Tuesday, June 7, 2016

SABRY HAFEZ: THE NOVEL, POLITICS AND ISLAM - Haydar Haydar's Banquet for Seaweed

The astonishing story of the uproar in Egypt over the publication of a Syrian novel set in Algeria—a work of literature as trigger for political crisis and polemical turmoil, two decades after it was written, in a landscape completely transformed. Haydar Haydar’s fiction as tuning-fork of stark dissonances of time and outlook in the Arab world.

On April 28th of this year an impassioned appeal appeared in Cairo, blazoned across the pages of the newspaper al-Sha‘b. Entitled ‘Who Pledges to Die with Me?’, it was a ferocious attack on a novel published in Egypt some months earlier, Walimah li-A‘shab al-Bahr (Banquet for Seaweed), calling it a blasphemous work by an apostate who merited assassination. Uproar ensued. Mosques thundered at the discovery of this infamy. The novel was withdrawn. Judges and police interrogated intellectuals and officials in the Ministry of Culture. Students demonstrated, and armoured cars rolled into the streets. Debate raged in the National Assembly, and the activities of a political party were suspended. Two different government committees were set up to investigate the affair. A torrent of articles and declarations, for and against the book at issue, poured off the presses. In Yemen, in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait analogous campaigns were triggered. Though the Arab world has seen not a few cultural or political clashes over literary works, the scale and intensity of the hubbub in Egypt this year is unprecedented.

Yet what is the text that has provoked it? A novel that is now nearly twenty years old, and has run through at least six editions, by a Syrian writer whose fiction has never so much as touched on the country where he is now reviled. Perhaps the most astonishing, and ominous, feature of the whole episode is the disjuncture between the controversy and its object. Not that Banquet for Seaweed is an irrelevant or inconsiderable novel—just the contrary: it is a very powerful and remarkable one. But no less revealing of the present condition of culture and politics in Egypt than the rage of its enemies is their blindness to its themes and significance. To understand this deadly discrepancy, a look at the historical context of the battlefield of ideas in the Middle East today is necessary.

Power and learning
The Arabic novel is a purely twentieth-century phenomenon, whose rise was intricately linked to a cultural transition—involving a major shift in what Pierre Bourdieu has called ‘symbolic domination’—in the passage to modernity. [1] In pre-modern times, cultural leadership in the Arab world was virtually inseparable from religious authority, itself highly dependent on the currently governing political power. In these conditions, education was firmly in the hands of the religious establishment. The basic function of the leading centres of learning—the Azhar in Cairo, the Najaf in Iraq, the Umayyad in Syria, the Zaytuna in Tunisia or the Qarawiyyin in Morocco [2]—was to teach the Quran and transmit the concepts and rules of Muslim tradition. Most cultural production was grounded in religious concerns, and works of literature were deeply rooted in intellectual and stylistic competences acquired from the study of sacred texts. Endowments by the faithful strengthened the material basis of traditional Islamic institutions, but did not—with the exception of the Shi’i centre in Najaf—enhance their independence from political rulers.

Islam granted those equipped with learning a prominent role in society, so cultural elites, nurtured by the religious establishment, often acted as spiritual arbiters between the rulers and the ruled. More accessible to the people, their good offices could mediate complaints from below to those above, or ameliorate unjust rulings by the powerful—while, vice-versa, rulers often used them to pacify or control the masses. Over time, the more stagnant and autocratic the political establishment became, the more subservient the traditional intellectual elite was forced to be. Such was the trend pronounced during the three centuries of Ottoman rule in the Middle East, when local religious offices were manipulated from Istanbul to stoke individual ambitions, set groups against each other and coopt potential discontent. For the smooth running of each region, an effective alliance had to be set in place between the appointed wali—administrative official—and the local religious leadership, capable of suppressing or discrediting any opposition to the status quo.

