I Can’t Discount the Factor of Helplessness: Andy Young’s New Book on Watching the Egyptian Revolution

By Nathan C. Martin

Just as Room 220 was getting on its feet about a year ago, another breathtaking development of historical significance was taking place—the Egyptian revolution.

One of the very first Room 220 posts was an interview I conducted with Andy Young and Khaled Hegazzi, co-editors of Meena Magazine, a bi-lingual literary journal based in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt. Khaled is a native of Alexandria, and he and Andy, his wife, had a number of friends and family involved in the revolution, many in Tahrir Square.

The night I visited them turned out to be among the most harrowing of the revolution, and throughout our conversation both Khaled and Andy’s eyes rarely left the screen of a laptop sitting on the couch between them, which showed a live stream of the events in Tahrir. Police were firing on demonstrators. People were being beaten, killed. It was clear neither of them had slept much that week. I can still picture the bluish light the screen cast on their sullen faces as we talked.

This week, Young will celebrate the launch of her new book, The People Is Singular, which explores the Arab Spring precisely from that position—as an American married to an Egyptian helplessly watching events across the world unfold on a computer screen. The book features Young’s poetry and photographs by Salwa Rashad, an Egyptian friend who participated in the revolution in Tahrir Square.

The book launch for The People Is Singular coincides with the anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution. It will consist of a multimedia performance featuring Young reading her poems, installations of Rashad’s photographs, video projections by Kourtney Keller, soundscapes by Preservation Hall sound engineer Earl Scioneaux, and music by Tao Seeger and Alsarah, among others.

The book launch will take place at 7 p.m. on January 25 at Café Istanbul in the New Orleans Healing Center (2372 St. Claude Ave.). Admission is $12, or $20 for admission and a copy of the book, which was published by Press Street. Books will be available for sale for those who do not want to pay to see the event, and Young will sign copies during a reception following the performance.

I spoke with Young on Saturday morning at her studio in the Bywater, while we sipped coffee and an inkjet printer between us emitted what seemed like 20 pages of stage direction for the Jan. 25 performance at a painfully slow pace.

Room 220: Do you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Andy Young: Not terribly clearly. What year was that?

Rm220: It was ’89, I think.

AY: I remember that time, yes.

Rm220: I ask because you and I had talked about the Arab Spring being the political event of our lifetimes. But then I remembered that I was alive when the Berlin Wall fell. In terms of global political consequence, the Arab Spring has yet to surpass that event. I was wondering if you still think of the Arab Spring in that way.

AY: I do. Part of that is probably just the way I think about politics. I’m involved in the Egyptian revolution on a personal level, so I’m thinking of it in that context. I can’t help it. But also, if you think of the narrative of the relationship between “East” and “West,” and the relationship, over the last ten years or so, between the United States and the “Arab World”—all of these are clumsy terms—so much of what we’ve been doing as a power has been to try to enforce our views on the Middle East. Part of what’s so surprising and so impactful is that, for the people of Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere to rise up and say “enough,” that to me is almost beyond politics—it’s a shift in consciousness, and it kind of flips our whole notion of the West being the democratic arbiters and the Arab World being the group that needs to be taught those principles. The reverberations of that are huge in terms of a paradigm shift.

Photo by Salwa Rashad, from The People Is Singular

Rm220: It’s interesting to read your perspective on these events, because, for me—and most people in the United States—the Arab Spring is a political event that I’m outside of. You have a deeper investment and likely a deeper thought process about it because you have a personal stake—you have in-laws in Egypt, friends in Egypt, you travel there often—but at the same time you’re still not Egyptian, and therefore you’re an outsider. You’re in a position to act as an intermediary for both outsider and Egyptian perspectives.

AY: I have one foot in both worlds, I think. It’s more firm here, partly because of the language barrier, but I have a unique position on this particular topic, and perhaps that can help someone enter it. It’s kind of like the work Khaled and I do with Meena, trying to get people to relate to another culture that seems very “other” through language. Maybe I’m building that bridge on an individual level.

Rm220: Actually, I read the book as having almost the opposite effect as Meena. With Meena, like you said, you’re trying to build a bridge across this gap—that’s cultural, geographic, and linguistic—by using translation and a project that involves people from both places. But so often, in The People Is Singular, you articulate the gap, you show how it staunchly it remains. You have all these images: You’re watching the ball drop in Times Square on television on New Year’s Eve while, on your computer screen, you’re having a Skype conversation with someone in Egypt about a recent bombing. Then you’re in Alexandria just after Khaled Said was killed, and that’s dominating public consciousness there, and meanwhile the BP oil spill is going on here, and no one in either place is connected to the other. The bridge is obliterated. Was the Egyptian Revolution something that made the gap more tangible?

AY: I wouldn’t say the revolution brought the gap out, because in many ways I felt more solidarity with Egyptians than I ever have. But there’s only so far that relationship can go when not only am I still here, I did not grow up in Egypt, and I’m not on the streets. When I’m writing about it I’m trying to understand so many things that I thought I already understood. I have to work out all these layers of reference, because it’s very important to me that I not take it on a surface level. Maybe writing this book made me go deeper into the gap.

Rm220: There was almost an active throwing off of outside influence in the degree to which the Egyptians claimed ownership of the revolution. Did that contribute to your sense of the gap?

AY: I feel very much welcome and included. My solidarity with my Egyptian friends is very much welcome, but on a personal level I can’t discount the factor of helplessness. Because beyond culture, beyond any of these things we’re talking about, is the gap between an observer and someone who’s a participant—especially when you’re talking about witnessing suffering. We live in a unique time, when we can witness in real time other human beings’ suffering. I first noticed that during Katrina, when I was away from my city and yet watching what was happening. But I think the issue, of watching someone else suffer and not being able to do anything about it, is timeless. So the gap includes culture, includes language, but part of that gap is: “Oh my god, I wish I could do something. I wish I was a doctor helping people instead of being here, writing these lines.” And that begs the bigger question of the poet’s role and of helplessness.

Rm220: What are some of the advantages of using poetry—as opposed to, say, narrative prose—to explore these issues?

AY: Part of it is the immediacy of poetry. There’s the possibility for a more immediate or visceral response. There are moments when I want to think about Bouazizi, for instance, and the fact that what really sparked this whole thing was a vegetable seller. I could write a novel or paint a mural, or some sort of larger, more epic process. I could respond to Bouazizi’s life—and I think that would be great, but I also just want to take that moment and say, Wow, what happens when, in my mind, Mr. Okra brings me to Tunisia by reminding me of Bouazizi? There’s something I like about that instantaneous focus on one moment in time.

Photo by Salwa Rashad, from The People Is Singular

Rm220: What you’re talking about with immediacy and capturing moments also applies to photography, and the book includes photos of the revolution, as well. How did you envision the interplay between poetry and photographs?

AY: One thing I love about Salwa Rashad’s photos is that they all feature lots of people, faces, individuals. In the context of the revolution, that is great because it brings you down to the street level: Who is that little girl? Who is that older lady, and why is she holding that picture of a young man? Oh, that must be her son. Oh, that must be her dead son—those kinds of reverberations. She’s focusing on individual people who, for the most part, aren’t the ones we see on major media outlets, which tended to show things from balconies, really high above the square. Salwa’s taking these individual moments and looking at the humanity in them. And that’s what I’m trying to do, too.

Rm220: Let’s talk about the Bouazizi-Mr. Okra connection. The Tunisian vegetable seller was—indeed, in Maoist terms—the single spark that started the prairie fire. He’s a martyr. And to think of Mr. Okra—not as a folk hero, but definitely part of the mythology of New Orleans—seems to me a really surprising but fitting connection.

AY: There is this universality to people who sell their fruits and vegetables in the street. That’s all over the world. In the United States it’s more of an old-school thing, which is part of why we love Mr. Okra. I don’t know Mr. Okra’s history, but with Bouazizi, that is not what he wanted to do. He went to college, he was educated, and part of the slap in the face he got from the government in having his permit revoked—again—was symbolic of people all over trying to make a living and not being treated with dignity. I think we treat Mr. Okra with dignity. I love the fact that the people got him a new truck after Katrina.

What got me thinking of the two of them was going to Egypt and hearing the call to prayer and having my daughter, who was two years old at the time, thinking it was Mr. Okra. She thought Mr. Okra must have followed us to Egypt. So that was always in my mind, and then Bouazizi had been on my mind a lot last winter, and I remember hearing Mr. Okra and thinking of Bouazizi. I don’t know. It just went from there.

Rm220: There’s a picture in the book of someone in Tahrir Square with a chicken bucket on his head with some Arabic script on it, and a KFC sign with Colonel Sanders is in the background. I remember you and I had talked about something related to a conspiracy involving KFC, but that didn’t make it into the book.

AY: You know, it made it into the poem “Protest,” which is on the back of the postcards we printed for the book launch. But yeah, this is one of those places where there’s this gap, where I’m kind of like, “What? What does the Colonel have to do with the revolution?” I never saw this in our press, but in the Arabic press—which is how I get a lot of news about the Middle East, translated by my husband—there are all these references to Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC ended up becoming a symbol for the regime of imperialism and foreign influence—you know, “There’s a foreign hand behind these young people rising up in the street!” The regime would talk about how the uprising wasn’t from the Egyptian people, but the Kentucky people. Sometimes they referred to the revolutionaries as “Kentucky People,” because they were allegedly being funded by people represented by Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s so strange. But there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tahrir Square that ended up becoming a field hospital. So it’s part of the narrative of the revolution, the surrealism of the whole thing.

Rm220: The book launch on January 25 is a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the revolution. How does the revolution look to you one year out?

AY: I’m sort of revising my thought of it being a celebration. “Commemoration” has become the new word, for me—a commemoration of the revolution’s beginning. As my Egyptian friends really want me to emphasize, the revolution continues. One year out, there are many things that are very worrying. The power structure, in many ways, hasn’t changed, and in some ways is more frightening because it’s new. Before, at least there was some feeling of knowing what to expect. But I am just as inspired today by the bravery and stamina of the Egyptian people. It will be interesting to see, on the 25th, because there’s a huge mobilization of people planning to go out that day.

We don’t get very much news about it anymore. I really search and scrape for information, and sometimes what we want are these soundbytes: Okay, so is this good or bad? For instance, the parliamentary elections were just announced today and Islamist parties won seventy percent. On one hand, that’s not what most people who were fighting for the revolution want, but on the other hand, it’s less than a year out, and if you think of the revolutionary parties and the progressive parties that are trying to organize themselves for the first time in history to go out and campaign, not only did they not have time, did they not have funding—unlike the Brotherhood and the Salafis, who have plenty of money from the Gulf. These progressive parties haven’t had time to really organize themselves, and they’re still learning. On top of that, they’ve been fighting to survive. The fact that they’re still going at all is very hopeful to me, because I don’t think they’re going to give up.