Foundations of Solidarity: A Conversation with Yasmin El-Rifae

June 23, 2022   •   By Helen Mackreath

IN THE WAKE of the intensifying resistance to the occupation of Palestine, the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States (and beyond), and such movements as #StandWithStandingRock, appeals for solidarity with the plight of migrants, occupied populations, racialized minorities, and Indigenous peoples have become culturally pervasive. This LARB series on the Foundations of Solidarity draws together thinkers from the loosely defined region of the Middle East to discuss the topics from creative, historical, and political perspectives.

“It’s in hell where solidarity is important, not in heaven,” said John Berger. But is solidarity, indebted to the shared conditions of catastrophe, as much as we can hope for, without an imagination of something better? On the other hand, solidarity based on a notion of global sameness invokes an ambiguous “we” that disguises social and material injustices. From the settler colonialism in Gaza and the West Bank and in the occupied territories of Rojava and Kashmir to the structural racism and police violence in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, the messy work of envisioning and building coalitions of solidarity is underway. These are revolutionary solidarities anchored in the intersectionality of freedom struggles, the collective product of movement and contradiction, rather than abstract notions of what it means to be human.

Our third interview is with Yasmin El-Rifae, a writer and editor based in Cairo. Yasmin is the author of the forthcoming book Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution, a narrative history of a militant feminist group within the Egyptian revolution, due to be published by Verso Books in October. She works with Mada Masr in Cairo, a critical online newspaper, and is a co-producer of the Palestine Festival of Literature. Our interview draws attention to the different forms of translating solidarity, whether through a transnationally connected movement of “dissent,” or through the narrative portrait of a working feminist collective, or through the recent translation of political prisoner Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s collected essays as a tool for engagement.

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HELEN MACKREATH: You co-convened a conference in 2015 entitled “Translation and the Many Languages of Resistance,” which took place in Cairo at a particularly acute political juncture in Egypt. Since then, the need for a transnationally connected movement of “dissent” has become both more urgent and, arguably, more complex. From your experiences in Cairo, how do you understand the challenges and limitations of translating dissent within specific political contexts into “different” contexts (whether across national, linguistic, or socioeconomic borders)?

YASMIN EL-RIFAE: That conference felt like a feat. At the time, I think there was still a sense of shock at the swiftness with which the revolution had ended in 2013, and how quickly we found ourselves in a totally repressed atmosphere. We were sitting in this theater in downtown Cairo a few blocks from Tahrir, trying to reflect from within this feeling that things were only getting darker, that the act of writing and of speech itself was becoming so difficult.

Of course, part of our concern then was thinking about translation as a political tool, as a means of urgently communicating between movements and solidarity groups. So, we were thinking about translation through these immediate modes — video and article and press release and conference — that were coming from people and collectives who believed their work might help drive the course of history. Translation here is a directly political act, with a clear purpose, and translators are often volunteering, driven by their individual sense of commitment.

The Egyptian revolution was particularly “watched” by different parts of the world, but I think that activists and organizers in Egypt and throughout the region have always been attuned to the power of international attention. I think that comes with being in a region that’s a magnet for imperial interest and intervention. In alliances during the decolonial struggle or via transnational feminist organizing, translation of articles and books and speeches at conferences was a necessary starting point.

But now we also have to contend with all these newer modes of translation. Facebook sometimes automatically translates posts from other languages that it thinks readers will be interested in, and in a way, we are always translating and reconstructing ourselves for social media. We choose our tone and our emojis and our images with the algorithm or our networks in mind. So, I’m wary of the limits of exposing or translating injustice or dissent for the sake of it, and I’m wary of the one-way communication.

I think there’s been a certain reawakening to the need for transnational movements of dissent, as you say, among some leftists in the US and other Western countries, where political conversation often feels nationally bound. But here, and in other places living under true authoritarian conditions, there is so little space for organizing or public dissent on a domestic level, and we are at risk of being cut off from international efforts as well. There’s a reason that the state started banning activists and researchers and writers from traveling abroad a few years ago.

In Egypt, we’re living between two opposite senses of time. On the one hand, this society and its economy and the physical reality of urban life are all changing very fast, dizzyingly so. But on the other hand, because nobody has a say in how those changes go, it feels like a very politically slow time. So now, when I think about translation, I think of its role in facilitating deeper reading and deeper conversation in different forms, be it books or essays or panel discussions or discrete meetings. And this is where I see people searching for a collective engagement of their political thought; half the people I know in Cairo are in at least one reading group about feminism or climate change, or are trying to glean lessons from the Frankfurt School or whatever else. A lot of people my age and younger are also bringing back an interest in reading from and connecting with movements in the Global South.

