What We Talk About When We Talk About Trees

On Art, Maneuvering and Persistent Precarity

The theater darkens and the screen lights up with polished images, bursting with movement and color. A vast desert, a belly dancer, a group of laughing young men jumping off a yacht into the dazzlingly blue water of the Red Sea. “This is Egypt,” the ad confidently proclaims. It is played ahead of almost every film in the Gouna Film Festival line-up. We are about to watch the much-celebrated Sudanese film You Will Die at Twenty, which has just scooped up the Lion of the Future award at the Venice Film Festival, only a couple of months after Sudanese revolutionaries celebrated a precarious victory over the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. I am fidgeting in my seat — not in anticipation of the film we’re about to see, but because in Egypt — miles away from the glittery Marina Theater with its spotless red carpet and glammed-up celebrities, miles away from the animated postcards on its screen — protests are spilling onto the streets, for the first time in what seems like an eternity: In Cairo, in Alexandria, in Daqahlia and in Suez. On my own parallel screen — my phone, which I keep checking surreptitiously throughout the film — I see people gather, then scatter, then cluster again. I see chaos and clouds of tear gas. I see mouths chanting words I try to make out. I see digits that keep rising as more protesters are arrested. 

Two months later, I am sleepless in bed, scrolling again through my newsfeed. I come across posts by friends about the films they’ve seen so far at the Cairo International Film Festival, which has just kicked off. Everyone is excited about the lineup, sharing their recommendations. The festival has been enjoying a bit of a comeback ever since celebrated producer Mohamed Hefzy was appointed president last year. A new program, Cairo Industry Days, has been launched, and some seemingly interesting panel discussions, workshops and masterclasses are taking place. Still scrolling, I wonder if I should go see a film and check out some of the events tomorrow, despite my misgivings — we need to cover the festival anyway. And this is when I come across the post about Shady’s arrest from his home only a couple of hours before. Time stands still; plans die before they’re made. 

The jarring dissonance I felt in both those moments characterizes much of what I’ve been feeling towards the cultural scene in Egypt over the past two years. The rare works that stand out as exceptions are ones in which artists have admitted that, unable to politically engage, they chose to look inwards, because “what is outside is so horrible” — and probably also because that is the only landscape they could navigate (nearly) without restriction.

I am thinking of a particular work of visual art that, in other circumstances, I would have probably found quite valuable, intelligent and conceptually sound as it is. It uses the tree trunk as a subject and techniques of virtual reality to explore how we perceive our surroundings, complicating the seemingly simple act of seeing.Yet when I encountered these paintings last year, I found myself entirely detached — unable to relate to them in any way. The white cube is not meant to mirror the city that lies beyond it; the white cube is the same everywhere in the world — free of context, it is meant to transport you, regardless of your surroundings. But I could not be transported. I was stuck where I was, where I’d been — the leering comment I’d just heard while walking down Qasr al-Aini Street on my way to the gallery; the dead cat I’d just seen on the sidewalk, its brains splattered on the ground; the news I’d just read of yet another activist arrested from his house — and those paintings had nothing to do with that at all. 

Usually, that would not matter; I would actually welcome the chance to disconnect. But sometimes, reality is too compelling to ignore. It is so overbearingly present, it manages to breach the walls you build around your brain in an attempt to shield your sanity, and those of the “neutral” white cube as well. And in those moments, it becomes increasingly difficult to respond to works that are so divorced from context, because the context becomes omnipresent — it colors the way I view everything, and so when I am faced with a work that is so consciously removed from it, I am unable to read it the way it is meant to be read. It’s not fair to the work, it’s not fair to the artist, and it is not fair to me, as someone who is hungry for art, in all its shapes and forms. It is an extra weight we carry as individuals who practice or consume art in this part of the world at a moment like this: How can we find the bandwidth for abstraction? How can we create something generative from it?

