For the Western media and Western policy makers, it seems the story of what’s been happening in Egypt is a simple one. Having deposed and taken into custody a democratically elected president on July 3, the army went ahead and forcibly disbanded two large sit-ins staged in protest of the coup, killing over 500 civilians on August 14, then hunting down the remaining leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and allied groups, whence both president and protesters hail.
Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.
Youssef Rakha considers revolution and Ramadan
Revolution gives way to security breakdown. The people vote for the Sheikh. The Israeli Embassy is ringed with protesters, but so—eventually—is its Saudi counterpart. False prophets take over Tahrir Square. Thousands die; millions grow beards. Previously unseen gods of the sect bless the public sphere with fatal ministrations. The traffic is worse and worse. Petrol shortages give way to mortal combat, but not before a president is elected do arbitrary power cuts set in, apparently for the good of Islam. It turns out the General has been in league with the Brother all along. The Dissident preaches self-hatred. Then, electricity allowing, the people gather before the television to see how 18 months of turmoil may have affected the content and style of the sine qua non of their yearly month of devotion: the serial drama. Somehow, in spite of the economic slump, social uncertainty and political depravity, the makers of programmes have been busier than ever. “Revolutionaries” are still in jail, incarcerated murderers of the “Islamic” stripe are being set free by presidential decree—but it is all about thugs and Israel.
Nor does it have anything to do with the Arab Spring as such. One thing on which Islamists and seculars may agree is that Egypt’s yearly festival of gluttony and comatose staring at screens would arguably look more like the holy month it was intended to be were it not for that unholiest of square monsters: the surface on which the ghosts of a given society tell that society what it is about. But it is interesting to observe how so called drama has developed in the wake of so called democracy. There is more swearing, more acknowledgement of unsavoury phenomena—the drug taking, the bribe receiving, the ballot rigging, the torture using—but none of these things is sufficiently thought through to feel remotely real. Shanty town thugs come across as downtown intellectuals, high-profile female lawyers as expensive prostitutes, activists as actors playing unemployed young men who are themselves playing at being activists. Upper Egyptians have still not mastered their own dialect; and, contrary to any evidence, sectarian tensions are still the rare exception to the rule of “national unity” between Muslims and Christians. Remarking on his failure to extract a confession using electricity, one State Security officer who looks and sounds like an employee of the Ministry of Endowments says, “I thought there might be something wrong with the wires.”
In one of at least two big-budget productions on the ever present fascination with “the Zionist entity”—the copy of a copy of a copy of something that may once have been entertaining or funny— comedy superstar Adel Imam transports the concept of Ocean’s Eleven into the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict (“our brothers in Gaza” notwithstanding): he is an Egyptian diplomat who gathers and commands a band of high-wire artists in various disciplines to rob a bank in Israel. Forget plausibility and deeper implications (how on earth would such a feat benefit the Palestinian cause, for Nasser’s sake?): the stink raised among “the Enemy” by Imam’s absolute ignorance of Israeli society and the callousness with which he is treating Judaism is threatening to develop into a diplomatic crisis in its own right. So, having been mistaken for a hero of secularism earlier in the year, while the president denies writing to Peres and Peres shows the world the president’s letter to him, counterrevolutionary Imam may yet be mistaken for a hero of nationalism.
For some 24 hours now, every time I switch on my television, a message takes up three quarters of the screen: my Showtime subscription has expired. If I do not renew it immediately – so the white-on-grey writing tells me, in no uncertain terms – the service will be discontinued in five days. Five days, I cogitate: Why should this be happening exactly 45 days before I am due to leave the country? It is as if some incredibly ironic force is timing things so that, having decided to leave Abu Dhabi, I must go through the traditional Egyptian mourning period of 40 days, whether I like it or not.
