Shakespeare in the Anthropocene, SAA, 7 April 2017 in Atlanta

For a moment, I thought I’d be the only one who made it to Atlanta.

Last Wednesday, I was plopped into a chair in the empty twenty-two story atrium of the Hyatt Regency as rain blew horizontally past the windows, watching Facebook string together reports of tornados, cancelled flights and interminable layovers. Passing back and forth via leaky skyway between the Hyatt and the mall food court at Peachtree Center, I began to imagine myself as the last Shakespearean on Earth, carrying out a Home Alone/Omega Man version of the conference by my lonesome. As Shakespeare Association of America President-by-default, I had a lot of bold initiatives to push through.

The #Shakenado ultimately marooned or forced back about 20 percent of SAA’s attendees. Several seminars were reduced to rumps or cancelled outright. People arrived late and left late, as Hartsfield-Jackson airport staggered under a massive backlog of flights. Shakespeare went back to the moment of shipwreck again and again in his plays, and the Hyatt, so big it seemed to make its own weather, began to seem like an island where I’d been castaway. This sensation was magnified by my seminar, “Shakespeare in the Anthropocene,” organized by Craig Dionne and Lowell Duckert, where we discussed the end of the world.

The seminar was held in cavernous, windowless basement hall, divided by temporary walls that channeled the air conditioning into weird gusts of wind that snaked around corners. We started a bit slow, but soon got into a good groove. I think Shannon Garner-Balandrin gave us the way in: if we know that climate catastrophe is coming, what do we do with that knowledge? What can we do? The question was intensified by Sharon O’Dair’s paper, which called the concept of sustainable growth into question, suggesting that global population and rates of consumption might have already made reversing course impossible, even if the world did somehow shift from defining growth as increase to defining it as refinement. Charles Whitney read climate policy literature and noted just how much rests on hoping the next generation will find some miraculous technological fix and save us. John Mitchell’s paper, “Quintessence of Dust,” dove deep into climate science and raised the idea of dust as archive, an information-rich strata that may ultimately be our civilization’s legacy. (And became an interesting echo of the presentation on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Project Dustbunny” at the 2016 SAA).

My own paper looked at the early modern debate over the decay of nature, the eco-theological question of whether humanity’s original sin had doomed only humans, or all of nature, sending the whole created world into a falling state that can only be relieved by apocalyptic fire at the end of time. As succinctly put by George Herbert’s poem “Decay”:

I see the world grows old, when as the heat

Of thy great love, once spread, as in an urn

Doth closet up it self, and still retreat,

Cold Sinne still forcing it, till it return,

And calling Justice, all things burn.

I tried to find a middle ground between the poles of this old debate, between apocalypticism and bluff optimism that nature will abide as it always has. How do we acknowledge that the world will change irrevocably, but it will not end? How we avoid the consolations of apocalypse, the nihilism and passivity and abdication of responsibility that modern popular culture seems so hungry for? Squinting hard, I tried to glimpse that moment in the last act of Richard II, when Richard, trying to imagine himself as something other than a king, greats his groom as a peer and offers/asks forgiveness to/of his traitorous horse Barbary, now carrying King Henry. Belatedly, with his murderers already on the way, he begins to imagine a world where the human relationship to nature is not an extractive empire, but a level commonwealth, united by interdependence and shared fragility and finitude. Stripped of his power over other human beings, Richard begins to see his relationship to nature anew and takes his seat as one member among many in a teeming society. As our own world sits at five minutes to midnight, we might learn from this vision.

Craig Dionne raised the notion of a “stratigraphic Shakespeare,” a literature that can make sense of the line humanity’s drawn in the sediment. For me, stratigraphic literature evoked the Egyptian soil, which regularly yields statues, mummies, tablets, scraps of papyrus, whole languages lying dormant in the sand. Will the texts we love end up like scrolls of Sappho in the Ptolemaic era, used to wrap the dead, only to reveal lost verse millennia later? As Jeffrey J. Cohen asked in his response, what signs will we leave behind? How will they be read?

Archeology is a guide here. Civilization has ended before. We know what lasts and what does not. Ink on paper, buried in the desert, endures for millennia. Digital files get lost in the relentless updating of media, and are no good without proper hardware, software, electricity, and the vast infrastructures they require. Perhaps the digital turn has come too late. Join me in my campaign to print out the internet and bury it in a salt mine in Utah.

It didn’t come up in any of the papers, but one figure came up repeatedly in our discussions: Hermione, the lost mother of The Winter’s Tale, who dies, reappears as a ghost, and finally returns to life via a work of art, her miraculous statue, revived after a gap of eighteen years. That gap is marked by death, dissension, storm, shipwreck, exile, a bear attack, and her daughter Perdita’s unlikely new life in the pastures of Bohemia. The statue speaks to us. It asks what we can preserve that will endure beyond the hole in time. What can travel across the stormy era to come, and be read and revived by whatever waits on the other side? What can we leave of us for our Perditas, the children we’ve abandoned on a strange and stormy shore, in hopes that they’ll show us mercy, and let us live again?