For years I — like many others — have resented the tendency of international film festival programmers (international gatekeepers of all mediums, actually) to choose only sensational works rife with political conflict or stereotypical social issues from the region, ignoring quieter films that might sometimes be of more cinematic value. Am I doing the same now? Am I saying that, just because we live in a place that is mired in political turmoil, we are not free to create art about anything else? 

I’d like to think I’m not. I believe that artistic freedom entails the freedom to abandon context and all else; the freedom, even, to be frivolous. But in such a moment, when people’s Facebook feeds are being randomly checked by security officers on the street, a work that does not somehow acknowledge the environment within which it was made, almost always feels suspiciously incomplete to me (I am struggling not to use the word irrelevant, because it is counter-productive). For if one is honest about whatever it is they choose to portray, in this place, how can they ever truly avoid (at the very least) brushing against that? We are living in the dark, oppressive shadow of a ruthless military regime, and there is no longer any way around it. The elephant has grown so large, so looming, it’s now taking up the entire room. 

What is the point of listening to advice from Terry Gilliam or some Netflix executive or one of Mexico’s most acclaimed auteurs at CIFF, when filmmakers here are unable to work beyond the strict parameters assigned by the system? How can we have any meaningful discussion about the state of the Egyptian film industry without addressing issues like censorship and the multitude of restrictions artists are subjected to; the byzantine procedures they’re required to go through? Is it really useful at all to discuss co-production and funding and international film festivals when there are so many subjects we can’t approach freely, let alone make films about? When one feels nervous every time they want to take a photo with their phone of something they saw on the street, let alone shoot a scene? 

In another Sudanese film I watched in Gouna, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s powerful and poignant Talking About Trees, four retired filmmakers attempt to revive a deserted cinema in the city of Omdurman — one of hundreds that had been closed down across the country under a military-backed Islamist regime. They are, of course, met with numerous obstacles, including a shortage in funds and illogical bureaucratic demands. Camped out on the cinema’s roof one night, two of the directors reflect on the political conditions that led them to this moment: “There are times that are so bad they say even talking about trees can be a crime, because it means you’re silent about so many horrible things,” one of them blurts out, before he settles under the covers and closes his eyes. It is a reference to the famous Bertolt Brecht poem, “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake” (1939/40). The actual verse reads: “What times are these, in which / A conversation about trees is almost a crime / For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing?” 

Minia Biabiany : Pawól sé van, still from a video, 12,48 min, 2020.

Here, the cinemas are still open, and we are drowning in noise and nothingness. Cairo is as crazy and clamorous as it’s ever been. In my living room, I can hear the arguments between men on the coffee shop downstairs. I wake up to car horns and the boisterous chants of street vendors and the constant calls to prayer from the mosque nearby. The frantic meows of an abandoned kitten — one of countless strays in my neighborhood — punctuate my days, and I can’t even tell where exactly they’re coming from. Om Kalthoum is playing on a radio somewhere, the monotonous voice of Mohamed Ramadan blasts from someone’s car. There is no respite from the noise. 

And yet, at times Cairo feels much too silent; a silence that threatens to engulf me. Places once alive with light and conversation lie still in the darkness. 

I remember the many times I felt at home sitting on the floor in Rawabet, watching people tell stories on the stage, feeling like I was part of a bigger whole: Testimonials from Tahrir that brought tears to my eyes, a date with someone who fascinated me, a Laila Soliman play where I watched a friend perform for the first time, an argument about a festival happening a few blocks away where I allowed myself to argue, out loud, in the presence of people I did not know, and actually liked the voice I heard. It was that wave I’d dreamt of long ago, it was here, and I was right in the middle of it. 

For years, particularly after the violence of Rabea and the gradual death of the public domain, spaces like Rawabet, which has now closed down, were the only places where we could fully breathe. Theaters, cinemas, galleries, bars, living rooms: interiors where we could be; where we could interact — in art and conversation — with the exterior, in partial protection from its hostility. Now cultural venues are closing one by one; people are avoiding the usual downtown pubs and meeting spots because it’s come to resemble a military barracks; and — even if it’s not the norm — people have been taken away from their homes, so not all living rooms are necessarily comfortable, or safe. How do you retain your ability to create, if that is the kind of milieu you’re operating in? How do you function at all? 

