Monday, March 26, 2012

City of Victory, City of Tragedy

Among the tourist shops one night in Khan al Khalili, the place you go to buy jewelry or statues of King Tut or T-shirts with pictures of pyramids and camels, I found a small shop selling old ‘media,’ for lack of a better word. The man in charge was young and only had a rough sense of everything the shop contained, ranging from antique vinyl to vintage movie posters to endless stacks of yellowing newspapers.

I had been reading about the early days of the Nasser-era press, the mid-1950's, and the ideas that circulated at the time about how newspapers could be a device for transparency, where leaders could publish their speeches at length, instead of competing for space with tabloids. I was curious about the editor Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who became editor in chief of Al Ahram in 1957, and I wanted to see if I could find an issue with his mark on it, even if I failed to bargain the price down to something reasonable.

I sifted through stacks and stacks of yellowing newsprint, and finally I came upon one copy of Al Ahram, dated December 23, 1957. In huge, curving red letters nearly two inches tall it reads “DAY OF VICTORY.”

The sub-headline read, “Gamal Abdel Nasser is in Port Said today. Important speech by the President at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

So Al Ahram had splashed a headline as big as the New York Times might use for perhaps Pearl Harbor or a Presidential election, and all that had happened was a speech by the President in one of Egypt’s smaller cities?

In 1956, Port Said had been attacked by Israeli, French, and British troops. The plan had been secretly designed, but not as secretly contained in the aftermath. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was furious over Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The French were angry over Nasser’s alleged support of rebels in Algeria. Israel would attack, they decided, and then Paris and London would send troops under the guise of protecting international interests in the Canal.

The way its been etched into national mythology, the local population fought back against the British and French troops landing in Port Said. They had few arms, and much of the city was destroyed. But what entered Egyptian national memory was not the devastation, nor the U.N. mission to seize the canal and hand it back over to the Egyptians. What got remembered instead was the resistance of the people of Port Said. “Despite the fact that two powerful countries unleashed their hell on the city,” wrote blogger Zeinobia as recently as 2009, “the honorable people of Port Said stood defending it in a legendary way.”

Each year in the late 50’s and early 60’s, in late December, Nasser would return to Port Said and give a speech for “Victory Day,” commemorating the handover of the Canal back to Egyptian control. He would use the speech as one of many updates on the work of his government, and impregnate the moment with patriotism by holding it at such a historically freighted location. It would be as if Obama gave the State of the Union at Ground Zero or New Orleans, or another place saturated in the symbolism of American resilience.

Nasser placed Port Said in the broader narrative of Arab nationalism. “Port Said, the valiant city, was the first practical test for the power of Arab Nationalism,” he told the crowds in 1958. “Yet Arab Nationalism, which had spontaneously risen from the Atlantic to the Arab Gulf and united the Arab people making them all of one heart and one mind proved its worth as a genuine force. We triumphed in Port Said and thus Arab Nationalism triumphed.”

He enlisted the familiar David and Goliath genre, in which the small city of Port Said stood up to the armies of three countries. “Although you were small in number, you emerged victorious against enormous powers,” he announced proudly. “You gained triumph because you are principled and because you have faith in your objectives.”

He talked in terms of a broad historical trajectory towards freedom. The victory in 1956 had “wiped out the remnants of the thoughts which had prevailed in the Nineteenth Century, which included the ambitions of invasion and the usurping of other people’s countries,” he argued. “In Port Said, you buried the remnants of the age of imperialism.”

This has historically been the way Port Said is seen by the rest of Egypt, as the fierce part that stands in for the proud whole, the synecdoche of Egypt’s refusal to be colonized. In the 1970’s, when Sadat dismantled much of Nasser’s state socialism and turned the country towards open trade, Port Said was a duty free zone, meaning that yet again it could serve as the mantle of broader national initiatives, the city of resistance now a city of acceptance.

Then in February of this year, violence broke out at a soccer stadium in Port Said, leading to the deaths of over 70 innocent fans. It was a national tragedy, and though some people blamed the Mubarak regime’s remnants and others blamed the military leaders and others blamed the Ministry of the Interior, a few blamed the people of Port Said. Graffiti was seen in Aswan reading “What is the capital of Israel? Port Said” A taxi driver told a reporter for Al Ahram, "Murderers! Thugs! Savages! That's what I hear every time I leave the city.” This past Saturday night, a 13 year old boy was shot when soccer fans and security forces fought over a ban on games for three years. 

Suddenly the city of victory, once the symbol for Egypt’s vision of national liberation, had become a city of tragedy, where contemporary dreams of revolutionary change have been knocked perilously out of balance.

This week, I’m traveling to Port Said to continue learning this story.

Photo: Chim (David Seymour), At the close of the Suez fighting, Port Said, 1956, International Center for Photography

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