On Literature

    Revolting or Writing?
    The Impact of Turbulent Times on Writers

    How does a writer with political awareness respond to Egypt’s turbulent political tides? How does he keep his head above water and avoid being swept along with the current? How does he manage neither to become solely a political animal nor to turn his back on politics entirely? Saad al-Kirsh takes up the machete of words in an attempt to slash his way through the political-literary jungle.

    In January 1991 I asked the late Egyptian writer Youssef Idris why he was avoiding serious writing in favour of the polemics he wrote in his weekly articles in Al Ahram newspaper, which, if put together in book form, would probably prove longer than all his collections of short stories, from The Cheapest Nights to A House of Flesh. I thought he might be reluctant to face up to the fact that his best years were in the past – the years when he rebelled against the prevailing type of story writing, brought an end to an era of literary blandness and laid the foundations for a new, unprecedented narrative school. He told me without regret, ‘If you were taking part in a demonstration and people were chanting and the police were chasing them, would you go off into a remote corner to write a short story?’ He didn’t give me a chance to reply. ‘Even if you have total peace of mind, people are bound to attract your attention when they appeal to you and distract you from “writing”,’ he added.

    The same day he also said, ‘I’m not a writer by trade or profession. I want to change the world.’ But I realised that, although the man was confident he had a role that went beyond literature and culture in the narrow elitist sense, he did think that his weekly articles reflected a principled and enlightened position and sent a message by which he addressed the moment, even if they were not a form of writing that would achieve immortality in the same way as other human creations.

    Youssef Idris’ literary revolution succeeded but his appeals have gone unanswered in the public sphere outside literature. That aspect of his work appeared in several works, such as The Importance of Being Cultured and The Poverty of Thought, the Thought of Poverty.

    After Youssef Idris the literary scene lacked a ‘star writer’, except for temporary stars manufactured by commercial publishers to satisfy the demands of the market for reading fodder for a season or two. They then looked for someone else to save readers from boredom. The scene also lacked a major critic who won respect, a ‘local boss’ who had the courage to call for a campaign against the unemployment that had encouraged some people to resort mistakenly to writing; someone who also had the integrity to suggest that semi-talented people go and look for other work, and to expose the inadequacy of shallow or Orientalist writing. I’m not suggesting that anyone be deprived of the right to be published; rather, I am calling for critical awareness that treats light literature as light literature, so that people who have just started reading are not confused into thinking that a mirage is water.

    Childhood in poverty

    In this context, writing becomes a personal matter for the writer – a form of training in the perpetration and enjoyment of beauty. And because I’m a fatalist who doesn’t plan anything, this is a chance for me to look back on a life and career that has been long enough for several people and several lives. I can see the boy that I once was, holding a stick to guide my donkey, his hands stiff from the cold, blowing into his hands to warm them up so that he can hold the scythe to cut the clover for the animals. Working in the fields made him late for school assembly. I can see how he learned by chance, without anyone noticing, although his mother, who was illiterate, was eager that he should pursue his studies. I remember that child when he had become a boy and had just started secondary school, in about 1982, in a time when getting to the Cairo Book Fair was a dream that could be made true with just one pound, but even that was impossible: the pound and the dream. I can see that child and I look behind me and heave a deep sigh as though I’ve lived a hundred years and I can’t believe that that child, who has lived a life like a fairy tale, now has friends – people and places – across the continents.

    I sneaked into the word of ‘writing’. Coincidence played a part in my completing my education. I was only a step away from escaping basic education, had it not been for my mother, who passed on to me a love of storytelling. Another coincidence drove me to write the stories down in a form that people called short stories when they read the drafts. Many were enthusiastic about them being published, starting when I was a student at Cairo University. I didn’t plan anything, as far as I remember, and I didn’t dream of changing the world, and I didn’t claim that I had an ambition I was trying to achieve. I’m not interested in finding a definition of ‘writing’. It’s enough that it has a magic that fascinates me and makes everything else seem redundant. It makes me feel that I am above life, richer than anyone else, doing something more important than any job, and this has proved true.

    I sneaked into this world and sometimes I laugh at myself, even make fun of myself, and imagine that some priest of the literary world is going to tell me to leave.

    I have an aversion to pretence. I don’t like flabbiness or cosmetic embellishments, on faces or bodies or in writing. I can’t claim to be creative or revolutionary. I have written things and people said it was literature, or sometimes an evocation of a city, and I have taken part in a great event that I thought was a revolution, though I’m not saying other people don’t have the right to call it what they like. Recklessness often leads me into danger. People urge me to play roles that should be theirs, and then back out or watch the reactions, and I don’t regret the result or apologise. I have often lost, and lost many people too, but I don’t care about the outcome. On the Day of Wrath, 28th January 2011, the hardest and most beautiful day in my life, Mohamed Abla took a picture of me at about seven o’clock in the evening. We had managed to reach Talaat Harb Square and we faced a minor battle to get to Tahrir Square. He laughed and said, ‘A picture for history, next to this great man.’ (He pointed at the statue of Talaat Harb.) I never saw the picture, and whenever I reminded Mohamed Abla of it he laughed and made promises. There’s also no picture of me in Tahrir Square throughout the eighteen days that brought the reign of Hosni Mubarak to an end, except for one picture that Abdel Razek Eid sprang on me when he sent it to me on 14th June 2012. It seems to have been taken at dawn after the Battle of the Camel. There’s a tank behind me with a soldier on top, and thick darkness around several faint street lamps in a street leading into Tahrir Square.

    Hunger for publicity

    I have never written the immortal phrase ‘When I was in Tahrir Square...’ or said it in a broadcast programme, and I didn’t invite my children to come to the square until after Mubarak stepped down. They came to celebrate, and arrived early on the following day, which would have been 12th February 2011. Throughout the demonstrations, and the protests and the clashes that followed, I didn’t write that I was on my way to such-and-such a place, and when I came back I didn’t say I had taken part in such-and-such an event. I remember Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, the seventh-century Arab often described as the first Muslim socialist, and I envy him and love him. I thought it a good omen whenever I found myself in a group where no one knew me and I didn’t know anyone. Then I felt confident that the revolution would continue and that it would triumph, because these people were seeking revolution, justice and freedom. They were honest and were not hungry for bread or for publicity.

    Hunger for publicity ruins many things. On 5th June 2013, I wrote a statement of protest by intellectuals in the Ministry of Culture. There were about twenty of us, I discovered later, when I went over the signatures on what was the only statement written during that protest. There wasn’t time to write it on a computer and I was careful to formulate it in a few lines summarising our demands. The rest of the page was left empty for signatures but the rapid success of the protest induced people who were indebted to the Mubarak regime and its policies to jump on the bandwagon and try to take it over. Myths would later be invented, such as when one woman proudly told me, at the birthday party of a friend in the Café Riche, that she was one of the people who had stormed the ministry. I hadn’t seen her on the first day, nor maybe the second. I smiled, and she mistakenly assumed that I was endorsing what she said. It was almost as contradictory and incompatible as what we were consuming at the party – beer and birthday cake.

    As usual I don’t have any pictures of the protest, except for one picture that Osama Afifi took with his phone when Soheir el-Murshidi was reading the statement I had just finished writing. With the noise and the camera lights as people jostled to sign the statement and have their pictures taken at the protest, it was no place for those who prefer the shadows, who are comfortable in the company of those who believe in revolution and do not boast about having ‘stormed’ anything. Yet again, I protested in the street and I remembered Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, and that Sumerian poet who said, in ancient times, ‘We poets are driven out of this world.’

