A Writer on the Swing of Fear

I was a young lad watching TV with my grandfather, who appeared full of sorrow when he followed a news segment that showed a frail, old man lying in a hospital bed with tubes attached to his body. My grandfather quipped that the old man was a good man and did nothing but write, not understanding why they had tried to kill him.

I found out from my grandfather that he was named Naguib Mahfouz. A few years later I would find out that the brief clips I saw were of Naguib Mahfouz becoming conscious after he survived an assassination attempt in 1994. It was a young man who hadn’t read any of Mahfouz’s works who stabbed him in the neck repeatedly, based on a fatwa where a few sheikhs deemed him an apostate because his novel spread blasphemous ideas.

I saw Naguib Mahfouz’s novels for the first time in my high school library, years later. I would escape from over-packed classes, the putrid stench enveloping the schoolyard, and would go the library replete with different kinds of books.

12246650_1706632769572193_2758035958698872619_n (1)

I grabbed a Naguib Mahfouz novel and went to the library manager to take it out. She sighed heavily, started to bismalah (invoking God’s name), and chased the devil away, then she said she wouldn’t let me borrow this novel or any other Naguib Mahfouz novel.

The teacher, doubling as the library director, explained to me that some ‘less than moral’ scenes in Naguib Mafhouz’s novels were not suitable for a teenager like me and that the novels also contained atheistic and blasphemous ideas. To settle it, she pointed to a shelf of Shakespeare’s plays translated into Arabic and she said you can take any book by him because he’s entertaining.

But I didn’t want entertainment, I wanted ‘fun’ instead. I hid a copy of Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs under my shirt and walked out of the library, without her suspecting. I devoured it in one night and returned it the next day without her noticing. From this moment on, I realised the governing rules of literature in the country that I was living in. You needn’t be a dictator or a dissident politician to be assassinated. You can be a peaceable person with fifty novels under your belt, win a Nobel Prize for Literature, be ninety years old preparing for a serene retirement and still face an assassination attempt for a novel you wrote forty years earlier.

Even if you were a writer who does not oppose the government, like Naguib Mahfouz, and even if those in power celebrated your stellar achievements by putting your books in school libraries, that doesn’t make you immune from having a teacher prevent students from reading your writing. In her eyes, you are spreading kufr (blasphemy) and Shakespeare’s books are piously dripping with Islam.

Literature, then, is a secret activity. It must be practised away from prying eyes and with extreme caution.

Fear is a constant companion of the Arab writer. Fear is a compendium of varying degrees, one on top of the other. If you look closely to the writer or the book, there is fear of political authorities. Then there’s fear of religious authorities. And the most troubling of all, fear of the reader’s reaction, if they didn’t grasp what you’ve written or feel that you’ve unsettled national, religious, social or any other mores.

Therefore, early on, when I started writing, I decided to befriend this fear. For I would lose a war with it.

I am, ultimately, a son of this time and place and what happened in the past inevitably affects the present.

During the 60s, all forms of cultural media and production in Egypt were under the purview and control of the state, similar to other countries that followed the Soviet model of cultural management. In this period, the state enforced a set of literary rules and criteria that, if you wanted to bypass, meant not getting your work published.

The Ministry of Culture refused to publish a young Sonallah HYPERLINK “https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sonallah-ibrahim-egypts-oracular-novelist” Ibrahim’s seminal That Smell and Notes from Prison. Sonallah recounts that the culture minister asked to see him for a sit-down. In a long interrogation about one of the scenes, where the recently-released hero has sex with a prostitute and is unable to sustain an erection, the minister mockingly turns to Sonallah and asks him, ‘so are you like your hero, you can’t get it up’?

Sonallah’s novel was never fully published in its entirety until years later in Egypt.

However, Egypt was able to escape the Soviet shroud early on, specifically in the late 70s. The state’s grip loosened over cultural and artistic productions and censorship was limited. It still remained, though, in the hands of large, state-affiliated publishing houses and book distributors. This made private publishing unfairly doomed from the start.

Instead of state censorship, this was outsourced to religious institutions: Which were at once competitors and conspirators in the battle for political power from the 70s until Sisi’s ascent to the presidency.

This claustrophobic climate shaped the identity of contemporary Egyptian literature. We evil writers learnt to maintain the secrecy of our craft. We lived in secret societies on the margins of official public culture. Since the 70s, the best works were published at the expense of the author and the state curbed its public distribution until the book market opened up at the turn of the noughties.

The Internet appeared and suddenly publishing became easier and writers were able to write using pseudonyms. Gulf states pumped thousands of dollars into the book and publishing industry. More bookshops popped up, as well as publishing houses. Stylistically, new genres of writing blossomed – crime, horror and others that were stellar in their commercial success, but duly short-lived.

