Walls of Freedom (Book Review, Spring 2016)

Hamdi, Basma and Don Karl. Walls of Freedom: Street Art of Egyptian Revolution. Berlin: From Here to Fame, 2014. 268 pp. ISBN-13: 978-3937946474

            Walls of Freedom presents street art produced during the first three years of the Egyptian Revolution (from January 2011-2014), accompanied by a chronological review and analysis of the political events to which the graffiti artists are responding. Walls of Freedom is the first published book of Basma Hamdi, written and collected in collaboration with Don Karl, also known as Stone. Hamdi is an Egyptian artist, designer, and educator who is dedicated to researching and documenting the street art of the Egyptian revolution. She graduated from the American University in Cairo in 1998 and completed her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2003. Meanwhile, Stone is a cultural activist, graffiti writer, author, and publisher who co-wrote the book Arabic Graffiti (2013). Since 2011, he has curated several urban art projects such as Cubabrasil and White Wall Beirut alongside Egyptian street artists.

            The book is a comprehensive record of the Revolution’s street art, and was created in collaboration with some of the artists who witnessed the street confrontations and responded to them through their artwork. It also illustrates how such artists confronted the propaganda machine of the regime media by transforming the streets into dynamic alternative media. El Zeft (a pseudonym used to protect the street artist from being known to the regime), in his essay “The Revolution Blender”, defines the street artist’s role from the first days of the revolution:

Then there is the disgusting and vile media, the first and foremost enemy of the revolution, which seems to be broadcasting from another planet, about other people. I still remember the first day of the revolution; El Ahram (The most widespread newspaper in Egypt) ran a headline the day after that read “The people and police celebrate with flowers and chocolate.” This is one of the things that prompted me to paint in the streets, to create an alternative to mainstream media, one by the people and for the people (252).

            The book combines various genres: testimonies of activists and artists who created the illustrated works; essays of artists and academic writers from various disciplines such as literature, art history, and media studies; and descriptive analyses of the murals and graffiti, all of which are intertwined into a cohesive work that “contextualizes the graffiti in the historical, socio-political, and cultural backgrounds that have shaped this art of the revolution” (146). In her essay “Scarabs, Buraqs and , Hamdi argues that the incarnation of these three mythical symbols of Pharaonic, Islamic, and Coptic culture—and the way in which they are interwoven with in the Revolution’s graffiti—are attempts of the street artists to recall the collective identity that the Egyptians created in opposition to the oppressive regimes all over their history. Hamdi notes Millad Hannah’s observation that “[i]n Egypt there is an Egyptian Islam: its face is Sunni, its blood is Shiite, [its] heart is Coptic, and its bones Pharaonic” (145). The collective identity Hannah describes is the identity Hamdi argues street artists recall; her point is supported by illustrations of the murals and graffiti that harmoniously combine these symbols in response to the different political and social situations.

            The book’s foreword is written by Ahdaf Soueif, a strong voice of the Egyptian Revolution who has written about her personal account of it in Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed (2014). Soueif indicates two contrasting aspects seen in the Revolution. On one hand, the regime was responsible for murdering dissidents, using tear gas and live bullets, and building brutal, obstructive walls that separate the downtown streets. On the other hand, there is the Revolution that immortalized, used stones and drums and fireworks, and transformed those very walls into rainbows, tropical beaches, and playful trompe l’oeil vistas. This creative dynamism of the street people and artists, as Soueif states, “put[s] them ahead of the politicians, the academia, and the theoreticians” (3); meanwhile, political scientists and the academics are needed to react to people’s dynamism and artists’ responses by providing analysis and theories. The book, as Soueif puts it, is “an attempt to do that; part witness, part theory, part commemoration, it is an act within our revolution—our continuing revolution” (3).

            In the book’s first essay, “The Origins of the Rebellious Egyptian Personality”, Yasmin El Shazly argues that the rebellious Egyptian personality, contrary to the mainstream Hollywood idea of complacency assigned to Egyptians as submissive worshipers of their pharaohs, has its roots in Ancient Egyptian history:

Hollywood has always depicted the ancient Egyptians as…enslaved by the pharaoh and incapable of speaking their minds. Hollywood is not entirely to blame for this image. After all, most of the material that has survived from ancient Egypt comes from royal, religious, or funerary contexts. Such material invaluably enriches our understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilization, yet it provides us with little information on the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptian people. Fortunately, the archaeological record offers us glimpses of private life in ancient Egypt, and in rare instances, provides us with a window into the mind of an ancient Egyptian person… [that exposes] the ancient Egyptian’s moments of doubt, fear, and anger, and [reveals] a creative, intelligent, and even rebellious personality.

            El Shazly’s essay is followed by another one by Rana Jarbou on “The Seeds of a Graffiti Revolution”, wherein Jarbou argues that the seeds of graffiti were thrown before the Revolution (9). The two essays provide illustrative background of the revolution graffiti from historical, social and artistic perspectives; in other words, a prelude to the Revolution that goes back to the Pharaonic era.

