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Anthropologists Thinking About Life and Death in Egypt

November 18, 2012

A poster of some of the martyrs of the Egyptian revolution.

What makes death meaningful? What kind of social action is martyrdom? How are religious and revolutionary forms of martyrdom similar and different? Are martyrs made or do they choose their death? And dos it matter? These are some of the questions considered by anthropologists at their meeting in San francisco.

On Saturday I attended a panel of papers on “Life, Death and the Afterlife in the Egyptian Revolution” which focused on martyrdom and the meanings of dying in–and for–the revolution. It was part of my three day excursion to San Francisco for the American Anthropological Association annual meetings.

Farha Ghannam of Swarthmore College gave a paper entitled “Dying Like a Man: On the Meaning of ‘Good Endings’ in Urban Egypt.” Her paper focused on the death of a 15-year old boy named Anas Mohyeddin in the Feb. 1, 2012 Port Said football massacre. More than 70 people died in less than an hour when Masry fans are said to have stormed the pitch following a victory against Ahly. But most Egyptians believe Egyptian security forces were actually responsible for the massacre, and within a day, the dead were being called martyrs, their photos were posted and their stories were being told on Facebook.

Some, like young Anas, became more famous than others.

Farha began by noting class positionality–that people of the Middle and Upper classes can enlist relatives, friends, teachers and others to record stories and testimonials about fallen victims in ways the poor can’t. These testimonials are performative: they create what they represent. They transform the pointlessness of Anas’s violent death into something meaningful.

Anthony Shenoda of Scripps College presented a paper on “Afterlife Anxieties Performing Martyrdom in the the Coptic Church.” This paper focused on the double claims made for those who died in the Maspero massacre as both martys of the Church, who died for their Christian faith, and martyrs of the revolution, who died in an effort to make Egypt a better place.

Shenoda sees martyrdom as a communicative act through which the meaninglessness of violent death is infused with meaning, but also through which the world is constituted in particular ways.

Shenoda focuses particularly on the struggles of one martyr’s sister to accept him as a Christian martyr. While it is a longstanding Christian tradition that those who die for their faith will wear a crown in heaven, is someone who dies as a Christian fighting in a secular revolution for a country in which Christians can live as more than second-class citizens really the same as someone dying for Christ?

Shenoda focuses on the conflicting feeling about the tensions in the family of a not-very-pious young man who is suddenly claimed to be a Christian, as well as a revolutionary, martyr.

Certainly the most moving and powerful piece was by Sherine Hamdy of Brown University (my doctoral alma mater!) entitled “Heartbreak and Revolution in Egypt.”

Hamdy’s question was how doctors–citizens of high status and comfortable incomes–became radicalized. The larger answer she proffered was that many who initially saw the protests as irritating disruptions changed their views as they confronted state violence in the form of the bodies of peaceful protesters. More were radicalized later when the bodies of doctors themselves became victims of state violence because the SCAF-run state targeted the doctor’s syndicate.

But Hamdy then shifts to a beautifully evocative narrative account of Dr. Alaa, a sensitive young heart surgeon from an affluent family who nonetheless saw the poor as people like himself who wished better things for themselves and their country (as opposed to many doctors, who see great gulfs between themselves and the poor).

Dr. Alaa’s wife gives birth to an infant son, who he quickly realizes suffers from a terminal heart condition. As he seeks to have his son’s heart repaired, he is confronted by the failures of Mubarak’s Egypt to keep up with contemporary medicine, with bureaucracy, rivalry and corruption. As his baby son breathes his last, the revolution has erupted, and Dr. Alaa goes to the Square to tend to wounded revolutionaries.

Hamdy’s narrative has the detail and attention to context of ethnography and the pathos of melodrama. It was poignant and revelatory at the same time, and the room was deadly silent by the time she finished.

In “Dying for the Revolution, Living for the Afterlife” Amira Mittermaier of the University of Toronto began with signs that revolutionaries wore in Tahrir Square and during other protests: Shahid taht at-talib (“Martyr in Waiting”) as a way to emphasize, to themselves and others, that they are prepared to die for the revolution.

She refers to the web site “We Are All Khaled Said” and suggests that part of the power of the phrase is that is summarizes a palimpsest of potential messages. Among these are:

  • We are all ordinary Egyptians who could be beaten to death with impunity by the forces of the state.
  • We are all dead already. Our dignity and spirit has been killed over and over again by the state.
  • We are all available to die

Mittermaier juxtaposes the voices of two individuals, Kerim and Ahmed, and examines how they talk about life and death:

Kerim speaks in a revolutionary register. He talks about his readiness to be a martyr for the revolution. He is willing to die to give a better future to others.

Ahmed speaks in a religious register, calling on us all to recognize that we might die at any moment of any day, and so should lead exemplary lives in anticipation of that possible death.

Both men, she argues, seek to reclaim life and death from the state, to make living or dying their choice not the states. And at the same time, both deny humanitarian notions of life as valuable for its own sake. Life, they suggest, is only made valuable by what you do with it, and to do the things that would make life valuable, you have to be willing to die.

But there are profound differences between the two men as well. For Kerim, people choose the possibility of death with dignity over life without dignity. For Ahmed, the term of our lives are written from the day we are born.

Finally, Mittermaier contrast the attitudes of both men with a third, whom she names Abdullah.

“Ultimately, it is easier to die for the revolution than it is to live for it,” he says. Abdullah is an organizer who wants everyone to give two hours of their time each day to make Egypt a better place.

Alas I missed the last two papers by Stefania Pandolfo and Shahla Talebi in order to slip out and meet with a couple of old friends. But this was an extraordinarily rich and thought-provoking panel. I look forward to seeing published versions of these stories.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. jessica w permalink
    November 20, 2012 6:21 pm

    Lovely synopsis of the panel. There are some cut-off sentences in the post. Can you fix them?

  2. MPeterson permalink*
    November 24, 2012 2:37 pm

    Done (I hope)

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