This is a fragment from a longer photo essay about wall-writings in Alexandria. As part of my ongoing fieldwork on literary writing, I occasionally photograph graffiti in Alexandria, Egypt. They are usually what Thomas Northoff calls "word graffiti", writings in public space that have something to say. (So I'm not after "street art", and luckily there are enough others busy doing that.) Special thanks are due to Youssef El Chazli in whose forthcoming publication Everyday Alexandria the complete long photo essay will be published.
Are these writings literature? Some of them have undeniable literary or poetic quality. And even when they don't, they do contribute to something like a poetry of open spaces – poetry in the wider sense that they suggest imaginative and associative ways to restructure open spaces, give them symbolic depth and complexity. But literature is both more and less than the aesthetic, imaginative work of words: it is an institutional field (in the sense described by Pierre Bourdieu) in which some forms of writing, speech and reading are included, and others excluded (Michael Allan has made a good point about this in his recent book).
The question is thus not whether wall-writing is literature or not, but how some wall-writing may become literature. Social media is instrumental for such becoming.
The writings on the city's three-dimensional walls often mingle with the metaphorical walls of social media feeds as inhabitants of the city are engaged in poetic, transient conversations and commentary on their phones while they move through their city. Sometimes the different poetics and materialities of wall-writing also converge when social media memes reproduce photos of wall-writing. During the intense days of revolutionary political contestation, photos of expressive messages on walls were often shared and distributed to underline one's stances. I first encountered them as images of wall-writings in Alexandria or Cairo that were photographed and circulated on Facebook by people who lived in those cities. Increasingly, messages on walls have become distributed online as aphoristic texts out of context. This growing online circulation of wall-writings has in turn inspired new ways of writing on open-air walls. As the mood has become more subdued and fearful in the recent years, and political wall-writing rarer, a different genre has become more visible: poetic messages – often songlines by popular bands:
This is a decidedly hybrid genre that thrives on the interface between the virtual and open-air walls.
Two young women I know (they both come from a family I know in a village and have moved to Alexandria to study) often post photos of wall-writing on their social media feeds, either as background images of their Facebook walls, or as individual posts. They collect and save images on the Internet, where one of their main sources is the Facebook site Gudran/Walls. The site had over 100,000 followers by summer 2017. It is administered by an Egyptian but some of the wall-writings posted recently on the site appear to come from the Levant. The writings are sometimes religious, philosophical or political, but most importantly romantic. They often have clear literary ambitions, tending towards an aphoristic or poetic form. Many are also signed, thus laying a claim to individual authorship.
S., a university student in Alexandria in her early twenties, told me why she often posted images of this genre of graffiti on her Facebook account:
"In my view, the images of graffiti are better because everybody sees them and they communicate what people want to say, while posts are not seen by all, because images draw the attention of the eyes. […] And besides, people interact more with the image than when you write text."
A., a university students in her late teens who lives between the village and Alexandria, saw the online images of graffiti as part of an emerging generational youth culture:
"I in my opinion find them very useful, especially after the revolution and the spread of underground artists, and they also have a better future because most people in my generation are interested in this kind of writings."
The two women's appreciation of such hybrid messages – analogue turned digital, writing and image at once – and skill in dealing with them is telling of the transformation of both written and visual culture in the digital age. The crossover between walls of brick, mortar and wood and the digital wall is central for the attraction of the genre.
Just like three-dimensional wall-writings, also their digital avatars are mostly anonymous. Additionally, they also become decontextualised and delocalised. Images posted on Gudran/Walls always contain a transcription of the message because the handwriting may be difficult to read. Some of the writings are signed, but their circulated images are never dated and never localised – except incidentally through dialect and references to events like the Syrian civil war. Their indexical and referential relation with specific persons, conflicts or issues is entirely or largely severed. They transform into travelling aphoristic literary texts that are appreciated as such by those who circulate them. According to A:
"The images I post are by unknown people, and I don't know what the motivation is behind the pages that upload them. … I select them on the basis of the similarity between what is inside me and what is written. … That is, I use these images to express what I don't know to write in a direct manner in a Facebook post."
