Amira Hanafi, Cities and Dictionaries

Eva Heisler

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Amira Hanafi is a Cairo-based writer and artist whose practice involves laborious, obsessive research. Her process varies from project to project but the result is most often an archive upon which she then draws to make work. Hanafi’s work is wide-ranging and may take the form of stories, dictionaries, diagrams, drawings, performances, or installations.  

Cities—especially Chicago and Cairo—figure prominently in her practice. Projects have involved walking specific streets and recording her experiences, drifting with others on a hundred-hour walk conducted over the course of four months, and researching the history of a neighborhood. Hanafi says, “I like walking in the city because it’s like reading a book, but the text is polyvocal. There are multiple authors and then you yourself, as a body passing through, also become an author.” For Maps of the Orders of Signs (2007), an early project she considers game-changing in her development from composing first-person poems to setting up multivocal systems, Hanafi walked two one-mile stretches of Chicago’s Armitage Avenue, speaking into a recorder all the words she encountered, from signage on trucks to advertising fliers and city ordinances. Maps of the Orders of Signs—described by Hanafi as a “close reading” of two sections of Armitage—yielded multiple works, recordings, short texts, wall-sized drawings, and spreadsheets.

Hanafi’s Forgery (2011) is a book of stories that were “forged” from personal journal entries and research related to the neighborhood where Chicago’s oldest steel mill—stretching over twenty acres along the Chicago River—had operated since the 1880s. At the time Hanafi began her research, the Finkl forge was slated for demolition. Hanafi’s stories are “an amalgamation of places,” with “forging” as a central metaphor. One story begins, “I would like to invite you to join me experiencing passing through one material into another.” Another opens with the statement that “Finkl’s last house doesn’t stand anymore. A lake like an ocean can make a refraction happen.” Hanafi says of Forgery, “I’m grappling with how to write history with the city’s visible and invisible elements in dialogue with each other, clashing and vying for space.”     

In his classic essay “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau asserts that “[t]he act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language” (97). Indeed, Hanafi’s interest in exploring urban neighborhoods is not unlike her enthusiasm for wandering the Oxford English Dictionary. Minced English (2009), for example, is a systematic interrogation of twenty-nine of the OED’s terms for people of mixed race.

For A Dictionary of the Revolution (2014–2017), Hanafi made a “vocabulary box” with 160 words in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Hanafi chose words that were circulating in public discourse immediately following the 2011 revolution. The box was then used to generate conversation with over two hundred people across Egypt, in Alexandria, Aswan, Cairo, Mansoura, Sinai, and Suez. Transcriptions of these conversations functioned as raw material for the artist’s assemblage of imaginary first-person voices speaking around each of the terms. In conversation, the artist described the project as an experiment: “I was interested in what happens when you intersect identities of different people.” The result is a text that reads as the voice, says Hanafi, “of one really complex body that’s in conflict with itself . . . constantly.” 

Hanafi’s research-based projects are both procedural and impassioned, diagrammatic but also idiosyncratic. In the digital work WE ARE FRAGMENTED (2017), commissioned by the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, the artist classifies the emotions expressed in interviews with human rights workers as well as her own feelings as she reads through the transcriptions. Hanafi then translates the occurrence of certain feelings, such as sadness, into abstract patterns. “Reading the material was very emotional for me,” Hanafi said, “so I decided to use my own subjectivity as a way to visualize the material.” Diagrams are objects to think with but, in Hanafi’s hands, they are also objects of feeling and tools with which to generate stories.

—Eva Heisler

Your project A Dictionary of the Revolution (2014–2017) consists of a “vocabulary box” with 160 words in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. What are some of the words in the box?

The words were organized in four categories: concepts, characters, objects, and places and events. Some of them are neologisms like felool, a word that appeared in 2011 to describe remnants of the old regime, or hezb al-canaba (Couch Party), a word used to describe the silent majority that played a major role after 2011. Others are basic terms like “onion” and “stone” that took on new meanings through the revolution. There are also concepts central to the revolution, like freedom, social justice, and dignity.

How did you arrive at these words?

