Busted: The Trial of Ahmed Naje

Shadi Ghadirian, from

Shadi Ghadirian, from “Qajar”, 1998. Source: shadighadirian.com

When the young writer Ahmed Naje was referred to a criminal court over sexually explicit fiction this Saturday, gongs sounded for the literary community. The news was an unpleasant reminder that, while creative writers in Egypt are by and large left to their own devices, this is only because their work is seldom scrutinised outside literary circles.

As a writer in Egypt you can only be torn between frustration over your work remaining obscure and concern with the trouble “success” could bring to your life. If you want to keep writing “against public morality” – this is the message of Naje’s case – then you’d better be quiet about it.

But in whose interest is such a state of affairs except the Wahhabi “terrorists” with whom the regime is at war and the corrupt, fascism-touting sycophants it periodically claims to be purging?

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The Barbarians Within Our Minds

Reading the senior journalist Hisham Melhem’s recent obituary of Arab civilization, one is compelled to ask when it was ever alive. Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 September

(c) Youssef Rakha

The Nowhere, Cairo 2014. By Youssef Rakha

“No one paradigm or one theory can explain” the jihadi barbarians, not at, but within the Arabs’ gates. So says Hisham Melhem, an older writer, in Politico magazine this week, summing up the failure of modern “Arab civilization” with admirable level-headedness. His point would be too obvious if it wasn’t so uniformly lost on neoliberal analysts and apologists for religious identity: the Islamic State did not fall from the sky. It grew out of the “rotting, empty hulk” of societies routed no less by the “stagnant, repressive and patriarchal” authoritarianism of military regimes than the politicized religiosity seeking to replace them. Like its ideological archenemy, namely political Islam, Arab nationalism too expresses “atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past”.

But who’s to say these two ideologies do not accurately reflect all that the Arab masses hold dear, i.e., what world community leaders would call “the Arab peoples’ legitimate aspirations”? As a younger observer, I cannot help seeing that, since the end of Ottoman times, only a negative sense of collective identity has mobilized a given Arab people at a given point in history. Embodied in revolutionary leaders like Nasser or resistance movements like Hezbollah, such rallying cries rarely pointed to a positive or constructive cause that did not turn out to be part of a propaganda campaign (Hamas’s August “victory” over Israel is a case in point). What Melhem does not say is that, in as much as it exists at all, post-Ottoman Arabic-speaking civilization has only ever operated against others, if not the occupier then non-Muslim or non-Sunni citizens of its own states, if not “Zionists and imperial Crusaders” then infidels at large.

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