Glitter and Smoke: Protest in New Orleans and Cairo


Andy Young

Night Walk by Myrtle Von Damitz III

    This Mardi Gras marked the first time in nearly 15 years that I was not in the streets of New Orleans, my home, just after sunup to celebrate the most colorful and decadent day of the year. Like so many of the holidays familiar to me, it is not celebrated in Cairo, where I am living with my family. Even Christmas, celebrated by a sliver of the population, falls on a different day. So when my five-year-old suggested we celebrate "Maadi Gras," after the leafy, if somewhat boring, neighborhood in which we live, I was happy to honor her wishes. I managed to smuggle some beignet mix into the country, and we invited over a dozen or so of her friends that Tuesday and told them to bring some dress up clothes and instruments. When we discussed the necessary political parade that would accompany the festivities, my daughter suggested a route which involved "marching down to the midan" below our house. That she mentioned the "midan" and used the word "march" as the verb in place of "parade" said a lot.

    Parades and protests had been colliding in my psyche for months, accompanied by the persistent unraveling of stability and revolutionary optimism in the country. I guess it is no surprise that a kid who, along with her little brother, sometimes spent Fridays with a babysitter so her parents could protest in the streets, had transmuted the idea of a carnival parade into a chanting crowd demanding accountability from the government.

    Gene Sharp defines a "parade" in his Dictionary of Power and Struggle like this: "A group of people walking in an organized manner to call attention to their grievance or aim, when the point of termination has no intrinsic significance to the demonstration.'" The significance of the ending point, says Sharp, is the key difference between a march and a parade. "The lack of a significant destination distinguishes this method of nonviolent protest and persuasion from the march," says Sharp.

    In New Orleans, Second Line parades do have significant destinations as they traditionally end with a burial. These are definitely the most enjoyable funereal activities one could imagine being part of, and the inclusion of the public as participants is part of what makes a second line a unique experience. Based on a history of ritual which provided spiritual protection for the deceased, family and close friends dance behind the coffin, followed by members of the community who join in, celebrating life as they mourn the dead. On any given day in New Orleans, you might hear the unmistakable notes of a brass band floating on the wind of a nearby street as a Second Line, which may or may not actually be accompanying a body, snakes its way through a neighborhood. Once you have experienced a Second Line, it is difficult to stand back and enjoy a parade as a bystander.

    A burial, albeit symbolic, was also the destination of a parade I was part of in Nicaragua's Festival Internacional de Poesia de Granada in 2007. One of the annual festival's highlights is a parade of poets, a colorful and circus-like event peppered with politically-charged poetry readings along the route. Begun by poets such as Ernesto Cardinal, who was pivotal in the Sandanista resistance movement, the annual parade ended with the effigy of an idea which was given a ceremonial funeral and dumped in the vast waters of Lake Nicaragua. The year I was there it was "ignorance" that died. I remember it as a Mardi Gras-like event, though it had the political drive and defiance one might expect of a march.

    New Orleans' Second Lines and Nicaraguan poetry parades may be exceptions in having purposeful destinations, but they also demonstrate a larger commonality between parades and marches and how they stand at an intersection of celebration and resistance. Both represent a gathering point for a collective purpose, a way of reclaiming public space.

    In Cairo, massirahs are moving gatherings from all over the city which end in Tahrir. There is a destination, unlike parades. But though massirahs would be defined in this context as marches, papier mache figures, such as dinosaurs and caricatures of military leaders, sometimes bob in and out of drum beats and chants, and they can feel, for all the world, like celebratory parades. The figures, like the chants, are usually referential, highlighting the issues that have given rise to the protests in the first place. In a recent one, a man was dressed as a life-sized gas canister in acknowledgment of the rising costs of cooking gas.

    In New Orleans, one of my favorite parades is the Krewe de Vieux, a bawdy affair featuring political parodies of the events of the day. One of the most moving times I recall from past Mardi Gras moments was during the Krewe de Vieux parade after Hurricane Katrina. Seeing people dressed in suits made of blue tarps, which were then pathetically covering the remnants of roofs left in the hurricane's wake and a constant reminder of the slow pace of reform, was one of the strongest indications that we would survive as a city. Even the image of "looters" dressed in police uniforms, a chilling reminder of the abuse by some in power at that time, was weirdly reassuring. The fact that we could laugh about the horror of that time was the most-perhaps the only- encouraging sign I remember. I have often wondered, taking part and watching protests here, what would happen if Krewe de Vieux got hold of Egypt's struggles and joined the streets here.