I wanted to document a phenomenon that I can best explain through a story. Shortly after I arrived in Cairo to stay for six months in 2010, I met a European woman who had come to the city to participate in the Gaza Freedom March. We went to a bar downtown where we had a lengthy discussion touching on personal and political topics. There was a man sitting alone at a table nearby who was staring at us intently but, in my newly arrived ignorance, I thought he was just a regular pervert. After my new friend left, he approached me and told me he had an apartment to rent, as he’d heard I was looking. I met up with him the next day in a little office on a main street downtown. He asked me a lot of questions and, at one point, said about my conversation in the bar the day before: “You know, if you want to stay in Egypt, and I think you do, you shouldn’t talk like that in public. You’ll be deported, and you’ll never be able to come back here again.” I never did see any apartment, and I feel pretty certain there never was one to see. 

After that incident, I started to understand that people didn’t talk about politics in public or, if they did, they spoke in code. Public space was full of informants. That environment erupted after 25 January, 2011, very rapidly. For A Dictionary, I wanted to capture the cacophony of conversations in the streets that had not been possible before people took control of public space in 2011. There was a rhythm to the noise that I wanted to record.

There’s a strong impulse to organize in my work, to uncover patterns. There were repeated words: terms that would suddenly become very popular and sometimes just as quickly disappear, and other terms that stuck around longer, changing context and meaning. I kept a small notebook with new words I heard, which was initially a sort of language-learning practice but eventually became the foundation for the vocabulary box I made to start conversations. When I went to make the final list, I consulted people I thought were knowledgeable about what terms I might have missed and what I didn’t need to include. Obviously, no list could be comprehensive.

You spoke with over two hundred people across Egypt, in Alexandria, Aswan, Cairo, Mansoura, Sinai, and Suez, using the box as a conversation-starter. Where did these conversations take place? Did the box generate stories or political discussions?

The vocabulary box was a deliberate choice, because the object itself leads conversation. Interviews began with the question, “What did this language mean before the revolution, and what does it mean after?” After that, people would go through the cards, choose a word, and start talking. They chose when to move on to another word, and when to stop. It’s really just conversation, and includes stories and anecdotes, opinions, jokes and asides—pretty much everything you’d find in ordinary conversation.

Words have their own lives, with pasts and futures. In speaking, we might make meanings we don’t intend, because language is a collective, dialogic process. I wanted to document living language not just by getting a group of different people to participate, but to also be sure that the interviewer wasn’t always the same person.

I wasn’t present for all, or even most, of the conversations that took place. There’s a way that I’m read in Egypt—as foreign—that has a strong effect on how people speak to me. So, I worked with people who interviewed others, often with whom they already had relationships and established trust. Sometimes the box was passed from an interviewer to a participant, who then used it to start a conversation with someone else. That way, I was able to reach outside of my own circles to people with different circumstances and ideologies.

By the time we were doing these conversations, in early 2014, the environment of open political conversation was under aggressive attack. I had initially hoped for them to take place with random people in the street, but that no longer seemed feasible. Conversations took place in all sorts of different spaces, in homes, at coffee shops, on beaches, but they generally weren’t public in the sense of happening between strangers in the street. Altogether, we recorded about two hundred hours of conversation with around two hundred different individuals.

You transcribed the conversations, and then used the transcriptions as raw material with which to compose imaginary dialogues. At this point, the project moves from documenting to composing. When you rearrange the words, what are you after? 

I’m very much a process-based artist. I set up systems to make work. These structures provide me with tasks and limits, and I follow them to the end. Listening was my guide inside the system I set up for the project. First, I worked with sound, editing the recordings to make sound archives for each individual term.

Each of the recordings in the collection featured one person speaking, and it was accompanied by a list of terms in the order that the person chose and responded to them. Rather than editing each recording individually, I would edit recordings by term. So, for instance, I might spend several days listening to people speak about the term “revolution,” cycling through the collection to locate the places in the conversation where a person talked about that term. Though this was certainly a more laborious and time-consuming route, I felt it gave me distance from individual voices and brought me closer to the collective.  

Amira Hanafi, A Dictionary of the RevolutionAmira Hanafi. Example of a working log made for A Dictionary of the Revolution.

When my sound archive was complete, I hired someone else to transcribe it. With those rough transcriptions, I went through another period of listening, using a fixed methodology for punctuation, where commas stood for short pauses and periods for longer ones, etc. Another challenge was fixing the spelling of aamiya (Egyptian colloquial), which is not formally used as a written language.