    Now, after four years, I have discovered that I wrote a lot. I finished my novel Washm Wahid [A Single Tattoo] on 8th January 2011. Then there was the succession of events, with wild twists and surprises, and even after Mubarak was overthrown I never imagined I would write anything about the revolution. I had taken part like any other citizen. I don’t claim to have predicted a revolution or to have any special knowledge. In my book Revolution Now: Diaries from Tahrir Square, before narrating the daily events, I wrote a chapter entitled The Road to the Revolution: An Apology to Every Egyptian, in which I revived what I had written on my Facebook page on 25th January 2011: ‘In a state that is very old, with a bureaucracy that is 4,600 years old, the political system becomes sponge-like, absorbing demonstrations and protests, as it proved to be in 1977 and 1986. I propose that sensible people gather ten million signatures, for example, and guarantee the president a safe exit – leaving power but not leaving the country, in a way that isn’t followed by any prosecution or ridicule ... at least for the rest of his life. That would be a simple solution that might get us out of this impasse.’

    I ended that introductory chapter with this confession: ‘I admit that I did not think highly enough of the capabilities of the Egyptian people, the giant that stirred, and so I must apologise.’

    Chronicle of ups and downs

    I wasn’t interested in the temptation to meet the demand for writings on the revolution. I wrote with pleasure and candour. I recalled scenes that I had written about and I couldn’t contain my tears. I didn’t write on behalf of the revolution or for the sake of ‘writing’. I was just myself and I chronicled my ups and downs, my hopes and disappointments. I made a commitment to be honest, indifferent to the superlatives that interested some people – that they should write the first book that documented the events of the revolution, for example, or the first novel inspired by those wonderful eighteen days that changed the face of Egypt.

    I was interested in evoking the spirit of those days, the days of innocence, and I wrote my account in the book Revolution Now with painful honesty. This is a book, a testimony for history, that I am proud to hold in my hand. Revolution Now developed out of a book that was never completed. I began that book in August 2010 and gave it the title Words to the President … Before the Farewell, and I had in mind Youssef Idris’ book In Search of Sadat and Safinaz Kazim’s book Baghdad Diaries: 1975–1980.

    I began writing before anyone had any idea that in days to come Egyptians would unite around a single goal, until they discovered that they were divided into factions struggling for power. I wrote it out of affection, and writing in general is an emanation from friendly souls, and if that spirit is missing it becomes something artificial and dry – just words. I didn’t intend to be critical or vindictive, because writers should stay aloof from settling scores. I told myself to be accurate, to record an aspect I knew or had seen and had heard and to attribute everything properly and not to pretend to be a hero. I imagined myself in the presence of the gods: Maat, Thoth, Osiris and Isis. I shut my eyes and confessed. I called things and people by their real names, and told my friends that a witness in court does not receive a fee, and that I was in a hurry to publish the book even if I had to print a hundred or two hundred copies at my own expense and give them away to people for free, then and there while the people that the book mentions are alive. I’m not a judge to pass judgement on anyone or any political position. I left that to the reader and to time. I merely laid out the details that I knew, as a witness who had sworn not to lie and had given his testimony, because ‘anyone who withholds it is sinful at heart’.

    Then I realised that God loved me and loved my book more than I had expected, and the book was published in instalments in a newspaper, in the lifetime of people who had borne false witness in the time of Mubarak and who had started to die. The first edition was sold out in a few days because it was so cheap (more than four hundred pages for four Egyptian pounds, or about fifty U.S. cents), but the second edition showed that the book was no longer just an account of an important event; it had become a commodity priced at forty pounds, rising later to fifty pounds.

