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New Texts Out Now: Marwan M. Kraidy, The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World

Marwan M. Kraidy, The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Marwan Kraidy (MK): I was inspired by a desire to grapple with enduring and fundamental issues of power and resistance, as well as an intense curiosity to come to terms with the Arab uprisings. I came of age in Lebanon during the so-called Arab satellite revolution and since then I have dedicated my professional life to understanding the overlap of media, politics, and culture in the Arab world, in comparative perspective. As the Arab uprisings began and touched the global imagination, my challenge was not to be seduced by the immediate explanations that came from whom Pierre Bourdieu called, uncharitably, “quick thinkers.” So I resolved to do some agonizingly slow thinking fed by a lot of reading about revolutions and social movements past (I had previous training in this kind of patience: when everyone was writing about al-Jazeera in the 2000s, I passed, and wrote a book on Arab reality television instead). I eventually narrowed down on the French Revolution and on the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, which I used as comparative touchstones. In the meantime, I was gathering a massive trove of primary data. For five years, I hunted down sources, snapped photos, collected speeches and manifestos, saved and watched digital videos, analyzed songs, stencils, and slogans, scoured newspaper columns and television shows. My curiosity and excitement grew fast and big. As data were still coming in, I slowed down my thinking further—which is against character for me— and had conversations with colleagues whose judgment I trust. This helped me ferret out what all my materials had in common. What were the underlying patterns? It turned out there was one: the human body was ubiquitous, as textual metaphor, as visual symbol, as revolutionary icon. Then, suddenly, your thinking, your reading, and your materials mesh. You realize that historically the human body has been central to the way revolutionaries defined themselves and their opponents, and that bodily metaphor has been pivotal to political power throughout the ages. Your mission becomes to identify historical patterns while discovering what is new this time around.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MK: The Naked Blogger of Cairo tells the stories of the engrossing characters that moved the Arab uprisings along. Some are superheroes with one toe in reality and the other in fantasy, like Syria’s Sprayman and Tunisia’s Captain Khobza. Others are revolutionary embodiments: Burning Man (Mohammed Bouazizi); Samira Ibrahim, who took the Egyptian army to court over that state sanctioned rape that goes by the euphemism of “virginity test”; and of course, the eponymous Naked Blogger (Aliaa al-Mahdy). Others are the grotesque corporealities of tyranny: Laughing Cow (Mubarak); Beeshu (Assad); and Zaba (Ben Ali). The book explores the extent to which women were revolutionary icons in their own rights or merely rhetorical catalysts for the revolutions of men. It fleshes out connections between art history and revolutionary graffiti. It describes how puppetry is retooling itself in the digital age. It asks why certain expressive forms go viral, why some slogans stick, and why some monikers become alter egos to powerful men. Through these vivid stories of sacrifice and heroism, of venality and depredation, of creativity and audacity, the book grapples with questions about what “media” means, why the body is fundamental to power and resistance, how we can exit the sterile body-mind dichotomy and associated dualities. In the book I also develop the concept of “creative insurgency.”

What was the role of “communication” in the Arab uprisings? Initially, journalists and scholars gave social media an exaggerated role. As I have written elsewhere, there are many reasons behind this excessive focus on digital media, having to do with access, with a desire for an easily digestible narrative, and with a historical narrative in North American social science that sees communication technology to be central to social and political processes, particularly in the Middle East, ever since the early 1950s and Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society. Having said this, media and communication did play an important role, as they do in any social or political struggle. But the book’s definition of “media” and “communication” is broader than most.

Revolutionaries and their enemies communicate through every medium available to them; these are radically diverse, from the human voice to satellite telephones. The issue, therefore, is to identify the proper and proportional role of different media in the uprisings, and by extension, other struggles. Dismissing the role of media is as faulty as glorifying it. I see the book as an effort at a balancing act that some colleagues have already striven for. The trick is to figure out what role different modes of expression played at specific junctures, and how different media and social processes interacted.

To figure this out, I began with the very most basic medium: the body. Technology publicizes dissent, but the human body is the indispensable medium. From the Roman slave revolt to the French Revolution, from the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 to the US Civil Rights movement, insurgents have struggled for freedom and dignity first and foremost through their bodies, and then through the new media of the day. So another important issue the book put on the table is that of comparative work: between historical periods, between national experiences, between media modalities, and even between personalities. To do so we need to expand our definition of “media” to include the body, and stretch our understanding of “communication” to include different kinds of corporeality and embodiment.