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    In New Orleans, children "play parade" the way other kids play house in other parts of the country. It's a staple of family life for everyone with small kids. At the drop of a hat, they will get in a line, throw on wigs and capes, and happily start marching. The way the kids acted in preparation for our Maadi Gras here in Cairo reminded me of our house in New Orleans Mardi Gras morning. We frantically tried to get food into their mouths before they ingested too much sugar and scrambled to make sure everyone had a prop or costume or something to help them fashion themselves into whatever they wanted to be that day. We'd played the same role with adults for many years, trying to feed grown people before they imbibed too much and helping out-of-towners get their head around transforming themselves through costuming.

    While both the kids, and the adults who relive the abandon of childhood on that dizzying day, are likely unaware of it, they are taking part in rituals with roots in the history of oppression and protest. Masking, so essential to abandon and joy on Mardi Gras, can threaten the powers that be. In September of 2011, New York City Police used a nineteenth century law to arrest Occupy Wall Street protestors who were occupying Zuccotti Park. As Claire Tancons points out in "Occupy Wall Street: Carnival against Capital? Carnivaleque as Protest Sensibility:" "masking can be dangerous, Carnival is serious business."

    The idea of anonymity and costume has been of issue lately in Egyptian protests, particularly as Black Bloc has become a major presence in street clashes. The fact that they cover their faces with black wrestling masks has been used by the Brotherhood to demonize protesters, allowing them to accuse anyone with black clothing as a "terrorist." The ridiculousness of such easy categories was obvious to me recently when a line of black-masked men linked hands and surrounded a women's protest in the Square as a form of protection.

    Mardi Gras itself rose out of the dynamics of colonization and slavery. "Role reversals alleviated a brutally divisive social system by crowning servants and slaves king for a day" says Tancons. "Carnival created an opportunity for society to cohere anew, at least for the duration of the festivities."

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    The first time parades and protests intersected in my mind was in the fall, before President Morsi flashed his fangs from beneath his rubbery mask, overstepping the judiciary and enforcing a flawed and unrepresentative constitution, before Brotherhood militias would kill and force confessions from unarmed protesters, before activists started being arrested (again) and turning up dead from torture (again).

    Just to further locate this in time and in the dizzying narrative we've experienced in the last six months: this was after the ridiculous movie supposedly about the Prophet Mohammed was released. A film, by the way, which almost no one saw and which was only seen at all because it was shared by Islamist television personality Khaled Abdullah whose sole intention-to enflame religious tension-was incredibly successful. The actors in the film did not know it was about the Prophet at all because the lines they were given for the film involved a certain "George." The dialogue was later dubbed into Arabic with the offensive version. That film, of course, resulted in the deaths of the U.S Ambassador and three others in Libya. In Egypt, the Embassy wall was breached, an alarming enough sight, though not nearly as alarming as many others of us living in Egypt have witnessed - and which have not been given a glance by US media - these past months.

    Before it all went down this winter, the Salafis had a flex-your-muscles millioneya gathering downtown. I would not dream of being anywhere near such an event. But I did imagine it: the beards, the sticks, the gallibeyahs, the intense stares and shouting or chanting. And I felt a sense of the familiar but had no idea why. Something about the maleness, the hairiness. Yes! New Orleans' Southern Decadence, the huge gay mostly-male event which always falls around Labor Day deep in the swampy anxiety of hurricane season. As much as I love gay men in large groups in New Orleans (it happens frequently as you might realize), I lived in a quiet part of the French Quarter for many years. And life became challenging and crowded during those days. Situated near a leather bar called Rawhide, my area was popular throughout the weekend. I was alienated, one of few women around.

    Here in Cairo, in our apartment about 12 miles from Tahrir Square as the hud-hud flies, trying to adjust to a completely new atmosphere, I did what I've always done when I have half a chance and especially if I feel threatened: retreated into the strangeness and solitude of my imagination. That weekend, I repeatedly pictured the Salafi protest encountering a parade like the Mystic Krewe of Chewbacchus, Barkus, The Guardians of the Flame, Muses, the Black Men of Labor. Imagined them encountering the denizens of Southern Decadence, with all the leather men and drag queens, or joyful, raucous Krewe of Saint Anne on Mardi Gras morning in which the costumes have been thought about all year, from full, feathered ensemble to a man I saw one year wearing only one sock. What if any of these parades could encounter the Salafi march with no violence but some kind of intermingling as a result? The thought of it filled me with a pleasure I can only get from the truly absurd.

