A Lesson in the Dangers of Book Burning

Our family has a long history of disposing of books in various ways. As a boy in Egypt, I remember the regular routine when, every so often, my father would open the cupboards and drawers and arrange his books, magazines, and notebooks. Most dear to him were the notebooks which contained his commentary and notes on dozens of books, most of them concerning Sufism, Islamic exigency, and political Islam, in addition to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and various other Islamist leaders.

He arranged the books into bundles and then distributed them in various secret hiding places. Some were concealed in boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop. Others were left in the care of close relatives who did not take part in any political activities. Other books, the presence of which he believed jeopardized his and his family’s security, were burned. Assured he could attain other copies, these books would be thoroughly burned and their ashes discretely disposed of.

As a boy I did not take notice of this practice nor did I understand it, yet the ritual of collecting books and papers and setting them ablaze on the roof was seared into my memory forever. When I would ask my mother about it, she would fumble for the right words to explain to her child the politics at play, saying: “These books contain verses from the Qur’an and passages of our Lord and cannot be dumped in the waste, so it is best they are burned.”

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جرافيى لكيزر 2013 تصوير: أحمد

My grandfather, who had been a security guard at a local factory, also had a huge library to his name. My father told me that there had been a time when my grandfather could not afford to buy a bed, so he piled together astronomy textbooks and poems of Ahmed Shawki—which he had memorized by heart—and made beds of them for his children sleep to on. However in the beginning of the 1980s, he slipped into a depression and gave away most of the contents of his library. Thereafter he contented himself with reading newspapers, poems of Al-Maʿarri, and books on astronomy. The latter of these was his greatest passion, and was what prompted him to name his eldest son Galileo. Yet after some convincing and admonishing based on the pretense that this was an un-Islamic name, he settled for Nagy, contenting himself by writing “Nagy Galileo” in huge letters on the wall of the house.

Unlike his own father, my father did not dispose of his books because of a sudden depression or deterioration in his capacity to read. Rather he did this so because these books could be used as evidence against him in the event he was arrested, and the house was raided. Directives to dispose of these books came down from senior Brotherhood leaders to protect its members. The letters of al-Banna or of Al-Manhaj Al-Haraki Lissira Al-Nabawiya could have been used as irrefutable evidence that my father was a member of a ‘banned organization.’

Thus during slow summer nights in Mansoura, back from our stays in Kuwait, there was nothing to do but read the books of Anis Mansour and Khalid Muhammad Khalid and the plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim. If ever state security forces were to have raided our home and found these books, they would in no way incriminate my father, and thus they were spared from being used as kindling in his ritual campfires. I personally had no need for al-Banna’s writings in order to understand the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, for I lived and breathed it every day of my life.

In Kuwait, just as in Egypt and more than a hundred other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood runs a social welfare network which not only provides for individuals, but entire families. I would attend weekly sessions with other boys who themselves were also from Egyptian families with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Kuwait.

At that time, the usual program for children my age, aside from reading the Qur’an and becoming acquainted with the Prophetic biography, consisted of regular recreational activities organized over weekends. As a boy suddenly transported from a village on the outskirts of Mansoura to a new environment such as Kuwait, these outings with the Brotherhood youth (or ‘cubs’ as they are known) were filled with adventure and new experiences that helped allay any feelings of homesickness.

Life in Egypt moved to a slightly different rhythm. In our village I was regarded as somewhat special because of my father’s prominent position as a doctor in the Brotherhood. He was a role model for many of the other ‘cubs’, something of which I had not been aware.

Reserved and taciturn by nature, my father spoke little of his past and never spoke at all about anything regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.

He recently told me of his colleagues’ surprise at the hospital, at which he has worked for the past eight years, when they learned only a few months ago that he is a Brother. They only became aware of this after he began attending Doctors Syndicate meetings as one of the Brotherhood’s representative.

My mother was never comfortable with the “Sisters” and felt no urge to take part in Brotherhood activities. Before the revolution, some members of the Brotherhood leadership would coincidentally appear on the news, and she would utter a brief comment, such as, “He was a good friend of your father. They would come to visit and have dinner at your grandmother’s.”

The first thing Brothers in Mansoura and in our village would say upon meeting me was always, “So you are the son of Dr. Nagy Hegazy. You must be proud, God is good!”

Both in Kuwait and Egypt, I always attended private schools, the names of which always included the all-important words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Languages.’

The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’

Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.

Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.

Transitioning from the sheltered Brotherhood schools to the Taha Hussein Public High School was tantamount to setting foot on another planet. For the first time there were Christians in school, and the library contained books other than the standard morning and evening Islamic prayers.

The utopia free of insults and cursing in which Brothers moved about nibbling on siwak1 and smiling warmly seemed far away. With the second intifada I became more active, and despite the fact that I was still in high school, I would attend meetings with the Brothers at university. I crafted the chants which were shouted in unison during the demonstrations following the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah. I had become an integral member of the Brotherhood group at al-Azhar University. Then Haidar Haidar happened.