Finally, I arranged the transcriptions into conversations that give evidence for language change, flowing chronologically from before the revolution to after. What did these terms mean before, and what did they mean after? How did they change in the period from 2011 to 2014? How did different speakers use them at different times? I included nearly all of the voices I’d collected. I didn’t make any changes to the words that people spoke; I only edited them down to make them more succinct. Even when I made the final edits on paper, I still returned to the original sound recordings when I had a question or needed clarification. At every point in the process, I let the voices guide me. Sometimes, it was less important to me what a person said than how they said it.

I think of this part of my process as sculpture, whose material is language. I tried to sculpt texts that document language as a living, breathing thing located in people’s mouths. But the mouths here are disconnected from bodies, so that the relationship of the reader to the language can’t contain judgment based on a person’s physical characteristics or how they speak. I’m imagining in these texts that people are talking and listening to each other in this virtual environment.

You can call the result what you like—poetry, experimental ethnography, storytelling, something else. I’m loyal to my process. After I’ve produced a work (after I’ve exited the process), I feel that I join the audience. It’s then that I can finally see what I’ve made.

You’ve described it as “an experiment in multivocal storytelling.”

Multivocality is both a theme and a strategy in my work, which I use to question and complicate the concept of the single authorial voice. I’m interested in the complexity of meaning that comes from collaging different voices, in the intersections of identities that are expressed, and in how multivocality can be an expression of collectivity, its rewards and challenges. I experiment with narrative structures to make this process legible, rather than smoothing it over for convenience or comprehension.

Can you tell us the origins of this project? My understanding is that it came about as you were trying to learn Egyptian after having moved to Cairo in 2011.

I had the idea for the Dictionary during the eighteen days that started the revolution. I did a few interviews with folks in 2011, but I stopped work after a conversation with my old friend and modern Egyptian scholar Omnia El Shakry, in which she pointed out that the main language of the revolution was aamiya, and that I was conducting interviews in English. I took her comment seriously. It was also becoming increasingly apparent that the revolution was not at all confined to eighteen days—that it was still in the process of becoming. In fact, I think history is always in the process of becoming; it happens inside constantly shifting contexts, between pasts and futures in perpetual negotiation. That idea is very important to how I approached this documentation and how I ultimately chose to present it.

I’m curious about your history with the language. Were you exposed to Arabic as a child? From grandparents, perhaps? What did the process of learning to speak Egyptian colloquial in Cairo teach you about language in general—especially about language as a material with which to make both visual works and poems?  

This learning about the materiality of language happened a lot earlier than moving to Cairo. I was raised in a home where we spent a lot of time reading the Qur’an in Arabic, but where I spoke and was spoken to in English (except for cursing). Of course, I was getting lessons alongside my reading in Arabic on the meaning of the Qur’an, Islam’s history, and how to practice the religion, but there wasn’t a direct link between the signs and their signified. I think of this relationship to Arabic as the origin of the way I experience the materiality of language—its sounds, rhythms, textures, and visual forms. In that experience, there’s a rupture between the signifier and the signified.

Of course, I have Egyptian family, so Arabic was often used in some form around me. Though we visited Cairo every summer, it wasn’t until college that I attempted to learn Arabic in a formal way. I lived with my Arabic-speaking grandmother for several months in 1997, taking language courses at the American University in Cairo. I spent a lot of time talking with her.

Let’s jump to an early work, Maps of the Orders of Signs, because it is such an interesting response to walking in an urban environment. My understanding is that you spoke into a recorder all the words you encountered on two one-mile stretches of a Chicago street. You transcribed the recording, and then worked with the texts both as material objects and as poems. What was the importance of voicing the encounters as opposed to, say, photographing the texts?

There’s a character in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller that I think about often: the Nonreader, who has learned not to read. He says, “They teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us.” I’m like that, what you might call a compulsive reader. When I moved to Chicago in 2006, I felt overwhelmed with all the text I was reading on the streets.

Chicago’s grid makes long streets, so it’s possible to pass through very different neighborhoods on one street and read very different signs. These texts told me something about who had power in what neighborhood, what services were available, who was expected there, and what limits were set for public conduct. I thought of this language as a code through which I could read different urban forces.

There’s a strong relationship to the body in this work. My own body leaves its traces. It first manifests as my voice in the recordings as I walk down Armitage Avenue, reading aloud all the text I see. I’m documenting my interaction with it as a body passing through.

In one work, I made a wall-sized drawing that places transcription of the recordings into a map of the street. It was a very physical work that I produced over the course of a week. Every day when I finished drawing, my hands and arms were covered in charcoal. You can see traces of my body as I stenciled the text across the page.

