Reading Sonallah Ibrahim’s last two books, Youssef Rakha suggests an early Wittgenstein-style formulation of the kind of literary problem Bonaparte’s Campaign to Egypt might present
1. An Arab novel can be written about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801).
1.1. At first sight, this is perfectly self-evident: a novel in Arabic (or by an Arab writer) can be written about anything at all. But an Egyptian novelist writing about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, responding to a particular colonial legacy from the position of the colonised.
1.1.1. Bonaparte’s failed bid to take Egypt and Syria was intended to safeguard French trade in the Middle East and obstruct the British route to India. What it achieved was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the 22-volume Description de l’Egypte, as well as bringing the first print press into the country.
1.2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, a response to both the left-wing idea that the campaign abused Egyptians and the right-wing idea that it propelled Egypt, a nominally Ottoman province ruled by feudal Mamelukes, into the modern age.
1.2.1. It was in the wake of the Campaign, and at least partly as a result of it, that the Ottoman general Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849) founded the modern state of Egypt and Greater Syria, establishing not only a precedent for non-European modernity but also the basis of an Arab commonwealth in the Middle East, one whose energy and foresight initially made it a stronger world power than the Ottoman empire.
1.3. A novelist who has chosen to write about the Campaign will probably have political as well as literary motives.
1.3.1. Whether he agrees with him or not, it is likely that he will seek historical counsel with Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti (1753-1825), whose canonical chronicle, Aja’ib Al-Aathar fil-Tarajim wal Akhbaar (better known in English as Jabarti’s History of Egypt), remains the principal Arabic reference on the topic.
1.4. Already, these conditions moderate the notion of a novel considerably.
1.4.1. However else defined, a novel should remain fictitious, it should present individual characters in the process of change; it should make no concessions to a predetermined view of the forces affecting their lives.
1.4.2. The Arab novel as exemplified by its celebrated practitioner, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), has seldom had a political agenda. Even when it is intended as a statement on a historical period (Al-Karnak, 1974; The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), even when it is generically historical (Rhadopes of Nubia, 1943; The Struggle of Thebes, 1944), Mahfouz’s novel never presents history as a debate in which the writer might take sides (however representative or typical of that writer’s national identity the side he takes).
1.4.3. In this respect, Mahfouz follows in the footsteps of many 19th-century Russian and (ironically in the context of this tractatus) French masters of the novel.
1.4.4. To a greater or a lesser degree, younger (so called Generation of the Sixties) heirs of Mahfouz like Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) were too morally or intellectually bound by historical grand narratives and political positions to practise novel writing with the same degree of political detachment.
1.4.5. Ideas of and about history affected these writers’ work to varying degrees, transporting much weight from the individual to the collective and from the shifting consciousness of a character in history to the fixed consciousness of the writer as a possible agent of historical change.
1.5. These ideas underpin what modification of the novel has taken place since Mahfouz. Apart from the more universal registers of Marxism, they have tended to converge on the image of an abused nation shedding the tethers of colonialism. Novelists like Ibrahim were, to use a word that did not yet exist when the Generation of the Sixties emerged on the scene, postcolonial.
1.5.1. In contemporary Arabic literature, “the Generation of the Sixties” remains an amorphous term, but with Ibrahim, at least, it is safe to define its significance in terms of a response to (the failure of) Arab nationalism, the earliest reflection in the language on what independence from British rule in 1956 and the emergence of a populist military dictatorship could mean for ordinary Egyptians.
1.6. Ibrahim’s standpoint will automatically favour the idea that the Campaign abused the people over the idea that it facilitated the emergence of Muhammad Ali’s commonwealth.
1.6.1. Its socialist dimension prevents him from sympathising any of the relevant historical parties – Ottomans, Mamelukes, French, British – since none of them can be identified with the people.
1.6.2. Its nationalist dimension precludes a positive view of the cultural intermingling and ethnic multiplicity those three years made possible even as he depicts them, since it prioritises the political significance of the event in them-and-us terms (the “us” in question being an undifferentiated and ultimately mute majority).
2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is likely to be written from a Generation of the Sixties standpoint.
2.1. This is because only a “postcolonial novelist” like Sonallah Ibrahim is likely to write such a novel.
2.1.2. A writer who is interested in neither the position of the colonised in general nor the French colonial legacy in particular – or one who is interested in these topics in a less prescribed way – cannot write such a novel without undermining basic precepts of Arab nationalism (in however sophisticated or watered-down a form these precepts may now be expressed) and in so doing he risks being called a traitor.
2.1.3. Such a writer is unlikely to find the subject of the Egyptian Campaign immediately appealing or directly relevant to the process of pronouncing fictitiously on contemporary Arab life anyway.
2.2. However disinterested in Jabarti per se, Ibrahim will peruse Aja’ib Al-Aathar to corroborate his standpoint. His novel Al-Amamah wal-Qubba’ah (The Turban and the Hat, Dar Al-Mustaqbal,2008) takes the form of a newly discovered manuscript – the secret diary of a fictional 18-year-old student/scribe of Jabarti’s who lives with the historian and works at one of the Campaign’s “scientific” centres in Cairo.
