"The revolution is dead but at least we have the book"
Basma Hamdy teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, largely focusing her interest on Arabic type design and cultural preservation, two things that came together in the book Walls of Freedom.
Robert Urquhart interviews Basma Hamdy
The turbulent recent past in Egypt's history, dating back to February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of demonstrations is complex and, to an outsider, confusing and surprising in equal measure. After Mubarak was replaced by army generals (who had been around during the Mubarak rule) they were then in turn voted out to be replaced by Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Morsi was then removed by army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after the June 2013 Egyptian protests and the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is currently in power. With such a revolving door of power in Egypt, it seems naive to ask where, Egyptian-born, Basma Hamdy's interest in politics and communication stems from. "It came at a very young age" Hamdy diplomatically explains, "my father was a politician but he didn't stop practicing politics at home. We learnt a lot from him, he was bringing politics into humor, always joking about politics."
“The book was one of the most difficult things I’ve done”
The book, published in 2014 and co-written with Don Karl, looks at the street graffiti during the three-year period where Egypt was in a state of flux. "The book was one of the most difficult things I've done," says Hamdy, "people doubted us. Some thought we were in it for the money, or they in turn wanted money, we had to convince people we were legitimate."
“These walls speak the truth”
What was the first piece of work that attracted Hamdy to graffiti as a means of expressing the revolution in Egypt? "In a way it was a very tiny and, at first, seemly insignificant piece about a very significant and famous political activist called Alaa Abd El Fattah who had just been arrested yet again. It was a very blurred stencil, it wasn't even artistic and didn't have any aesthetic to me, just a blurred out stencil of him with the word 'innocent' underneath it. I said to myself 'the walls are speaking the truth'. When you look at what people are writing on the walls, this is what is happening right now, this is the real media. The actual media was painting a completely different picture. That was what really what inspired me."
Asking about alternative media outlets during the revolution reveals that there was a popularity for singers, storytellers and the arts, all willing to create something from the blossoming but violent changes to the country. Hamdy talks about artists spending three months painting a well-known wall on a road called Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
“Murals were scratched and censored”
When asked if Hamdy felt that the government was grappling or waging war with this alternative view of the uprising, she offers up interesting examples of media manipulation. People were painting over the work and changing its context." says Hamdy, "I think the whitewashing happened all throughout. Artists would make a piece and it would be scratched out and censored, some people said it was 'the people' but others the government."
Hamdy cites one occasion in particular where a huge protest brought the tanks out onto the street. The scenes were recreated the following day with graffiti that depicted people being crushed by tanks. The violence continued and so the next day another artist came in and painted people dying under the tanks. "The next day an interesting thing happened" says Hamdy, "the piece was edited, they wiped out the people that were dying and instead they drew people waving flags on the tank and the message said 'God bless Egypt and God bless the military."
This was a war being waged on walls, a piece that was continually edited as events unfurled. The walls were hosting a form of visual editorial: Graffiti reportage and war correspondence.
“People in Egypt are panicking right now”
On 23 February 2015 Alaa Abd El Fattah, the person from the 'innocent' stencil was sentenced to five years in prison in Cairo. Asking Hamdy about her current situation in Egypt brings a sad response. "Our book is banned in Egypt at the moment, it has been confiscated" reveals Hamdy, adding, "We have a court hearing coming up. I didn't travel to Egypt this summer because I wasn't sure what would happen, what if they put out a warrant for my arrest while I was there?" And as for the general situation? "People are panicking in Egypt right now" they don't discuss politics," says Hamdy, "they don't post the stuff that they used to post because they also feel it is futile. We had a revolution, we overthrew a president that was in power for over 30 years and look where we are now, we're nowhere, people are giving up on the cause."
Hamdy then explains the link between the book and the person who inspired it, Alaa Abd El Fattah and the much-celebrated Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif that Hamdy invited to write the foreword to the book. "The most amazing thing was that we got Ahdaf Soueif to write the foreword. Her nephew is Alaa Abd El Fattah" says Hamdy, adding "she was very skeptical about the project at first but then she sent through an email after we published saying she loved it." What do the artists think about the book? Hamdy thinks for a moment and then speaks of a sad but worthy epitaph "They say 'the revolution is dead but at least we have the book.'"
"It's not the severed heads, the most terrible part is fighters with kittens on their hand"
When Branding Terror by Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini came out in the spring of 2013, the book was met with critical praise. The praise came from the design community and interest from both counter- terrorism agencies and spread, unofficially, to subjects of the book, the terrorist networks themselves.
Robert Urquhart interviews Artur Beifuss
Speaking to Artur Beifuss about his relationship to design and counter-intelligence brings a visionary light to the entire debate about how we could view terrorism at home as well as abroad. "I'm always involved in design but I'm not a designer" Beifuss notes, "But I don't call myself an anthropologist either, I'm a political scientist." Beifuss may see himself as a political scientist but his current, publicly documented, official job title is Counter-Terrorism Analyst at United Nations.
Defuse terrorism by ‘normalising’ it
Beifuss sees a greater role for designers, advertising creatives and branding consultants in combating the ideology of terrorism. "The media only focuses on catastrophes" notes Beifuss, "unfortunately this works in favour of terror. They [terrorist networks] are playing with this fear in society when you understand something you are less afraid of it."
Beifuss wants us to defuse terrorism by 'normalising' it, de-arming the self-penned mythologies of the organisations that are using increasingly sophisticated, and destructive, means to spread their message. Beifuss wants us to break up terrorist communication by using our creative resources rather than just retaliating with firepower after the event.
Cold approach needed
How does creativity fit with such a loaded gun of a subject? Beifuss sees it as his 'lifelong work' to bring other disciplines into the debate on anti terrorism measures, as he says "Design, advertising and counter-terrorism are fields that should work together."
I ask Beifuss whether it's an emotionally challenging position to take. "You have to develop a cold approach to it because if you want to do an analysis you are not paid for your emotions, you are paid for being rational. This is what terrorism is about; it's about psychological warfare, what they want people to do is to act upon their emotions, which is fear in most cases."
“I had a molotov cocktail in my bedroom”
As with many of his generation in the West, Beifuss was heavily influenced by the events of September 11th, 2001. He cites the experience as one that first brought about an interest in researching Islamic-led terrorism. However, prior to 9/11 Beifuss had experienced violence and intolerance closer to home.
The Beifuss family is of German descent (on both sides) who's families had been deported to Russia under Stalin's rule. His parents met in the Ukraine, where Artur was born. The family returned to Eastern Germany when Artur was seven years old. "I had a molotov cocktail in my bedroom," says Beifuss, recalling his startling method of protection from the extremists that attacked his parents new home in Germany. "We were refugees" he continues, "even though my ancestors were German we got placed in refugee homes." It was here that the Beifuss family were subject to two attacks by Neo - Nazis who victimised them for their supposed Russian roots. "Very early in my life I made contact with extremism" Beifuss explains.
Neutral world view
From these early first-hand experiences with extremism, Belifuss went on in a positive step to assist in trying to maintain some semblance of peace on the planet. After studying Applied African Studies & Languages (Standard Arabic, French, Spanish) at the Universität Bayreuth in Germany, with a year at Damascus University learning standard Arabic in 2005, Belifuss then went on to Universiteit van Amsterdam. From here Belifuss joined the United Nations in 2010.
Beifuss is careful not to bring politics into the debate, his world view appears to be neutral, his only comment being "cosmopolitanism is the only thing to go for." Asking about the definition of 'terrorism' brings further evidence of self-enforced neutrality for the sake of the subject. Beifuss tries to offer a clear path to data when he says " As soon as you get into religion you get a lot of noise. Of course, it is relevant but not necessary to get into these political discussions in order to analyse the logo, it doesn't help."
"Normal girls thinking ISIS is ‘so cool’"
Returning to the theme of unmasking the absurdities and incongruities of terrorism we discuss Al Qaeda and the newer, more shrewd ISIS. "The argument about Al Qaeda going out of favour was that no one wants to sit in a cave," says Beifuss."With ISIS on the other hand, the most disturbing thing is their depiction of normal life. It's not the severed heads, the most terrible part is fighters with kittens on their hand, London girls getting involved, normal girls thinking ISIS is 'so cool'. It's these realities that will be reflected in the next project I'm starting work on."
Beifuss intends to un-brand ISIS to make terrorism less attractive. "If you look at terrorism from the brand perspective, like every organisation that has its own brand, each competes with the other rather like a capitalist system. They are offering the same product more or less, but these organisations need to get supporters and money. How they do it? They need to get the most attention, and they get attention by being the most notorious organisation. If you look at the history of ISIS, all of their attacks, each one is worse than the last, this is exactly what you get when you look at terrorism from a brand perspective."
Collection of propaganda-objects
We conclude our conversation by looking at some of the artefacts that Beifuss has accumulated on his travels around Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Africa and the Arab world. The pieces could be seen as kitsch, perhaps with Western ambition, or as some sort of in-joke. "I like to travel a lot and collect objects of propaganda," says Beifuss "Do people buy these things?"
Beifuss then talks about buying an iPhone 5 case with Putin doing a Kung Fu move over an opponent with the words Dolce & Gabbana over it and fake Apple brand flip flops. "It's just interesting to me how brands are subverted in other countries" muses Beifuss "people love brands like Apple so much that they'll put it on everything."
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