    I apologise to every Egyptian that, like many people before the revolution, I was worried it would be accompanied by such chaos and violence that it would leave nothing standing. But in the first days of innocence the revolution revealed a core of civility that had been concealed by the swamp in which Mubarak and his governance had allowed weeds and poisonous moulds to grow and from which many people had tried to escape as individuals. The challenge was to ensure that the writing was worthy of the revolution and was true to the revolution’s inventiveness and spontaneity. I wanted to write ‘in the revolution’, not ‘about the revolution’, to complement what the world followed from above with details for which the cameras could not capture the undulations, or the spirit that inspired people to share dreams, fears, nights, cigarettes, loaves of bread, cups of tea, laughs, hope and a safe place to meet. In Tahrir Square a young man could feel safe about his wife or his girlfriend in the crowd because she was among family, even if he did not know their names.

    I shut my eyes and wrote. I knew that a witness shouldn’t make compromises or try to balance things out. I don’t like the phrase ‘I have nothing to lose’, which some desperate people use to claim spurious courage, and I had much to lose – ‘things that can’t be bought’ – and so I was candid in the extreme.

    I now discovered, through writing this testimony, that I had written a good deal and I was waiting for the day when I could give up writing about public affairs and go back to a novel of which I had written several pages in January 2014. I wasn’t busy with politics but I was obliged to take an interest in extraordinary transformations that only a godlike figure could understand with any certainty. I didn’t have the luxury or the serenity to seek out a quiet place while storms raged in the streets and the flame of the revolution was in danger of being extinguished, with the police reverting to their old brutality to take revenge for being humiliated and defeated on the Day of Wrath.

    The pleasures of the poor

    I hope that my writing on public affairs makes good reading even when it does not attempt to address immediate needs. I am not inclined to pamper or mislead the reader. I come to him or her with all my doubts and I lay myself bare, because I am not one of those people of strong religious, nationalistic, revolutionary or humanitarian convictions who give themselves the right to issue fatwas declaring others to be religious, nationalistic, revolutionary or humanitarian infidels, especially at a time of hysteria when those who speak for Islam are quick to declare people infidels and political spokespeople stand up in public to issue superfluous wisdom and judgements. About such people George Duhamel said, warning of the passion for politics in his 1937 book Défense des Lettres, ‘Politics and love are the pleasures of the poor in France, free pleasures. Ordering something in a small café costs money ... but politics doesn’t cost anything. It is intoxicating and arouses emotions and brings surprises. It feeds on all desires, especially the most base, and appeals to empty spirits.’

    What I see now in Egypt, and maybe in the Arab world, reminds me of something that François Truffaut said: ‘Everyone has two professions: his own profession and film criticism.’ Although I have followed the developments and the heartache of the Arab uprisings, I’m not in a position to cast judgement on them, and I’m amazed to see Arab Orientalists who are happy to pick up news or rumours and, before verifying them, are able to issue judgements with enviable boldness and certitude – boldness and certitude that are unjustified if it is about something happening in the Gulf states or protectorates that finance their platforms. Duhamel (1884-1966) was right when he advocated that politics should be placed ‘in the hands of the professionals’: ‘When the populace, willingly or unwillingly, has to devote good time to political questions, then it seems to me to be in state of decline. Political fever has afflicted people who should have stayed well away from politics by virtue of their tastes. (It brings) … deep and dangerous disruption to our social life.’ In other words, it’s a frightening disease.

    When I write about public affairs, I avoid commenting on the news and ephemeral events because they are like a destructive fuel that wastes time and creates stress. I look at the ideas that underlie appearances. I avoid insulting individuals or countries, even if I’m talking about the destructive effects of people who have caused strife, such as Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab, Hassan el-Banna or Sayed Qutb, and honesty does not prevent me from criticising the government when it vents its wrath on people other than the religious right.

