The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution
By John R. Bradley
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 John R. Bradley
All rights reserved.
A FAILED REVOLUTION
A short walk from the American University in Cairo, through the bustling downtown streets of Africa's largest—and the Arab world's most populous—capital city, is a shabby little café called Al-Nadwa Al-Saqafiya. A hangout for Cairo's embattled community of liberal intellectuals, its wooden chairs and tables spill onto the street outside. The animated voices of customers compete with the constant honking of car horns; the orders operatically delivered by white-jacketed waiters are met with a chorus from nearby street vendors' repetitive cries. Smoke from the water pipes intermingles with exhaust fumes from the gridlocked traffic. It is a microcosm of contemporary Cairo: traffic congestion, noise pollution, and a social vibrancy created by a people who, despite the chaos engulfing them (or perhaps because of it), love nothing more than to engage in animated debate in public spaces about the trivial and the profound. In the winter of 2006, a movie called The Yacoubian Building was taking Egypt by storm as I made my way to Al-Nadwa Al-Saqafiya to meet up with Alaa Al-Aswany, author of the novel of the same name on which the movie was based. The most expensive Egyptian film ever produced, it features many of the country's established stars, and in its opening weeks broke all Egyptian box-office records. Set in a once-grand apartment block in the historic downtown district of Cairo, not far from Al-Nadwa Al-Saqafiya, the kaleidoscope of characters represent the various strata of Egypt's complex society. A central character is the building itself. It is a poor shadow of the splendor of its 1930s and 1940s' heyday, during what is known as Egypt's belle époque. The building's deterioration points to Egypt's own sad, steady fall from grace during the more than five decades of military rule since the July 1952 coup that overthrew the British-backed monarchy and brought to power Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers. With its near-barren cultural landscape, where the once-great but now heavily censored cinema industry churns out endless slapstick comedies, the movie exposes with unusual eloquence the grim reality that daily confronts Egyptians. Sexual decadence and political corruption permeate the world in which the characters move. Pimps, whores, petty tricksters, and professional con men with high connections vie for a share of the spoils of a declining nation now suffering the nightmare of a twin curse: free-fall privatization from above and the spread of Islamization from below. The rich in this portrayal of Egypt get ever richer, and the poor ever poorer. The middle class, meanwhile, has all but disappeared—and along with it any hope of social advancement based on a good education and a willingness to work hard. Radical Islamists prey on the vulnerable and the destitute abandoned by the system. The urbane and educated are trampled underfoot by mafia-like thugs known in Arabic as the "war rich"—better translated into English as "fat cats." This is a country from which almost all the young people long to escape, their last hope for a better future to leave their loved ones and travel in search of work and dignity.
* * *
Each Thursday Al-Aswany would meet up at Al-Nadwa Al-Saqafiya with friends, fellow intellectuals, and admirers of his novel to discuss the latest political and cultural developments in Egypt. Admirers he had aplenty. Even before the dramatic success of the movie made his name as an author internationally, The Yacoubian Building had been the best-selling novel in Egypt and the wider Arab world since its publication in 2002. Many had gone so far, somewhat prematurely, as to crown Al-Aswany the successor to Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian author and Nobel Prize winner. Mahfouz, whose novels were also made into popular movies, died in a Cairo hospital in 2006 after a long illness following an assassination attempt in the early 1990s by an Islamist extremist, which had left him unable to write. In his late forties, with the neck and forearms of a prizefighter, Al-Aswany's name indicates that his family originates from the magnificent southern Egyptian city of Aswan, the Nubian heartland. His is an unpretentious, welcoming manner, suggesting (again like Mahfouz) that he had not let his newfound fame go to his head. He has lived in America and France, and is fluent in English, Spanish, and French, in addition to his native Arabic. A dentist by profession, he set up his first practice in the eponymous building in downtown Cairo that is fictionalized in the novel. Oddly for a dentist, but like most of the Egyptian men I have met, he is a chain-smoker. As I introduced myself, to break the ice he cracked a joke about cross-cultural integration—the theme of his latest novel, Chicago—after noticing that I smoke the local brand Cleopatra while he clutched two packets of his preferred American cigarettes.
There were about fifty people gathered at the coffee shop that chilly evening in the winter of 2006. I sat in the back row, an observer rather than a participant. They passed around a microphone hooked up to an amplifier that allowed each to be heard above the traffic din outside. The discussion, which Al-Aswany opened with a short speech, was dominated by the fallout from a recent comment by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. He had said that the wearing of the veil, ubiquitous in Egypt since the early 1990s and resisted now only by the country's Coptic Christian minority, was a sign of "backwardness." The backlash against Hosni had been as tedious as it was merciless, proving nothing more, it struck me, than the validity of his assertion. Muslim Brotherhood MPs joined those of President Hosni Mubarak's own ruling (and ostensibly secular) National Democratic Party, which dominates the legislative assemblies formed on the back of what many, including the opposition, claim are fixed elections, in calling for Hosni's resignation. Columnists in pro-government and opposition newspapers alike launched vicious ad hominem attacks on the culture minister. Some suggested slyly (and with no apparent reason) that a man who seemed to have little interest in women should be the last person to express a strong opinion on what they were wearing. On the surface, this may seem an unlikely alliance of Islamist and secular forces, not least since the regime is routinely accused of imprisoning and torturing opposition activists and persecuting without mercy especially the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. However, looked at more closely, the reaction to Hosni's comments nicely illustrates how the regime is stealing the clothes of the Islamists to shore up its ever-dwindling support among the masses. It is a practice that not incidentally has the benefit of pushing progressive voices still farther to the margins while bolstering an "Islamist threat" the regime plays up to help keep pressure and criticism from its paymasters in Washington to a minimum.
The comments expressed by those who had come to speak at Al-Aswany's informal salon were almost all supportive of the culture minister—not necessarily about his views on the veil, but certainly that he did not deserve to be attacked. This revealed both their liberal inclinations and also how out of touch they were with mainstream public opinion. After all, if both the opposition and the governing party saw benefits in making political hay from Hosni's comments, they both believed that the issue resonated among the people and could thus be manipulated for political gain. What the café's participants particularly could not understand was how an opinion expressed almost offhandedly by an individual, however prominent his position in government, could cause such a furor while stories of widespread poverty, massive unemployment, endemic corruption, and a universal culture of nepotism—the themes of Al-Aswany's novel—failed to stir the masses to anything approaching the same extent. The reaction proved to them the bankruptcy of domestic cultural discourse and the Islamists' hold over the collective Egyptian psyche. But it also demonstrated the almost naïve sense of justice on the part of those attending the salon, as the furor over the veil diverted attention from the grim reality the people faced but can do little about. It is no coincidence that slapstick comedies and manufactured umbrage have great prominence when pressing issues are depressingly unsolvable.
* * *
"I was raised here in downtown Cairo. I believe it's not so much a part of the city as an era that existed for more than a hundred and fifty years before the revolution, when Egypt was very tolerant," Al-Aswany told me after the crowd dispersed and we sat at an outside table.
For the liberal Egyptian elite from which Al-Aswany has emerged as a key figure, the different architectural styles that punctuated Cairo's landscape before the revolution stood for more than just the changing times and tastes. They represented a period going back to the early nineteenth century when Muslims, Christians, Jews, Egyptians, Ottomans, Armenians, Italians, and French lived and worked together in Egypt. The cityscape became a model of heterogeneity. This cosmopolitan past is accentuated in The Yacoubian Building, where the eponymous building, which stands as a faded art-deco block in real-life Cairo, is transformed into a relic of "the high classical European style" complete with columns and Greek visages in stone.
Al-Aswany was himself exposed to the West at a young age. He has said that a part of him is "essentially liberal." His father was a writer and artist, and Al-Aswany enjoyed a bookish and freethinking upbringing. "Whoever wanted to pray, prayed; whoever wanted to drink, drank; whoever wanted to fast, fasted," he told the local magazine Egypt Today during the publicity blitz surrounding the launch of The Yacoubian Building. He was eager to point out to me that he should not be identified with any particular character in the novel. Indeed, his main strength as a writer is his Proustian ability to show empathy with the contrasting viewpoints of his myriad characters. At the same time, it became obvious as our chat continued that he shared with his novel's elderly aristocratic hero, Zaki Pasha, a disdain for the drab reality of contemporary Cairo life, and a certain nostalgia for the prerevolutionary period—all heavily qualified by his reservations about the British colonialism that defined it.
"Colonialism is always bad. Whatever positive consequences it has are not created for the benefit of the indigenous peoples. But it's a fact that before the revolution we had our tolerant interpretation of religion in Egypt, and that's why we were so cosmopolitan—we had people from every corner of the earth living here," he reflected, before being politely interrupted by another group of fans asking him to sign English and Arabic editions of his book.
Al-Aswany had previously worked at a newspaper called Al-Shaab, "The People," where he was responsible for the literary page. The paper itself has an interesting history; having once been leftist it moved toward an increasingly Islamic character that presumably helps explain why Al-Aswany no longer works there. A generous interpretation of the paper's shift is that it sought to accurately reflect the sentiment of the people its name claimed to represent; a pragmatic variant might suggest sales were likely to be better once the leftist slant was eliminated. In reality, the shift was due to a loss of faith, so to speak, in leftist answers among its leading lights. It led an earlier hysterical campaign against the Culture Ministry for printing a novel called A Banquet for Seaweed also deemed un-Islamic by the local thought police. Al-Aswany may have felt some personal sympathy for Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's latest clash with the extremists on the issue of the veil (which the minister survived because he is friendly with the president's wife, Suzanne, who refuses to wear it). For he, too, had been on the receiving end of a similarly ferocious smear campaign in the pro-government newspapers. Columnists accused him of "tarnishing Egypt's image abroad" (officially a crime)—not least because one of his characters is a fairly openly gay man (homosexuality is quite common among Egyptian youths, but the subject is not normally discussed frankly); and one scene in the novel describes the brutal rape of an Islamist suspect by a government-hired thug in one of the country's police stations, where the rape of men and women as a degrading punishment and a method of extracting confessions is routinely alleged.
