Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The Song of Freedom by the Blue Bird of Egypt (2011)

In Ancient Egypt, there can be found on the 'Tree Of Life' different birds which represent the various stages of human life. Starting in the lower right-hand corner and proceeding counter-clockwise:



The song of freedom

Thoughts fade away into the grey sky

when only resignation and silence rule

and hope is left to roam the streets alone.

Forbidden shall be meetings with strangers

as if only brotherhood with Judas matters.

Yet the voice of betrayal comes from within

since a darkened soul fears nothing more

than sunlight which can brush away shadows

cast by grey figures of power and abuse.

Forever, so it seems, they loom tall and large

to force everyone into still further submission.

But then came spring to let a street vendor imagine

a blue bird singing again the song of freedom

as ancient Egyptians used to hear near the Nile.


HF Athens 5.2.2011


Most recently first the people in Tunisia, then in Egypt stepped out of shadows cast in the past by the unresolved issue of authoritarian rulership and into the limelight of not only their own present, but also into the flood lights of the international media. Suddenly international journalists are parachuted into the action zone and begin to report as if they recognize well known faces amongst the anti government protesters organising a new government on Tahrir square in Cairo.

How strange. Tim Sebastian reported just some time ago how no one ever makes it in Cairo to any appointment. The reason is that there is no way forward in a traffic which blocks every entry into and equally every exit from a main square.

There is the story of the Polish journalist Kapuscinsky who recalls a man showing him in Cairo the way to a beautiful look out on top of a minaret, but once up there with him alone, he demanded all his money and disappeared. Kapuscinsky made only slowly his way down the steep spiral stairs as he thought about the lesson he had just learned.

Reading this story it might sound like ‘don't trust the natives’ as if always out to cheat the tourists. There are the well known tricks often told in jokes: 'you wish to ride my camel?' After some bargaining the ride ends up being more costly than a taxi. Still the camel driver will convince the tourists, it wanted, the camel shall go through the traffic chaos like the camel in the bible through a needle ore.

Certainly the mistrust Mubarak launched against foreigners and especially the foreign press seems to equate much more the need to trust someone even if abusive power still maintains the need to mistrust the stranger. But due to this abuse of power many people in Egypt have become strangers to themselves. To counter this young people gather on bridges where they feel a bit safer, who knows why, but that is where they start to flirt with the opposite sex even if not allowed by strict Muslim law. It is not easy at times for young people to meet and to taste the first sense of real freedom. That freedom comes when it is possible to really fall in love and give that commitment for life more convincing when done freely rather than what a forced marriage by arrangement can ever mean to the young couple.

But if this not yet a reply to how the questioning of power is being played out in 2011, then because there prevails a silence which betrays what is happening in the streets. It is, therefore, important to heed this silence.

There is much talk about the Egyptian revolt of especially the young people having to do with what has become a common affinity and reason to join the change in Egypt, namely things are done out of dignity of every man and woman. Dignity should not be confused with pride about which Pablo Neruda said this would lead only to isolation and loneliness. And it should not be forgotten the many rich Egyptian men who love to keep four wives just for the sake of what? They all sit in their limousines with the women in veil while the man displays his opulent body to boast in a way that a good life is also by indication a rich one leading to a certain fatness and immobility. But this does not mean it is without a certain grace. This is especially when gestures, indeed bodily movements take on an erotic and exotic thrill to counter the handicap which goes with greater physical difficulties to move about.

There were scenes when shoots were fired at tourists just emerging out of the pyramids. Was it in a movie or a real scene? Ambivalence means in this case Egypt did not show any clear profile over the past 30 years, safe that it upheld the peace with Israel despite what was happening to the Palestinians since 1948. It meant especially after Hamas came to power to close the border to the Gaza strip and thereby to add by tacit submission to Israel's security needs to the humanitarian crisis of the Palestinians inside Gaza and not only. Egypt's attitude affected the entire peace process in the Middle East, including what happened to the Palestinians before and after the departure of Arafat. This Egyptian policy contributed as well to be building of tunnels as lucrative side business to such a politics based on one sided peace agreements i.e. only one side was forced to make constantly concessions and compromises while the Israel kept up an uncompromising stand and expanded its settlements on occupied territories.