Why is the body fundamental to the Arab uprisings? History tells us that corporeal metaphor is central to political power: from before Louis XIV to after Bashar al-Assad, the sovereign’s figure is the body of the realm. Writing during the Islamic Golden Age, al-Farabi cast the ideal polity as a healthy body. In The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Kantorowicz traced a concept that developed in medieval Europe of “body politic” that envisions a kingdom as a human body and the king as its head. During the French Revolution, as Antoine de Baecque and Dorinda Outram among others have chronicled, corporeal symbolism focused on separating the king’s biological body natural from his symbolic body politic. Lisa Wedeen demonstrated the importance of body symbolism to Hafiz al-Assad’s reign, and Ziad Fahmy showed us that corporeal imagery animated some expressions of rebellion in Egypt’s 1919 Revolution. All this to say that writing a book like this brings about felicitous moments of synthesis and discovery. Reading Kantorowicz on the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies was edifying, but rediscovering al-Farabi, who I had studied in high school, was exhilarating (by the way, Kantorowicz mentions al-Farabi once, in a footnote, and only to acknowledge he has heard of him). Women’s bodies are always polemical corporealities in revolutions, and the book engages with the work of historians of gender like Joan Scott and Beth Baron, and of several Jadaliyya contributions from scholars like Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi, when it wades into tensions between white Eurocentric feminism and its Others as manifest in “sextremist” organizations like Femen. Phenomenology and biopolitics, chiefly Merleau-Ponty, Lefort and Foucault, are of course chockfull with insights about connections between the body and power and rebellion, perception and movement, vision and touching: the book explores how hands, eyes, fists, breasts, fingers and faces took on revolutionary energy in the uprisings, trying to eject the dictator’s body from public space and replace it with the bodies of ordinary people.  The body, I conclude, is fundamental to the rise and fall of strongmen.

How do the Arab uprisings help us understand the limitations of the body-mind, physical violence-symbolic violence, matter-idea dualities? We have the opportunities to abandon binaries that shape research on politics, culture and communication. With the rise of digital culture, considering the human body as a vital nexus of physical struggle and virtual communication helps us realize that distinctions between expression and action, mind and matter, the Internet and the “real world” are actually flimsy. Consider how that foundational act of the uprisings, Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation—painful, spectacular, embodied—reverberated in gritty graffiti, protest slogans, and digital memes. In fact, new-media scholars working in the humanities have argued that corporeality plays an ever more vital role in the digital age because the human body filters a plethora of images spawned by media convergence. This works in two directions. Digital culture “disperses” bodily experience across cyberspace. But as I show in The Naked Blogger of Cairo, the body anchors ideas and binds styles in mesmerizing, hybrid forms: operated by human hands and featuring handmade miniature bodies, the Syrian insurgent web-series Top Goon is at once revolutionary theater, finger puppetry, political satire, and digital video.

For the pairing of creativity and rebellion to convey anything beyond a vague notion of hip, non-violent struggle, it requires a definition that reaches beyond aesthetic concerns to incorporate action that is physical and symbolic, violent and peaceful. The notion of creative insurgency accomplishes just that.

What is creative insurgency? It is the sum total of rebellious expressions and actions that seeks to separate the dictator’s biological body from the body politic of the nation. Creative insurgency captures two tempos of action—radical and gradual—of revolutionary action. It undermines claims that the Arab uprisings were “non-violent”—rebels have torched buildings, hurtled stones, clashed with police—and recognizes that violence can be symbolic, verbal, physical and structural. It encompasses the kind of violence inflicted with words, songs, and images, and the one wreaked with fire, stones and rifles, acting in tandem to dislodge dictators, knowing fully well that the two types of violence overlap and sustain each other. Doing so summons a broader sense of creativity, germane to art and aesthetic concerns, but also to other kinds of revolutionary action: chanting slogans and burning your body, spraying graffiti and tending to the wounded, circulating jokes and building barricades. People use their bodies for aesthetic expression, but also in actions creative in physical or political ways.