For many of my projects, I build archives of material from which I might produce many works. The transcription in this project is a foundation layer of the archive. I think of transcription as a kind of flattening, through which I can place different materials in a collection on an equal plane. I remove the text from its context, strip it of design and color, and place it in a different collective space. Words might collaborate or clash with their neighbors, but they lose some individual power as messages or signs. In this collection, a flyer in a shop window, a street sign, and graffiti become uniform raw material.

I’m in dialogue with this language in the recordings, and in other works I produced through the project. I’ve exhibited this project twice in different ways, and there are other works that have never been shown. In one installation, I installed the wall-sized drawing, and on an opposite wall an equally large digital print made by organizing the transcription from the other end of the street into categories in a spreadsheet, and then abstracting the shape the text made by printing its zoomed-out image on a large scale. The directions “East” and “West” were marked on the floor of the gallery space, and the show included a publication.

In another installation, I used poems I had sculpted from this material to make maps of the two areas, which were displayed in small frames in a room where the recordings were playing. These are short texts that were made by whittling down each of the two transcriptions, leaving the order of the words intact but removing most of them. Where language is material, I think of this work as sculpture. As objects. When I think of poetry, I think of precision, of articulating complex things efficiently. [Listen to an excerpt here.]

You describe Minced English (2009) as “an archive of language as data as well as a record of obsession.” Can you say more about your investigation of language as “data”? 

I think of data as collections of material. Data gets analyzed and visualized in graphs, texts, charts, and diagrams. These treatments attempt to make legible knowledge embedded in the collection. When I'm working with language as data, I'm applying these processes to language. One of the tools I like best for this work is the spreadsheet.

This book is a collection of usage quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary. I composed it using a list of twenty-nine terms used to describe people of mixed race. The work depended on the OED being available and searchable in electronic form. Each entry in the book has two paragraphs—one that chronologically organizes all usage quotations under the headword in the OED, and another that chronologically organizes all other instances of the word found in usage quotations in other OED entries.

I was looking at these quotations as evidence for a particularly brutal history of language use. When assembled, these texts make legible both the history of language that the OED presents, as well as a second, “hidden” history that also exists in the OED but takes more work to uncover. I used spreadsheets to organize the collection, and to provide some graphs in the book to express the findings. The index is another way of looking at text in the book, through a referenced list of all the headwords in the OED whose usage quotations contain one or more of the twenty-nine terms in my list.

I love the word “mince” because it’s a culinary term, but when I looked up the etymology of the word, I was surprised to see that an early meaning was “clipped speech” that feigned elegance.

The title of the book actually comes from one of the usage quotations under the headword “chee-chee,” a derogatory term used to describe Anglo-Indians as well as their way of speaking: “The hybrid minced English known as chee-chee.” In this context, minced is being used in a pejorative sense. I chose it as a title to point the trigger in the other direction, so that it now describes the language contained in the book. Minced also references the violence of racial categorization. As a mixed person, I’m often described as “half” this and “half” that, which feels to me like being chopped into little bits. At the time I was making this book, I was living in Chicago, and this feeling was particularly intense. In whatever space I occupied, I felt forced to make a choice about my racial identity.

You have also described the book as a “record of obsession.”

Obsession here means more than one thing. On one hand, it alludes to my process, in which production can be laborious and time-consuming, resembling obsessive behavior. I might use a bit of intuition but otherwise the process is almost robotic. At the same time, it points to an obsession with racial categorization evident in the English language.

The texts have, at times, the compression and subtle cadence of prose poems. Would you consider Minced English a book of poems?

Sure, why not? I used to joke that poetry is the sort of trash bin of genres—if it doesn’t fit comfortably somewhere else, just throw it in there. And I mostly think poetry is happy to take it. Joking aside, when I was talking earlier about the point at the end of my process at which I’m able to see what I’ve made, at that point I often think, Oh! I’ve made poetry. But I’m not attached to that. I like to leave my work open to being otherwise labeled.

In the essay “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau refers to the inability of pedestrians to perceive the city as a whole; he writes that the pedestrian’s knowledge of the city’s spaces is “as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms” (93). Maybe blindness and intimacy are entangled. What do you think of this claim? Your own work seems to take pleasure in reading the urban environment as a text. 

