Anis Mansour and the Intellect of Consent
With the death of Anis Mansour (1925-2011) of pneumonia last Friday, one significant image of the Egyptian intellectual comes crashing down. It may be crass to speak in any but the most admiring terms of a man just deceased: a lively mind initially devoted to philosophy, which he briefly taught at Ain Shams University after graduating from Fouad I (Cairo) University in 1947. But his fascination is such that a critique of his career, on its folding, gives invaluable and timely insight into what his generation would have called, without irony, the cultural life of the nation.
A confirmed geek from his time at the village kuttab (where provincial toddlers started their education, learning the Quran by heart), he extracted praise all through secondary school and university and had no difficulty finding work and (soon enough) an aristocratic, well-heeled wife.
After 1950, when he started a lifetime career with Al Ahram, he became an extremely prolific producer of journalism (sometimes fictionalised, often in the form of travel writing: fat books on subjects as disparate as the Arab-Israeli conflict and UFOs never prevented him from coming up with a daily column for decades on end). Like his initial employers at Akhbar Al-Yom, the Amin brothers, he managed to ingratiate himself with whoever oversaw his work despite coming into his own at a historical juncture when, it would seem, a writer would have had to take sides. A philosopher-turned-newspaperman, he also became a public figure and a literary and intellectual authority, which no doubt he wanted; his weak protestations regarding a career that forced him away from literature should not be taken seriously. But here is the crux:
As a man of letters who grew famous prior to the audiovisual explosion, Anis Mansour was probably the last true household name in literature. But today few beyond the barely literate and the ultra-mainstream have any interest in Anis Mansour.
This is what makes the example of Mansour interesting in the wake of what was, more than a revolution as such, a collective moment of reckoning and a horribly overdue update of the socio-political software driving “national” hardware. It is a paradox that seems perversely typical, somehow: that the only surviving intellectual known outside intellectual circles should have been, for three or four decades, the least relevant to intellectual life. Perhaps thinking about why that is the case can spotlight an aspect or two of Egyptian culture in the time between June 1953 and January 2011: the first life cycle of the so called independent republic.
To look at Mansour’s CV is, of course, to trace a trajectory of success: a path of upward mobility crowned, past any number of official and semi-official awards, posts and honours, by a close personal friendship with the third president of the republic, Anwar Sadat. Also known as the Believer President because, in line with CIA policy during the Cold War, he endorsed political Islam as a bulwark against socialism, pan-Arab nationalism and opposition to peace with Israel, Sadat was a kind of early homegrown Neocon operating, especially after the October War of 1973, as absolute autocrat. How an avowed existentialist (a la Sartre) and symbol of secular liberalism could be this man’s advisor, confidante and speech writer is unclear.
For nearly two decades until Nasser died in 1970, past the establishment of the one-party police state and the Six Day War, Mansour had never so much as questioned “Nasserism”; under what was evidently a more sympathetic dictatorship which, without reversing the machinery of centralism and repression, virtually institutionalised corruption and greed, what did he contribute to national consciousness for the next ten years, until Sadat was killed by the very monster he created?
“Nothing” may be harsh and unfair, but it is possible to see the contradiction between Mansour’s principles and his practises as an instance of a much more predominant trope in Egyptian culture: the tendency to confuse pragmatism with opportunism, placing writing and thinking – down to moral questions – outside the frontiers of the real. Except for the kind of dogmatic political affiliation Mansour avoided – arguably in itself a sublimation of religiosity – few intellectuals ever got past the position of the parent who, while encouraging their son to practise his literary or artistic hobby, insisted that he should have a “real job” and, failing that, measured his accomplishment in the arts by the money and kudos said hobby could bring him, not by consistency, rigour or beauty. In a centralised police state money and kudos would always depend on consent.
In a way Mansour was the perfect candidate for a “realistic” career in the arts. Though always solid, by aesthetic and intellectual standards, his writing is seldom compelling. It is derivative and diffuse, lightweight, loquacious; all breadth and no depth. Euphemistically described as “encyclopaedic”, his intellect is in fact noncommittal, which is precisely how he could be, in the same breath, a liberal secularist and an agent of Sadat’s quasi-theocracy. As per the dictates of his modest provincial background, he deferred to older writers like Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad regardless of the substance of their discourse, never daring to open up a discursive space.
Like any number of writers since the mid-20th century, Anis Mansour wanted – and got – access to “the people”, but having paid the price (becoming part of the establishment), he ended up having little to say to them, far less than the intellectually retarded theocrat (and dissident) Sheikh Kishk, another star of the Sadat era, who had a famous scuffle with Mansour over whether or not Egypt Air should serve alcohol. Mansour could only engage those of them who were literate and open-minded enough to read his column in aimlessly rambling conversation, providing what many see as little more than vaguely learned distraction – part of the production line of a media machine which, though not yet as dysfunctional as it would become under Mubarak, was already expert at manufacturing consent in the absence of ideology.
Mansour’s last column for Al Ahram, written in the context of 25 January, seems to recognise or acknowledge the mirror image of success which makes up so much of his contribution, blessing a task he never took upon himself: “There may come a time when you are incapable of staying injustice, but there must come a time to protest that.”
“You are miracle workers, Youssef. You will ring forever throughout history; Egypt, of course, was there at the beginning of human civilisation, and it and its people continue to be so. Momentous and magnificent, what you’ve done.” – the British writer Niall Griffiths in a private e-mail, 15 Feb, 2011
Having travelled east from Tunis, the principal slogan of the revolution in Egypt remained, unusually for Cairo demonstrations, in correct standard Arabic (and despite the co-option of the term since 11 Feb by every other guard-puppy of the former regime, every shameless beneficiary, and every lying bastard, I still feel utterly entitled to call my revolution by its true name). Hard to say in retrospect whether the incredible evocative, multi-layered power of the four words was already latent within them or was lent them by events and blood, but incredible evocative, multi-layered power they indubitably have:
ASH-SHA’B YUREED ISQAAT AN-NIDHAM.
Ash-sha’b, a word so completely misappropriated by the military in the 1950s and so often abused since then that, until 25 Jan, it could only be uttered ironically, is finally reclaimed, not in the discourse of the revolutionaries but, meaningfully, in their discursive acts. Overnight, a sha’b really does appear on the streets, ready to sacrifice work, home and comfort, even life, to make a point; it is real, it has flesh and blood, it is even capable of being killed (something the guardians of the status quo, predictably enough, demonstrated in a variety of ways). And it exists in sufficient numbers to suspend and overshadow everything else: terror, apathy, expediency, the machinery of repression. At last the word can be used to mean something real, something that can be confirmed instantly by sight.
Yureed: to want, to wish, to will; to have a will. An army conscript ends up as a police officer’s domestic servant; a physician in training is the Doctor’s errand boy; a journalist reports not from the scene of the event but from the office of the government official responsible; the student’s target is neither epistemological initiative nor professional aptitude but the certificate as a token of entitlement (to class, position, rank, kudos); and certificates too, PhDs in particular, can be bought, obtained by pulling strings: it is not simply a matter of corruption; life is hollow, unreal, drained out. As far as it exists at all, deprived of the right to gather, decide for itself, fight back, to say or to be, the people, which in recent memory has only exited as an abstraction, has absolutely no will.
Once again, miraculously, this changes overnight; and thanks to the machinery of violence and untruth, a nidham that has nothing to count on but fear and ignorance, the change very quickly becomes permanent. Before anyone has had time to think, ash-sha’b yureed is the central reference – amazingly, objectives are agreed on without discussion or premeditation, without leadership as it were, and they are shared by every protester regardless of background or orientation – although many, outside the arena of slogans, insist that the instigators and the agents of the revolution are in the end not so much sha’b as shabab (the young, who make up some 60 percent of the population anyway). I would personally take issue with the accuracy of calling this the revolution of the young, but no matter.
In the past, even when it existed enough to protest – as a trade union, a wannabe party or a brutishly repressed organisation of political Islam - ash-sha’b had focused on needing change or imposing it by force, not willing it. Now, overnight, it can actually will.
