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.
God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012
“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a'iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr
I was a teacher;
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Then someone screams: What goes on there?
The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
Translation © Youssef Rakha
Some time in February, the literary (and intellectual) Generation of the Nineties started coming up in intellectual conversations about the Arab Spring. Some people theorised that, by stressing individual freedom and breaking with their overtly politicised forerunners, apolitical agents of subversion under Mubarak had involuntarily paved the way for precisely the kind of uprising said forerunners had spent whole lives prophesying and pushing for, to no avail.
Politicised intellectuals of past generations had always believed in grand narratives. That is why their collective message (anti-imperialist or socialist), evidently no less divorced from the People than that of the younger rebels and aesthetes who didn’t give two damns about the liberation of Jerusalem or the dictatorship of the proletariat, remained repressive and didactic; while allowing themselves to be co-opted and neutralised, they struggled or pretended to struggle in vain.
The Generation of the Nineties remained silent about social transformation as such, but they stressed daily life and the physical side of existence, including their own bodies, which they insisted on experimenting with — if only verbally, for the sake of a personal deliverance deemed infinitely more sublime than the sloganeering and safe, part-time activism to which the Seventies had descended. Then, stunning everyone, came the Facebook Generation.
And while it is true that protests since 25 Jan have had ideological underpinnings — the belief in human rights, for example, it is also true that their success has depended on the rallying of politically untested forces through the internet to day-to-day causes — the institutionalised criminal practises of an oversize and corrupt security force under police-state conditions, which affect everyone. By November, something else had permeated those same conversations, suddenly:
The photo of a barely adult girl, undressed except for shoes and stockings. Impassive face, classic nude posture, artsy black-and-white presentation. The title of the blog on which it was published: Diary of a Revolutionary [Woman].
It was seen as more or less unprecedented, an epoch-making Gesture, an Event to document and debate. When the picture appeared, the second wave of protests had only just begun in Maidan Tahrir, specifically along the Shari Mohammad Mahmoud frontier; it was as if, while the internet-mediated Crowd offered up nameless davids to the Goliath of Unfreedom, the Individual used the same medium to hand over her post-Nineties soul for the same Cause (it doesn’t matter how absurd or ignorant Alia Mahdi might turn out to be, she is the conscious subject of her revolutionary nudity). While some received bullets in the eye or suffocated on a markedly more effective variety of American-made tear gas, others muttered prayers before the digital icon of Alia Mahdi.
Despite its visual idiom (despite online Arab fora advertising it like a pornographic object of the kind they routinely promote as sinful and therefore desirable by default, obscenely equating the nude with the erotic with the scandalous, and despite otherwise truly insolent responses on Facebook), the image holds little allure. Change the context and it could be a parody of some vaguely pedophiliac Vintage Erotica, barely worth a second, amused glance.
Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm. Here and now, Alia Mahdi as her picture is an icon for our times, inviolable:
A simulacrum of the Self on the altar of Freedom.
And freedom, perhaps the truest catchword of the Arab Spring, is the term that the model and de-facto author of the picture, like Generation of the Nineties writers before her, chooses to hold up to the world; she believes that exposing herself on the internet is part of a Revolution ongoing since 25 Jan and a new uprising against Egypt’s ruling generals. But this is a world that would rather deny Alia Mahdi’s existence even as it knows that she is there: paradoxically, it includes the Tahrir Sit-In, where protesters mobbed and beat up the young woman when she showed up.
Already, even at the heart of the Revolution, the pit has been dug, the errant body marked, the prurient stones picked off the ground — and the revolutionaries themselves, the potential Martyrs offering up their bodies, are happy to be part of that sacrifice. All that remains for the ritual is the public killing of Alia Mahdi, which judging by what they have had to say would gratify and vindicate not only Islamists who legally and otherwise demand her head but also older and wiser intellectuals who, never having considered taking off their clothes in public, have embraced her as a victim. The feminists’ latest bonanza of hypocrisy…
The Revolution accepts oblations of the mutilated and the maimed, it eats up the body of the Martyr, promising nothing — neither collective nor individual freedom, while the Nude is expelled from the Maidan. The last secular activists of the Seventies stand side by side with their political heirs — scheming theocrats not unlike frequenters of the aforementioned fora where Alia Mahdi is advertised as porn, but it is in the act of sacrifice itself, in the death of the body as an object and its transformation into the subject of its destiny, that there is any hope for religion in Egypt. The Martyr and the Nude are applied religion; whatever else may be said about the generals, the activists and Tahrir, political Islam and the Coptic Orthodox Church are not.
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.
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.
In the cultural if not the mainstream press, revolution might have prompted installing a new OS altogether, writes Youssef Rakha ; it has barely suggested a restart
Once again I am perusing the cultural press and once again I am distressed. It is partly the same old disappointment in frivolous topics being overblown and muthaqqaf (or intellectual) responses to ideas and events being, as if by definition, politicised. It is partly the persisent perception of “the intellectuals” — for which read, very simply, agents of cultural activity of any kind — as something over and above what they do or more often fail to do adequately: the madness of presupposing that, irrespective of the nature or extent of their work, intellectuals are not only producers of discourse but also, and perpetually, agents of transformation, “the role of the muthaqqaf ” — and the Poet in particular — standing in for that of the Sage or the Superman, if not the Ruler then the Prophet. But current distress resulting from perusal of the cultural press is mainly a matter of a revolution having taken place: a predetermined idea, in my own mind, about the positive effects of the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb on “intellectual” consciousness — no such luck!
Whoever came up with the idea that poetry can change the world, I don’t know (God forgive Jean-Paul Sartre for his theory of engagement, though I doubt it has much to do with this in context), but three months on, “revolution” is an occasion to rethink not only the haloed topic of “the relationship of the intellectual to authority” but also modern Arab-Muslim history as a whole: the actual role of the intellectual in its unfolding. In 18 days, no more than one tenth of the population managed to dislogdge an abominable, prehistoric president. Of those, less than a tenth handed over power to the army, admittedly without much resistance from anyone. But it is the remaining nine tenths (who had nothing, factually, to do with either the protests or the intellectual force behind them) who have been crying Revolution ever since.
Counterrevolutionary discourse to the effect that the events were a foreign conspiracy, however absurd, is gaining ground; but it is cooption and subversion that remain the principal lie. People cry Revolution even despite there being no tangible change in the way the country operates or the vision of the powers in charge of it — themselves an extension, however distorted, of a half century-old “nationalist” project which, existing nominally for the People, has tended consistently to sacrifice people to a more or less abstract (if not wholly phony) greater cause. Consciously or not — all things considered, it hardly matters — intellectuals have abetted this process. The real-life narrative of the “indpendent” Arab state has in fact involved fewer intellectuals than figures of authority or picaroons, not to mention preachers; and many intellectuals, whether or not they preached ideologies while they did so, doubled as picaroons or figures of authority.
Now that I have witnessed the cold-blooded murder, with public funds, of a sizable portion of the very People in whose name Arabs and Muslims had endured so much immoral autocracy and mind control, unnecessary backwardness and underdevelopment, indignity and — increasingly — mafia-style corruption, it is easy to see why even with the best intentions, generations of patriotic and “nationalist” intellectuals contributed to perpetuating vicious circles of political untruth: glory and unity meaning defeat in the time of Nasser, victory meaning Cold War-style Islamism and unchecked capitalism in the time of Sadat, development meaning phenomenal nepotism and the systematic syphoning of money out of the country in the time of Mubarak.
Considering that for the longest time patriotism and nationalism have been preconditions of intellectual legitimacy — even well-meaning supporters of peace with Israel were methodically and effortlessly cast out of the intellectual community — it is easy to see how limited the role of the intellectual had to be: an intellectual could only oppose practises, not ideas; she could only criticise actions, not values; however oppositional she sought to be, however many years she spent in prison, an intellectual could only ever exist as part of an overriding national project whose attendant discourse, thanks in part to that intellectual herself, was increasingly, irrevocably divorced from reality.
The issue has less to do with helping Palestinians, for example, than it does with liberating Jerusalem — a task whose failure is as yet a forgone conclusion. It has less to do with improving living standards than replacing a non-alignment strain of nationalism with a socialist or communist one. It has less to do with endorsing freedom of worship than implementing a totalitarian vision of “the Islamic state” (whatever that means, and however much pandering to liberal democracy it requires). By the same token, culture has less to do with engaging the people than speaking in their name, contributing to an ever more discourse-bound narrative of hopes, intentions and abstractions. It has less to do with creativity and the intellect than blocking out and maintaining a meaninglessly politicised group of people — popularly known as “the communists” — who are neither trusted nor popular, and whose work seldom makes it past the block they occupy.
Now that I have witnessed cold-blooded murder on the streets, it is easy to see how maintaining the kind of discourse with which the intellectuals have been identified or allowing it to maintain itself — how speaking, again, of the role of the intellectual, of enlightenment and moderation as opposed to secularism, for example — is an integral part of the problem. And it is distressing to see that, notwithstanding all that happened on the streets of Cairo, notwithstanding all that became clear as a result of it, the discourse of the cultural press has not changed in the slightest.
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved