In the Name of the Father

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My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.
In a sense, while the outbreak of protests on 25 Jan and the collective determination that they should have tangible results amounted to that rare thing—a moment of truth in modern Arab history—events since 11 Feb 2011 have borne evidence of just how much of a lie Arab politics had been since colonial times, and how peripheral the truth must remain to society even after the revolution “triumphed”.
Where history is concerned, truth evidently cannot stand up to the lie. The truth of a predominantly young population with no need for identity-related hangups, who want money, sex, and space in which to express themselves and be productive, for example: such truth will not be articulated politically in the foreseeable future; and likewise the lie of an oppositional Islam with a vision for development or concern for the people: its being exposed, even repeatedly, will not stop society from behaving as if it were true.
A year ago on Tuesday the result of the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by SCAF and embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood—an unequivocal yes—effectively bracketed the “revolution” in time. It shifted the emphasis away from rights gained through protests (including the right to protest) to a reshuffling of the power structure via an indefinite “transition” whose purpose has been to restore and/or sustain a status quo that had—more often than not, by invoking an overriding sense of identity—systematically denied people those same rights.
The vote, however disastrous it is now judged to be, established the population’s willingness to cement the two bulwarks of corrupt—incompetent—conservatism: fascist-flavored religious authority and arbitrary military power; the very culturally articulated nepotism, rarefied inferiority complex, and xenophobia that had reduced the project of an independent nation guarding Arab-Muslim identity under Nasser to a client state riddled by poverty and Wahhabism under Mubarak. With the regime’s logistical powers deployed in Brotherhood-held voting blocs, “democracy” could quickly abort what opportunity for change had been generated, fueled by blood. And it became easy from then on to involve well-meaning political players in endless lost battles of the vote, even as their comrades were being killed at protests and defamed on “pro-25 Jan” TV.
In the wake of 25 Jan, a conscious or unconscious alliance between devout and patriotic sentiments, whether honest or hypocritical, thus became the truest expression of the lie. It not only exiled the truth, it also forced sincere champions of change to adopt more or less peremptory discourses divorced from the reality of “the people” while, consciously or unconsciously, elements of dissidence that had worked to dissipate and obstruct the effort to gain basic rights on the ground were reintroduced:
Once again “politics” is not about the right to live but about the Palestinian cause, the struggle against “American-Israeli empire”, the notion of collective as opposed to individual dignity. In this sense the “revolutionaries” have ended up echoing generations of “the opposition” whose isolation rendered them so ineffective they could be safely ignored and/or co-opted by the regime, themselves eventually becoming part of the lie.

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Graffiti showing the pro-yes sign for the 19 March referendum—”say yes for faster stability”—and asking, “Is it stable yet?”
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I think of my father now because his change of heart regarding the role of the intellectual in Arab history reflects my own regarding the Arab Spring: from far-fetched faith in improving the world to a form of well-meaning resignation or despair, the stance of an interested but stationary observer.
Thanks in part to the pace of life in the electronic age, the story of four decades of Egyptian politics—from the fifties to the nineties—was reenacted almost in its entirety in the space of a single year, from March 2011 to March 2012: after mass protests generate hope for a freer society, “patriotism” is instantly co-opted by a military junta that proves more repressive than the “fallen regime”; quasi-socialist sloganeering eventually gives way to ruthless capitalism in the garb of “Islamic” quasi-democracy; and the need for development is subordinated to the perpetuation of (religion- and military-based) power…
I wonder if my father’s experience left him as cold as mine has left me; I wonder if, by the end of his life, he felt as existentially disconnected, politically denuded, and socially paralyzed. Somehow, he maintained his compassion: his stoic insistence on dressing like a worker and only using public transport, for example, coupled by a strange delight in engaging working-class people in a debate among peers.
In this and other ways his complete rejection of the role of the patriarch belied his middle-class provincial origins and his aspiring-politician career path as a law graduate of the fifties. Evidently he could be anything but a patriarch—which is particularly interesting because so much of the psychosocial underpinnings of 25 Jan and its aftermath have reflected that very concept.
Perhaps the lie depends on fathers maintaining the semblance of an order: whatever else has been said in his favor, the most effective defense of Mubarak—which, having stood in the way of a pretend trial, will help to absolve SCAF of the very likely crime that he will be acquitted—was the notion that Mubarak has been a father to Egyptians. What this means in practice is of course very different from what it should mean: a true father, the chief of a tribe or the don of a mafia—the endless, intricate web of mafias that is Egypt—will supposedly care for his children, making their enemies offers they cannot refuse…
But, like so much else in the lie—religious commitment, professional efficiency, national pride—the substance of a given discourse had been so thoroughly subverted that only its surface appearance now mattered: that there should be someone in the haloed place of the father, not that there should be a father as such.
And perhaps that is why I am mistaken about Egyptians, most of whom—unlike me—will have had patriarchal fathers variously implicated in the lie. Perhaps the predominantly young population does have a need for psychosocial hangups connected with their Muslim identity, after all. That hunger for money and sex, which Muslim religiosity in practice by no means forbids: perhaps it is not bound up with any desire for self expression or any obligation to contribute quantitatively or qualitatively to human civilization; those things, after all, require some degree of acknowledgement of the truth; why else is it that individuals who have a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of their beliefs—in contrast to venerable sheikhs holding ridiculous keys to paradise, or even Marxist intellectuals playing in the extra time—are so impossibly few?
Watching the news these days, I am often overwhelmed by the sense that my father is communicating with me, reminding me that I should have attempted to a deeper understanding of his change of heart. The lie, he tells me, is much bigger than Mubarak, perhaps even bigger than SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood combined.

***

Seven years before:

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Satre, my father and me (2005)

When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.

Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre’s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.

Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.

It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.

I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.

In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.

Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.

But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.

His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.

Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.

I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause.

I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.

Postmortem




You are miracle workers, Youssef. You will ring forever throughout history; Egypt, of course, was there at the beginning of human civilisation, and it and its people continue to be so. Momentous and magnificent, what you’ve done.” – the British writer Niall Griffiths in a private e-mail, 15 Feb, 2011

Having travelled east from Tunis, the principal slogan of the revolution in Egypt remained, unusually for Cairo demonstrations, in correct standard Arabic (and despite the co-option of the term since 11 Feb by every other guard-puppy of the former regime, every shameless beneficiary, and every lying bastard, I still feel utterly entitled to call my revolution by its true name). Hard to say in retrospect whether the incredible evocative, multi-layered power of the four words was already latent within them or was lent them by events and blood, but incredible evocative, multi-layered power they indubitably have:

ASH-SHA’B YUREED ISQAAT AN-NIDHAM.

Ash-sha’b, a word so completely misappropriated by the military in the 1950s and so often abused since then that, until 25 Jan, it could only be uttered ironically, is finally reclaimed, not in the discourse of the revolutionaries but, meaningfully, in their discursive acts. Overnight, a sha’b really does appear on the streets, ready to sacrifice work, home and comfort, even life, to make a point; it is real, it has flesh and blood, it is even capable of being killed (something the guardians of the status quo, predictably enough, demonstrated in a variety of ways). And it exists in sufficient numbers to suspend and overshadow everything else: terror, apathy, expediency, the machinery of repression. At last the word can be used to mean something real, something that can be confirmed instantly by sight.

Yureed: to want, to wish, to will; to have a will. An army conscript ends up as a police officer’s domestic servant; a physician in training is the Doctor’s errand boy; a journalist reports not from the scene of the event but from the office of the government official responsible; the student’s target is neither epistemological initiative nor professional aptitude but the certificate as a token of entitlement (to class, position, rank, kudos); and certificates too, PhDs in particular, can be bought, obtained by pulling strings: it is not simply a matter of corruption; life is hollow, unreal, drained out. As far as it exists at all, deprived of the right to gather, decide for itself, fight back, to say or to be, the people, which in recent memory has only exited as an abstraction, has absolutely no will.

Once again, miraculously, this changes overnight; and thanks to the machinery of violence and untruth, a nidham that has nothing to count on but fear and ignorance, the change very quickly becomes permanent. Before anyone has had time to think, ash-sha’b yureed is the central reference – amazingly, objectives are agreed on without discussion or premeditation, without leadership as it were, and they are shared by every protester regardless of background or orientation – although many, outside the arena of slogans, insist that the instigators and the agents of the revolution are in the end not so much sha’b as shabab (the young, who make up some 60 percent of the population anyway). I would personally take issue with the accuracy of calling this the revolution of the young, but no matter.

In the past, even when it existed enough to protest – as a trade union, a wannabe party or a brutishly repressed organisation of political Islam - ash-sha’b had focused on needing change or imposing it by force, not willing it. Now, overnight, it can actually will.

And what it wills, unequivocally is isqaat an-nidham:

the bringing down (not the changing or reforming) of the regime, the order, the manner of arrangement of things. There is space within that for willing other, grander and more complicated or conventionally organised things: things Arab, things Islamic, things quasi-Marxist, things civic above all… But the point of the revolution is the freedom in which to will those things and the right, eventually, to institutionalise them, the freedom to expose mechanisms whereby, until its outbreak, they could not be collectively willed: plurality and multiplicity within the scope of what everyone can agree on in their capacity as citizens of a modern, independent, self-respecting state.

As yet I can think of three gargantuan obstacles in the way of these freedoms, to which the revolution has been a revelatory, all but divine response: sicknesses that still glare hideously out of the dead body of an-nidham. Interestingly the one thing they have in common is the way they draw on existing and apparently ancient values which may not be undesirable in themselves but have not been holding up in the electronic age.

UGLY

The postcolonial legacy is similar to that of the Eastern Bloc (centralism, bureaucracy, thought control and Leader worship) – and like the “socialist consumerism” of Party hacks in eastern Europe, since 1970 in Egypt, the police state has lived happily with capitalist excess (since 1981, what is more, and I am not alone in thinking this, the Leader has had neither vision nor charisma).

What this means in practise is that people have to use the technically illegal implements of capitalism (interest and profit) while at the same time pretending to abide by a once meaningful grand notion (if not Free Education then some other benefit of the Virtuous State); hence the informal economy on the one hand (private tuition, to follow through the example) and, on the other, bribery, extortion, wasta, nepotism and the ability of businessmen to monopolise essential products.

Salaries at the state’s invariably overstaffed institutions are kept unrealistically low to provide for the accumulating fortunes of the top five percent of employees in most cases, and perhaps also to keep people busy making ends meet. The last long-standing chairman of the board of Al Ahram, for example, took a cut of advertising revenues for himself while the institution was plunging into debt, not to mention maintaining a private retinue with vehicles and bodyguards at the expense of Al Ahram. That chairman of the board was to Egypt’s strongest “national” press conglomerate precisely what Mubarak was to Egypt: an incompetent promoter of incompetence able to make unthinkable amounts of money in return for being meaninglessly glorified. Controlling the incomes of everyone as if they came out of his own pocket, locked to his position of power with impunity even after he has fallen completely out of touch, for decades on end he rendered his constituency little or no service.

Where interests clash, the law can be invoked arbitrarily by a powerful enough player at any time, interrupting existing modes of interchange but only to a specific, usually personal end. In itself, this generates a self-sustained system of policing where everyone is always by definition wrong and subject to punishment but where everyone is watching everyone else as well, not so much to catch them doing wrong as to catch them doing right: refusing a bribe, performing the task for which they are paid, standing by each other against injustice, telling the truth, daring to challenge state-stamped authority. All such technically legal acts, moving counter to the age-old preference for hierarchy, homogeneity and dependency, actually disrupt the totalitarian order; they delay tasks, they make trouble for individuals; they can ruin lives.

