I’ve always lived as if there were no end in sight. What I mean is, I’m continually destroying things and building them back up again. It’s never occurred to me that I might end up crazy or suicidal.
- Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy
I was hanging around the restaurant Floridita, spending time in the red light district, roulette in all the hotels, slot machines spilling rivers of silver dollars, the Shanghai Theatre, where for a dollar twenty-five you could take in an extremely filthy stripshow, and in the intermission see the most pornographic x-rated films in the world. And suddenly it occurred to me that this extraordinary city, where all the vices were tolerated and all deals were possible, was the real backdrop for my novel.
- Graham Greene on Our Man in Havana (1958)
Parque Central, Circa Hotel Ingelterra: 29th August 2012, 4p.m.
I am lounging on a stone bench facing the central monument in Parque Central. The city is buzzing and the humidity and heat are overbearing. Nabokov’s Lolita is on my lap. I started reading it, devouring it, on the bus from Santiago de Chile to St. Pedro de Atacama; a 24 hour ride the only remaining memory of which – apart from Lolita – is a lingering and intensely unpleasant scent that I still am unable to identify. I have only two pages left, and I am beginning to experience that feeling of satisfaction which accompanies the end of a book you have savoured, when a Cuban man interrupts me. He appears to be in his early forties, and approaches me with buoyancy – he reminds me of those toys that spring out of a box and only cease moving once the lid is closed. “Que es su pais?” he asks in a question that I have already heard at least ten times today, and it’s only my first day. “Egipto” I reply. I notice that he is wearing a white skull-cap, and my hunch is correct. There are only five-thousand Muslims in Cuba, he begins, and an Islamic centre. It was complicated getting the communist government to approve the mosque. He mentions Ramadan, which has just concluded recently, and the difficulty of fasting in the tropical Havana heat. Upon learning that I too am Muslim, (yes I am, well .. sort of), and my name is Mohammed, his heart gives that jump of joy that for some reason Muslims of all nationalities and ethnicities seem to feel towards each other, especially when they meet in unexpected circumstances. I am now his brother – hermano.
… derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal) …
What I Believe – J.G. Ballard
Extract from The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha, published in October by Dar Al Saqi, Beirut
24. Today, I’m convinced we were a room no one managed to enter except three lovers. Of them, it’s Moon who figures in memory or imagination, though the last to reach us: the shade for whose sake we left a door ajar. As if the other two got in by mistake. Is it because we never knew from where she came or where she went after it all came to an end? Was it for the sake of the tomboy traits, which were to lead us to covet one woman above all others in our circle? Moon was the closest to us in age and the only poet. Perhaps for her hyper-insubstantiality and her retention—despite the slightness and small size—of a lion’s charisma, perhaps because she was the most changeable and extreme, the one whose behavior it was impossible to predict from one day to the next, we left a door ajar for Moon.
25. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me from afar. Very far, it seems. Each time I’m made aware of the army’s thuggery then the lies of the military leadership and their political-media cheerleaders, each time I become conscious of people’s readiness to credit lies, I’m ever happier with my remoteness. Here I shall be cut off and secure; allowed to remember. It’s truly pleasant to be spending my time tapping away with a clear head while Egypt burns, and I reflect that the problem—perhaps—is that it doesn’t burn enough; that over there are those that talk about the threat the demonstration poses to productivity and the importance of getting the economy going even as young men are abducted and tortured; that people run for parliament on the grounds of their familiarity with Our Lord, while Al Azhar’s men are murdered with live rounds. Because of this, because these events, in spite of everything, are limited, and because their significance is squandered with people’s readiness to believe in lies, I feel the necessity of remembering and am content with my remoteness.
26. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me and I’m thankful for the file before me on the computer screen as bit by bit it fills with words. I congratulate myself for creating a folder I named The Crocodiles—for this to be its first file—because, since doing so, I’ve lost the urge to descend to the battlefield of Tahrir Square or Qasr El Ainy Street and I feel no guilt. At times—and this is all there is—I am overwhelmed by grief. A biting light flares in my head, blinding and paralyzing me for minutes each time, and I shake and awake to a severe pain in my stomach. An hour later—not a tear shed—comes a burning desire to weep. I know none of those who’ve been killed personally, and though I’ve often put myself in the place of their family and friends—I know some of their friends—I don’t believe I’m grieving on their account. The pain whose light bites into me is a symptom of something else, a thing I don’t know how to formulate. As though you went to sleep in your comfortable home and woke to find yourself naked in the middle of the road. As though we have nothing else but this.
