PRINT October 2019



Printout of Ahmad al-Laithy and Ahmed al-Shamsy’s 2017 Al-Qahira article “After 20 Years of Absence . . .  Adib al-Shabab Departs His Isolation,” 2019.

IN THE MID-1980S, the Egyptian writer Mahmoud Abdel-Razik Afifi noticed that whenever fans gathered in a stadium in Cairo to watch football, their attention was easily drawn to pigeons flying overhead. Afifi wrote popular novels about sex, religion, and fame. According to a critic at Cairo University, he was a literary outcast who appealed to marginalized readers. The press snubbed him, as did the mainstream publishing industry. As a result, Afifi was primarily self-published. Following his avian epiphany, he developed a set of ingenious publicity stunts. He gave himself the nickname Adib al-Shabab, a play on words meaning “a writer for the guys,” or a literary figure for the youth. He made banners and white plastic kites advertising himself—and his latest novel—in vivid red ink. He would bring those items to football matches (particularly to blockbuster face-offs between the rival clubs Al Ahly and Zamalek), stash them in corners, and then seat himself strategically, so that whenever the cameras panned the crowd he could unfurl his ads for the legions of fans watching the live broadcast.

Adib al-Shabab’s clever self-branding quickly established him as a cultural phenomenon. But then, just as suddenly, he vanished. No more new books appeared. (His last novel, Abortion of Freedom, came out in 1998.) Soon the man himself was forgotten. Then, in 2017, after four years of digging, two reporters for the newspaper Al-Qahira tracked him down and coauthored a long feature about him. The journalists, Ahmad al-Laithy and Ahmed al-Shamsy, won a prize for their efforts. This past summer, the artists Maha Maamoun and Ala Younis included Laithy and Shamsy’s article—printed big on a placard and accompanied by a faithful reproduction of one of Adib al-Shabab’s kites—in an exhibition at the Beirut Art Center (BAC) on the subversive publishing activities of artists in the Arab world and its diasporas. The show, “How to Reappear,” surveyed two topics at once: first, the severe limits that continue to be placed on what is sayable and printable in a region still reeling from the lost opportunities of the Arab Spring, which toppled a handful of autocrats only to replace them with crueler regimes or chaos; and second, the creativity with which artists have circumvented those limits by taking on roles outside their field, disappearing from one sphere to reappear in another, and using the printed word (broadly construed) to redefine their cultural landscape.

Various issues of Maher Sherif’s Yadawia, 1992–2019. Installation view, Beirut Art Center, 2019.

It was a mark of the organizers’ generously expansive, inclusive approach that a now-obscure urban legend, preserved in a single piece of reportage, was integrated so seamlessly into a show of nearly fifty projects, many of them highly conceptual, most of them featuring more-famous literary figures. In a pile of takeaway newspapers titled The Radical Ally, placed alongside the video The Typographer, both 2019, the artist Bouchra Khalili revived the story of Jean Genet’s extending his embrace of the Palestinian struggle to his infamous 1970 tour of the United States in support of the Black Panthers. The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim shared his recollections of writing and creating secret libraries during his five-year incarceration in an Egyptian prison.

In a sense, “How to Reappear” staged itself as so many works in progress. A research table was laden with a rich array of materials: reprints of the Egyptian Surrealist journal Al Tatawur; a series of hand-drawn books by Maher Sherif’s Alexandria-based independent publishing house, Yadawia; and an almost-complete collection of Dar al-Fata al-Arabi’s beloved children’s books, published with the help of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Sharing one small part of his larger project on the Casablanca School, the curator Morad Montazami covered an entire wall in the riotous designs of the painter Mohamed Melehi, who in the 1960s and ’70s helped define the imagery, and the postcolonial discourse, of the Moroccan journal Souffles. Close by, the prominent Franco-Algerian art historian Zahia Rahmani had constructed a room-size installation of sounds, objects, and images related to her research on non-European arts journals established in the aftermath of revolutionary movements from the late eighteenth century until 1989.

And yet, to the organizers’ great credit, “How to Reappear” looked nothing like a book fair. There were artfully installed paintings, drawings, and videos on view, with Raafat Majzoub’s wondrous prototype for a street school made from recycled materials functioning as a centerpiece. Just inside the entrance to BAC, a time line for Simone Fattal’s decidedly avant-garde Post-Apollo Press cut diagonally through the space like a scar.

Raafat Majzoub, Streetschool (prototype), 2019, wood, stone, cement, ceramic tiles, rubber tiles, metal, canvas banner. Installation view, Beirut Art Center.

Since 2012, Maamoun and Younis have been running a small publishing house called Kayfa ta, which uses the seemingly innocuous format of the how-to book (kayfa ta means “how to” in Arabic) to explore questions posed by artists about political upheaval, economic collapse, cultural implosion, and humanitarian disaster. The pair have published five titles so far, including artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s How to Spell the Fight (2018) and poet Iman Mersal’s gut-wrenching and phantasmagorical How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (2018). Generally, the books are printed in Cairo in editions of two thousand. Prices are low. Mischievously, Kayfa ta’s logo is a drawing of two people pulling a Trojan horse.

The publishers’ art practices complement their literary interventions. Maamoun’s work tends toward series of photographs and remarkable videos; Younis’s comprises precise installations of tiny objects, architectural maquettes, and archival research. Neither draws a clear-cut distinction between making art and taking on curatorial and even administrative roles in the jury-rigged arts infrastructure of the region. Maamoun is a founder of Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective; Younis was an early director of the nonprofit space Darat al-Funun in Amman. In 2014, they curated an exhibition together for Cairo’s Gezira Art Center called “Covering One’s Back.” This, alongside the video program “A State of Fluidity,” which Maamoun organized with the curator Sarah Rifky in 2011, ranks among the more admirable artistic responses to the profound emotional wreckage of the ill-fated Arab Spring, which is now frequently shorthanded (understandably but mistakenly) as “the revolution.”

In a time of so many empty promises, the show was both modest and abundant.

“Coming out of the revolution,” Maamoun told me after the opening in July, “there were writers we had believed in who failed us.” Several established authors who for generations had spoken for the major intellectual movements of the region either were equivocal in their support of the uprisings or came down on the side of repressive regimes for the sake of maintaining the status quo—and, one suspects, their position within it. At the same time, Mamoun said, “we were coming across new voices online. New languages were appearing that we felt close to and wanted to work with.”

View of “How to Reappear: Through the Quivering Leaves of Independent Publishing,” 2019, Beirut Art Center. Various Mohamed Melehi designs, 1965–85. Photos: Barış Doğrusöz.

Like the Contemporary Image Collective, the Beirut Art Center, founded in 2009, was part of the second efflorescence of independent arts organizations in the Middle East, following in the footsteps of such influential but small-scale institutions as Ashkal Alwan in Lebanon, Townhouse in Egypt, and Darat al-Funun in Jordan. Meanwhile, the period just prior to the global financial crisis saw a boom in the regional art market, the creation of a new collector class, and the development of major new museums (which for the most part have not made it to the construction phase). Relatively humble initiatives were soon competing for funding with these big-ticket projects.

When “How to Reappear” opened, BAC had only recently relocated (to a former factory around the corner from its original site) and was between directors. It seemed appropriate that the show’s venue was an institution in flux. Its subtitle, “Through the Quivering Leaves of Independent Publishing,” suggested fragility and vulnerability but also resonated with the organizers’ focus on tactics and stratagems, dodging censorship, persisting through repression, and finding and using loopholes to make room for new ideas, new languages, new possibilities. In a time of so many empty promises, “How to Reappear” was both modest and abundant. What it materialized, in the end, was a robust community of extremely agile creative people who haven’t been defeated.

It would be disingenuous, however, to say that all of the show’s lessons were hopeful. The story of Adib al-Shabab turned out to be sad and cruel (and to be honest, while his methods of self-promotion were brilliant, his actual writing was misogynistic and maladroit). When Laithy and Shamsy finally met Mahmoud Abdel-Razik Afifi, they found him a gentle but scattered old man. Afifi was in fact a lawyer by training and a former employee of the Egyptian Interior Ministry. He had been effectively broken, his writing career destroyed and his alter ego obliterated, by four stays in a psychiatric ward and a stint in prison, where he was tortured.

According to the journalists, Afifi was jailed for swearing at former Egyptian interior minister Habib al-Adly and calling him corrupt. The “false” accusation, for which Afifi was incarcerated, unsurprisingly, proved true. After the revolution, Adly was hauled into court and accused of money laundering, embezzlement, and conspiring to kill thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. He was convicted, sent to prison, and then acquitted in a retrial (court-ordered on technical grounds) and released. His frozen assets were unfrozen. For a time, he was said to be in hiding, and then he simply returned and resumed his comfortable life. It will be harder, but more rewarding, for Adib al-Shabab to reappear. Remember to look up before the game begins. 

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut.