Egypt: Literature and revolution‏

CultureRights & dissent

From Sonallah Ibrahim to Mohammed al-Fakharani, to Mohammed el-Bisat and Alaa al-Aswani, writers were part of the pre-revolutionary ferment of the past 10 years. Their works have described police brutality and increasing social inequality, and they often made women the voice and symbol of resistance to the establishment. Through their writing, they contributed to the emergence of a discourse critical of reality.

Poetic anger

Since, with a great collective momentum, Tunisians and Egyptians drove out their dictators, the “Arab awakening” is all over the media. But with all the rapturous paragraphs being written about ‘the Youth of Facebook’, years of resistance are often forgotten. Resistance such as the struggle of tenant farmers against rent deregulation in 1997; the one million demonstrators in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada in October 2000; the occupation of Tahrir Square on March 20, 2003 against the US invasion of Iraq; the launch of the ‘Kefaya!’ [Enough!] Campaign against Mubarak’s new mandate in 2004; and the general textile workers’ strike in Mahalla in the Egyptian Delta, in December 2006, followed in April 2008 by a popular uprising in the same city.

During this turmoil over the past 10 years, writers did not stand on the sidelines. In October 2003, Sonallah Ibrahim caused a controversy throughout the literary and cultural establishment when he refused an honour awarded to him by the Supreme Council of Culture. In the presence of the Minister, he said he could not accept a prize (worth LE 100,000, approximately €12,500) “granted by a government that, in [his] eyes, had no credibility to do so.”

Corruption and torture

For those familiar with Ibrahim’s work, his stand is consistent with the themes of his novels, of which at least two can be considered critical allegories of Mubarak’s Egypt, “active participants in reading and writing a collective reality,” in the words of literary critic Samia Mehrez. In Zaat (1992), a middle-class woman struggles with the ordeals of daily life, a victim of the economic liberalisation which has caused prices in Egypt to skyrocket. The chapters which tell her story are interspersed with juxtaposed vignettes which immerse the reader in the mismanagement and corruption which have become commonplace. In Sharaf (1997), a youth accused of killing a foreigner who tried to rape him comes of age in prison. During his first days behind bars, he experiences the methods of police investigation under Mubarak: stripped, handcuffed and hung from the ceiling, he is beaten, whipped and electrocuted: he eventually agrees to the version of events put forward by his tormentors, who accuse him of murder.

We find this torture scene in dozens of other works, from Yusuf al-Qaid’s ‘War in the Land of Egypt’ (1978) to ‘Zahret al-Bustan’ by Khaled Ismaël (2010). But it is through The Yacoubian Building (2002) that it has had the greatest response. Taha, the son of a doorman, is refused entry to the Police Academy because of his father’s trade. He is arrested during a demonstration at the University of Cairo, and is raped and tortured by a police officer seeking to make him confess to Islamist political activity. Alaa al-Aswani’s best-seller, adapted to both film and television, and translated into 27 languages, owes its success in part to the panorama of social ills it discusses, and which were at the heart of the revolution – from youth unemployment (represented by Buthayna Taha and his bride, who works in a clothing store) to the dizzying corruption of businessmen linked to power (portrayed in the character Hagg Azzam).

If Aswani is not an ‘opposition veteran’ like Sonallah (who can also boast of writing what is known as ‘prison literature’ because of its descriptions of Nasserist jails), it has not limited the criticism of authoritarianism and nepotism in his novels. He also used his fame as a writer to advocate his views in a newspaper column. With other novelists, including Muhammad al-Busatie, Radwa Ashour, Mahmud al-Wardani, he signed in 2005 the communiques of the Association of Artists and Writers for Change, which came out against Mubarak’s new presidential mandate.

The echo of collective anger

If the works of Ibrahim Aswani do not leave much room for hope, with the rise of the Kefaya campaign and related social movements, the theme of collective resistance made its way into Egyptian literary and artistic works. In ‘The Shocking Line’ (Fasel lil dahsha, 2007) by Muhammad al-Fakharani, the protagonist leaves his home in the slums to protest in down town Cairo, where he meets other individuals from elsewhere in the city. Poetry – punctuated by music, drama or simply recited – formed part of the through line and militant agitation of “the first Egyptian cartoon strip,” ‘Metro’ (see this previous Mashallah News article). Created by Magdi al-Shafii, Metro is partially constructed around the 2005 demonstrations against the constitutional change which ultimately delivered Mubarak’s new presidential mandate.

Writers have echoed this resistance, which, from the dramatic sit-in by judges rejecting the authority of the executive in 2006, to the women’s marches against the lack of drinking water in the village of al-Birilus in 2008, became increasingly vocal over time. In Istassia by Khairy Shalaby (2010), a woman cries every night for her son, victim of a senseless murder. With perseverance, defying the annoyance and discomfort of the whole village, she manages to win over the narrator, a lawyer and son of a prominent and influential sheikh. The illiterate Coptic woman convinces the Muslim Efendi to confront a web of corruption involving members of his family, and to preference justice over tribal and religious alliances, with the encouragement of his wife and mother. It is a theme which does justice to the essential role of women in Egypt’s social movements, from the 1919 revolution against British occupation to the fall of Mubarak in 2011.

Whether they are made desperate by the weight of daily life as is Zaat, or resigned to the least among miseries like Buthayna, like Istassia an icon of resistance against injustice, women are at the heart of Egypt’s novels of anger. The multi-voiced structure of ‘Hunger’ by Mohammed el-Bisat (2011), emphasizes the courage the heroine, who struggles to ensure her husband and son their miserable daily pittance.

If all these literary works reflect Egypt’s lack of social justice (one of three central grievances of the revolution), Sonallah Ibrahim’s in particular elaborate a critical discourse pointing firmly to market economics as the force responsible for class inequality. Through a complex narrative structure, placing the story at the heart of fragments of reality which are normally mangled in the press, Zaat dissects the practical consequences of neo-liberalism, whose introduction in Egypt is intrinsically linked to corruption and which has created an enormous crevice between rich and poor. In his critique of this system, Ibrahim was the forerunner of the present workers’ struggles, who have begun to organise into independent unions formed during the revolution. The accuracy of his judgement confirms that beyond their personal engagement, these authors have through their works participated in an exposition of reality which would prove decisive in the battle against Mubarak’s regime. They are equally vital in the battles to come, in order to ensure Egypt’s future does not resemble the society described by Ahmed Khalid Tawfiq in Utopia. Set in 2023, this novel portrays the residents of a ‘gated community’ whose principle entertainment is hunting humans in the city, which has been transformed into a giant slum. A futuristic vision against which there is no better antidote than the ‘Days in Tahrir.”

Written by Dina Heshmat, published with the courtesy of Babelmed and translated by Erin O’Halloran.

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