Ahmad Zaghloul Elshiti, Saqr Abdelwahid and Youssef Rakha
“Writing,” says Hussein bin Hamza in the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar, “that brings back to our minds the eternal question of the danger posed to literature by grand issues and fast-paced events…”
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.