            The book then proceeds with four parts; each of them associated with a stage of the revolution. The first part, The Eighteen Days of the Revolution, tells the stories of day-to-day resistance while devoting special sections to the Revolution’s major events such as “The Day of Revolt” (15), “The Friday of Anger” (23), “The Battle of the Camels” (34), and “The Fall of Mubarak” (44). This part concludes with an essay on “The Utopian State of Tahrir” by Caram Kapp (48), which provides an illustration of the state of collectivity created in the squares, where the revolution’s street art started to emerge.

            The second part, The Rule of SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), is the largest part of the book as it covers many bloody events and documents testimonies of revolutionaries and artists on occasions like the “Second Friday of Anger” (77), “The Battle of Abbaseya & Friday of Kandahar” (80), “Maspero’s Black Sunday” (92), “The Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street” (100), “The Port Said Massacre” (132), and “The Second Battle of Abbaseya” (170). It also illustrates different styles of graffiti, murals, and simple sprayed stencils, all of which are accompanied by commentaries by the artists about their concepts, techniques, and their experience in interacting with the people. Some of the themes illustrated in this section are: Martyr Murals (56), The Crescent and the Cross (63), Mask of Freedom (68), The Revolutionary Stencil Booklet (78), Tank vs. Biker (127), and No Walls: The Invisible Walls of Cairo (160). This part is complemented by valuable essays such as “Graffiti, Social Media & the Public Life of Images in the Egyptian Revolution” (89) by C. Elias, which provides integrated analyses of the connection between street art and social media, and their role as alternative media.

            The third part, Muslim Brotherhood Rule, shows the development of the artistic styles and techniques in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to enforce alteration on the cultural character of the Egyptians. As the rule of the MB starts with aggressive whitewash painting over the revolutionary graffiti, the revolutionary artists’ reaction against this aggression is illustrated in a section entitled “Congratulations on the New Coat of Paint”, which shows the way in which the walls recovered from the MB aggression through the creation of new murals that classify the MB as partners of Mubarak’s regime and supporters of the SCAF. El Zeft describes the attitude of all religious patriarchies towards these conflicting agendas, noting how “[i]n the meantime, people are yelling at you that you will go to heaven if you choose this, and you will go to hell if you choose that. The truth is, however, that we are always going to hell, but right here on earth” (252).

            In the book’s third part, Ahmed Aboul Hassan’s essay “Quran: The Revolution’s Voice and its Holy Witness” (190), shows the creative implementation of verses from Quran in revolutionary street art to deprive the MB of their religious coverage. In the essay “Arab Women and Street Art” (218), Aya Tarek shows the women’s role in street art as part of their resistance to the oppression, specifically the MB and SCAF’s attempts to marginalize women.

            The fourth part of the book, The Rise of General Sisi, illustrates the graffiti created in reaction to bloody events like The Presidential Guard Massacre and Rabaa’s Massacre. In “Transliterations of Rabaa” (244), Mikala Hyldig Dal responds effectively to the controversial issues and feelings raised by the mass violence committed in Rabaa. Basma Hamdy’s essay “The Power of Destruction” (246) treats the subject of the graffiti’s destruction from a historical perspective that traces the traditions of the destruction of monuments since the pharaohs’ reigns. Don Karl’s essay “Not the End of the Story” concludes the book with an optimistic voice that derives hope from the creative street artists in the Arab world:

One of the things that will remain of the Egyptian revolution is its graffiti, which we already began to collect and archive during the first 18 days. It will endure not in its original and ephemeral nature, but in documentation through photos, films, and books like this one. Graffiti has never been more powerful than it is in Egypt today. It encapsulates the essence of what this revolution is-for its people by its artists. The artworks also tell a true history of the events, though it is a history that can easily be tampered with, where it not for professional and honest documentation. We hope our work helps to contextualize this art in a truthful and appropriate manner (260).

            Walls of Freedom is thus both a popular and a scholarly book, accessible to general readers wishing to learn more about the history of the Egyptian revolution, and valuable for specialists in its documentation of the ephemera of street art and the diverse commentaries that accompany them. The time line that moves through it adopts different paces that range from eras to days; the absence of a chronological through-line creates a collage effect, and means it can be consulted according to the interests of the reader. The implementation of maps, illustrations, photographs and charts—alongside the large number of different voices ranging from academics, street artists, to activists—creates a broad yet detailed image of the revolution. In combining stunning visuals of the ephemeral street art and of the devastation wrought by the oppression with short insightful commentary, and in being written by—not about—academic revolutionaries and street artists who are still living in Egypt under a regime that opposes all sorts of freedoms, Walls of Freedom becomes both an art book and an act of resistance.

To access excerpts from the book, please check here.

Amany Dahab
Western University