A florid style of writing took over the literary sphere, while the writers themselves were marching towards a stark reality. They were writing novels tracking class and social changes and, when the winds of the Arab Spring hit in early 2011, some writers who topped ‘best-seller’ lists became opinion-makers. For a moment, I felt that the spectre of fear had lifted its shadow from Arab literature. New identities were formed and with it a new vernacular sprang up that people used on the internet. Then suddenly everyone asked, where’s the revolutionary literature?

And before any revolutionary literature could rear its head, the revolution was crushed, as with all other revolutions, and the breathing space for Egyptian and Arab literature dwindled.

The authorities regained their control of the arms of artistic and cultural productions and currently the state holds 90% of all television channels, newspapers, magazines and news sites. The remaining sites are mostly blocked.

Currently, Egyptian and Arab writers are either imprisoned, exiled or prevented from writing and publishing their works. Saudi author and Arab Booker Prize winner Raja HYPERLINK “https://arablit.org/2018/04/25/why-raja-alem-is-publishing-sarab-in-translation-before-she-publishes-in-arabic/”Alem HYPERLINK “https://arablit.org/2018/04/25/why-raja-alem-is-publishing-sarab-in-translation-before-she-publishes-in-arabic/” announced recently that a translation of her novel, Sarab, would be published in German and English before the Arabic version. There is not even a date of when her novel in the original Arabic is set to be published.

The novel’s events take, as their starting point, the 1979 Kaaba (Grand Mosque) siege in Mecca, when a group of extremists surrounded the holy site. The siege ended in a series of mysterious, unruly bloody events that saw guns and tanks blot the holiest site for Muslims.

It’s only natural that Raja, a daughter of Mecca, writes about this incident that undoubtedly shaped her childhood. But this historical incident has become shrouded in mystery in the Kingdom. A red line encircling it, where no one discusses or even comes near it. This has forced Raja to delay publishing her novel in Arabic.

Egyptian author Alaa HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaa_Al_Aswany” Al HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaa_Al_Aswany”Aswany, who publishing houses were always racing to print, has also been unable to publish his latest work, The As If Republic. The reason is that the novel examines the January 25 revolution through a series of characters, including a military general. Egyptian publishers were scared to catch the ire of the authorities. His novel has been published in Beirut. Even though it is Egyptian through and through, the novel is banned in Egypt.

The latest victim of the games of censorship and stifling dissent is Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, the successful author whose novels have been turned into dramas on Egyptian television, including Abou Amro El Masry, which is on TV screens now. His name was taken off the credits and events were changed, in order to appease the political vision of the current regime.

There are new forms of censorship and narrowing of the public space daily. Censorship has become a looming spectre. Red lines dissolve and no one knows what is allowed or what is forbidden anymore.

The writer moves on the swing of fear, sometimes forcing him to hide what he thinks or alluding to it discreetly, instead of discussing it valiantly and truthfully. And sometimes fear drives him to the white noise of the internet and social media, turning him into a political megaphone critiquing and denouncing. And in the middle, artistic questions disappear. Talking points turn towards literature itself and its utilitarian aesthetics.

There is a mighty dark ghost, a spectre, haunting this country, and I am looking for a way to hide from its panoptic vision or running away from its grip.

Translated by Farid Farid

 

The World Cup, Chaos and Corruption

published first time at: versopolis.com

Fifa’s most tedious make-believes are the notion of ‘fair play’ and the idea that the World Cup brings nations together in a celebration of football, peace, sport, and the future of childhood. Everyone knows they’re a pack of lies, but we need them: To keep the smiles going, to justify all the exhilaration and zeal, all the disappointment and anguish, all the overflowing, conflicting emotions that are the reason we care so much about the World Cup.

The World Cup is generally held to be an encounter between peoples and nations, but in truth it’s an excuse for competition and conflict and an opportunity to show off differences and inequalities. Parading their collective identities on the pitch, nations learn to recognize their respective peculiarities, while we as humans come to see that conflict and competition are forms of co-operation, and that conflict is the engine of progress.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I read Klaus Zeyringer and Ilija Trojanow’s Manifesto against the Dictatorship of Sport. The text begins with the question of conflict, referencing what it describes as Fifa’s ‘mafia-like’ behaviour (a moot point since no prison sentences have ever been handed out), dealings which in some countries would be considered corruption, but in others, such as Switzerland, are not. The manifesto moves swiftly on to the question of social justice, accusing international football’s corrupt institutions of bleeding state resources and taxpayers’ money, which pays for the infrastructure which makes the sport possible. At this point one gets a little lost: Is the manifesto directed at Fifa, players’ wages, or liberal policies? Or at everything, like the anger of the Ultras on an adrenaline high?

