, and the silencing effect of the revolution that exploited the bodies of women who look like me. The double consciousness of a colonial Western education and the feeling of sheer and utter uselessness. She paved the way for women like me to sit here and write this to you, she ardently defended the demands made by the women’s liberation movement. She continued to be herself nonetheless, till the world crushed her — or at least tried to.
She no longer spoke through the proverbial loudspeaker but chose silence — or did silence choose her? Even her silence was a form of resistance, as it reproduced her voice as a site of contradiction and ambivalence. In her silence, you could hear the truth. In her silence, you could hear the revolution.
L’Absolu est là
de ma conscience
n’y touchez pas
vous détruirez l’HUMAIN
The Absolute is there
at the edge
of my conscience
do not touch it
you will destroy HUMANITY
Five years later, I’m back in Cairo after the 2011 revolution. I carry her autobiography by Cynthia Nelson with me everywhere I go. From Giza and Heliopolis, to the desert highway, to the azure sea that kisses the north coast. On a fourteen-hour flight from Cairo to Toronto I hold onto the book with cold, damp hands, nails digging into the worn-out cover. In a year, I’ll be embarking on the seemingly Sisyphean task of undertaking academic research. Naturally, my topic of choice is Doria – or rather she chose me. I’ve made my peace with the misery marathon of becoming a writer. The endless crippling self-doubt and never-ending imposter syndrome. I’m emotional with my words and it makes me feel vulnerable, but I’m learning to hone it for my advantage. I am learning to write the revolution.