Amira Hanafy's Dictionary of Revolution: Its Pros and Cons Essay Example

  • Category: Books, Literature,
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  • Published: 02 May 2021
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The limits of the digital world seem to be infinite and this could also be reflected to literature. This paper explores Hanafy's Dictionary of Revolution as a case in point of modern digital literature in view of the fact that she is a winner of New Media Writing Prize in 2018. It examines the basic qualities and the real significance of that piece of work in consideration of the facilities and contexts presented by the digital world. It also looks into Hanafy's strategy, tools, design, images, sounds, videos and hyperlinks in performing such a project to detect its aesthetics.

Whilst explaining the meaning of the terms, the author narrates a lot of historical incidents and confrontations that occurred during the Egyptian Revolution. The paper scrutinizes the implication and connotation behind such a recounting. It also perceives whether she is unbiased and fair and if such unfolding of the events is relevant.  She also makes use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic narration instead of standard Arabic, and this tactic is scrutinized. The dictionary has a lot of stories happened to some protesters, and this strategy of the author is inspected to spot its grounds. The electronic material used in that dictionary like the visual vocabulary cards, statistics, and illustrative diagrams is looked over in the view of digital literature.  

Speaking by pre-recorded video, Amira said: “Thank you very much for recognising A Dictionary of the Revolution with the New Media Writing Prize. Thanks to the jury for selecting the work and recognizing practitioners of digital literature, e-literature, new media writing and strengthening the field in general (Pope).

Why does digital-literature become widespread? 

Projects of digital literature and electronic fiction become a widespread movement or trend that spreads out so fast these days. At the digital present time, there is an ever-increasing propensity and interest in getting or sharing knowledge and information via electronic means. The availability of the digital resources makes learning or searching simpler, faster, cheaper and more accessible. Print material becomes less common since everyone finds it uncomplicated and effortless to just click the button of a computer or touch the screen of a mobile phone or a tablet to get whatever needed. Furthermore, online writing is also an international passport that goes around the world and earns his/her owner a big fame. Besides, at the same time as the mounting of events is on progress, digital archiving turns out to be inevitable. At times, it becomes a must to report and give an account of some growing proceedings when stillness and restriction are the mainstream of politics. "With the re-emergence of censorship and silence, the task of documentation has become more urgent."  (Hanafy, Kickstarter). For these above-mentioned reasons, the paper is going to tackle Hanafy's Dictionary of Revolution as a case in point of those digital projects that gain eminence and international prizes. It wins the Public Library Prize for Electronic Literature 2019, the New Media Writing Prize 2018, and the Artraker Award for Changing the Narrative 2017. 

Why digital and not print?

The work is a series of 125 texts, over 200 people, talking about the language of the Egyptian revolution. My team and I recorded 200 hours of conversation; the material I worked with for a few years. I intended it to be a printed book, but as I worked to build an audio clip library, I started to realise that print was not the medium for this project because the narrative I put together was a complex and chaotic memory and non-linear narrative (Pope).

When Hanafy is asked why she preferred her piece of work to be digital and not print, she stated that the dictionary would be considered politically dangerous and as a result it would be banned and would ever never see the light. Thus, the only way out of that dilemma was to be electronically available in view of the fact that print writing is restricted and controlled, especially the political one where the digital is not. 

Now, after a year-long crackdown in which journalists and activists have been jailed, Egyptians are much warier of expressing their opinions – or of talking to artists asking about revolution. As a result, Hanafy conducts her interviews in private, and sometimes asks colleagues to interview their friends to avoid her attracting suspicion. "If I was doing this project in 2011, I would have gone down to the street with a recorder and asked the questions there. But now? People won't answer" (Kingsley).

Using the facilities of the cyberspace as a means of expressing opinions allows its user some sort of free will and self-determination. "It was important to me that I do not just take over the conditions of a printing unit in digital space, but use the possibilities of digitality. Everyone who deals with it will find its own way in it" (Lessmann). If print, that piece of work will go through long routine procedures and, consequently, many parts will be changed, edited, cut or omitted under the circumstances of bowdlerization. The author of such a book would be on the spot. 

