Mourning from Aleppo to Cairo: An Insight into Gillian Rose’s Third City

by | 15 Dec 2016

Be ahead of all departure, as if it were already
behind you, like the winter which is almost over.
For among winters there is one so endlessly winter,
that, wintering through it, may your heart survive.
1Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1922


In times when mourning is not allowed Rose’s insights echo the importance of mourning. In Mourning Becomes the Law, Gillian Rose drafts a path for mourners, one that is neither passive nor vengeful. It is a path of overcoming the limits of modernity and post-modernity, or maybe it was her path of working her way to death. These days Rose’s mourning has become abrogated to a passive form of mourning, one that doesn’t resolve our anger but grows it. Let me start by mapping the recent three days of turmoil and anger from Cairo and Aleppo.

11/12/2016: Egypt witnessed bombings in St. Paul and St. Peter Church cathedral in Cairo during mass and on the same day Muslims were supposed to celebrate the Prophet’s birth.[99.] A day before the bombings a newspaper published an article about sources revealing terrorist threats targeting police stations and churches. What struck me was how the president Abdelfattah El Sisi handled the situation, urging Egyptians not to blame it on the government but on the opposition (or what are now labelled terrorist groups), which is a reaction reminiscent of all other attacks that happened in Egypt after the ousting of Morsi. Christians chanted for the government to take responsibility and they dropped the ‘Muslim and Christians are united’ chants that used to be the dogma when an attack on a church occur.

12/12/2016: Syrian government recaptured most of Aleppo from the rebels, surrounding them in a small region. By rebels, I am referring to lives, actual humans, including children, women, injured, elderly, and all those who could not escape or did not want to leave. We started to see goodbye messages on social media platforms from the ‘rebels.’

13/12/2016: UN Secretary General warned against atrocities in Aleppo holding Syrian and Russian governments accountable for the killings of innocent lives, as 90% of Aleppo is in control of Syrian regime.[99.] That’s what we expect from the so-called ‘international community’: warnings, alarms, concerns, blaming, framing – anything but saving lives. In Egypt, the military funerals for the deceased were marked by government tanks blocking family members and sympathizers from taking part in the funerals unless they were ‘invited,’ (which was one member from each martyr’s family) while shushing people’s chants against holding the government accountable.[99.]

In times like this I find solace to my anger in Gillian Rose’s words.

For Rose, mourning results from failures of modernity and post-modernity. Modernity, as she represents it by Athens (the first city), failed because it misplaced mourning in the lack of rights or laws. It emphasized reason as source of hope though it was a source of domination. Postmodernity, the new city of Jerusalem (the second city), failed because it left us exposed to endless sources of discriminations not being able to pinpoint power. It left us exposed to the “unmitigated power of the state.”

Rose preaches towards viewing the fullness in the contradictions and suffering in the world.2Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle, 1992 at 85, at xi-xii. She articulates a way to deal with the suffering under domination that does not tell us that our struggles are not important. She wants us a move to the ‘Third City’.

Firstly, she asks us to “mourn” the lost promises of modernity and postmodernity to engage in a critical reflection of their promises. We should not romanticize what modernity and postmodernity offer but engage critically with it.

Secondly, we find a way to influence political struggles. Once we complete the task of mourning, our struggles formulate around how to engage with the dominant narrative.

Enduring mourning means we influence the political, to gain power but not assimilate to the dominant. Though enduring mourning creates new reasons to mourn. In political actions, mourning prevails because new forms of power will fail to deliver for everyone. But we need to strive for what is to come, a future of this constructed present, which is both better and worse. It is worse because there will be a new subordinated group. Though it is a new form of subordination.

In Rose’s example of Phocion, the political actions of Phocion’s wife are an example of enduring mourning. Phocion, a character of Greek Essayist Plutarch, was a noble statesperson, who was executed for treason mistakenly. His enemies forbid his burial in Athens. Nicolas Possuin portrayed Phocion’s wife in his paintings as she stands next to her friend collecting the ashes of Phocion outside the walls of the city of Athens. In one telling of the story, Phocion’s wife took the ashes and consumed them burying him within her body. She undid the disgrace that was done to her husband by mourning him. She did not succumb to the powerful orders of not burying him in Athens. She did not give in to hatred for the tyrants. She mourned regardless of the orders unfolding new tragedies to be mourned.