Some of us are unable to. Some of us have left the country, of their own volition, for fear of persecution, and are unable to return. Some of us have been deported, with no chance to gather thoughts or belongings. A few of us have chosen to end it all, leaving the rest with crippling memories of what was and what could have been. Many are on autopilot because that’s the only way they can continue to perform — there isn’t energy for much else. 

And some of us have created powerful, resonating work, but not without a cost. 

A friend of mine made the most beautiful film I’ve seen from the region in the past decade, and has been denied the chance to screen it in Egypt. Right now, he finds himself in a state of limbo, suspended between Cairo and Berlin — a filmmaker unable to make films. “I’ve never seen myself as an immigrant director,” he tells me one day. “I can’t imagine making films outside of Cairo. I can’t imagine making films about anywhere else, anything else.” 

The most popular band in the country right now is unable to release physical CDs, because they keep being censored, and they can’t play any songs with political content — some of which are fan favorites — at concerts, because the alternative is not to perform live at all. “You have millions listening to your music … yet they want to keep you in that corner where you’re still a young band trying to make it,” their frontman, another friend of mine, says. In short, they’re being pushed into invisibility. 

As my husband gets ready for a TV interview about his latest short story collection, he receives a phone call from the host, asking: “What are we going to do about January 25?” My husband is puzzled; the revolution’s defeat is pretty much the central theme of the work. Yet they can’t really discuss that on live TV — they have to find a way around it, he is told. 

Finding a way around things has become our main occupation. Cairo’s alternative (for lack of a better word) cultural scene is rife with decades-old problems: it is overdependent on the international funding circuit and, in light of its naturally complicated relationship with the state, has not yet managed to find truly independent solutions for sustainability; it is unbearably cliquey and yet suffers from a notable lack of collectivity; it is filled with empty pleasantries at the expense of actual critique; and so it remains, in many ways, underdeveloped. We are far from reaching our full potential, and yet we are unable to deal with our actual issues or pursue our real aspirations because we’re too busy finding a way around things. We’re too busy maneuvering against (state and self) censorship, against the bureaucracy, against gentrifiers, against a monstrous inflation, against the often draining demands of funders, against depression, against the very fact of being here.

I recall an exhibition I visited in Townhouse in late 2013, only a few months after the massacre. The curfew had just been lifted, and cultural spaces were starting to re-open their doors. But something had changed, irrevocably. The exhibition was titled Ugly Feelings — a name borrowed from a 2007 book by American scholar Sianne Ngai, where she explores notions of precarity and affect in cultural production during moments of social powerlessness and frustration — and I keep going back to the story of how it came to be, as the curator recounted it to me in an interview at the time. 

The show she had been planning to begin the season with had been canceled only a few months before it was due to open, something she said had been a common occurrence since the outbreak of the revolution, with the gallery’s proximity to Tahrir Square: “But this time I didn’t want to approach another artist at the last minute for a show. I didn’t want to pretend that we were carrying on business as usual.” 

And so she spontaneously put together Ugly Feelings, a strange and somewhat scattered collection of (mostly) digital and video art tackling negative emotions like anxiety, irritation and disconcertedness — emotions that make it difficult to act. The show’s curatorial statement was included as part of the works on display: “As complicated as working in this situation may be … we also have a responsibility in this context to stay open, to provide a place for people to assemble, to express opinions, to argue … Simply not acting is not the answer, but finding a better way to respond to this context is.”

I did not particularly love the exhibition, but for me Townhouse had pulled off a perfect maneuver, finding a way around the restrictions of the time and place and using the states of emotion the limitations cause as a subject for its semi-impromptu show. 