When we’re talking about books and longer forms of text, literary or otherwise, I still see translation as a politically constituted act. The question of what gets translated and by whom points us to institutional power politics and gatekeeping, and then of course translation from Arabic has its inherited practices and sensibilities that can be maddeningly reductive and exoticizing and so on. There’s a lot more discussion about all of this now. It may not be as obvious as it is with translating for a mobilizing cause, but there are always larger reasons that a particular translator is working on a particular piece of text at a particular time.

I imagine that some of the challenges we see in translation have always been there — the burden of selecting how much context and detail to explain to the foreign reader or listener, and of watching a certain layer of richness or resonance disappear in trying to do so. But I also don’t think there’s such a thing as a pure translation of a text. I do think translations are ultimately re-articulations and that the translator is creating a new piece of work, in the sense that Benjamin put forward, and I think that looking at translations as such is more fair and more respectful to the text and to everybody involved. Even if a translator works closely with the author of a text in its original language, they are making a new work with a totally different set of inputs.

You are a producer with the Palestinian Festival of Literature. What kind of network of solidarity and cultural space has PalFest been able to establish since its inception?

PalFest started in the late 2000s, and it was all about bringing writers and artists to Palestine to see it and move through it, and meet artists and activists working there, and create conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. This was a few years after the Second Intifada, and the siege on Gaza had begun, and going to Palestine itself was seen, in many places, as a dangerous and difficult thing to do. The idea was to traverse or transcend the many physical and political blockages of the occupation and to allow people — artists — not only the chance to witness but to be there, listening and asking questions and walking and going onstage to different audiences, visiting as many parts of Palestine as we could reach and fit in.

After over a decade of annual festivals, this has created a wide web of connections between people, many of whom have brought their solidarity into their political and cultural lives. All that has definitely been part of the recent conversational shift on Palestine we’ve seen in the US, but of course that’s not enough, and I don’t like to think of solidarity as a contained thing. I think that’s always part of the difficulty of trying to build solidarity with the internet as your inevitable tool: statements and petitions and videos and all that, they matter tremendously in these hot moments when you can push for a change in language and perception around an issue, and that can have a political effect. But it’s ultimately ephemeral: we put our voice out for that moment and then it passes, and then we go back to our daily lives and troubles, and that cause or issue stays bracketed out even if, intellectually, we understand that the occupation is connected to racism and US empire and so on. To be clear, I’m talking here about the big causes like Palestinian liberation, which are structurally and internationally embedded and long-running. With something more individuated or tactical, like advocating for release of a political prisoner or using a boycott to pressure a business to break ties with illegal settlements, the utility of the open letters or the online campaigns can be enough.

What more can we draw out from that place, that place of wanting to lend your voice? Over the last few years, we’ve thought about how to use the festival to generate original work about Palestine in a more focused way. Whether it’s work that’s explicitly about the place, or that ties it in to other projects. One of my co-workers on the festival, Mahdi Sabbagh, is an architect, and after curating the 2019 festival with a theme on urbanism, he’s now putting together a book that asks: If Israel exports urban technologies of war and surveillance, what can Palestine export in answer to this? What if we looked to Palestine as a testing ground for ways of living in the face of economic, ecological, and political domination? That project is pushing at a deep and dynamic form of solidarity — of thinking together, while looking both backward and forward, of holding the particularities of certain experiences but insisting that they are connected to the rest of the world, to what happens in the rest of the world, in a real way. We’d like to make more books and projects like this.

You are working on a forthcoming book, Radius, due to be published by Verso later this year. What is the work of the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment group, and how can we understand it within the context of the history of militant feminist activism ongoing in Cairo/Egypt?

There were these terrifying mob assaults that started spreading throughout Tahrir Square in 2012, night after night. The revolution was still ongoing and Tahrir was the iconic heart of it, and over and over again, women were surrounded, actually encircled, by some number of men and the mob would grow from there. It was incredibly violent. Women were stripped and beaten and raped. Opantish started with friends and allies going out in small bands to scout for the attacks and to intervene somehow, to figure out how to fight our way into these chaotic mobs of people and get women out safely. It was very dangerous, and a lot of people were hurt while trying to help one another, especially at the beginning. Over time the group became quite sophisticated, with operations rooms and hotlines and getaway cars and, at the core of everything, intervention teams that eventually figured out the best ways to fight their way into and back out of these mobs.

There were a few other groups of activists that did similar intervention work at the time, but what was different about Opantish was that it identified itself as explicitly revolutionary, and feminist. We weren’t interested in creating separate protest areas for women, or in questioning why they had been where they were or what they were wearing. As a working collective, we weren’t even interested in identifying or punishing the attackers. It was about getting women out of attacks, and it was about pushing the issue — the literal bodily fight for political and civic equality — to become a central concern of the revolutionary movement, at a time when many other activists were denying the violence and worrying about the image of the square.