    The psychological flaws that afflicted the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists did not spare four representatives of the revolution on the secular side, each of whom thought himself entitled to the presidency. The revolution turned their heads and led them astray, and they refused to sit down and agree to choose one of their number as the candidate of the revolution. They kept trying and they thought they were doing the revolution a favour. They all lost and they didn’t listen to a statement headlined ‘Before It’s Too Late … An Appeal to the Four Leftist and Democratic Candidates’, written by Ahmed al-Khamissi and signed by more than five hundred intellectuals and other people who cared about the revolution and the country. The statement urged them to settle on a single candidate to muster all possible votes behind him against obscurantism or the return of the old regime. If that had happened and the candidate had not won, for whatever reasons, at least we could have said that we had done our best and we had tried. The statement called on them ‘before it’s too late’ to agree amongst themselves on one candidate, especially as the differences between the platforms that the four candidates offered were not vast. And if they didn’t do so – if each of them preferred to cling to the ambition to win the presidency, then we begged them after that not to go on and on to us about leftist politics, democracy and the country’s concerns, because all of that was at stake and they threw all of that aside. They didn’t attach any importance to what people said and each of them drowned in the delusion that he alone could win, by his own efforts or by a miracle which wasn’t going to happen. It said that if they didn’t agree on one candidate, the elections would result in victory for Ahmed Shafiq, who represented Mubarak, or for Mohamed Mursi, who represented the reactionary forces, and in that case we would hold them responsible for the result and we wouldn’t listen to any claims from them, either collectively or as individuals, about rigged elections or the power of money and vote-buying, because from the very start they were split, and they threw away their chance and with it our own chances. We had often heard the four leftist or democratic candidates – Aboul Ezz al-Hariri, Hamdeen Sabahi, Hisham al-Bastawisi and Khaled Ali – saying how they listened carefully to people’s voices, and yet when people spoke to them, were them listening? Did any of them have the grace to answer this message?

    Babel of voices

    On 13th May 2012, Khamissi sent them a copy of the statement, but it didn’t arrive. Or perhaps it did arrive, but the four losers thought that all four of them would win. On 28th May 2012, the result of the first round was announced: Aboul Ezz al-Hariri had 40,090 votes, Hesham al-Bastawisi won 29,189 and Khaled Ali had 134,056 votes, compared with 5,764,952 for Mohamed Mursi and 5,505,327 for Ahmed Shafiq. Farcically, supporters of Sabahi rushed to Tahrir Square the same evening, along with Khaled Ali hand in hand with Kamal Khalil. The two losers felt no shame in objecting to a result that disappointed millions of people and put to end to their presidential dream.

    Objecting was a joke in itself, an overt rejection of the democracy that had exposed the insincerity of the religious and secular right. But stranger than strange, and inconceivable to any sane person, was the suggestion that Mohamed Mursi should withdraw in favour of Hamdeen Sabahi, so that the run-off round would be between Sabahi and Shafiq.

    It’s hard for me to ignore this babel of voices. I see it as a travesty that has infected both the religious right and the secular right – the remnants of a fundamentalism in different forms and shades. One of the virtues of the revolution, when it welded the people together and made them highly politically-aware, was that it brought these maladies out into the open and cast them aside as dross.

    I look behind me and it surprises me that I have written weekly articles that put a distance between me and a reality that breaks one’s heart. Writing gives me a margin that prevents me from getting involved in the mire of politics. Ahmed Mustagir, the geneticist, couldn’t take the outrageous Israeli attack on Lebanon in July 2006: he died of grief. I was close to the film director Madkour Thabet when his heart was broken, losing hope in Egypt. He saw it heading in a direction from which it could not return for twenty years. He died of grief at Brotherhood government in January 2013.

    I’m waiting for my assignment as editor-in-chief at Hilal magazine to end. I’m waiting to give up writing articles. I’m waiting for Egypt, whose revolution has gone astray, to find its way again. I’m waiting to go back to ‘writing’, and until that comes about I don’t want to meet the fate of Khalil Hawi, the Lebanese poet who killed himself when the Israelis entered Beirut in 1982.
    Saad al-Kirsh is the editor of the Egyptian literary magazine al-Hilal, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the Arab world. His numerous books include a chronicle of the revolution, al-Thaura al-An [The Revolution Now].

    Translated by Jonathan Wright

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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