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Testimony... by Khalid Abdalla

24th February, 2013 - Khalid Abdalla. Go to original at Facebook

(Khalid Abdalla is a British-Egyptian actor, producer and filmmaker. He studied at Cambridge University and École Philippe Gaulier in Paris. His work in Cairo centres on three collaborative spaces he participated in founding: Zero Production, Mosireen and Cimatheque, working respectively on independent film production, alternative citizen based media, and film education and screening. Credits as an actor include Paul Greengrass’s Oscar nominated United 93, Marc Forster’s The Kite Runner, and Green Zone, in which he stars opposite Matt Damon. He tweets from @mosireen)

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Khalid Abdalla was asked to write a text on 'Testimony' for an exhibition called 'Cairo. Open City. New testimonies from an ongoing revolution.' Scheduled to be published sometime in April, Abdalla gave permission to Tahrir Squared to showcase the full text here, which he also placed on his FaceBook account



A revolution is an act of sight. Like a miracle, it makes visible what seemed beyond the horizon, bringing power structures into focus, reshaping what once appeared indestructible. As such, a revolution is also a battle with time. How long does it take to reach what you’ve seen? Meanwhile, miracles develop into stories, and stories are easily manipulated. The more time passes the more stories are told, the more the miracle is called a delusion, the more the sight is turned into darkness. At each step of this miraculous journey violence is inescapable. As people face authority, two visions of truth lock in a struggle for existence. Claims on the past and the future collide with purpose, and at each turn of the wheel blood marks the trail.


Those of us who witness the miraculous have a duty to others. The story of what we see no longer belongs to us because it changes everything. In a revolution, this change is a whole political reality worth dying for, not because death is an ideal, but because the economy of life has become such that risking death is the only way of securing life for others. Such is the culture of lies pervading the old order that it will kill you and claim that no one died. Another darker miracle.


The bodies caught in this battleground, and the families from which their blood came, are the real storytellers of this history. The heart that moves mountains has something to tell us all. And yet so many of those hearts are silenced. The act of testimony becomes our closest witness.


Something of this world is present when you walk into a room and switch on a camera to be faced with someone who wants to speak through you. In as much as they tell you their experience of what happened, they engage in an act of the kindest faith in their audience. Their words say that if you truly hear me you will see a world that you are blind to. Meanwhile their method of speech is two-fold, to provide proof of their story and to move.  Sometimes it is only to move because that is the truest statement, even if it falls on deaf ears.


Rotten ideologies create societies dependent on a culture of lies. Sometimes those lies are comforting. More often than not they serve authority. When authority lies it must be overthrown. To do so you must disprove the lies. But doing so takes time. The burden of providing proof is a longer process than the ability to lie, especially when the lie is as comforting and invisible as sleep.


But when someone says what you’re thinking without you saying it that person has a hold on you. When their story confirms your hidden fears, a process of trust around a discourse begins. A revolution is a period of time in which massive social change is possible within a very short period of time. The moment at which people believe something collectively without another word spoken is the moment a whole power structure begins to shift. They need to believe at the same time, especially when they are leaderless. And so timing is essential if you wish to catch a fleeting moment. The rhythm of our story is the rhythm of our testimonies and acts of witness. Just as they protect us, they protect our narratives. The story of where we have come from and also where we are going. 


Our words, our eyes, our cameras, our ink, are all witnesses to the deeper truths in this power shift. Which is not to say that we are always right, but that we are always reaching out for something truer than just mere evidence. We are searching for evidence of the future, just as we saw it when one horizon collapsed into another. You can only find it if you keep looking.


So beware those of you who would silence a revolution and its demands.  When something with the resonance of such humanity happens, everyone looks and everyone listens, eventually. 




Stability is a lie. The idea that stability protects us is another lullaby. What protects us is our ability to adapt, endlessly. Change is more valuable than nostalgia. While beautiful moments repeat themselves, just like darker ones, each repeat is never the same. Renewal is better than repetition, and more daring.


In a revolution, you have to dare and risk failure because you have already accepted that what you knew as stability is certain disaster. But daring is exhausting, and laziness is a human right. Where do you strike the balance? For a good while, you don’t. 


Being driven to exhaustion and lapsing into laziness is a necessary rhythm. Rhythms are essential to collective action and it is better to acknowledge a rhythm than behave as if it doesn’t exist. Never sail the high seas as you would Lake Geneva.  Better to follow the wave than sail against it, unless you are forced to, at which point know your limits. The sea is more powerful than any vessel.


Change comes in waves, and never in straight lines. You can’t predict when the next wave will come, but you always know when a storm is brewing.