I like walking in the city because it’s like reading a book, but the text is polyvocal. There are multiple authors and then, you yourself as a body passing through also become an author. There’s a collaboration happening, although certainly not a collaboration in which all authors are equal. Walking can be an act of resistance in which the walker refuses to comply with the behaviors that more powerful authors of the city call for. I think that’s in a large way what the situationists intended with the dérive, a practice I’ve played with a lot.

My impression is that most of your walk-based projects have taken place in either Chicago or Cairo. Can you talk about the differences, for you, in walking/working on projects in each of these cities?

I’m glad you worded your question this way, as it wouldn’t be constructive to compare Chicago and Cairo, extraordinarily different cities with vastly different histories and positions in the contemporary world. What’s more interesting is my own position in these places, and how I get read in the streets. As a white-appearing person, I often used the privilege of walking in neighborhoods in Chicago where I was not read as an outsider. In Cairo, I don’t have that option in the vast majority of the city—I can’t move without a significant impact on the people around me, especially when I’m walking with another person who is read as white. Appearing to be a white foreigner in Cairo is complicated. It comes with a lot of privilege to move around, to get offers for all kinds of services, and at the same time it can arouse suspicion, which can lead to negative consequences for the people around me. In this polyvocal landscape, I have a heavy authorial hand. After living here for eight years, I’ve learned a sense of responsibility that comes with walking in the city, and it makes me more careful about playing with walking as a creative strategy.

In the book Forgery, you interweave the industrial history of Chicago with your own experiences of the city. You write, “While Cabrini-Green is slated for demolition, I am loyal only to the language. There is one thing, however, of which I am certain. The buildings disappear, and then you see them again.” Can you say more about your loyalty to language?  What is the “language” you are referring to in this passage? 

I’m referring to the documents that I collected in order to compose Forgery. The Finkl Steel forge, which is the central character in this book, was located very near to gentrified Lincoln Park, and was still operating at the time I worked on this project. It has since been relocated to the outskirts of Chicago, along with most or all of the city’s heavy industry. But at the time it was jarring to see this vestige of the industrial city still carrying out daily operations near plastic surgery offices and luxury shops.

I started the project by visiting the five homes of Anton Finkl, the nineteenth-century German migrant to the US who was the company’s founder. I got his addresses from a book I found at the library that had been published by the forge on its hundredth anniversary, containing laudatory biographies of the company’s presidents. The original Finkl’s biography was sparse, and I guessed that since not too much information was available to include about him, the authors decided to publish the addresses of the five places he had lived during his life in Chicago.

I think I really believed that I would find traces of him when I went to visit the sites. But I didn’t find them in the landscape, and instead kept doing research about the sites themselves, collecting legal briefs, newspaper articles, and other documents. That’s the history that was available to me: the stuff that gets written down. So here I am at the end of the book, witnessing Cabrini-Green being demolished, and thinking that all we’ll have left of this in a hundred years is what’s written. I’m grappling with how to write history with the city’s visible and invisible elements in dialogue with each other, clashing and vying for space. I try to do that in Forgery by mimicking the process of forging, applying it to the language of the documents I’d collected and my own journals from the site visits.

The visualization of data is quite moving in WE ARE FRAGMENTED. For this, you read interviews with human rights workers that had been conducted by the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. I am interested in how, in this work, you are handling emotions and your own subjectivity (as both a researcher and an artist). Can you talk about the process of making this work?

When I responded to the invitation to work on this project, I thought of it as a chance for me develop some of the strategies I’d used in A Dictionary of the Revolution. I had expected to work with a much larger set of data, but I wasn’t given access to full transcriptions because the identities of the interviewees are protected. What I received were fragmented transcriptions of interviews that asked human rights defenders to talk about their well-being, organized by topic, and several reports that used quotations from the interviews. The collection I had access to had already been organized using academic methods.

Reading the material was very emotional for me, partly because I felt close to experiences and feelings people described, especially in the research that took place in Egypt. I decided to use my own subjectivity as a way to visualize the material. Obviously, my subjectivity is consistently present in all of my work, but here it’s the subject of the work.

I deconstructed the transcriptions I’d received, putting sentences that I felt an emotional connection to into a spreadsheet. I put together a list of thirty-six emotions, classified in six categories, using other emotional classification systems as a reference. For each of my responses to the sentences, I chose a classification that I thought best described the emotion it evoked, and presented the results on a website where colored circles correspond to each classification. So, the images on the website are visualizations of my subjective reading of the text. But because I include the source text, they also present a different format for reading the research, where something beyond my subjectivity might be legible.