To be honest, other pressures pushed me away from print. I wanted to launch the publication to an Egyptian audience first, and if I tried to publish a book in Egypt, the text would have passed through the hands of censors. I was not at all confident that it would return intact, or that I would be willing to make changes. Moreover, I didn’t want the attention such a process might bring to me or the project. (Hanafy A Dictionary of the Revolution)

Secondly, if digital, it will be more wide-spread, easily reached and all-around unlike the print that would be on hand in limited places. Moreover, it would give a chance for adding or editing in the future. In this regard, Hanafy believes: 

Alongside my project to compose a book from this collection of material, I’d like to build a more interactive website for the archive that would allow for people to add definitions over time. Online — as opposed to in print — the archive could transform over a longer period of time and come to represent a larger number of views. (Qualey, Yourmiddleeast) 

Thirdly, for some procedures as classifying, categorizing and sorting out issues, using a computer with all its obtainable capability is a necessity. Fourthly, it was an attempt from Hanafy to file such historical and political moments since she has a linguistic interest in documenting the terms and expressions that were commonly used by the public during such a political affair. Hanafy states, "The project was designed to document the rapid amplification of political conversation in public following the uprising of 25th January 2011" (Hanafy, A Dictionary of the Revolution).

Later on in 2013, Hanafy made an online campaign calling for regaining such liberty that people have got during the revolution and at the same time keeping the loud voices that could call for their rights. "A Dictionary of the Revolution makes space for viewpoints that are no longer represented in the media or in the Egyptian public. The book and the archive preserve the memory of a moment in Egyptian history when many voices could be heard" (Hanafy,kickstarter). The campaign was also a sort of fund-raising or searching for financial support for getting more supplies concerning the utensils of the project such as taking trips from a city to another and purchasing recording equipment.

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, A Dictionary of the Revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. (Lindsey)

She has plans for expanding and building up her project even after its electronic publishing. She argues, "I also need additional funds to transcribe all of the individual word libraries (rather than only the selections that make it into the book). If the minimum crowdfunding goal is reached, I’ll be able to make the complete archive available to the public."( Qualey, yourmiddleeas)

What is the design of the dictionary?

Hanafy does not follow the traditional way in designing her piece of work. Instead, she uses a different technique since she employs images, graphs, audios, visual cards and statistics. As an alternative of just clarifying the meaning of the words, she prefers her explaining to take the form of narration or telling stories and events that already happened during the revolution. In fact, while browsing, the whole incidents of the revolution with its details unfold in an eye-catching performance. 

Vocabulary box

For A Dictionary of the Revolution (2014–2017), Hanafy made a “vocabulary box” with 160 words in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Hanafy chose words that were circulating in public discourse immediately following the 2011 revolution. The box was then used to generate conversation with over two hundred people across Egypt, in Alexandria, Aswan, Cairo, Mansoura, Sinai, and Suez. Transcriptions of these conversations functioned as raw material for the artist’s assemblage of imaginary first-person voices speaking around each of the terms. (Heisler)   

It contains terms used by people between 2011 and 2013 concerning the demonstrations, politics, and uprising. From the moment of the revolution on, many terms changed and replaced, while others tended to have sarcastic connotations. "The emerging and still-unfinished work is a snapshot of a country undergoing immense flux. The central question of the project is about what has changed [since 2011] – and we're assessing that through language"(The guardian). It is not a regular dictionary that gives a list of alphabetized words and explains what they mean; rather it is a kind of a chronological account of the events of the Egyptian revolution at the same time as it contains "multi-vocal storytelling. It is a series of 125 texts woven from the voices of hundreds of people who were asked to define the evolving language of the Egyptian revolution." (Hanafy, amirahanafy) 

Moreover, the terms appear in a circular graph and whenever the cursor points to a term, a semi tree - shaped diagram appears in the center where the branch of the tree or the arrow points to the main term and the other branches refer to the relevant terms. Hence, at the same time as looking up a term, many other related terms show up on the screen. When one branch of the tree gets bolder, this means that this term is so related to the main term and vice versa. When a term is clicked, the meaning appears in about two-thirds of the page, while the tree-shaped graph shows up in the last third. Explicitly, "Each word is accompanied by a diagram that shows its relationship to other words in the Dictionary. The thicker the line connecting two words, the closer their relationship is. The diagrams are the result of an analysis of the complete text of the Dictionary" (Hanafy, A Dictionary). The term is not only clarified, it is accompanied with stories and incidents narrated in first-person pronoun. In this respect, a critic thinks: 

