Striving to Become Slightly More Human

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

Elliott Colla, the 2015–2016 William Bentinck-Smith Fellow and an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, lived in Egypt for many years. His project at Radcliffe explored the links between literature and revolutionary politics. For this, he studied not only published material—poems, memoirs, and novels—but also performance-based production such as the gestures and slogans used by activists during demonstrations. The result of his research? Two books: a novel and a scholarly monograph.

Tell us your favorite memory.
The walk from Rosthwaite to Grasmere, in Northern England.

Describe yourself in six words or fewer.
6 AM tea. Milk and sugar.

What is your most treasured possession?
The Arabian Nights (Alf Laylah wa-Laylah), From Its Earliest Known Sources (Leiden, 1984), edited by Muhsin Mahdi. Back in the 1970s, Harvard’s Muhsin Mahdi took a break from working on Islamic philosophy to edit the earliest manuscript of this classic. What he did is an amazing achievement. The book has been out of print for many years—but everyone should own a copy of it.

What inspires you?
People who work to make the world more just and beautiful and do it with grace and generosity.

Were your life to become a motion picture, who would portray you?
Emilio Estevez.

Where in the world would you like to spend a month?
Belgarde de-Razès, which is not far from Limoux, in the south of France. In July, when there are apricots and plums and young almonds to pick.

What is your fantasy career?
Doing what I do, but without all the meetings, reports, and e-mail.

What is your greatest triumph so far?
Writing the first draft of a novel, and then sitting down to do the hard part: making it readable.

What aspect of your work do you most enjoy?
I like working on topics that do not emanate from my own life and don’t necessarily intersect with who I am or how I live my days. When work is like that, it draws you out from yourself. It pulls you toward the experience of others. You can’t help but be changed by work like that—it expands you, and if you’re lucky, it makes you slightly more human.

What drew you to Egypt’s protest culture?
Even if protest culture was marginal in Egypt before 2011, it was the folk culture of many, many Egyptians. As chance would have it, this was the poetry and song my closest friends loved most. I absorbed a lot of it simply living in Egypt at different times over the past 30 years. I was also lucky to have Arabic teachers, like the eminent Abbas al-Tonsi, who teach language through the compositions of colloquial poets. So, without knowing it, I learned to speak colloquial Egyptian Arabic by way of this culture, which drew on elements from the student movements of the 1970s, the nationalist fervor of the 1950s, and the 1919 Revolution. I wasn’t conscious of how much of my own Arabic borrowed from this material until 2011, when protest culture was suddenly everywhere in Egypt.

What do you hope to highlight about Egyptian political slogans and protest chants?
For many, slogans are little more than programmatic dictates or lists of demands. But the Egyptian case shows that these slogans are poetic compositions meant to be sung by large groups of people in a moment of great risk and beauty. They are part of fleeting cultural and political performances—partly orchestrated, partly improvised, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Now that the revolutionary moment of 2011 is definitively over, we risk forgetting the richness of that moment, what it meant to the people making it. Or we risk overwriting the experience of that moment with hindsight.

Can you share with us a chant or slogan you found particularly powerful?
The most famous slogan, al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam (“The people” wants to topple the regime) was a powerful one for many reasons. One activist told me that a good slogan is one that seems like you always knew it when you hear it for the first time. It’s got to be fresh but familiar. This is a great example: it takes a line of poetry from the 1930s that any educated Arab would know by heart and changes it. In the poem by al-Shabbi, there is a question whether “the people” exists or whether it possesses a will at all. In the 2011 retelling, suddenly the people exists—and not only that, the people knows what it wants. In other words, the slogan takes a decades-old question and answers it in the affirmative. All in the space of four words. Pretty efficient.

What is the biggest hurdle to studying the culture of a revolution even as it’s occurring?
It is very difficult to capture this sense of the ongoing event and the fullness of what they meant to people in the moment. And this is why revolutions are mostly studied from the perspective of the aftermath—when all the promises of revolution have failed to come true. This view colors so much of what we know of them as events and gives them such a tragic aura.

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2016