14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The long journey
A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- A Woman's Journey, Leila Ahmed, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. pp307
Tales of the desert fox
The Armies of Rommel, George Forty, London: Arms and Armour, 1999. pp254
A peace with no winners
Ya Salam (Peace!), Nagwa Barakat, Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 1999. pp190
Rural migrant workers in Egypt
Rural Labor Movements in Egypt, 1961-1992, James Toth, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp246
Secret and moral histories
Al-Qame' fil-Khitab Al-Rowa'i Al-Arabi (Repression in the Discourse of the Arabic Novel), Abdel-Rahman Abu Ouf. Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, 1999. pp263
New guide for the virtual traveller
The Splendours of Archaeology, ed. Fabio Bourbon, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp352
When the sea changed its colour
Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr ( The sea changes its colours), Nazik Al-Malaika, Cairo: Afaq Al-Kitaba (Writing Horizons) series of the Cultural Palaces Organisation, 1999. pp211
Next week, the Supreme Council for Culture will hold an international symposium to mark the passing of a century since the publication of Qasim Amin's The Liberation of Women. Here, Al-Ahram Weekly remembers Mai Ziyada, one of the most remarkable advocates of women's liberation in the Arab world
The mirror of Mai
Bahithat Al-Badia and Aisha Al-Taymouriya, Al-Anissa Mai (Mai Ziyada), edited and introduced by Safynaz Kazem, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp372
Introducing Miss Mai
By Safynaz Kazem
At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani
Magazines and Periodicals:
* Alif : Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 19, Cairo: The American University in Cairo, 1999
* Dafatir Thaqafiya (Cultural Notebooks), No. 22, Ramallah: The Palestinian Ministry of Culture, August 1999
* Nizwa , No. 19, Oman: Oman Institution for Journalism, News, Publication and Advertising, Summer 1999
* Fusul (Seasons), quarterly issued by the General Egyptian Book Organisation
* Al-Romouz Al-Tashkiliya fil Sehr Al-Sha'bi (Plastic Symbols in Popular Magic), Soliman Mahmoud Hassan, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp.231
* Islam in the Balkans , H. T. Norris, trans. Abdel-Wahab Aloub, ed. Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Cairo: Supreme Council for Culture, 1999. pp299
* Leonardo, Edmundo Solmi, trans. Taha Fawzi, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp223
* St Mark and the Foundation of the Alexandrian Church, Samir Fawzi Girgis, trans. Nassim Megali, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp159.
To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index.
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
Secret and moral historiesAl-Qame' fil-Khitab Al-Rowa'i Al-Arabi (Repression in the Discourse of the Arabic Novel), Abdel-Rahman Abu Ouf. Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, 1999. pp263
In his introduction to this provocative new critical study of trends in the Arabic novel since the 1960s, the critic Abdel-Rahman Abu Ouf tells us that 'repression' (al-qame') and 'suppression' are crucial components of the discourse of the modern Arabic novel. This situation Abu Ouf puts down to repressive policies carried out by the regimes of various Arab states, policies which have had an inevitable effect on the writing produced in these countries. However, he also says that the state is not the only possible source of repression: religion, heritage, Arab customs and traditions and patriarchal society have all had their contributions to make. To some extent, repression in novelistic discourse Abu Ouf feels may be attributed to the fear of change and of the unknown. However, in adding a new element to the study of contemporary 'Arab repression', namely the West, he has also introduced a controversial geopolitical aspect to his study. Abu Ouf, who has adopted a methodology adapted from literary sociology for his analysis of the phenomenon of repression in the contemporary Arabic novel, writes that the study of the discourse of the novel is also a study of contemporary Arab society. For him, the novel provides "a mirror that reflects the struggles and the problems of life." It is, he says, a form that provides "an alternative to death."
Accordingly, and in order to demonstrate the interest of his programme, in the book's long first section the critic looks for the discourse of repression in a selection of recent Arabic novels. The novelist Abdel-Rahman Mounif comes in for particular scrutiny in this regard, and it is argued that Mounif's criticism of certain Arab regimes, and of the international system of which they are part is, at root, a criticism of the suppression of Arab political and social freedoms. According to this analysis, "international imperialism led by the United States" has led to a particular social and political situation in the region, and Abu Ouf reads Mounif as blaming oil for this. According to Mounif, "the way the Arabs dealt with oil transformed it into a negative, hindering resource and into a tool of oppression, dependence and oppression that has divided the Arabs into the rich and the poor." The West and the Gulf states, which Mounif claims are the West's creations, have collaborated in this situation, and the West therefore has chosen to remain silent about its own responsibility for any political or social repression in the region, preferring instead to fall back on old orientalist clichés, such as "portraying the Arabs as lacking the qualities necessary for democracy and being doomed to 'Oriental despotism'". Mounif's Mudun Al-Malh (Cities of Salt), a novel that runs to five volumes and some 4,000 pages, is read for its depiction of the history of oil exploitation in the Arabian Peninsula, for its analysis of the 'deformation' this has brought to the region's social and cultural fabric, and for its portrayal of the history of imperialist conflict in the region. Inevitably, Mounif's writings are controversial, and Cities of Salt is banned in many Arab countries.