Hanafy has integrated transcriptions of these conversations into a non-linear, imagined dialogue and full archive, now hosted on Visitors to the page will find a comprehensive diagram of relationships between the terms, which acts as an index to the website. The edited audio recordings are also being published, one word a day, starting from the 1 April launch, on the Dictionary's SoundCloud. (Skyers)

Hanafy's unusual technique in designing that project seems to fit documenting a revolution as the latter does not follow any rules. In such a case, there is no room for traditional methods and regular procedures; innovation is to take place instead. 

Groth argues

Its word-map navigation at once intuitive and innovative, suggesting connection between chapters and providing a semi-guided path through the text, rather than a random sampling of texts. What emerges is a kind of narrative, though one with no clear arc, no true beginning and definitely no end. Seems appropriate for a revolution. 

Moreover, every page has three windows: one takes the browser to the home page, the second to the archive and the third to the previous term. The archive has images, voices, and recordings.

The terms and their meanings are explained by means of inquiring some people, about a couple of hundred contributors, from different Egyptian cities where everyone is supposed to pick up seven cards and talk about them one by one. Hanafy believes, "And I found out that this strategy of asking people for the meanings of words and phrases often led to really rich, interesting conversations" (Qualey, Yourmiddleeast). Explaining the meaning with such vivid description and attention-grabbing tales makes the dictionary only one of its kind and exceptional as well. Using the cards help in stimulating the participants to share in the project and it is also a sort of visual effect that facilitates getting the attraction of the browsers and the participants as well. Qualey argues, "Hanafy will use what she calls“ revolution vocabulary cards ”to spark stories and personal anecdotes." Beside the visual vocal cards which appear while browsing the dictionary, lots of audio recordings are also available. Though hearing the voices of the people which are full of enthusiasm and excitement, the picture of the revolution runs all the way through the head.

Its Pros

The dictionary has a lot of vivid accounts and dramatic actions of the actual incidents of the Egyptian revolution that come by design with every term.  The account is so bright and lively as if the demonstrations are live. The political opinions of the project's participants are displayed crystal clear, the matter which makes the dictionary a truthful document rather than a book of terms and expressions as every term comes with evidence. It also has some words that start to have different metaphoric meanings right after the revolution for example, "the chair", "KFC" and "sheep". Thus, browsing such terms, gives the browser a complete picture of what was and what is concerning the Egyptian political terms.

Some elucidations of the terms that are said by people who participated in such a project can be elevated to be instructions and guide to perfect political life. For example, the term "chair" does not mean a seat or a piece of furniture to sit on; rather it means the responsibility or the position of being in charge of something. In explaining the meaning of "the chair" Hanafy states:

As long as you're sitting behind a desk, you'll forget the people outside completely, and you'll find yourself beginning to do wrong by them. You'll find yourself departing from the work you were hired to do—from the very reason you're sitting in the chair. Don't get used to the chair. Get up, move around, see how the people live so that you can be in touch with them and their problems. Don't forget them. (The Dictionary)

It also has some Utopian political views that people hold, a matter which reflects the degree of awareness the Egyptian people have after such upheaval. It also shows the dreams and the way of thinking of the protesters. Thus, it is a whole picture of the status of a people during an upheaval. One of the participants thinks:

I want to be president. First of all, before anything else, I will give everything that belongs to the State that makes a profit to the people. If it's a piaster, if it's less, I will give it to the citizens. Fair distribution of wealth! I'll make people… I'll make them feel like they own the Suez Canal. I'll make them feel like they own the Corniche they walk on. I'll make they feel like they own all the amenities. Anything that belongs to the State belongs to them. (Hanafy, The Dictionary)

Using colloquial Arabic is a good step which helps in reaching a wide variety of people and makes the terms easier and simpler.  