Turbulence protects us against authority. As things stand, we know that authority does not have our interests at heart. So by default we know that as long as we continue moving in a threatening rhythm, authority cannot control us. Time and again we have learnt that they will never voluntarily accept our demands, so we have to make it necessary to them. Only when they listen, or we guarantee our advantage, will the calm begin to come.


But calm is not stability. It is a sign of having found a common ground in which each individual is able to get on with their lives, in which our stories have become our history. We cannot live for each other forever, except in mythology. 




We have had over a thousand martyrs since this revolution began and at no point on our journey have we not known that there will be more. Despite having filmed hundreds of videos with martyr’s families, no one has ever filmed a martyr speak. Even when they seemed to have foreknowledge of their death, their words only ever exist in retrospect, and the images of their dead bodies are often something like a final statement. Still their words and images live on like imperfect reminders of their families pain, as they become symbols of a wider struggle they had each consciously chosen.


The names of each martyr are not known one by one. Indeed some have never been identified. It is deeply unfair that some martyr’s names ring out louder than others, but that is the fault of the living, not them. While some martyrs have become icons of particular moments and particular identities, each marks a chapter on our journey on.  


More testimonies belong to the martyrs’ families than any other. Images of violence in Egypt have expressed many extraordinary truths, but they have standardised as a mode of expression over time. Almost everything they can say has now been said. But while these images have exhausted themselves into repetition, there are still truths burning to be spoken. Principles are not easily embodied. From the very beginning the fact that this revolution has been fought for a series of common ideals has meant they lack representation in a single identity or ideological organisation. In turn the right to speak is the rarest privilege.


Experts and politicians have a right to convince. All of us have a right to participate. It is only the martyrs’ families who have an indisputable right to speak. Every other one of us has moments in which what we say or write might be of value. But the right to speak is a very particular mantle, which is perhaps why images have been such a crucial part of how the living in our revolution have made the dead speak. Those of you who have only seen our revolution through the lens of international media, make note that you have probably not heard from a martyr’s mother or father, their brother or sister, their wife or fiancé.


At a martyr’s funeral, the family is meant to ululate. It is a sound like no other at a funeral, traditionally kept for a wedding. If you understand that sound, you will understand our revolution. 




The world witnessed a celebration on February 11th 2011. It has since decided to disregard that vision, and written into the story a failed process to transition to democracy, hijacked quite simply by the Muslim Brotherhood. Which is to say it wrote its own ending onto the story of what is happening, taking with it the days when people approached an Egyptian with a sense of complicit happiness, and replacing them with a moment when the subject is approached with awkwardly apologetic curiosity.


But your eyes did not lie to you that day. Like every other Egyptian who was happy to see the fall of Mubarak, you wrote another ending far too soon. We have seen that moment come time and again when a false sense of ending is given the authority of augury.


The truth is it’s too early to tell where we’ll be even a year from now. In under two years the revolution has dealt massive blows to the three major organised powers in Egypt: the Police State, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that each of them has tried to enforce its authority outright and not one of them has succeeded means the story of Mubarak’s state unravelling continues, by the will of the people.


It is easy to forget that the most important attribute of democracy is participation beyond the ballot box. Such is the state of complacent democracy in places where it seems to work for the nation state that we forget that the guarantors of a state worth protecting are not the voting system, but everything that sits around it. A vote between two fascist authoritarians is worthless in a state apparatus unable to guarantee any form of justice for its most vulnerable.


On the second anniversary of Mubarak’s fall we continue to celebrate the fact the revolution has continued despite the various attempts to thwart it. It is an extraordinary thing to learn that two years later we still have the energy to fight a battle we thought might last a number of days.


The act of testimony is a choice as to what you confess to yourself and others of having seen. It’s a peculiarity of our complacent vision in normal times that we believe we can see when most of what happens in the world we are blind to. And yet the whole world saw something to celebrate the day Mubarak stepped down. There have been few more numerous acts of collective witness in history, if any. Those of us who can still see it know there is a certain history following from its arc. What we witnessed was not just the toppling of a dictator, it was a human vision we all have a duty to make manifest.




What is happening in Egypt is not happening out there, it is happening to all of us, just as intensely as it did to Bouazizi’s body. Just as Egypt’s democracy brought us another dictator, so Western democracies secured the dictator we toppled. When the tools of democracy are used to create dictatorships with a taste for blood, it is only a matter of time until the deep hypocrisy releases an earthquake.


So when you listen to the testimony of a poor Egyptian family, do not pity them, pity yourself, at least until you know deep inside that you are doing something about it.

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