And what it wills, unequivocally is isqaat an-nidham:
the bringing down (not the changing or reforming) of the regime, the order, the manner of arrangement of things. There is space within that for willing other, grander and more complicated or conventionally organised things: things Arab, things Islamic, things quasi-Marxist, things civic above all… But the point of the revolution is the freedom in which to will those things and the right, eventually, to institutionalise them, the freedom to expose mechanisms whereby, until its outbreak, they could not be collectively willed: plurality and multiplicity within the scope of what everyone can agree on in their capacity as citizens of a modern, independent, self-respecting state.
As yet I can think of three gargantuan obstacles in the way of these freedoms, to which the revolution has been a revelatory, all but divine response: sicknesses that still glare hideously out of the dead body of an-nidham. Interestingly the one thing they have in common is the way they draw on existing and apparently ancient values which may not be undesirable in themselves but have not been holding up in the electronic age.
The postcolonial legacy is similar to that of the Eastern Bloc (centralism, bureaucracy, thought control and Leader worship) – and like the “socialist consumerism” of Party hacks in eastern Europe, since 1970 in Egypt, the police state has lived happily with capitalist excess (since 1981, what is more, and I am not alone in thinking this, the Leader has had neither vision nor charisma).
What this means in practise is that people have to use the technically illegal implements of capitalism (interest and profit) while at the same time pretending to abide by a once meaningful grand notion (if not Free Education then some other benefit of the Virtuous State); hence the informal economy on the one hand (private tuition, to follow through the example) and, on the other, bribery, extortion, wasta, nepotism and the ability of businessmen to monopolise essential products.
Salaries at the state’s invariably overstaffed institutions are kept unrealistically low to provide for the accumulating fortunes of the top five percent of employees in most cases, and perhaps also to keep people busy making ends meet. The last long-standing chairman of the board of Al Ahram, for example, took a cut of advertising revenues for himself while the institution was plunging into debt, not to mention maintaining a private retinue with vehicles and bodyguards at the expense of Al Ahram. That chairman of the board was to Egypt’s strongest “national” press conglomerate precisely what Mubarak was to Egypt: an incompetent promoter of incompetence able to make unthinkable amounts of money in return for being meaninglessly glorified. Controlling the incomes of everyone as if they came out of his own pocket, locked to his position of power with impunity even after he has fallen completely out of touch, for decades on end he rendered his constituency little or no service.
Where interests clash, the law can be invoked arbitrarily by a powerful enough player at any time, interrupting existing modes of interchange but only to a specific, usually personal end. In itself, this generates a self-sustained system of policing where everyone is always by definition wrong and subject to punishment but where everyone is watching everyone else as well, not so much to catch them doing wrong as to catch them doing right: refusing a bribe, performing the task for which they are paid, standing by each other against injustice, telling the truth, daring to challenge state-stamped authority. All such technically legal acts, moving counter to the age-old preference for hierarchy, homogeneity and dependency, actually disrupt the totalitarian order; they delay tasks, they make trouble for individuals; they can ruin lives.
For 15 days among the protesters in Tahrir Square, while order was spontaneously kept from each according to his ability to each according to his need – while security was collectively maintained through ID checks and meticulous searches at entry points – while public services included effective rubbish collection and crime prevention, even the banning of obscenities from slogans and chants – while necessities were transported and distributed, resources divided, space claimed, down to the installing of outdoor bathrooms and the setting up of camps for sleeping in the rain – all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.
Kafka, as it turns out, is not the price that we have to pay for stability; Kafka is what the problem has been all along.
For Egyptians, I believe, this should be evidence that the sha’b can always get on perfectly without its nidham. There need not be hollow pyramids, doublespeak or universal sameness for Egyptians – Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble – to be able to live productively and peacefully together; and it is that ability, nothing else, that constitutes the greater good.