What are some attributes of creative insurgency? I demonstrate that it is willful, planned and deliberate. Rarely is it spontaneous. It is also not an external expression of internally and previously formed emotions, ideas or beliefs. It expresses rebellion as much as it foments it. Creative insurgency is a social process. It is not the work of an individual artistic genius toiling alone in obscurity. Witness the many graffiti, satire, or puppetry collectives to emerge from the uprisings. Like other kinds of human artfulness, creative insurgency arises out of social interaction. Creative insurgents fuse familiar and foreign, old and new. It is in the volatile fusion of past and present that creative insurgency flourishes. Hell bent on projecting local struggles globally, creative insurgents use resonant symbolism. They draw on a historically deep repertoire in order to achieve a geographically wide resonance. Finally, creative insurgency plays a documentary role that expands the reach of revolutionary action. Creative insurgency, then, consists of imaginatively crafted, self-consciously pleading, messages intended to circulate broadly and attract attention: forms in search of visibility.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MK: Over the course of a decade, I have moved from the traditional, theory-laden academic monograph (which Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization, 2005 was) to an academic monograph that labored hard to keep theory from weighing down the narrative arc (Reality Television and Arab Politics, 2010), to a completely different format and mode of address in The Naked Blogger of Cairo. I wrote the book as a residential fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, where over daily common lunch, I had to explain my project to a motley crew of historians, anthropologists, economists, and molecular biologists. As you reach for clarity between bites of stampot and sips of espresso, you begin to really understand what your book is about. I relished conversations with novelists and journalists about the craft of writing and the art of telling stories.

So I worked really hard to write a book that specialists will appreciate but that non-academics can read. I crafted the narrative in thirty-eight short chapters that function as stand-alone essays telling the stories of key revolutionary characters. The first three chapters are conceptual, but in the next thirty-five chapters, I wove elements of theory with snapshots of human experience into a narrative of life and struggle in times of revolution. Can I compel the mythical “general educated reader” to give this book a chance? I hope so, and at least one reviewer thinks so . Regardless, I savored every minute of writing, re-rewriting, and writing once more.

I also had pedagogical considerations in mind. Over the years I have come to find textbooks too didactic and that story telling makes for a more conducive teaching and learning environment. I crafted The Naked Blogger of Cairo in a way that it would both instruct and entertain undergraduate and graduate students in a variety of fields—Burning Man and Laughing Cow really resonate! And of course, I hope the book will be considered a distinctive contribution to the literature on the Arab uprisings, and on revolutionary activism more generally, by scholars and general readers alike.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MK: Most of my time these days is devoted to establishing the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) at the Annenberg School at Penn, as an institute for advanced study focused on the stunning diversity of global media and cultures, within a framework of equitable globalization. A cornerstone of CARGC’s mission is to bring together languages, histories, cultures and politics of specific world regions, with emerging theoretical and methodological approaches.

I am also working on a project, funded by a 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, to reconsider the trope of the war machine in the age of global networked communication. Among other things, I am rereading Ibn Khaldûn and Deleuze and Guattari, and have been discovering Virilio with a mix of delight and trepidation. The project as whole seeks to understand the conjunction of globalization, image-making, political violence, and cultural identity through the prism of temporality. This project begins where The Naked Blogger ended: how can bodies survive the onslaught of a war machine like Daesh, as many Arabs call Islamic State, with a death cult as worldview? To grapple with this issue, I am watching a lot of gory videos I desperately wish I did not have to watch, and scrutinizing counterfactual maps and salvoes of mythmaking. I am also reading primary texts that Da‘esh has published, and exploring how their theory of terror is in fact a theory of mediation and spectacle that resonates uncannily with continental theory of the last twenty years. In this project, I am looking at the body through the prism of the war machine and necropolitics.

I am also collaborating with Omar Al-Ghazzi and Yesim Kaptan on another book that explores the rise and fall of Turkey in Arab public culture, from the advent of the AKP and the rise of Erdogan in the early 2000s, to the Gezi protests and Turkey’s downhill fall from grace since then. Titled “Neo-Ottoman Cool”—we have published several articles from this already—this project investigates how television, film, news, popular culture, even coffee, worked to overcome Ottoman imperial history in a Turkish charm offensive towards the Arab world. In doing so we investigate the contingency of history and memory and the geopolitics of popular culture.

Finally, still on the back burner is my long brewing project about Arab music videos, which I started working on about ten years ago, and intended to finish in 2011 but instead turned to what became The Naked Blogger of Cairo. This project investigates the distinctive role of music videos in the Arab culture wars, at the intersection of commerce, sexuality, religion and politics. It seeks to understand music video as a tool of visibility, as a space for struggles over the meanings of the body, as an instrument of boundary-making. It explores music videos as industrial products, vanity projects, and also as art.


