Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Imperial Haze, Part II

In his famous poem Ozymandias, Percy Shelley only got it partly right:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley shows us the foolishness of man, so limited and so impotent compared to the boundlessness of the sands. So foolishly proud is the emperor. Indeed, just as surely as our own selves will slip away with time will even the mightiest of empires decay.

And what remains is the beauty of the sculptor; the hands that create. The creation outlives the man. The life that remains is in the art.

And oh how commanding is that which remains! Empires may surely fall but not without effect. Their restored remains (and all that is left behind ‘for posterity’s sake’) tell powerful narratives, woo audiences with their beauty and become the centerpieces of made-up histories. The victors may be in a colossal wreck but do not be deceived, dear Shelley, as they continue to write history and wield marked power in our contemporary times.

Of course it is the reconstruction of these remains in roughly the past century and a half, coupled with the written texts left behind by the victors, that has had such an influence on our contemporary reading of the past. The reconstruction and the interpretation have been deeply embedded in processes of memory creation, as the British empire and then new nation states actively tried to create their histories.

I am often reminded of this living in the ‘Land of the Pharaohs’. That is Pharaohs with a capital “P” no less. The imperial time of the Pharaohs has perhaps received unprecedented reconstruction efforts. Even an entire discipline and many sub-disciplines have been created to study this time. An entire nation was granted partial independence (Egypt in the 1920s) in part because of its remains. Millions of people make a living off of its display. An entire national economy is based on the selling of the Pharaonic past.

More than that, people take the ancient past of this place to be the past of the Pharaohs. How often the Pharaohs are conflated with “the ancient Egyptians” is mind boggling. We are bedazzled by the remains: gold, jewelry by the dozen, aesthetic catacombs, hidden chambers. They capture the modern imagination: How could they? How did they? What beauty!

As if all the peoples of this region during this vast time frame had such an elaborate burial, their catacombs stuffed with gold and jewelry and animal protectors!

How frequently I have heard the human past equated with the constructed Pharaonic one is even more disturbing. Such fetishization of the remains leaves the bedazzled in a stupor. The mark of the slave and serving classes is masked by the beauty of the art that remains.

I am perhaps more reminded of the decadence of the ruling classes and the their history in the making when I leave or come back to my home in Cairo. Most ways pass by the Citadel with the Mohamed Ali Mosque jutting out into the skyline. When I am making my long way home, I get dropped off in a dust and smoke filled field of cement. Its night and its dark. I walk along beside an overpass and next to a wall (probably from the same period as the mosque), making my way to the transportation hub in Sayeda Aisha to catch my next micro-bus. And there above me, on top of the hill, shining above like a full moon, is the lit Mohamed Ali Mosque. It takes my breath away almost every time. Amidst such grime, such coldness, there is this stunning beauty lighting up the sky.


Well, that is precisely what Mohamed Ali was aiming for. He didn’t create the Mosque for God and then name it after himself. He was the man who ripped thousands of farmers from their land, enslaved them in his army and then denied them a proper burial; forced thousands of other farmers to cultivate cotton; gave land and favors to his political allies; and the list of atrocities under his reign goes on. He was the man who reaped injustice in this land – and as the historian Khaled Fahmy argues, for the sake of him and his family.

But in that haze of nation building and national history creation, Mohamed Ali became the founder of modern Egypt (which had something to do with the mosque and other remains left behind). And now the grand Mosque is a major destination in Cairo, not just for tourists but for school children. It is with awe that they look upon “his creation” and in that awe the history is told as if he himself was telling it.

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