Youssef Rakha reviews two years of Intifada-inspired culture
While in no sense dependent on politics, cultural life tends to wait for political upheaval. For many Arabs this is only as it should be: the notion of Sartrian engagement has taken such a hold that it often acts to obscure the very distinction between the two disciplines; the title of “intellectual” covers artists and writers as well as activists and, even, sometimes, politicians. Yet being an intellectual in itself hardly ever implies an involvement in the politics of everyday life — the politics of individual and civil rights, of governmental reform, of autonomous opinion. Rather, and only in times of crisis, it prompts intellectuals to express unevenly strong opinions about regional or international affairs — whether or not this involves direct opposition to government policy. And cultural activities likewise emanate from regional events — so much so that culturally vibrant periods are more often than not defined by the shape and colour of their political backdrop.
One example of this is the surge of political strife that preceded and followed the two-year-old Al-Aqsa Intifada — prompted, in its turn, by Sharon’s visit to the Palestinian holy site, which the Israeli side claimed was more of a cultural than a political act. In the Egyptian context culture was on the wane both generally speaking, and with specific reference to the political forces that drove it. A proposed intellectuals’ tajamu’ (rally), initially focussed on issues of self-expression and creative freedom, instantly dissolved into the more inclusive call to arms that formed around Hizbullah’s widely celebrated victory once Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. The event was soon followed by the Israeli incursion, and while Gaza and the West Bank were being reoccupied intellectuals were not about to miss the chance to voice discontent with government policy. It didn’t matter that the discontent was rooted in unrelated concerns; it didn’t matter that these concerns would remain unvoiced. The Intifada was once again upon us.
During that first year the flare-up of the second Intifada engendered a culture all its own — one whose tendency to forsake any form of true, risk-ridden support in favour of melodramatically impassioned and over-emphatically orchestrated protest lent the exercise even less credibility. Celebrities began to make special appearances, with actors on state-sponsored stages singing the patriotic praises of Arab unity and promising their audiences an inevitable, if never quite determined, triumph. The most expensive singers had already collaborated on El-Quds Haterga’ Lena (Jerusalem Will Return to Us), a song that affirms what remains an impossible goal as if it were a forgone conclusion, without for a moment suggesting how it might be achieved. Blood donations, seminars, demonstrations overpowered the cultural news. “Caravans” of intellectuals carried food and first aid supplies all the way to Rafah — only to wait indefinitely for those responsible to receive them. The Egyptian knack for disorganisation became an increasingly relevant factor, but what lay at the root of the ineffectiveness of most efforts was the fact that the Intifada — the pop theme of street-peddled wares like hats and scarves, T-shirts and mugs — was appropriated as something over and above (political) reality.
Even in the most highbrow circles, cultural manifestations of solidarity were abundant, but more than the reality of the situation or even the Egyptian response to it, they reflected the state of Egyptian culture itself. The most obvious cultural response was to be found in the popular media, however. The urban folk singing phenomenon Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, arguably the Arab world’s first self-made rapper, made his name with the internationally circulated hit Ana Bakrah Israel (I Hate Israel), a “protest” song, which, without making any direct allusion to the political dynamics of the incursion or the Egyptian government’s response to it, managed to crystallise and express the most popular sentiment in raw form. For two years Shaaban would jump from one summit of popularity to the next, largely due to his quasi-political stance on the ever elusive, ever undiscussed Intifada. Amrika ya Amrika is one example of such a song; so is a duet with his son Essam in which they impersonate Mohamed El-Dorra and his father in the last moments of the former’s life. El-Dorra — in the end a Western-mediated icon — became the centre of too many cultural interventions. And intellectuals, turning increasingly away from the nitty-gritty of the conflict, likewise began to tackle Washington.
With films like Fatah min Israel (A Girl from Israel), production companies had already bought into the Palestinian issue, even the most frivolous comedies (Saedi fil Gamaa El-Amrikiya; Abboud ala El-Hudoud) incorporated a major solidarity component. In the former — the film that made the name of contemporary comedy’s brightest star, Mohamed Heniedi — American University in Cairo students undertake the burning of an Israeli flag. Sharon — for a long time the Egyptian cartoonist’s treasure-trove — began to assume central symbolic significance. Comedian Youssef Dawoud, one disillusioned practitioner who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that in Zakeya Zakareya Tathadda Sharon — the second of two plays based on Ibrahim Nasr’s tasteless, completely disengaged candid-camera television programme — he was initially contracted to play the part of the dictatorial and cruel head of an orphanage. However, following the emergence of Sharon as an object of universal hatred, if not universal ridicule, the play’s producer renamed Dawoud’s character and provided the actor with a wig. The play had been in no sense a political statement, but in a desperate attempt to make it more commercially viable its producers were content to exploit regional developments. Even if this is an extreme example of an otherwise many-hued trend, the decision to capitalise on a political development without fully understanding or dealing with it typifies the Intifada’s cultural manifestations.
On the home front, 11 September effectively brought the Intifada to an end. Yet along the infinitely curvaceous corridors of Egyptian culture the struggle doggedly continues. America has naturally solicited a greater degree of enmity, with intellectuals, increasingly of the scholar or pundit designation, discussing American foreign policy in relation to regional affairs. Cultural agents are encouraged to express support for the Palestinians, and even hatred for Israel continues to be permissible to some degree. Yet official Arab policy, the increasingly undermined state of Arabs and Muslims everywhere in the world, the plight of the Afghans and the absence of any indication that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be appropriately resolved remain by and large subjects for occasional meditation. Books are written, talks staged. But the fact remains that had the so-called terrorists, whose prerogative it is to resist the New World Order, been in any way culturally inclined, they would probably have produced the most resonant cultural response not only to the Indifada but to the state of things as they are, articulating rather than voicing how they should be.
Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 September 2002