Chip Rossetti, translator of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Beirut, Beirut (2014, 2015 US), was in attendance at this week’s “The Authoritarian Turn: On The State of the Egyptian Intelligentsia.” The talk focused in large part on Ibrahim:
By Chip Rossetti
Hosted by Bidoun magazine and New Directions Press (publisher of Hosam Aboul Ela’s new translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth), “The Authoritarian Turn: On the State of the Egyptian Intelligentsia” played to a packed crowd in the second-floor lecture hall of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute building on Washington Square in Manhattan on Tuesday. So many people showed up for the event that the building’s security (citing fire codes) stopped letting people upstairs, and a small crowd lingered in the lobby, being admitted one by one as stray audience members left early. Although Alaa Al Aswany was mentioned by name in the official description — and he certainly has been a prominent defender of the military-backed government’s crackdown on Islamists — it was Sonallah Ibrahim who dominated the conversation.
On the panel were Khaled Fahmy (chair of AUC’s history department); Mona El Ghobashy (independent scholar and political scientist); and Robyn Creswell (professor of comparative literature at Yale, poetry editor of the Paris Review, and translator of Ibrahim’s That Smell [Tilka al-ra’iha].) Moderating the discussion was Negar Azimi, Senior Editor of Bidoun.
Azimi started things off with the observation that the “categorically surreal turn of events” in Egypt since February 2011 has thrown off kilter the inner compasses of many writers and authors who spent their lives as dissenting voices. Now, instead of protesting state violence, these writers have “either said nothing, or, alternatively, enthusiastically supported the suppression of the Islamist opposition by the military.”
…Sonallah Ibrahim’s stellar literary reputation is related not only to his formal innovation, but by his status as a “literary saint.”
She then turned the discussion over to Robyn Creswell, who addressed the specific case of Sonallah Ibrahim. As Creswell put it, Sonallah Ibrahim’s stellar literary reputation is related not only to his formal innovation, but by his status as a “literary saint.” His ascetic lifestyle and insistence on independence from state authority (including state publishing houses) was reinforced by his famous 2003 on-stage rejection of Egypt’s state literary prize. For that reason, Creswell found Ibrahim’s support of the Rabi’a al-Adawiya massacre “baffling and disappointing,” and a betrayal of his hard-earned reputation as a principled intellectual.
In his turn, Khaled Fahmy painted the current period as one of the darkest times in Egypt’s modern history, and expressed his concern over the personality cult growing up around Sisi, something he finds disturbingly similar to that of North Korea. He spoke about falling out with longtime friends and colleagues over their political positions in the past year. He has no doubt that the Brotherhood is a “deeply undemocratic movement, to put it mildly,” but he finds it tragic that the fears that Egyptian intellectuals felt about the Brotherhood — that they would betray the revolution, and use the powers of the state to repress dissent — have been fulfilled instead by the military.
As a political scientist, Mona El Ghobashy brought to the discussion a broader overview of the political situation in Egypt. She saw in the overthrow of Morsi’s government a reaction of the “old elites” against popular democracy, which had the double disadvantage of being unpredictable and deeply threatening to their interests. She sees in the Muslim Brotherhood a “counter-elite” that naively thought they could join the old elite. As for the military — long accustomed to looking down on civilian politicians — it never considered the Brotherhood their equals.
As Creswell put it, the state cooptation of intellectuals that we associate with the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser was nothing new: in many ways, Nasser merely formalized a relationship that was already in place.
In response to a question from Negar Azimi about how the role of intellectuals changed when Egyptian media opened up during the late Mubarak era, Robyn Creswell gave a concise but informative overview of the shifting relationship between intellectuals and the modern Egyptian state. In particular, that relationship has been characterized by different levels of state cooptation and involvement, going back to Muhammad Ali Pasha and his long-term project of modernization, which required the training and employment of skilled translators. As Creswell put it, the state cooptation of intellectuals that we associate with the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser was nothing new: in many ways, Nasser merely formalized a relationship that was already in place.
He then highlighted two more recent turning points in this dynamic between the state and writers: the first was Sadat’s “corrective revolution” in the early 1970s, when the state, among other things, drew back from its regulation of culture. During his first decade in office, Mubarak continued this arm’s-length policy.
The second turning point came in the early to mid-1990s, when Mubarak’s government reversed position and launched a new project aimed at coopting intellectuals under the banner of enlightenment (tanweer) and modernity. The proximate cause was its ongoing war against Islamists. In that sense, “the Islamists saved the state. They gave Mubarak’s government its raison d’état,” allowing it to position itself as a bastion of enlightenment against the barbarism of its enemies. Looking at the present situation, Creswell finds some indications that Sisi wants to revive that dynamic in the current government’s own campaign against Islamists.
Khaled Fahmy mentioned his disagreements with other intellectuals who didn’t want to give Morsi’s government a chance when they first came to power. He was at times accused of being soft on the Brotherhood, although he felt at the time that they had to be engaged directly — not through the confrontational tactics used by critics and intellectuals who staged a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture and demanded that the newly appointed Minister be replaced.
As a historian who has long made use of the documents in Egypt’s national archives, he found it amusing (and a little ironic) that Morsi’s government chose as the new head of the archives another Khaled Fahmy — a professor of linguistics at Menoufiya University — which led to a number of his colleagues congratulating or chastising him on his new position. When he was invited to speak at the national archives, he challenged his doppelgänger over the excessive security that prevents open access. By his count, only about ten people a day go into Egypt’s national archives, meaning that this vital resource for understanding the Egyptian past is effectively “dead.”
Perhaps for that reason, “high” literature has not really been the preferred artistic vehicle to express the revolutionary spirit of the last three years. Instead, we are more likely to associate that spirit with the vitality of rap and street art/graffiti.
Creswell suggested that Ibrahim, like many of his leftist intellectual peers, lacks the “common touch” that could connect the elite intellectual class to the broader masses. Perhaps for that reason, “high” literature has not really been the preferred artistic vehicle to express the revolutionary spirit of the last three years. Instead, we are more likely to associate that spirit with the vitality of rap and street art/graffiti. Both El Ghobashy and Creswell touched as well on the envy that the Egyptian left sometimes feels towards the Muslim Brotherhood for its ability to organize and communicate effectively, as well as win elections.
More generally, Creswell finds a “failure of imagination” among intellectuals about how meaningful political change can come about. Many writers still cling to the idea that change can only occur through a charismatic leader, of which Nasser remains the paradigmatic example. Although all three panelists were pessimistic about the near-term prospects of democracy in Egypt, there was a ray of hope. As El Ghobashy pointed out, that idea that political change is only possible from above is directly contradicted by the lived reality of February 2011: millions of Egyptians have now seen for themselves what they are capable of when they put their minds to it.
Chip Rossetti is managing editor at the Library of Arabic Literature and a translator of modern Arabic fiction, including Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Egyptian sci-fi novel Utopia (2011), Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel Metro (2012), and most recently, Sonallah Ibrahim’s Beirut, Beirut (2014, 2015 US). He won a PEN America grant for his translation of Muhammad Makhzangi’s Animals in our Days and is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic literature (specializing in modern Iraqi fiction) at the University of Pennsylvania.