The text ends by urging the reader to take an unusual decision: To refuse to watch the World Cup, and to refuse to be ‘sheep’ or ‘consumers’. Then, in stark contrast with what they have said so far, the authors affirm they are ‘true football fans’.

Perhaps to the white European intellectual this manifesto might sound like a courageous voice of reason, but to the brown intellectual, it comes across as counter-intuitive. If you’re a football fan, but you resent the dictatorship of Fifa, then why boycott, why withdraw from the battle? As I see it, the text reflects Western anxiety over the white man’s loss of control over Fifa, and international football more generally, in recent decades. Other, non-democratic states are no longer satisfied with giving up talented expatriate players to European clubs and national teams; many of these states are now wealthy and powerful enough to join the fray that surrounds Fifa, hosting tournaments and gaining access to the material, social and political power which international football bestows.

The white intellectual is perturbed by Russian, Qatari and Saudi influence within Fifa. He sees what is happening as a corrupt dictatorial takeover of what is ostensibly a democratic game. Their intervention prescribes turning one’s back on the world and on the conflict.

A brown intellectual like myself, on the other hand, would never have paid the equivalent of €200 to the Qatari company Bein, and instead chooses to stream the World Cup on pirate websites or watch free broadcasts on British or European television channels. That’s how I enjoy my World Cup—not to mention the exasperation of the commentators and presenters, as they rail against piracy and accuse me of stealing from Qatari billionaires.

Zeyringer and Trojanow’s manifesto addresses the democratic world, which has been shrinking ever faster over recent years, to the point it scarcely has a continent to its name. The writers believe that football derives its power and presence not only from corrupt institutions, but from the continued interest of its fans and followers, and hence believe that with their call to football lovers not to watch any matches, they can shake the structure of the institution, or perhaps reform it. Once again, this is a white man’s fantasy.

In the brown part of the world where I live, the state of Qatar has invested tens of billions in the media and sports sectors over the last ten years, won their bid to host the next World Cup, and established the Aljazeera news network, as well as the Bein sports network which monopolises World Cup broadcasts in the Middle East. Qatar has pressed all this into service of its political agenda, which consists in supporting regressive and Islamist currents across the Arab region. This agenda has brought Qatar into conflict with ruling regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, resulting in a movement to boycott Qatar led by the three states.

Watching football matches on the Qatari channel is an irritating experience thanks to the style of Arab commentators. [Arab] commentators don’t just get excited about goals—they remain in a permanent state of excitement throughout the match, reeling off metaphors and nicknames, and wittering about their sporting reminiscences, or becoming engrossed in thinly-veiled invective directed at Saudi Arabia and other states participating in the blockade.

If you get bored of the Qatari commentary, you can switch to a Saudi pirate channel. Saudi Arabia refused Bein permission to operate or sell satellite receivers within the kingdom and instead established its own sports network which pirates its broadcasts from the Qatari channel. In breaks you’ll find Saudi commercials urging you to visit Salwa, at the base of the Qatar peninsula, where you can see the cows—a mocking reference to the dairy shortages caused by the Saudi-led blockade—up close. Fifa, from whom both channels claim they bought the rights, have given vague and contradicting statements on the matter.

All these manoeuvrings are highly undemocratic, and a result of the regional crises and conflicts of recent times. Fifa and the World Cup merely reflect the contemporary moment. There is no use attempting to reform Fifa by democratic means, since Fifa cannot be reformed as long as these regional conflicts continue. It is naive to think that democracy is capable of solving any of these problems, because it was democracy that got us where we are today. Giving up our right to watch football, meanwhile, will do nothing but make our lives as individual football fans more miserable, and more isolated from the world and its conflicts.

That said, I couldn’t bear to stream the whole World Cup on sites pirating the Qatari and Saudi broadcasts, because the constant political chatter and nationalist swagger of the commentators got on my nerves so much. Searching for alternatives, I discovered a whole world of commentary. I found a website showing the BBC broadcasts, whose commentators were so calm you hardly noticed when anyone scored a goal, and confined themselves to narrating the action in a neutral tone, with asides I can only presume are considered humorous in the white world—one described the Egypt v. Saudi Arabia match, for example, as the ‘desert derby’, while another attributed the African teams’ poor showing to the migration of African players to Europe. In the end I decided to watch the World Cup with the sound switched off, without commentators, sitting with my friends and listening to our own commentaries.

Translated by Katharine Halls