On the Uprising: An Interview with the Editors of Meena Magazine

Event: Feb 25, 2011

Protesters and Pro-Mubarak thugs clash in Cairo — Photo: Al Jazeera
Protesters and Pro-Mubarak thugs clash in Cairo — Photo: Al Jazeera

By Nathan C. Martin

It’s 10 p.m. in New Orleans as I write this, and the sun is coming up on Cairo. After a day and a night of being shot at and beaten by police—attacks that have killed several and injured hundreds—protesters remain in Tahrir Square, demanding the end of President Mubarak’s 30-year regime.

Tonight I spoke with Khaled Hegazzi, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, and his wife, Andrea Young, who live in New Orleans. They are the editors of the bi-lingual English-Arabic literary journal Meena Magazine, which is based between New Orleans and Alexandria. Throughout the interview, which took place in their living room, they each had a tired eye trained on live streams of internet video from Egypt, as they have almost around the clock since the uprising began.

Meena is co-organizing a rally as part of an international day of solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia this Saturday, Feb. 5, at 2 p.m. in front of the Hale Boggs Federal Building (Poydras at Magazine). Room 220 will be in attendance.

Room 220: When I first thought to do this interview several days ago, things were very different. There was a great excitement, people in Egypt were preparing for Tuesday’s Million-Strong March. I even jotted down an initial question referring to Mubarak’s regime in the past tense. But I guess nobody should have thought this would be easy. I thought we might start by having you talk in general terms about some of the feelings you’ve experienced in the past week.

Khaled Hegazzi: It’s hard to describe. The feelings are changing every moment. On Monday, the 24th, we knew a demonstration would happen and it would be at least 50,000 people, 100,000 maximum. But a massive number of people went out in the street and demonstrated. It was like more than 250,000 people in the streets, and 99 percent of them were kids between 17 and 30 years old. And those kids had no leaders, no groups, no ideology. Basically kids that are looking for freedom. And I think those kids inspired the whole country. Yesterday, there were 8 million people in the streets. That’s never happened, not just in Egypt but in any country. It’s hard to describe the feelings. It’s feeling great, of course, that it’s happening. Feeling bad that I’m not there. Feeling awful seeing people killed on the TV. So, it’s hard.

Rm220: Who are some of the people you’ve been keeping in contact with in Egypt? Are you talking to people in Cairo and Alexandria?

KH: I have a few friends I call at least three times a day in Cairo and Alexandria. Friends who are still in Tahrir Square.

Rm220: Anyone from the Alexandria side of Meena?

Andy Young: Every Meena collaborator that we have in Egypt has been in the streets. Every one of them.

Rm220: Khaled, was the political situation in Egypt part of your decision to leave?

KH: It was part. I lost faith, basically. I am part of a generation that has had no faith in change. And that’s what makes us feel really bad, that the new generation is now forcing change. I feel bad that I’m not there to be part of that change. I’m ashamed that I’m not there. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t part of it. I’m ashamed for the whole generation that couldn’t save this generation from these massacres ten or fifteen years ago.

Rm220: You were a journalist in Egypt. What were some of the things you bumped up against while you were trying to write there?

KH: I was a journalist, a writer. It’s not a great career to have in Egypt. If you want to make money and live, you have to write what they ask you to write. Or, it’s not that you have to write what they ask you to write. They don’t have a problem with you writing—go ahead and write what you want, but you submit it and you get paid and never published. I got paid all the time for things that were never even considered to be read or edited or published. You don’t have the freedom to be creative in your own work.

Rm220: Despite whatever censorship of creative activity exists under Mubarak, it seems like there’s a pervasive anxiety that, if he’s displaced, a less secular, more Islamic government will take his place—one that perhaps will also not be a great proponent of free speech. Have you thought about this at all?

KH: The only fear of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over is here, in the West. Egyptians never felt that was going to happen. The only time we ever felt that would happen was in the event of Mubarak being assassinated. Because, yes, we have the Brotherhood, and maybe they are the only organized opposition group in Egypt, but that organized group was formed because of the dictatorship. And what we are asking for now is to change the constitution. In the last demonstration [the Muslim Brotherhood] came out and said, “Once we have a constitution that gives everybody the chance to run for office, and two-term limit for presidents, we’re just civilians, we’re not a Brotherhood. We were formed to get to that point. Once we reach that point [of amending the constitution], we’re happy.” They were closer to their faith in fighting the government. Once this government is out they can be with their own faith, just like everybody else.

Rm220: But Muslim Brotherhood sounds so scary!

AY: The West is absolutely hysterical about the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s hysteria, really.

Rm220: You two are helping put together a solidarity demonstration in New Orleans this Saturday. Obviously there is a historical tradition of writers standing together internationally for movements they support, and Meena, to a certain extent, has always been about making connections in solidarity across nations and cultures. Talk a little bit about the idea behind the demonstration and what your hopes are.

AY: I guess Meena has been a little bit about solidarity, in a literary sense. We were talking in the last week about creating some sort of rally because on [the Facebook page] “We’re All Khaled Said” I kept seeing these little videos from people all over—from San Francisco and New York, to Blacksburg, Va., or somewhere in Iowa—of people standing with the Egyptians, and these videos were getting to Egyptians, before they cut the internet there. And I thought, “Why isn’t New Orleans represented?” I think I said on one of the threads, “Where is New Orleans?” And someone said: “That would be y’all.” So I just started putting it together. And I hope it just shows support for the Egyptian people. Khaled, you might have a different aim.

KH: I don’t have much. I’m just happy to know that people are willing to come and participate. I just feel grateful that this is happening.

Andrea Young and Khaled Hegazzi, with their daughter Retiba, at Khaled's family's house in Waneena, Upper Egypt