After the coup in 2013 and the massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, mass protests ended, and so did Opantish’s work on the ground, more or less.

I think of it as a sort of extraordinary collective creation that grew in a time of emergency but also somehow confronted the deeper social conflicts that circle around gender and public space. It’s interesting to think of it in relation to the feminism that followed in the years afterward, because I think the question immediately sheds light on the tensions around the memory of the revolution as a whole. People remember the revolution every year, especially with the anniversary of January 25, but the commemorations are of individual experiences of that collective moment, or of the losses of life. There has been very little work that has dealt with or questioned the collective experiments of those years, of which there were so many, and on so many different issues: feminism and urban reimagination and mental health services and so on.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a huge outpouring of speech and activism about sexual violence in Egypt. People sometimes ask why this topic keeps being so central, igniting so much movement and attention when there are so many other feminist issues to take up like equal pay and reproductive rights. To me, these are all connected. Sexual violence itself is structural and universal, and so women and others will keep pushing against it in different waves, but I think the power behind its ignition is often its place within the body, being acted against because of the type of body that you have, whatever your gender. Whether it’s sexual assault at a protest or in an elevator or by a loved one, it’s that terrible reduction to your body and to having it be used against the rest of your self. It is connected to every other way that women are pushed down in society, economically and politically, and it becomes part of the baggage of burdens that women carry and are told to keep quiet about, or told to look to men or to the status quo to save them from with laws or guns or prisons. And none of that works, we’ve seen that, we know that. The usefulness of the history of Opantish is that it’s a rare example of the same women being victimized fighting right back, not as individuals but collectively. I think this has something to say to today’s feminism, too.

How did you decide to write about the group in the form of a narrative history, and what kind of questions came into play about how to tell their story? I’m thinking in particular of how you went about translating specific sociopolitical moments, with their intense emotions and reflexive reactions, into a written narrative?

I knew very little about how I wanted to tell the story when I began working on it, but the one thing I was certain about was that I did not want to hold the central narrative voice throughout. When I began, I was struggling a lot with how abruptly the experience had come to an end, not just Opantish but the revolution itself. I was consumed by this really, for a while. There was something crushingly heavy about suddenly having to process, as individuals, a traumatic, transformative experience that was defined by its collectivity: we were alone in our homes or in exile, swiftly being stripped of our political and civic agency, watching people be hunted down for their politics and beliefs, afraid for our own safety much of the time, too. I think I stuck with the project in those early years because I so badly wanted to talk with people, with the people I’d worked with, about what had happened.

I started recording interviews with other Opantish organizers in late 2014. I had moved to New York by then, but I came back to Cairo often, and over the following three years I had about 20 conversations with people who’d worked with Opantish. Those conversations really said something about the overlaps and the differentiations of our experiences with the group and our reflections on it afterward, as women and men and nonbinary people who came to it with our different backgrounds and expectations and understandings about gender and violence.

So, I knew I wanted, somehow, to bring in these different voices and to shed light on some of the specifics of the different experiences people had, so many of which were so illuminating of bigger dynamics and dilemmas around gender violence and how we deal with it socially and politically. I think it was on my fourth or fifth draft, and after a lot of conversation and feedback from readers, that I landed on telling the story of 2012 and 2013 in real time, through the perspective of four main characters based on four people. Throughout the book, there is a reflective and questioning thread written from the post-revolutionary world, which opens the story up to broader questions around violence, gender, collective work, and historical loss. This allowed me to somehow balance my own aims and my own thoughts as the author without feeling like I was overwhelming the narrative with my specific experience of Opantish. It was interesting to try and figure out that balance, especially since as an essayist I was so used to writing from the personal “I.”

In terms of translating particular sociopolitical moments and our reactions to them, I would say that allowing myself to write the interiorities of the people in the story helped a great deal. It helped me to set up the sociopolitical context and its tumult with some nuance, some emotionality that I felt was real, rather than having to explain everything the way you might have to in a standard piece of journalism. The burden of explaining such intense experiences to people or readers who were not close to this context or history can be very foreboding for writers, I think, or at least I find it to be so. It can feel like an interruption to the flow you’re focusing on, and it can be very difficult not to end up going into a whole lot of detail that the reader isn’t interested in or may find confusing. In showing things through these characters’ eyes, I felt that I could just gently weave in enough grounding information for readers to follow and understand what was happening politically and so on, rather than coming in with a heavy bit of explaining.

You are also an editor with the critical media space in Cairo, Mada Masr. What vision does the space have for journalism and what are the political and material conditions of its work and survival?

