Not Writing: Sarah Rifky in Response to yet Another call for Writing Screenshot from I Swear I Saw This, video installation by "Take to the Sea, What Are You Doing, Drawing?" Nile Sunset Annex, Cairo, Egypt, 23 February 2013.

Fall 2016 | ArteZine

Not Writing: Sarah Rifky in Response to yet Another call for Writing


A call for writing; Lina Attalah

February 10, 2011. The 17th day of the Tahrir sit-in. At that point, we had arrived — through hope and resistance– to the conclusion that Hosni Mubarak would leave power that day. It was the only future we could imagine. You often camped in our newsroom and that day, you wrote: “I am terrified at sounding prolific when, no matter what I do, the surge I feel to be on the frontline becomes undone the moment I write it.” When Mubarak didn’t leave that day, and gave a speech in which, countering the expectations of the masses, he vowed to stay, everyone became frantic, looking for a frontline where more resistance–made possible through more hope–would just make him leave. Some went to the Presidential Palace. I went with another camp to the state television building, which was turned into a military fortress. While walking there, a walk towards the unknown, I remembered the backlog of editing and publishing I had. You made me wonder: what can language give to activism?

You had some answers: “The intricate traces of my thoughts outline doubt, revealing my sacrilegious state. I have but one option, namely to return to the elementary understanding of terminological key words, à la Arendt. Power, strength, force, authority and violence are all distinct from one another; the distinction points to careful speech and linguistic exactitude. The surgical care given to words is not rooted in thesaural-paranoia, or love for language – it is, in my lived experience, noticing how language and its uses around me are transforming at this time of crisis.”

You also spoke about how the telling of what happened is the only thing that remains, a bearer of “a truth that evokes meaning in why we want to live, why we wake up in the morning, to do what we do, to fabricate desires, to make our simple and solitary life bearable.” Just as you depict with almost a scientific precision the militancy of writing, you are also able to show its cathartic possibility.

Writing, you made me think, in its capacity as a communicative means, is political. You said, “Now, as I make the decision to write, two weeks into the revolution, I ponder this decision. This is the longest thought I have had in weeks.  In democracy, Jacques Derrida says a decision, the use of power, is always urgent, yet democracy takes time. Democracy makes one wait so that the use of power can be discussed, and power can never be exercised without communication. Authority is divided, as soon as we speak to one another, which would explain why so many of my friends are closing off, and speaking less and less. It would explain the side effects of social paranoia and fear of disclosing information leading to resolutions towards reform.” Your words reminded me of the critical distinction between taking power and building power, and how in the time spent between waking up and going to sleep, there might be a function of building power by creating, prompting and archiving conversations in writing, editing, translating and publishing.

The day when Egypt Independent, the newspaper I used to run, was shut down, you wrote me a letter. It was a dark moment where I didn’t know what to do with all the words that have not yet been written, or the ones we spent days, months and years, writing, and whose only meaning resided in the continuity of their flow. You said: “The form that Egypt Independent will take, with you and your team, will change. It won’t disappear. It will gain intent in resistance, grow more robust, and find more cause and deliberation in what it will become. It is not just a paper or an office. It is a space of language that has allowed for certain ruminations, for thought to evolve and for finding a way of “doing”, as writing, you say, is a form of “activism.” It has and continues to make room for thought that parasitically drives taxi ride conversations in Yemen. In that sense, if art-at-large is a form of language, then your contribution inspires making form and making institutions possible. For now, I’m staying hopeful. Think: Egypt, Think: Independent.” Language, as the broader locus of writing, transcends its direct communicative functions. It becomes a presumption of life, you said. You are one of few people who made me think of how being a newspaper on the margins, publishing in English in an Arab country, can be more complex than just elitist or exclusive. Today, I encounter this complexity in Egypt Independent’s re-incarnation, Mada Masr, a bilingual news media producing primarily in Arabic, with an English edition tinkering from the background with this production, every day.

Yet you also wrote, “What holds true is that we are speaking less and less, not only to each other, but also to ourselves.” As we continue to fill virtual spaces with words, grappling with the dysphoria of the loss of meaning, you make me wonder, is one simply joining the odious mass culture of writing void? Can writing, in its own fixity, transcribe the disorientation? Will it speak the loss of reason? Will it be able to intimately meet the ultimate site of all experience, namely, our bodies?

You wrote: “The halcyon is gone, gone is the imagery of protestors armed with blankets, sleeping in the tank tracks, using our bodies to imagine a new means of government, using our bodies to stand in for the demands of freedom. But we are still alive. We still have our bodies. We are not ethereal souls that can only live sleeping and dreaming. The anxiety is physical: you feel it. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, the bodily overwhelmingness of dying, then you know that it exceeds all reason, in some miraculous way; at times it passes in just minutes. This too shall pass.”

Will it? How?