For 15 days among the protesters in Tahrir Square, while order was spontaneously kept from each according to his ability to each according to his need – while security was collectively maintained through ID checks and meticulous searches at entry points – while public services included effective rubbish collection and crime prevention, even the banning of obscenities from slogans and chants – while necessities were transported and distributed, resources divided, space claimed, down to the installing of outdoor bathrooms and the setting up of camps for sleeping in the rain – all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.

Kafka, as it turns out, is not the price that we have to pay for stability; Kafka is what the problem has been all along.

For Egyptians, I believe, this should be evidence that the sha’b can always get on perfectly without its nidham. There need not be hollow pyramids, doublespeak or universal sameness for Egyptians – Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble – to be able to live productively and peacefully together; and it is that ability, nothing else, that constitutes the greater good.

OLD

Last night there were fireworks in Tahrir. To see fireworks in Tahrir – and no one has ever seen fireworks in Tahir before – it took 18 days of uninterrupted protesting all over the country, the defeat and sudden disappearance of all security forces and the army taking over the streets on the third day, the deliberate disturbance of the peace and the spreading of rumours about protesters and journalists covering their protests – to maximum reactionary and xenophobic effect, the eventual entry on the scene of ruling-party militias and secret-service snipers attempting to disband protesters, some 350 dead and thousands injured, the very reluctant, silent stepping down of a very old president who has been implausibly in power for 30 years and whose family and private army of sycophants controlled and systematically robbed the economy, the eventual dissolution of the so called parliament and, oh yes, oh yes, a certain amount of constitutional emptiness in the meantime (constitutional emptiness is what the last-minute vice president and other government cronies kept invoking as an excuse to stop the president from stepping down, as if their nidham had ever respected any constitution).

The fireworks were not part of a ceremony as such, but celebrations in Tahrir since 11 Feb have been the closest thing to a true people’s ceremony in Egypt; the reason it occurs to no one to describe the celebrations as a ceremony is that the very notion (as in former communist states) has been hijacked by the state – and the state being what it was, ceremony was totally emptied of meaning. Even outdoor concerts routinely, unnecessarily involved vast numbers of Central Security (and they were not above harassing women in the dark). I would say this about a lot of things in Egypt besides the regime as such: religious experience, intellectual engagement, media discourse; all have been shells thoroughly voided of substance, and they acted to turn a predominantly young country into a little old witch of a lady: conservative, malicious, paralytic – a liar.

Some day soon, I hope, people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.

As yet people are only just discovering rights previously, mercilessly denied them – the right to be addressed politely by members of the police, for one relatively widespread example – rights they have been repeatedly told would undermine personal and public safety and national stability when in fact all they really undermined was illegitimate power. Such discourse, like the president, is very old; it belongs with an age during which, unjustifiable as it remains, state control could be justified by lack of information, populist will, a nationalist (anti-imperialist, or proto-Soviet) scheme.

Until a few days ago, agents of the former regime still had the nerve to call such extremely hard-won political participation sedition, lamenting the alleged necessity of bloodshed to prevent it, and to warn of foreign agendas directing events, when everybody knows that no Egyptian government has made it its business to incite sedition or implement agendas as much as Mubarak’s: evidence has surfaced that the former Ministry of Interior was behind the recent bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, for one thing; in 2006, in the name of the war on terrorism targetting Hamas, Tzipi Livni announced Israeli war crimes to be committed the next day against the people of Gaza from the presidential headquarters in Cairo; and while Gaza was being bombed, the government refused to open the frontier to injured civilians.

