Youssef Rakha Takes On Samia Mehrez’s /Egypt’s Culture Wars/

Samia Mehrez’s 2008 work of literary criticism, Egypt’s Culture Wars, has finally made it to print in Egypt (AUC Press, March 2010). This week, Youssef Rakha takes the opportunity to comment in Al Ahram Weekly.

Rakha begins his critique with a charming exaggeration:

Recently, in an otherwise casual conversation, a writer friend remarked that the Egyptian culture scene was like an oligarchy with no constituency beyond the oligarchs.

The (unnamed, of course) writer-friend argues that Egyptian writers must join tiny, exclusionary, oligarchic cliques:

…because intellectuals rely for their survival  not on consumers of culture but on complex systems of patronage and their attendant discourses.

This unnamed writer-friend has a point, certainly. But at this moment of the piece, I thought: I might be able to really believe this, rather than just acknowledging it, if I could experience a well-placed example from the writer’s own life. But Rakha’s essay shies here from flesh-and-blood examples, although he notes that this is what gives Mehrez’s book power:

And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or “intellectual” achievement, what makes Egypt’s Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.

Not quite sure what he means by putting intellectual in quotes, but there you have it. Mehrez’s book—which I haven’t, unfortunately, read—also apparently gets into the nitty gritty of literary prize theories and conspiracy theories, a subject dear to all of our conspiracy-loving hearts.

But Rakha wants more (and here, he gets specific):

The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well – something Mehrez neither brings up nor justifies.

At times it is difficult to tell if Rakha is criticizing or praising Mehrez’s “far-fetchedly holistic accomplishment” or how she is—“especially where gender is concerned”—“unashamedly subjective.”

But the overall picture he gives is a book that is filled with interesting, juicy details from the lives of great writers like Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani, a book that is, despite its theorizing, eminently readable.

And that certainly sounds like an accomplishment.