A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.

He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned.

Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.

To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.

I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elsh aab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”

I left the room, and never went back.

—- —

1 A small twig (the tip of which is softened by chewing) from the Salvadora persica tree used for cleaning teeth. It is widely held that the Prophet Mohammed recommended its use.

Farewell to the youth

I first saw the beast in 2005, in downtown Cairo, in front of the Journalists Syndicate steps. Young men and women gathered and chanted “kifaya” (enough). The beast, dressed in military uniform, stormed out of police vehicles. It was also disguised in civilian attire, beating up protesters and dragging them along the ground. In the streets of downtown Cairo, security forces undressed and sexually assaulted female protesters. It was a great shock. We thought this was the worst the beast could do to us. We thought this offense was enough to destroy the beast. These presumptions reflect the naivety and arrogance of our youth, and are telling of its pure heart and true emotions. Repelled by the consequent feverishly confrontational rhetoric, I withdrew from all battles with the beast.

I had encountered the same naivety five years earlier. I was a high school student in 2000 when I joined a students’ protest in solidarity with the Second Intifada. The former Israeli prime minister and war criminal, Ariel Sharon, had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque and sparked the Palestinian uprising. Israeli forces then assassinated a 12-year-old, Mohamed al-Durrah, while he was in his father’s arms. Our schoolteachers encouraged us to protest, but did not demonstrate themselves. They encouraged us to walk in small angry groups, chanting for the liberty of Palestine, vowing never to forget retribution for Durrah. The security forces then allowed us to demonstrate in bigger groups outside the schools gates, roaming the streets of Mansoura, where I spent my teenage years. The children and students surrounding me were in ecstasy because they had obtained the right to scream and found freedom in the streets for the first time. And when groups of marching students encountered each other they embraced theatrically. Schools in Mansoura, as across the country, are segregated by gender. It was amazing to watch boys and girls mingling in these protests, as opposed to the usual scene of male students waiting outside of girls’ schools to harass them, pick them up, or engage them in emotional adventures. But the crowds, screaming, over-excitement and the egoism of those miserable souls dying to lead the chants, left me mentally disassociated, despite being a part of it all.

I would learn five years later, upon my graduation from university, how Hosni Mubarak’s regime not only allowed the anti-Israel protests but supported and even instigated them. Mubarak wanted the cameras to film the angry crowds as they burned the Israeli flag in order to point at the image, address the gods in Oslo’s mountains and Washington’s valleys and say, “I am here to control these beasts, so that they don’t burn down everything.” When the anti-Mubarak protests later took to the streets, security forces encircled them. Because they had not become beasts yet, Mubarak’s regime made sure they did by undressing female protesters and sexually assaulting young protesters. Instead of becoming beasts, however, they chose defeat and sought revenge through victimhood.

I became jaded by the ridiculousness of the charades we are summoned to participate in, such as elections. This was in addition to the calls for limiting religious and sexual freedoms in the name of religion, and other travesties that conjure up the idea of the nation. They instruct you on the importance of loving the nation and tell you how to do so. These directions did not suit me or various other people I met online. We thus preferred to create our own virtual reality, outside authorities’ control. We created a space that contrasted with the tedious moral principles of our fathers. Egypt was passing through great times. Everyone on television was talking about a democratic transformation. In the authority’s blind spot, we made small venues to hold parties and play music prohibited from broadcast radio and television (both public and private), because it doesn’t contain the usual tacky love song lyrics. In one of these parties, Alaa Abd El Fattah suggested we create a parody of the president’s website, and that I compose its comic content. These were the kinds of games we played. We used delve to into our virtual bubbles and make fun of the naked king, and how his entourage and slaves praised his garments.

I met my first wife on an online forum for the fans of [popular Egyptian singer] Mohamed Mounir. We were teenagers, barely 18 years old. Together we spent an often turbulent 10 years of love, marriage and divorce, a complete cycle of life. Others met on the forums and blogs of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Revolutionary Socialists, the “foot fetish club,” the “Bin Laden warriors” or the “‘Fatakat housewives’” forum. In contrast to the [political stagnation] that manifested in catting about Mubarak’s unfading pitch-black hair dye, the internet was a new home for those holding similar views to get together. The faint humming of these groups’ discussions gradually became audible. With the help of hearing aids, the old guards began to describe that humming as the voice of youth. They labeled young people as aliens to society, and then agents of the West and immorality. In any case, they did not take young people seriously or understand them.

“The old corpses should make way for the new corpses.”

The old zombies were taking up all the seats. The zombie general, the zombie sheikh, the zombie president, the zombie businessman, the zombie ruling party, the zombie opposition, the moderate Islamist zombie, and the radical Islamist zombie. And all they offered the youth was to be zombies and let go of their idealistic dreams and ethics. We were forced to mingle with these zombies. We were forced to converse with them, coax them, sometimes praise them, in order to protect ourselves against their evil. “With cold hands, we got into their midst; we looked but could not see,” is how poet Youssef Rakha described the situation years later in his great poem, On Sleeping with Reality. When we opposed them or refused to consume their archaic understanding of the nation and religion, we were faced with torture, marginalization and siege.

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photo by : Pauline Beugnies

“Live like your parents have lived,” said the zombies. In his movie The Mummy (1969), late Egyptian filmmaker Shady Abdel Salam tells us that our parents lived as scavengers. Girls walk in the streets with their shoulders curved forward and heads looking down with a desire not to be noticed. They don’t look left or right, often getting catcalled and harassed in silence. When they decided to stand up against mass sexual assault in the heart of the city, zombies accused girls and women of attracting criminal harassers and arousing them.

Demonstrators first took to the streets to protest police brutality and torture. They were accused of insulting the police. Protests kept growing in size and magnitude, eventually calling for the removal of the zombies’ leader (who taught his disciples his hair-dying technique). The zombies then congregated to address the youth. “Consider him your father,” they said, in reference to their leader.

Common traits of young people include passion and emotional vulnerability. As much as passion fueled the revolution, gushing blood in the veins of the agitated masses, it also prompted mercy and pity. It was precisely this passion that transformed the revolution into a quest to seek retribution for the martyrs, and prevent the children from killing their zombie fathers.

In many of Pauline Beugnies’ images in her photo book Génération Tahrir, we can see heated discussions between girls and mothers, between the young and the old. What’s not audible, however, is the sound of the screams, debates and opposing views. But the photos do make clear to us the magnitude of the authority the zombie fathers possess and the immense pressure young people are under.

I knew many young men and women who took to the streets, burning car tires and occupying the frontlines in the battle against the criminal elements of the police force. But the moment their phones rang, they would quickly escape to a quiet spot to answer their mothers’ calls. “I’m fine and far away from the clashes,” they would say. They must have thought rebellion could exist in a parallel reality away from familial life. I have also known activists who work on LGBT rights and are brave enough to advocate this issue in a [conservative] society like Egypt’s. They defend these rights in a court of law, in front of the police, and so on, yet cannot muster the courage to announce this to their parents. My female friends who gave officers the finger as they were being shot with the police’s rubber bullets used to weep in the face of parental and societal pressures. They are pressured to assume a single path in life, a future that includes nothing but marriage and bearing children in a cycle of reproducing more zombies.

This cowardliness and hesitancy led young people to always try to find a middle ground, only to eventually be deprived of everything by their fathers. They cheered for moderate Islamists, as the Brotherhood youth claimed that Islam is an identity and a moderate religion compatible with democracy. The Brotherhood youth claimed there was no place for secularism in our national identity. Then the Islamist zombies announced that there was no difference between Islamic State militants and us. They called those militants “mujahidin” and pledged to send their young people to fight on their side in Syria. When young democrats cheered for the civilian coalition led by a military general, they justified this. “Look at Sisi’s eyes,” they said. “They radiate warmth and love; he will save this nation and build a secular state.” The general responded by prohibiting speech and jailing everyone. Others were killed in public squares and football stadiums.

The Gulf sheikhs, the agents of the Western gods in the region, backed up the general. Along with the zombies and the general, they opted to deprive young people of all spaces, even virtual reality. Internet surveillance systems were put in place and a single tweet could put its writer behind bars. They invested millions in the internet, turning it into a mega shopping mall, controlling its content through social media companies that decide what’s trending. If a single story surfaces on a new torture case inside an Egyptian prison, it is quickly buried under piles of entries and clicks on the new shapes of Kim Kardashian’s butt.

A few weeks ago, I began sensing a faint, dull pain in my left testicle. The doctor told me I’m suffering from a case of varicocele in my testicles. He advised me not to stay standing for long periods of time, cut back on sexual intercourse and refrain from prolonged erections. When I asked him about the cause, he simply said, without taking his eyes off his newpapers: “Most probably it is genetics and age.”

No more prolonged erections for our generation; we are dispersed all over the world. Some are in jail, some are exiled and some are willing to be drawn to the Mediterranean’s European shores. Others aim for an exit from hell to God’s promised heaven through a path of beheadings. Those who have stayed have secured a place among the zombies. They appear on television as youth representatives, take selfies with the zombie general and sheikhs, and compete over the crumbs Gulf amirs and sheikhs often throw at them.

Now it is time for documentation, archiving and preservation before we depart with the past and our youth. Let’s bid farewell to our sorrows and ghosts. Let’s search within for a new path and revolution. The greatest danger lies in giving into nostalgia, to the old ideas and principles, and to assume there is a golden moment in the past that should be retrieved. The greatest danger is in revering the picture. Any form of reverence — for the revolution or the martyrs or higher ideologies — is enough to turn you into a zombie without even noticing it.

This essay was first published in French as an introduction to the book Génération Tahrir, for which photographer Pauline Beugnies followed the stories of various artists and politicians during the 25 January revolution in 2011. Mada Masr published the original Arabic text here.