Reading ‘Revolution’ With Tawfiq al-Hakim

Syracuse University Press recently published The Revolt of the Young: Essays by Tawfiq al-Hakim, newly translated by Mona Radwan and introduced by Roger Allen. How does this inspiration to revolution stand now, four years after January 2011?

revolt-of-the-youngAs Radwan writes in her translator’s introduction:

Some young Egyptian rebels from the April 6 movement, interviewed on Egyptian television in 2011, stated that they were inspired by al-Hakim’s book The Revolt of the Young. One of them had the book with him in this interview and referred to it a number of times.

Al-Hakim’s collection certainly isn’t a call to revolt. But al-Hakim (1898-1987) was one of the towering figures of twentieth century Arabic literature, along with greats like Taha Hussein, Yusuf Idris, and Naguib Mahfouz. Perhaps — although he died in the year before the Nobel went to Naguib Mahfouz — al-Hakim was one of the reasons the Nobel literature committte began to look among Arabic-language authors.

The Revolt of the Young, published in Arabic in 1984, collects some of the great and versatile author’s “nonliterary” essays. Published just three years before al-Hakim’s death, it is written mostly in a chatty newspaper style and sometimes has the “when I was a boy” tone of a writer near the end of his days, a grumpy old man ranting about unisex bathrooms. But it also has remarkable moments of reflection.

If one has read al-Hakim’s insightful and genre-shaking novels, essays, and theatre, it’s easy to imagine him as a supportive father — if not the sort who would go to his son’s jazz concerts and applaud wildly, then at least the sort who would appreciate jazz. Instead, al-Hakim finds himself resembling his own stern patriarch. Al-Hakim remembers:

It was on a day in 1935, when I was the director of investigations in the Ministry of Education as well as a well-known writer, that my father paid me a visit in my office. A reporter was interviewing me concerning literature and art. I was taken aback when my father interfered in my interview, wanting to direct it the way he pleased, correcting my opinions in keeping with his own views and beliefs.

More than four decades later, al-Hakim finds he is not altogether different. He scorns his son’s jazz music — after all, it’s not proper classical music — and is bossy, imperious, uninterested in his son’s concerts. Finally, short-story writer Yusuf Idris and some other friends coax al-Hakim into attending one of his son Ismail’s concerts.

“For a father like me, the feeling of anxiety is greater than that of satisfaction.”

After this, there doesn’t follow a touching reunion. Al-Hakim enjoys himself, but he’s still awkward and out of place (“like a rustic in a Moulid”) and later embarrassed at the idea of joining the young people. “For a father like me, the feeling of anxiety is greater than that of satisfaction.”

So it’s all very charming and illuminating, but what does this have to do with revolution?

All the essays in here reflect in some way on struggles between generations: in literature, in a family, and in a political body. The idea is equally present when al-Hakim discusses revolution as when he discusses his views on poetry or literary criticism. Translator Mona Radwan said, over email, that she read the collection differently before and after the January 2011 mass protests in Cairo.

Pre 2011 it was quite stimulating to read one chapter after another by Alhakim about his childhood, writings, his father and his only son, his philosophy etc… His focus was on the conflict between the various generations exemplified by his father, himself and his son. This is something that many of us have experienced throughout our lives. But the collection became more & more interesting with the revolt of Tunisians and then young Egyptians.

She added:

Like Tawfik Alhakim I  too believe in the power of young people.

Instead of looking for revolt among the poor and disenfranchised, al-Hakim looks at parents and children. As he sees it, young people are searching for a new direction — sometimes a better one, sometimes not. Although the circumstances are very different, he finds the same is true of young people in the US. In the last chapter, which at some points can seem a bit tone-deaf, educated young Americans put a detonator on the Statue of Liberty in order to gain attention for their cause(s), which include gay marriage and the war machine.

Indeed, there was an actual detonation at the Statue of Liberty in 1980, which caused around $18,000 in damages but harmed no one. The culprits were never found.

One of al-Hakim’s protagonists is asked, on the stand, if he realizes the US is a democracy.

But, if we look past the parts of this imagined memoir that feel stiff or awkward, there is something that could be an Occupy movement or Black Lives Matter. One of al-Hakim’s protagonists is asked, on the stand, if he realizes the US is a democracy. “Yes, I do. But I also began to realize that monopolies and the military are the fingers inside the rubber gloves of democracy.”

Radwan, who said the chapter was one of her favorites, was “frankly quite worried about Americans reading such a piece at first.” Surely, there are off notes. But overall, it’s a compelling story.

It’s also an interesting choice — to end the book here, when nearly everything else in the collection is about Egypt. At the end of the final story, the prosecutor winds down, telling the jury that the defendants have attempted “sabotage of the capitalist imperialist society. Your society, our society that we were raised in.” (Never mind that this conservative prosecutor probably wouldn’t use the word “imperialist.”)

The next day, the verdict should come out, but al-Hakim falls ill from all the greasy-spoon meals he’s been having in American restaurants. In any case, he says, the verdict doesn’t interest him. Instead, we realize, it’s the discussion itself, the process of young people trying to throw out their grappling hooks, trying to reach something better. And how the older generation can either block them or attempt to be a part of the new world.