It does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, so long as you are Egyptian: the Arbaein (or, literally: the Fortieth) is strictly observed. When someone dies, that person’s family and friends are supposed to grieve for 40 days, after which a ceremony marks the point when they finally let go of their loved one. Afterwards, instead of “May your life give you solace,” people start saying “May you live and remember.” But in the meantime, no festivities can take place; if a wedding has been scheduled, the wedding has to be postponed. Often – whether out of respect, ill humour or moroseness – people also refrain from switching on their TVs.
I am thinking that perhaps, by depriving me of Showtime, Abu Dhabi is asking me to mourn it – or, more precisely, to mourn the person I have been while living here. After all, in the course of the last 24 hours, during which I kick-started the pre-departure procedures at work and at my bank, that person (my Abu Dhabi avatar) more or less officially died. And my finances and professional schedules being what they are – among other things, I have a lot of reading to do for outstanding books reviews – I will not renew my subscription. Mourning, then, my last 40 days shall be.
Yet there is a cheerier way of reading the situation: I have been released of my bondage to the screen. For nearly a year now the television has been on in my living quarters far more frequently than I ever thought possible. I am hard pressed to say whether this is directly related to Abu Dhabi, but the person I was before I came here (my Cairo avatar) hated television. AD-me is a TV addict; C-me is not. So it startled me to hear my Ethiopian cleaning woman remark, on meeting AD-me at the beginning of the end of his lifetime, that I do not watch enough TV. She didn’t seem to appreciate that I spend more time with Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart, Mitchell and Webb and the cast of Married with Children than with real people.
Elena entered my life through my preferred Ethiopian Jebena coffee shop, a few steps away from my apartment. This was several weeks after the great Senthil – my podgy Tamil bellboy from the Ramee Garden who, after I found my apartment, I hired to be my indispensable purveyor of general order – went home to Madras, where he has ended up staying far longer than he said he would. (Will he ever come back? I doubt it.)
I did what I could in his absence, “could” being a euphemism for “could be bothered to do”. When the disorder became unbearable, I began to ask my Ethiopian waitress friends over Jebena if they could introduce me to someone who would “sawwi tandhif,” as I said in pidgin Arabic: do cleaning. Enter – eventually – Elena the Eritrean:
Reticent, efficient, spick-and-span and outwardly severe, Elena comes and goes under the cover of an Emirati abaya heavily scented with Arabian aromatic oil, which she takes off to work, revealing a T-shirt and sweat pants. Sometimes, if she is not in too much of a hurry and I have asked her enough times, she takes a TV break, drinking Nescafé while I sip my Turkish coffee (which she deems so inferior to Jebena that she brings her own instant coffee along) and telling me a little about her life and TV preferences.
I suppose it is only natural, given how the television is always on at Ethiopian cafes and homes, that Elena finds my television watching insufficient. But she also takes issue with my preference for comedy channels, regards Family Guy as just another children’s cartoon and once told me that she sees action and horror as the only genres worth exploring. This suggested to me that she was far less severe than she seemed, and I rushed for the remote control, but Fox Movies had neither Alien vs. Predator nor I, Robot – two films that channel seems to show on a loop and I thought she would like – and ShowMovies Action was showing a mawkish 1970s number in which the monster, as Elena pointed out with a pitying smile, looked like a blow-up toy.
In the end, AD-me switched back to Family Guy, and Elena left the room.
That night, C-me appeared in my dream. He was a sort of superhero hunting down his double, whom he identified simply as “my TV twin” (as in “where is that renegade TV twin of mine?”). The chase was like an action film and a horror film in one, complete with video-game sound effects and sudden shifts of viewpoint. The double, whom I knew to be AD-me, never appeared until the very end when he fought C-me in a laser-beam duel on what looked like the roof of the Hilton Baynunah. AD-me was about to lose irrevocably when he leapt from the roof, held onto the rampart and cried out: “Eleeenaaaa!”
An Ethiopian-looking, black-clad superwoman flew onto the scene holding a silver shield that kept C-me’s beams in check while AD-me recovered to fight another day (or, more accurately, another five days); “I told you,” the superwoman kept telling the panting, all-but-vanquished, cartoon-loving survivor. “I told you to watch more action movies.”