What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.
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.
The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion
At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.
Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.
Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.
So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.
Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.
The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.
If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”
Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.
October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.
At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.
One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.
The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.
It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.
Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.
Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.
By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.
With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.
Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.
Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.
Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.
As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.
The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…
Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.
B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.
Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.
Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.
For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.
That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.
It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.
Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.
Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.
This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.
It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.
No Renaissance for Old Men
Last week Youssef Rakha questioned the idea of resistance. This week he thinks about the Islamists’ catch phrase
It is the word that Tunisia’s Muslim Brothers chose for their harakah (or movement) and in which the Egyptian jama’ah (or group) couched its presidential programme; it dates all the way back to the late 18th century when, under Muhammad Ali Pasha in particular, it would’ve denoted something significantly different. But in a way it has been the mirror image of European imperialism since then, with its post-Arab Spring Islamist manifestations in Tunisia and Egypt constituting one possible logical conclusion of the region’s political trajectory, and the murderous Arab nationalist dictatorships (whether Gaddafi’s in Libya or the Baath’s in Syria and Iraq) another.
What I want to argue is that, in more ways than one (and despite all the wonderful things it almost did), the so called Arab renaissance has in fact been part and parcel of this immense downward fall of recent history, and that—far from presenting a homegrown alternative to the neoliberal world order, arguably the extension and apotheosis of empire—it has actually aided and abetted the imperialist project.
And well it might: Nahda is to muqawamah (or resistance) what modernism was to imperialism; in some ways, perhaps, it is also what Europe’s Renaissance was to the northern Puritanical values that were eventually more or less subsumed by Enlightenment.
Following this line of thought, one can make surprising connections between past failures of the wannabe independent modern state (Nasser’s “first republic” in Egypt) and present-future failures of Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood’s proposed “second republic”). One can also make connections between both forms of totalitarianism (top-down in the case of the July regime, bottom-up in the present case) and the negative, inferiority complex-driven motivation that—while making huge room for sloganeering, doublespeak and overt suppression—makes no room at all for the revival or regeneration of a glorious past, be it Arab and purely imagined or Islamic and somewhat real. It is a “renaissance” that denies the very tenets of what it hopes to donner naissance to anew: reason, military and/or economic power, cutting-edge global outlook, joyful aspirations…
So, for example, to underline their belief in a militarily powerful and united pan-Arab nation, an Arab nationalist will by default glorify the one dictator responsible not onlyfor the worst military defeat in Arab history (1967) but also for separating Egypt and Sudan and then setting a precedent for the failure of unification by showing the world exactly how not to unify with Syria, encouraging national as opposed to pan-Arab sentiments and limiting inter-Arab freedom of movement, exchange and initiative in practice. To demonstrate how “Islam honours women”, an Islamist will insist on such allegedly intrinsic “Islamic principles” as niqab and polygamy.
Likewise the material renaissance promised by President Mohamed Mursi (or, more accurately perhaps, by businessman Khairat El-Shatir, the most powerful man in the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office): what is marketed as an alternative to Mubarak’s neoliberal and peace-with-Israel policies is actually a programme for turning the entire expanse of the Arab world into a string of modified Saudi Arabias, not only pro-Israeli and even more ruthlessly capitalist but also disinterested in human rights and inevitably impoverished in the absence of oil reserves.
In its accepted, present formulation democracy originated and continues to operate in wholly secularised and intellectually free societies based on universal rights and freedoms. How the Saudification of the Arab world through such vaguely Ku Klux-like “political” entities as the Salafi Nour Party can be the result of democratic process is a baffling question.
Yet such contradictions are hardly coincidental. Without reviewing the history of the term, I just want to draw attention to the manner in which nahda presupposes such manifestations of death and demise as Nakba, naksa (Nasser’s euphemism for the 1967 defeat) and takhalluf (or backwardness). By stressing the (purely rhetorical) need for self- or identity-assertion, what the Muslim Brotherhood is doing is throwing a sand storm into the eyes of Egyptians, just as the Arab nationalists did before it:
Nahda does not mean the elimination of autocracy and corruption, it means stamping them with the divine seal of “Islam”; it does not mean improving the intellectual and material circumstances of students, teachers and creative people, it means ensuring that they espouse the right slogans—even (or preferably) at the expense of progress and production.
It does not mean instating the principles on which a truly functional democracy can be built (a long term process so far seemingly more successful in Libya), it means liaising with the military dictators and their imperialist patrons, guaranteeing the security of Israel, invoking the revolution and “the will of the people”, monopolising the drafting of a new constitution, replacing state institutions and personnel with their own, buying votes, beating people up and otherwise defying law, order and decency in order to gain recognition through sheer power—in exactly the same way as resistance means not actually opposing the status quo but deploying a certain, negative rhetoric in the struggle to prevail over the competition for it. Nahda just may be the Greater Nakba in the making.
In this context it may be worth remembering the initial term in which 25 January was described: as a YOUNG revolution. Notwithstanding all their moral faults, and regardless of individual people’s ages, the Islamists are confirming the suspicion that they are even older than the regime whose ugliness “the people” led by online activists rose up against. No true renaissance is conceivable in the presence of so much moral and material AGE. And perhaps a true renaissance, even the beginning of one, will happen despite (and not because of) Nahda, after all. Such a development would need no rhetoric to support it and no Washington-style marketing to give it impetus. It would not cooperate with the military arbiters who are the post-post-national embodiment of the failure of the independent nation. It would manifest in production, progress and words meaning what they say: a complete break with the lifeless past. Such a renaissance would probably not oppose the global status quo—at least not in the foreseeable future—but neither will it have to pretend to.