Cairo, Habibi

And then you’ll reach the point when the temperature has been hovering around 100 degrees F for over a week and the humidity is 80% and the the sun is a dingy white disc because of a multiday sandstorm blowing down from the Levant and there’s no wind to clear the car exhaust out of the air and the police love to blast their new sirens for no reason outside your building late at night and you’ve just about had it with Cairo.

Then you find yourself on a beautiful balcony late at night, talking to your favorite Egyptian political cartoonist about satire, violence, and Charlie Hebdo; getting encouraged to read about Daoism; and hearing Egyptology gossip about the problems with animal mummies.

Cairo, that abusive lover, will push you to the edge and then woo you back, over and over again.

“Thoughts black, hands apt”: The Globe Theatre’s Hamlet in Alexandria

Britain Global Hamlet

Hamlet doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He fidgets in his pockets, rubs his temples to stoke his memory, ushers words from his mouth with fluttering fingers, and slaps his scalp in frustration. As his bloody resolve grows, he grips Ophelia’s face, tangles his fingers in Gertrude’s hair. Hamlet’s course is mapped manually, restlessly. His “thoughts black, hands apt” (Act 3, scene 2).

Naeem Hayat, one of the Shakespeare’s Globe Globe to Globe tour’s two alternating Hamlets (on the right below), and the star of January 12’s production at the Biblioteca Alexandrina, is a whippet of a man. Short, slight in torso and thin in leg, with a big, angular head supporting large eyes and ears. His hands are big, long fingered, expressive, and essential to his performance.


He reminds me a bit of the neurological homunculus diagrammed by the psychiatrist Walter Penfield in the 1940s: a man whose proportions are distorted by the outsized space the brain gives to the expressive and manipulative parts of the body.


This suits Hamlet, a man grown estranged from his body by grief. The normal, unconscious functions of digestion, locomotion, sex, are beginning to atrophy, as obsessive thought and fretting hands grow to fill the space. Aside from expressive face and nimble hands, Hayat’s body stays quite still for much of the play. He stands, feet together, back straight, head thrust forward, swaying slightly from side to side as he talks. He’s a Hamlet who is physically dis-eased, and he sets the people around him on edge.

This physical performance is suited to an Egyptian audience. At the start of the show, one of the actors greeted the crowd with a hearty “Salaam Aleikum!” immediately followed by “From now on, we will perform in English. Good luck!” While nearly all of the audience was at least conversant in English, some of the members I spoke to admitted to struggling to follow the show. (This wasn’t helped by a bit of ill-advised doubling late in the play, when Jennifer Leong, who played Ophelia, also appeared as one of the mourners at Ophelia’s funeral, prompting some muttered “didn’t she die?” in Arabic). The physicality of the performers was compelling, especially Hayat’s Hamlet; Leong’s Ophelia, moving from wounded incomprehension to manic, suicidal clarity; and Beruce Khan’s Laertes, who bellowed with anger and shook with grief, and proved the more convincing fencer. Egyptians famously talk with their hands, and Egyptian cinema is a masterclass in histrionics.
This is a good place to put your back into a performance.

Not all of it worked. The Mousetrap was played as a scenery-chewing farce, one of several scenes that were played a bit too light, too funny. As a result, Hamlet, while he is brilliant and troubled, is never quite frightening enough. The Hamlet who conjures up the “convocation of politic worms” (4.3) gnawing on Polonius should be terrifying. We should see him through the eyes of Gerturde and Claudius and Ophelia: the man they’ve known for ages has been replaced by a murderous changeling, capable of anything. Hamlet famously slips our interpretive grasp, carrying out his revenge in a fashion that confounds rational explanation, but Hayat too often made him merely clever, not dangerous. While he conveyed anger and menace and anguished love in his face-to-faces with Ophelia and Gertrude (his hands gripping their heads), his soliloquies lacked this emotional danger. The line “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (4.5) was a shouted threat, but a bit too controlled, affected. Hamlet was still trying to talk himself into revenge at a moment when he should be resolved.

The near constant chittering of cell phones and scattered camera flashes from the crowd didn’t help either. (It was still better than Aïda at the Cairo Opera House, where I saw several people recording the whole show on tablets.) Admonitions to shut off your phone and refrain from taking pictures have never worked here.

But these are quibbles. It was a rare treat to see world-class Shakespeare here in Egypt, and to see the Biblioteca’s impressive but underutilized facilities put to good use. The best part was the crowd: overwhelmingly Egyptian, young, educated, and stylish. Skinny jeans and boots impeccably paired with hijab. It was a treat to wander the Biblioteca’s grounds before and after the show, hearing slangy din of colloquial Arabic, spoken loudly and at high speed in classic urban Egyptian fashion, punctuated by bursts of laughter and shouting. It was good to see several of my students there as well.

It was an event for al shebab, the youth, the segment of society that gives me the most hope in a country caught in vicious social, political, and ecological binds. Like Denmark, Egypt’s a prison, and I found myself talking to more than one bright young thing who wants to emigrate. But the energy, humour, and intense affection of the youth are a saving grace. As I often do, I found myself hoping they find a nation worthy of them, wherever that undiscovered country may be.

No Touching: The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret), 2007

I recently taught the Isreali film The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, dir. Eran Kolirin, 2007, IMDB entry here) to my first-year class on Comedy (ECLT 1099). Thought I’d share the course notes here. 

It’s fitting that the plot of The Band’s Visit is set in motion by a linguistic misunderstanding.

At the bus station where the movie begins, Tawfik, the commander and conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, sends Khaled, the band’s young lothario, whom he seems to dislike, to ask about the bus to the town with the Arab Cultural Center where they are to perform. Khaled says his English isn’t so good, and maybe he should send someone else, but is ordered to the counter anyway. He asks about the bus to Bet Hatikvah, and the clerk’s surprise at his request is our first clue that things won’t go as planned. When the band arrives in Bet Hatikvah, Dina and Itzhak at the cafe read their invitation and reveal that they should have gone to Petah Tikvah, a different town entirely. The lack of a distinct letter “P” in Arabic (here in Egypt, one drinks “Bebsi”) and its presence in Hebrew transports the band to a strange place, where they must make do for the night.

The Band’s Visit is very much about such misunderstandings and failures to connect (and the small moments when people manage to get past those failures and engage each other, however briefly). The Egyptian band members and the Israeli townspeople are, like Egypt and Israel, next to each other, but separate from each other. Their natual inclination to relate to their fellow humans is obstructed by barriers of politics (the countries’ wars are still living memories, as when, at around the 17 minute mark, one of the band members hangs his hat over a photo of an Israeli tank in the restaurant, hiding it), language (when the two groups are able to talk to each other, it’s in English, a third tongue that none has fully mastered–compare the crisp translation in the English subtitles to the awkward words actually spoken), and gender (Tawfik’s stiff sense of propriety initially keeps him from appreciating the love and friendship Dina is offering him). In the face of these barriers, characters are together, but alone, standing or sitting next to each other, but not touching. Even in the tender conducting scene above, Tawfik and Dina move in sync, but don’t touch. That lack of touch, the fear and suspicion that keep people from contact with each other–see the band member who offends Itzhak’s wife by wiping down all his glasses and silverware–leaves people, as Itzhak says to Simon near the end of the film, profoundly lonely.

The Band’s Visit conveys this loneliness visually as well as through dialogue and action. The film is full of shots of people existing next to each other without touching, speaking, or looking each other in the eye. Think about the Band members standing stiffly next to each other in the early scenes. The strictures of their institution–they’re a group of artists embedded in the police, a violent authoritarian institution–keep them from interacting as artists or friends. Rank gets in the way. A friendly smile or embrace or musical improvisation are out of the question.

See also the dinner table at Itzhak’s apartment. The Egyptians and Israelis sit on opposites of the table, not talking until Simon and Itzhak’s father-in-law start talking about music and the fantasy of meeting at the Calypso. Or the scene at the roller rink, where Khaled approaches a young woman who goes gliding backward across the floor, inviting him to dance. Khaled, unable to skate, remains stuck to the wall.

The loneliness can be bridged, partially, but only in indirect ways, as when Khaled, in a scene reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, silently shows Papi how woo his date, teaching him the arts of love through gesture, touch, and (elsewhere) poetry in Arabic, a language Papi doesn’t know. Pay attention to this masterfully funny scene. See how much comedy can be produced without a single word spoken.

The one thing that does succeed, at least temporarily, in bridging the divide is music. Khaled woos women by asking “Do you like Chet Baker?” and singing “My Funny Valentine.” The awkward dinner at Itzhak’s gives way to a collective singing of “Summertime,” by George Gershwin. Itzhak and Simon connect over Simon’s unfinished concerto, Tawfik and Dina talk about and listen to Arabic love songs, a genre that Dina dearly loves, even though she can’t understand the words. Music serves as a partial, temporary treatment for loneliness, a way to bridge the gaps, for a while at least.

In Dina and Tawfik, the film creates a sad, funny, not-quite love story. Dina is a woman hungry for love, affection, sex. We learn that she’s divorced, been in an affair with a married man, and gets the evil eye from many people in her staid, conservative town. She finds herself drawn to older, stiff, serious Tawfik, rather than the young, handsome, and flirtatious Khaled.

Tawfik and Dina’s night out is a masterpiece of desire and reluctance–two people who want to connect, to touch–but are held back by both their circumstances and the deep sadness they carry with them. It’s a wonderfully mature love story–Dina and Tawfik are not fresh young lovers, but two people in middle age who have accumulated their share, maybe more, of heartbreak and loss. Love gets harder under those conditions.

The denouement is a triangle between Tawfik, Khaled, and Dina, pictured above. Khaled tries his “Do you like Chet Baker?” come-on on Dina, and it falls flat. Surprisingly, it’s Tawfik who responds, revealing a love for the American jazz musician and asking Khaled to play his trumpet, the instrument he can’t play in the band. After the performance, Tawfik places a fatherly hand on Khaled’s shoulder. For the moment, the two can connect as something other than commander and subordinate. They can be friends, maybe even a surrogate father and son.