Having said that there are some obvious contradictions. It can begin with observations Cavafy made while looking from his balcony of his house in Alexandria to see what was happening down below. Apparently in his times there was nothing unusual about it, but the usual things took on a significant meaning in the poem left behind by him. Cavafy said so much about the continuity of flesh until death!

“Under me is a house of ill repute, which caters to the needs of the flesh. Over there is a church, where sins are forgiven. And beyond is the hospital where we die.”

An article about Alexandria, the former home of Cavafy, underlines the fact that the Alexandria of his times no longer exists nowadays. The article was written in 2009 and states the following:

"In Cavafy’s era, the Mediterranean port city was a mix of Greek, Italian, Armenian, Syrian, Maltese, British and other nationalities adding to the majority Arab-Egyptian population, all lured there by trade in cotton and wheat.

The city, and Egypt as a whole, grew more homogenized after the ouster of the monarchy in 1952, the rise of Arab nationalism and the confiscation of private property by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser.

In the past two decades, the emergence of Islam as a prime source of identity among many Egyptians made Cavafy’s sensuous subject matter unfashionable. By all accounts, Alexandria is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition party. The brotherhood wants Egypt ruled under Islamic law. Alexandria was once a place where women strolled in sun dresses, not headscarves and caftans, and where religion was a matter of personal choice, not political campaigning.

After visiting the museum, I discussed Cavafy at the office of Sobhi Saleh, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament. Saleh says Islamic law precludes publishing Cavafy’s poetry.

“Cavafy was a one-time event in Alexandria,” he says. “His poems are sinful.”

Brave Poetry

“It’s an extreme misunderstanding of Islam,” counters Said. “In any case, Cavafy was brave to write as he did. Now, he probably could not be a poet in Alexandria. He’d be driven out.”

Or maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference for Cavafy. In the poem “In the Same Place,” he wrote of the coffeehouses, home and neighbourhood where he spent his years not as they were but as he made them:

I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:

Out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you’ve been wholly remade into feeling; for me.'"

Source: Daniel Williams, "Erotic Poet Cavafy’s Trace Fades in Egypt’s Mythic Alexandria" Published by Bloomberg, October 12, 2009 19:00 EDT


Something similar said Nikos Stavroulakis about the difference in Thessaloniki before and after the tragedy of Minor Asia unfolded as of 1921 when the Greek army was beaten back and then there took place the ouster of all those who had added to the ethnic mix in Salonika while Greeks had to leave Asian Minor.

One might be tempted to say this is another story but if Alexander the Great is recalled, the question of ethnic mix and cultural diversity being allowed to exist makes sense more now than back then. Alexander had attempted to bring about an ethnic mix in his armies. This dream of all men and women living together, side by side, in freedom, would mean as well freedom from hatred and prejudice. If true, then this dream cannot be put aside.

Obviously Western eyes see in the Muslim Brotherhood the key factor as to what has transformed so much Alexandria. That it is why they are called the 'enigma' in the present political situation: the great unknown factor in need to be figured out what role they will play in the current transformation of Egypt as it seeks a path leading into a post Mubarak era.

Here something more needs to be said as to what allows people to mingle freely in the streets and yet not mix up things. If that would mean a liveable social order for all, then because things not merely count when dealt with out of the own perspective but rather they embrace a modern urban culture. This urban culture has evolved everywhere in order not to mix up things but still be tolerant towards others up to a certain point. By that is meant fore mostly the tolerance towards the gay culture, the equality of the sexes and the acceptance of same sex marriages to the point that they can even adopt or have children although they do come from two different parents, one being a woman, the other a man. There cannot be a confusion about the different sexes when it comes to bear children. It is at this point where the younger generation in Egypt converges with what the youth in the West assumes of being of greatest importance to them. For they no longer accept as basis of identity the sexual gender.