Egyptians are the most patriotic people in the Arab world. This may not seem consistent given that I have never come across a local who does not despise his president to one degree or another, and that an international Pew poll in July 2007 found that a staggering 87 percent of Egyptians (the largest majority of all the thirty-seven countries surveyed) were dissatisfied with the performance of their government. At the same time, it is hard to find anyone who does not love his country, take great pride in its past, and have great faith in its people's potential if given half a decent stab at their future. The key to understanding this apparent contradiction is the recognition that while well aware of their country's shortcomings, Egyptians nevertheless resent it when outsiders bring attention to them, and even more so when fellow Egyptians wash their collective dirty laundry in public for the benefit of a Western audience already perceived as being bombarded by negative images of the Arab world.
I reminded Al-Aswany of this before I read back to him what he had said about Egypt in the same interview with Egypt Today in response to a devastating survey of the country by Mondial, a leading U.K. provider of advice for foreign companies investing in Egypt and for those seeking travel insurance. The survey had produced a wave of soul-searching in the Egyptian media, and not a few knee-jerk reactions, after it ranked the country's service and tourist sectors a flat zero. "It has reached a point where we have reached zero," Al-Aswany told the publication. "The zero we received by Mondial is a fair result, very fair, not only in the Mondial, but in everything. That zero really should not be given to the Egyptians; it should be given to the Egyptian government. The Egyptian government should get a zero in all fields, not only in soccer, but in health and education, in democracy, and in everything." When I asked him about his responsibility as an Egyptian for the way the country is perceived by outsiders, the principal readers of Egypt Today, he merely shrugged and said: "It's not my job as a novelist to ensure that millions of tourists visit Egypt every year." In any case, he added, he was certain that the lackeys writing the columns against him in the state-owned media had been rewarded handsomely by the government for expressing their "opinions." It was this reality, he said, that should be the cause of national shame. The reception he received from ordinary Egyptians as he walked the streets of Cairo proved to him that at the grassroots level many appreciated his efforts. Finally, he returned with a sigh to his central theme: "The problem with Nasser's rule was that it set up a system that was fundamentally undemocratic, which we still have to this day."
As though to prove his point, on the Thursday of the week after I met him the secret police arrived at Al-Nadwa Al-Saqafiya shortly before the salon was about to get under way. The owner was informed that the gathering was illegal, the waiters were roughed up and ordered to stop serving the guests drinks, and the electricity supply was eventually cut by the terrified owner (a friend of Al-Aswany's for more than a decade). From that day on, this little dissenting group of freethinkers would have to find somewhere else to express their personal opinions. Al-Aswany seems to have escaped arrest (the fate of many lesser-known liberal intellectuals, bloggers, and opposition political activists) only because his international fame had grown to the extent that the regime, under limited pressure from Washington and international watchdogs over its appalling human rights and democracy record, had presumably decided that the inevitable outcry in the global media over such an act of awful silencing would prove more trouble than it was worth. Anyway, all but the most ruthless dictatorships know that there is some benefit to be gained by leaving a few prominent liberals to their own devices. They create for the outside world a false impression of domestic freedom and plurality.
* * *
"Nasser was the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt." So remarks the hero of The Yacoubian Building, Zaki Pasha, whose father was a member of the aristocracy that was swept from power in 1952, in a memorable section of the novel. The movie, for the most part, was a faithful adaptation of the novel, the regime's attitude toward Nasser's legacy and followers having evolved to the extent of permitting tolerance of dissent. However, perhaps signifying the limits still observed when it comes to direct, stinging criticism of Nasser in more popular media such as film, that statement was omitted from the movie. So was Zaki Pasha's heartfelt elaboration on it in the novel's pages: "He ruined the country and bought us defeat and poverty. The damage he did to the Egyptian character will take years to repair. Nasser taught the Egyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites." Asked by Buthayna, his young and impoverished sweetheart (who also deeply laments the legacy of the revolution), why Nasser is still loved, Zaki Pasha barks contemptuously: "Anyone who loves Nasser is either an ignoramus or did well out of him. The Free Officers were a bunch of kids from the dregs of society, destitutes and sons of destitutes.... They ruled Egypt and they robbed it and looted it and made millions." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Inside Egypt by John R. Bradley. Copyright © 2008 John R. Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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