    Absurdity, in extreme or even just strange circumstances, often saves me. Living in Cairo, there is plenty of it externally as well as in my brain. Everyday life is filled with unexpected juxtapositions: donkeys beside giant buses, cotton candy in the midst of tear gas.

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    Egyptians are famous for their humor. Protests are often halted for an hour so that everyone can watch the Bassem Yousef show, Egypt's answer to Jon Stewart, the tire fires left to fizzle out, security forces leaning back, cradling their rifles as they watch.

    Levity, or at least mockery, helps everyone get by. When the "clashes" and the "scuffles," as they are so daintily called in the English-speaking press, get more intense and the gas thickens the air for blocks and blocks around, someone inevitably takes the time to cover the faces of statues downtown, such as the one of Simon Bolivar, with gas masks. One of the best chants I've ever heard, or heard reported, was from late 2011 when newer, and harsher, forms of tear gas (many of which people claimed were banned nerve gases) were being used. In response, people reportedly began chanting "The people want the old gas."

    During Morsi's speeches, I love to read my twitter feed of (mostly) English-speaking Egyptians, the progress of which often goes from some version of "what?!" to "does anyone know what he is talking about?" to, during more intense declarations, a mix of English and Arabic, and, finally, to outright ridicule. One Facebook meme that went around in late January, when things began to get more heated and several cities were in all-out revolt, "officially" congratulated Ethiopia on the fact that Morsi had cancelled his visit. Weeks later, the April 6th protest movement would nominate the president for a contest that would send the winner to the moon.

    During his speech which announced the declaration of martial law in Port Said and two other cities along the Suez Canal, Morsi went from his general, fumbling reading of notes, licking his finger in between, to what we would later refer to as his "dictator moment," in which he stared into the camera, changed his tone and volume, and pointed his finger to punctuate his now-forceful cadence which, in any language, was clearly filled with admonishment and threat to those of us watching. It sent an instinctive, metallic fear through my body. But my husband began to chuckle and then laugh outright as his screen filled up with more parodies of Morsi's finger-wagging bravado.

    Port Said's curfew of 9 to 6 was met almost immediately with announcement of protests, the hours of which would coincide with the curfew. What transpired in the nights following was what looked like street parties night after night, the streets completely packed with people, fireworks, all-night soccer games. At one point, even the army formed a team against the opposition. It looked like so much fun that people in Cairo began to joke that we, too, wanted martial law in order to experience the fun. In the face of Morsi's most threatening moment, the people just laughed at him. And what could undermine one's power more than that?

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    As an Egyptian-American family, we've been trying to find ways to exist in both cultures for years. In 2011, completely immersed in news of the revolution, we actually dressed up as the revolution, my husband and I as protesters, our small belligerent son (he was 1.5 years old and asthmatic so on steroids) as General Tantawi and our then-three year old girl as an Al Jazeera reporter. There was a comfort in embodying the reality of our minds with the physical reality around us. In many ways, it was a seamless coupling.

    Here in Cairo, we've been comforted, at times, by the presence of a Carnival-like feeling within the protest's atmosphere, despite the mounting death toll, the violence targeting women and activists. In the Square, in addition to chants, protest signs, and the images of the revolution's martyrs, there is usually face-painting, sesame candy, and music, as well, though it can quickly turn to tear gas- and siren-filled fear.

    I first saw Night Walk, a painting by Myrtle Van Damitz III, an activist and artist I knew in New Orleans, in Tancons' article about carnival and protest. Myrtle had sent me the article in response to a photograph I'd shared showing a Mardi Gras-like scene of a protest in downtown Cairo, with costumes and body-sized papier mache faces. Though I may have seen Myrtle's painting before, in New Orleans, I was drawn to it in a completely different way being in Cairo, enchanted by the figures, part human, part not, that seem to transform on the page.

    There was something in it that spoke to me here in Cairo, in the midst of continuing struggle, something that registered as fraught, tenuous, as if the whole, beautiful scene was about to be dispersed. I told myself that I was bringing this to the painting, and that the scene was a reminder of celebration and oblivion, of that singular day in that singular place that was far, far away from Cairo. In talking to her about it recently, Van Damitz revealed that she painted the scene during Mardi Gras season in 2011 as she watched the Egyptian revolution unfold on live feeds. Now when I look at it, I can't help but see those creatures pausing, or perhaps running, on Qasr El Nil, the bridge that leads to Tahrir, smears of paint like glitter thrown up into the smoke.