In This Review

You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution
You Can Crush the Flowers: A Visual Memoir of the Egyptian Revolution
By Bahia Shehab
Gingko Library, 2021, 144 pp.

By her own account, Shehab, one of the Arab world’s most inventive graphic artists, was not a political rebel until the Egyptian uprising of 2011. A Lebanese Egyptian, she’d spent most of her life in Lebanon, moving to Egypt only in 2004. When the revolution broke out, she was teaching at the American University in Cairo and was the mother of young children and an artist with a budding international career. (At the time, I was serving as president of the university.) Already well regarded for her work on Arabic calligraphy, she had started a project called “A Thousand Times NO,” in which she explored the various ways the word “no” has been written in Arabic over the centuries. As the upheaval unfolded, she was inspired, as were many previously politically inactive Egyptians. She took to the streets, contributing to a remarkable flowering of public art as a graffiti artist, stenciling variations of works from “A Thousand Times NO” across Cairo. It was a period of extraordinary artistic creativity, and Shehab’s memoir recounts the emotional intensity and artistic inspiration of the period—and, better yet, illuminates it on page after page with her vivid photographs of both her own work and that of other graffiti artists working in Cairo at the time. The book’s title comes from a line of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s that was scrawled across the walls of Cairo: “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.” The memoir is evocative and moving; the illustrations an important piece of the historical record.