27. I think on Moon and remember that in 12/2010 or 1/2011, following the outbreak of Tunisia’s protests—even as the Tunisian police were killing people in the streets—one of the loyalists of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s government appeared on Al Jazeera asking in a tone of disbelief, “Is the solution to burn the country? Is the solution to burn the country?” Now, a year on from the outbreak of protests in Egypt, I repeat his words with differing sentiments, his voice ringing in my ears as the reports reach me: Is the solution to burn the country?
28. And since I think on Moon… It seems to me, objectively, looking back, that she so engineered her life to obtain the maximum possible quantum of love from the maximum possible number of people, even if the love were—given that Moon was full of it and never made any real effort with anyone, inescapably—superficial and short-lived. We alone, and maybe two or three others, knew her well enough to love or hate her from the heart… But this is a tale for later.
29. In her craving for love bought cheap or at no cost at all, and in being—even her—married and quite ready to love someone other than her husband, Moon was much like the other two; only, it seems to me that she surpassed them in one essential respect. Perhaps she was too clever to take on trust the free and constantly fluctuating affection in our circle. I don’t mean that she stopped striving for it with wholehearted devotion for a single day, but I believe that she, unlike Saba and Nargis, realised it would never benefit her so long as she was not prepared to pay the price. Thus, and following the same logic, it seems she did not convert it directly into an evenly-balanced transaction.
30. Saba gathered people around her by tootling a trumpet the sound of which they admired, then used them on a daily basis, as part of her sense of achievement in life. Nargis reeled them in by depicting herself as a victim of poverty, ugliness and backwardness who had managed to triumph over all these things; she’d acquire them like artworks, piece by piece, then in her time of need brandish them like qualifications and titles in the faces of inquisitors… But Moon did something shrewder, immeasurably so. I don’t know how to describe what it is that Moon did, even after reviewing everything I know of her, but I believe it’s firmly linked to ambivalence. The space for ambivalence with Moon—her vanishing and surfacing, her protean appearance, the importance she attached to secretarial work, greater perhaps even than writing—the space for ambivalence with her was wider than anything else; it was what equipped her to find her ease in a closed room composed of us, myself, Nayf and Paulo, it’s walls constructed from the scrutiny of poetry.
31. Around the time the The Crocodiles were founded, Moon’s poems had begun to make a shy appearance in our circle. We conceded they were considerably better than the other works by women, but for all that, up until 2001 when she became part of our lives without our being conscious of the change, we paid her no mind beyond a passing nod of admiration.
32. “Blood” (one of Moon’s first poems): Today, too,/ the vivid red poppies/ open inside clothes,/ unseen by all but you,/ and louder than the swish of speeding cars outside/ Edith Piaf’s voice/ informing me that this pain’s/ your child I never bore.// Why does the music remind me that they’re not roses,/ that their purpose is to prettify the drug,/ that they seem innocent and are evil?// Every month,/ with a joy greater than can be comprehended by your dissection,/ the deception pleases me/ as I moan until you pity me a pain/ that leaves me weak and craving,/and while you lick my tears, within me vicious laughter detonates/ as I kill another/ of your children.
33. Now, it feels like Moon is fundamental and still present, so much so that I can’t believe she had not yet appeared by the end of Millenium Eve; that at dawn on 1/1/2000—while we were on our way back from the huge official party called “Twelve Dreams of the Sun” held on the Giza Plateau, at dawn on 1/1/2000—life still barely held a thing called Moon.
Translation by qisasukhra.wordpress.com
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.
