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The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
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Desire in Walking and Language

I love desire lines. These rebellious trails—worn paths across the land made by repeated, prolonged, and collective action—signify, for me, modes of subversion and refusal. They suggest a best-case argument for anarchy in which the power of small, everyday action is evidenced against the benevolent municipal authoritarianism of sidewalks, roads, and paved paths. Desire lines are responsive, contextual, reflective, continually participatory, and exist without hierarchy through the efforts of unknown authors.

In this way, language is like walking. Language, too, bears the weight of authoritarian legacy, particularly in cultures scarred by colonization. And language, too, is responsive, contextual, and continually participatory, offering opportunities for subversion and refusal.

A Dictionary of the Revolution—in Egyptian Arabic,  عن قاموس الثورة or Qamos Al Thawra—is a participatory and web-based project by the artist Amira Hanafi, and one example of this linguistic–ambulatory relationship. A Dictionary of the Revolution maps the language of the Egyptian Revolution that began in 2011. Starting from a box set of 160 vocabulary cards, Hanafi and others interviewed over 200 people in aamiya—colloquial Egyptian, which is not typically used as a written language—to collect a diverse set of texts on the history, usage, and applications of each word. The result is a web project whose material is collective action: testimonials—from transliterated aamiya also translated into English—shape the very language they document. The Qamos Al Thawra website visualizes the desire lines of language and speech as a circular arrangement of mapping and narrative, tracing words to one another to illustrate complex webs of meaning that are less linear than they are folded, expanded, looped. 

Hanafi has a walking practice, stemming from the Situationist strategy of the dérive, or unplanned journey. It feels natural that her understanding of the polyvocal city would extend to the evolution of language as well, when one considers how both place and language are built, authored, and sustained by innumerable players. The imagined dialogues of Qamos Al Thawra, woven together by Hanafi from her interviews, allow us to feel the outlines of how meaning is made and by whom: some voices in these texts feel authoritative while others sound ambivalent or entirely unsure. That they are unattributed and simultaneously presented visualizes the way that language, like our environments, are constructed and understood to varying degrees. That they are undated serves as a reminder that this work is ongoing.

Qamos Al Thawra includes words and phrases invented during the Egyptian Revolution. For example, “wheel of production/ عجلة الإنتاج” is a term that was, as described in the site’s collected narratives, invented by the state to oppose protests under the guise of ensuring economic health for the country; we learn that “couch party/ حزب الكنبة” was coined, somewhat divisively, to describe those who stayed at home watching the revolution on television. The Dictionary also looks at how the symbolic meaning of existing words shifted during the Revolution, such as “Mohamed Mahmoud/ محمد محمود,” a street off Tahrir Square bordering American University in Cairo’s former downtown location, which was originally named for Egypt’s two-time Prime Minister in the 1920s and '30s. During the Revolution it became a central site for sit-ins and graffiti, and was ultimately scarred by deadly police and state force that included tear gas, sexual harassment, and gunfire, for which the name is now synonymous. Qamos Al Thawra links Mohamed Mahmoud to 37 other terms, with the thickest lines (denoting the strongest connections) to “revolution,” “the people,” “police,” “gas,” “clashes,” and “the Brotherhood.”

Hanafi’s work acts for me as a reference for connecting back to agency and responsibility in all of the small, but meaningful actions, we can make. Choosing to tread along a desire path—because it’s direct, scenic, anarchic—and adding my own mark along with the chorus of feet, wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers is a minute but ultimately visible way of changing what exists. It matters as much when we take these positions by using specific language to mark or shift power. These acts of rebellion are borne, yes, from desire, but also from necessity.


Jenna Crowder

is a writer, editor, and artist in Portland, Maine.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues