In 2003 he was instrumental in bringing to public attention Being Abbas Abd, now a cult novel to ‘the generation which has nothing to lose’, as the book refers to them, the young whose fearlessness finally brought down Mubarak. Ahmed Alaidy’s novel recounts the solipsistic and arbitrary adventures of a more or less autistic youth as he takes microbuses and anti-depressants, wanders the malls and dodges the marriage market of contemporary Cairo, struggling with childhood trauma along the way. His existence is not framed politically at all. The book makes great play with Cairo slang and its recent ‘enrichment’ if that is the word, through the languages of texting, advertising and Hollywood. There is a passage where the narrator, mercilessly straight-faced, offers the reader a list of Hollywood productions which are sure to resolve his or her existential questionings.
Exploring its radically hollowed-out world, the book raises questions about that world all the more suggestively by not doing so openly. The book was clearly addressed to a contemporary Egyptian audience, much of its word-play being very difficult to translate, and this fidelity to a dysfunctional local reality, this refusal to offer an international audience the sort of ‘colour’ it requires, has surely contributed to its success. There is such a thing as ‘committed’ writing that need not be overtly political at all.
It may reasonably be objected that the audience for books like this is very small by the standards of Europe or North America. Yet it remains true that each of these writers in his distinctive way has put on trial one or more of Egypt’s leaders since independence – Mahfouz explicitly, even didactically, Ibrahim by making visible the impact of public culture on ‘private’ experience, Alaidy by contemptuously cutting out the public sphere altogether. The scale of what happened in Tahrir is clearly not attributable to a few scarcely-read authors, however distinguished, but I would argue all the same for an essential connection between the way Egypt’s elite has been held morally accountable in their work, over decades, and the way it is being held legally accountable now. Out of all proportion to the size of its audience, writing like this has counted.
And yes, I do have an example of how. Round the corner from Tahrir Square, on Kasr al Nil Street, after a building-site then a night club then a travel agents, you come to the building which is home to Alaidy’s publisher, Meret. It is a family firm, established by Mohammed Hashem in 1998, and he told me why. ‘There were plenty of books for people living the good life. I wanted to produce books that listened to the street, that talked to it. I wanted to offer an outlet for – Communist writers, say – why not?’
Alaidy, as we’ve seen, is hardly a tub-thumping Marxist and Meret has in fact ‘offered an outlet’ to all sorts of writers, including one who has gone on to become an international bestseller, Alaa Al Aswany with The Yakoubian Building. As perhaps befits a programme such as Hashem’s, Meret’s down town address leads a double-life. The frenetically busy office by day, becomes, after six or so, a watering-hole for writers, actors, singers and political commentators, a drop-in centre for students, foreign journalists, the idle-curious of all kinds. They read each other’s work, they watch TV, they drink coffee or beer or nothing. They talk.
This is all, of course, lamentably unlike the sort of publishing company HQ we have learnt to take seriously. It is independent, socially engaged, audacious book-publishing as it scarcely exists in western capitals. Perhaps – heresy – perhaps Meret is one of the many things we might be learning from in what is now unfolding in Egypt and across the Arab world. Its connection to ‘the street’ is more than just literary and had been so for a long time.
From 2005, it hosted the meetings of Kifaya (‘Enough’) – a group of writers and artists which held protests, often poorly attended, against Egypt’s complicity with Israeli actions in Gaza or the Lebanon, against Mubarak’s plans to install his son, against the imprisonment of political writers. Kifaya had petered out by 2008 but it was revived in 2010 and Meret kept open house during ‘the 18 days’. It served as a dormitory for female protesters and during the day anyone was welcome to stop by for a rest or a meal or to watch the news. Hashem’s office proudly displays a huge sheet of paper, covered in the signatures of everybody who stayed here.
No doubt you could say the same of that sheet as you could of Egypt’s serious novelists: statistically insignificant. But who can judge the long-range consequences of such fidelity to actualities? The moment of mass-solidarity startled even those who had been working for it. Communists, students, factory-workers, unemployed graduates, the football fans, the Moslem Brotherhood: no account of this revolution can ignore any of these. Who can say what did or did not contribute significantly?
