Don’t shoot the jester

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In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.

Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.

Imam, who in his works and statements alike has never demonstrated intellectual depth, had—along with other pro-Mubarak stars who failed to support the revolution—been aptly compared to a court jester. Since he rose to fame in the early 1970s, in his film vehicles and his cabaret-style plays, there was rarely any attempt at profundity beyond bland blanket support for the poor and the man on the street. There are of course exceptions, notably Mohammed Khan’s 1983 Al-Harrif (The Pro) and Sherif Arafa’s 1992 Al-Irhab awl Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). In the latter, as in many films starring Imam, there is a harsh critique of corrupt religiosity and the association of terrorism with Islamic militants. It was under Mubarak, while the jihadist threat was being contained by State Security, that Imam made his greatest contribution to the portrayal of Wahhabis (later called Salafis) as terrorists posing a threat to society; this was of course in line with state policy.

Yet in many of his best-known plays—from the hilarious landmark Shaid mashafsh haga (A witness who saw nothing, 1976, five years before Mubarak came to power) to the inconsistent Al-Zaim (The Leader, 1993)—Imam provided scathing critiques of the police state and dictatorship (which he was of course careful not to associate with Mubarak off stage). Indeed many of his jokes were actually deployed in the verbal fight to bring down Mubarak in Tahrir Square even as he turned his back to the uprising. The use of such jokes was unavoidable as they had become ubiquitous. In fact Imam contributed to the shaping of spoken Arabic in Egypt, and much of that contribution (whether intentionally or not) was politically subversive.

The Fool is brought to trial not by a new and revolutionary King, however—whom I suspect would have honoured him, anyway—but by the insufferably Dark Ages-oriented Clergy whose power the revolution has facilitated. It is a question that we must ask ourselves as Egyptians, regarding Imam’s predicament as much as any number of issues: To what extent can support for the revolution be a measure of moral worth under the circumstances? And to what extent does political Islam have the right to inherit the new Egypt? Perhaps Imam is no tenable role model, but perhaps he should not be made to do hard labour. And if he is in any way punished, it had better be for his political position—not for failing to kowtow to the bearded inquisitors.

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.

Link

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Late February. “Some day soon,” I wrote, referring to festive demonstrations in Tahrir Square after Mubarak finally stepped down, “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.”
5 August. On the way to Bab al Louq, my taxi passes a throng of Central Security officers at the site of “the Revolution”, their unassuming black caps spattered with the bright red berets of Military Police. Facing the stalling cars, soldiers line the edge of the main traffic island, the kernel of the by now dreaded Sit-In. Like well-fed orks from two different clans of Arda — army conscripts, all — both Central Security in black and Military Police in desert camouflage are shielded, armed and ready to strike. In and around the sickly myrtle trucks parked everywhere — those evilmobiles forever associated with the violent appropriation of public space, now bolstered up by army deployments — there are many, many more of them: why this desperation to deprive the young, the socially and politically conscious and the ethically inclined of using public space they are entitled to by birth?
***
Craning his neck dramatically the way taxi drivers do, to look at nothing in particular, my driver suddenly remarks, “Something’s up” — no kidding! Later that night, I will find out about the needlessly vicious disbanding of an open-air iftar outside Omar Makram Mosque; earlier in the day a symbolic funerary march in honour of the Martyr of Abbassiya was likewise violently blocked from entering the square: and a good portion of the public have wholeheartedly supported the use of force: “Hit hard with ‘the electric’ to scare the enemy,” one participant in the iftar testified to hearing Military Police personnel bark urgently at each other as they charged.
As it is, I am thinking, the business of collective self-expression is left to that all-male adolescent mob leisurely crammed, for lack of anything better to do on a Ramadan evening, behind the rails of the pavement, shrieking and running idiotically while they fawn over the soldiers from afar. Individual rights are not an issue, not even for the revolutionaries of a few months ago themselves.
Grunting an expression of sympathy to the driver, I listen to him vent his impatience: “They should calm down, for God’s sake. The army took Mubarak to court to please them — what more do they want? Can’t they let the country get on?” He is referring to protesters; it strikes me that it is they, not the menacing usurpers now literally overrunning Revolution, that bother him. “Who would have dreamed of seeing Mubarak and his sons behind bars,” he says, echoing a huge majority of Egyptians. “The army has been good, they should let justice take its course.”
***
I too have seen justice, I am thinking: the Historical Moment everyone is so excited about. I have seen the grotesque spectacle of an octogenarian, seemingly drugged, brought into a court room lying down (no doubt only to be acquitted in due course). It was a patently unnecessary pose, as it seemed to me, which served to strip Mubarak of what rags of dignity he might still have on. With the faux patriarch were his two prodigal sons, once scourges of the economy and democratic process simply by virtue of being the strongman’s progeny. In this Society the head of state is idolized regardless of his credentials, and his sons have absolute impunity: Society gives it to them voluntarily, as it voluntarily cleans religion not only out of spiritual but also out of moral substance, marginalises or casts out its best human assets, turns political opposition and intellectual activity — culture, into CV-building exercises, morally and materially liquidates difference, and relinquishes people’s basic birthrights.
They are standing at attention in white prison garments invented solely for cronies of the official mafia, the two prodigal sons, surrounded by some of the top brigands in the torture-reliant extortion gang known as the Ministry of Interior. Between a distinctly unimposing judge bumbling his Arabic grammar and Mubarak’s singularly eloquent lawyer, scores of more or less ridiculous ambulance chasers jockey for a few minutes of rhetoric. One of the two sons holds a Quran. Looking impassive as ever, his hair freshly dyed, Mubarak desultorily picks his nose.
For this, while no one is allowed to loiter in Tahrir Square, the martyrs died.
***
I too have seen the patriarch and the prodigal sons, the brigands and those who protect them, and I have seen the so called revolutionaries shedding tears of joy over the Historical Moment. But it is the iftar, ending with electroshock batons and “the enemy” running on the asphalt, that I keep thinking about. I think about the iftar and the significance of the trial, the capacity of even the most highly educated and politically conscious people to say that they are grateful to have lived to see it happen, adding — in the same breath — that events reflect a vendetta between Mubarak and powerful figures in the army (not, it is to be surmised, the will of either the revolution or the people). The motherland, then, remains unchanged:
Emotional response is one thing, political analysis another. Moral responsibility is lost somewhere in between.
I think about the iftar and I think about those who died, how we will always have their blood on our hands — the Optimists especially — and how the grotesque spectacle of the unnecessarily prostate octogenarian is the lie by which we convince ourselves that we have avenged their deaths; vengeance, of course, being the object, not the rights they died standing up for.

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