THE DOLL IN THE CITY OF GOD
“Let me be a light doll
And that the train of eternal history
Roll on the rails of the last fathers
Towards a tomorrow without adults
Filled with the winged dragons of childhood “
– Ghadah Kamal, extract from “Configuration inaugurale” (review in toto 2)
The recent creation of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa Surrealist Group) is the first manifestation of a surrealist activity organized in an Arab country, since the Egyptian collective Art et Liberté (1938-1948), of Trotskyist orientation. Active in the 1970s and 1980s, the Arab surrealist group in Paris was formed by exiled creators and activists. It publishes, “in order to put the foot of surrealism unreservedly against all religious, social or aesthetic fundamentals”, the review Le Désir Libertaire, which was banned in the countries of origin of its members: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Algeria. This group is in the lineage of Art et Liberté, publishing certain texts by its main theorist, Georges Henein. The poet and translator of Iraqi origin Abdul Kader El Janabi, who was an active member of the Arab surrealist group in Paris, participated in the publication of an anthology of texts translated into French and illustrations from Le Désir libertaire (Éditions L’Assymétrie, 2018). More recently, and still with Éditions L’Assymétrie, he founded in toto, which, without being a surrealist review, is very open to certain current manifestations of the movement. Published in February 2021, the first issue of the journal includes an important file on MENA, which opens with a presentation text by Abdul Kader El Janabi: “Their activities, he specifies, are not, strictly speaking, to speak, a return to surrealism, but the putting into function of a voice widely heard elsewhere and whose powerful echo has never really resounded in the societies of macabre obedience in which they live” (“Formation de bataille surréaliste au Moyen Orient et en Afrique du Nord”).
The MENA was created towards the end of 2019 in Cairo, following the meeting of Ghadah Kamal and Mohsen Elbelasy, a couple of collagists and poets, with the artist and poet Yasser Abdelkawy. It was during a seminar given by Professor Samir Ghareb, the great scholar of Egyptian surrealism. The three poets planned the publication of a surrealist review, then other creators joined them: Fairouz Al Taweela (Egypt), Onfwan Fouad (Algeria), Tahani Jalloul (Syria), Fakhry Ratrout (Palestine), Michael Al-Raee (Iraq) and Nawal Sherif (Morocco) and Kamal Rabea and Nehal Kamal . The collective statement, “The Statement of The East / Language and its Slaves“, addresses more the question of written poetry, but the principles set out are also valid for the other forms of creation practiced by the members of the MENA. Based on analogy and free association, the surrealist imagination opens up endless perspectives:
“The blacksmith’s hammer and anvil are the same, they don’t change, and yet what can be formulated through language is what we call infinity, and there are no limits to that, apart from the creative capacities of the creator to imagine and develop his tools to create what he imagines.”
Black humor, used as a political weapon, is the expression of a revolt against the family and other conservative values championed by societies marked by both neoliberalism and religion. It is “the Killer of All Hollies” and “the ghost of truth that rages with the hammer of the Sloth”. Surrealist means of exploration and expression, adapted to a particular socio-political context, are reinvented without any cliché: “No coat in poetry, no filiation in surrealism.”
The Doll of the City of God is a series of thirteen oneiric photographs by Mohamed El Kashef, produced in association with Gadah Kamal and Mohsen Elbelasy. Its realization precedes the formation of the MENA, but it should be noted that Elbelasy and Kamal had already identified themselves as surrealists for more than ten years. The doll, personified by Gahdah, seems to represent the utopian hope for the advent of Surrealist Civilization, a “new myth” which alone sums up the scope of recent surrealist collective activity. From this perspective, social transformation is necessary in order to abolish capitalism and the state, but it must be accompanied by a moral and poetic revolution. Thus, the creative and revolutionary forces, maintained in particular by the surrealist movement, will end up resolving the contradictions of current civilization. “Surrealist critical thinking, as Kamal explains in a short introductory text to the first issue of The Room, the MENA magazine, does not mean the abolition of real life, nor is it an invitation to witchcraft, but it is rather a reminder of this inner strength that the repressive society tries to suppress”.
The bandage that covers the face of the Doll is a symbol that brings together multiple and complementary meanings. The facial wounds, which one can guess without seeing them, evoke the theme of repressive political violence. The motif of the injured woman is repeated in a poem by Kamal taken from a collection of texts and images produced in collaboration with Elbelasy: “She was standing in front of her shadow, / and she stuck out her tongue, / and then she cut it while laughing” (excerpt from “The Stores of the Damaged Brain”, The Wolves of the Moon, 2021). The gaze of the poetess, veiled by gauze, is blind to the ideological lies propagated in society by religion and economics. It is completely turned towards the inner vision: “We are here to unleash the storm of our imaginations that capitalist politics strives to reduce to the commodity, while metaphysics locks it in invisible cages. (Ghadah Kamal, introduction to The Room 1)”. The bandage also brings mummification to mind, and the reinterpretation of visual elements linked to ancient Egypt in several Elbelasy collages. In a world ravaged by capitalism and obsessed with religion, the mummy’s asocial reverie silently prepares for the triumphant resurrection of the subversive poetic spirit.
In “The Ceremonial Relation” (The Surrealist Civilization), the Czech painter Martin Stejskal calls for the practice of a “surrealist ceremonial”, which would find its rules in the game. The act of peeling oranges, having the face covered of a bandage, corresponds to this surrealist interest in the ritual. Annunciator of utopian and creative abundance, it is a propitiatory gesture which aims to reveal the emancipatory potentialities of the human spirit. The violence of the gesture, a reflection of the political violence actually suffered, symbolically prepares a renewal of civilization on new bases. Future civilization, according to the esotericist René Alleau, will no longer be either magical or scientific, but “poetic”; that is to say, it will achieve a harmonious and free synthesis of the rational and irrationalmodes of knowledge (“The exit from Egypt”, in the collective book La Civilisation surréaliste): “Freed from the double mask of reality and of dreams, it will finally invite us to celebrate the surreal resurrection of the dead and the sleepers.”
The Mummified Doll performs its oneiric and utopian ritual in a setting that recalls the surrealists’ interest in urban exploration and experimentation: “Chance in the city, sensual surprises, our responses to labile fascism under its moral armor or religious, like the insult to the gods, are for us like so many poetic harvests.” (“The Statement of The East / Language and its Slaves”, quoted by Abdul Kader El Janabi in “Formation de bataille surréaliste au Moyen Orient et en Afrique du Nord“). The attempt to make manifest the poetic potential of a building under renovation corresponds to a search for “what the sociology of cities hides”, and which the members of the MENA interpret in the light of the Bretonnian concept of “objective chance”.
In the neoliberal City of God, the propitiatory ritual of the Surrealist Doll symbolically anticipates the moral and aesthetic revolution that will mark the advent of a future, more emancipated civilization.
 Mohsen Elbelasy, one of the founders of MENA, is about to publish, with Nouvelle Maison de la Culture editions (دار الثقافة الجديدة), a biography of the painter and filmmaker Kamel El Telmissany, associated with Art et Liberté.
 Published in 1976 under the direction of the poet Vincent Bounoure, La civilisation surréaliste marks the beginning of the current period of this movement’s activity. The MENA is currently working on an English translation of this collective work; some texts have already been published on the Sulfur Surrealist Jungle website.