من أروع نتائج الزواج الاقتصادي بين الرأسمالية العالمية والإسلام السياسي وأكثرها إذهالاً على الإطلاق (في السياق المصري المعاصر): الحجاب حرية شخصية… الحجاب حرية شخصية و”أدعياء التحرر” ما لهمش الحق يتدخلوا فيه، بس السفور مش حرية شخصية، والرأي والعقيدة مش حرية شخصية، والمشي في الشارع في أمان مش حرية شخصية، والولاء غير الطائفي مش حرية شخصية… “وأبناء الأمة” دايماً ليهم الحق يتدخلوا فيه ويكفروا اللي مش عاجبهم بكل معاني التكفير (وده خطاب “نخبة” برضه عادي، وناس متعلمين و”أصحاب فكر” وكده)
كيف ومتى أصبح كل ما هو ضد الإسلام السياسي السني معاد للربيع العربي ومناصر للنظام الذي قامت ضده الثورة السورية؟ بأي منطق تحولت آلاف التحالفات والعداءات العلمانية والدينية والرأسمالية واليسارية بكل تعقيداتها إلى طائفة هي الأمة وكل ما عداها – وأوله الإسلام السياسي الشيعي – عدو الأمة؟ هل مشكلة “الطغيان الأسدي” حقاً أنه علوي؟ هل لم تكن الدولة الصفوية مسلمة العقيدة؟ هل لم تمارس الأغلبية السنية في المنطقة على أصحاب العقائد الأخرى طغياناً قذراً طوال قرون؟ وهل لم تكن الأقليات هي الرئة الثقافية التي تتنفس من خلالها مجتمعات تخنقها “الشريعة”؟ هل كانت شيعة علي عشية الفتنة الكبرى أقل عروبة أو إسلاماً من بني أمية أو حتى الخوارج؟ هل قدمت حماس للقضية الفلسطينية أكثر مما قدم حزب الله وهل قدم أيهما أكثر مما قدمت منظمة التحرير “العلمانية”؟ وهل ما يوحّد الأقليات السورية حقاً هو الحقد المجاني على “الإسلام”؟ من أين وإلى متى، إلى متى؟
المؤلم في اللي بيحصل مش اللي بيحصل في حد ذاته – إن واحد كان شغال مع أمن الدولة يطلع يقول لك نعمل قانون يسقط الجنسية عن المسيئين مثلاً ويتاخد بجد، بينما فيه أطفال بتتحبس وأهالي بتتهجر لأسباب طائفية بمباركة القانون ودولته والناس كلها تعبانة اقتصادياً أكتر وأكتر؛ أو إن مهرجان حيتعمل في مكان عام يتلغي لدواعي أمنية، بينما جريدة زي أخبار الأدب بيتكتب فيها مديح في النبي محمد على لسان كارل ماركس واللي بيسموا نفسهم مثقفين في إفلاس مضطرد فكرياً واجتماعياً – لكن إن ناس بيتكلموا عن ثورة حقوق وحريات وعن حركة إبداع جماعي في الفضاء العام يكونوا سمحوا باللي بيحصل ده وشجعوا عليه ومهدوله الطريق وبعدين شافوه بيحصل ولسه برضه ما سكتوش، هو ده المؤلم؛ أو إن اللي بيحصل بأي حجة سماوية أو أرضية يتقدم باعتباره الاختيار السياسي المنحاز للشعب. المؤلم كمان إن المسار الديمقراطي في وجود ناس ده آخرهم مش هيفرز غير منده. لكن أكتر حاجة مؤلمة على الإطلاق هي إن دي الإرادة الوطنية فعلاً سواء اتسمت قومية أو إسلامية أو أي حاجة تانية: إن الأطفال تتحبس، والمهرجانات تتلغي، والمسيء تسقط عنه الجنسية
Most of the time I think of writing as a position on the world – a vocation, a lifestyle, an ethics – in the way that scholarship or performance, say, is a position on the world. Writing is the position on the world that’s not a political position, or the closest thing possible to a position that’s not political – even when it deals, on the surface, with political or historical subjects. What I mean by this is that the knowledge literature produces, the pleasures it involves, the seemingly unethical practices it sometimes permits, all want to experience something more than history. (Remember Joyce’s famous statement: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”) They want to say something more about a person or a group of people than where and when they live, what their lives look like, or what predetermined factors make them look that way – the nightmare, which it really is impossible to awake from no matter what. Literature wants to say something DESPITE that nightmare, something about what lives mean or could’ve meant, how beautiful they can be looked at in a certain way, or why they might be worth living. I think when you try honestly to do that, you speak to more people who are different from you than it’s otherwise possible. That’s partly why literature is important: it emphasizes things that are deeper and more consistent and that last longer than most “history”. In this sense, even though it should always be accessible, it’s a very specialized mode of information sharing; I believe it’s comparable to (though no longer part of) those scholarly endeavors we’ve come to group together as the humanities, which are older than but never entirely incompatible with the natural sciences, and which can rarely do without a historical-political frame.