Modernity on the Nile
In Egypt, however, the symbolic capital of the traditional elites started to erode in the early nineteenth century, when Muhammad Ali (fl 1805–48) [3] —often called the founder of modern Egypt—introduced, on the heels of the short-lived Napoleonic expedition to the Nile, a new, European-based educational system. For centuries, the religious establishment had sustained a system of Qur’anic schools throughout the Middle East that gave it a monopoly of education. Thus Muhammad Ali’s reforms, which broke this monopoly, amounted to little less than a cultural revolution. The new educational system supplied the modernizing state with much needed technocrats and civil servants. Schools, hospitals, newspapers, magazines, printing presses, learned societies and charitable organizations were founded in large numbers. The spread of journalism, and translations of European literature, created new reading publics and fostered nationalist awakening. Even the position of women was not left unchanged. [4] From all these institutions, the traditionally educated were alienated and effectively excluded. The new order preferred advisors trained in Europe, who often returned to occupy high positions in its administration. By the time Muhammad Ali’s grandson, Khedive Isma’il—educated in Paris, and determined to ‘make Egypt a part of Europe’—was deposed by British intervention in 1879, the modern educational system had established complete ascendancy over its religious rival, its products outnumbering their counterparts from the traditional schools by ten to one. The latter, however, were marginalized rather than uprooted—an error for which Egypt would later pay dearly.

Under the British protectorate radical nationalism was repressed, but the semi-colonial order could not halt rapid urbanization and, with it, further changes in customary modes of life and systems of values. An educated reading-public started to support new types of literature and art—forms hitherto unknown in Arabic culture: the short story, the novel, drama, painting and, eventually, the cinema. 

Meanwhile, religious education was coming to be seen—even in the countryside, its traditional hinterland—as barren and unhelpful to the young. The graduates of the Azhar had serious problems finding work in the institutions of the modern state. Politically, too, since the struggle for independence from Britain needed to speak the language of the occupiers, its leaders came without exception from the modern educational system. By the first decades of the twentieth century, the new cultural elite was ready to challenge the traditional intellectuals on their own ground. Pioneering works of narrative included acerbic attacks on pillars of local religion—typically depicted as villains using religious robes to hide treachery, opportunism and debauchery. 

After discrediting the traditional elite in the first two decades of the century, the new intellectuals started to rationalize the sacred in the 1930s, [5] and to accommodate it into the secular by the 1940s, arriving at an almost complete secularization of religious topics in their treatment of the character of the Prophet and his early companions by the 1950s. [6] In 1960 the first Marxist biography of Muhammad appeared. [7] The development of this intellectual offensive coincided with the country’s progress from colonial rule to limited independence, and finally complete liberation from imperialist control at the end of the 1950s.

However eroded their power base, traditionalist leaders never ceased to resist the advance of secularization; and the dual educational system continued to generate an underlying dichotomy in Egyptian culture that gave them resources for counterattack. Bigots used every opportunity to depict their adversaries as catspaws of a Western plot against Islam—not an easy task, at a time when they were leading the national movement against colonial rule and mobilizing the masses behind them. Yet traditionalists never tired of assailing their foes as enemies of the faith. 

The history of modern Egyptian culture is punctuated by the battles fought between the two forces. In 1925, the traditionalists won the contest over Ali Abd al-Raziq’s book, Islam and the System of Government, which had called for the separation of religion and the state, and secured the dismissal of the author from his post at the Azhar. But in 1926 they lost the campaign to convict Taha Husain—the leading Egyptian intellectual of the time—of blasphemy, for advocating in his book, On Pre-Islamic Poetry, a Cartesian approach to the study of Arabic culture. In 1927 the Muslim Brothers association was formed, to press home the counterattack on the modernists. But the 1930s and 1940s proved to be a period of frustration for the traditionalists; in a time of liberal experiment, they failed to make any gains over the next two decades. It was not until 1959 that they again won a significant victory, when the Azhar proscribed Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, The Children of Gebelawi. [8] A decade later, two plays by Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi, Al-Husain: The Revolutionary, and Al-Husain: The Martyr, were banned from the stage.

Under Nasser, however, these remained relatively isolated episodes. In the main, the 1950s and 1960s was a period of social polarization, increasing activity by the left, and a sharp crackdown on the Muslim Brothers and kindred groups. Many fundamentalist leaders went into exile, where a number joined forces with Nasser’s two major enemies, the feudal dynasties of the Arabian Peninsula and their patron in the United States. Association with the Saudi dynasty de-radicalized the Islamic movement, giving it a built-in phobia of the left. When Egypt was trounced by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, these traditionalists seized on the defeat to blame the whole modernist project for this national disaster. This was the beginning of a determined counter-offensive to re-legitimize discredited forms of religious-political discourse, which modernist intellectuals made the mistake of not taking very seriously at first...