February 13, 2011

"Broken Bones, Not Spirit" — Seeing "The Savior" in Fall of Egyptian Regime?

In the early days and fragile state of the post-Murabak revolution, here’s something we’ve really got to keep an eye on.

On Friday morning in the West, after Mubark stepped down and the worldwide excitement was fever-pitch over the victory of the Egyptian democracy protesters, this uncredited image — originally posted by Al Jazerra in this Egypt live blog — was re-posted and tweeted by several not-insignificant U.S. bloggers and media names. The motivation for plugging the photo, in the snippets that accompanied it, alluded to its iconic quality combined with the homage paid to the spirit of those Arab youth courageously seeking a new Egypt.  In most instances where I saw it, the title of the link doubled as a caption: “Broken bones, not spirit.”

I’m not an art historian or a even a Middle East historian so I can’t speak to the classical quality and references of the image. (Maybe some of you can.) The way the lights in the buildings shine like stars in the sky, however, combined with the near-silhouette of the palm tree, the man spreading the blanket like a tent, and also the way the photo accentuates the robe-like folds in the person’s shirt far left, the image seems to evoke the desert and a biblical frame, and the wanderer/seeker as much or more than it says anything about modern, urban, downtown Cairo.  Add to that the etherial light emanating from behind this man’s left shoulder, as well as the dramatic quality (is it day? is it night?) of the light on this chest and face, and the photo feels near mystical. Combine all these elements with the eyes cast skyward and the hand reaching up in an almost spiritual gesture and this young man is nearly deified. (If you’re thinking the image is too celestial or near-religious to be true, I was also thinking about some photoshopping going on here.)

Here’s what concerns me, however. If the image of Allah is never to be shown, the religious pull starts to feel decidedly Christian. Just close your eyes for a second, put long brown hair and a beard on this young man, and tell me you don’t see Jesus?  Reinforcing that sense are other hand gestures, the man far left clasping his hands together before his face and especially the two fingers together on the main figure’s right hand strongly reminiscent of holy Christian gestures, including the sign of the cross or the judging Christ. Then, there is also a body of similar imagery of Jesus wandering in the desert.

Mostly though, I’m struck by the quick, strong and instinctive reaction to this laden photo at the very instant the Egyptian political clouds parted, the image speaking not just to an idealization of the events in Egypt, necessarily, but also as an inclination to recognize them through a more Christian lens.


Note/Credit: As background on the picture itself,  the photo — according to the Al Jazeera link — was sent in by a journalism student @ghazalairshad from Tahrir Square. As best I can tell, Ghazala did not post the photo directly anywhere but did retweet someone else who linked to the photo.


Ghazala, a student at American University in Cairo, writes: “Shot by me during the evening prayer on February 5th in Tahrir Square.”/ “Believe me, if I had the time to Photoshop or Lightroom, I would have, but I just did a minor level adjustment in iPhoto.”

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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