Hanafy will use a recorder to document people’s testimonies. She also will use multi-layered frameworks of telling the stories of the revolution to reach different opinions and view. The final wording of the dictionary will be in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, with plans to translate into English to reach wider audience. (Al Masry Al Youm)

Being an active citizen who cares about her country's crucial issues is one thing that appears in a clear way in this dictionary. It is not just an interest in language as it might seem; it is something far beyond that. Hanafy is a patriot who wants to record such momentous flashes under the curtain of a dictionary as she witnesses the revolution and what happened next. Refusing to be just a viewer, she decides to be a documenter and a historian. 

At some unique moment, it seemed that the vast majority of Egyptians agree on what the country needs. But what is happening now in Egypt is a form of conflict and confrontation between many of the facts, and I'm interested in, through this project, documenting this complexity at the current moment. (Al-Masry Al-Youm)

Significance of a term

Explaining the significance of a term in Hanfy's Dictionary of a Revolution is not a regular one; rather it has a special strategy. First, it puts in plain words the meaning of the word from the point of view of the participants and how its connotation is associated to them. Second, the history of the term is also tackled, i.e. the meaning of the word before the revolution and after it. For example, in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, the word "revolution" means: "an attempt, by a large number of people, to change the government of a country, especially by violent action or it is a great change in conditions, ways of working, beliefs, etc. that affects large numbers of people" (1142), whereas in Hanafy's dictionary a revolution from the vantage point of a participant is something that is irregular or unusual in everyday life i.e. the opposite of routine. The term "revolution" in Hanafy's Dictionary is as follows:

Revolution has been a dream for me since I was a kid. Before the real revolution, the meaning of revolution was any little thing. Our ceiling was really low. So, whenever we were able to do anything, it was a revolution. Go out in the street wearing shorts; open the windows and turn up the radio; close the car doors and dance—it was a revolution. If someone fought with their family to stay out late, they'd say: "What?! Are you some kind of revolutionary?" That was revolution. Why? Because that was our limit. That was as far as we could go. Could anyone dream of more? No.

Third, the term is also expressed in a way that shows how it could be altered or expanded according to the surrounding circumstances. That is to say, in the past it could mean something so simple and limited but after the revolution it gets bigger and bigger. Fourth, According to the participants, the term could mean something good during the blink of the revolution and then it turns to be the opposite. It also could mean something to the public and another to the protesters." Now, I feel I've finally understood the real meaning of the word. Even the people who were really revolutionary, but had never lived in a revolution, didn't understand it. You understand it well if you've really lived it." (Hanafy's Dictionary)

Fifth, the term is expressed comprehensively with many details and then eventually the focus goes to the political meaning. The supposed meaning is also referred to and the actual one on earth is expansively tackled. A political term could be wrongly used in some issues while its right meaning is ignored or forgotten. "This was a better revolution than the 1952 Revolution. Why? Because the 1952 Revolution, when they called it a coup, they were right. England called it a coup. Yeah, it's a coup. Why? Because that's exactly what they did. But the people, they started January 25th from the bottom, so it's really a revolution" (Hanafy's Dictionary). Sixth, the center of attention goes to the analysis of some political issues and crucial questions where the main topic of the Egyptian Revolution unfolds through the personal estimation of the participants. 

Some English terms are accompanied with an image of the equivalent Arabic visual card where the browser can be on familiar terms with the term and its translation. Moreover, the dictionary is not only about explaining some political terms, it goes far beyond that as its author confesses that she was presenting a political issue that the Egyptian people were interested in, and she was after nothing but the actual judgments and real outlooks of people.

I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution, says Hanafy. You could say, I’m not interested in the Truth. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment. (Al- Masry Elyoum) 

There is an icon entitled archive, when pressed, a PDF dictionary, images of the cards and voices of the participants all are available with one touch. But, all are in Arabic. That is to say, "while the full spectrum of the dictionary is currently only available in Arabic, users can interact with a diagram of the terms in English translation." (Skyers)

Many magazines and newspapers have written about Hanafy's Dictionary as it is internationally appreciated and prized. It is so because it is considered as a successful attempt to track the course of an Egyptian language during a political crisis taking into consideration the appearance of new terms that have never been used before and the alteration of the meaning to some already-known ones. The study of such a phenomenon in a society during a critical period and after getting much freedom of speech where everyone can say their opinions without restraint is something innovative and valuable. Skyers believes that:

Hanafy’s original idea was somewhat straightforward: to construct vocabulary cards for over 100 words that were frequently used in colloquial Egyptian in the two years following the uprising. As it turns out, this period of political upheaval was paralleled by transformation in the linguistic sphere; new terms and phrases were rapidly introduced to describe a rapidly changing political climate. 

The Dictionary does not only cope with political affairs but it also deal with varieties of terms in other fields. Beside the revolutionary ones, it tackles terms that apparently seem to be irrelevant but actually they are pertinent.  Surprisingly, word like "onion" appears in the dictionary as is it used during the tear gas mist to help breathing. "In the digital "Dictionary of the Revolution" of the Egyptian-American artist Amira Hanafy, in addition to the great themes of humanity, ordinary vegetables are also found" (Zekri). Terms related to clothes, shoes, masks, and places are also there in the dictionary, e,g. abaya with snaps, boots, Mohamed Mahmoud, Tahrir Square.


By making use of the accessible facilities of digitalism, Amira Hanafy could productively design an electronic dictionary that encloses terms used during 25th January Egyptian Revolution. It has most of the expressions and words uttered by the politicians and the public during that time. In addition to clearing up their direct meanings, the references to the figurative ones are also presented in a way that draws a vivid portrait of the 18th day-revolution. Being full of visual cards, charts, audio recordings and stories, the dictionary is a unique one as it is dedicated to documenting the history of a society in a crucially critical era. Using an out of the ordinary manner of narrating the events and joining the threads of many different anecdotes together are both captivating techniques used by Hanafy in designing such a dictionary.

It does not only deal with political terms but it also covers terms related to food eaten by the protesters at some point in staying in the Egyptian streets, clothes worn by some revolutionary girls, places embraced the protesters for eighteen days and manners of those who took part in the revolution and those who do not. Thus, the dictionary comes out to be a complete visual rendering drawn perfectly about a revolution through the means of explaining vocabulary. In the course of the good use of electronic means available in the current digital world, Hanafy's Dictionary testifies to a well-known revolution during the 21st century accomplished by a people dream about freedom, good standard of living and social justice.       

Works Cited

Al- Masry Elyoum. “A Dictionary of the Revolution: a popular 

documentation.” egyptindependent, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 24 Sept. 2013,

Groth, Simon. “Screenshots: A Dictionary of the Revolution.” The writing platform, 2 May, 2019,

Hanafy, Amira. “A Dictionary of the Revolution.” Ibraaz, 30 September

Hanafy, Amira. “Reading on the Revoving Path.” The writingplatform, 

Queensland University of Technology and Bath Spa University. 26 july 2019, 

Hanafy, Amira. “A Dictionary of Revolution-a memory archive.” 

Kickstarter, Kickstarter, PBC.2019,

Heisler, Eva. " Amira Hanafy, Cities and Dictionaries" Asymptote, 

Asymptote Journal, 2019,

Pope ,Jim. “ A Dictionary of the Revolution wins at the 2018 New Media Writing Prize awards.” NMWP, 18 January 2019,

Kingsley, Patrick.  “ Egypt: after the revolution comes the battle for 

language.” the guardian,  Guardian News & Media Limited,18 July 2014,

Hornby, A.S. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lessmann, Stefan. “Words with explosive power.”, 

Wiener Zeitung Group, 26 Sept.2017,

Lindsey, Ursula. “In Translation: Five years on… Did the Revolution fail? ” The Arabist, The Arabist RSS, 25 Jan. 2016,

Qualey, M. Lynx. “ Thug , Infiltrator: What Do These Words Mean To You?” Mideastposts, WordPress, 29 Sept. 2013,

Qualey, M. Lynx. “ ‘A Dictionary of the Revolution’ – so we don’t forget the uprising.” Yourmiddleeast, Yourmiddleeast,20 Feb.2015,

Skyers, Eileen Isagon. “ The Revolutionary's Phrasebook: An artist maps  the trajectory of an Egyptian Lexicon.”Rhizome, Rhizome Organization, 3 April 2017,

Zekri, Sonja. “Language of the Revolution.” Sueddeutsche.Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung Digital Media GmbH, 31 March 2017,



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