Khaled and Dina end up in bed together, but it’s not the love Dina sought with Tawfik. It’s a consolation prize. Tawfik takes his memories of Bet Hatikvah with him, and we end on a shot of his face at the concert, channeling his passions into music, like he always does. Art may not be able to eliminate the gaps that keep people apart, but it can allow us to imagine a better world, to see a park by the sea in a bleak concrete plaza. That’s the little grain of hope that animates The Band’s Visit, the comic hope that keeps tragedy at bay.

A Cat May Look Upon Descartes: A Review of Laurie Shannon’s The Accommodated Animal

My review of Laurie Shannon’s The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales has been published by Humanimalia: A Journal of Human/Animal Interface StudiesA taste is pasted below. Full text here.



There’s a cat watching me write this review. Here at the American University in Cairo, where I work, the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, animals and humans, are much less formal than at American campuses and the courtyard of this building is home to an extended family of semi-tame cats. The cats occasionally wander into the little cafeteria where I’m typing, and a kitten has just hopped onto a nearby chair, idly gazing at me, occasionally licking her chops…

Starting in the first chapter, Shannon seeks to recreate a pre-Cartesian polity, a “Zootopian Constitution” (40), grounded in the six days of creation described in Genesis. Shannon argues that the early chapters of Genesis “do not distinguish man and animal for every purpose,” but rather unite them as creatures, “living artifacts of Creation in a shared status that is, at once, both contingent and stakeholding — the classic ambivalence inherent in the structure of the political subject as such” (40-41). This argument, which owes much to both Bruno Latour’s “Parliament of Things” (144- 45) in We Have Never Been Modern and Julia Reinhardt Lupton’s influential article “Creature Caliban,” recasts nature as politics, with human beings as just one constituency among many, surrounded by other creatures who care little for our pretensions of dominance. Creature is a marvelously rich term, derived from the future- active form of the Latin creatura, denoting, in Lupton’s words, “a made or fashioned thing but with a sense of continued or potential process, action, or emergence” (1). The term thus links humans, animals, and other created things in a great drama of continual emergence. Shannon notes that in all of Shakespeare’s works, “animal” appears only eight time, while “beast” appears 141 times and “creature” 127 times (9). Shannon argues, “before the cogito, there was nothing exactly comparable to “the animal” (9). While I believe Shannon is positing far too sharp an epistemological break here, I appreciate the distinction she makes. Her early modern world is populated by creatures, not animals, and those creatures exercise cosmopolitan rights of their own…

Complete review at Humanimalia.

Three Jokes From The Square

I hope my review of The Square did not come across as too downbeat. I did enjoy a lot about the film, especially the way it captures the conviviality, humour, and endless talk that define Cairo street life. The film’s debates are punctuated with great jokes, like these:

1. Early 2011, a group of young men eat a lunch of bread, vegetables, and ful (fava beans) under a tent in Tahrir Square. One of them picks up large banana pepper and waves it at the the camera:

“You see this? Under Mubarak, the peppers were tiny, but under the revolution, they’re big!”

2. Mid-2013, Magdy’s mother, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, complains that President Morsi is not being given a fair chance.

“I went to my butcher and he said ‘God damn Mohamed Morsi!’ I asked him, ‘Why do you say this?’ He says, ‘Because it’s so hot today!'”

3. A scene shows children playing “revolutionary.”

One group repeats the Tahrir chant, “The people demand the downfall of the regime!”

Another group chants, “The people demand chocolate for kids!”

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What Was the Egyptian Revolution?

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. The 18 days between the first Tahrir Square demonstrations–called for January 25, 2011, Police Day, to highlight police brutality–and President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation (compelled by the Army), are hard to remember now. The inclusive, harmonious, democratic carnival of 2011 is long gone, and yesterday’s anniversary was celebrated in the square behind metal detectors, armored vehicles, and a cordon of police to ensure no one less-than-enthused about the military regime, led by Defense Minister El-Sisi, got in.

On the other side of the cordon, the “Martyrs of the Revolution” were honored with a performance of the national anthem by officers from the same police forces that killed them.

The holiday came immediately after a very bad day for Egypt. On Friday, January 24, four bombs went off in greater Cairo. The biggest, a large car bomb in front of the Security Headquarters for the Cairo Governate, devastated the building and severely damaged the neighboring Islamic Art Museum, destroying countless priceless pieces. All told, six died and scores were injured in the attacks. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (The Guardians of Jerusalem), a Sinai-based militant group, took responsibility for the bombs, but popular blame was directed at the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, recently banned and declared a terrorist organization. While the government has never presented credible evidence directly connecting the MB to terror attacks, the bombings were immediately followed by crowds chanting for the execution of the MB and the elevation of Sisi to president. Egypt’s War on Terror is delivering exactly what it promised: more bombs, more repression, more power to the violent, chauvinistic, and stupid on both sides of the political divide. It’s hard to watch.

