Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lezama, Arenas, Beauty and Dictatorship: A Quote for Egypt

Last night I watched from the safety of a television set half a world away as the citizens of Cairo fought for their freedom and--to put it bluntly--their lives against a mob of Hosni Mubarak's paid thugs. (And not particularly well-paid, either. According to news reports reaching the U.S., the going rate for a headbreaker in Cairo is half a chicken. That's exactly how much a human life is worth to Mubarak and his cronies.) As I watched the nighttime battle of stones and Molotov cocktails taking place around the massive Cairo Museum, one of the treasure houses of human civilization, the anti-Mubarak demonstrators on Tahrir Square impressed me as the most courageous people in the world right now. They are risking nothing less than everything in an increasingly desperate struggle to achieve the basic human rights that we in the liberal 'West' take for granted: the right to free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from being dragged to a torture chamber and electrocuted. If the defenders of Tahrir Square lose, their leaders will disappear one by one and reappear a few weeks later as broken men and women, the tortured 'confessors' at their own show trials. We have seen this sickening spectacle too many times in too many countries to sit back and watch it happen again--this time in the cradle of our culture. The citizens of Egypt are fighting today against an ugliness that will become even uglier before the present crisis ends. The ugliness of Mubarak's fascism is equivalent to the totalitarian ugliness Reinaldo Arenas writes against in his memoir, Before Night Falls, in a passage paraphrasing the great Cuban poet and novelist Jose Lezama Lima:

A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police. Being independent and outside of their domain, beauty is so irritating to dictators that they attempt to destroy it whichever way they can. Under a dictatorship, beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque; to a dictator and his agents, the attempt to create beauty is an escapist or reactionary act.

The anti-Mubarak protestors have now become soldiers of freedom, allies of beauty. May they always remain so--even after they win.

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