Rabab El-Mahdi writes: In November 2011 during a protest on Mohamed Mahmoud street in downtown Cairo, a friend asked me if I would start a reading group for some politically engaged young people. I answered that I had read and disliked Reading Lolita in Tehran and so had no interest in imitating its protagonist, who had set up a book club in her home and encouraged the members to read and discuss western literature as the means to emancipation. My friend had not understood what I’d meant and so I conceded.
I had expected five people but 15 arrived instead, all in their 20s and early 30s; most of them were what the media and politicians labelled “Islamists”. My label? “Leftist academic and activist.”
We met weekly, reading together Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon, Ali Shariati, Talal Asad, Edward Said and Lila Abu Lughod among others. We talked about Marxism, postcolonial studies, Islam, feminism, resistance and revolution and discussed contemporary politics at length, but as the weeks passed we also cooked together, watched movies, and spoke about their families and love lives.
As a student of postcolonial studies and an Arab woman in western circles, I have often had to confront other people’s assumptions about me, and most of my academic work has been about deconstructing such stereotypes. So I thought myself above labelling, presumptuous conclusions and artificial divisions – until Asmaa, Awatif and Mariam, three stay-at-home mothers, asked to join the group and I was forced to confront my own deeply rooted assumptions. [Continue reading…]