Incidentally, the security services are still better at killing than the terrorists. At least 49 Egyptians died in clashes yesterday, the vast majority killed by the police.

This farce was sadly predictable, and was on my mind in New York a week ago. I went to see The Squarethe documentary by Jehane Noujaim that tracks the Egyption revolution from January 25, 2011 to August 2013, when encampments of MB supporters that had gathered at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and elsewhere following the coup against President Mohamed Morsi were attacked by police and soldiers. Over 1000 people likely died in those massacres.

The film is a beauty. Masterfully shot and edited, it skillfully grounds the huge movements of crowds and the shifting political context in the experiences of a group of young activists who meet on the square. Many of these young idealists move on and off stage, but the most important are three young men. Khalid Abdalla is a British-Egyptian actor and filmmaker (United 93, The Kite Runner) from a family of liberal dissidents. He speaks flawless Queen’s English and mediates between Tahrir and the film’s Western audience. The bearded Magdy Ashour is an MB activist who was jailed and tortured under Mubarak and, once he joins the square, finds himself torn between a desire to support his friends and his loyalty to the secretive, hierarchical Ikhwan and its orders. The real star is Ahmed Hassan, a charismatic young man from Cairo’s working-class Shoubra neighborhood with the sort of open, expressive face that cameras love.


It’s through Ahmed’s eyes that we see daily life in Tahrir during the heady 18 days, the clashes with police and soldiers that followed (including one intimately-shot clash that sees rocks met with tear gas and birdshot and leaves Ahmed wounded in the head and shaking in fear). Ahmed is also the most persuasive spokesman for the revolutionaries, tirelessly speechfying in the square, and appealingly conflicted as he tries to reconcile his friendship with Magdy and his growing hatred of the Ikhwan. Far more than the chilly, serious Khalid, Ahmed is the face of the revolutionary argument the filmmakers are out to advance. Ahmed and the revolutionaries are presented as the passionate, principled, idealistic face of the revolution, opposed to both the Army and the Islamists, better than the grubby politics and dealmaking around them.

It’s an argument that, thus far, has kept the film from being screened in Egypt. It was pulled from the recent Panorama film festival after official permissions were not granted, and has played in no theaters. (It is available on Netflix and on YouTube). I can’t say it’s played a big role in the Egyptian conversation thus far, but I think it fails to speak to the current moment for reasons beyond its lack of distribution.

There are a couple of unacknowledged blind spots in the film’s narrative. The first is its intense focus on, well, The Square. Throughout the film, the revolutionaries lament, “We should never have left the square,” referring the decision to end demonstrations after Mubarak’s fall, only to have to resume them when the military government went back on its promises. This focus is understandable, but it reveals a real flaw in the revolutionary methodology. Huge quantities of time, energy, and blood are spent protecting one sacred space, and the memory of the utopia that briefly thrived there. The Square can be read as a series of failed attempts to get back to “the state of Tahrir” (liberation) that existed during those 18 days.

It’s a tragic project. As the old establishment regains its bearings, the Muslim Brotherhood pursues power for itself, revolutionaries fracture over the path forward, and the public grows weary of uncertainty and disorder, the state of liberation proves impossible to recreate. The constant chasing of that old high, at the expense of leaving the square and engaging in the grubby work of organizing and politicking, ultimately undermines the revolution and leaves it shrunken and weak against the still-formidable remnants of the Mubarak regime (the felool), and the tightly-organized Brotherhood. It’s a tragedy of idealism, of a political state of grace that lasts just long enough to forever haunt those who experienced it.

And that’s the problem with The Square. It refuses to admit that it’s a tragedy. As the months and years grind on, the revolutionaries’ prime antagonist becomes the Brotherhood, especially after it wins the 2012 elections. Tellingly, these victories are quickly glossed over, and the accusation that the Brotherhood only won by appealing to religion and buying voters off with cheap sugar and cooking oil is repeatedly aired. Effective political organizing and retail campaigning are dismissed as illegitimate compared to the collective voice of “the people” in the square. This attitude finds its expression in the Tamarod (Rebel) movement, which in the spring and summer of 2013 collected signatures calling for Morsi to step down or call early elections. The movement came to a head with the huge demonstrations of January 30 and the military coup of July 3. Tamarod is largely celebrated, and while the military regime is treated skeptically, their takeover is nonetheless celebrated exuberantly in the streets.

And this is where the second blind spot emerges. While other clashes between demonstrators and government forces are meticulously documented (the aftermath of the Maspero killings of October 2011 is especially vivid), the film keeps its distance from Rabaa. We only get brief glimpses of the killing of Brotherhood supporters after 30 June, on Ahmed’s laptop screen rather than on our own. We do get to hear an affecting phone conversation between Ahmed and Magdy, who has joined his brothers at Rabaa, as the two try to stay friends on opposite sides of a widening political abyss. Still, the horror at Rabaa goes unseen, and is instead summed up in a title card at the end. Magdy was “violently removed” from Rabaa (whether he was killed, wounded, or jailed we’re not told), where “hundreds were killed by security forces.” It’s a true account, but after the immediacy of the film’s earlier clashes, this newspaper copy feels cold and remote. Meanwhile, “Ahmed and Khalid continue to fight for an alternative to Military or Brotherhood rule.” That fight is, presumably, not going well.

