Since I came to England almost 10 years ago, I’m learning and discovering every day what it really means to be an Egyptian. An Egyptian in general, and an Egyptian artist particularly.
You don’t think of this kind of thing when you live in Egypt among Egyptians for 30 years.
And even if you try, it will be a bit difficult. Over there, I focused more on being an individual and I saw all the time the things that made me stand out in the Egyptian crowd, the things that made my life difficult and made me leave Egypt.
Leaving Egypt is a tradition that has been followed by an endless list of Egyptians, from Senohat and Moses, to Dr Baradei and Dr Magdy Yakoob, and many others; they all experience what it is to leave the Nile valley in order to rediscover it within themselves many years later.
So really, why do we leave such a beautiful sunny land? Why do we choose to live in cold countries where the sun rarely shines, and most social protocols are alien to us – yet we love it and achieve within it?
Some would quickly run to the “economic migration” answer but let me assure you that Europe is not the best place to make money. I have a brother and sister in Saudi Arabia, another sister in Dubai and hundreds of other friends and relatives who live in the Arabian Gulf, where they all make proper money. The Arabian Gulf is always the destination of choice for economic migrants from my neck of the woods, but those who go west are something else and they have mostly different reasons.
Let me tell you what I think. I believe that what kept Egypt intact over its very long history is a kind of social and political structure that always considered the individual to be an unidentified part of the collective, a brick in the wall. In order to keep this wall strong you have to do what others do, or what they expect you to do, rather than what you want to do.
Of course, for any individual to discover his or her identity they have to do many things that are not necessarily within the lines of traditional social rules. It’s a process of knowing what you are by trying and recognizing what you are not. That may sound OK to the European ear, but God help you if you get out of the line in Egypt, you will have to face the music from your nearest and dearest, and every member of society becomes to you a member of the Inquisition.
So those who fall out with the system on their road to self discovery, and those who have out-of-range ambitions, usually find it difficult to stay; they leave to places like England where they can think and act freely. If they are lucky, and they get to unlock their full potential, most of them choose to return to Egypt near the end. Personally, I don’t know what will I do, since I don’t think that I’m anywhere near the end of my life yet.
Today we Egyptians are at a real, important crossroad. I would call it a unique chance of both self discovery, and recognition of national identity. The 25th of January revolution will hopefully allow us to choose our ruling class for the first time in our entire history. And it’s essential for us to recognize ourselves and our specific needs, in order to be able to choose who we want to lead us and how we want them to lead us.
We had all kinds of leaders that we did not choose: systems of different shapes and colours and they ran us however they liked. Godly pharaohs, half-Greek gods, Romans, Arabs, Mameluke, French, Ottomans, British, then finally foreign agents in Egyptian uniforms for over half a century… now they are all GONE. We took the last one down, so we earned the right to choose.
One of the most common jokes made about us around the world is that we walk side ways in straight lines, we are all the same shape and colour and height. And let me complete the stereotypical description: we are all looking in the direction of one big powerful pharaoh. Above his head is the official god of the state, the one religion that we all must follow with a smile on our little faces like we were given the same kind of dope.
That was what the establishment wanted you all to think; brainwash for those who are on the inside, and propaganda for those on the outside. It’s a fantasy we all have, a fantasy we received from the official Egyptian art in all museums around the world; things dictated and commissioned by the state, and the same practice is still used in modern times by the state controlled media. The same joke: Egyptians walk in lines and do what they are told by their gods and leaders, who obviously seem to be very big and in total control.
Guess what? We proved them wrong big time in Tahreer Square before, during and after 25th of January. Take a look at any video of Tahreer square on YouTube and you will see that one thing that Egyptians don’t do is to walk in straight lines; from politics to driving a cab, every Egyptian is funny, quirky and has got his or her own way of doing things. Yet at the same time, we all share a long history and a deeply rooted culture which we are yet to recognize and celebrate.
If you are truly interested in Egypt, I suggest and recommend a visit to the Petrie Museum, as it has got the biggest collection I’ve ever seen for Egyptian everyday objects; things which was made and used by ordinary Egyptians, our ancestors, not our kings. The collection will help you to recognize and identify many styles, shapes and objects that survived through our history, things that were always, and still are, keys for unlocking the symbols of our real culture, or shall I say our “unofficial” existence.