Excerpt from The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World. 

Creative insurgency combines two types of violence that overlap and sustain each other: the kind of violence inflicted with words, songs, and images and the one wreaked with fire, stones, and rifles, acting in tandem to dislodge dictators. Doing so summons a broader sense of creativity, germane to art and aesthetic concerns, but also to other kinds of revolutionary action: chanting slogans and burning your body, spraying graffiti and tending to the wounded, circulating jokes and building barricades. If creativity, in the sociologist James Jasper’s definition, is an “extreme form of flexibility,” then few instruments can be as creative as the human body. People use their bodies for aesthetic expression, but also in actions that are creative in physical or political ways.

What are some attributes of creative insurgency?

Creative insurgency is willful, planned, and deliberate. Rarely is it spontaneous. Mural street art is a laborious endeavor. Even stencils, executed in quick squirts of paint through precut templates, take a great deal of honing. Graffitists first cut stencils from cardboard, then practice intently to test different kinds of paints and materials (cardboard? laminated paper?) and try out several colors. When I visited one graffiti artist in a decrepit suburb of Beirut, I noticed on the walls of his home studio half a dozen iterations of a famous stencil that I had tracked around the city. Some were crisp, others murky. In one, spilling paint oozed several inches below the stencil itself; in another, too much paint was spattered, deforming the stencil’s design. The artist used yellow on a dark wooden surface in the entrance, but daubed dark blue right on the off-white wall of the living room. Thorough preparation also applies to sloganeering, an intricate social process with formal and informal elements involving a division of labor between slogan composers who toil away from the limelight and charismatic slogan leaders who perform in public.

Creative insurgency is not an external expression of internally preformed emotions, ideas, or beliefs. It expresses rebellion as much as it shapes it. Spinoza understood human nature as a fluid fusion of body and soul, and Herder believed that what we feel and what we express are intricately connected, that “the human being who expresses himself is often surprised by what he expresses, and gains access to his ‘inner being’ only by reflecting on his own expressive acts.” This is fundamental: Creative insurgency gives voice and shape to revolutionary claims as much as it prods insurgents to always reassess their aspirations and identities. As a theory of power, creative insurgency rejects the distinction between mind and body, persuasion and compulsion, symbolic and physical violence.

Creative insurgency is a social process. It is not the work of an individual artistic genius toiling alone in obscurity. Arab revolutionary figures became iconic precisely because they represent something bigger than themselves. The bodies of Mohamed Bouazizi, Khaled Said, and Aliaa al-Mahdy refract various kinds of repression and resistance. Figures you will encounter as Qahera, Captain Khobza, and Sprayman embody widely shared fears and esires. Revolutionary practice itself is collective: some well-known artifacts are the work of groups of people, dedicated, coordinated, often anonymous.Several activists toiled to create and maintain the “Kullina Khaled Said” Facebook page; a handful devised the Top Goon web series. Kharabeesh (doodles), creator of the Journal du Zaba satirical videos, is actually a Jordanian group. Others include Mona Lisa Brigades in Egypt and Asha‘b Assoury ‘Aref Tareqoh (The Syrian People Know Its Way) in Syria. Like other kinds of human artfulness, creative insurgency arises out of social interaction.

Creative insurgents fuse familiar and foreign, old and new. These ingenious activists graft new meanings onto recognizable symbols. Bouazizi’s self-immolation echoed Kurdish self-immolators and Palestinian suicide bombers. A decades-old poem by Abul Qassem al-Chabbi, a gifted Tunisian poet who died in 1934, inspired revolutionaries in 2010. Revolutionary digital finger puppetry is a heady mix of ancient and avant-garde, wielding familiarity with puppetry, presidential speeches, torture sessions, and reality television. Firestorms of controversy surrounding naked activism are rooted in century-old quarrels over art and nation and contemporary polemics about feminist art and activism. It is in the volatile fusion of past and present that creative insurgency flourishes.

Hell-bent on projecting local struggles globally, creative insurgents use resonant symbolism. They draw on a historically deep repertoire in order to achieve a geographically wide resonance. Egyptian muralist Alaa Awad used neo-pharaonic motifs, and Franco-Tunisian artist eL-Seed found inspi- ration for “calligraffiti” in Islamic calligraphy. To reach a worldwide public without undermining local authenticity, these artists must reconcile local rootedness with global attention. Though swaddled in local politics, revolutionary art seeks to extend its reach, but it cannot allow global political or commercial forces to absorb it completely, for then it ceases to be art. This is a burning issue because the uprisings have spawned a global renewal of Arab art. When activist-artists exchange the grit and peril of the streets of Cairo and Damascus for the comforts and safety of European residential fellowships, American museums, and Gulf galleries, they enter transna- tional circuits of art, money, and politics. Many artist-activists of the Arab uprisings are now refugees in Amsterdam and Paris, Beirut and Berlin, Sharjah and Stockholm. With the rise of the “creative-curatorial-corporate complex,” risks of selling out are as big as the rewards of fame.

Finally, creative insurgency plays a documentary role that broadens the impact of revolutionary action. Consider how digital images expanded the reach of Bouazizi’s self-burning from a desolate town in the Tunisian hinterland to global attention, and how activists used a panoply of media tospread their message to the world. Creative insurgency celebrates heroes, commemorates martyrs, and sustains revolutionaries. It depicts bodies murdered, maimed, or tortured and contributes to an evidentiary chronicle of political abuse. It triggers debate and contributes to a vast, crowd-sourced archive of revolutionary words, images, and sounds. Artistry is important, because the ability to attract a public depends on what the literary critic Michael Warner called the “differential deployment of style.” Creative insurgency, then, consists of imaginatively crafted, self-consciously pleading messages intended to circulate broadly and attract attention: forms in search of visibility.

How does creative insurgency unfold?The Naked Blogger of Cairo identifies two modes of creative insurgency,radical and gradual. The radical mode of Burning Man entails embodied, life-or-death revolutionary action, like self-immolation. This type of insurgency occurs in one-time outbursts. It is violent and spectacular. The survival of the human body itself is at stake. Radical deeds are life-threatening actions spawned by deadly conditions. The radical mode is crucial because it is a direct confrontation with the ruler, an open challenge to his sovereignty. In contrast, the gradual mode of Laughing Cow subverts the norms of sovereign power. It trespasses its boundaries by launching symbolic attacks at the ruler. Body imagery is central to this type of revolutionary action, and a peculiar aesthetic of peril and deprivation underscores corporeal vulnerability. The gradual mode is distinctive in the incremental andcumulative ways it chips away at power. It can be seen in revolutionary humor. Through symbolic inversion, such actions pull the powerful down to the level of the powerless.


The radical and gradual modes entwine. They fuel and shape, prod and pull each other. Gradual rebellion expands prerevolutionary dissent inEgypt, Syria, and Tunisia: double-entendre parodies, ambivalent art, and allegorical theater that autocrats encouraged, tolerated, or manipulated. In contrast, radical creativity is a no-holds-barred, high-risk, high-reward gambit. Sporadic radical actions fuel waves of gradual infractions that reverberate widely, setting grounds for the next radical gauntlet. The violent outburst of Bouazizi’s self-immolation inspired graffiti, memorials, videos,and slogans that in turn galvanized other radical actions. Unfurling with different speeds, cadences, and visibilities, radical and gradual activisms mesh in time and space. Naked Blogger mixes Burning Man and Laughing Cow and muddies distinctions between them. By inviting both moral opprobrium and threats of physical oblivion, al-Mahdy’s digital nude selfie had immediate rhetorical and physical consequences. Many acts of creative insurgency are hybrids of radical and gradual.

Together, radical militancy and gradual activism set in motion a contest between three kinds of body—classical, heroic, and grotesque—that induces status reversals. Classical bodies, like the statues of antiquity, are bounded, hard, erect, and dominant. They are high-perched bodies that dictators give to themselves via ceremony, pomp, and ubiquitous statues in heroic poses—arms raised basking in the adulation of their subjects, hands clasped and a bold forward gaze contemplating a bright future, captions extolling contrived heroic deeds. But classical bodies are also immobile, cold, and distant, disconnected from the people and impervious to their struggles. Had you visited Egypt, Syria, or Tunisia before the uprisings, you would have been unable to avoid the gaze of one or another statue, portrait, or monument glorifying the heroic body of the leader. Classical bodies pretend tobe heroic bodies, but that cloak is flimsy.

[From The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World by Marwan M. Kraidy. Copyright (c) 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

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