Not Walking Next to the Wall: An Interview with Rachel Aspden

Rachel Aspden is the author of Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East. She will be appearing at City Lights to discuss her work on Thursday, February 23, 2017, 7:00 p.m. City Lights’ Peter Maravelis recently interviewed her.

More about Rachel here, and information on her book is here via Other Press.

City Lights: Congratulations on your new book. It’s done such a wonderful job of portraying life in Egypt and the issues a new generation has had to contend with during the recent uprisings. I am so curious to know how you personally processed the complexities you were presented with while standing as witness in such an important moment?

Rachel Aspden: This was a real challenge for me because as a journalist I had been trained to think of myself as an “objective” observer, detached from the story I was telling. But living in Egypt while I researched the book, I was experiencing all the turbulent events that followed the 2011 revolution alongside the people I was writing about. Even though as a western citizen I was privileged compared to many Egyptians, there was no way to escape the waves of violence, the tension that gripped the city before a big political speech, the riot police and their APCs ranged across the end of my street on protest days.

As I grew to know people better, it was my friends who were being detained or injured in protests, who were faced with impossible choices such as submitting to repression or trying to flee their own country. I was afraid for them and their future, and I shared their bursts of hope at signs of change and their grief and disillusionment at Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism. It deserves so much better.

And it wasn’t just the political upheaval that I was immersed in, it was many of the other challenges that Egyptians face in their daily lives—most inescapably, the daily sexual harassment in many forms that 99% of Egyptian women report experiencing. But I was there to tell other people’s stories, so I tried as much as I could to suspend the fear and anger I often felt and seek to understand the events and phenomena that caused them. I sought out people whose worldviews differed very much from my own—for example, conservative Islamist activists or people who strongly supported the military coup of 2013—and spent time listening to them until they felt comfortable enough to share their convictions and, sometimes, the personal experiences that had formed them. This process was really useful and enlightening for me, not least because it brought me face-to-face with my own biases and assumptions about what political and social progress “should” look like and what values we “should” share. Working in a very different culture and language, I was also constantly confronted with the limits of my knowledge and understanding—which is an uncomfortable place for a journalist and, I think, a fruitful place for a writer to be. However, I was only really able to understand all this and start to process it after I returned to London in 2015.

CL: After having read your book, I am struck by the sheer weight of history that the young Egyptians you write about are under. It is hard not to be moved by their methods of coping and the uncertainty that many continue to face. Would you talk about the scars left on people by years of struggle and how they make peace (or not) with their circumstances?

RA: You’re quite right. The people I was writing about were experiencing individual and collective struggles and tragedies on a scale I’d never been faced with in the UK. I learned that in extreme circumstances (which in the period we are talking about extended over years) the survival instinct really kicks in—people will do whatever they need to keep going, and adjust with astonishing rapidity to reality being turned upside-down: for instance, the transformation of familiar, mundane city streets into bloody battlefields and back again. The lull after the period of crisis is, in a way, harder. To stay sane under an authoritarian regime like Egypt’s, long-term, I think, you have to learn to selectively close your eyes to the brutality and suffering around you.

Many people I knew would cultivate little bubbles of one sort or another—one obsessively tended his balcony plants, another meticulously planned an adobe home he’d build in the remote desert, a third designed beautiful, elaborate dance costumes. The young people I was writing about had bitterly criticized their parents’ generation for “walking next to the wall”—for avoiding conflict with the regime by keeping out of politics—so it was hard to see them forced into similar positions. But having seen the consequences of defiance, it’s impossible to blame anyone for not wanting to martyr themselves when circumstances make it clear that it won’t make any difference. I’d add that Egyptians are justly famous in the Arab world for their sense of humor—and a dose of cynical, dark and downright inappropriate laughter often kept people going.

Protesters fill Tahrir Square demanding the removal of President Mubarak, 1 February 2011. Photograph: Victoria Hazou/AP

CL: We have experienced our own upheaval, here in the U.S. recently. I keep thinking to myself: If only Americans could experience the struggles and living conditions portrayed in your book, it would enlighten our perspectives on how we relate to the rest of the world. Would you address the issue of empathy: if you were to offer something to Americans caught up in the political maze of power politics run amok, what would you suggest?

RA: Empathy is vitally important. I learned so much in Egypt from my attempts to understand people I fundamentally disagreed with. But recently we’ve seen a lot of blame laid at the door of progressive forces for failing to empathize with/listen to/understand other sections of the population.

In Egypt, liberal revolutionaries were blamed for not “organizing” and “reaching out” to the uneducated poor (a huge percentage of Egypt’s population). In the UK, the “liberal metropolitan elite” was blamed for looking down on the white working class, thereby fostering the resentment that led to the vote for Brexit. In the US, something similar has happened with the election of Donald Trump. However, these regressive outcomes aren’t just the fault of liberals who haven’t been nice enough. We are also being acted on by some really ruthless larger forces, from amoral multinationals to hostile intelligence services to racist, sexist ideology, that have consolidated their power over a long period of time. It’s important to understand them, but it’s a waste of time to try to empathize with them. They require more muscular resistance and opposition.

One favorite tool of repressive governments (we could say, of many governments) is to demonize a minority—in Egypt, it was a bizarre range from metal music fans to atheists, Shia Muslims, gay people and of course Islamists—as posing an existential threat to the majority. Sowing fear and division in this way both consolidates the government’s own control and opens the door for all sorts of regressive measures, ostensibly to “protect” us. The UK and US have both seen “radical Islamic terror” used in this way. So I think the more we as ordinary citizens can cultivate empathy with those around us—particularly marginalized communities, such as asylum seekers or particular religious groups, we are too often taught to fear and resent—the less effective such tactics will be.

CL: What are you working on now? What can we look forward to in the future from you?

RA: I’ve returned to journalism for a while—at the moment I work on The Guardian‘s Opinion desk. So I am back in the day-to-day news cycle, and the two issues that dominate are of course Brexit and the new US administration. In some ways I think we are living out our own, forced political awakening—one that echoes many of the dynamics I saw in the Middle East. It feels very important to be writing, editing and participating as it happens. I’ll always be very engaged with Egypt and the Middle East, but my secret passion is for the wildernesses of southern Africa. I’ve recently spent some time studying ecology and wildlife tracking with local experts in Botswana. I’d love to write about how these traditional communities are adapting to the pace of change thrust on them, and whether they can help these last precious wild places survive.

Rachel is at City Lights this Thursday, February 23 at 7PM. For more about City Lights events this Spring, go to our complete calendar.

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