Through the hyperlinks in the text, this piece can turn into an interactive book about life and literature in Egypt
Since 25 Jan we have had, in addition to the Islamist and official media, Al Fara’een: a satellite political-commentary channel of such irrational and duplicitous orientation I believe it is worse for the health of the average Egyptian than cholesterol. (By the average Egyptian, I mean the relatively sane, minimally rational follower of the news — including those who, out of fear or despair, might actually be opposed to the revolution.)
Initially, few understood what Al Fara’een was about, other than the fact that it was the mouthpiece of unreservedly counterrevolutionary sentiment, purporting to represent the so called Silent Majority: perhaps the greatest lie of all, that silent majority, since while a majority might possibly be against change, silence would make its position irrelevant. Al Fara’een does share many of the views of the Honourable Citizen as SCAF must imagine him, expressing — first and foremost — concern over the Stability of the State, the catchword of the Mubarak regime and all that it stands for: besides culturally articulated incompetence and corruption, in other words, not only stupidity and ignorance but also an astounding capacity to defecate from the mouth. In this sense Al Fara’een is the patron channel of a particularly spurious and/or deluded version of the social as well as the political status quo; in such modes of discourse, where anything we don’t know is suspect though we hardly know anything, and where anyone in any way different from the speaker however otherwise similar deserves instant elimination, whether a statement is spurious or deluded matters little.
Fara’een is the less literate term for the plural of “pharaoh”; and the channel’s owner and principal anchor, former National Democratic Party MP Tawfik Okasha, is the “nationalist” grand Pharaoh of the political landscape Al Fara’een portrays.
Though founded prior to the stepping down of Mubarak, the channel’s sole purpose, as it turns out, is to promote the Okasha for the presidency: a not only implausible but also very insolent ambition, even by pre-25 Jan standards. Patently obvious to anyone with an ounce of anything brain-like, the Okasha is unqualified as president of a reactionary news channel. The Okasha was also one of Mubarak’s least sophisticated and most fawning defenders — which, since 11 Feb, has not prevented it from literally, passionately cursing the father of Mubarak’s mother on air (I say “it” because there are serious questions about whether the Okasha is fully human, or at all). Otherwise it is best known for bending over double to kiss the hand of former information minister Safwat El-Sharif — not only a pillar of the Mubarak regime but also, for decades on end, perhaps the one most notorious for corruption. In the context of the very provincial conventions by which the Okasha itself purports to abide, kissing the hand of another man is of course a sign of extreme submission — unequivocal loss of dignity; aside from a loyal son showing deference to some venerable patriarch, it is something only a grovelling beggar might conceivably do.
Most of Al Fara’een’s air time, aside from Fox News-like patriotism and first-anti-25 Jan-then-pro-SCAF propaganda, consists of the Okasha addressing its nonexistent constituency in the informal and (to use its own word) “mastaba” manner of a well-to-do fellah dictating opinions to a loving, presumably equally non-human gathering of villagers (there is evidence that such creatures do exist, but let’s hope they are no majority). Unlike its oily, accent-less pre-25 Jan image — the one in which it is known to have said, to the word, “I hold President Mubarak sacred” — the Okasha’s present, mastaba-bound demeanour is so utterly like that of a wicked old peasant woman, one with neither the upbringing nor the intelligence to maintain even a veneer of respectability, that it tends to induce laughter more than any other response. But aside from the Okasha being a comic diversion — people laugh at faeces, after all, precisely because it is nauseating — the Okasha poses distressing questions about dignity, reality and the fellahin.
I first heard of Al Fara’een from a taxi driver with a Limbi-like speech impediment (El Limbi being comedian Mohammad Saad’s alterego, a slum-residing criminal retard). He was explaining to me how it had been proven that Wael Ghoneim, the earliest hero of the revolution, was an American agent bent on destroying the country. Not only was Ghoneim Palestinian-Lebanese and Iranian (i.e. Islamist), he was also Communist, Zionist and Masonic; the so called revolution he and his fellow agents had started was nothing but a global conspiracy to spread chaos, bring over the Americans (as in Iraq), split up the country… “Where did you find out about this?” I asked. “But where else,” he coughed, with a worryingly self-assured grin. “Al Fara’een Channel!”
After this chance encounter I saw Tawfik Okasha on screen for the first time: clip after clip of infuriating and absurd things it had said on Al Fara’een would turn up on Facebook or Twitter; for the longest time, knowing what to expect, I would avoid listening to anything longer than a few minutes — and it always made me physically uncomfortable — an illness. But for some reason the other night I decided to seek the Okasha out, enduring some three hours of it talking on YouTube. I may have developed an immunity, but it was a very edifying exercise.
To some extent, among dishonest quasi-politicians, the Okasha’s “fellahi” attitudes had all been seen under Mubarak: political participation reducing to kissing the right hands the better to be allowed to accumulate assets; political discourse reducing to the occasional, gusty expression of xenophobia, sectarianism or conspiracy theory inconsistent with actual policy-making, the better to play on Honourable Citizen sentiments… But, aside from the fact that they were a byproduct of the complete absence of any but the weakest semblance of political life, such attitudes were considerably more polished; more often than not, they were alloyed with something, anything vaguely recognisable as human. You could dismiss them as part of the institutionalised practice of seeking out private interests at the expense of morality and public welfare, or you could accept them as diehard residues of Nasserist discourse (perhaps even present-day aspects of Islamist discourse). Never and nowhere has dishonest fellahi identity politics taken so clear and concentrated a form as it does in “presidential hopeful” Tawfik Okasha.
I will mention only three of the Okasha’s maneuvers by way of example: based on his Yemeni ancestry, the way in which it took issue with Bilal Fadl, a pro-25 Jan political commentator of impeccable integrity, for being non-Egyptian; its tendency to respond to criticism by a woman with statements to the effect that that woman is a slut; and the fact that it challenged Mohammad ElBaradei — who is a constant reminder to the Okasha of its own dire inadequacy — to tell it how ducks are fed in the Nile Delta before he could qualify as a plausible presidential candidate.
It is always interesting to try and work out the truth in the lie, what motivates an Okasha to tell or be it; and perhaps this is the reason I succumbed to my three hours of exposure to this Okasha. Sadly, while even Mubarak could occasionally muster the appearance of a head of state, for example — the truth of his de facto place in the world, an aspect however ugly of his humanity — the Okasha’s only truth is inferiority. The Okasha does not even have the wherewithal to work its insecurities into anything resembling an ideology (Islamist, Arab nationalist, grassroots essentialist, even straightforward fascist…) Its inconsistency is such it ends up saying nothing beyond, “I am a cowardly, snivelling opportunist of the lowest order, but you will support me because, being a fellah, I am who you are; and we, you and I, are such cowardly, snivelling opportunists we cannot abide change unless we can, in the meanest, least truthful way imaginable, benefit from it — if someone else says we are appalling and atrocious, they are obviously not enough of a cowardly, snivelling opportunist to be a fellah and they must be eliminated. Long live the fellahin!”
It is this, I realise now, that makes the Okasha and its version of fellahi politics so amazing; and it is this that Al Fara’een is about: one looks for a sign of humanity, any indication of the capacity for rationality, pride or fellow feeling. But one finds only it.
Mohammad Rabie, Kawkab ‘Anbar, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2010
BOOKSHOP: When a book signing ends up feeling like an engineers’ reunion, it makes you think not of structure but of paranoia. There is the architectural analogy, that is true (and in Arabic an architect is literally an “architectural engineer”). But by now it is something of a cliché: the stringing together of narrative is, anyway, nothing like the construction of buildings; character, dialogue and pacing, the poetry of scene and sentence, have little to do with design. Of course, engineers deal with electric circuits as well as building plans, pistons and pulleys, drills, computers, equations, frames and frameworks, all kinds of objects that can have metaphorical relevance to the writing process. But metaphors only go so far most of the time, and for many of us writing is a profession in its own right – in danger of being taken over! A month or so ago, a shortish novel longish by recent young-writer standards, Kawkab ‘Anbar (the name means “Amber Planet”), drew into the Kotob Khan Bookshop, where it emerged during a workshop with Yasser Abdel-Latif, what seemed like a range of people interested in new writing. The main speaker was a critic but apart from one dentist (the promising young poet Ahmad Nada), almost everyone turned out to be an engineer – civil, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical. For a moment it seemed as though a mafia of those lever-wielding un-poets were ambushing the literary sphere, infiltrating writerly circles all across the city, befriending with a view to replacing true writers and eventually, well – eliminating them. I would not stand for it! Thus I directed my malicious glances to the person at the centre of all this, the author of the book, Mohammad Rabie: born in 1978, a practising, yes – practising civil engineer since his graduation from university in 2001, to his friends he is actually known as Rabie, since there are too many Mohammads in this part of the world. For a moment Rabie did look like the don of some magic realist mafia. The beauty of paranoia is that it impounds reason. It was only a moment, but for its duration I was convinced there really was a mafia who gathered at construction sites to draw up plans of attack for literary world domination. I seemed to forget that Rabie was among the most personable people of his generation I had met, a writer with talent regardless of what else he does, totally innocuous.
I spend a lot of time in bookshops. I read the blurbs on the back covers, sometimes the introductions as well. I think hard before I buy. I hate crowded bookshops where I feel no sense of privacy. That’s why Kotob Khan is the perfect place for me. I also hate bookshops where attendants materialise the moment you walk in asking you what you want. It’s insolent. But as I say Kotob Khan was a perfect place to do this. Yasser Abdel-Latif did not interfere very much at all. Since the beginning he was careful about giving the participants just as much autonomy as they needed. Still, I think he managed to slip in ideas and sentences. There were parts he was largely dissatisfied with and I worked on those. What he insisted on was that there should be a dramatic line linking the events in the book, which is what I set out to do from the beginning. All of which was of course very helpful to me; and I think the fact that the participants thought alike and had a similar orientation was the main factor behind the success of the workshop. I think that any text with dramatic lines is a novel, but that is not why I set out to write one. The novel isn’t always the ideal format. The short story is another appropriate format. The novel is appropriate for multiple characters and many events. It is also a genre that suits chatter and gossip. The characters allow the writer to say all that they want indirectly, and there is space for imagination: to create cities and documents and languages, perhaps an alternative history. But the short story is extremely enjoyable for me. Concision and economy of means are two things I particularly enjoy; and the story is appropriate for describing a moment or a situation or a day in the life if its hero. The decision to write a novel is made after a few pages, perhaps before you start writing, but I think the time frame remains the principal factor. That is why this book is a novel, in the end, because that is the way the idea developed and the way I imagined it would spread over time. Sometimes I imagine a new form even more economical than the short story, through which to condense events that are spread out over long periods of time to the greatest extent possible. But all my attempts at achieving this form have been miserable.
CYBERSPACE: Until March 2008, there was in fact another Mohammad Rabie who was not an engineer: the author of outrageous novels about sex and religion in contemporary Cairo which he Xeroxed and handed out by hand. That other Rabie died in a Camus-ian accident at the age of 33. This Rabie, by contrast, is actually a blogger; he started out on the internet – a consequence, perhaps, of his background being non-literary. But the existence of another novelist born in the same year with the exact same name seems if nothing else pertinent to the kind of writing the author of Kawkab ‘Anbar is interested in practising. Unlike his namesake, Rabie is less interested in the immediate affects of language as he is in its ability to create a sustainable world. Unlike so many Arab writers – the vast majority, in fact, from the Sixties until recently – he wants to tell a story. He wants to use his imagination, engage with a concept or an idea, breathe life into a calculated structure. He does not want to evoke, imply, explore the possibilities of language as such. He does not want to wax lyrical, much less rhetorical. He does not want to wax. His object is a tale, and the function of reality – language as well as people who emerge through its use – is to flesh out that tale. In this as much as his cyber presence as a blogger and a micro-blogger (many were saddened when Rabie, shortly after the aforementioned signing, deactivated his Facebook account), Rabie is representative of the closest thing to a generation or a movement since the prose poets of the Nineties: writers who might be called the Twothousanders but not only because they started publishing after 2000. People like Nael El-Toukhy, Ahmad Nagui and (to a lesser extent) Mohammad Kheir and Mohammad Abdelnaby also share something more profound. They are all internet-savvy, down-to-earth agents of subversion as interested in things as they are in people and as closely connected to pop culture, communications technology and the global media as they are to literary history. Kundera is their Balzak, Mahfouz their Greek tragedy. They are cynics and jokers and glorifiers of what they refer to (admittedly often with ignorance) as kitsch. By and large they eschew poetry; and until the Egyptian quasi-literary blogging craze fizzled out, many of them professed to eschew print publication. They may not always have as much access to non-Arabic culture as they claim or desire, but their position is truly postmodern in the sense that they own and disown many histories at once; they don’t have a problem revolving around the commodity as a mode of being; they don’t have a problem with commodification. In short, they live mentally in our times – and they try to do it unselfconsciously.
I think the appropriate literary climate is one that is free of groups, schools and especially this concept of generations. Anyway it is the critics’ job to classify, I cannot claim to belong to a particular generation myself. As for my link with technology, I write directly onto the computer, but the initial ideas I jot down by hand, on a piece of paper, in a pocket notebook – that doesn’t matter, but it has to be on paper. I read the news online, I think the internet is a more efficient medium for news and short articles. But it can be a disastrous medium as far as literature is concerned. Paper will live on for a long time yet. Now there are e-book readers and I don’t see a difference between them and books, they have the advantage of taking up less space and weight. But visually they are very like books and they don’t have the distractions of the computer especially when it is connected to the internet. On the whole the only reason you would resort to electronic publishing is if you are unable to publish on paper. But the internet is completely inappropriate for a novel. A short story, a poem may work on the internet but nothing longer. My blog was an experiment that lasted for a long time. I had wanted to write a large text and the blog was my training ground. I thought I would use to train until it was time to write that large text. I had no preconceptions about what would happen to the novel after it was published. I didn’t think much of sales but I wanted it to be translated into other languages – imagine the translator’s predicament when they work on a text that finds fault with the very act of translation! Otherwise I was worried about the responses to it but those have been mostly encouraging. A few months after I completed it I already feel the novel has wrenched itself away from me and acquired its own being. It’s like a child of mine who’s grown up and leads their own life. My presence online was very important, it worked as indirect publicity for the novel. Many were waiting for it after I announced several times that it would be coming out. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was present on the net, frankly, because I was used to being there. But my friend Marwa Rakha eventually drew my attention to the fact that it was good publicity.
LIBRARY: Kawkab ‘Anbar is the story of the eponymous, little known library (named after its original owner’s wife), a public endowment in Abbassiya on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new underground Metro line. It is told by Shahir, the endowments official who is sent there on a month-long assignment to put together a report on the library – a perfunctory, routine procedure intended to facilitate the forgone conclusion of its demolition by establishing that, all things considered, there is no reason for it to remain standing. Shahir is a young intellectual who, aware of the Kafkaesque futility of his task, is nonetheless quickly caught up in the mystery and madness of what turns out to be a Borgesian space of astounding quirkiness, initially through the existential endeavour of giving his task the semblance of credibility by searching in the library for anything of value. since he is “an old reader”, as his boss describes him in the opening, he looks – a little too earnestly for comfort – among the library’s uncannily surprising collection, eclectic as it is obscure. A string of clues leads Shahir to the two impossible ideas at the centre of the story (impossible, I mean, in the Borgesian sense, although Rabie does not delve as deeply into philosophy). First, there is a book written in a private or a nonexistent language, Luij al Sayrafini’s Creatures, translations of which have nonetheless been produced. Secondly, there is a device or a machine – invented and installed here by the owner – which is capable of producing a perfect translation of any and every book, including even Sayrafini’s, into any and every language. Rabie’s point is that, while it is possible to imagine these two things, their existence would anyway be pointless if not downright evil. He does not say it in so many words, but translation is a form of multiplying knowledge, and as such it is essentially an abomination, like Borges’s mirror, a curse. The story is also told by Dr Sayed: an arguably unnecessary complication, this, since Shahir’s voice alone would have made the essentially plot-driven, murder mystery-like narrative easier to follow. Dr Sayed is an older scholar, a cryptologist from the age of Nasser whose presence justifies all kinds of forays back into the Sixties, with passages on the real-life culture minister Tharwat Okashah, for example: an encyclopedic intellectual enamoured of both translation and classification. He is an obsessive and venomous, Dr Sayed, a quaint old cynic who enjoys watching others suffer. He knows Kawkab Anbar’s secrets but does not reveal them to Shahir. His voice gives a grotesque impression of the characters Shahir must tamper with on the way: among others, the library director, an old bureaucratic rival of Shahir’s boss; and the elderly translator who for many years has been reproducing, at first by hand, his own copies of the strange tomes that live here …
I meant the idea of translation itself, it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble. This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel. There was no particular reason to use two voices, although I would not have wanted an omniscient narrator. But it just happened that way. First it flowed in the voice of Shahir, for weeks I worked on it in that voice. But then the voice of Sayed arrived and it forced me to work it in and give up on Shahir temporarily. But it was not technically necessary, there are ways to introduce perspectives into the texts – you add discourses or digressions, even footnotes as in the case of Mohammad Mustagab. Perhaps it is simply that writing the characters in their own voices, in as many of them as you can, makes them more alive. I do not have a clearly defined project as such because my ideas are always changing. Some ideas dog me for a long time but then they evaporate and seem naïve. Other ideas do not evaporate, and they may be just as naïve and laughable but if you think long and hard enough about anything it makes that thing highly valuable to me. I was surprised when friends told me about influences they thought they could see in the book: Naguib Mahfouz, for example, and then Saramago in All the Names, Eco in The Name of the Rose. All three are among my favourite authors in fact so it makes me proud for people to liken my work to theirs. Mahfouz was well organised and very patient which are things that I lack and would benefit from a great deal. Eco has encyclopedic erudition that is obviously beyond me but his writing is also extremely professional and I doubt if I will ever attain that level. I would also mention Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Gamal El-Ghitani in Khutat Al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Virgo. It amazes me how much the Iraqi writer Ali Badr and I can think alike, which is why I try to read everything to find out if it’s been done before. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the historian: if the translator falsifies unwittingly, the historian does it on purpose, more or less and, well – just imagine the possible implications of that fact for fiction.
Review and interview by Youssef Rakha
Responding to recent Facebook “notes” by the poet Mohab Nasr — an Alexandrian schoolteacher turned Kuwait-based journalist and, since 25 January, perhaps the most honest critic of the Egyptian human being — Youssef Rakha unpacks the concept of the People
Back in January, my friend Mohab (b. 1962) was more sceptical than I was about what was then called, without the least hesitation, Revolution. Today, in his own profoundly dusky way, Mohab is more enthusiastic about social-political transformation than I am. He is less shocked by the de facto alliance of the military and political Islam, the marginalization if not the liquidation of true revolutionaries across the country, the way in which the martyrs are betrayed not only by politicians but also by the Silent Majority — hizb al kanabah, or “the Couch Party”, as he and many others have designated the greater number of Egyptians. If people want the Islamists or condone their rise to power, he seems to say, let people have the Islamists. And let everyone, including Intellectuals like you and me, face up to the reality of our collective existence (which is an attribute of the human condition, after all). Let us accept responsibility for being part of this society, confront our historical failure to make a difference, our irrelevance, instead of taking cover in inevitably opportunistic abstractions like Individuality, Culture or Opposition, all the while having a Corrupt Regime to complain about while we do so. Since January, Mohab has come back to Egypt only once, in spring. At no point did he participate in the protests or witness the carnage perpetrated by the police (and later also the army), which partly explains the difference in timing. Now firmly secular, Mohab was once — briefly — a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria: another reason for variation in perspective. Yet there is a sense in which what he has to say about the events of 2011 tallies with my experience of them. Like me he is less interested in the political move than the mind that makes it, and — even more so — the Majority’s response. A lot of what he attributes specifically to Egyptians applies to people anywhere in our times, I feel; yet his remarks about the reasons behind the outcome of the Tahrir protests are so insightful and heartfelt, and his disgust with al muthaqqafin or the intelligentsia so justified, he makes timely sense.
The longest article Mohab has written on the subject, “Society of Hooligans, Hooligan State”, attempts to demarcate the political space in which Egyptians can function, describing a global order, as he puts it, that only lets you “say them and us” so long as saying it remains a variation on the brand-name, multinational theme, or an exotic label therein. You are allowed to set yourself apart, in other words, only in the most vapid (hence harmless) way, “in a metaphorical way, as a sort of cheap compensation for being on a lower rung of the ladder”. Not to condone the foul crimes of a Saddam, a Muammar or a Bashar, the better you understand this the more successful you are, whether you are a government or an oppositional organisation. The Muslim Brothers, Mohab states with astounding accuracy, are in precisely the position of the pragmatic underdog: their identity-mongering has not for a moment prevented them from being “wholly integrated into the greater compound” of world capitalism; the implication, more or less stated later in the article, is that the only possible meaning Islam could have in present-day politics is no meaning at all: “Identity as an idea about the past is a pit… Those who claim that identity [Islam] is the answer cite as their pretext societies that have made achievements on the basis of identity [the West]; they conveniently forget that those societies used identity as mere propaganda, throwing it away once it conflicted with capitalist interests.” In an addendum prompted by one intellectual’s infuriatingly complacent comment on this “note”, Mohab condemns the poeticised (as opposed to poetic) sensibility, which has not only divested the Egyptian intellectual of all moral (as opposed to merely aesthetic) commitment but also confined them to an exclusively discursive and “personal” space, promoting opportunism at the individual level while blocking the way to any possible greater good, let alone an effective social or even political role. In this, he implies, the Islamists — aside from their fundamental moral and historical contradictions — have surpassed the intelligentsia: they formed a sustained group that could reach out to the Majority, because they remained in touch with reality and attuned their discourse to it.
But it is about said Majority that Mohab makes the most interesting points. The currency of religion as the only facet of moral or intellectual activity, for example, is seen as an extension of the evasive, cowardly and criminally selfish values adopted by the middle-class nuclear family whose civil servant patriarch “has brought up his son to bow down, a bow that remains with him for life, marking souls that live in anticipation of a slap,” he writes in “The Corrupt Couch Party”. “That is why their religiosity is but a deep fear [divested of any sense of] a whole Spirit that unifies existence… Those are people who watched the rise of the Nasserist bourgeois without bothering to change their pyjamas, and when they at last replaced them, they put on a galabeya instead. They accepted sycophancy to the boss as respect, silence in the face of injustice as a ‘nature’ they deserved… They were educated because education, not knowledge, could be their means to the job… They understood knowing as having authority, not enjoying discovery; as lionisation, not creativity.” It is only natural, Mohab contends, that the progeny of such people will be at best indifferent to the prospect of social transformation, especially one that involves risk — and, for the most part, they were. In “Can the Revolution Be Against the People?”, the most recent of the “notes” he has written, Mohab points out that the millions who rallied around a hard core of true revolutionaries were not as revolutionary as they; they were merely, manically happy with “the moment of kicking the father out of the house”. That moment, at which otherwise Couch vegetables (or some of them) were possessed by an energy beyond their nature, is no indication of a genuine support base for transformation that works. Much as they seemed to be there, much as it hurts to admit it, the People were not in Tahrir. They were there, as it were, incidentally. The People were in Tahrir as anti-protest thugs and informers and witnesses as well as being there as protesters; they were not always or often or at all in Tahrir. Much like intellectuals who experience reality as aesthetic discourse, the People lived the revolution as momentary release.
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.
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It is something of a cliche of contemporary literature to say that Amal Donqol is best known for his worst work: “political” poems which, though he paid lip service to high-art injunctions requiring that their message should be veiled in ancient history or mythology, can only be read as populist propaganda against policies of peace with Israel. Not that there isn’t always room in poetry for political engagement of some kind, but these works have arguably replaced the complex truths of literature with a largely instrumental sense of the real.
In this context it may be said that Donqol’s best known work tends to prostitute poetry to politics. Together with much of the work of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), it has certainly contributed to confirming the popular misconception that (armchair) activism is the principal arena of writers and that its polemical and didactic discourses are more or less indistinguishable from literature. There is no doubt that, as much as Darwish, Donqol is not only capable of writing beautifully but is also at the forefront of the development of free verse (the predominant poetic discourse until the 1990s). But this is just as true of Donqol’s political poems (La Tussalih, Al Bukaa bayn Yaday Zarqaa Al Yamama, Kalimat Spartacus Al Akhirah) as it is of other, less proactive and ultimately more interesting work (the texts collected in Awaraq Al Ghurfah Thamanya, for example, or the early love poems).
The more radical question has to do with the essentially pragmatic approach to (colonial) modernity of the Nahda or Arab renaissance that started in the late 19th century and of which Donqol was a later product. It is that pragmatism of the Nahda that finds renewed expression in Islamists resorting to the ballot box to instate theocracy, for example, or in hijab and niqab being justified as “personal rights”. In its postcolonial declension after the 1960s, it seems the Nahda could reduce and subvert the poetic, mixing canonical, technical ideas about what makes a text poetry with contemporary and vastly unrealistic notions of the poet’s role in a forcefully homogenised “modern” society. The Nahda thus not only produced a neither-here-nor-there poetic discourse that in its attempt to have the best of both worlds ended up in all but the most superficial qualities divorced from both its roots in the Arabic canon and the western modernity that was its direct inspiration, it also made the poet’s readiness to subscribe to that discourse a precondition for his being legitimised as a poet. To what extent could Donqol – or Darwish – afford to write poetry for its own sake?
Even in its non-political incarnations (in the work of Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab or Salah Abdel-Sabour, for example), free verse as a “half revolution” (to re-situate the late Youssef Edriss’s expression) remains an example of the very national project to whose utter failure current, presumably transformative unrest throughout the Arab world bears testimony. In its engaged mode, however appealing in context, free verse has contributed to a substitute consciousness that was utterly impotent in the face of either the new world order or political Islam. It would take several treatises to argue that, by responding to the developments of the free verse movement under Sadat – the obscure and/or ideological work of the Seventies Generation – with violent individualism and an aversion to ideology so intense it soon became ideological in its own right, the Nineties Generation were in effect doing precisely what stars of the free verse movement had failed to do with the best intentions: promoting a Nahda of Arab society and art.
Rather than situating itself – also pragmatically – within a centralised political project that soon turned out to be an extension of the colonial status quo (we could argue about this for a long time, but yes, I think even Nasser and the Baath were extensions of the colonial status quo), the predominant poetry since Donqol has sought to recognise the heterogeneity of society, the inevitability of history and the hollowness of activist discourse. Instead of concerning itself with establishing technical credentials, it has drawn on the alternative poetic modernity of earlier prose poets who had long since emigrated like Sargon Boulus and Wadih Saadeh.
At the risk of being unfair to the memory of a great poet, whatever else I think of him, I am tempted to say that Donqol leaves the ongoing Egyptian revolution ultimately bereft. It is one thing to invoke his poem of 1972 about protests on and around the “stone cake” of Tahrir Square. Making sense of his conscious or unconscious position on the what is at stake – and Donqol, by the way, witnessed but did not take part in the student demonstrations about which he wrote the poem – is quite another.
The most persuasive description of current events in the Arab world is that they are our struggle for the Second Independence – something that may imply an increasingly evident clash with American hegemony, not through nationalist or Islamist anti-American rhetoric but through a very real conflict of interests between Washington on the one hand and the self-possessed Arab citizen on the other. Such a clash might have horrific implications. Through the agency of the powers that be, but inevitably at the expense of the independence in question, it might be avoided altogether. Poetry will have nothing to do with it.
Recently the free verse Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef wrote what I can only describe as a stomach-turning quasi-poem called “What Arab Spring”, in which he dismissed current events as an electronic-age charade orchestrated by Washington. More than ever before, and despite its having a greater audience than that of the 1990s, that seems to be the true position of the “political” poetry of the 1960s. I truly wonder what Donqol would have said.
Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti, Saqr Abdelwahid and Youssef Rakha
He is reviewing Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti’s Mi’at khutwa minath-thawrah (A Hundred Steps of Revolution, published simultaneously in Cairo and Beirut by Merit and Dar Al-Adab, respectively), and he reiterates the truism that good literature is not of “enthusiastic good intentions” made; it is true. Elshiti cannot be entirely absolved of the charge of bad literature in this book.