It’s not entirely the fault of the filmmakers that Rabaa gets short shrift. They’re making a retrospective on history that’s still happening, and any ending they decided on was always going to arbitrary. The film was already in color-correction when the massacre occurred. However, the film tries to tack on a hopeful ending that it doesn’t earn. We end by revisiting Ahmed and Khalid, each of whom has scaled back his rhetoric from the heady early days, when they talked about how they would take power when Mubarak falls. In 2013, they instead talk about revolution as an internal state. “We’re not looking for a leader,” says Ahmed, “we’re looking for a conscience.” Like many disappointed revolutionaries before them, they turn from changing the world to changing the self. Understandable, but sad nonetheless. Ending where it does, The Square misses the intense repression, state violence, nationalist hysteria, and violent counterreaction that have been unleashed by the Sisi regime and its idiotic War on Terror. Ahmed and Khalid’s hopeful musings seem misplaced against this backdrop.

Maybe I’m cynical. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues here, who lived through 2011 and experienced some of that grace down in Tahrir, I arrived last August, a week after Rabaa, hustled from the airport through a scared city that was rushing to get home before curfew. I haven’t experienced much of the state of Tahrir, but I’ve seen plenty of repression, jingoism, rationalizations for state violence, and a witch-hunt against dissent that’s come to my university’s door. Perhaps I’m late for the revolution, perhaps I’m missing some great reserve of revolutionary fervor that the Egyptian people have yet to unleash (this could very well be true), but the last scenes of The Square rang false to me. I fear the film, in order to end on a hopeful note, fails to document just how much has be lost since the State of Tahrir, that the idealism it celebrates has been attended by death, disillusion, corruption, and the coopting of the revolution by a supremely ugly nationalist dictatorship.

I often tell friends that we’re living in the future in Egypt. Egypt’s problems–overpopulation, severe resource constraints, massive inequalities in wealth, an overbearing security state, inadequate political institutions, huge numbers of poor and uneducated people who have been largely abandoned by the state and global economy–will be the world’s problems soon, as the global economic system continues to concentrate wealth at the top (The 85 richest individuals now control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion) and global warming threatens the ecological basis of our civilization. We all have an interest in Egypt making it. We should all hope it finds a way to deliver on the revolution’s promises of “Bread, freedom, social justice, and dignity,” but I believe this project will require a cold-eyed assessment of what did and did not work since Mubarak’s fall, and the crafting of an ideology more robust, and more directly concerned with improving the material conditions of regular people, than the platitudes crafted in the square. We, all of us, will soon need to find a path through a very dark tunnel, and false hope doesn’t help.

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Paychecks for Oddballs

Margaret Mary Vojtko, fall 2008.

Every now and then, a story grow legs and start doing laps around your social circle. The nice thing about Facebook is the way it archives these marathons, documenting the progress of anecdotes among people inclined to share them. Last September, my social circle, which contains a disproportionate number of people who have, or are about to have, PhDs in humanities fields, eagerly shared the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Margaret Mary, longtime adjunct French instructor at Duquesne University, died on Sept. 1 at the age of 83. She was memorialized in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed by Daniel Kovalik, a senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union and academic labor activist. Kovalik described a dedicated, grandmotherly teacher who’d been grievously betrayed by the university she’d served for decades.

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Margaret Mary’s story was familiar enough to my generation of PhDs, many of whom work in such terrible adjunct jobs or know colleagues who do. I’ve been on the cusp of such work several times during my own academic career and I’ve more than once vowed to quit the profession rather than live on less-than-subsistence wages. I love academia, but I won’t starve for it. Vojtko’s story predictably sparked a reaction from the huge community of precariously employed academics, who reacted, as we do, with a lot of words, ranging from efforts to connect academic labor to the broader struggle for worker’s rights to a hashtag, #IamMargaretMary. She quickly became something of a saint, a martyr who died for academia’s economic sins. The fact that she was a grandmotherly white lady certainly helped.

I’m not complaining. Outside of academia, people tend to assume that professors are still well-paid, respected professionals, even though 73% of American college instructors are now non-tenure-track, and most of them receive meager pay and little to nothing in way of health insurance, pensions, etc. I remember assigning last year’s composition students an article about the economics of higher ed and noting their shock that their exorbitant tuition largely wasn’t  going to people who teach them. I’m glad Mary Margaret’s story is carrying the plight of adjuncts into mainstream consciousness. If we are going to reform academic labor, we need to engage the consciences of students, parents, alumni, other exploited workers, and the many other members of our larger communities.