2.2.1. Somewhat too conveniently for comfort, and often sounding a far more modern note than would be expected of a person from Jabarti’s era, this unnamed chronicler has an affair with one of Napoleon’s courtesans, comes in close contact with the Coptic collaborators seeking independence from the Ottoman-Mameluke stronghold, and befriends the Syrian student Suleiman al Halabi – the assassin of Napoleon’s successor in Egypt, General Kléber – who will eventually be impaled on a stake.
2.2.2. Though he achieves a prose very like the 19th-century historian’s – creating a contemporary correlative of the relevant parts of the chronicle – Ibrahim reads Jabarti’s life and work with an agenda.
2.2.3. Jabarti, rather than being a source of inspiration as such, acts to bolster up a predetermined grand narrative in which the Ottomans (including Muhammad Ali) were holding back the people, and the French through a mixture of brute force and immoral guile exploited and abused them.
2.2.3. Jabarti himself becomes party to all manner of political scheming, hiding and replacing versions and/or parts of his own chronicle when he realises the Ottomans will replace the French as the Mamelukes’ conquerors of the day. (This is the moment directly preceding Muhammad Ali’s arrival as part of the Ottoman army.)
2.3. From a historical standpoint, as a student of Jabarti, it seems easy to contest this view of the genesis of the modern Arab nation. Yet it is equally easy to understand it – even, to some extent, sympathise with it – once Ibrahim’s standpoint is taken into account.
2.4. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different or less predetermined standpoint is to demand that he should not write about the Egyptian Campaign.
2.4.1. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different standpoint and still write about the Egyptian Campaign is to demand that Arab intellectual consciousness since the mid-1950s should change radically (that it should shed all vestiges of nationalism, for example).
2.5. Such demands are historically impossible.
3. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign can only say so much.
3.1. This becomes especially clear in Al-Qaanoun Al-Faransi (The French Law, Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2009), a kind of sequel to Ibrahim’s novel Amrikanli (Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2003) in which the Cairo University historian protagonist of the latter, Dr Shukri, travels to France to participate in a conference on the Egyptian Campaign with a newly discovered manuscript by an apprentice of Jabarti’s.
3.1.2. That manuscript is The Turban and the Hat.
3.2. That an Arab novel about the Campaign can only say so much becomes clear in The French Law in a number of different ways.
3.2.1. One of these is that, without the pretence of being an 18th-century history student who happens to be sleeping with a lover of Bonaparte’s, Ibrahim’s political observations are far more resonant.
3.2.2. “The reason for all the problems we suffer in the Arab world,” Dr Shukri tells his colleagues during a meal at one point in the course of his trip, “is that we did not manage to establish an advanced national industry. At the beginning the Ottomans divested us of the kind of human and material resources that go into the accumulation necessary for the move into the age of the machine, and after them came the French and the English. Every attempt we made, the West immediately aborted.”
3.2.3. It is beyond the scope of the tractatus to advance an argument against this line of thinking. Such an argument is not only possible but necessary.
3.2.4. If they are neither Mamelukes nor Ottomans nor quasi-Ottoman proteges of the West, who are the “we” Dr Shukri refers to? Where would that advanced national industry come from, if not through the very colonies he sets out to critique? What might modern Arab consciousness be identified with beyond the peasants who had no role to play in the unfolding of history except through an originally Ottoman army?
3.3. Here as in Amrikanli, Dr Shukri stands in stark contrast to both his morally (for which read politically) compromised Arab colleagues and the more or less racist Westerners he comes in contact with.
3.4. As in The Turban and the Hat, from the aesthetic if not the intellectual point of view, the clash between east and west is most poignantly portrayed in an interracial amorous or erotic encounter.
3.4.1. Dr Shukri’s encounter with Celine, who does community work with the children of immigrants, is a strong expression of that clash. The two characters’ growing closeness is melodramatically and somewhat unconvincingly cut short when on Dr Shukri’s last night in France Celine, who has by then confessed to having breast cancer, gets drunk, becomes increasingly aggressive, and gives in to a seemingly irrational rage directed at Dr Shukri.
3.4.2. Celine not only dismisses Dr Shukri’s statements on postcolonial politics as so much rubbish, she also confesses to hating the children of immigrants with whom she works. (This seems a somewhat crass way of dismissing Western pretensions to equality and the desire to benefit humanity at large, regardless of race or creed, even though one might understand the urge to dismiss such pretensions).
3.5. The Turban and the Hat ends with the image of Dr Shukri waking up at 5 am to prepare for his return to the homeland – only to find that copy of the conference programme on which he had written his address for Celine to have on the floor outside the door to his room.
3.5.1. “I picked it up to find a line in pencil beneath my address… ‘My response is precisely that you are a naive, backward human being.’ I put the programme in my handbag and proceeded to the lift with heavy steps.”
4. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign cannot go beyond that image.
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