When comedian Ahmed Mekky uttered the Latinized acronym for the slang term “aha” in his film “H Dabbour,” he broke a taboo in the film industry. But because he spelled it out in English as “a7a” — to represent the heavy “h” sound in Arabic — its incomprehensibility to the censors and anyone with little online knowledge allowed it to slip the ironclad grip of the Mubarak-era cinema gatekeepers.
Yet the term, whose etymological roots are very difficult to disentangle, remains a salient part of Egyptians’ expression of disdain, shock, agony, anger and a plethora of other hyperbolic emotional states. Whether it is a verb, noun, adjective or onomatopoeia is inconsequential because its meaning is understood.
In a personal conversation with writer and blogger Ahmed Nagy back in February 2008, he lashed out against the culture of conformity and the high premium paid to those who speak in polite euphemisms about the state of their lives and country. “So what if I say a7a! It is how we speak in this country! We hide behind politeness and accept what is happening around us!”
But the term is not a newcomer to the Egyptian vernacular. Anecdote and testimony suggest the masses pleading with former President Gamal Abdel Nasser not to abdicate after the humiliating defeat of 1967 shouted “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (A7a, a7a, don’t abdicate!). Since the revolution, it has been used publicly to reflect on the deterioration of the country’s political arena, from songs like “Aha ya thawra” (A7a, oh, revolution) by Ahmed al-Sawy to songs by the Ultras football fans.
Historically, the fissures between socioeconomic classes in the country were maintained not only by access to authority and power but rather through the admonishment of the masses, on the grounds of what is often described as “vulgarity.”
A7a was once the explosive, screeching, unnerving, alarming and deafening yell of the “vulgar” poor. But as class consciousness was shaken to its core under the feet of a mass revolutionary movement, so has its vernacular. A7a now permeates all social classes with fervor, shattering social norms and elite mores.
In a country whose masses are economically depressed, sexually repressed, and politically and socially suppressed, a7a is the semiotic sum of all dissident expression against the tyranny of the status quo. Both the enfranchised and the disenfranchised turn to it in frustration and camaraderie, even under the nose of societal etiquette and the dominion of authorities — whether armed with bullets, ideology or purported holiness.
At a time when the state’s role was to avoid at all costs khadsh haya’, or scratching the modesty, of society — a precursor to the collapse of political honor — Egyptians, literary and lay, have empowered vulgarity and turned it into an arena for awe-inspiring creativity and a space for aesthetic brilliance.
Yet this revolutionary generation of artists, writers, musicians and activists are walking in the footsteps of their ancestors who rescued language and expression from the fangs of power from time immemorial.
Dating as far back as 1150 BC, ancient Egyptian artists produced what is now known as the satirical and erotic papyri, which ridiculed the pharaohs and royalty by depicting them as animals doing frivolous things, in the face of that period’s culture of megalomaniacal self-deification. In other images, scruffy balding and overweight men, with comically oversized genitalia are shown performing sexual acts with many women in a fantastical fashion. Such images are a direct challenge to the absolute virility of the omnipotent god-kings. And the story continues.
From Naguib Surour’s infamous poem “Kos Omeyaat,” which was banned from circulation in Egypt for decades, to Khairy Shalaby’s extraordinarily explicit and evocative novels, such as “Wekalet ‘Ateya” (The Lodging House) on life in Cairo’s ‘ashwa’eyaat (urban slums), Egypt’s creative class have all too often used profanity to amplify the pulse of the street to the ivory towers.
In April 2008, during an interview with Al Jazeera, poet Ahmed Fouad Negm recited a new poem suggestive of Gamal Mubarak called “’Arees al-Dawla” (The State’s Groom). He recited: “Exit one heaven and enter another, it makes no difference to us, nor does it hurt our bodies, it doesn’t break our hearts or bust our balls” before the interview was cut short.
Today, no one is above the ridicule and sharp criticism of a newly liberated Egyptian public. From President Mohamed Morsy, who is the subject of a recently posted song on YouTube channel Bahgaga, and the Saudi king’s backside described in Cairo graffiti, to an online voiceover of a Nour Party ad depicting the protagonist as a sex-crazed pedophile, the threat to power comes not from political adversaries but from the same creative class that produced the sa’aleek (vagabonds) of yesteryear: people like poet Abdel Hamid al-Deeb, writer Mahmoud al-Saadany and others.
In our days of political jockeying, uncertainty and disparagement, many are resorting to the versatile three-letter word — if not for refuge, for release.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University.
This article was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition