Catch 25

The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion


At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.

        Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.

        Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.

        So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.

        Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.

        The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.

        If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”

        Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.


October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.


At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.

        One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.

        The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.

        It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.

        Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.

        Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.

        By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.

        With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.


Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.


Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.

        Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.

        As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.

        The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…

        Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.

        B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.

        Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.

        Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.

        For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.

        That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.


It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.


Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.

        Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.

        This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.

        It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.

Sky colours: Al Ahram Weekly, 2005

Youssef Rakha attends a disappearing funeral

photo: Youssef Rakha
photo: Youssef Rakha

The day Ahmed Zaki’s body finally gave in, there were several, simultaneous demonstrations downtown. For the entire morning and much of the afternoon, Central Security forces besieged the city centre.

It seemed peculiarly fortuitous that an actor’s funeral should be preceded by so much political angst, yet it was equally peculiarly apt. His phenomenal talent notwithstanding, a significant portion of the media and popular attention paid to Ahmed Zaki’s illness — and the ubiquitously sentimental anticipation of his death — was due to the place he occupied in the collective imagination, a place reinforced all the more by his decision to die playing the singing legend Abdel-Halim Hafez in the incomplete film biography Al- Andalib.

Abdel-Halim’s own funeral was an event of immense national import. The mouthpiece of both post-revolutionary middle-class romanticism and the nationalist-cum-socialist Nasser regime, he embodied qualities with which the vast majority of ordinary people could identify — dispossessed background, spontaneous warmth, personal dignity and, most importantly, a newfound sense of self worth.

And Ahmed Zaki’s had been a similar story, his most celebrated accomplishment being the ability to attain stellar status without possessing the looks (or incumbent associations of wealth and class) on which it tended to depend. Nor was he a comedian like Adel Imam, whose ability to induce laughter made up for lack of sophistication. He was rather an intuitive genius, and like both Abdel-Halim and Souad Hosni, his social-cultural identity (much as his dark skin, rough hair, Negroid lips and large, intimately melancholy eyes) made him a figure of speech — the irrevocably broken Arab dream of freedom and justice, by turns streetwise and dignified, powerful and scared to death, delightful and intimidating, but always attractive, heroic, frustrated — an image ordinary people could hold up to both lofty and quotidian oppressions.

Too bad that Central Security made it impossible for the said ordinary people to participate in bidding him a last farewell. If not for their intervention, perhaps the funeral would have been reminiscent of Nasser’s own — a swooping, all-encompassing multitude moving through the city as one body. (In the 1990s Ahmed Zaki had chosen to play his favourite president — a belated and partial embodiment of an identification that had perhaps been subliminally made — one confirmed, if also subverted, by both his subsequent performance of the role of Anwar Sadat and President Mubarak‘s personal interest in his cancer treatment).

Sadly political angst — or else the Ministry of Interior‘s typically terrified response to it — would have things otherwise. Once again, the sight of olive-green armoured vehicles and the interlocking arms of countless guards imbued the event with unsuspected irony. Rather than the loving expression of grief one would have expected, an angry stampede. Rather than a civil, star-studded march, a demonstration. And worst of all, no funereal procession whatever.

Throughout the area surrounding the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque — with every street blocked, guards venting sadism, officers by turns frenzied and in a stupor — it was individual gestures that gave the event form. True, people cried out in unison, initially demanding that they should be allowed to perform funereal prayers (a request that, out of fear for the safety and comfort of officials and film stars alike, fell on deaf ears).

They would later chant the ritual statement of the faith that always accompanies processions dispatching the dead, La Ilaha illa Allah, in a tone too furious, too determined to suggest grief. Some even took off their footwear and started hurling it at the guards, who had been shooing them away from the flower-wreathed vehicle bearing the body with fists and belts.

But one remembers, rather, the old, balding man in a worn striped suit, silver hair slicked down with Vaseline, importantly bearing a small, patched-up poster with pictures of both Ahmed Zaki and Abdel-Halim.

Likewise the irreverent old woman who, in response to the statement “The people want to pray” — made an innumerable number of times in the course of arguments with the guards — commented, “The people want aspirin.” Or else the renegade guard who vowed to his colleague, even as he stood sentinel, that he would let everyone pass, the quiet-looking girl who suddenly burst out crying, the small female voices that could be heard yelping as the car passed, speaking as though to a loved one, with genuine, precisely dramatised emotion, oblivious to everything: Ma’a esalama ya’Hmad (farewell, Ahmed).

The feeling was one of having been cheated out of a lifetime’s opportunity as the crowd changed direction, following the vehicle down Al-Batal Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Street, Mohandessin, and fast turning into a stampede.

Body parts and faces in close up, constantly changing. All you could do was look up, to the sky, the colour of which was kept changing as people gathered and dispersed, sweat mixing with dust, Central Security quickly regrouping, their job done. Not to sound too lyrical, the sky seemed to hold all the secrets, only the sky.

Yet it was with a heavy heart that one noted, much later in the day, how the people had again been dispossessed of one of their basic rights — to say goodbye to a symbol of their very dispossession.

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Being Faten Hamama

Omar Sharif- A close up shot from his movie &q...
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I saw Omar Sharif last weekend. Well, I saw a picture of him. But it made him so present I thought I really did see him. Immediately, the images began to foxtrot through my head: Doctor Zhivago, Sharif’s Ali to Peter O’Toole’s TE Lawrence, mustachioed International Star (as the Egyptian media likes to call him), bearded French TV host, bridge champion, exotic heartthrob but most importantly of all, icon of the marriage, in the course of the 20th century, between the Arab world and the West.