Last night there were fireworks in Tahrir. To see fireworks in Tahrir – and no one has ever seen fireworks in Tahir before – it took 18 days of uninterrupted protesting all over the country, the defeat and sudden disappearance of all security forces and the army taking over the streets on the third day, the deliberate disturbance of the peace and the spreading of rumours about protesters and journalists covering their protests – to maximum reactionary and xenophobic effect, the eventual entry on the scene of ruling-party militias and secret-service snipers attempting to disband protesters, some 350 dead and thousands injured, the very reluctant, silent stepping down of a very old president who has been implausibly in power for 30 years and whose family and private army of sycophants controlled and systematically robbed the economy, the eventual dissolution of the so called parliament and, oh yes, oh yes, a certain amount of constitutional emptiness in the meantime (constitutional emptiness is what the last-minute vice president and other government cronies kept invoking as an excuse to stop the president from stepping down, as if their nidham had ever respected any constitution).
The fireworks were not part of a ceremony as such, but celebrations in Tahrir since 11 Feb have been the closest thing to a true people’s ceremony in Egypt; the reason it occurs to no one to describe the celebrations as a ceremony is that the very notion (as in former communist states) has been hijacked by the state – and the state being what it was, ceremony was totally emptied of meaning. Even outdoor concerts routinely, unnecessarily involved vast numbers of Central Security (and they were not above harassing women in the dark). I would say this about a lot of things in Egypt besides the regime as such: religious experience, intellectual engagement, media discourse; all have been shells thoroughly voided of substance, and they acted to turn a predominantly young country into a little old witch of a lady: conservative, malicious, paralytic – a liar.
Some day soon, I hope, people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.
As yet people are only just discovering rights previously, mercilessly denied them – the right to be addressed politely by members of the police, for one relatively widespread example – rights they have been repeatedly told would undermine personal and public safety and national stability when in fact all they really undermined was illegitimate power. Such discourse, like the president, is very old; it belongs with an age during which, unjustifiable as it remains, state control could be justified by lack of information, populist will, a nationalist (anti-imperialist, or proto-Soviet) scheme.
Until a few days ago, agents of the former regime still had the nerve to call such extremely hard-won political participation sedition, lamenting the alleged necessity of bloodshed to prevent it, and to warn of foreign agendas directing events, when everybody knows that no Egyptian government has made it its business to incite sedition or implement agendas as much as Mubarak’s: evidence has surfaced that the former Ministry of Interior was behind the recent bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, for one thing; in 2006, in the name of the war on terrorism targetting Hamas, Tzipi Livni announced Israeli war crimes to be committed the next day against the people of Gaza from the presidential headquarters in Cairo; and while Gaza was being bombed, the government refused to open the frontier to injured civilians.
Of course, one condition for silence before sheer age - and age is venerated for its own sake in Egyptian culture – is the separation and isolation of discursive spaces. A poet, for example, can be a reactionary agent of the regime in one space (some official post at some division of the Ministry of Culture) and a prophet of radicalism in another (the almost never-read text). As a socio-economic being, that poet’s existence is circumscribed, sufficiently policed to make it either a mouthpiece of the status quo (opening up space for upward mobility) or a container of silence; it is rendered an organic part of an-nidham. Elsewhere the poet is left to her own devices, but confined to the space in which she has nothing in common with fellow citizens – the private, unconventional, oppositional, atheistic space in which poets have been locked up – she can only reach out to another poet. She too is afraid for her personal safety and what stability she might benefit from as a lone progressive lamb among the grassroots wolves.
In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together – and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which we reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance…
Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.
Psycho-socio-historians will have a bonanza in Oedipal readings of the 25 Jan Revolution: a work of art that should generate endless departures in the world of the mind. Egypt being the mother (and it was so called in one slogan drawing on traditional patriotic discourse), the absolute ruler – called an idol, a serial killer, a thief as well as a dog – was the hated father. Among the working classes in particular, patriarchy in the form of feeling sorry for “our president” continues to register. (It is easy enough to point out that, with his family fortune estimated at US$70 billion and so much innocent blood on his hands, our president can go to hell. Even if the patriarch were desirable, surely it would have to be a righteous patriarch who cared for his sons? And with references to filial duty consistently invoked in the context of the dirty fight to keep the regime alive – Goliath posing as David’s wronged begetter – I for one can only see respect for this patriarch as a form of eternal self-hatred, a denial of the true messiah, the vomit of treason.) But – and this remains the more relevant point, by far – 25 Jan was, as well as the defeat of the police, an occasion for patriarchy to vapourise.
