Newsletter #65: Left Culture and Public Space, on Omar Etman’s “A Garden in Cairo

by William Harris

In the lockdown days of spring 2020, The Dig released Antibody, a special narrative series on life amid the coronavirus that gained the unofficial tag of “leftist This American Life.” It was a funny, equivocal quip, equally self-teasing and ambitious but hinting at the proper scale of Left cultural aspiration: independent productions that measure up in quality and surpass in social meaning the treasured staples of mainstream US culture.

Antibody was meant as a lockdown-era trial run, but now leftist This American Life is back with a full season of new narrative episodes and a new name: The Dig Presents. It offers stories drawn from everyday life, short documentary work, and personal narratives, and seems to me to fill a real need in today’s Left media. Among the many things it devastated, the neoliberal era has been brutal for working-class and Left culture. We live in culturally impoverished times in which booming college debt has made studying the arts and humanities a preserve for the rich, and slashed public arts funding and skyrocketing rents have conspired to erode the chances of self-sustaining working-class artists or culture workers trying to start independent Left cultural institutions.

We’ve seen a real decline in creative life possibilities. In its place has come a more homogenized, corporate, and poptimistic culture. I like to think of The Dig Presents as a small, meaningful response: a place for Left working-class narratives and cultural experiments that can preview what a different culture might sound like and value, grounding The Dig’s exhaustively detailed political and economic analysis in the everyday world of experience and aesthetic sense.

Listen to the first episode of The Dig Presents, A Garden in Cairo, here.

Independent Left culture was hurt by neoliberalism; so was public space. The Dig Presents’s first episode, produced by Omar Etman, folds in both, with a beautiful story of a group of neighbors in Cairo who came together to build a garden outside their apartment complex. Then, one day, the garden was gone, demolished as part of a governmental campaign to respond to the 2011 Tahrir Square occupation by replacing places for public gathering, even ones as small as neighborhood gardens, with highways, bridges, gas stations, and cafes typically owned by leaders of the military government. It’s a whole history of post-revolutionary era Egypt, told through a modest communal garden plot.

Further Reading To read further on the fate of public space in our time, check out essayist and sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany’s classic, touching work on the end-of-century gentrification of Manhattan Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. On a different contemporary building boom with its own implications for public space, take a look at Kai Friese’s n+1 piece “Big in India.”

Lastly, make sure to revisit The Dig’s fantastic Antibody series for more great narrative work, and check out a fascinating early Dig episode on urban politics and the tensions of public and private, from back in 2017, focusing on Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.