This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah
Eat your words
Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution
Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.
Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?
Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.
It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.
What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.
But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.
The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.
Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?
As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.
Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.
For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…
As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.
Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)
Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.
Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.
Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.
Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.
When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.
Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.
Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.
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.
In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.
Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.
Imam, who in his works and statements alike has never demonstrated intellectual depth, had—along with other pro-Mubarak stars who failed to support the revolution—been aptly compared to a court jester. Since he rose to fame in the early 1970s, in his film vehicles and his cabaret-style plays, there was rarely any attempt at profundity beyond bland blanket support for the poor and the man on the street. There are of course exceptions, notably Mohammed Khan’s 1983 Al-Harrif (The Pro) and Sherif Arafa’s 1992 Al-Irhab awl Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). In the latter, as in many films starring Imam, there is a harsh critique of corrupt religiosity and the association of terrorism with Islamic militants. It was under Mubarak, while the jihadist threat was being contained by State Security, that Imam made his greatest contribution to the portrayal of Wahhabis (later called Salafis) as terrorists posing a threat to society; this was of course in line with state policy.
Yet in many of his best-known plays—from the hilarious landmark Shaid mashafsh haga (A witness who saw nothing, 1976, five years before Mubarak came to power) to the inconsistent Al-Zaim (The Leader, 1993)—Imam provided scathing critiques of the police state and dictatorship (which he was of course careful not to associate with Mubarak off stage). Indeed many of his jokes were actually deployed in the verbal fight to bring down Mubarak in Tahrir Square even as he turned his back to the uprising. The use of such jokes was unavoidable as they had become ubiquitous. In fact Imam contributed to the shaping of spoken Arabic in Egypt, and much of that contribution (whether intentionally or not) was politically subversive.
The Fool is brought to trial not by a new and revolutionary King, however—whom I suspect would have honoured him, anyway—but by the insufferably Dark Ages-oriented Clergy whose power the revolution has facilitated. It is a question that we must ask ourselves as Egyptians, regarding Imam’s predicament as much as any number of issues: To what extent can support for the revolution be a measure of moral worth under the circumstances? And to what extent does political Islam have the right to inherit the new Egypt? Perhaps Imam is no tenable role model, but perhaps he should not be made to do hard labour. And if he is in any way punished, it had better be for his political position—not for failing to kowtow to the bearded inquisitors.
1-The Martyrs. It seems utterly insensible to start holding this “national wedding” – as Egypt’s first “free” parliamentary elections have been called – within hours of the death of over 40 demonstrators at the hands of both police and military, the latter also being the overseers (with unequivocal American cover) of a democratic process neither compatible with nor possible without such crimes against humanity (crimes now divested, even, of the excuse of terrorism). I am no longer very sympathetic with the younger activist movers and the shakers of the revolution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dead and the injured since January are unaffiliated with either parties or ideologies makes the posturing of even well meaning candidates a betrayal not only of revolution but of the most basic patriotic and human fellow feeling.
2-SCAF. It has been over 59 years since a military coup, on the pretext of expelling the British and adopting progressive ideologies, not only put an end to what vestiges of democratic process and civil rights were there under the monarchy but also (and always on grandiose pretexts) negatively impacted actual and potential urban planning, education, agriculture, industry and social-cultural development. The People of Egypt are as responsible for this as the in-power-until-dead-presidential Regime, but it is precisely out of complacency about illegitimate military power that, over six decades, things had got as bad as they were when people took to the streets on 25 January. Until the incompetent generals hand over power to competent civilians, whatever the means to making them do so and whatever Washington’s position, no elections can be effective.
3-The Candidates. The irony of the so called revolution, its greatest triumph and its worst tragedy, is that it has no political direction. Obstructed by SCAF as much as the Islamists – the very religion-mongers and reluctant (if not counter) revolutionaries whose oppositional relation to the regime and insatiable appetite for power has placed them in the best possible position for winning the elections today, Egypt’s hitherto more or less apolitical revolutionaries – my only possible representatives – have not had the time or wherewithal to set up parties, let alone form support bases among politically retarded constituencies who had been more or less against the revolution anyway. I will not be party to the very process whereby people died for freedom – only to pave the road for agents of unfreedom to be in positions of power.
It would have been revolution had it not happened before with so much more edge. In many ways, of course, it was. It looked like the protest that started on 29 January, for one thing. No military materiel or personnel was to be seen anywhere, but the magnitude and the composition of the sit-in was very comparable; so were the many impromptu security, creative and commercial interventions in the absence of police. Of course both police and military, as it seemed, had learned their lesson sufficiently not to use force against protesters. Perhaps force will be used yet, backed by patently counterrevolutionary calls from a sizable sector of the population – the same people who were against the first, 18-day sit-in – to not further undermine “our revolution”. But so far the right to peaceful protest seems to be respected; and that is why a significant part of the second Tahrir sit-in – too little too late as far as I’m concerned – could so easily turn into an upper middle class jamboree with live music and wifi.
That is the kind of freedom to which the majority of young Egyptians aspire, notwithstanding the desperate, more or less suicidal measures of joining or supporting the cause of political Islam, and perhaps that indeed is the way if not to achieve it then to establish the right to having it without bureaucratic or patriarchal intervention, without either religious or plainclothes police, and – most important of all – without it being monopolised by any one social class. How it might fit in with a political vision for the future of Egypt, however – how it might get past the fact that Egypt remains both economically and militarily completely dependent – is not clear. There is an urgent reality to which the protests are responding – the fact that the Mubarak regime has in no way fallen as the revolution intended it to – but there is a different, less urgent and far more widespread reality of ignorance and poverty, racism and authoritarianism of which the Mubarak regime was as much an effect as a cause.
And perhaps that is why there was something unpleasantly dreamlike about going to Tahrir last Friday. It was as if the world had conspired to recreate the events of Jan-Feb under different and far less convincing circumstances – without the life-or-death urgency that invested the original uprising with so much meaning. The “revolution” was back, but it was no longer revolution.
Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held up as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.
Abnaa al Gebelawi (Children of Gebelawi), By Ibrahim Farghali, Cairo: Al Ain, 2009
In Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gebelawi, all of the texts of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. This happens without explanation, reason, or ostensible cause: wherever they might be found – not only in libraries and bookshops but also on bookshelves and bedside bedside tables – novels by Mahfouz in their original Arabic are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities’ attempt to remedy the situation in the face of worldwide and (notably, if somewhat incredibly) popular uproar are juxtaposed with sightings of Mahfouz’s characters in a variety of locales, seldom having anything to do with the settings in which they actually appear in Mahfouz’s books.
With six – now seven – books to his name, Farghali (b. 1967) is among the most prolific novelists of his generation. In his devotion to the genre and his formal conservatism, he is perhaps the worthiest heir to Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Nobel prize winner most known for his mid-century tales of Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, Farghali is firmly steeped in a magical realist tradition. Running through much of his prose are echoes of Jose Saramago’s nightmarish humour or shades of Italo Calvino’s fascination with the fantastical nature of fiction. He is taken by twins, telepathy and teleporting, and his firmly middle-class characters – otherwise utterly ordinary – have been known to reappear after they have died.
In Abnaa al Gebelawi – Farghali’s latest and greatest work – we face the prospect of a world without literature. The myriad voices in the book — for the young narrator cum author assumes many guises throughout these pages — express concern as to the fraught future of Arabic literature, about the erosion of the liberal and humane values that Mahfouz and his work represent, and (reflecting perhaps the essential fear of all true writers) about oblivion at large.
The events of the book are staged around a relatively uncomplex love affair involving the narrator and the eccentric daughter of a well-to-do family— occasion for Farghali to probe the psychology of class and sex in contemporary Egyptian society. Further in, however, the story breaks up and morphs into countless alternative and subordinate plot-lines, until it becomes clear (although it is never stated) that the whole of Abnaa al Gebelawi is but the barely coherent waste of a single pluralistic mind – the mind of a young writer concerned with the literary wasteland around him. The allegorical dimension remains predominant, and in this way recalls Awlad Haretnah (Children of Our Alley, 1959), the title of whose earlier English translation Farghali translates back verbatim for his own.
As it happens, Awlad Haretnah was the only book by Mahfouz to suffer censure from the religious establishment. In it the history of a popular residential quarter in Cairo stands in for the sum total of humanity’s spiritual experience. That quarter’s oldest, strongest and most benevolent resident – for many generations hidden away in his mansion – is called Gebelawi. Gebelawi has envoys or representatives, descendants or grandchildren, whose struggles to spread peace and justice make up episodes of the saga. Each is a retelling of the life of one of the prophets of Islam, starting with Adam and ending with the False Messiah. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad all feature, but at the end a rumour spreads that Gebelawi himself has died. In Arab literary circles it is frequently claimed that if not for Awlad Haretnah, Mahfouz would not have received the Nobel Prize. But it proved too much for orthodox, let alone radical Muslims, for whom Mahfouz would become the enemy soon enough.
a letter from Mahfouz to Mohammad al Badawi
Radical Islam had claimed many lives since the 1980s when in 1994 Mahfouz barely survived being knifed to death outside his house in Cairo. The irony was that, of all the helpless octogenarians his bearded young assailants could have targeted for apostasy, he was probably the least secular. A typical Cairene of the pre-bin Laden era, the man had led an all but exemplary (for which read profoundly unadventurous) life. He did not seek revolution, he did not take great risks. He had no utopian or transcendental illusions. And perhaps it was thanks to this and this alone that he was able to invent and reinvent the novel, the youngest genre in the language, defining it for generations of writers down to Farghali.
Applying every novelistic model at his disposal, Mahfouz produced a phenomenal number of readable books: social chronicles, political critiques, philosophical manuals. None was too difficult or experimental to render it inaccessible to even the most common reader. None sought to undermine whatever pillar of the status quo it came in contact with. Notwithstanding the elaborately veiled, painstakingly respectful Ages-of-Man narrative in Awlad Haretnah – a Muslim treatise on the meaning of life if ever there was one – in Mahfouz’s books, the family, the creed, the government are never attacked for what they are or what they stand for, but only for their most striking deviations, omissions or excesses.
For a magic realist like Farghali, Mahfouz may not be the most obvious point of departure; the Nobel laureate is, after all, best known for devotion to the real even in his least realistic works, and one would have trouble imagining him so much as hinting at the paranormal or the fantastical. Yet in Abnaa al Gebelawi, the grand opera to Farghali’s various arias, Mahfouz is an embodiment of something not so different from the sense of sight. His books stand in for almost everything Farghali values: Literature, Thought, Freedom, Knowledge, even Love. The premise could not have been more powerful.