Just like hierarchy, just like the false homogeneity imposed by the segregation of discursive spaces, patriarchy eliminating the life impulse completely broke down in Tahrir. Sexual harassment, a chronic illness that has dogged public space for as long as anyone remembers, was instantly and completely cured in Tahrir. Female participation, a supposed objective of both government and Islamists somehow never sufficiently realised, was patent and profound. Counsel was imparted irrespective of age but no viewpoint was imposed; and the stifling, father-headed structures of oppositional bodies of the past – modelled as they were on structures of power – spontaneously broke down. A revolution without leaders: the more precise description is to call it a revolution without fathers; even the fathers inside it were creative agents of freedom, the freedom of children, and their designation as fathers did not blind them to the ugliness that besets age when it is disfigured and corrupted.
The authority of the collective will eliminates fear. While the protests went on in Tahrir, patriarchy lived on in the myopic terror of “the popular committees” who, failing to realise that attacks on homes were orchestrated by the regime with the purpose of aborting the revolution, carried their kitchen knives and broom sticks outside and just stood there. For hours on end they moped, obtuse, at the entrances of streets and buildings; they formed checkpoints to search cars, mimicking the notorious checkpoints of the police. They were concerned about their private property first and foremost, and they often blamed the revolution for the threats to which they were subject. They acted tough, but it would take only a gun shot for them to piss themselves freely.
Patriarchy lived on in the attitude of parents who objected to their children participating in the protests, often out of fear for their safety, but just as often out of complacency and paralysis. Other parents brought their infants to Tahrir, painting their foreheads with the word Irhal – “Go away”. The parents of the martyrs gave speeches, urging the protesters to hold their ground.
One elderly gentleman – the father of three – sat next to me on the pavement at the Front, as we had taken to calling Abdulmoneim Riyad Square where the attacks of Black Wednesday were concentrated. That was on the next day, towards sunset, and it was very quiet on the Front. A young woman wearing a cardboard and tin helmet started chanting, “Down with Mubarak.” People were too tired to join in, but the elderly gentlemen kept staring at her, a smile of awe starting to form on his face.
Suddenly he turned to me and pointed in the direction from which the girl’s voice was coming. “You know,” he said. “When I see the likes of her I feel that I’ve wasted my life.” With a mixture of sorrow and delight he started laughing softly. “If she can do that at this age,” he muttered, “what does that say about people like me? When I see the likes of her,” he enunciated loudly, “I feel like a piece of crap.”
Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa (Writings of the security shift): the Letters of Abdelhakim Qassim, ed. Mohammad Shoair, Cairo: Merit, 2010
Abdelhakim Qassim (1935-1994) is among the least talked about Egyptian writers belonging to the so called Generation of the Sixties – and not only because he is dead. By now Qassim is as established as he can be; his long-term influence on the literary imagination is undeniable. But unlike, for example, the poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983) or the short story writer Yahya El-Taher Abdalla (1938-1981), both of whom died during his lifetime, Qassim is hardly ever celebrated. Along with other Sixties writers, Dar Al Shurouk has bought the rights to his oeuvre, but to this day it remains out of print. The only exception is his first novel, Ayyam al-inssan ass-sab’ah (The seven days of man, 1969); and it is this book that his name tends to invoke, obscuring the bulk of what he considered his true achievement.
Set in and around the village where he was born some three weeks before his official date of birth, near Tanta, Ayyam al-inssan is an ode to provincial life and its spiritual core – centred on a seven-day mini-pilgrimage to the shrine of the local saint for the moulid or anniversary festival – and it has cast Qassim more or less exclusively in the role of writer of the provinces. This role, he would variably engage with and reject throughout his life; what is clear is that he did not think of Ayyam al-inssan as his greatest accomplishment.