Phocion’s wife actions are not an opposition of love to political corruption. It is an act on its own, to be understood as it stands as a political action. It displays the necessary, willful, entanglement of/in politics. She does not gain anything from it but dealing with her struggles.

Mourning cannot be taken away. Phocion’s wife mourns because she is human and laws/rights do not take that away. Her choice was whether she mourns “within or without the law.” The goodbyes from Aleppo on social media platforms resonate with her actions. They are not acts of giving up and death but acts that place responsibility where it should be: on us, the passive speculators or what we term ‘the international community’. Their goodbyes make us feel uncomfortable because we see what we have allowed and continue to allow.

If Phocion’s wife abrogated mourning, she would be “exposed to the unmitigated power of the state.”3Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law, 1996, at 21. She would be vengeful, like the reaction of the Egyptian government to the bombings at St. Paul and St. Peter Church and the international community to the massacre in Syria. The Egyptian authorities did not mourn the losses. They flaunted their powers on fighting terrorism with the president’s speech preaching to his audience to understand how hard they are fighting terrorism. They had to blame someone for the sake of revenge. No one addressed why the events happened because it would mean that the Egyptian authorities would be blamed for their interior policies on terrorism and opposition. It would mean the Egyptian authority would have to take responsibility for what happened since the ousting of Morsi. That is why the Egyptian government silences the chants regularly. It frightens them to take responsibility for it would mean they must forfeit power.

The reaction of the Egyptian government increases suffering and pain by not accepting responsibility. Instead they blame the opposition. They refuse the pain, the mourning. They refuse to come face to face with themselves, moving away from human vulnerability, marking that vulnerability as abnormal, even though it is part of life.  The bombings are not abnormal; they occurred and continue to occur in Egypt since the ousting of Morsi.

The Egyptian government publicly grieved with anger and pride, like the winners of war who publicly grieve the few losses but secretly celebrate the grand win. It should have engaged with the reality it created leading to those losses, instead of creating an endless war on terrorism just like what the US government has done. Butler addressed the same issue in the context of 9/11 attacks.4Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers Of Mourning And Violence, 2004. Butler explains that the 9/11 attacks were ethically bad but logical at the same time. September 11th was a perfectly rational response to the United States’ foreign policy. By suspending the ethics, we can eventually analyze why it happened regardless of the nature of the event. But, to critically analyze September 11th would be read as trying to find excuses for the perpetrators. September 11th is framed as an exceptional event that was not seen before and that needs to be condemned.

Mourning cannot be escaped in order to move on to the next step of taking a political action. Loss is an opportunity to grow, to change as we come face to face with ourselves. If we accept that possibility of growth, we accept the pain. In Egypt Christians are correct to denounce the unity chants for their churches have been repeatedly attacked and nothing has been made to protect it. Nevertheless, the problem is not a sectarian one, it is a political one and Muslims are spectators in it. Just like how the government highlights every martyr from its forces, Egyptian citizens should highlight their deaths. I am not comparing deaths here: they all matter. The government is responsible in both not opposition and not terrorism. What we can start doing as Egyptians is exposing ourselves to hear about the uncomfortable privileges of being a Muslim in Egypt. Islam was built on this, on dialogue. Let the chants of the Christians voice out what they are going through. That is how the Egyptian identity can grow to feel the unity between Muslims and Christians that our grandparents speak of.

To mourn is to understand limits of life. Just how the farewells from Aleppo show, to mourn loss means to accept the pain. To mourn is for us to face with our responsibility of creating that pain, a very uncomfortable position but a necessary one so we can kill the passivity in Aleppo and Cairo. To mourn is to act.

Shaimaa Abdelkarim is a PhD student at the University of Leicester currently working on the relation between the space of rebellions and human rights movements.

