On revolution and intellectual life: Youssef Rakha again
There is a scene recounted by a young writer, Talal Faisal, in his as yet uncompleted novel about the late playwright and poet Naguib Surour: Barefoot and in tatters, holding a twig, Surour is spotted on the street by the journalist-critic Ragaa El-Naqqash, who takes him along in his taxi, offering him money for food. In the ensuing conversation, the vernacular poet and cartoonist Salah Jahine, perhaps the most successful intellectual of his generation, comes up. This is in the wake of the 1967 War; and Jahine, who was an unflinching mouthpiece of Nasser’s regime, is depressed about the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies. With mock concern, Surour asks Naqqash after Jahine, embarrassing yet another fellow left-wing intellectual who, unlike him, has managed to survive the worst of the totalitarian state with his shoes on. Talal Faisal captures the wry bitterness of Surour’s tone exactly.
Due to his immense populist talent and his eventual suicide, Jahine is seldom remembered as an instrument of totalitarianism; much as Nasser is regarded as a hero of the people despite his tyranny and the disastrous effects of his rule, so is Jahine sought out as the people’s voice – ultimately defeated. The power of the scene recounted by Talal Faisal, apparently based on a real-life incident, is that suddenly it presents Jahine not as a patriot and an innocent victim of the triumph of imperialism-Zionism (which triumph was later institutionalised by the next president-for-life, the “peace hero” Anwar Sadat), but as the agent of a rotten dictatorship. In this Jahine is rather like Sadat himself, whose reversal of Nasser’s foreign policy reduced neither the autocracy nor the corruption and short-sightedness of the military order he had taken part in establishing by coup d’etat in July 1952. By contrast Surour, an alcoholic diagnosed with schizophrenia and the author of a landmark series of obscene verses, was the self-dramatised outcast of the Arab nationalist patriarchate (whose only surviving archbishop, it should be remembered, is Colonel Gaddafi). If there is a true patriot and victim of imperialism-Zionism, it is Surour.
I have had occasion, following Egypt’s post-25 January return to an “emergency” status quo – also, and always, by way of the Israeli Embassy – to reread some of Surour’s more controversial work; and despite his obsession with Zionist conspiracy and the metaphorical as well as literal threat of being sodomised, I have been astonished by his madman’s prophetic power – a clarity of vision completely absent from Jahine’s technically far superior verses, many of which must be seen in the context of willful self-delusion if not downright lying – and the way in which, unlike most Marxists and leftists since, Surour could categorically reject July without subscribing to either liberal capitalism or political Islam. Long before Mubarak appeared on the scene, he spoke of such socioeconomic staples of the Mubarak regime as the brain drain, oil money, sexual tourism, male prostitutes, illegal immigration, policing and torture. Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union exposed the futility of the concept of the Leader, the absolute demigod, he could see that the problem was in that concept, not in ideological differences, pointing out that an autocrat could liquidate an Islamist like Sayyid Qutb and a communist like Shohdi Attiya El-Shafie, a close friend of his own, in the same breath. Far more than any of the penny-a-head rhetoric-mongers, some of whom sadly were of Jahine’s aesthetic calibre, Surour’s life reflected an awareness of the responsibility of the engaged intellectual, whose role in public life remained paramount in public consciousness; he was truly and honestly involved in politics, not in political discourse, and as the aforementioned scene demonstrates, he paid the price.
Despite the clarity of his vision and his strange ability to see into the future, Surour is of course of little relevance to the present moment. Yet his position as victim, the very price he paid, is indicative of the ambiguous position of the intellectual vis-a-vis political power. It is as if, in order to play any public role at all, an intellectual must in some sense be ready, the way Jahine was ready, to tell lies (the fact that he may have been telling them to himself as much as his audience is irrelevant). And it has been fascinating – perhaps what initially drove me to reread Surour at this point in time – to watch the range and complexity of the lies intellectuals have been telling in the wake of 25 January regarding the full gamut of the issues at stake from the nature of what happened to the intentions of the powers that be, up to and including which parties are relevant, which more powerful, which real.
I will not get into the lies themselves here. Suffice to say that they are similar in orientation and structure to the kind of untruths that informed public and cultural discourse in the early Seventies, when Surour produced his verses. It is business that involves abstractions and fallacies, opportunism veiled as pragmatism, lack of rigour (or conscience) and – inevitably, whatever else besides – a certain amount of self-delusion. But perhaps its most catastrophic side, now that populism is as dead as the all-powerful demigod, is its capacity for channelling insurgent energy away from the space in which it could yield political results on the ground and into larger issues that turn out to be merely rhetorical.
Perhaps art for art’s sake is a better idea, after all.