Tourab Amsheer | The Windy Month

At the blog Not Quite Moi, alibey writes a poignant portrait of an aging Egyptian writer:

to get to Tahrir he has to pass through a hole in a concrete wall erected by the army to stem the tides of demonstrations but the scribe must get to Tahrir Square, as the world knows it, but to him it is still and will always be Midan Ismail, not that monstrosity with the red granite monolith, thankfully now long removed, yes Midan Ismail, ever so elegant it was, Ismail the rightful name of Midan el Tahrir before it was taken over and renamed by a fraud if ever there was one

sad but the scribe has spent that last few decades since his one glorious moment, which he no longer remembers except vaguely, something to do with a reworked version of the story of Keiss and Laila, but he has forgotten writing it, he has even forgotten where it is in his library, his own book, and so wanders about his large mother’s apartment in Garden City looking for something but does not realize it’s the book he once wrote

and so he goes on, sleeping in the very bed his mother died in, looking out the same balcony window (which she referred to as the balkone, in that charmingly old-fashioned Ottoman way of hers), where she saw him carted off to prison in ’67 by Nasser’s goons, because he dared to say that something which he can’t remember now in his favorite beer parlor and the Secret Police overheard it

but all that was long ago and now he mostly wakes up at 4am and shuffles between his various fridges, obsessed with moving unneeded kilos of once fresh spinach, still with dirty roots, and wrapped securely in plastic bags, from one fridge to the another, not to mention all his other foods, which he boils regularly late at night, and which have been so long in the fridges that they are quite difficult to identify

and now a soldier lets him through the hole in the wall and now he is walking to Tahrir in order to get to Bab el Louk and sit down in Café El Horreya as he has always done yes this is his custom

he tried recently, always trying, helpless, to make sense of the animated mural of aegyptianess before him, the roving bands of thugs, the prostitution and drug selling in tahrir, the boys who attacked him in front of the same French Lyçée where he studied long ago

Egyptian intellectuals, revolution, and the state

One of the most surprising and troubling developments of the last six months, for those of us interested in cultural as well as political life in Egypt, has been the alignment of the overwhelming majority of prominent artists and writers here with the military-backed authorities against the Brotherhood, with the endorsement of state violence and the abandonment of pluralism and human rights that that has entailed. A few recent pieces have focused on this troubled intersection between between art and politics, nationalism and liberalism. 

At Jadaliyya, Elliot Colla writes about Sonallah Ibrahim's novel al-Jalid ("The Ice") which came out January 25, 2011.

Like these other novels, al-Jalid is concerned with Left revolution—its defeats, its disappointments, its erasure—in Egypt and across the globe. And of all Ibrahim’s novels, al-Jalid is his saddest. Lacking the laughter of his other works, it offers little more than a laconic lament, a shrug, about the passing of so many revolutions. More than once, as characters walk through the Moscow winter, Shukri says, “And we walked across the ice…” The protagonist plods on silently, surrounded by “comrades” but also alone, the only sound being that of feet scuffling cautiously over cracking ice. The image is an apt one for describing the increasingly slippery and cold ground on which the Egyptian Left began to tread from 1970 onwards. With these unsure steps, al-Jalid ruminates on the failure of most every revolution the Egyptian Left ever believed in, and with that, it seems to mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution itself.

[…]

What does it mean to read Ibrahim’s latest novel as a satire in this sense? For one thing, it allows us to begin to recognize the author's deep skepticism toward the revolutionaries' proposition that another world is possible. Al-Jalid elaborates a form of Left pessimism, a Marxist, anti-imperialist critique of injustice and oppression, but without the utopian promise of justice or emancipation.

This is how Ibrahim, presumably, viewed things in the late Mubarak years. Recently, it is the great writer's lack of skepticism -- his belief that the Egyptian army is "standing up to the West" and to a US-Brotherhood conspiracy -- and his willingness to overlook, even condone, police brutality, that has shocked some of us

Meanwhile, on the New Yorker's site, Negar Azimi writes of Alaa Al Aswany's embrace of June 30 and describes a recent literary salon in Cairo:

When it finally came time for questions, a young man in a hoodie got up and, with prepared notes in hand, made a series of statements about the crimes of the Army, ending with the massacre that took place in Rabaa al-Adawiyah. At one point, he said to Aswany, “Ask yourself, do they have the right to kill innocent protestors?”

Aswany—probably thinking, “This again?”—seemed taken aback. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he said, defensively, “but anyone who kills a member of the Army is a traitor … The Muslim Brotherhood has blood on its hands.” He reiterated a point he had made earlier in the evening: even though many of Egypt’s Communists had spent years in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prisons in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, their party never turned to violence. “They didn’t touch a mosquito,” Aswany concluded. The Brotherhood, he seemed to suggest, had violence in its DNA.

At that point, a well-dressed woman, with elaborately pomaded hair and a tight-fitting top, turned to her friend and said, loudly, of the boy in the hoodie and his female friends, who were veiled: “They are with the Brotherhood!”

One of the veiled women took issue, and soon, everyone seemed to be standing, pointing, and shouting. I saw a few elderly people in the room slip out, probably anticipating a fistfight.

Both Al Aswany -- a star public intellectual and writer of blockbusters -- and Ibrahim -- a revered experimental writer with great political and moral cachet -- exemplify the position of most of Egypt's muthaqafeen, who have gone from cheering the Janurary 25 revolution to cheering General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Their positions shows not only the deep animosity that (for some justifiable reasons) exists between the cultural class and Islamists; it also shows how most intellectuals here continue to see themselves as guardians and spokesmen for an idealized strong state which they may criticize and oppose but which they cannot imagine life without and which they will rally to if persuaded that it is under threat. A point that is well-made in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "Fractures among Egyptian Writers," which begins: 

As repression grows in Egypt in the name of the "war on terrorism," eminent intellectual figures, nostalgic for Nasserism and often of the Left, have proclaimed their support for the army. This generation of elders is opposed by writers and artists who reject the return of the "deep state" and the betrayal of revolutionary ideals. 

 

 

Egyptian writers and revolutions

"Black, not noir," is how our friend Adam Shatz describes Sonallah Ibrahim's groundbreaking debut novel Tilka El-Reiha, which has just been translated -- along with Ibrahim's early prison diaries -- by Robyn Creswell as The Smell and Notes from Prison

Readers of the blog will know that I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's (I'll post a profile of him I wrote a few years ago, on the occasion of the English translation of his autobiographical novel Stealth, at the end of this post). Not only is he one of the most original and talented writers of his generation, but he is also one of its most principled. What marks both his writing and his politics is a startling, almost compulsive honesty.

Shatz looks at the relationship between Ibrahim's prison memoirs (he was incarcerated by Nasser, in his early twenties, for being a Communist) and his fiction, and at the literary, personal and political influences and traumas that find expression in both. 

Only faint echoes of the cause that inspired Ibrahim can be heard in That Smell. An old comrade of the narrator’s rhapsodises about the masses, but seems to lack conviction, and this is the last we hear of the revolution. In occasional, italicised flashbacks, Ibrahim pays tribute to the solidarity the party created among its members, the small kindnesses that made prison life more bearable. On a visit to the wife of a comrade who died in prison, the narrator remembers sitting in the back of a police van while her husband sang ‘snatches of an old love song over and over’. He doesn’t share this memory, because just at that moment his friend was given a beating and taken away: ‘that was the last time I saw him.’ She asks if her husband loved her, and the narrator replies that he did, but also thinks to himself: ‘What could I say, what was the point of going into it after it was over, and who knows what goes on inside another person anyway?

Apart from these flashbacks, That Smell takes place in the dead zone of the present, ‘after it was over’: ‘it’ is the experience of a generation of Egyptian leftists who rallied to Nasser’s revolution only to find they had nowhere to go other than prison or exile. ‘The narrator’s stupor,’ Creswell writes, ‘is the daze of depoliticisation.’ But the narrator isn’t the only one wandering around in a daze. The conductor on the metro stops to ‘put a lump of opium in his mouth and sip some tea. Lucky man, I thought. He’d found a way to live that let him put on a brave face.’ Images of death and disfigurement are everywhere: on the street, a dead man lies ‘covered with bloody newspapers’; a pretty girl the narrator notices on the train turns out to be missing a limb. Even those who have found happiness, or what they’ve been told is happiness, seem doomed: his brother’s wife won’t have sex with him unless he pays her; his friend Samia, now a wife and mother, is ‘stuck for ever. There was nothing to do but submit.’ Desire is consummated with something like satisfaction – or honesty, without the pressures of marriage or the need for cash incentives – only when members of the same sex are involved. Ibrahim has spoken obliquely of his own relations with men in prison, and writes in his story ‘The Snake’ that after prison one comes to see ‘everything as normal’. The lack of normalising judgment, much less homophobia, in his work stands in contrast to, say, Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, where gays are represented as sex-crazed, dandified predators.

For some reason reading about Ibrahim made me think of this very powerful (and fantasmagorical) piece of writing by novelist Youssef Rakha. It's in a completely different register from Ibrahim's affectless chronicle of alienation (and it uses global consumerism -- the destructive reach of which is a theme of Ibrahim's later work -- as an international vernacular). But it also captures a different moment of political disappointment, which in this cases produces enraged flippancy rather than numbness. I have to quote at some length: 

You’ve been in Cairo six months, you say. So you know: first we agitated on Facebook. We set a date, a time, and a venue for a big demonstration. Tahrir Square, yes. The riot police killed some of us, and we had an even bigger demonstration. That day they killed so many we ended up occupying the place—millions of us, eventually—protected by the Army. And what were we protesting? Brutality and bureaucracy, control and corruption. Plans to make the presidency a hereditary post, the way it is in Syria. Not, you understand, the conditions of Islam. The plight of the Umma was not on our list of grievances; if anything, we were angry because we didn’t feel we were part of the non-Umma. When we realized something was happening we called it a Revolution, the second, must-see episode in the Arab Spring series.

That was January–February, 2011. And, until February–March, 2012, when it became obvious that our protests were playing into Islamists’ hands and I fell prey to despair, I was deeply involved: as a tweep, a chant-author, a maker of improvised anti-tear gas masks, a field hospital doctor (because, even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m still a medical student hoping to graduate some day). I was there for every demonstration, every portable slaughterhouse. I saw bodies dismembered by corrugated wheels and blunt swords gashing heads. I hurled stones at people in uniform. I chanted. And that’s how I got the name Che Nawwarah, after the Communist icon Che Guevara. He too was a failed physician. Though now that I’ve read about him, I suspect he was only a fanatical psychopath, a serial killer with pretensions.

The protests started to feel like voluntary sacrificial rites to help the bearded bastards get more power, and I stopped going. I didn’t even try to warn my comrades because I knew they wouldn’t listen. In my despair I could tell the mini-inquisitions were round the corner. Already strangers ruled over us, worse than the tyrants of before. Now that the Islamists were identified with the Revolution, there was no one that would deliver us out of their hand. We would be getting our bread with the peril of our lives because of the thug’s sword. Good Muslims would hang by their hands—not only metaphorically, either—and, by sexual harassment, premature marriage, and female genital mutilation, the women of Cairo would be ravished, so would the maids of the Nile Delta. The faces of true human beings who spoke out would not be spared—but wait! I should explain the difference between Muslim and Islamist in case you’re not an operative and don’t know.

Most Egyptians are Muslim by birth. Many practice, but until the hijab became ubiquitous in the nineties, you could hardly tell. The Islamists are the ones who carry Islam on their person the way you carry an electronic gadget on the subway. From months of study I’ve decided that they don’t stand out in any other way, except maybe by hating women and Christians, foreigners like you and so-called liberals like me. They just have pre-cultural Bedouin beliefs that they call Islam. And they flaunt those beliefs in a range of brands: Nokia-Jihadi (kill the infidels), Samsung-Salafi (kowtow to the autarch and marry as many as four circumcised nine-year-old girls at a time), Apple-Muslim Brotherhood (win elections, win more elections, and win still more elections). . . . The Islamists were the ones who, unbeknown to us, somehow, inherited the Revolution.

Finally, here is my profile of Ibrahim, who better than any other writer in Egypt articulated what was rotten in the land:

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