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Dying For The Revolution: Special Journal Issue

August 19, 2015

DEATH“Death lies at the beginning of the Arab uprisings and continues to haunt them.”

So writes Amira Mittermeier in the introduction to a special collection of articles in the anthropology journal Ethnos. Drawing on ethnography in Cairo, she explores many different aspects of how deaths are made meaningful by being woven into a narrative of political transformation. She is particularly good at captivating the affective aspects of death as sacrifice. And yet, one of the most profound points comes at the end, when she speaks to a Abdullah, a Muslim Brotherhood organizer who says:

remember it’s easier to die for the revolution than to live for it’. Abdullah’s frustration stemmed from his struggle in trying to find a group of volunteers to continue the revolutionary work of political organizing and attending to the immediate needs of the disempowered and the poor. If everybody could just give two hours every day – live the revolution for two hours every day – things would be drastically different, he said.

Farha Ghannam compares and contrasts the aftermath of two deaths of young men, one of whom went on to become a martyr to the revolution, and the other did not. Ghannam explores the nature of the Egyptian notion of “the good death” (ḥusn il-khatma), how narratives of good death are created as accounts of the deceased person’s relationship to God and community, and how these narratives cn be inflected with the discourse of martyrdom.

When Coptic Christians turned out to protest the demolition of a Church, and the death of Coptic activists at the hands of police, wearing signs that declared their availability for martyrdom, “whether they were willing to die for their faith, their nation, or both was often ambiguous,” writes Caroline Ramzy. But it is precisely through these “tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities in their eschatologies, sung martyr hagiographies, and devotional songs, increasingly in public terms, that Coptic protesters seek to “subvert death’s final silencing act and to demand the Egyptian state to recognize, see, and hear them as Christians and Egyptians.”

I have already written about Dan Gilman’s paper “The Martyr Pop Movement: Depoliticizing Martyrdom.” Dan suggests that the production of the martyrs as empty signifiers begins early, with the emergence of the “martyr pop” music videos.He argues that the mass media early on created an atmosphere of ambiguity in which deaths by violence in the revolution were treated as deaths for the nation–but in a sentimental, depoliticized way. Just how martyrs died for the nation was left ambiguous…

In addition to the articles on Egypt, there is a paper by Joel Rozen on revolution-era deaths as they live on in Tunisia’s current state history curricula, and a paper by Andreas Bandak on on Syrian Christians and their ways of perceiving the materiality of death.

Here are the abstracts:

“Death and Martyrdom in the Arab Uprisings: An Introduction” by Amira Mittermeier:

Death lies at the beginning of the Arab uprisings and continues to haunt them. Most narratives about the ‘Arab Spring’ begin with Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire. Egyptian protesters in turn referred to Khaled Said, a young man from Alexandria whom the police had beaten to death. This special issue places death at the centre of its engagement with the Arab uprisings, counterrevolutions, and their aftermaths. It examines martyrdom and commemoration as performative acts through which death and life are infused with meaning. Conversely, it shows how, in the making, remembering, and erasing of martyrs, hierarchies are (re)produced and possible futures are foreclosed. We argue that critical anthropological engagement with death, martyrdom, and afterlife is indispensable if we want to understand the making of pasts and futures in a revolutionary present.

“Technologies of Immortality, ‘Good Endings’, and Martyrdom in Urban Egypt” by Farha Ghannam:

Taking the deaths of two young Egyptian men as its starting point, this paper traces ‘technologies of immortality’ and the possibilities they promise to the deceased and their status in the grave and afterlife. Extending Foucault’s notion of ‘technologies of the self’ beyond its this-worldly focus, technologies of immortality aim to account for the rituals, practices, discourses, and images generated by community members to positively impact the fate of the deceased. Looking closely at ‘death narratives’, their repetition, circulation, and anticipated effects, I explore how the living collectively and performatively produce martyrs and their good endings in Cairo, Egypt.

“To Die is Gain: Singing a Heavenly Citizenship among Egypt’s Coptic Christians” by Caroline Ramzy

In January 2011, Egyptian protestors arrived to Tahrir Square wearing stickers reading ‘a martyr is available here’ to highlight their willingness to die for the revolution. Many Coptic Christians also arrived to their own demonstrations wearing the same sticker. Drawing on a biblical verse ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’, they claimed they came ready to die, not only for their nation, but also for their faith. In this article, I examine martyr themes in a popular and Coptic religious song genre known as tarātīl. Specifically, I explore the ambiguity between dying for one’s nation and dying for one’s faith as reflected in these religious nationalist anthems. How do song motifs negotiate ambivalences and seemingly contradicting desires to belong to an Egyptian nation and a heavenly afterlife as pious Christians? This article analyses songs of death as modes of political belonging and civic (dis)engagement.

“The Martyr Pop Movement: Depoliticizing Martyrdom” by Dan Gilman

The military regime that seized power in Egypt in July 2013 has suggested that the security personnel, rather than the unarmed protestors who died in the 25 January 2011 uprising, were the martyrs that the nation should celebrate. This rhetorical claim in support of authoritarian suppression of dissent must be understood in the context of the popular culture of the immediate post-Mubarak period, particularly the ‘martyr pop’ music video clips. This mass-media form disseminated a strategically ambiguous rhetoric that celebrated the martyrs but largely ignored the political cause for which they died. Such depoliticization of martyrdom suited the sensibilities of the intellectual class, whose economic and political investments in the hegemony of the neoliberal state outweighed their stated commitments to political change.


Ghannam, Farha.2015. Technologies of Immortality, ‘Good Endings’, and Martyrdom in Urban Egypt. Ethnos 80(5): 630-648.

Gilman, Dan. 2015. The Martyr Pop Movement: Depoliticizing Martyrdom. Ethnos 80(5): 692-709.

Mittermeier, Amira. 2015. Death and Martyrdom in the Arab Uprisings: An Introduction. Ethnos 80(5): 583-604.

Ramzy, Caroline. 2015. To Die is Gain: Singing a Heavenly Citizenship among Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Ethnos 80(5): 649-670.

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