But saints are always more complicated than their icons. Recently, published an investigation into Margaret Mary and the movement her death spawned. The Margaret Mary who emerges from this story is still a passionate teacher, dedicated to the point of self-sacrifice (‘”Teaching is not a profession or a career,” she told a campus magazine a few years ago. “It is a devotion—a dedication. Too many people look upon it as a job, a source of income.”‘), but also eccentric, irascible, weird. In addition to teaching French, she was president of the local historical society in Homestead, PA, and became protective to the point of hoarding with artifacts from that town’s bloody 1892 steel strike.

None of her preservation efforts related to her work at Duquesne. In fact, the other members of the Homestead Historical Society didn’t know she was a professor. They recognized her passion—and worried about where it led. Vojtko was proprietary about her research, and about objects. Once she had possession of an artifact—a billy club used in the Battle of Homestead, or scrap metal from the mill—she refused to part with it. “She would say she had them in her home, and we’d say, ‘Margaret, they really shouldn’t be in your home. I mean, there’s an insurance issue, and they need to be catalogued in, and they need to be public property,’ ” said Jan Carr, one of the founding members of the Homestead Historical Society. “She wouldn’t surrender them.”

She hoarded other things as well, eventually inheriting two houses, filling them with emphera, and refusing to allow maintenance and repairs. She was also a staunchly conservative Catholic, and rubbed her students and colleagues the wrong way (and held views I, and probably most of her colleagues, find wrongheaded). She was also a strong advocate for faculty unionization, supported by 85% of Duquesne adjunct faculty but blocked by the administration, leading to a protracted standoff. “She was toweringly angry that they refused to recognize us, and angrier still that they refused to recognize us by referring to religion.”

The portrait that emerges from the Slate piece is not of a cardboard saint, but of a passionate, eccentric, irascible, cranky, self-righteous, difficult woman who worked at a university for decades, but never fit neatly into its changing conceptions of itself. She didn’t make things easy on herself as her health and finances declined, spurned offers of help and drove people away with her obsessive control of her space. She, like most of us, was the partial author of her own misfortunes.

While the Slate article hits the right notes about the rights of adjuncts–“We should expect universities to pay adjuncts a living wage, give them benefits and some job security, and provide them with the resources they need to do their jobs well—especially because we tend to think of education as a public good, rather than just another consumer industry.”–it also offers opportunities to scale back one’s compassion for her, and by extension the adjuncts for whom she became a symbol. She was a hoarder, she was disagreeable, she was conservative on sexual and religious issues, she spurned help, she made poor decisions, etc.

I think we need to be careful to resist these qualifications. Even someone with poor financial instincts deserves to be paid more than $25,000 a year for full-time teaching. If you do a job, you should be compensated fairly for that job, whatever mistakes you make or bad habits you indulge in your off hours.

I like Slate‘s Margaret Mary better than Kovalik’s. The fact that she was a much odder, more difficult figure than the martyr she became doesn’t undermine the larger argument about the rights of adjuncts. Even eccentrics and people with bad habits deserve a living wage, benefits, and job security (and probably need them even more). Decent jobs aren’t just for the squared off and self-regulating. Odd ducks need them too, especially because a steady income makes it easier to be an odd duck.

One of the things that bothers me most about the academic jobs crisis is how it’s squeezing the eccentricity out of the profession. In order to land a TT job, your interview suit has to be immaculate, your publications polished and relevant and carefully placed, your demeanor perfectly professional and collegial, your research carefully fitted to prevailing trends and norms. I think about some of the old oddballs and cranks I studied under in college and wonder if they could ever get hired today. We sand off our own rough edges, and turn the professeriat, which should be a haven for weirdness, into a bunch of careful strivers.

Tight job markets discipline the mind, the body, the soul. They force you to twist yourself into the very particular openings available to you, and force you be oh so careful lest you lose the position you squeezed into. We need to fight for better wages, more and better jobs, and better job security, not just as a matter of economic justice, but individual freedom as well.

Paychecks for Oddballs. I like the sound of that.


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The Sea Above


A few days ago, I visited the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, which was once accompanied by a kilometer-long covered arcade. A portion of this walkway has been reassembled, and you look up to see stone ceiling panels covered with stars, representing both stars in the sky and the starfish (or “fishstars,” as our guide called them) in the sea above the sky.

The ancient Egyptian cosmos was a bubble in a great sea, land floating on water, waters flowing above the dome of the sky, land life dependent on the one river that flowed across the earth. The starfish suggest that the sea above, like the sea below, was crowded with life, great schools of creatures passing over our heads.

In spots, a little blue paint still clings to the spaces between the stars.

Yesterday, after a few days of teasing with drizzles one could mistake for imaginary, Cairo saw its first real rainstorm since I arrived in August. It lasted maybe 10 minutes, but drenched Downtown, leaving wide puddles in the rutted, gutterless streets. Came complete with thunder.

The rain came to the AUC campus today. My typing was just interrupted by a thundercrack directly overhead. A student just came into my office sopping. I can hear excited whoops from the quad.