The social media may have been decisive in the square, and, once the goal of removing Mubarak had been set, there was no better means of organising en masse. Tahrir offered a clear geographical focus and the anger by then was such that switching off the internet had no effect. In the conversation about Egypt’s future that has now begun, however, who can discount the intellectual ambition and the hard-won moral standing of a Sonallah Ibrahim, the daring of an Ahmed Alaidy? However their contribution thus far is assessed, in any world that is about to start making more sense, their skills will be in demand.
Kifaya has not been disbanded. It will have an office of its own now, and will organise films and lectures in the ‘Palaces of Culture’ which Nasser built in every little town in Egypt. Kifaya counts some very eloquent people among their admittedly modest number. Whether statistical ‘insignificance’ will translate as moral insignificance remains to be proved. The Salafists and the Moslem Brotherhood and the TV will have some competition at least.
‘Ultimately our problems will be solved by the organic movements of people,’ Sonallah Ibrahim put it to me. We talked in his small flat in Heliopolis on my last evening in Egypt. ‘They will be solved through clashes, through differences, struggle – I mean the lively line that the country will take – parties, democracy – it is these which may provide a solution. Egypt is not Saudi Arabia: it is open to different tendencies and currents.
‘I think the revolution tells us there has been, for a long time, an element deep in the Egyptian personality which cannot be destroyed but which takes time to express itself. I believe in the vitality of the mass of the young. It was without a leader, which gave them this mobility, really, a freedom. They have no illusions, no faith in great people. Some reproach them for this, but it means you cannot manipulate them to follow such figures. Of course they will have to select some kind of leadership, but it will come from their own ranks, not imposed from above or elsewhere.
‘I’m not disturbed by the Islamists: they may be a force for a while and this is a natural reaction – for thirty years they have been crushed and none of the social problems have been solved meanwhile. But the religious trend may fail, too. It failed in Iran. It wasn’t able to liberate people from hunger, it didn’t address the fundamental problem of class power – it was and still is government by big merchants, big money.
‘An improvement in the lives of the mass of people – I mean a minimum wage and a doing away with the enormous disparities between the lives of the poor and rich – ultimately it will be by solving problems like this that the masses will be won round to a secular way of life. For this we will have to work. It depends on working, participating in daily struggle. It’s true the Islamists have a very simple message: ‘Islam is the answer’, but the answer to what, if you’ve left the same class in power? The original aim of these protests went further than the removal of Mubarak and one or two others. The revolution is not finished. Tahrir was the overture.’
If Ibrahim is right, and I hope he is, what he refers to as ‘the original aims of these protests’, namely the establishment of a legitimate, self-determining order in Egypt, could be a more immediate possibility now than at any time since independence. One of the banners from the first day of the protests which Mehrez and her students discussed was held by a group of doctors and this was not the first time doctors had protested about their pay and working conditions. Bread, Liberty, Dignity, Humanity, it read – and as Ibrahim rightly recalls there was at that stage no thought of removing Mubarak. But even demands like this are not so simple as they sound when you learn that the word for ‘bread’ in Arabic is derived from the word for life – what sounds like a basic economic demand in English is that in Arabic, but it’s something else, too.
Westerners should be able to make their own minds up about what that ‘something’ is before very long: the film-maker and photographer Nermine Hammam is already working on an installation based on this ‘Translating the Revolution’ project, which can then tour internationally. John Berger has recently commented on how the economic concerns and ‘a spiritual vision’ combined in Egypt and Tunisia ‘to give the people their extraordinary sense of calm. One thing Mehrez has been exploring with her students is the way that the festivities in Tahrir drew on popular religious festivals – saint’s days (moulid) and wedding parties, Sufi chants (zikr) mingling with the revolutionary slogan Erhal! Erhal!, Leave! Leave!’ Translating those banners is surely a wonderful place to start on that engagement with these events which is so urgently necessary now. Western governments were deeply implicated in the order which maintained Mubarak in power. It is that order, not just Mubarak, which is about to go on trial. We will all have to reckon with the verdict Egypt reaches.
This article was first published in The Quarterly Review.
The Language of Tahrir – edited by Samia Mehrez
Horatio Morpurgo is a freelance journalist, essayist, and regular contributor to Three Monkeys Online. His latest collection of essays is entitled Lady Chatterley’s Defendant & Other Awkward Customers