Maria Frederika Malmström
The Streets are Talking to Me: Affective Fragments in Sisi’s Egypt
University of California Press, 2019
192 pages

Reviewed by Alex Norris

In The Streets are Talking to Me: Affective Fragments in Sisi’s Egypt, Maria Frederika Malmström uses the material and sensory world to narrate the change in the lives of Cairo activists from 2011 to 2018, paying especial attention to the traumatic events of 2013. In loosely connected chapters, Malmström shows how her subjects—for the most part educated Cairenes who were active in the 2011 protests—navigate post-revolution Egypt and attempt to make sense of the world. She follows them, while maintaining her own place in the story, as the perspective shifts sharply from revolutionary euphoria, to the rise of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, to massacre and a new dictator: the general-cum-president Abdelfattah Al-Sisi.

Malmström discusses how she and her subjects interpret the monstrous acts of violence carried out by the Egyptian military in response to popular protest, and how they interact with the material realities that accompany this violence. In the first chapter, a young man named Kamal rebels against his “fake” eye after a government bullet takes his original eye. In the fourth chapter, photographs of discarded objects in Rabaa’ square after the massacre, which have been rendered trash by the regime, evoke the moments before the massacre when everyday rituals took place among the demonstrators.

Malmström’s book attempts to make sense of how the promise of 2011 collapsed into violence, cynicism, and fear of the other in 2013—not just in the political situation, but even within the lives of individual activists. This sense-making is sorely needed after such a confusing and disheartening series of events, but I think this effort falls short. The fifth and final chapter considers the rise of Abdelfattah Al-Sisi a story of masculinity idealized and attributed to a ruling figure.  This gendered exercise of power makes itself felt on both the bodies of Egyptians who crossed this new regime, and on the production of patriotic objects of Sisi devotion. I found this conversation shockingly general, given the intense specificity of the preceding chapters. Some of Malmström’s male interlocutors express that they feel unmanned in this new era, but I wished for some amount of reminiscence on this, given the earlier discussion of revolutionary relationships. What is the original association of Tahrir with manhood and womanhood in Egypt? Did Morsi and Sisi present different kinds of threats to this understanding of gender? 

This feeling of disruption, without necessarily addressing what was there to be disrupted, is present in the book and in other discussions about what makes the reign of Abdelfattah Al-Sisi a break from previous eras. Clearly the change was sudden and drastic, as experienced by those who did not see themselves as changing. But did those who went from defending the January revolution to defending the January and July revolutions feel the same way? Did they experience this as a transition at all? Given that some of Malmström’s circle appear to have supported the Rabaa’ massacre, I was hoping for more of a discussion of this. 

However, this is not to underemphasize the numerous methodological difficulties that might have blocked this track of research. Egypt now is possibly more dangerous to researchers than it has ever been, and asking specific political questions is doubtless difficult even among friends. Malmström’s discussion of the ever-present fear and weight of state surveillance is among the most evocative passages of the book. She calls this the “old-new paranoia” because it harkens back to the early 2000s under President Hosni Mubarak. This construction is interesting because it suggests having to relearn old habits that, in the midst of revolution, may have been cast aside.

The discussion of pain is central to the book, and is most effective when Malmström’s interlocutors are given their own words to describe it—which they very frequently are. In Kamal’s discussion of his eye, we feel his own body horror, and, given his own self-awareness and inward attentiveness, are able to listen to his sense-making process. It becomes clear that we cannot talk about his emotional trauma and the bullet in his eye separately. For him, they are one experience. In the testimony of the anonymous photographer “Thawra,” we read her reaction not just to the horrors she sees and photographs in the aftermath of Rabaa’, but also to the alienation of being among people who refuse to acknowledge its horror.

I found aspects of the methodology for weaving together these testimonies into a narrative about Al-Sisi’s Egypt to confuse more than they clarified. In discussing the photographs Thawra took of the objects left behind in Al-Rabaa’, Malmström emphasizes that they stand in for the bodies that were removed and hidden from the square. The designation of these objects as trash is part of the disposal of the once living bodies they interacted with. This interpretation of objects is powerful and captures the perspectives of Thawra and Malström herself. But as she says, there are many more who interacted with the objects and with the square itself, and who become complicit in the massacre’s cover-up. Less analysis goes into how these objects might present themselves to these people—regime-aligned journalists, soldiers, and even the trash pickers themselves. My understanding of Malström’s methodology is that she wishes to assert the agency of these objects in presenting a narrative. But like any human storyteller there can be a lot of room for interpretation—even willful misinterpretation. Malström shows herself willing to entertain, for example, what relatives of the dead might think about these objects. I think it is worthwhile to consider what the thought process is for those that accept (or choose to accept) the state’s narrative.

My critiques, as might be clear, are linked. Just as the inner lives of those shattered on the rocks of the state are important, so too are the inner lives of the state’s newfound supporters. It can be difficult to access their testimony in the same way that Malström has managed to collect testimony of those who are quietly against Al-Sisi. But that does not mean they should be treated as an undifferentiated mass, as the “poor young men” who make up the army are. Nor should all those who take part in promoting Sisi’s masculinity be seen to be engaging in the same nationalist, gendered mythmaking. To me this slips back into the comfortable story that the state has unlimited ability to draw people into its discourse, and ignores individual agency and the potential diversity of reasons for following the pack. Because of the fear and alienation that have resulted from the 2013 coup, it is easy to see these people as blinded or hoodwinked. But the fear and alienation are precisely why we need to understand them, their trauma, and the politics of their reactions.

Still, Malström’s work deserves praise for bringing testimony out of this new Egypt and building a narrative around how political change inscribed itself on the material and affective worlds, and for capturing a trauma rarely put into words. The pervading experience of fear she describes experiencing while researching in this incredibly dangerous period speaks to her singular devotion and bravery. I am very glad that she is doing the work of bringing these stories to a wider audience.