In that sense a dream lives on but radically changed. It is a struggle to overcome what might be called another form of mutilation of not the body but of the mind. This is said as reference to certain feelings while many more remain to be mere onlookers when young people spill onto the streets of Cairo and claims are made that it was due to everyone subscribed to make use of twitters and face book when in fact the Internet could be switched off by Mubarak. Rather it is another kind of social communication unfolding and therefore the logic of organisation does not heed technology so much as they wish to free their theory of society from the domains of power. The latter has been telling them only certain things are possible, only certain things work, and only certain things matter. Now all of a sudden the making of own experiences matters and with it comes the sense of real freedom.

So the question that some discussed during the Security conference in Munich around Feb. 5th and 6th is whether the new protest movement is a third force. If yes, it would mean this force does wish a national identity but one which is not based exclusively on a pure concept of all belonging but to just one religious faith i.e. that of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, their longing for a new identity is based on being no longer willing to stay silent vis a vis the abuse of power by Mubarak. As this includes his family clan and the party machine and which extends institutionally to the police and the army, the questioning of real power is a huge undertaking. It requires new forms of social identification to make this kind of social communication work i.e. bring about results in ways of governing by well thought through principles of which Edward Said would be happy if realized in a practical way within the whole of Egypt and not only in Cairo.

If in between solutions are sought in the West, then they shall follow the voices of those who hover always on the sidelines when history is being made. These are the voices of those who are anxious about loosing business prospects in the Middle East. If democracy is to be endorsed by those having the power in the West, then they need to give up their ever blinding hope that it is easier to do business with dictators of all shades than with an unruly population wishing fore mostly freedom. Therefore it is time to deliberate anew the terms under which world wide business has been conducted with lucrative contracts given after Western companies having offered most of the time some side bribes. This principle of corruption has always been passed over in silence as if it would not damage the spirit of democracy, namely under which free conditions people not only work but trade together. Basically the question in the West is in view of these changes in Egypt whether these business deals are really worth the money but also the sweat and pain they impose upon the people of Egypt?

Reliable information, reliable human contacts and sound knowledge on how to go forward are needed. Every analysis of the situation has to be combined with the basic wisdom, namely how important it is to respect the people when the time has come that these people question power. Since power prevails in many details, and one needs to think only how foreign embassies have made it into a business to issue visas or not, then neither the old political or the sacred foreign relations will no longer do. As shown by the invasion into Iraq, it is not good to deprive the people of their own, often first experience of what it means to topple a dictator and to take power into own hands. As this can be done forcefully, even violently, the new self control put in place should not forget those who died during the first 12 days of protest and unrest. But as long as negotiations are going on, social communication can mean a real dialogue. The result will certainly be a compromise, but of an entirely different quality since this time the former strong ones are put into the position that they need to compromise with what the people need primarily, namely the freedom to unite in order to safeguard the freedom of every man, woman and child.

There is the political question as to what should happen to Mubarak? There is talk about a 'golden bridge' being build right now to ease the pain for him as it seems that no longer can be avoided the prime conclusion, namely his departure from power. The rules are strict but there are differences in how to ease the pain. In the West, it is called 'soft landing'. That is provided when someone is ousted but in respect to the circumstances of how the ouster was done, namely with a portion of injustice, other means are decided upon to ease the pain. Therefore efforts are undertaken to make possible a soft landing in another reality.

But is this offer of Western powers to Mubarak something possible? The question exists because people demand as well accountability not only from someone who has betrayed the will of the people for 30 years but equally of the Western governments, in particular of the United States which made it possible that Mubarak could stay in power so long since Egypt received alone from the United States 1,9 Billion in aid per year? Where has all that money gone? It is said, for instance, that the army in Egypt is a society within society. The money has thus gone into building up an entire economy with the army owing companies and many other lucrative business ventures. This means like in all nation states which retain an expensive military apparatus with no clear accountability, there is the tendency to drivie the state into ever deeper debt, see Greece, while not contributing to the security of the people, but only to safeguard the privilege of the super rich.

Again Turkey is often mentioned as alternative example of having both an Islamic party in power and yet democracy prevailing as something acceptable in Western eyes as to how then business deals can be made and kept. Again it is a matter of reliability; otherwise inward investments shall not come. And Turkey is trying to decrease the military expenditure in order to reduce as well the power of the military but that shall never be easy when the security agenda determines the political agenda.

