The Webcomic Overlook #196: The Revolution Will Be Televised
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi had had enough. He’d been us he’d too far by local authorities. He was a poor street vendor from Tunisia who was struggling to feed his family. Unfortunately, his small wheelbarrow, from which he would sell produce, would constantly be confiscated by corrupt local officials. Eventually, he would find himself in debt. He would not have enough money to bribe officials to keep his stand open.
after his latest confrontation with an official, Mohamed went to complain to the governor’s office. They refused to see him. So Mohamed got a can of gasoline. He stood in the middle of traffic, and he shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?” Then he doused himself in gas and set himself on fire. Mohamed would die a couple of weeks after at the young age of 26.
What would happen after would go on to be known as “Arab Spring.” The violence of Mohamed’s death shocked young Tunisians, who took to the streets in protest against corruption in the government. and it was not confined to Tunisia. The protest spread to Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, and Egypt. And then they spread further. The winds of change spread throughout the Arab world. It was a calamitous time. One one end, there were the indelible images of women handing flowers to soldiers. As the other end, there’s the bloody toll: Wikipedia has listed the number of deaths at 32,000 to over 50,000.
Dov Torbin and Asher Berman planned on taking a vacation to Egypt when all hell broke loose. What had been a trip to see the sights of ancient Egypt suddenly becomes a struggle to find a working phone so they can talked to loved ones back home. They recount their experiences in The Revolution Will Be Televised.
Dov and Asher are off on a fun vacation to see the antiquities of ancient Egypt. Dov is a little hesitant first. The protests had just broken out a few days ago in Tunisia after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Asher, with kind of a pissed off look, tells him, “Nothing is going to happen here. Trust me.”
Things prove to be more hazardous from the beginning. On a trip to the antiquities museum, Dov and Asher encounter protesters and police in riot gear as they exit the the subway. The incident doesn’t bother them much, though. They snap pictures, not because they’re witnessing history first-hand but because it would make a great profile pic for Facebook.
There’s a reason Asher retains a rather cool attitude, though. He’d been in Egypt long enough to know that there had been protest for as long as he’d been there, and the police had always been around to “use heavy violence to nip it in the bud.” Still, they’re taking precautions. The two head to Asher by train to go sightseeing until the violence in Cairo dies down.
The two undertake an adventure that, when viewed in light of the events of the time, seem rather mundane. They find amusement in watching a singing kid who pulls alongside their boat on a floating piece of driftwood. Their biggest concern is how to sneak in photos from restricted areas inside Egyptian temples. (In a fairly nifty parallel scene, the two later get yelled at for taking photos … only this time, they’re taking photos of the protests, and the reprimands are from a nervous taxi driver.) They can no longer ignore the protests, though, when the movement reaches Aswan.
The return trip to Cairo proves to be a little trying. The bus stations become overcrowded. Cellphone minutes, all of the sudden an important resource, are hard to find. They have to sleep in bathroom stalls. Despite all that, they make the best of it. They crack jokes. They declare their space as their own nation. They make the bet of things.
They are soon hit by the grim reality of the situation when they return to Cairo. Alex, Who is Asher’s Italian roommate, had been shot during the protests. From this point on, it’s a story about holing up in an apartment while the reality of the events slowly sinks in.
The comic’s main weakness is that it feels a little distant from the events. Dov and Asher end up getting most of their information from TV while events rage outside. This rings true … It reminds me, specifically, of when my high school history teacher recalled how he watched the Detroit riots from a hotel downtown while listening to reports on the radio. Again, though, there’s the weakness from both approaches: they may have been there, but much of the information is as second hand as our own experiences.
Compare that with AD: New Orleans After the Deluge, where the writer, though not a first-hand witness, did take care to retell first-hand accounts of victims of Hurricane Katrina. The stories have more impacts because the people telling them had felt the consequences more intimately. With The Revolution Will Be Televised, I felt it sounded more like, “I heard from a friend of a friend that….”
The comic even plays up how Dov and Asher are removed from the events. Dov tries to play up how he was in a KFC when the lights went out. This was sort of a humorous response to a story recounted by Sam, a friend who recounted a tale of how local street vendors stood up to officers firing canisters of tear gas at them. While their generally coolness toward everything may be a front to help cope with the situation, it also makes our protagonists a little hard to sympathise with. They crack wise about Asians sleeping in a cellphone stand. They distance themselves from events by watching Hot Tub Time Machine. The unrepentantly cut in front of people at the airport. I applaud the authors for painting themselves in a less than favorable light, which I assume is a true account of events. At the same time, they do come off as a little callous.
The comic is filled with plenty of interesting moments of conflicting emotion, though. There’s a painful scene where Asher discovers that his grandmother died. While he’s cultivated an aloof veneer throughout the entire comic regarding Egyptian revolutionaries, Asher cannot quite hide his sadness when tragedy strikes close to home. The world-shaking events are nearby but too big to fully grasp; a death in the family, though, is a gut punch.
The person who does take the situation seriously, though, is Sam. Coming back from Egypt, Asher tells the media, “We actually had a pretty good time.” Sam, on the other hand, angrily chastises the American media while predicting more violence if Mubarak doesn’t step down. While Dov and Asher can’t fully comprehend Sam’s position (Dov’s art does a good job of showing the two shifting uncomfortably as Sam angrily tells off a reporter), the story about Asher’s grandmother helps put things into perspective. Egypt is Sam’s home, and the people whom the riot police had attacked were his neighbors. To him, the violence hit him on a personal level.
When I first encountered The Revolution Will Be Televised, it was billed as “a frank but humorous observance of the revolution, with a focus on the media phenomenon of communicating the experience to spectators around the world.” It’s not quite that. There are wry observations here and there, but I’d hardly call it humorous. It got downright philosophical at times, with our characters musing about religion and ideology. We certainly didn’t get a sense of the impact of “spectators around the world,” since the point of view was limited to two guys just trying to make their way through Egypt. But it is frank. And it does convey a sense of how a revolution can seem ordinary and chaotic at the same time.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)