When you live in a narrow valley alongside the nation’s only river, when you can walk to the desert, it’s possible to see something as simple as the rain as a source of wonder. The rumbling overhead reminds me of Melville’s account of the Nantucketer in Moby Dick, who, “at nightfall…out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.” Even in the desert, the sea is here. In Fayyoum Oasis, southwest of Cairo, the fossilized bones of prehistoric whales bleach in the sun, memorials of the sea that was, and will, in the long arc of geologic time, be again.

whale fossils

The ocean overhead, the ocean underneath, ready to flow over us as it likes.


Sovereign Creature



Poster of Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his King-Tut-headed bride, “Egypt.” The faces of previous presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser smile down from the pyramids.


CLEOPATRA:  His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck

A sun and a moon which kept their course and lighted

The little O, th’ earth.

DOLABELLA:                Most sovereign creature–

CLEOPATRA:  His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm

Crested the world; his voice was propertied

As all the tuned sphered, and that to friends;

But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,

He was rattling thunder. For his bounty,

There was no winter in’t: an Antony it was

That grew the more by reaping. His delights

Were dolphinlike, they showed his back above

The element they lived in. In his livery

Walked crowns and crowners; realms and islands were

As plates dropped from his pocket.

Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.80-93

Egypt has a long tradition of deifying its rulers, and the last few months have seen the preparation of a new space in the pantheon. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Minster of Defense, leader of the popular coup that toppled President Morsi in July, and de facto ruler of Egypt, has been lifted aloft by a great wave of popular admiration. Sisi-mania is abroad in the land, and in case you think the crudely photoshopped poster above is an outlier, check out what was published in September in the English edition of Al-Ahram, the state-owned daily newspaper:

Catch the Al-Sisi mania

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendez-vous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant…

His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless…His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

There’s even a lovely mangling of Shakespeare:

William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

Author Lubna Absel Aziz’s prose is nausea-inducing, but Sisi-mania is real, and it’s often not much subtler than the hagiography above. There’s a whole Tumblr devoted to charting the appearance of the great man’s likeness on political cartoons, refrigerator magnets, and a surprising variety of baked goods.


On Friday, October 25, Bassem Youssef, the host of El Bernameg (The Program), Egypt’s version of The Daily Show, returned from a long hiatus. It was the first episode since the June 30 uprising and the July 3 coup, and the lobby TV in our building was surrounded by viewers. The doormen had strategically angled the chairs so they could watch the TV and the entrance at once. Sadly, my Arabic is still too limited to follow the jokes, but I could hear the laughter echoing off the walls as I headed out.

Youssef, who mercilessly mocked Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power, recently used his newspaper column to criticize Egyptian liberals for their slide into authoritarianism. But on El Bernameg he tread lightly around the new regime, laughing at Sisi-mania rather than the man himself. In one sketch, a baker came out with a box of El-Sisi cupcakes.

“Very nice. I’ll take half a kilo.”

“Just half? Don’t you like El-Sisi?”

“OK, fine, the whole kilo.”

It wasn’t subtle enough. Criminal complaints were filed by military supporters and CBC, Youssef’s network, suspended the show. Youssef, who had thrived during a year of antagonizing Morsi, was done in one under El-Sisi.

“Thou, an Egyptian puppet”

Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown

In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves

With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall

Uplift us to the view…


Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness 

I’th posture of a whore.  (5.2.209-222)

So what does this have to do with Antony and CleopatraI think the key is a binary that I used to teach the play to my students over the last few weeks. Cleopatra is at once a goddess and a puppet, an immortal towering above ordinary people, and also their plaything. She never gets to be simply woman. Indeed, her indeterminacy is expressed in her play with Antony, during which gender roles become pleasurably fluid:

Ere the ninth hour I drunk him to his bed;

Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst

I wore his sword Philippan.  (2.5.21-23)

This passage does come to mind when looking at El-Sisi’s hermaphrodite bride in the poster above.

Antony, wrapped up in Cleopatra’s cult, goes through a similar apotheosis. He is either a godlike hero or a trophy to be brought back to Rome in disgrace.

Antony and Cleopatra thus shows the result of “immortal longings” (5.2.281). To live forever is to become a “sovereign creature” (5.2.82) at the mercy of the adulation and the mockery of the people. In transforming herself into a monument by dying on her throne in her tomb, Cleopatra seeks to become a goddess, and succeeds in escaping Caesar’s grasp, but she fails to avoid becoming a puppet. Her immortality takes the form of being “boyed,” with all of that word’s connotations of juvenile irreverance and protean play, forever.


It’s fitting that it is “a poor Egyptian” (5.2.52), the only one seen in the play, who names Cleopatra’s endgame to Caesar:

                        The queen my mistress,

Confined in all that she has, her monument,

Of thy intents desires instruction,

That she preparedly may frame herself

To th’ way she’s forced to.  (5.2.53-56)

The ordinary man know exactly what the queen is doing, and shows her no special loyalty.

While some Egyptians are content to make El-Sisi a god, many are willing to turn him into a plaything, especially the rude mechanicals of the internet: