Glimpses of the Egyptian Army in Egyptian Literature

Since it seems that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will be clinging to Egypt’s neck for some time to come, this seemed as a good time as any to visit with a few (changing) images of the Egyptian army in Egyptian literature.

This is hardly meant to be exhaustive, or even exploratory: Just a few morning thoughts.

Unlike portraits of Egyptian police, for instance, portraits of the Egyptian army (in Egyptian literature) have generally been friendly, or at least torn. For instance, in Ahdaf Soueif’s recent memoir Cairo: My City (2012),  she writes:

I tell non-Egyptian friends, journalists, interviewers who ask that we’re not Greece or Latin America; that the Egyptian army is very much part of the fabric of Egyptian society, and in both 1977 and 1985 it refused direct orders to fire on Egyptian demonstrators. An oath taken by every soldier is that he will never raise his weapon in an Egyptian face. … My parents’ generation warn us; they send messages through their children, our friends: take care. Don’t trust the army.

The Egyptian army, in earlier literature, was sometimes a kinder, more authentic, and more human counterpart to the British. The 1967 War spurred authors to re-examine the army. After this war, Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Cafe (Al Karnak), trans. Roger Allen, touched on a number of army intelligence scandals. Mahfouz’s short story “Fear” conflated a high-ranking figure in the Egyptian military with a gangster.

Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat (1992, English 2001), trans. Anthony Calderbank, looks harder at the political-economic role the army plays in the Egyptian state. The book’s news clips return, several times, to military-economic ties between Egypt and the United States:

An American State Department official: “There is a program costing 175 million dollars to strengthen ties between the Egyptian and American military.”

President Mubarak before leaving for Washington: “We receive 850 million dollars aid every year from the United States. We pay 500 million dollars of this as yearly interest on our military debts to them.”

Soueif’s 2012 book also discusses this aspect: “We know that the army collects a ton of US AID. We know it represents about a third of the GDP of our country – that it is a massive business interest.”

In Radwa Ashour’s Specters (1999, English 2010), trans. Barbara Romaine, the army is somewhat different, an echo of the confused young men that Menna Khalil describes in her essay, “The People and the Army Are One Hand: Myths and Their Translations. From Specters:

Shagar, as she takes in the university, hasn’t yet seen the security forces, or the truncheons or the smoky tear-gas bombs or the stampedes. She hasn’t yet seen that impoverished brown-skinned boy from the country, so young, standing outside the university wall in his army fatigues, sticking the barrel of his rifle into the space between two fence-posts in the wall and aiming it deliberately at the demonstrators, as if he had learned his profession on goat-hunting expeditions in the company of a medieval European nobleman.

And, of course, one of the most provocative explorations of the military figure is in Mohamed al-Mansi Qandil’s Moon Over Samarqand (2005, English 2009), trans. Jennifer Peterson. Dr. Margaret Litvin previously wrote on the Egyptian military elite of Moon Over Samarqand for this site; I can’t improve on that:

“Didn’t I tell you?” the colonel’s daughter Fayza al-Tuhami tells the semi-conscious protagonist of Mohamed Mansi Qandil’sQamar ʻAla Samarqand (Moon Over Samarqand). “Those soldiers, they’re always looking for an enemy to defeat. And because they’re incapable of defeating the enemy lying in wait across the desert, they defeat us instead. We’re an easy target.”

For obvious reasons, the entire “Fayza”  section of Qandil’s novel was suppressed by Dar al-Hilal, the state-owned press that first published Moon Over Samarqand in January 2005.  The exotic stories of life and legend in Central Asia — part of Qandil’s nostalgic reconstructions from the medieval Islamic civilizational heritage, including a long section on Uthman’s Quran taken directly from his earlier magazine travelogue — were allowed to stand.  So were the disorders and violations of Soviet and post-Soviet Uzbekistan.  But the most bitter and immediate part of the novel, which takes place in Cairo and Heliopolis rather than Tashkent and Samarqand, was not deemed fit to print. Keep reading Litvin’s essay.

It would be interesting to explore how literary portrayals/criticisms of the Egyptian army may have shifted over the last century. Or, if you’ve already written such a book, it would be interesting to update it with the literature that’s being imagined now.