Later writing is different in subject matter and structure if not so much in language, a rich, occasionally laboured language in which the author invents as well as searching for the right words, drawing on vernacular diction in oblique and intensely personal ways. Some of it is set in Berlin, where he spent the period 1974-1985; much of it was written there. It includes four novels besides Ayyam al-inssan, five books of short stories, four novellas and a play as well as much else not intended for publication. All of it remains virtually unknown.
Such neglect could have to do with the rift created by what Mohammad Shoair, the editor of the present book and Qassim’s as yet potential biographer, describes as Qassim’s “return to his village to defend social traditions and artistic values he had often attacked”. At this point in his life, profoundly disillusioned with the West and increasingly nationalistic in outlook, Qassim censured even his closest writer-friends (those, as Shoair notes, whose work his never-completed PhD was to be about); pointlessly but perhaps understandably he began to seek self-realisation beyond the literary sphere. Two years after his return from Germany he ran for parliamentary elections, representing the left-wing Tagammu’ Party; it was a forgone conclusion that he would lose. Immediately afterwards, he contracted a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of his body and for the last four years of his life was able to write only by dictating to his wife.
It was a time, I imagine, of profound alienation and bitterness; Shoair dwells on the effects of immigration on Qassim’s connection with his homeland in order to explain why he suddenly turned against everyone and everything. And the neglect that his work has suffered is due, if not to its aftermath, then to his sojourn in Berlin, during which he maintained only spotty contact with literary centres in Cairo. As a law student at Alexandria University – his course was interrupted by five years in the Wahat Detention Camp, where he was sent on charges of communism – Qassim, a renegade Muslim Brother and a temperamental Marxist, had managed to establish himself in intellectual circles. He travelled to Berlin initially to attend a literary conference, invited by Nagui Naguib, one of the earliest champions of his writing and the correspondent to whom the first two letters in the book – the only two written from Egypt – are addressed. It is unclear how long Qassim initially intended to stay, but it seems he saw the invitation as an opportunity for starting afresh; apparently on a whim, he simply went on living in Germany. The Berlin sojourn, a difficult one by all accounts, served as an occasion or a pretext for writing letters to family and friends. In one such, to the novelist (and once Al-Ahram Weekly critic) Mahmoud El-Wardani, Qassim dwells on the reason behind his departure, the one theme his letters keep coming back to:
“In my youth I was unable to accomplish anything new. I grew up, earned a degree and started working. I became someone with a home and a job to go to every morning, a wife and a daughter and then a son. Gradually society started to rid me of all that set me apart, driving me to crush the old Abdelhakim and construct, under my skin, another Abdelhakim who is diligent at his work and attentive to his home and careful about his clothing.
“It was driving me to another terrifying thing: success. And success is only one thing once all values have been mired in the mud. Success is to be well-off, to have contacts with the powers that be, to have an important position, to have an image that is seen and a voice that is heard. Society was warning me: If I did not do this it would turn me into a deformed cripple to be crushed without mercy.” Successful acquaintances would meet up with him, discuss petty issues of concern. “And I would see the terrifying emptiness in which they lived. I read their work and saw their absolute debility. I recognised their torment and their inability to turn back, and I also recognised by own inability to go on and write what I wanted to… There had to be a new beginning in a new land…”
Shoair, who might as well have written a partial if not a complete biography of Qassim, began to collect Qassim’s letters in 2004: “It started with a small press file on… Yahya El-Taher Abdalla… The critic friend Mohammad Badawi suggested that I should likewise put together a file on Abdelhakim Qassim.” Shoair contacted Abdelmoneim Qassim, the writer’s brother and one of his principal correspondents. He obtained copies not only of Qassim’s letters to Abdelmoneim and others but also of never-published poems, the incomplete doctoral thesis, abandoned novel projects and the Berlin diaries. “I found that the letters could form a text parallel to and revealing of his works, his cultural constitution and choices. And I started contacting his friends to ask if they might have letters from him.”