… وإذا كنا نريد أن “نتحاور” أو “نشتبك مع الواقع” – وإذا كنا نريد أن نفعل بأهداف “وطنية بناءة” أو على الأقل خالية من الأغراض الدنيئة (والمعنوي من تلك الأغراض أهم من المادي دائماً، ولا مناص من تذكر أن أوّل علامات الدناءة المعنوية هذه هو تعمّد سوء الفهم بهدف السطوع كغريم)… بالله على دين أمك يعني، إذا كان هذا ما نريده فما الذي يمكننا الاشتباك معه أو الحوار حوله أصلاً؟ ابن الرئيس يعيّر معارضيه بمقاطعة الانتخابات (على اعتبار أن في ذلك تأييداً أوتوماتيكياً لمنافس أبيه حامي الثورة بوصف ذلك المنافس عدو الثورة… وهو ما يعلم هو قدر ما أعلم أنا وتعلم أنت أنه دعارة برخصة)، والمطبوعة الثقافية-الأدبية الوحيدة في بلد عدد كتابه أكبر من عدد قرائه تدعّي على كارل ماركس حب النبي محمد كرد فعل على واقعة أخرى أهم ما فيها أنها تثبت – ومن جديد – تخلف وتزمت المسلمين في العالم كله؛ ثلاثة أرباع خطاب “المعارضة” عبارة عن تفكه على ما يقوله المسئولون في الخطب الرسمية بلا أي نظر إلى كيفية أو جدوى استبدال هؤلاء المسئولين أو حتى تغير ما يقولونه. وخمس مرات في اليوم، كل يوم، نخترع العجلة… فنكتشف – وكأننا لم نعرف من قبل – أن الإخوان لا يمثلون الثورة ولا الديمقراطية وأنهم بصدد أخونة الدولة، أن السلفيين رعاع متخلفون يجب وضعهم في مصحات عقلية خاصة، أن “الجمهورية الثانية” نسخة أكثر ريفية وغباء من الجمهورية الأولى (ولا ننكر غباء وريفية الجمهورية الأولى)، وأن الوضع الإقليمي (الربيع العربي) عبارة عن حرب طائفية بين المسلمين بعضهم وبعض قبل أن تكون بين المسلمين وغيرهم. أسأل بجد: ماذا يمكن أن يقال؟ ولمن يقال؟ وبأي غرض “بناء” محتمل …
… وحيث كان العمى الثورجي قد بلغ ببعضهم حد ادعاء إن اغتيال السادات “فعل وطني” (وكأن العمل الجهادي الأممي تعبير مفهوم عن الوطنية، وكأن الوطنية أصلاً قيمة مرغوب فيها في السياق)؛ وحيث يبلغ العمى الاشتراكي ببعضهم في الدفاع عن التأسلم (رغم أنه اختيار رجعي-في مقابل تقدمي، ومسار رأسمالي-في مقابل اشتراكي) حد إقحام دوافع النضال التحرري المناهض للاستعمار على مظاهرات السفارة الأمريكية؛ لا شك أن العمى القومجي سيدفعهم أيضاً إلى تبني الطائفية السنية الصريحة في مقابل “الخطر الشيعي” الذي سيجدون لـ”تمدده” – وبقدرة قادر، كما حدث بالفعل في العراق ثم سوريا – غطاء “صهيونياً” (وبغض النظر عن أن النظام الإسلامي الشيعي قد يكون أوسخ حتى من النظام الوهابي)، فيتحولون من تلقاء أنفسهم إلى نشطاء ومنظرين لما يسمى بالقاعدة …
أؤيد عمر محمد مرسي في تصريحه الأخير تأييداً مطلقاً (وإن اختلف مقصدي من العبارة نفسها): “ثورة مين يا أبو ثورة؟” بل وأسمح لنفسي بالمزايدة عليه فأقول: “ثورة يا بن دين الكلب يا خول؟ إنت جاي دلوقتي بكس أمك تقول لي ثورة؟”
… لم أفهم عمري من يأخذون عليك بذاءتك في أوضاع أكثر بذاءة بما لا يقاس، وبالذات منهم (منهن) من يحملونك مسئولية الإرث الثقافي الذكوري لشتائم بعينها وكأنك بمجرد استخدامها – وبغض النظر عن ما تقصده في الواقع – تؤيد ذلك الإرث …
… ومن مجمل ما يُحزن حقيقة – أقصد ما يثير شعوراً شخصياً ليس مقصوداً بالحزن – أن يخذلك حلفاؤك المفترضون ليس في آراء سياسية (ستعكس الخيبة الثقيلة شئنا أم أبينا) ولكن في انحيازات واختيارات ثقافية بالمعنى الواسع – ضد “العلمانية المتطرفة”، على سبيل المثال – وفي الاستهبال على الواقع والتاريخ بتصميم بغل مجهد …
Ⓒ Youssef Rakha
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Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.
… It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state…
(c) Youssef Rakha