It was a recent picture, part of a full-page ad at the front of Emirates Business 24/7: gracing a new resort development, he stands to one side with manicured green in the background, formally dressed, silver haired and bearded. But his charismatic smile has not changed one bit since he starred in Youssef Chahine’s black-and-white films as a clean-shaven young man, both slimmer and more casual, with a conspicuous “beauty mark” to the right of his nose.

Aside from the momentary nostalgia Sharif’s face always evokes – a nostalgia for 1950s Egyptian cinema and the artistically vibrant, multicultural Egypt it stands for – which, on Abu Dhabi’s Airport Road, is prone to turning into a far cruder nostalgia for every old Egypt, cosmopolitan or not, I would not have given that eminently multinational face so much as another wink.

But the reason I spent all afternoon ruminating on Omar Sharif was the coincidence of seeing him on this particular weekend. It was the second day of the Art for Aid charity exhibition (held at the Cultural Foundation under the auspices of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan to raise funds for the Red Crescent of the UAE), and I was scheduled to attend a “live interview” with the exhibition’s star guest, the Lady of the Arab Screen, Faten Hamama. For those who don’t know, said Lady was Sharif’s wife from 1955 to 1974.

A live interview, as I was to discover, is practically a talk show episode, but more sober and less brief: the perfect opportunity to raise the big, complicated questions and expect to discuss them at length.

Maybe I thought of Chahine first because, before I could remember the fact, it had subconsciously dawned on me that Chahine’s 1954 Struggle in the Valley was the film in which Faten and Sharif famously, fabulously met.

After years of categorically refusing to be kissed on screen Faten gave in to what was, in context, a relative moral compromise, only to turn round and legitimise the act by marrying the man she had compromised herself with. Even Chahine, who had grown jealously attached to both leads, could not guess what was coming. By his own admission, the marriage was so abrupt and devastating it drove him to (probably half-hearted) suicide. I actually remembered the couple more clearly in River of Love, the 1960 Anna Karenina adaptation directed by Faten’s first husband Ezzeddin Zulfuqar, from whom she had separated while Struggle in the Valley was being filmed.

A stately tragedy full of palatial ballrooms and sumptuous trains: the controversial message of River of Love – that a woman will be unfaithful if she is unhappily married – sets the tone for much of Faten’s work. While Sharif was fast relocating to Hollywood and Chahine, more gradually, to Cannes, she consolidated her local career through roles that spoke to the female predicament: a peasant girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock; another who is the victim of an honour killing; a woman of good family unable to divorce the abusive husband who has marred her life; an otherwise happy wife whose marriage suffers from an insufferably meddlesome mother-in-law; a young woman who proves herself in the legal profession against all odds.

The Lady had always managed to safeguard her reputation while mixing in decadent circles, but the mere fact of her doing so pointed to Egypt’s capacity, all through the 1950s and 1960s, for cosmopolitanism. It seems telling that her divorce from Sharif – the very epitome of such decadence – took place within three years of Anwar Sadat, the self-avowed “Believer President”, coming to power in late 1970.

True, Sadat freed political prisoners as well as the economy, making sensibly pragmatic peace with Israel rather than subjecting his people to yet another war. But in being terrified of “the communists” he not only gradually refilled the prisons but also set off wave after wave of religious fundamentalism; fundamentalists, not communists, would eventually assassinate him.

In making money, not worldliness, the standard of chic, Sadat’s reign ushered in an era of relative insularity that continues to this day; and Faten was in a much better position than either Sharif or Chahine to accommodate the new mores without giving up too many of her principles.

By 4.30pm the space set out for the live interview on the first floor of the Foundation had been quietly filled. Faten’s Emirati hostess was already bringing up topics like whether women should dress to impress their men or for themselves, and whether khul’ – the most recent development in the personal status rights of Muslim women in Egypt – was necessarily a good thing.

Being in large part a modern, televised variation on the traditional Emirati unisex gathering, this was an awkward place for a man. A feast of hors d’oeuvres flanked the lush armchairs that stretched from the Lady’s seat at one end of the space to a screen silently playing footage from her 97-strong filmography at the other. The only males allowed in were journalists and organisers; and a tacit determination to assert girl power pervaded the proceedings.

An interesting way for feminism to find expression in middle-class and segregated settings, this: what it served to demonstrate was just how insular and conservative Arabs have become since Struggle in the Valley. Egged on by no less than a hundred Arab women Faten held forth on a range of subjects. But when talking about the social influence her work has exercised, the Arab woman she consistently invoked was the lowest common denominator – a disappointingly monocultural creature who, even as she complains of patriarchal abuses, does not even conceive of questioning the status quo.

Only some mention of Sharif, I decided, could counter such traditionalism.

So when it was finally my turn to race through a question or two, microphone in hand, I plucked up the courage to mention an ad I had seen on the front page of Emirates Business 24/7. “What,” I began to say, “could the coincidence of Omar Sharif –” when I was abruptly cut short.

Not by Faten, mind you: her face had not lost its composure and, while she did not object to the hostess reminding me of the provision against “personal questions”, it was not clear whether she wanted to respond to the question or not. Before I could push my luck, however, I had already lost her.

The women around Faten were suddenly tut-tutting and shaking their heads; and I could not help thinking that, like so many Arabs now, they were all paragons of an increasinly hermetic culture. A culture which, forgetting that it actually produced them, can only tolerate Omar Sharif and Youssef Chahine as the eccentric remnants of a time or a place sufficiently removed not to be threatening.

Faten had looked imposing at the centre, as fresh, sharp and appealing as she was 20 or 40 years ago. But it was the face of Omar Sharif – icon of the marriage not between himself and Faten Hamama, but between the Arab world and the West – that would stay with me; that I missed.

The National, May 9, 2008

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