In my mind, Mada Masr tries to be a lot of things at once: a serious newsroom in a place that does not tolerate independent journalism, a space for critical and creative work, and an account of a society that has been undergoing tremendously fast changes in the past decade. There are a lot of challenges, and I feel the material and political intersect heavily in thinking about them. The website is blocked by the government, which causes us great problems in publishing and disseminating our work and creating an archive, a record, which is what journalism is. We find ways, with mirror sites and social media so on, but it’s a level of complication with our main tool. One of my co-editors was arrested from his home in the middle of the night in late 2019 and held incommunicado, and a few days later our offices were raided. He and everyone else was eventually released, but you have to recognize that this is a context in which journalists, like anyone else arrested for political reasons, are often held for years without trial, and the rights of political detainees have been completely eroded. It was very scary, a moment of existential threat. Somehow, we continued, and a few months later the pandemic started and our struggles with that are, I think, shared by newsrooms and journalists in many places right now. For me personally, I’ve found the cognitive challenges of thinking about or covering the pandemic while living its effects, combined with the demands and limits of remote work communication, really overwhelming at times. It’s an ongoing experiment, in a lot of ways, in how to keep working through repression, through political depression, how to create and sustain community in such circumstances.

You described Mada as critical, and I think that’s a good way to put it. People often assume that our content starts from a place of opposition to the government, regardless of the issue at hand. I think that this environment encourages this kind of categorizing, a with them or against them kind of thing. In practice I think it’s more accurate to say that we start from a place of questioning and perhaps skepticism, rather than opposition.

A translation of political prisoner Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s collected essays, entitled You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK in October 2021 and Seven Stories Press in the US in April 2022. Could you talk a bit about this work and the importance of it being translated into English?

It’s strange to answer this now, because Alaa is in his third month of hunger strike in prison and I don’t know how circumstances might change by the time this piece is published. As in, I’m afraid he might not be alive. But this book, and Alaa’s story, are incredibly relevant to any conversation about solidarity.

Alaa is probably the most well-known political prisoner in Egypt, certainly from among the secular left and the revolutionary activists of 2011. In my view, he is a singularly independent thinker whose input comes from a broad range of historical and philosophical reading and a close following of global political developments. His body of work includes articles, essays, speeches, and blog posts that go back to the mid-2000s and offer a sort of route through the past years of global politics — the rising influence of tech companies and gig economies, the 2011 uprisings, the rise of the right — that is told through deep inquisitions of moments of revolution, of revolution’s collapse, and of the state violence, repression, and struggle for total control of citizens’ lives that followed. These pieces are bracing and thought-provoking, certainly for people interested in this region but also more broadly, for anyone interested in really thinking about change. It’s astonishing, really, that a person who has been denied his liberty for so long — Alaa has spent most of the last decade in prison — has insisted on writing in a style that seeks conversation and debate to find ways out of the impasses and traps that I think many of us feel useless in front of.

His situation in prison, where he’s now serving a five-year sentence for resharing a Facebook post, both demands solidarity and makes us question our understanding of the act. I’ve walked with Alaa, in his brief period of freedom from jail in 2019, and seen strangers come up and shake his hand, looking sort of starstruck and moved, deeply moved. He then went back to prison where his conditions have been horrible, and again the hashtag for his freedom circulates, but the world continues to change, the algorithms get smarter, and the hashtag and the images we have stay the same.

What can we do to not get trapped in habits and ideas about how to generate solidarity, or about how it can work? The book is one answer. When the editors started assembling it, some of the pieces had already been translated for publication with Mada Masr over the years. Everything was carefully revised and reworked, arranged to really give the reader as much as possible of Alaa’s voice, which is powerful and prolific and also very complex. There is a decent amount of thoughtful paratext in the book: footnotes, indexes, and timelines. So really, I think this book can be a tremendous tool for anyone wanting to think against the stripped sense of agency that so many of us live with, under different political arrangements today.

For Alaa, who has engaged with and learned from so many other struggles, from Palestine to South Africa, solidarity isn’t about being on the right side of history in a sort of grand sense, I think it’s also pragmatic. He has a core belief that there is no freedom for anyone unless there is freedom for everyone — that, in particular, no one is free from torture unless we are all free from torture. That sort of collective fate is what the title of the collection, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, is gesturing at. I believe it was lifted from a speech he gave some years back. The “you” addresses readers in the Western liberal democracies where this book is published. It is you who have not yet been defeated, even if everything might feel hopeless. You have more real tools and opportunities to fix things than we who are living in dictatorships and in prisons do. But don’t think that it’s not all connected — that the egregious injustices in Egypt and other places are not part of a global system that is reinforcing extractive, repressive machinery all over the place. And no one is immune. So fix things while you can. That’s what the message is.

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Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul.