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.
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