Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Art of the Streets

On my first visit to Cairo since last year’s popular uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak following three decades of rule, I was inspired and moved, sometimes to tears, by the graffiti and public art that now decorate the city.

Campaign materials strewn across the city by key candidates in the country’s first free presidential election also took me aback. The last time I visited in September 2010, only photos of the long-time dictator, or his wife and heir-apparent, could be seen adorning Cairo’s streets.

Since the uprising that started in January 2011, Egyptians have reclaimed the streets from their oppressive rulers, and artists, both experts and amateurs, have painted on the walls of the grand Egyptian capital sketches capturing a plethora of opinions and emotions.

Some cry out against decades of military rule. Others capture the anguish endured by the mothers and families of youth killed during the 18-day revolt that left more than 800 people dead at the hands of Egyptian security forces.

Some capture the faces of martyrs in a form of timeless memorial. While stopping to behold public art along a street in Heliopolis, a friend and I ran into a gentlemen who lamented the unjust deaths of “youth, such as flowers," before he and my friend embraced and shed tears. The man expressed genuine anguish at the prospect that the voices of these youth would be lost if the presidential election victory went to a member of the previous regime. I saw similar sentiments expressed in graffiti near my polling station near the Pyramids.

There are works that express hope and immense scepticism for the country's political future on streets, such as Mohamed Mahmoud near Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo, where battles between unarmed civilians and security forces in January and February 2011 left hundreds dead. A sombre sensation came over me as I visited Tahrir and examined the graffiti along Mohamed Mahmoud on June 15, fulfilling a wish to visit heart of Egypt's uprising on my birthday.

An overwhelming expression of love for Egypt and patriotic spirit inspires much of the artwork I saw during my week-long visit to the Egyptian capital. The various displays of creativity brought to mind a line from the poignant song “Ya Beladi” (Oh My Country) that was dedicated to Egypt’s martyrs last year. In the song, a martyr sings:
 “They tell me, ‘Enter Paradise.’ 
 I say, ‘Paradise, is my country’.” 

While I've included a small sample of the public art here, it truly demands a visit to Cairo to fully grasp the magnitude of the revolutionary spirit that now fills the streets of this grand city.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The limits of unlimited communication

(A version of the article was carried by The Huffington Post)
I've been studying Arabic for almost two years now and have in that time rediscovered my love for pencils. The Arabic alphabet comprises a series of elegantly curved letters that are most attractively transmitted onto a sheet of paper when I use a freshly sharpened pencil. I find excitement and enjoyment when I endeavour to express thoughts on paper in Arabic, whether I’m writing a short story for an assignment or a short note to a friend or family member.
Perhaps because I exert more effort to find and compose the right words within the language, I sense that any note I write is infused with more heart than the language I use unconsciously. I’m always eager not to make grammatical errors, and yet even though I inevitably do, I’m satisfied with the beautiful cursive sentences I’ve scrolled onto the sheet of paper before me.

Making efforts to learn what is ultimately my mother tongue has caused me to reflect with both sadness and disappointment at how greatly my native English handwriting skills have deteriorated over the years. I predominately use computers and smart phones with predictive text to jot down any thought in English, so whenever I actually have to write something onto paper I’m appalled at how messy my handwriting has become. I type faster now in English than I’ll ever be able to write, a consequence of the fact that most of my daily correspondences are done using some form of technology.
Arabic homework, courtesy Flickr
Strictly speaking, technological advancements should improve our ability to communicate with each other. “Social-networking” tools such as Facebook or LinkedIn and instant message applications like WhatsApp, iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger and Skype are supposed to make communication easier and simpler. While they do in many instances – connecting people in different time zones and continents with virtually no effort at all – I sometimes sense interpersonal communication has deteriorated. The flavour of both oral and written communication, and our excitement and appreciation for it as a form of human connection, has dissolved into a series of screens, abbreviated words and buttons.

Messages and e-mails are rarely returned promptly, and when they are returned, the replies often lack equal courtesy. Phone calls are very often rushed and frosty. Even in person, we risk being aloof because our attention is periodically drawn away from the conversation to our iPhones, BlackBerrys, Androids and other animated "smart" devices.

The more we connect with the medium of communication, the less we connect with people on a personal level behind the screens or even across the table. In the workplace, I spend countless hours each day glued to a computer screen. While people may surround me, we rarely have a moment to pull our attention away from the multiple screens in front of us and engage in a conversation.