I Swear I Saw This, video installation by Take to the Sea, What Are You Doing, Drawing? Nile Sunset Annex, Cairo, Egypt, 23 February 2013.


Not writing; Sarah Rifky

The point of writing, it feels like, is to not finish. I’ve dragged out silences in un-words, trying to articulate the bowing-out of thinking, escaping into “stories”–depots of sublimated truths. I thought of reading as an alternative––a way of stretching time, contracting metaphors. Here I am, struggling to write and read, summoning the patience for history—its people, places, and things. In this struggle, I grapple with language and its diachrony, land and its end, institutions and art, and taking long strides backwards (in time) into eras —as far back as bordering “the common.”

There is something of delinquency, a refusal to write, that perhaps reifies my sense of responsibility towards myself. I am, in not writing, coming up with excuses, rationalizing silence. I say this, knowing that I am indulging us both through this admittance. If by way of writing—in time—we are trying to make this moment legible and logical – I am incapable of making it such. Text arrives to me mute; the texts that I write are aborted. I read while trying to mechanically kindle inspiration. Writing—like love—is vulnerable and hard to come by. It can be possessive and tormenting, especially when writing is one-sided. There is a terror of language, an—irreconcilable—desire to find ways of writing that I have not yet encountered, and maybe never will.

This reluctance to write is a disinclination in itself (or outright refusal) to accept a naturalization of this moment of doubt, of bowing out, a lack: the admittance of reaching a dead-end. It’s also the flip side of a desire to present something that is more hopeful than despair, that which does not falter. All writing encrypts fear, the sum of which is a growing trepidation about an end of all things—of that which we know. There was a moment, historically perhaps, where knowledge was more fragmentary and hope abundant—if one can put it in such tacky terms. We are entangled in writing, easily struck by its sentiments, though I admit, in reading myself (over time) I dissociate from my own. That said, I don’t want you to get me wrong: I am all for putting literacy to work, but that writing must also assume its rightful position, and be understood—beyond action—as that. Writing as writing as imagination–work or action–in itself is disabling. It disables us from doing other things, even if we chase them.

I’ve been ruminating a lot more recently about disillusion. In part I am wondering if this resistance from within the scope of art, of thought, and their institutions, isn’t simply symptomatic of a certain dead end, an index of how we squirm in the failing order of neoliberalism and the fatigue we experience through it. We’re living through a shitty time, and it’s okay to admit it. Art, fiction and the spaces we create can be thought of—at minimum—as a historical coping mechanism against a generalized state of shared anxiety and loss (particularly that of hope).

Being here (now) in the academic safe haven of Cambridge, in the final weeks (days…) of the U.S. 2016 election, subjected to the chatty nature of NPR news, and picture-perfect sensational politics—the sensational debates starring Hillary and Trump, I feel both irked and alienated. In between those feelings, I am coming to terms with the sense that there will be no political salvation or becoming of any viable democracy…of any actual change of order in the world. Apart from a sense of not-writing, an overwhelming sense of forlornness, I am mired in the guilt of not doing—or at a minimum writing—for certain places, people, causes and things. I wonder if activism in a natural sense is redeeming of our humanity, and if writing is not simply just a function of that.

I am grateful for the invitation to write. I do think there is value in asking things of each other, demanding that the other write, transcribe, articulate, or simply ‘do something.’ It’s redeeming and enabling and perhaps necessary also for the sake of those who are unable to, because of being confined, incarcerated—literally or just mentally. One way of thinking about this, would be that writing does the job of connecting disparate times, events and people; it coheres the plot of a narrative (history). When a frame is dropped, a moment lapses or a person is missing. Writing is akin to séance, a way of summoning missing things, articulating (the) future.

In some ways–even if it appears contradictory to the mechanisms of coping–what I mean to suggest is that sometimes, the best way to think of not-writing is as a hiatus: a necessary break, an arrhythmic interruption to a process of hopelessness. I am trying to imagine not-writing as regenerative of other imaginations, of ways of being with one’s self and one’s body. The mindset of not writing pushes against the limits of capacity to sit still – pent-up anxiety stretching contemplation into new forms, and to think of not-writing and the simple focusing on doing things as generative of hope, like picking tomatoes. There is something to be said about occupying time—sitting with it—contemplating a position from which to act that cannot be so easily co-opted by a tyrannical present, even if I conversely seek its company.

In the realm of passive resistance, I seem to think a lot of Melville’s Bartleby. The compliant typist that decides, upon being asked by a lawyer to examine a document, to respond with a polite and persistent, “I prefer not to.” Perhaps, it is simply that these days I prefer not to write, or even not to think too much. Whereas I cannot generalize this state of passive resistance, I feel that there is a codified sentiment of not-doing looming over us. It feels treacherous to call it out, to spell it out, to articulate it, because we are in such dire need of action, of hope, of something. I’m somewhat sorry to share these sentiments.


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