The title Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa is a reference to Qassim’s longest lasting job in Berlin, as a night watchman at the Charlottenborg Palace, when he would frequently pass the time by writing letters. The book contains letters to 11 correspondents including some of the most active writers of the period: besides Wardani, the short story writer Said El-Kafrawi, the poet Mohammad Saleh (Qassim’s brother-in-law, who passed away last year), the critic Sami Khashabah, and (another universally acclaimed writer of the provinces who by then had stopped writing) Mohammad Roumaish. It excludes letters to Qassim’s wife, deemed by his daughter “too private” for publication, letters “hidden” by their owners and letters that have been lost. Shoair gives his introduction the title Writing Without Makeup, and it is this spirit of abandon, the intensely personal tone in which Qassim discusses all manner of subjects from the procedural to the philosophical, often on the same page, that gives the book its immediate appeal. One amazing fact is that, whenever he begins to write in dialect – as people often do in personal correspondence – Qassim always seemingly involuntarily reverts back to standard Arabic. Before you have had a chance to catch your breath the language has already taken on that heavy, fluid eloquence that characterises all his writing.
He writes while on the job, while drunk, while briefly ill or in the grip of melancholy. The text, which Shoair is careful to reproduce accurately, preserving grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies of punctuation (footnotes would have made for a smoother read), affords fascinating insights not only into the life of which it was part – Qassim’s propensity for mythologising even the simplest events: the way he remembers his journeys on foot from one village to another to see friends back in the Nile Delta, for example, or his tirades against the so called Zionist entity and Sadat – but also into the rhetorical techniques that went into his more polished compositions. Still, there is a sense in which these letters can be read as chapters in an epistolary novel, albeit an unsettlingly postmodern one, about estrangement and homeland but also about the shifting and often tragic fortunes of Egyptian intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely Qassim seems to say very little about his immediate surroundings in Berlin. Often he will recount what he has been doing or where he is going next, his often difficult financial situation can be discerned in various ways, but Berlin itself – the place he occupies while writing – remains something of a mystery, repeatedly mentioned but only very occasionally dwelled on. In one 1974 passage to Saleh Qassim, with typical quasi-epic emotion, speaks of his awareness of the city with Whitmanesque frenzy: “Berlin seeps into my heart from peculiar pores… Berlin, softly! In my heart is Cairo still. Will you come to me in words whose meanings I do not understand on the lips, in cigarette smoke puffs, in a few sadnesses that I know. For I, Berlin, lived a long life before I came here… Berlin, I am your loving young one. I throw my leg away from the bar seat. When she smiles to me I dissolve. I feel the taste of glittering saliva on her teeth. I tap the rim of my glass out of shyness. I wish it never filled and you will ever fill it. But it is only a moment that barely is before it is gone…”
Apart from its historical value, of all its virtues, the most remarkable thing about this book is that it contains a wealth of apparently passing remarks that will prove of value not only to the student of contemporary Arabic literature but to the literary theorist and the writer concerned with the nature of the creative process and what it means to write. “Dreaming of writing is more beautiful than writing itself,” Qassim writes to Wardani in 1982. “Dreaming of writing is me in all my barbarity, my limitlessness and power.” And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these letters, Qassim did not so much write as dream of writing.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
It is early evening on Tuesday – the busiest time of the week – and a stranger has walked into the Weekly offices. Let us say he is in the headquarters of Al Ahram to visit a friend and has been misled to this den of newsroom inequity. The atmosphere will strike him, first, as uncannily quiet. There is no one in the corridors; while he looks for someone to talk to, no sound emanates from the empty-looking rooms on either side of him for a long time. Stranger still, there is a faint smell of seafood wafting uncertainly. Then, suddenly: a laugh; shrill but somewhat muffled, it ricochets out of and back into an as yet hidden doorway, setting off a ripple effect of hearty, all-Egyptian chuckling unbelievable in context. The stranger follows the sound. He proceeds with caution, as if caught in a time warp; as he does so, the fish smell intensifies. Finally he is open-mouthed before the least assuming of the doors. The medium-sized room is dominated by a single polygonal table, and around it sits every member of staff, inluding chief and managing editor, engrossed in a jolly feast. “Come join us,” Ahmad K says.
