A feature by Michael Barron
In early 2013, when the writer and scholar Anna Della Subin began work on her book-length essay, now published by Triple Canopy as Not Dead But Sleeping, it was said that Egypt was again awakening. It had been roused by the uprisings of the Arab Spring, which Subin witnessed firsthand in her role as editor for the Middle Eastern culture magazine Bidoun. So went the rallying cry: “The revolution is in Tahrir, no sleeping in bed.” These words appeared as graffiti on a tank, referring to what had become the world’s largest sit-in. In America we are now living in the “woke” era, a term used to describe being aware of social injustice and racism at every waking moment. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Subin begs to disagree.
In a text that moves between treatise and prose poem, Subin uses al-Hakim’s play as a launching pad into a dark galaxy of medieval martyrs and sci-fi saints, messianic sleeper cells and the insomniacs of our late capitalist age, to argue that sleep can have a revolutionary mandate of its own. “The sleeper is the ultimate social critic,” she writes. “Sleepers are assessors of our awakenings. And sleep cannot be censored.” We spoke this summer about Egyptian literature, protests against time, and whether a story can fail . . .