For A., images of wall-writing work in a way that is analogous to the memorised verses of poetry, songs, and proverbs that have been part of the culture of expression in different languages since age immemorial. The digital walls of S. and A. respectively generate something like a poetic map of some of their stances, moods, and public emotions. In their wall-writing posts, they both appear often as romantic, sentimental, religious, and committed to their parents and families - and sometimes as ironical or sarcastic:
A. also often posts and circulates images that are explicitly political or socially critical, reflecting her more outwardly rebellious attitude, like this one which she forwarded to me sometime after I interviewed her. It, too, is a song line:
|“They sedated you in the artery and said: your apathy is good for the motherland”. Song line from Al-Watan (Motherland) by the Lebanese band Mashrou Leyla. Photography and original post by Fares Abdallah, 23 February 2017. Location unknown.|
While the images of such texts are delocalised, for A. and others who circulate them, they resonate with a knowledge of the entire song as well as the class habitus and worldviews associated with the artists and style of music. The music of Mashrou Leyla in particular resonates with a liberal, even rebellious attitude but importantly also with (the aspiration for) a bourgeois, cosmopolitan habitus. But this is of course not the only story A. and her virtual wall have to tell. A different selection of her online posts would show her as somebody very committed to her mother. Like the poetry one cites, the images they post move in that productively ambiguous space where they are common popular culture and intimate expression at once, and may stand in contrast to other roles and expressions they cultivate, without necessarily entering a conflict with them (this something which was pointed by Lila Abu-Lughod already in the 1980's in her work on Bedouin women's poetry).
Speaking out loud and remaining invisible
Writings on all kinds of walls – those made of mortar, brick and concrete as well as virtual ones – combine disclosure, anonymity and intimacy, and cross over conventional limits of ordinary and literary language. This makes them interesting as historical witnesses of various kinds of conversations that go on among the inhabitants of a city, both straightforward as well as poetic.
Whenever I arrive in Alexandria (I live in Berlin but come often for shorter or longer visits), I take the minibus from al-Mandara to al-Manshiya and read the graffitis on the Corniche. Having read them often and knowing where to expect them, I also read their absences. For me, this has proven a good way to get a sense of the current mood and situation, because wall-writings tell me about issues that might not make it into the news (such as love affairs and job ads), and because they contain voices that I may not otherwise hear by people whom I may never meet.
The grand old man of Egyptian sociology Sayed Oweis (1903-1988) paid remarkable attention in his work to such writings in public space, which by the way have a long tradition in Egypt. In his book "The Chanting of the Silent" (هتاف الصامتين) he studied messages written on vehicles (something that is very common in Egypt today as well) that he documented in the 1960's. For Oweis, the people who wrote their messages on vehicles were “silent” in the sense of being sub-altern, not heard among the hegemonic voices of late Nasserist Egypt. And yet in Oweis' work, the sub-altern certainly do speak, and eloquently so. But they do so on the condition of their invisibility. I doubt whether the 21st century wall-writers generally speak from the sub-altern position in which Oweis located drivers and vendors of the late 1960's. The music of Jadal and Mahsrou Leyla cited in two of the above images speaks mainly to young people who either command or aspire to a cosmopolitan sense of global connectedness. Rather than a means of expression for people who are otherwise silenced, walls are better understood as a space that is accessible to subaltern and nonhegemonic voices, but not to them alone.
In that sense, wall-writings can be literature because they participate in a poetic making of moods and space that relies on words and imagination, and - most importantly - they are read and circulated in that capacity. But in another sense, they differ from the institutional meaning of literature, because "literature" in the institutional sense has aesthetic, formal, linguistic and other mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, which wall-writing does not have.
Wall-writing relies on the productive tension between speaking out loud and remaining invisible. This tension makes wall-writing a very effective means to communicate and to contest public moods and values, and also to express impolite and aggressive claims, as well as stances that may otherwise be censored. Wall-writing and street art therefore thrive in times of protest and conflict. Their ability to mark and occupy physical space makes them even more potent as means of conflict and contestation. The rise and decline of revolutionary graffiti in Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt since 2011 is a case in point. But wall-writing can be and is used also to legitimate those in power, as well as for altogether different aims. This open-endedness towards different uses – both contrary as well as unrelated ones – makes wall-writings a helpful entry point among others to understanding life in a plural but not pluralistic city like Alexandria that is connected by roads, railway lines, streets, circulations of people, goods, money, ideas, messages and images, while at the same time divided by lines of class, demography, religious and political faiths. They express and make visible a plurality of stances and views, but also point at the precarious, at times explosive nature of their coexistence.