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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.”

  • thirdeye pushpin

    way down in moses’ land….let my people go

    the revolution will be televised and commodified

  • Vvoter

    Essential to Western consciousness – with initial expressions tracing roughly back to Greek hero mythology – is this notion (myth is perhaps the better word) of bodily self sacrifice for a higher, transcendent ideal. That we continue in 2011 to reflexively associate this myth with a visual typology rooted in Biblical imagery speaks largely to the robustness of Greek mythology, subsumed by the Christian religion, in contemporary social consciousness.

    Wether or not we choose to read this image as i) a cultural-hegemonic pulling of Christian meaning out of an ecumenical historical context or ii) an actual material expression of the Egyptian-Christian lineage depends, of course, on a range of subjective factors. As usual, readings are not mutually exclusive, and the variety of readings we choose contributes directly to the depth of our understanding.

    Given the allure of applying cultural-economic-hegemonic critique to the American tendency to read itself onto geopolitical events, and given the temptation to deride the continued widespread presence of magical religious belief in the post-Enlightenment 21st Century, I want to frown on this arguably gratuitous application of religiosity to public discourse.

    In this situation, however, I opt for being grateful that the imagery of deification still lingers in the contemporary social consciousness. I am glad to see it, if for no other reason than the way the imagery – and the accompanying narrative of heroism – gives us a way to articulate and understand the thoroughly moral significance of political agency in a world where the struggle for democratic justice rages on.

  • Enoch Root

    “Hey, bro, can you throw me down a beer?”

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

    Muslim prayer consists in no small part of raising up one’s hands, and saying, ‘Allahu akbar.’ Christians also raise their hands in praise in some circumstances. This is a totally non-denominational photo, and that’s part of what’s so great about it. The beatific look on his face says that he thanks god for the victory, and that the violence is over. I think that what throws Western viewers is that they’re not used to seeing people who are emanating sincerity.

    It reminds me of another image that was circulating recently, of Christian protestors joining hands to guard Muslims in prayer.

    • Ghazala Irshad

      LOL at the beer request.

      You’re absolutely right about this being a non-denominational photo. I didn’t picture any religious imagery when I saw him like this; I just felt strong, sincerely spiritual vibes emanating from him. :)

    • Ghazala Irshad

      Oh by the way, this was shot on the 5th, 2 days after “Black Wednesday” in which pro-Mubarak hired thugs stormed into Tahrir on camels & horses with swords, injuring hundreds. Victory wouldn’t come until almost a week later…

    • Gasho

      Ghazala –

      This is beyond beautiful. Congratulations.

  • Mona

    I thought it was Johnny Depp in an Arabian Nights movie as i was scrolling down!

  • momly

    Very ecumenical figure since Jesus was a Jew.

    Wow, guy got beat up pretty bad – arm in sling, hand bandaged, chest bandaged, head bandaged. My guess is the prayer is one of thanksgiving that he is still alive.

  • omen

    a line i ran across that fits this image:

    Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said “the best jihad is that of speaking a word of truth to an unjust ruler”.

    we know their cause is just and noble. even when the images aren’t idealized, we see them through that lens.

    • omen

      if i caused offense, please go ahead and delete my post. don’t let me be the reason why this photo doesn’t get front paged.

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