Saturday morning. And aside from the fuul and ta’miya buffet set out in the page layout room while we wait for the editorial meeting – all vice comes from layout – there is something unduly relaxed about the pulse of a seemingly normal workplace at the start of the working week. If they are not eating, exchanging day-to-day news or doing both things at the same time, people are reclining, smoking over mugs of green tea, skulking. They come in all shapes and sizes. Among them is a hefty specimen of remarkably pious appearance, the kind of “Sunni” whose long beard and shaved head – not to mention the prayer “raisin” of dead skin on his forehead – bespeaks sternness and lack of appetite. This is the selfsame Ahmad Kamal Mustafa, better known as Ahmad Kamal, and his appetite is actually phenomenal. Paradoxical though it is for his lifestyle choice, you happen to know that a good half of what comes out of his mouth is intentional hilarity; and you cannot help anticipating his next joke. Yet even so, knowing what he is like, the sight of the office’s resident Wahhabi with a ta’miya sandwich in one hand and a car-cleaning cloth in the other doing a folk dance, unprovoked, is still a disorienting gift.
The week begins on Saturday; Thursday and Friday make up the weekend. Work peaks on Monday. Some would contend that work starts on Monday, but let us say Monday is when it peaks. Depending on how various individual duties overlap, Weekly staffers work together in small groups. Each Sunday members of the same group will keep telling each other to arrive early on Monday (official hours start at 11, but since work often goes on till the early hours, official hours seldom apply). The next morning, whoever does turn up at 11 is not surprised to discover that, until 1 or 2 pm, he will remain alone. Later than that, mobile phones start ringing. But no matter which way the convergence happens, by 3 pm the group in question will be gathered around a single desk, with music blaring out of the computer and hot and cold drinks flitting into and out of hands. Everyone has work to do, everyone knows it. But it takes at least another hour before the great Nesmahar S, the petite guardian angel-cum-motherly nag of my group – also the office’s most active chatterbox – stands up to make her no-nonsense announcement: “Time to work now!” Fortunately, before we have even had time to sigh and boo, Ahmad K has entered the room with a little trough of water which he proceeds – reenacting a well-known scene from a classic televised comic play with the song that accompanies it rendered in tandem – to splash water around the office, wetting all surfaces, and clothes.
After the madness of Tuesday comes Wednesday. Traditionally the quietest time of the week, with no work pending except finalising the front page of the newspaper and adding what last-minute news might have come up unexpectedly, it is now a long, hectic day with frequent quarrels between staff members, notably the editor in chief and the head of the page layout department, who seem to everyone but themselves to be more interested in quibbling than finishing off. Thanks to this, and to the fact that the moon of efficiency is inexplicably and exponentially on the wane among us, Wednesday is now the closest we generally come to what people think of when they think of a day at the office. At least it would be – if not for the spontaneous drumming and tabla session that starts, sans instruments, between the room with the polygonal table and layout. Ahmad K looks disapprovingly at the drummers. He has been sitting making faces at the computer, completely absorbed in his work, and as well as being religiously suspect the noise has distracted him. He begins to deliver a lecture on the need for employees to show respect at their place of work; he sounds convincing. But before he has completed two sentences – no one stops drumming in response to his admonitions – Ahmad K has stood up and joined in the drumming himself.
If anyone actually came in on Sunday, it would be a pleasant enough day with plenty of time for gatherings, drumming and culinary indulgence in addition to work. Could it be precisely for that reason that no one really comes in? The reporters are still finishing off their stories, the editors have nothing to work on. The designers could spend time uselessly pursuing the editors but they would rather loiter. It is actually the designers who come in regularly on Sundays, both because they have additional responsibilities to do with archiving and the web edition and because, well, they can never claim to be working from home. And this is why they end up spending more time with whoever happens to be there from outside their department on Sunday than on any other day. They pitch stories (Weekly designers are all amateur writers); they gossip; they turn into film critics and political analysts and advice columnists. They eat. The office is quiet but not uncannily so. And it is in the middle of such a conversation that you can expect to encounter Ahmad K, all nearly 100 kg of him, standing on top of the desk of one editor or another – for no particular reason – balancing said editor on his shoulder and back.