A thousand times: NO!

Graffiti activist receives prestigious award

Marleen van Wesel

Egyptian-Lebanese artist and PhD student Bahia Shehab (1977) took to the streets of Cairo following Egyptian’s revolution. And made her mark – graffiti art – on them, always with the same word: NO!

"When they started killing people on the streets, I realised I had to make a decision: should I describe everything from a distance or should I join the revolution and become part of history? The choice wasn’t hard to make", recalls Bahia Shehab.

On 25 January 2011, revolts broke out against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian’s president. In the preceding month, a wave of uprisings had been sparked by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia; they were soon given the hopeful name "Arab Spring". On 11 February, after thirty years of his rule, Mubarak announced his abdication.

"The government resigned", says Shehab. "It looked as if we would get something new. But, in hindsight, perhaps only the façade changed." For the first few months, she didn’t get involved. "I only recorded what was going on." Then she decided that she must take action. She went out onto the streets and left a message on a wall: the Arabic character for the word "NO".

Today, in Amsterdam, she will receive the Prins Claus Award for her commitment to culture and development. On Tuesday, she visited Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (LUCIS) to give a lecture.

"I have been studying the history of Arabic calligraphy for some time. There are many variations of the letter for the word ‘NO’ and I became intrigued: I wanted to find out whether I could find a thousand versions of it in all that had ever been written in Arabic writing. I searched through libraries and museum and university collections – luckily much is online these days. Most of all, I used Bernard O’Kane’s database, with buildings from all over Cairo.

O’Kane works at the American University in Cairo, were Bahia went to university too, and where she is now a senior lecturer. "In the meantime, I’m still working on my dissertation in Leiden, on the Lettrist movement; they used calligraphy back in the fifties and sixties to disseminate their message."

All those "NO"s were collected together in the art installation A Thousand Times No, which was displayed in Haus der Kunst in Munich in late 2010. She also presented them in her book A Thousand Times NO: The Visual History of Lam-Alif, which she published in the same year. In 2011, she sprayed the "NO"s from her book onto the walls of Cairo, always together with a small message explaining the issue it addressed.

"The things every normal person says ‘No’ to but that still happen: bullets, street massacres, ripping women’s clothing." One of her most famous images contains a blue bra, following footage of riot police using so much violence against a woman that she only had a blue bra left to cover her upper body. Shehab estimates that she must have done about 35 of those paintings, which did not have any repercussions for her other work. "We are lucky that the American University encourages us to express ourselves, in fact."

When asked whether she has ever been arrested, she responds matter-of-factly. "I’m still here. If I had been arrested I wouldn’t be here. There were lots of people about then. We protected each other by being there. You could easily fade into the crowd."

She was just one of many people who used paint at the protests. "Between 2011 and 2013, there was a flourishing scene, with as many as a hundred artists in Cairo, I think. Not any more: most are still working as artists, but have mainly left Egypt. Or they’re in Egypt, but don’t have a political message, because you can’t anymore."

There’s nothing to see on the walls. "Everything’s been painted over. We live in a nice and clean city now. Meanwhile, the Egyptian pound, our currency, has gone adrift. I think people here deserve better."

She still leaves "NO" tags on walls, but by invitation, and in other cities. "For instance, I left some in Vancouver, New York and Madison in Wisconsin. I add other messages now, from poems, about where we all stand, the current state of affairs. I’ve continued that scheme in Marrakesh, Tokyo, Istanbul and Beirut. Next week, I’m painting a wall in Amsterdam. I already know what I’m going to say, but my lips are sealed for now."

You can learn more about the NO project in the documentary Nefertiti’s Daughters (2015) and in Shehab’s TED Talk from 2012. She isn’t completely done with it yet. "Sometimes you need to let things go, so they can go their own way. I’ve been working on all sorts of other art projects with a political message since 2012 and I’m sure there will be even more ideas later. But I’ll always be involved in the ’NO’ signs – they have a special place in my heart."

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A thousand times: NO!

Egyptian-Lebanese artist and PhD student Bahia Shehab (1977) took to the streets of Cairo …