This Stays Between Us [Part I]
Huda at the Station
Nada Shalaby: An image exists of Huda Shaarawi stepping off the train in 1923, having just returned from Italy. An image exists of her with her arm extending upwards as she looks toward the gathered crowd in the foreground and on the left side of the frame. Her face is calm and defiant. The lines of the train stretch out behind her and her companion Saiza Nabarawi. People inside the train look toward the two women from the windows. This image exists, but I have yet to find it online or in print. I may have seen it somewhere years ago and am remembering it now. Or I may have imagined it years ago as I read a description of this iconic event and have since assigned the imagined image the status of a historical document. I wonder if the image exists and I can’t find it, or if it only ever existed in my mind.
Dena Al-Adeeb: Dear Nada, I found an image of Huda Shaarawi with Nabawiyya Musa, and Saiza Nabarawi from 1923 returning from the International Feminist Conference in Rome. This is when she publicly removed her veil in Cairo. Her granddaughter later called this preformative act “the spectacular gesture.” The crowd of feminist women greeting her at the railway station followed her by removing their veils. This is also the year she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union.
There is no train, no fist in the air, and no crowd. Could this be the image you imagined?
Nada Shalaby: They are still in Rome here, so this image precedes the one I remember. But yes, it could be one of several images I’ve pieced together.
Dena Al-Adeeb: Nada, I wonder if this is the image you imagined? I realize she is not stepping off the train and no train is in the background, but this is the only image I was able to find with her arm extended as she looks toward the crowd. Could you have imagined those two images as one?
Nada Shalaby: Yes, perhaps I saw this image and replaced the buildings with the train and removed her veil. The original caption states “Egyptian Women Speaking on Patriotism in Public Square” (photograph copyright Bettmann/Corbis). However, this image has been attributed online to both Huda Shaarawi and Hamida Khalil, the first woman to die in the protests during the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Hamida and Huda therefore become conflated in this image.
Dena Al-Adeeb: Check out this book I found: Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924, by Huda Shaarawi, translated with introduction by Margot Badran:
“At Cairo station one spring day in 1923, a crowd of women with veils and long, black cloaks descended from their horse-drawn carriages to welcome home two friends returning from an international feminist meeting in Rome. Huda Shaarawi and Saiza Nabarawi stepped out onto the running board of the train. Suddenly Huda—followed by Saiza, the younger of the two—drew back the veil from her face. The waiting women broke into loud applause. Some imitated the act. Contemporary accounts observed how the eunuchs guarding the women frowned with displeasure. This daring act signaled the end of the harem system in Egypt. At that moment, Huda stood between two halves of her life—one conducted within the conventions of the harem system and the one she would lead at the head of a women’s movement.”
I wonder if you came across this text in the past and imagined the photo?
Nada Shalaby: That moment has been emotionally charged for me since I first encountered it. The accounts like the one you shared created layers, each one amplifying the significance of this event. In each layer different elements are emphasized. In attempting to question its formation, each time I remember it I mediate the image and change it further. I wonder if we remember in layers or fragments. Would it be possible to return to an “original” image?
I found portraits of Huda online that were subsequently embellished in interesting ways. In the one just below, I found the two images separately but realized they were taken at the same time. In the grainy image, someone has added text to the piece of paper in front of her.
Dena Al-Adeeb: Dear Nada, As I was reading Shaarawi’s speech at the first Arab Feminist Conference, held in Cairo in 1944, I couldn’t help thinking how her demands still resonate today:
“Gentlemen…I do not believe that the Arab man who demands that others give him back his usurped rights would be avaricious and not give the woman back her own lawful rights, all the more so since he himself has tasted the bitterness of deprivation and usurped rights.”
In this context, Shaarawi is calling out Egyptian/Arab men’s inconsistency, since they fought alongside women demanding independence and self-determination from their British colonizers, yet at the same time, continued to marginalize Egyptian/Arab women in both the private and public spheres. Today, Egyptian/Arab men and women stand together, once again, against the authoritarian militarized state, yet gender-based violence continues to be a dangerous epidemic. Women continue to fight back against both official (institutional and state-sanctioned) gender-based discrimination, as well as sexual harassment and violence in the streets and at home.
I also found this video documentary edited by Huda Shaarawi’s granddaughter Sania Shaarawi, political economist and author Tarek Osman, and Professor Marilyn Booth of the University of Edinburgh. Sania narrates Huda Shaarawi’s role in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and women’s role against the British colonial occupation of Egypt and the Sudan. Sania refers to her grandmother’s “taste for spectacular gestures” in her defiance toward British soldiers.
I found the documentary to be insightful not only of the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 but also of tracing the making of the modern Arab world (from the nineteenth-century to the Arab Spring) and the political dreams that have shaped it. The political aspirations were grounded in intellectual currents developing in the region as well as the world at large. These political and religious trends were sometimes at odds with each other, from pan-Arabism to Egyptian nationalism, socialism, and communism, and between modernist, traditionalist, and secularist forms of Islamism.
Anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism brought nationalists, Islamists, and feminists together and fostered an independent pan-Arab movement. Fifty years later, with the failures of Al-Nahda, also called the Arab renaissance, and its commitment to socialist, nationalist, and pan-Arab programs, alongside a failed modernizing project and authoritarian/police state, which resulted in political, social, and economic upheaval. The collapse of foreign-led neoliberal economic restructuring in Egypt augmented the crisis, all setting the stage for the Arab uprisings that took place in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown—the crisis of capitalism.
Last night, we talked about the role of women in the 2011 Egyptian revolution and how women were able to reclaim public space once again. As we both know too well, the streets of Cairo have become increasingly hostile terrains for women. Women have been relegated to the margins and are under constant threat of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and physical assault. We also spoke about issues related to gendered representations and images of women, women’s bodies, and sexuality. We also spoke about the obsession of the Western media with the role of women in the revolution. We spoke of several iconic figures who sparked effective initiatives against gender-based violence during and after the revolution, including Asmaa Mahfouz and “The Girl in the Blue Bra,“ whose image, depicting her being violently subdued by armed soldiers, became a symbol of the abuse of power by Egyptian military police as well as of the failed state.
Nada Shalaby: There were many references made comparing the participation of women in the 1919 revolution and the January 25th revolution. In an article published in Photoworks in 2011, Gilane Tawadros traces an arc from the 1919 Revolution to the 25th January Revolution, through her family history and the memory of an image of her grandmother as a young girl being held by her father during a demonstration. As with the image of Huda at the station, she also questions the existence of an actual photograph of the event. Regardless, she says, “the image of Egyptian resistance persists as a memory passed from one generation to the next, impervious to the vagaries of loss or disappearance.”
Because the name of “The Girl in the Blue Bra” was not made public, she could be imagined as anyone. She was referred to as Sitt al Banat—“the best of all girls.” There was a large protest after her assault, and I remember being with other women in the square, in the midst of a huge crowd moving together toward the platform to hear the speakers. As we walked, men on either side of us held hands in a protective chain. We chanted, “Banat masr khat ahmar”—“the girls of Egypt are a red line.” The number of people, the sound of the chants, everything felt so immense and powerful from the ground. I imagined the people filling the square and the sound rippling outward over the city. Later, I saw coverage of the protest—an aerial view of the square—and it seemed like a small gathering whose voices were barely audible from such a high vantage point.
Following the initial intensity of the moment and the sobering assessment afterward, now my most vivid memory of that day is that my mother was there with me.
Recalling Huda, I came across this passage in Al-Ahram written in 2000:
“On the afternoon of Monday, May 28, 1923, Huda Shaarawi and Saiza Nabarawi arrived at the port of Alexandria… On this occasion one of the readers of Al-Ahram wrote to thank Huda Shaarawi and her colleagues for taking such a bold step, concluding with a prayer that God spare Egypt the evils of those afflicted by obstinacy and mental stagnation, those that undermine all reform.”
This Stays Between Us: A Fantastical, Dialogical Archive is a collaborative project between Dena Al-Adeeb and Nada Shalaby. This collaborative project involves the creation of a quasi-fictive archive by two subjects in dialogue, each presenting and responding to images, video, text, and other materials relating to personal memories and historical narratives of the city of Cairo. The generated archive evokes the space between fantasy and reality, including photographs, video, animated GIFs and material from historical documents and popular culture. It is a by-product of the conversation and the subjective process that it engenders. As such it is a record of this exchange of ideas and material, of the process of seeking and researching and connecting personal memory with both historical and contemporary issues.
The development of the fictive archive is rooted in our commitment to creating a space that transcends the 2011 revolution as nexus. Secondly, the fictive archive lends itself as an alternative to official and unofficial archives, as well as, to centering the place of imagination, myths, and the fantastical as a space which fuels movements and peoples toward revolutions. The manipulation of images and creation of animated GIFs links to this imagined space as it deconstructs and questions the symbolic/iconic.
Origin and Process
The project has its origin in our participation in Open Engagement 2015: Place and Revolution at Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. We were put in touch through conference staff to develop a response to the theme for the conference blog. A conversation developed about how artists relate to space in a broad sense and how we as individual artists relate to Cairo as a site of memory and transformation, before and after the revolution. We both have strong connections to the city; Dena lived and studied in Cairo for a number of years before the revolution. Nada was born in Cairo, lived and worked there for an extended period of time. Because of this common connection to the city, we decided to begin our conversation about place by exploring our own relationships to sites within the city. With seven hours of time difference (Dena in New York and Nada in Cairo), we spent several months during the spring of 2015 chatting via Skype. During the course of these conversations, we decided to focus on Cairo’s representational histories of revolts, rebellions, and revolutions that fueled the Egyptian 2011 Revolution. We investigated the intersections of cultural memory, visual culture and the role of media and globalization in representing the 2011 Egyptian revolution. We also explored the role of artists/activists/educators in defining place, participating in socially engaged art, and creating change within community.
