Mainstream margin

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Last week Youssef Rakha lamented the sameness of the cultural press in the wake of revolution; this week he unpacks the role of that press as the morally superior Margin to an alleged establishment Text
It has been less than four months since the interim government of Essam Sharaf took charge and, true to form, intellectuals representing the supposed margin (of dissidence, of freedom, of whatever happens to be unlike or alternative to centres of money and power) are already assessing the performance of Emad Abu-Ghazi’s Ministry of Culture, questioning the presence in its ranks of former members of the NDP or its attempts to accommodate Salafi pressures through censorship, forgetting that the NDP and fundamentalist Islam are far more representative of the society in which they live than they could ever hope to be, and still possessing not a clue on how to achieve what they have always taken to be their raison d’être – transforming that society.
Intellectuals are doing so, for example, in the dedicated publication Akhbar Al-Adab, which, following a drawn-out, post-revolution strike against a corrupt editor more like a pro-government journalist (for which read civil servant) than an intellectual, is now edited by Abla El-Reweini: a triumph for all concerned but a development, ironically, that maintained the pre-revolution status quo of a small-circulation, progressive weekly subsidised by a gargantuan, more or less reactionary establishment (Akhbar Al-Yom). After some 50 years of ineffectuality, abolishing the ministry of culture altogether seemed not only the wiser but also the more revolutionary decision.
Yet the proposition found little support among the universally pro-revolution intellectuals themselves – and cultural circles by extension. It seems the intellectuals, like their counterparts in almost every field of endeavour, were eager to resume their usual role: that of disgruntled observer of official culture, which presupposes the existence of the latter. It seems they too could not wait for life to go “back to normal”. What is strange about this is not their impatience with the prospect of chaos, with temporary or partial unemployment and logistical, financial uncertainty. It is their failure to see the revolution as an opportunity for revising their perspective on culture itself: what it means to be an intellectual, what counts in a political position, what is the point of having or being part of a government-controlled institution…
For a decade following the “first independence” of 1956, big ideas about national consciousness and a state for the people did support cultural practises as part of a totalitarian system whose credibility came into question with the 1967 defeat. However, with the onset of anti-nationalist nationalism and mafia-style capitalism under Sadat, Egyptian culture – for a brief spell, an effective arm of the state – very quickly devolved into sporadic literary and audio-visual phenomena that have existed outside or in spite of corrupt and by now wholly superfluous institutions.
(Superfluous to the point of no longer even serving the regime that squandered public funds on them: from within another small-circulation, relatively progressive weekly subsidised by an even more gargantuan and reactionary institution, the revolution has made it possible to ask whether the decision by the former editor in chief of the daily Al-Ahram Ossama Saraya, a few months before the revolution, to Photoshop the figure of Mubarak from the back to the front of a small group of heads of state in a universally available wire picture before publishing it – the notorious “expressive intervention” scandal – actually served Mubarak’s interests.)
The failure of the Sadat regime to live up to the promise of freedom and its wholesale adoption of the Cold War strategy of endorsing political Islam to fend off the communist threat – just as idiotic, in the end, as Nasser’s non-alignment or pro-Soviet strategies of pan-Arab nationalism – resulted in the phenomenon of the “marginal” intellectual (i.e., the intellectual who did not openly pander to a regime she knew to have no legitimacy) as “the conscience of the nation”.
In the light of the isolation of both culture and power from an ever more underdeveloped society and so in the absence of the nation itself, the conscience of the nation is an interesting concept. The conscience of the nation critiques a construct, and in so doing it enters into a power game with fake representatives of (Arab, or Muslim) identity. Culture turns into an airtight system of shifting alliances and ongoing conflicts, personally driven and materialistically substantiated. The cultural margin becomes a steganographic part of the text of the regime not half as different from the society it rules as Akhbar Al-Adab would have us believe, a text – or a muddle of pious bureaucracy and incompetent profiteering – no longer really being written.
The marginal intellectual’s role before as after the revolution is to cling onto the moral high ground, critiquing the failure of said regime to undertake its national responsibility to a sublime thing called culture. But there can be no moral high ground in the absence of morality, nor does true culture – whether state-supported or spontaneous – emerge in isolation from the flesh-and-blood, dust-and-exhaust fume reality of which it is part. Neither nation nor culture can ever be very clearly defined in a police (or military) state where ideologies and counter ideologies, whether nationalist or Islamist, have eventually revealed themselves to be mere sloganeering.
Under Mubarak, Islamists (Salafis) were systematically unleashed on society in return for staying out of politics. The Ministry, headed for over 25 years by the former intelligence agent and abstract expressionist painter Farouk Hosni, turned culture into mega-project business closely associated with tourism and archaeology, by turns outraging and making outrageous concessions to Salafism.
Under Hosni the ministry totally emasculated an intellect like Gaber Asfour and totally abandoned one like the late Nasr Abu-Zeid, a potential and an actual victim of the “Islamic threat”, respectively. It siphoned money out of the country, like every other stolid ministry under Mubarak. In the systematic attacks on its abuses by the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, the novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (who has called on Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-standing defence minister and the head of the Higher Military Council, to assume the role of absolute ruler for a period of three years following the revolution), it found a shadow ministry with sufficient cover to make intellectuals feel they were active agents of a living culture, up against something they should be up against, owners of the moral high ground.
Yet now as before it is as if what must by definition be creative and organically rooted practise can be judged on the same terms as health care, for example. Now as before even intellectuals who recognise the bankruptcy of slogan-driven and populist consciousness are unable to let go of their role as the mirror image of a monster that does not really exist, or one that exists only insofar as they themselves allow it to.
The socio-cultural critic, which is the closest thing to what the Akhbar Al-Adab intellectual is or should be, is still at the receiving end of an intention emanating from an establishment that has proven, again and definitively, both culturally and morally hollow, paper thin, a vomit bag of un-things. Not only does this arrangement undermine the rebellious individual, it also turns the margin into a cog in the machinery of the very text it sets out to oppose – in the present case, and despite all the noise on both sides of the unreal divide: silence.

Al-Ahram Weekly

Boutique battlefield

Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practise (paperback edition), Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010
Recently, in an otherwise casual conversation, a writer friend remarked that the Egyptian culture scene was like an oligarchy with no constituency beyond the oligarchs. As agents of what looks like the Victorian age of Arab arts and letters, she elaborated, Egyptian intellectuals are power mongers by default. Many are in the employ of institutions where the production of knowledge is less of an aim than a pretext – for income and status – or for preserving the political status quo. But even those who are not, in their isolation from society at large, end up developing delicate networks of interest among themselves; consciously or not, they engage in various forms of hypocrisy or corruption, blocking what creative potential exists apart from them. The result is that the cultural sphere reduces to a set of boutiques corresponding to institutions or cliques, mutually beneficial and unduly exclusive. And that – so my writer friend concluded – is because intellectuals rely for their survival  not on consumers of culture but on complex systems of patronage and their attendant discourses.
Of course relying on consumers bespeaks unmediated capitalism and so introduces a new set of issues. But it is the readiness of Egypt’s Culture Wars to pay attention to the commercially oriented and the popular as well as the “high”, the high-brow and the aesthetically pure that justifies its numerous and frequently disparate pursuits. The book respects the cerebral no more than the public or the overtly political, the settings and protagonists of the intellectual fables it presents no less than the hard theoretical plotlines by which they unfold.
Samia Mehrez is aware enough of my friend’s line of thinking not to pretend to stand apart from the constraints and confusions of what she is doing even as she writes: her ceaselessly evolving understanding of her own role as a cultural agent occupying a position of privilege and with a vested interest in her subject matter. But what makes Mehrez’s all but exhaustive statement on the topic compelling is the way it charts the soap opera-like developments of cultural icons and narratives pitted against society -  and especially the intellectual’s vulnerability to dependency and censorship – in a wide variety of contexts. The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s life-long refusal to have any dealings with a government-dominated literary establishment, for example – the implications of this stance for his writing, its reception, and the shifts it has undergone – is deployed to flesh out the notion of “the disinterested writer” and, more broadly, the theory and practice of engagement in its local modulations since the 1960s. Mehrez uses not only her own knowledge of Ibrahim and his work but also a newspaper column on Ibrahim by his contemporary the novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani, whose approach to the same goals of writerly “honour” and autonomy is markedly different from Ibrahim’s. What otherwise might have been a dry discussion of an abstract and frankly overdrawn subject suddenly takes on flesh-and-blood edge.
By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit – freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of literary autonomy – Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany’s phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics – the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say – out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or “intellectual” achievement, what makes Egypt’s Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.
I could argue with Mehrez’s claim that “writing in English about the Egyptian cultural field” – a process, as she puts it, of translation – “places this local and localized text alongside a larger global one”, or at least probe the hows, wheres and whys of this premise. But it seems to me that the distance that same process generates is precisely what makes or breaks each interactive exercise the book proposes, that Mehrez’s half-committed standpoint – the heterogeneous and “postcolonial” pluralism of her approach – is precisely what hermeneutically enables her work. Like much interdisciplinary north-south scholarship, as it also seems to me, a certain common-sense rationalism, what I might call a pretend objectivity, belies the essentially subjective nature of this undertaking as a whole.
Discussing the attacks to which the American University in Cairo’s Naguib Mahfouz Award was subjected as a distorting and negative force in Egyptian literary life, for example, Mehrez employs the spot-on metaphor of the writers’ alley: an exclusive space for engagement undermined by foreign – specifically, American – intervention. But in so doing she seems to confuse the critic Sayed El-Bahrawy’s nationalist tirades against the prize itself with very valid criticisms of who the prize went to. The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well – something Mehrez neither brings up nor justifies.
Then again – and especially where gender is concerned – Mehrez is unashamedly subjective. “In December 1998 I found myself at the heart of a major crisis surrounding my teaching of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s controversial autobiographical text Al Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone) in one of my literature classes at the American University in Cairo,” she writes. “The crisis that began on campus as part of a debate over academic freedom and freedom of expression soon took on national, regional and international proportions when the parents of two students sent an unsigned letter to the AUC administration calling for my dismissal and threatening to take me and the university to court.” The “khubz crisis”, however, is but one spaciotemporal episode on what, grandiloquently but perhaps also ironically, she takes to be a battlefield where the forces of freedom do battle with those of dictatorship, dispossession, power and power abuse in literary-social relations.
Mehrez’s notion of right seems to be formulated slightly to the left of the liberal status quo of advanced capitalist societies, in line with her common-sense rationalism and the conditions under which she produced her work. But it is her far-fetchedly holistic accomplishment, the sense of a totality of culture and the totality of a specific culture in a specific sociotemporal space that, more than any sense of right, whether subjective or objective, makes an impression on this reader.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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