So like a bit of stone I lie Under a broken tree. I could recover if I shrieked My heart’s agony To passing bird, but I am dumb From human dignity. – William Butler Yeats
Dumb from human dignity
Youssef Rakha refuses to assess the cultural life to be expected
So like a bit of stone I lie/Under a broken tree./I could recover if I shrieked/My heart’s agony/To passing bird, but I am dumb/From human dignity. – William Butler Yeats
After the first round of presidential elections, the bleak prospects facing Egyptian society since the revolution have become apparent – with the incumbent, largely fake polarisation between the former NDP and the Islamic-style NDP (aka, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party) consuming far more energy than it is really worth, all things considered. This is due, as much as anything, to the failure of “the civil forces” representing “the revolutionaries” to coalesce into an effective political front – if not to compete with the two blocs, one of which, that supporting the SCAF-cum-former regime candidate Ahmad Shafik, is detracted far more consistently than the other: the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi – then to provide the revolution with adequate representation in society at large. Aside from the fact that culture has been relegated to a secondary and less visible part of the stage, it is hard to see how or why the cultural and social renaissance promised by 25 January might happen in the foreseeable future. Yet the vapid polarisation has transferred itself into cultural circles too, and much intense argument has taken place therein.
Feeling that Mursi (being, if only temporarily, against SCAF) is the candidate who must be closer to the revolution or the one, at least, who does not represent a mere extension of the Mubarak regime, many have felt morally obliged to vote for the Brotherhood. From the viewpoint of culture this would seem to be the easier standpoint to discredit. Art, literature and the lifestyles associated with them have been the most frequent targets for Islamist attack; and, though it may be argued that the Brotherhood – conservative as it remains – may generally be more or less sensible, it is also clear (from the experience of Tunisia, if nothing else) that a Brotherhood monopoly on power would provide adequate cover for all manner of less civilised and less enlightened practitioners of political Islam to attack and, with various degrees of social and security support, eventually abolish contemporary cultural practises. Most writers, artists and performers would be subject to charges of offending public morality if not contempt of religion or even apostasy. Most would have to work outside official and mainstream spheres. Judging by Brotherhood attitudes, performance in parliament, and Freedom and Justice-controlled media, what is more, the Mursi choice poses serious issues for freedom not only of creativity but also of expression: women, journalists and other gauges of a functional public sphere will be at best marginsalised, at worst criminally persecuted.
Following this line of thought, equally many intellectuals – those not too wrapped up in blind loyalty to an increasingly irrelevant “revolutionary moment” – have opted for the opposite choice, seeing Shafik – the military man with a propensity for Bushisms and Bush-like (more or less fascist) statements – as the only possible safeguard to “civil society”. Notwithstanding the stark irony of military dictatorship once again posited as the answer to a quasi-theocratic threat, such writers and artists purposefully forget that it was under Mubarak, his predecessors and, especially, technocratic aides to him like Shafik – and partly as a result of intellectuals allying themselves with a repressive, short-sighted and incompetent regime out of concern about the spread of political Islam in a society given to repression, prurience, piety and double standards – that Brotherhood lies about the greater good took root, identifying (otherwise rightful) dissidence with social Islamisation and enabling Islamists to instantly occupy the “democratic” space generated by the revolution. That is not even to begin to explain how the regime is economically, politically and (to some extent) socially responsible for the power (and, especially, the victim’s power) of Islamists among the grass roots.
As culture minister for life under Mubarak, even a reportedly gay expressionist painter like Farouk Hosni occasionally agreed to ban books published by the ministry in response to legal cases filed by then banned Brotherhood MPs. What liberal margin existed under Mubarak eventually resulted in the revolution, but it had not been wide enough to nurture viable alternatives to the military-religious pincers holding political life in place. Hosni is but one example of how the regime, while presenting a liberal façade to the world at large, was actually just as traditional – repressive, prurient, pious and immoral – as the Islmists. As a writer I am deeply concerned about the kinds of censorship and aggression that may develop under the Brotherhood, but I would be engaging in self-delusion if I was to believe or claim that Shafik in power will protect me against such censorship or against any other form of suppression. What is missing from Egypt is a vision for life, including culture. And wherever it comes from, that vision will never come from either arms- or religion-based, ultimately corrupt identity-based power. It will come from a presumably ever widening margin not of protests as such but of social liberalism, whatever form it takes and whoever it happens to be under.
The question remains of what is to be done about the elections. Proactive and community-aware attitudes have resulted in boycotts and strikes being totally ineffective all through the last year and a half. Yet as far as culture goes, at least, the only humane position to take remains refusing to participate in the travesty of democratic transition to which the revolution has been reduced by political power.
Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century
An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”
Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:
The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”
The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.
In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.
This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.
Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.
Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.
In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).
Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.
Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.
Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.
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