The security agenda is linked to the interests of Israel to keep someone like Mubarak in power for then the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is secure even if it ignores the plight this arrangement with one sided power brings to the people of Egypt.

Wide sweeping changes are needed but they never occur in a way as foreseen. Astonishment is expressed that no one anticipated these events. The Middle East was considered to be autarchy by definition and therefore power would lie in the hands of a very few, very rich and therefore very influential people at the top. Right across all Arab nations there prevails this power syndrome of wealth coupled with a desire to ease the pain for the West when making business deals. In turn, the oil as source of wealth has been used as motor to keep the one sided bargaining going on all the time.

Business deals ignoring the need for democracy was a pivot and turning point in the policy of the West towards Iraq. Saddam Hussein was only then no longer acceptable once he no longer cooperated and therefore no longer complied fully with the demands of the West. With Mubarak this differed as he was ready to comply all the time and thus the trade off was compliance internationally but internally he had as free a say as had Adenauer after 1945 in then West Germany. By creating a new German army and bringing West Germany into NATO, Adenauer could do internally what he liked. This meant removing from education, culture and media the critical left while letting those who complied with power under Fascism come back into full service. Something similar must have happened under Mubarak.

One critical point has come up with reference to Iran: the need to be modest in aspirations when the time has come to overthrow a dictator. There can be heard voices who draw lessons out of the failed transition from dictatorship of the Shah in Iran to democracy since instead the absolute rule by the Mullahs came into force. These voices warn now with regards to Egypt not to preset the political paradigm for yet another kind of dictatorship. Thus reference is being made to what amounts to a need for a 'modest response' i.e. even, for example, when searching for ways on how to deal with former crimes committed by members of the secret police who tortured prisoners and had no regards for the Rights of anyone once thrown into prison. It is said all must be treated equal in front of the law and therefore no lynching should take place. The latter would mean merely to allow a pseudo justice to prevail.

Indeed, it is a critical point how highly arbitrary power is overcome in order to become more just than what was in place. It would mean also equality inside of the jails. Under a corrupt regime it meant more often that the one who could not bribe was beaten up while the one who had connections to the top managed to survive even when in prison. That difference in privilege may continue even when power is being questioned by the people protesting in the streets.

As Michel Foucault would say the prison as institution overlooking forms of punishment of those who do not break so much the law but more often made the mistake of not playing along so that those in power could win, they were punished more severely than those who broke the law. For they had upset the many unwritten rules of the game. Naturally with such allusion to power being played out well hidden from the public, there prevails the well known political problem of 'silence'. This silence pertains not only to those who stay quiet when they see obvious injustices being inflicted upon innocent bystanders by the police, but includes as well the silence of the tourists who flock to the Pyramid or enjoy boat rides on the Nile even when they could know that the population living off the rubbish dumps of Cairo is growing daily. More and more have been scrambling there for crumbs like birds for some food underneath the tables were the rich wine and dine.

As if life is frolic business. It is not! The existing silence serves the purpose of not letting know what is really happening. It is the secret of those who lived too long in the shades of power and who no longer remember what it means to live in freedom and to have the means to give shape to a normal life!

Hence when things are happening in Egypt, then the dreams of Cleopatra are never far away. As myth it lives on the poem by Cavafy who writes in a moving way about abandoned Anthony:

The god forsakes Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

- Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

As pointed out by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, most amazing in Cavafy's poem is that about overcoming abandonment he finds a way back to not one, but many 'Ithacas'.



As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

Indeed, freedom comes home when no one is forced to abandon his or her home but can live by letting in the stranger bringing news that many more Ithakas exist i.e. in other cities. This bearing of news about freedom prevailing not only in Alexandria but as well in Cairo means nowadays news travels only then faster than on the Internet when everyone realises the same spirit, namely that of freedom. It is like all breathing the same fresh air.

Freedom lets things follow. Life is then not merely the light travelling over this earth, so that days follow weeks and weeks the many months of waiting. Rather it means somewhere the blue bird begins to sing about that freedom so long missed in this land beside the Nile.

Hatto Fischer

Athens 6.2.2011


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