Today Townhouse is practically inactive, after years of struggling

The culture scene is rapidly being absorbed by the state and its allies. There are only a few platforms left where artists can hope for some real exposure: official events, like CIFF; semi-official ones that are run by businessmen but adopt more or less the same rhetoric as the state, such as the GFF; initiatives intended to strengthen the local art scene but are now sponsored by the very entity adamant on gentrifying the center of that scene (DCAF); or barely curated art shows that double as tourism campaigns, like those organized by the now-ubiquitous Art d’Egypte. Even TV, the most mainstream of all mediums, has undergone a systemic process of near-total monopolization by intelligence-owned companies over the past two years. 

Being an artist or a creative practitioner of any kind in Cairo has become akin to attempting to dance in a broom closet. Try as you might, there’s just no space to move. That is how physical the confines are starting to feel. And the results are palpable. When nothing moves, when movement is slight at best, nothing is moving

There is no longer room left to maneuver, and we are left with two choices: to withdraw entirely, or to talk about trees. How do we create a third option? 

One of the central themes in Ngai’s book is the state of “suspended action” artists often find themselves in during times in which “ugly feelings” prevail. Another theme is art’s own impotence in such moments, particularly in late capitalist societies where art is viewed through a strictly utilitarian lens (in our case: enhancing the state’s “soft power,” promoting traditional morals and values as per the recommendations of the Drama Committee, etc.), while “the artistic” itself is viewed as useless and irrelevant. 

At times, artists find themselves fighting against such notions as well: In a moment like this one, when people are disappearing and being tortured in prisons and the future is as opaque as can be, how do you convince yourself that what you’re doing is valuable? How do you shake off the fear of irrelevance?

Even as I write this, I am fending off loud, insistent voices in my head telling me it’s irrelevant — that I should just hit that small “x” icon at the top of my screen and never look back. Because who cares about art and artists when the world is falling apart? 

Well the truth is, I do. If there’s anything that’s kept me sane these past six years, it’s art and the people who practice it in this place. This is why it was so disappointing when I found myself unable to connect to so many works I came across recently. When I argue for acknowledging context in art, I am not saying art should have a “message,” I am not saying art should necessarily be utilized to advance our political objectives. I abhor propaganda in all its shapes and forms, even if it serves my own cause. I am merely saying I long for art that is honest, art that is vulnerable, art that is real and urgent and angry (or that embraces its lack of anger as a legitimate state). 

What is relevance? And can it truly be a standard against which art is evaluated? In Medieval Latin, the word “relevant” means “helpful,” from the Latin stem “relevare,” which literally means “to lighten.” When I first read that, I had a vague feeling that I’d just stumbled upon a mini-revelation. And then I realized that the noun “relief” also has the same origin. Can we dare to say then that relevant art is art that lightens; that relieves? Not just the person who experiences it, but also the person who makes it? Art should lighten both creator and consumer, even as it disturbs (like it often should) — because even then, you’re at least assured that something within you still lives, or else you would not be unsettled at all. And that, in itself, is a form of relief.  

I find myself thinking of Agnès Varda walking along the shore in The Beaches of Agnes (2008), a beautiful film she made about herself, but also about her relationship with the world. “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes,” she says in that opening scene. And it is those internal landscapes that we need to explore and expose, trees and all. Only without avoiding their fraught and fractured borders, where what lurks within intersects with what rages outside. There is no way that creative work coming from a place of true and honest personal reflection will not be political, will not be resonant, will not be “relevant.” In such moments of precarity, of fear, of crippling uncertainty, we have no way out but to embrace our own vulnerability, however crushing it might be. 

If we can no longer have overtly political projects like 2015–2016’s If Not for That Wall, well, another particular Contemporary Image Collective show, where a group of women dissected their very personal relationships with their mothers, is in no way less political and in no way less relevant than the former. If relevance is the ability to lighten — ourselves before others — then there might just be a third option. To look inwards, not in withdrawal but in excavation; to talk about trees, not as distraction but as disguise.  

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill

and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows

near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted

who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled

this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light—

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.

-Adrienne Rich, “What Times Are These” (1995)

This contribution has been commissioned and first published at Mada Masr, December 2019.