***

Of course, one condition for silence before sheer age - and age is venerated for its own sake in Egyptian culture – is the separation and isolation of discursive spaces. A poet, for example, can be a reactionary agent of the regime in one space (some official post at some division of the Ministry of Culture) and a prophet of radicalism in another (the almost never-read text). As a socio-economic being, that poet’s existence is circumscribed, sufficiently policed to make it either a mouthpiece of the status quo (opening up space for upward mobility) or a container of silence; it is rendered an organic part of an-nidham. Elsewhere the poet is left to her own devices, but confined to the space in which she has nothing in common with fellow citizens – the private, unconventional, oppositional, atheistic space in which poets have been locked up – she can only reach out to another poet. She too is afraid for her personal safety and what stability she might benefit from as a lone progressive lamb among the grassroots wolves.

In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together – and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which we reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance…

Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.

FATHERS

Psycho-socio-historians will have a bonanza in Oedipal readings of the 25 Jan Revolution: a work of art that should generate endless departures in the world of the mind. Egypt being the mother (and it was so called in one slogan drawing on traditional patriotic discourse), the absolute ruler – called an idol, a serial killer, a thief as well as a dog – was the hated father. Among the working classes in particular, patriarchy in the form of feeling sorry for “our president” continues to register. (It is easy enough to point out that, with his family fortune estimated at US$70 billion and so much innocent blood on his hands, our president can go to hell. Even if the patriarch were desirable, surely it would have to be a righteous patriarch who cared for his sons? And with references to filial duty consistently invoked in the context of the dirty fight to keep the regime alive – Goliath posing as David’s wronged begetter – I for one can only see respect for this patriarch as a form of eternal self-hatred, a denial of the true messiah, the vomit of treason.) But – and this remains the more relevant point, by far – 25 Jan was, as well as the defeat of the police, an occasion for patriarchy to vapourise.

Just like hierarchy, just like the false homogeneity imposed by the segregation of discursive spaces, patriarchy eliminating the life impulse completely broke down in Tahrir. Sexual harassment, a chronic illness that has dogged public space for as long as anyone remembers, was instantly and completely cured in Tahrir. Female participation, a supposed objective of both government and Islamists somehow never sufficiently realised, was patent and profound. Counsel was imparted irrespective of age but no viewpoint was imposed; and the stifling, father-headed structures of oppositional bodies of the past – modelled as they were on structures of power – spontaneously broke down. A revolution without leaders: the more precise description is to call it a revolution without fathers; even the fathers inside it were creative agents of freedom, the freedom of children, and their designation as fathers did not blind them to the ugliness that besets age when it is disfigured and corrupted.

The authority of the collective will eliminates fear. While the protests went on in Tahrir, patriarchy lived on in the myopic terror of “the popular committees” who, failing to realise that attacks on homes were orchestrated by the regime with the purpose of aborting the revolution, carried their kitchen knives and broom sticks outside and just stood there. For hours on end they moped, obtuse, at the entrances of streets and buildings; they formed checkpoints to search cars, mimicking the notorious checkpoints of the police. They were concerned about their private property first and foremost, and they often blamed the revolution for the threats to which they were subject. They acted tough, but it would take only a gun shot for them to piss themselves freely.

Patriarchy lived on in the attitude of parents who objected to their children participating in the protests, often out of fear for their safety, but just as often out of complacency and paralysis. Other parents brought their infants to Tahrir, painting their foreheads with the word Irhal – “Go away”. The parents of the martyrs gave speeches, urging the protesters to hold their ground.

One elderly gentleman – the father of three – sat next to me on the pavement at the Front, as we had taken to calling Abdulmoneim Riyad Square where the attacks of Black Wednesday were concentrated. That was on the next day, towards sunset, and it was very quiet on the Front. A young woman wearing a cardboard and tin helmet started chanting, “Down with Mubarak.” People were too tired to join in, but the elderly gentlemen kept staring at her, a smile of awe starting to form on his face.