Our conversations revolved around constructing a fictive archive that represents the urban subconscious of Cairo and its psychogeography (a term coined by Marxist theorist Guy Debord). We stressed the need to explore our own and that of the urban psyche through visual and textual representations of the city and its relationship to the body. We realized that the urban designed environment directly impacts our lived embodied experiences and its relationship to social change. We specifically investigated how corporal politics manifests in correspondence to the material reality especially during times of crisis and transformation in society. The somatic impact of the built environment and its physical conditions may be oppressive to a point of disembodiment. Experiences of corporal violence become embodied oppressive social conditions.
We started a private blog to share material including personal reflections, photographs, as well as text and images exploring various real/imagined spaces in the city. The process of selecting images for this online archive instigated a series of layered narratives that spoke to Cairo’s gendered and material history as well as our own daily experiences in and memories of the city. Following these early discussions, we came to imagine the archive as documentation of an evolving, subjective process of the performative act of attempting to find meaning and connection in history, place and chance. We began by mapping points of intersection in our personal histories, imagination and collective narratives.
The framework of the project encourages collaboration, as others are able to assume the role of the subject they choose and add material to the archive. Therefore, while the title implies the intimacy and privacy of a closed space, the project potentially sets an open framework where collected material evokes the space between fantasy and reality, and where the material is not bound by any specific identity.
 de Bievre, Elizabeth. 1995. “The Urban Subconscious: The Art of Delft and Leiden.” Art History 18 (2): 222-252.
 “Phenomenology of the Winter-City: Myth in the Rise and Decline of Built Environments,” Abraham Akkerman, Springer; 1st ed. 2016 edition
List of Captions with URLs and dates accessed:
Nabawiyya Musa, Huda Shaarawi, and Saiza Nabarawi at the International Feminist Conference, Rome, 1923, accessed on February 1st, 2016
Huda Shaarawi: “A Taste for Spectacular Gestures,” accessed on February 5th, 2016
Cover of L’Egyptienne magazine established by Huda Sharaawi, July 1925, accessed September 13th, 2016
“Did you cry with emotion on the ruins?
And these ruins afflicted you. Did they sadden you?”
Excerpt from “Origine de la Musique Arabe“, L’Egyptienne, October-November 1926, p.59, accessed September 13th, 2016
Portrait of Huda Shaarawi, photographer unknown, 1930-40, accessed on September 13th, 2016
Image looking down: Paris, Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand
Image facing camera
Photograph of Huda Shaarawi later in life and subsequent artistic interpretations, accessed September 20th, 2016
<https://goo.gl/an8d1q>, <https://goo.gl/wXrXfz>, <https://goo.gl/c7ShPS>
Cartoon of Huda Shaarawi and Safiyya Zaghloul being chased by policemen. Al-Kashkul, 22 May 1931, accessed on September 13th, 2016
Huda Shaarawi meeting with women from various Arab countries at the Egyptian Feminist Union, accessed on February 20th, 2016
Egyptian women march in protest following the attack on “The Girl in the Blue Bra”, accessed on October 2nd, 2016
Dena Al-Adeeb is an artist, writer, scholar-activist, and a mama born in Baghdad, Iraq and is currently based in Alphabet City, New York and Oakland, California. Dena’s work refracts the political aesthetic of memory, marginalized historical narratives and performative commemorations. Her work is concerned with dis/embodied experiences and how these resonate across fragmented encounters of time and space. Her artwork takes on varied practices including performance, installation, video, photography, drawing, sculpture, painting, sound, and writing. Her artwork has been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Dena is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department, Culture and Representation track at New York University. She is the recipient of the 2016-2017 American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship. Dena’s work has been published in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence and Belonging Anthology, We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War Anthology, Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, The Color of Violence Anthology, Contemporary Practices Journal, Kritiker Literary Journal, Hysteria: Hysterical Feminisms Periodical, Contact Sheet, Light Work Annual 2011, Ibraaz, among others.
Nada Shalaby is a visual artist and educator based in Cairo. Her research-based practice is concerned with the interrogation of uncontested spaces, often involving constructs of language and cultural associations that exist in the public sphere. In 2011, she founded a social practice residency program for emerging artists and co-founded the art space Doukan7002 in Chicago. She moved back to Egypt later that year and began teaching in the Department of the Arts at the American University in Cairo. She holds a Masters degree in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo and an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University. She was awarded the Edes Foundation Prize for 2015-2016.