Bin Hamza’s remarks echo the incredulity and scepticism with which many received what was presumed to be a high-brow text about the January revolution published within a month of Mubarak stepping down, but reading it I suspect will confirm their doubts. Surely, it would take a little longer for anything vaguely considered to crystallise in the mind of its author.
Even an unadorned diary written while the events unfolded – and the book, presented as just that, is subtitled “Journals from Maidan at-Tahrir” – would take at least two months to edit; a little hindsight never hurt anybody.
If history cannot wait, well, history writing does; and there are brilliant precedents in the difficult art of covering historical events while they happen – the late Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), for example – which show that the incumbent immediacy and intensity of as it were spot history have less to do with time of publication than with technique, vision and revision.
Writing, notwithstanding revolution, that reflects all the desperate rush, lack of polish and (in the Merit edition) distressingly inadequate proofing of much that has been published in Egypt by the independent (literary) press for some 30 years…
It is almost a platitude of contemporary Arabic letters to state that, since the Sixties at least, non-fiction has occupied the lowest tier of the genre pyramid. Not only is non-fiction paid attention based solely on what it is about. In this sense it is surprising that Elshiti’s book has not solicited more attention in Egypt, but the literary congregation is still more or less on holiday despite its deacons’ increasingly reactionary stance since Mubarak stepped down, which would imply that revolution is no longer a valid excuse for ignoring literary events. Non-fiction is also something writers of fiction and poetry seem to think they can do with their eyes shut.
On the whole, instead of honing what skills are required or deploying their usual instruments in the service of a different craft, they exert no effort and demonstrate little respect for a text not produced under the rubric of Creation. The result – and I am no longer talking about Elshiti – tends to be a muddled amalgam of old-fashioned journalism and quasi-academic pontificating; literary non-fiction, where it truly exists, is presented as fiction, freed from the factual constraints of travel writing or biography even as it continues to rely on (insufficiently researched) fact.
Best known for Wuroud samma li Saqr (Poisoned Roses for Saqr, 1990), an acclaimed novella that was reissued shortly before the revolution in 2010 with an introduction detailing its complex publication history and some of the critical and academic interest it sparked, Elshiti (b. 1961) is among a mere handful of writers who survived the Eighties, a sad and saddening decade for literature; the Seventies and (especially) the Nineties are golden ages by comparison.
Wuroud stands out for combining a politically engaged, rigorously economical aesthetic formalised but rarely practised by the Generation of the Sixties with what might be termed the Pointlessly Tragic Hero (perhaps the clearest feature of Eighties writing). It remains, by Elshiti’s own account, his principal achievement; and from a history-of-literature perspective it is no doubt pivotal. To my mind Wuroud marks the end rather than the beginning of something, however: the grassroots, class-conscious, sexually tormented song of a kind of politically socialised but psychologically alienated subject reflecting a sense of national defeat.
Saqr-like characters perhaps began with the seminal Tilka Al-Ra’iha (1966, translated by Denys Johonson-Davies as The Smell of It) by Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937). Spanning a diverse range of incarnations most clearly through Ibrahim Aslan (b. 1935) and Mahmoud El-Wardany (b. 1950), albeit with less targic force and fewer visual tropes, and without a multiplicity of voices, Saqr Abdelwahid arrives at his zenith in Wuroud, even if writers mostly older than Elshiti will continue to present versions of him.
By the Nineties (with the re-emergence of prose poetry and the overt divorce of literature from collective and ethical injunctions), a different set of rules was emerging in which neither society nor tragedy could figure in the same way, nor language function effectively with the same restraint. The Sixties had come full circle.
Not that it would improve the book to know, but it is against a backdrop of disrespect for non-fiction that A Hundred Steps was produced.
And Elshiti has seldom written non-fiction anyway, which partly explains his impromptu approach to documenting the revolution – so different from the meticulously crafted prose of his poem-like very short stories, of which he wrote two collections before the hiatus; the most recent ones, after Daw’un Shaffaf, which he calls Myths, are as yet published only as Facebook notes, and they develop expressionist and fantastical elements of what otherwise remains by and large true-to-life narrative. They are beautiful. But neither they nor anything else in his previous work prepares him for a book-length piece of reportage.
Still, everything in Elshiti’s work and life does encourage a fresh, more prosaic look at the world view presented by his best known piece of writing.
It would be ludicrous to accuse Elshiti, as intellectuals speaking of or for the revolution often have been since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, of coopting the achievement of “the young” to promote his own accomplishments or jumping on the opportunity to immortalise his name, but it is well to ask why, in the absence of that fresh look, he chose to publish a book on the revolution so soon.
Saqr remains interesting in the context of revolution nonetheless: he is a by now early example of the martyr of corrupt capitalism and (by extension) the collapse of the national state. The depressive son and principal breadwinner of a working-class family in Domiat (Elshiti’s hometown, which he frequently refers to in the course of A Hundred Steps), Saqr Abdelwahid’s untimely and largely unexplained death is connected with his hopeless love for the upper middle-class Nahed Badr, whom his politicised friend Yehya Khalaf welcomes into the funeral at the opening.
Told from the viewpoints of all three characters as well as Saqr’s sister Tahiya, the story involves the haunting image of a man who has been slaughtered, “his face a mask of yellow pottery, his eyes two crystals of glass”, presenting Saqr with a bouquet of poisoned roses. It is an encounter Elshiti’s “hero in crisis” (to be distinguished from any number of far less iconic anti-heros) repeatedly has in waking life as well as in his dreams; and by all accounts before his death, when he enters his bedroom bearing the bouquet he has finally accepted for the first time, Saqr is convinced that those flowers will kill him.
However veiled or poetically encrypted, Saqr’s story is a comment on the decline of national dignity in the face of poverty and dictatorship, the vulnerability of the sensitive individual hurled into a rat race he cannot understand (one objective counterbalance of which is “the political struggle” presented by Yahya) and, most emphatically, the absolute impossibility of love.
In a sense it is this mind set – the identity of consciousness and political consciousness on the one hand, and between the individual and his class on the other – and not only the writing it produced, that reaches a peak in Wuroud.
Due to developments in society itself, in access to other societies and in the reference points of the literary and politicised community, no text after Wuroud could convincingly communicate or argue with the real in this way – and even Elshiti’s own subsequent work (Daw’un shaffaf yantashir bikhiffah was produced after a two-decade hiatus in 2009) bears testimony to the fact.
In his landmark novella Elshiti refers to the January 1977 intifada against President Sadat, to the way in which the Islamisation and commodification of society following the defeat of 1967 and Nasser’s death is said to have aborted all sense of belonging, and it would have been interesting to see how the ghost or memory of Saqr responded to the Mubarak era, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, 9/11, and the emergence, all through this, of mafia-style governance in Egypt.
A non-fiction comment on the revolution of 2011 seems the perfect opportunity for rewriting Saqr, revising his loyalties and convictions, and asking whether or not he really had to die.
A Hundred Steps, at one level, is offered as testimony (the witness too being among the writer’s preferred registers since the Sixties); living on Qasr Al-Nil Street in the same building as the office of Merit, which turned into one of several “revolutionary command centres” for the period (28 Jan-11 Feb), Elshiti was – geographically – the perfect witness.
And there is none but the most documentary ambition in the book, which is not only fair but in its own way admirable: Elshiti has no illusions about his position in relation to what is happening; he is guided by his gut alone, and whether observing or reflecting, as a result, he is anything but grandiloquent or pretentious.
“Since five in the evening I have been in the Maidan,” he writes on the first page of the book, a footnote explaining that this opening short piece, on the events of 25 January, was published on Facebook on 26 January. “It was possible to see young men and women whose ages revolved around 20. Their slogans were simple and radical and without calculations, omitting verbosity and excess…”
Elshiti goes on to say that, while “the politics professionals” – older activists and dissidents – thought it was wrong to insist on spending the night in Tahrir, the young protesters wagered on “matching word to deed”. It is precisely institutionalised resistance that they were revolting against, he insists; were the professionals happy to see the Maidan brutally emptied by midnight? “The 25th of January is the day a new eloquence was discovered that could not be institutionalised.”
So far, so brilliant; and the wording of the question regarding the traditional opposition being part of the problem has just the right amount of irony. But what does Elshiti – what does Saqr Abdelwahid – really think?
Over 150 pages mostly of observations and anecdotes, very few of which are written with either the concision or emotion of the opening piece, Elshiti fails to give even the hint of an answer to this question. The scheme of presentation is largely chronological, which results in verbosity and excess (the use of baltagiyah or hired strongmen by the regime in attempts to disband the protesters, for example, is dealt with at many different points but in exactly the same way).
Where discussions come up (and they come up notably with Mohammad Hashem, the owner and director of Merit, as when he disagrees with Elshiti on whether or not the police should be brought back to the streets after their wilful disappearance on the evening of 28 January), they are reported as is, without recourse to deeper analysis or supplementary evidence from, as it were, the front. To support his position against Hashem, on this occasion, Elshiti is content to cite his experience of the brutality and corruption of the police as a young man in Domiat, where he lived opposite the police station. Here as elsewhere one feels that his privileged position as a politically aware resident of Tahrir is wasted.
Even those who were not in Egypt at the time and followed the news on television, it seems to me, would not be unjustified in complaining that they have gained little from Elshiti’s reports, touted as “moments that are mine, captured with my own eyes, not with the eyes of the camera or even those of live witnesses”; those moments are invested with neither journalistic edge, historical or philosophical reflection, nor poetic insight, all things considered.
At best they evoke an atmosphere by now well-documented anyway. And the best of them, the very best of them, read like Elshiti’s fiction (which makes you wonder what the book would have been like had he taken the time to rigorously select and rewrite entries):
I saw a man in his fifties wearing a smart suit being mobbed by the masses who sought to expel him, for it had been discovered; he was affiliated with the NDP and persuading the young men to stop demonstrating. The man almost fell on the floor, and then he went out through the Qasr Al-Nil gateway. The regime never stopped sending in envoys of every kind. Everyone was convinced that there was not a single supporter of the regime except thieves and baltagiyah. Even were such a person to exist, they could find a place other than Maidan at-Tahrir which had been liberated with the blood of martyrs and the wounded.
Light rain. I saw a group of protesters walking in formation as one having covered their heads with a sheet of clear plastic while they went on chanting, ‘Ash-sha’b yurid isqaat annidham’.
Repeatedly, Elshiti distances himself from what is going on in Maidan at-Tahrir, falling back on the supposed generational (and, to a lesser extent, the class) difference between his circle of intellectuals and the young middle-class instigators of protest. His loyalties are clear, his emotion sincere, but he remains more of a spectator than a participant. This is both honest and frustrating – the honesty might have been more effective had the observations been condensed in the manner of the passage quoted above – because what one wants to know from Elshiti has less to do with what he saw than with what it implies for him and in what way he was part of it.
The question of the left-wing or secular intellectual’s position on Islamists participating in the revolution, for example – a hugely stimulating topic demanding precisely the kind of self-confrontation and self-questioning that prompted Elshiti to write in the first place – is hardly touched on at all. To my disappointment, in the same way as he skims over his own role in the revolution, Elshiti places himself at an anecdotal remove from the issue of political Islam in its unfolding.
A Hundred Steps is the most serious of a number of books to have come out of the revolution, none of which really question the term or deal with the aftermath, which is by far the more significant topic. Its brief is to document what happened as the author saw it and in this, at the most basic level, it manages well enough. But as literature, which is what one will expect from Elshiti, it falls short of the moment that inspired it.