Suddenly he turned to me and pointed in the direction from which the girl’s voice was coming. “You know,” he said. “When I see the likes of her I feel that I’ve wasted my life.” With a mixture of sorrow and delight he started laughing softly. “If she can do that at this age,” he muttered, “what does that say about people like me? When I see the likes of her,” he enunciated loudly, “I feel like a piece of crap.”

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Azazeel: Disillusionment

The Quixote Code
Remembering Borges, Youssef Rakha courts sedition
He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original… – Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
As a literary exercise – or novel – to imagine a diary composed 1,500 years ago: what could be more challenging to a contemporary writer? Few would think to accomplish the task as literally as Pierre Menard, the author imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his first short story, who rewrites Cervantes’ Don Quixote, word for word, without ever reading it. An author about to produce a 1,500-year-old fictional diary would certainly affirm the kind of human connection that makes characters in books interesting regardless of when the books were written and when the characters lived, but they might also be curious as to how different the world was so long ago, and the ways in which its difference necessarily affected the people they deal with. In the fifth century, for example, the earth was still flat, there was no such thing as penicillin, demons (whether Christian or pagan) had far more physical presence, and slavery was the norm.
But for Youssef Zeidan, author of the year’s most talked-about Arabic novel, Azazeel (or Beezlebub: winner of the 2009 Arabic Booker, upsetter of the Coptic Orthodox Church and, in Arabic-translation-of-Syriac-diary format, resuscitator of the fifth-century Levant), none of these things or the myriad others that separate us from medieval times have any part to play in the action or in thought processes of the characters. Zeidan treats the time gap simply as a technical obstacle, which he overcomes through the device of impersonating the present-day translator, into modern Arabic, of a fictional manuscript. This works for a while – even though at many points, Zeidan’s modern world view seems to burst out of the veneer of the manuscript – but eventually you realise that there is little if any engagement with the otherness or mystery of the past. The author makes no attempt to demonstrate the difference in people’s experience of time, in their sense of authority, in their capacity for spiritual transcendence or thier greater tolerance for bloodshed, sectarian bias, or material hardship. It is almost as if Zeidan is writing generic fiction, the early Christian setting no more than one among many possible palettes to paint the same, atemporal picture.
Still, Azazeel makes a compelling read, which is more than can be said for most Arabic novels published today; then again, generic fiction is by definition compelling. What sets Azazeel apart, in addition to the convincing impression Zeidan gives of an edited manuscript in translation, is the historical accuracy of the major events he covers and the accessible way in which he charts, in outline, the Christological debate between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, the latter condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 451. Not far into the book, however, Zeidan’s engagement with the universe he depicts begins to feel skin deep. Hipa, the protagonist, is less and less convincing – especially as regards his interactions with the Beezlebub of the title: an all-too-innocuous devil whose medieval identity, presumably different from that of the better known Satan or his Muslim cousin, Iblis, does not come through.
Hipa is a Coptic monk doctor who, on leaving Alexandria as it were in a huff, decides to take this name out of guilt over failing to stop (or indeed object to) the massacre by his fellow Christians of the Pagan philosopher Hipatia of Alexandria (AD 355-416), whom he admires – an event for which Zeidan blames Cyril I and which Hipa helplessly witnesses before he leaves the Alexandrine Church of Saint Mark monastery, travelling first to Jerusalem, where he meets an even less lifelike apparition of Cyril I’s archenemy, Nestorius and, on the advice of the latter, moves onto the minor monastery in which he composes this diary in his third language – after Coptic and Greek – north west of Aleppo on the way to Antioch. When you wind down and reflect after turning the last page, you feel Hipa might as well have been a present-day Muslim medical student at the Qasr El-Eini university hospital who, repelled by secular corruption and/or fundamentalist excess, decides (against the dictates of Islam) to live the life of a recluse treating men of religion at an out-of-the-way mosque clinic somewhere in northern Syria; so indistinct are the ancient dimensions of Hipa’s constitution, both material and mental – and so disinterested Zeidan in them.
It is in this context that you are tempted to ask why Zeidan, an Islamic studies scholar and a Muslim, apparently a believer, should choose to express his views on religious tolerance in the framework of the pre-Islamic past. The motivation behind Azazeel seems to have little to do with the world in which this precursor of Satan’s existed; and while the book testifies to immersion in texts and ideas of the period, it does not demonstrate a deep interest in the daily life of its people on the part of Zeidan (at least not to this reader). The motif of Christian brutality towards non-Christians – by far the most recurrent – can be read as a general statement on sectarianism (applicable, even, to Muslims); but why side so wholeheartedly with the one man the entire Eastern Orthodox world considers a heretic? Cyril I (a saint to Zeidan’s former friends at the Coptic Church of Mar Murqus, where Hipa supposedly lived so many centuries ago) may well have been capable of violence and dogmatism, but other than his being the underdog in the relentless march of history, there is no reason to believe that Nestorius, whether or not one agrees with his views, did not have it in him to commit the same crimes. The one line of thought that could justify Zeidan’s bias is the fact that the Muslim account of Jesus’ nature is significantly closer to the Nestorian.
Could it be that Zeidan is making a very roundabout statement about Islam’s theological difference with the Coptic Orthodox Church? Surely, then, in the Egyptian context, he is neither siding with the underdog nor – as the Booker jurors claimed he was – promoting tolerance. Perhaps the ultimate book of this learned and readable book is no greater than mud raking, after all.

