Author discusses Arab Spring through lens of the human body

Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 9:28pm

Marwan Kraidy spoke about his new book, “The Naked Blogger of Cairo,” in a North Quad lecture hall Thursday afternoon, focusing on creative insurgency in the Arab world since the Arab Spring in 2010.

Kraidy, an expert in global media and transnational communication, is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Hosted by the Global Media Studies Initiative, the event kicked off the center’s Communication and Media speaker series, which invites an expert in the field of communication each month to discuss domestic and international media related topics.

In his book, Kraidy considers the Arab Spring uprising through the lens of the human body. During his presentation Thursday, consisting primarily of drawings and graphic images, he discussed what he described as the locus of power during the movement — the body.

Kraidy said he knew there was a distinctive perspective of the Arab uprising that had not yet been told, but he struggled to grasp how to articulate a unique perspective on it cohesively. After a trip through the Middle East designed to stimulate ideas for his next book, he noticed a common thread in the interactions he had with various artists and media forms.

“Very quickly, I start realizing there are lots of bodies, body organs, faces, fists, eyes, feet in graffiti,” he said. “There was a lot of play on scale between the miniature and the monument in terms of representations of bodies. Political speech had a lot of body metaphors. Textually, metaphorically, visually, symbolically, the body was all over the place. So I decided this is what the focus of the book is going to be.”

To illustrate what he believes to be a lack of transparency in the media, Kraidy displayed a depiction of Pinocchio speaking on television as a newscaster, his extended nose protruding from the box TV set, halfway through his discussion.

“This is basically saying that television is not to be trusted — it lies,” he said. “This uses the body’s ability to betray, and to not be transparent despite its owner’s best intention.”

Throughout his discussion, Kraidy also drew attention to a variety of graffiti illustrations that provided a window into the Arab Spring. In one slide, he displayed an artist's juxtaposition of Hosni Mubarak — the ousted Egyptian president during the uprising — and a laughing cow as a proxy for global capitalism under his presidency. The Laughing Cow cheese was considered low-quality and cheap, serving as an appropriate political and economic symbol, he said.

Other graffiti depictions featured clenched fists and unstrapped blue bras. A eponymous naked blogger from Cairo served as the most influential symbol in the drafting of his book.

“Her blog became a form of radical activism,” Kraidy said. “I raised the question, ‘Why does something like this become such a huge scandal?’ And I’ve always tried to explain this by saying that the female body has always been central to revolutions.”

The Egyptian blogger, Alliaa Magda Elmahdy, sparked controversy when she posted a nude photo of herself on her blog, titled “A Rebel’s Diary.” Since she posted the photo in 2011, many women have followed in her footsteps, posting naked photos of themselves online.

“Considering the human body as a vital nexus of physical struggle and virtual communication helps us realize that distinctions between expression and action, mind and matter, the Internet and the ‘real world’ are actually flimsy,” Kraidy said.

Of the many illustrations of creative insurgency through bodies in history, Kraidy charged that the most publicly engrossing ones were acts of self-immolation. He compared the directed tactics of self-immolators to those of suicide bombers.

“If you look at Lebanon and the statements of suicide bombers and self-immolators, there’s more of a directed enemy,” he said. “There’s the shaping the others out of their complacency element that’s fundamental.”

Kraidy also touched on the role social media played in the Arab Spring, saying the online insurgency’s impact has received too much credit. Instead, Kraidy challenged the audience to explore the human component behind the technology.

“Much — too much — has been said about the role of digital media in the Arab uprisings, but how technologies interact with the humans who operate them remains unclear,” he wrote in “The Naked Blogger of Cairo.”