Singing to the Melody of Capital: The Penchant for the Sensational and Voyeuristic

Professor of English at the University of Adrar Fouad Mami reviews 'The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World'.


Kraidy, M. Marwan. (2017). The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, London. pp. 304. SBN-10:‎ 9780674980051; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0674980051; Paperback: $30.00

Do you want to quell a social revolution? The easiest recipe is to defuse its incendiary social content by simply publicizing it as a quest for the sensational and voyeuristic. Short of ideas? You already have a rich arsenal of Oriental imagery and tropes. Therefore, just portray those asking for their rights as unworthy of such demands since they haven’t resolved the simplest of concerns; they are still mapping the geography of their second half, women. Diverting attention from demands for “bread, freedom, and social justice”, the initial call of the Egyptian Uprising 2011, often works by portraying these revolutions as sensationalist and spectacular demands for gender equality. Worse, the counterrevolutions’ best weapons narrate a story about how both restrictive and addictive to restrict women’s freedom because as unworthy people, Arabs asking for their rights cannot see beyond their women’s vaginas. Hence, how they specifically cannot be serious when asking for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

Obviously, Kraidy is neither naïve nor wicked to synthesize the Arab uprisings as a quest for voyeurism. His premise, however, hinges on the idea that social uprisings can be approximated as a creative insurgency that is infatuated with, even fixated on, the body. Differently put, the body has been the most salient trope that marks the creative insurgency, otherwise known as the Arab Spring. To illustrate his point, Kraidy distinguishes between three varieties of artworks each deploying more or less the same abstract body to serve its message. First, there are those incendiary works such as Bouazizi’s suicidal self-inflammation, an act that has a domino effect as it deposed several dictators. Second, there are those sarcastic works with scornful references to dictators. Kraidy brings to evidence Omar Abulmaged’s April 2, 2014 court sentence in consequence of the latter calling his donkey Sissi and adorning its head with a military cap. The case underlines a situation stretching decades before wherein Egyptians used to deride President Hosni Mubarek as the laughing cow, in imitation of the famous French cheese commercial brand, La vache qui rit. The third trope combines the serious and the sarcastic through nude art and is spearheaded by the young blogger, Alaa El-Mahdy in her 2011 A Rebel’s Diary.

It is not farfetched to conclude that the early two trope variations pave the way for the third, assumedly the most enigmatic and puzzling. Thus, The Naked Blogger of Cairo “explores the mixture of activism and artistry characteristic of revolutionary expression and tracks the social transformation of activism into Art and ensuring controversies.” (p. 5) Towards this end, Kraidy finds that creative insurgency cannot be restricted as an instantiation of one artistic expression or another. A fair analysis of that creative insurgency’s emergence must grapple with the one it finds confusing. Interestingly, El-Mahdy’s nude photo is compared with other creative expressions from the mother of all revolutions, the French one, zooming on Eugène Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple (1830).

With the human body as the governing principle for a creative insurgency, The Naked Blogger of Cairo lies in four sections with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction “In the Name of the People” highlights une problématique which asks: why the body is so fundamental to the Arab uprisings? Furthermore, “How does the rise of digital culture complicate our understanding of the body in revolutionary times?” (p. 12) Standing in awe of the naked blogger, Kraidy develops: “by inviting both moral opprobrium and threats of physical oblivion, al-Mahdy’s digital nude selfie had immediate rhetorical and physical consequences.” (p. 18) Understandably, the sky is the limit for the readers’ expectations to map all those rhetorical and physical consequences regarding that questionable selfie. 

Section One: “Burning Man” zooms into the visible and invisible dimensions of radical militancy mostly in Tunisia, namely Bouazizi’s act of self-inflammation. Kraidy finds the act has been less directed toward the dictator’s stifling renditions of the country and more against his countrymen’s approach to that stifling as a fait accomplait. Section Two: “Laughing Cow” invests in the opposite direction of section one. The gradual mode of activism, namely through sarcastic laughter, and mostly in Egypt. Like radical militancy, sarcasm too hinges on the body politics and Kraidy finds that sort of activism armed with only sarcasm and laughter, the way ordinary Egyptians have defied megalomaniacs ever since pharaonic times.

Section Three: “Puppets and Masters” explains how often the human body is often at ease with both moods of expression: the radical and the sarcastic. As a result, revolutionary or precisely, creative insurgency chooses to mix the radical with the gradual, using examples from Tunisia, Egypt, global activism, and the French Revolution. Understandably, the chapter prepares readers to register the content of the following section. With Section Four: “Virgins and Vixens” comes Kraidy’s opportune time to sell readers the presumed seriousness of bodily undressing. Through a grandiloquent phraseology, the author succeeds in affecting an aura of seriousness by what political scientists qualify as the blind spot of the king’s two bodies. The blind spot—understood to be the king’s male organ since it is only this organ that puts him on the same bar with lesser mortals—facilitates the acceptance, even the balancing, of naked activism with all political, aesthetic, and ethical militancy.

“Requiem for a Revolution” or the conclusion asks whether simply women’s bodies are engaged in men’s political tussles less to liberate women and more to galvanize the populace around what is ultimately men’s fixation on power. Women’s bodies become tools whereby women are ultimately emptied of subjectivity along with the capacity for free thinking and decision-making.

In order to make space for the voyeuristic and the sensational, Kraidy has to beat about the bush and lecture readers about the uses and abuses of body politics so that his preposterous rendering of the Arab uprisings may sound plausible. To buy his idea is to embrace an insult and participate in the still unfolding counterrevolution. There is simply no way whereby one may even begin to compare the conscious and principled acts of either Bouazizi, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, or the Kurdish Women of Kobani fighting ISIS with the nude selfies of El-Mahdy and her several pretenders. Kraidy does not want to acknowledge that the counterrevolution aims to cast the class struggle as a gender, race, or faith struggle. The further one stays away from the class struggle, the safest the counterrevolution remains. To equate Bouazizi’s act with El-Mahdy’s is to lionize a backstabber and to mastermind the gravest of distortions as perpetuated by the false omnipresent.

Quite the contrary, the revolution precipitates a world order that does not call for spectacles and where bodies are loved, caressed, and cared for in dignity and mutual love. Only love is revolutionary and the triumphant orders presiding over the false omnipresent always seek to divert attention from true and mutual love. What does El-Mahdy in her diary preach? In a nutshell, she communicates men-hating, as if the world is short of hatred. Other than seeking to destroy the pillar of the nonetheless corrupt values of society as that society is reproduced through an institution (marriage) whose commodifying principle breeds children for the sale of lowering the cost of production, her method is, still, hatred. Let us all recall how revolutionary couples married and committed to sacral (not sacred) vows and principled living in Tahrir. Their revolutionary friends congratulated them and savoured in the delight of simply witnessing the promise of social love (not just harmony) and larger emancipations come true. Had Kraidy bothered to read El-Mahdy’s A Rebel’s Diary, he would find ages-old litanies and ill-articulated cliches regarding the alleged oppressive practices of the Orient.

Again, had Kraidy bothered at all, he would have found the right parallel to El-Mahdy’s selfie is Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834), and certainly not La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830). It is not rocket science to note that with the latter, the bare-chested woman is a participant in the arduous struggle against obscurantist forces. Perhaps, she was among the group of women protestors whom Louis XVI famously ordered croissants au beurre when they were just dying for lack of bread, showcasing the sovereign’s divorce from reality which ultimately sealed his fate for good. With Femmes d’Alger, one traces a process that eventually propagated into El-Mahdy’s selfie: the fetishizing principle, the need for a mystifying form of freedom, and freedom in Capital as slavery since both Algerian or Egyptian men do not know how to handle, that is, to husband their women. Hence, the reason why these women are slowly rotting in the hareem. Only capital—the logic in the selfie and the classic painting—is savvy and reliable when it comes to extracting value from these oriental women. What is most painful of all is the self-Orientalizing act that academics and serious academic publishing such as Harvard University Press deem liberating and introduce it to the world as such.

But since the neoliberal order lionizes El-Mahdy’s daring act, Kraidy could see no alternative but to carry out his assault and insult to the very end: “… most revolutionary martyrs-at-large were dead and clothed men, whereas the emergence of women as icons in the Arab uprisings tended to result from their disrobement.” (p. 13) How else to read this statement other than a reproduction of the patriarchal mindset that Tahrir revolutionaries brazenly fought against? Besides the insult, disrobement is glamorized because it is the only way to ensure the restructuring of capital forces, and the valuation of surplus value. For with every rebel-à-la-El-Mahdy’s labour is further devalued, literally prostituting workers even those who never heard of El-Mahdy. Affording the imagined independence of one’s place cannot be possible except through increasingly lower wages.

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Fouad Mami is in the Department of English at Université Ahmed Draia, Adrar in Algeria

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