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Egypt’s revolution was an exercise in magical realism

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Thinking about Cairo’s morgue and the final indignity suffered by the bereaved whose only comfort left is in burying their dead, I came across a review of The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez in the New York Times. Vasquez is a Columbian novelist who benefited from and seeks to distance himself from his fellow countryman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The issue is Marquez’s magical realism:

I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.

Instead, Vasquez focuses on the underbelly of Colombian life as the reality of our lives.  Like those loved ones who come to the Cairo morgue, reality is often brutal and beyond our control.  We are left to pick up the pieces – if we can:

No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions. Those long processes that end up running into our life — sometimes to give it the shove it needed, sometimes to blow to smithereens our most splendid plans — tend to be hidden like subterranean currents, like tiny shifts of tectonic plates, and when the earthquake finally comes we invoke the words we’ve learned to calm ourselves, accident, fluke and sometimes fate.

Obviously many of those who lie now in Cairo’s morgue had agency – they chose to protest the brutal martial law which once again defines Egypt.  Others were innocent bystanders murdered by government- sponsored or freelance thugs.  Either way, they were caught up in a world beyond their control. 

The bereaved have now entered another world controlled by others, especially the vigilantes who determine what bodies are claimed and how the murdered died.  When the bereaved are forced to sign the murdered as suicides – the only way to secure the body’s release – Vasquez’s accident, fluke and fate take on another level of meaning.  Or is the more appropriate word, meaninglessness?

Egypt’s “revolution” was an exercise in magical realism.  It was a distorted view of Egyptian history.  But casting the net globally isn’t that almost always the case with revolution?

Those with banners held high should acknowledge the costs and the risks of plunging headlong into a future that is impossible to determine in advance. 

Does this mean that the demands for social change should be held in abeyance because the future might be more of the same?  Not at all.  It means that progressives who align themselves with the repressive forces of society, in Egypt’s case, the military, commit a mistake of epic proportions.

Once that mistake is made there’s no going back.

Magical realism is a distorted view of reality – always.  It’s comfort food for the affluent and the powerful.  Like religion served on political platter, it’s a matter of belief disguised as truth.

What is the ultimate result of magical realism unraveled?  We need to dig deep, then deeper still, until we find the place and cause where life is more than accident, fluke or fate.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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8 Responses

  1. just
    August 23, 2013, 10:41 am

    How very true and moving. So well written.

    Thank you Marc.

  2. seafoid
    August 23, 2013, 11:00 am

    “Those with banners held high should acknowledge the costs and the risks of plunging headlong into a future that is impossible to determine in advance”

    Never live like common people. Never watch your life slide out of view

    Consumers expect things to happen instantly. Mostly they don’t. The Revolution was driven by socioeconomic forces that are still there. Egypt is in transition. It may last a very long time. But it won’t go back to they way it was.

    Maybe Cairo will have to wait until Zionism collapses to get anywhere.

  3. Citizen
    August 23, 2013, 1:52 pm

    ” We need to dig deep, then deeper still, until we find the place and cause where life is more than accident, fluke or fate.”

    All over the world, if you don’t want to make your life a total accident, fluke, or fate, you better figure out how to make a lot of money. That’s surely step number one. AIPAC points the way for all of us. So does the Mafia. and the US Congress, and the US campaign finance system. If your parents are wealthy and/or politically connected (they go together), you already start at 3rd base, of course. Anybody disagree? If so, how so?

    Real magical realism is the Federal Reserve, beginning with its fiat money system and the delegated powers of Congress. Heck, nobody needs Congress to actually declare war anymore.

  4. Danaa
    August 23, 2013, 2:35 pm

    marc Ellis – I find myself rather in agreement with you here, and think you have put your finger on the source of the unease many of us have with the unfolding events in Egypt:

    The progressive making an alliance with the regressive is bound to be a collossal mistake. Why? because progressives, almost by definition are almost never strong in unity of purpose, again, by definition (just look at the US – big tents are not known for unity). But what they do have – and share – is a high degree of moral clarity when it comes to universal human rights.

    When they make do with regressive totalitarian elements like the army – in the name of it being the lesser of two evils – its more often than not, a serious miscalculation because in losing the high moral ground, they lose their one and only uniting element.

    That’s why, IMO, when israel had its J14 social protest and excluded the occupation issue and palestinians as an issue, the movement fizzled out. they had to define their goals too narrowly to have lasting impact and segments could be bought off too easily – by raising the price of cottage cheese, for example.

    Occupy did not last longer I think for similar reasons – they fell into one too many traps 9and I am not passing judgement here. It was and is extremely hard to take on the heart of the beast – capitalism itself), but the biggest one was the compormising of principles by giving in to various attempt to narrow the tents, in an effort to keep some less desirables out and garner more sympathy from population looking on (yes, I know it’s more complicated – there was not exactly one “occupy” but many; still they were picked off relatively easily because in the end people still had a lot to lose).

    My hunch is that in Egypt, the progressive elements made a really bad move by adopting the military rather than the MB as the lesser evil. I understand the genuine – and justified apprehension of muslim authoritarianism. but I happen to believe that ultimately, that would have been easier to work out a deal with than the military because progressives – if true to principles of ‘rights” – do have a weapon to match religious fervor – moral high ground. By allying to the military – and the unavoidable repressions it will usher – they will end up as the communist idealists of old.

    I think you see this so clearly Marc because of the concern you have with the prophetic. The Egyptians who now march with the military are bound to become Empire arabs. just like the fatalists before them.

    • bilal a
      bilal a
      August 24, 2013, 12:35 am

      What if Progressives arent progressive or never were. Didnt they do Dresden Hiroshima the starvation of german pows, the ethnic cleansing of palestine, , Iraq’s Madeline Albright one million dead children worth it? The return of the concentration camps and the torture chambers for the Muslims in Egypt is the epitome of ‘progressive’, the defacto and dejure religion of the transnational corporations and their NGOs.

    • seafoid
      August 24, 2013, 12:56 am

      “The Egyptians who now march with the military are bound to become Empire arabs.”

      Egypt gets very little cashflow in the imperial system. Those who have cast in their lot with the army are more likely to be shafted.

    • Citizen
      August 24, 2013, 3:24 am

      Those Egyptians who decided the Egyptian military power was easier to deal with than the MB in power must have thought pretty hard about that choice since they had lived under that military power for a long time–with no inside information, one might assume, given the comparatively short time the MB was in power, that the empowered MB activity was really frightening to those outside the religious fold.

  5. mcohen
    August 24, 2013, 8:20 am

    with a twitter and a tweet the world will be sweet
    revolutions take time and it is still early days in egypt.what this crisis will do will push new leaders to the fore.
    the positive of the last year is that both the relegious and military parties have failed simply by opposing each other.once the egyptian people begin to realise that neither have the ability to find solutions to egypts problems the country can move on to finding new leaders and new directions on the path to “magical enlightenment”

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