All about our mothers

Watching TV at home, Youssef Rakha considers an Egyptian holiday’s message to society’s child-bearing half.


“Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day, Mama,” the woman spewed forth, her face taking up far too much of my TV screen. “Thanks so much for breast-feeding me for so long.”

The woman was too emphatically ordinary to be convincing as a representative of the Egyptian middle-class, and she stood in the middle of a supermarket which, like most stores on Egyptian TV, was far more spacious and better stocked than anywhere average Egyptians shop. She held the hand of a child named something like Ruba. “Ruba is with me here, ya Mama,” she added excitedly. “She too says Happy Mother’s Day and thank you.”
All I could do from switching off the TV was remind myself – this is only the commercial break. As I listened, I somehow did not soften to the thought of rapturous tears trickling down Mama’s cheeks (though you could almost hear her sputtering: “Ruba and her mother are on TV!”). Instead, I wondered what to make of the slogan in this all-Egyptian Mother’s day-special Pril detergent ad: “The sweetest Pril, for the sweetest mother.”
It has been eight weeks now since I moved back in with my mother. Pril or no Pril, I have been all but smothered by the bouts of irrational attention and excessive concern that now punctuate my life. It was natural that on March 21, the day when paeans to Egyptian matriarchy seep through public life more than usual, far-reaching thoughts on the subject would course through my head. Watching detergent commercials at home didn’t help.

Nearly five decades after the appearance on the silver screen of Egypt’s archetypal mother, Amina, the heroine of Naguib Mahfouza’s Cairo Trilogy, this is what we have come to: commercials that identify Egypt’s most valued cultural institution, motherhood, with a totally uninteresting imported product for sale, Pril.

I mention Amina because she is so often referenced and so seldom analysed. A recent post by Mohammad al Azraqi, a regular contributor to the online discussion forum ahewar.org, typified the way Amina is nostalgically celebrated as a model of the perfect mother and wife, unparalleled in her patience, “big heart” and “spotless morals”. Azraqi describes her as “a wife the way she should be” and “a true picture of woman in early 20th-century Egyptian society”. Such accounts are common.
For some reason, few people remember or admit (at least publicly) what Mahfouz’s Amina is really like: docile, ignorant, practically asexual, feverishly devoted to her children but incapable of understanding them. She is a prisoner of her household, where she does hard labour day in, day out, unaware even of the possibility of a different life. She is so obsequious and weak-willed that the one time she goes out without asking her husband’s permission – only because he happens to be away on business – she can barely stand up. “She had an oppressive feeling of doing something wrong,” Mahfouz writes. “Her gait seemed disturbed and unsteady, as though she had not mastered the first principles of walking.”
Amina soon faints from the overstimulation and heat, gets hit by a car, and fractures her collarbone. Terrified that her transgression will be discovered, she agrees to go along with a scheme devised by her children: when her husband Ahmad returns, she will say the accident happened within the house. But she cannot help giving herself away. “She would not be able to lie. The opportunity had escaped her without her knowing how.” As soon as she has healed, Sayyid Ahmad (as he tends to be referred to) banishes her from the household. Looking on his wife with eyes of steel, he barely refrains from issuing the capital punishment, divorce.
Never mind that Sayyid Ahmad is himself a double-faced household tyrant who projects perfect morality while spending his evenings with belly dancers and prostitutes, fallen women whom he treats infinitely better than his wife and children. Amina is not allowed to speak of this, and she doesn’t, not even to herself. And when Ahmad is prevailed upon to take Amina back into his house, she can barely contain her gratitude.
Economically and politically dispossessed, this woman is systematically cheated on, abused, exploited, then abandoned not because she disobeys but because she displays some will – the will to visit a nearby shrine, no more. She has no self-respect, let alone space in which to express it. She cannot raise an objection or voice a grievance, nor is she inclined to, even in the face of patent injustice. This is the Egyptian mother?
It is true, of course, that references to Amina in the popular discourse to which the Pril ad belongs may not be frequent or explicit. But just below the surface of Egypt’s contemporary social contract, which pays lip service to women’s lib (if only to encourage them to work and supplement their husband’s incomes), Amina lurks in wait for the slightest breach of accepted patriarchal norms. Indeed, if you talk to people in private, in situations where neither political correctness nor inter-generational defiance has any part to play, the vast majority of them, men and women, even express admiration for her, if not by name.
“To come home and not find the mid-day meal ready,” a friend recently complained to me, disregarding the fact that his wife’s job is just as demanding as his. “What kind of marriage is that?” One hears this sort of thing often.

Motherhood and Mother’s Day have always generated confusion in Egypt. March 21 is presented as a celebration of what is taken to be a feminine power, the power of selfless love (few images are as deeply rooted in Egyptian culture as that of a mother taking food from her own mouth to give it to her children). The discourse of the day emphasizes the wisdom, reliability and emotional generosity of society’s child-rearing half. But at the same time, it focuses almost exclusively on the woman’s role as mistress of her household: as Aminas.
In films, TV shows and advertisements (even court rooms) the good woman is still defined entirely in terms of her willingness and ability to provide men with comfortable living conditions. Hence the Pril ad and its message to mothers and wives: wash their dishes as efficiently as possible, making use of the latest developments on the consumerist front, all the while instilling the same values in the next generation. The mother is, disastrously for all involved, reduced to a manual labourer of love: a compulsive feeder, cleaner and clother.
Like all quasi-Platonic archetypes, Amina is of course non-existent. Contrary to Azraqi’s claims, it was extremely rare for women to be so housebound in early 20th-century Cairo; anyone who was would surely would have been murderously bitter about it. She is the worst kind of role model: one who only ever existed in a parable, yet has helped spawn real-life offspring. The new Aminas are everywhere in Egypt, though you may not recognize them right away, not even as they are being celebrated on Mother’s Day. But look closely next year: March 21 is not about working-class widows who struggle to put their children through school. It is not about giving women the right to go outside the house, or to have a job. It is not even about well-to-do sons buying their mother gold.
Women today are not only allowed to do the shopping, they are even allowed to appear on TV for everyone to see their bare faces (Amina would faint). They do so to tell themselves and each other, across the generations, that they exist to do the washing up, and to celebrate a product – the sweetest Pril – which might make the job easier.

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