  • 1
    Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1922
  • 2
    Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle, 1992 at 85, at xi-xii.
  • 3
    Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law, 1996, at 21.
  • 4
    Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers Of Mourning And Violence, 2004.


  1. Thanks for this post, which reminds me that the Syrian catastrophe isn’t the only situation in the Muslim world that requires urgent attention. But I’d like to ask: Don’t you think that mourning can sometimes actually block constructive action? By which I don’t necessarily mean militancy. What I mean is this:

    The Arab Spring uprisings in the Muslim world, like the Sept. 11th attacks in New York, resulted in the declaration of states of emergency, which empowered the sovereign rulers, whether Muslim military dictators or American presidents, to suspend international law and take military action against those they declared outside the law, whether non-violent Arab street protesters or Islamist militants. US actions in the so-called international war on terror, like, say, Egyptian dictator Sisi’s response to the Muslim Brotherhood, or Assad’s reaction to the Syrian uprising, were then carried out by the sovereign rulers against those who were declared outside the law, whether as traitors, terrorists, or non-state actors, thereby prohibiting diplomatic negotiations between the conflicting parties, with the goal of ending the violence on both sides.

    The US therefore refuses, in the now-standard line, to negotiate with terrorists, the Assad regime refuses to recognize the legitimate demands of the opposition, and the Sisi regime brutally represses the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby predictably resulting in an escalation of terrorist violence, again on all sides. But to stop a war, it’s necessary to negotiate with your supposed enemies, however despicable or inhuman you may regard them. To stop the Syrian civil war, to stop Sisi’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, or to stop the international war on terror, it will be necessary to negotiate between the Western and Muslim States, the US, Egypt, Syria, Russia, etc., and the so-called terrorists, whether the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian opposition protesters, Fatah al-Sham, or the Islamic State. Which also means recognizing that even the Islamic State, as cruel and inhumane as they no doubt are, and horrible as the atrocities they commit no doubt are, must be recognized as human beings, and must be negotiated with to stop the terror. Because, after all, exterminating every Muslim who’s ever considered committing violent jihad against the West, or against Muslim apostates, is simply not possible, or is possible only by making the West and the US terrorists equal to, or worse than, those we oppose…

    I’d like to ask: Do you think it’s possible the Sisi regime will recognize the need to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi to end the terrorist violence in the Sinai? and to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the democratic process? And is it possible that the Putin/Assad regime can be made to recognize the need to negotiate with the opposition to end the Syrian catastrophe? and to finally bring about something like Syrian democracy? And, finally, will the West and the US recognize that the Muslim protesters and Islamist terrorists, however hostile to Western standards, actually have valid grievances against the West and Western-supported Muslim governments, and that those grievances have to be addressed if we want to stop the violence and end the war on terror?

    • Regarding your question whether mourning can prevent constructive action, if mourning is understood as both knowing the limits and taking an action to remedy those limits then no. Whether that constructive action can be understood as any regime to negotiate with opposition as you suggested, well that would be a belief in a false contingency (borrowing from Susan marks) simply because it would be putting hope in the powerful to forfeit parts of their power to acknowledge opposition and when did we ever see that happen! But what I have hope for is the people, as those who actually want to engage with their privileges and vulnerability and reach out to understanding others, not as victims/terrorists but as humans, that can as you said grieve, lose, and feel. That’s mourning; it is not passive but engaging.

      • You’re correct that the sovereigns seldom acknowledge the grievances and demands of the opposition if they think they can eliminate the opposition and get away with it under international law, with the indifference of the international community. But weren’t the Arab Spring uprisings precisely predicated upon the perhaps false notion that, with international and popular support, the opposition can make the sovereign acknowledge their grievances and even change the regime? only if—and this would be the crucial if—the international community supports them, and the costs of eliminating the opposition are great enough for the regime as to endanger the regime itself? I see that the Security Council has finally approved a resolution for the evacuation of Aleppo that wasn’t vetoed by Russia, thereby giving at least that much international support to the opposition, and also—and this is the crucial also—saving ten thousands of lives. Does that make a difference?


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