The discourse of Syrian novelist Haidar Haidar provides Abu Ouf's next case study. Three of the writer's best-known novels -- Al-Zaman Al-Mouhesh (Bad Time), Walima Le-A'shab Al-Bahr (A Meal for the Seaweeds) and Maraya Al-Nar (Mirrors of Fire) -- are examined and found to be composed from "the bitterness and the bleak intellectual and political experience suffered by the generation that saw the 1967 defeat". Abu Ouf argues that Haidar, in dealing with political repression in his novels, reminds the reader strongly of the work of Mounif, since both authors expose human rights abuses carried out against Arab political prisoners. Similarly, the Moroccan novelist Mohamed Zifzaf is read as exposing the secret world of Casablanca in his recent novel Al-Hay Al-Khalfi (The Back Alley). Here Abu Ouf argues that Zifzaf has been concerned to portray what he calls a "typical Arab and Islamic society dominated by a discourse of metaphysical, religious and ethical hysteria, which is then presented as the solution to compelling problems such as poverty, unemployment, class struggle and dependence on the West."
Closer to home, Abu Ouf also provides a chapter on 'The Tragedy of the Revolution and Repression in the Novel of the Generation of the Sixties'. Writings by this generation of Egyptian novelists, the critic argues, expressed the dreams and the frustrations that have characterised Egyptian and Arab social reality since the 1952 Revolution in Egypt. This generation welcomed the revolution, was torn by the crisis over democracy in 1954, and then was fascinated by the revolution's achievements, such as the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the successful resistance to the 1956 Tripartite Aggression, while being at the same time deeply concerned at the post-revolutionary regime's authoritarian character. According to Abu Ouf, this same generation of writers predicted the 1967 defeat, "the novelist acting as a special kind of historian of the political, social and moral life" of his country.
Son'allah Ibrahim's novel Tilka Al-Ra'iha (The Smell of It), for example, is read as a long, sad monologue that effectively represents the experience of the sixties generation. In this novel, the writer, following his release from prison, searches for a job, a house and a new beginning, but finds none of these things. "All this represents nothing but the crises of the sixties generation, which lived through a bitter alienation from the social order," Abu Ouf writes. He goes on to say that more recently Ibrahim's work has changed direction and that, in the recent Zhat, the novel is seen instead as testimony, programme and possible salvation. Characteristically, Abu Ouf's comment is that in this novel "the novelist has become simultaneously the author of political pamphlets, historian and agent provocateur, all the while collecting news articles from newspapers and magazines. Thus the novel becomes the secret and moral history of its time."
The Egyptian writer Abdel-Hakim Qassim is also interpreted as commenting on the experience of the sixties generation in his novel Qadar Al-Ghoraf Al-Moqbeda (Destiny of Gloomy Rooms), as is his fellow Egyptian Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in his Al-Balad Al-Ukhra (The Other Country). Qassim describes the frustrations and insecurity of a generation, while Abdel-Meguid addresses the loss felt by those who migrated to the Gulf countries in search of work. Similarly, Al-Mansi Qandil's Inkisar Al-Rouh (Defeat of the Soul) reveals the defeat of this generation's spirit, its loss of hope and ambition and the emptiness and barrenness of its dreams. The protagonist, shocked by the 1967 defeat and by Nasser's death, sums up the dilemma of the whole generation as follows: "It is very strange when it comes to this man [Nasser]. He arrested my father, and yet I couldn't hate him. Even my father liked him since, thanks to Nasser, he was able to send me to medical school like the rich. Even in his prisons they would call out his name under torture, as if they thought that what was taking place was some kind of bitter misunderstanding... Did Abdel-Nasser do wrong by us, or did we wrong ourselves? Why did we believe in him? Did he believe in us?"
Following this exhaustive review, there follows a second section about the discourse of repression in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. Two themes are seen as dominating these, that of social and that of existential tragedy. The latter is more satisfyingly discussed, and Abu Ouf argues that "for Mahfouz the novel is seen as an alternative to death". He says of the controversial Awlad Haretna (Children of Gabalawi), for example, that this should be read 'existentially' as "a Sufi novel". And Ga'afar Al-Rawi, one of the protagonists of Mahfouz's novel Qalb Al-Leil (The Heart of the Night), is interpreted as providing the key to Mahfouz's novelistic programme and discourse in an exchange between Al-Rawi and his grandfather about a poor young woman Al-Rawi wishes to marry instead of the more sophisticated woman his grandfather suggests. "I reject repression," Al-Rawi says, "for freedom" in a clear act of existential choice. The grandfather is unimpressed, but Mahfouz, Abu Ouf feels, is on the younger man's side.
Abu Ouf's major contention in this study is that the novels produced by the sixties generation "are more true than are all the writings of the intellectuals and the political historians who addressed the 1952 Revolution, since the novels contain the meaning and conscience of a fighting generation who lived out the dreams and the tragedies of their nation." They do not give ready answers, he writes, but they do pose questions about "the tragic circumstances in which we live". They are dangerous in that "they reveal and analyze our ugly political and ethical reality, steadfastly confronting repressive practices engaged in by the state, and supported by the discourse of religion and of sex," he says. This conclusion will not be to everyone's taste but, in reaching it, Abu Ouf has written a stimulating and provocative study of an important and continuing episode in Arab literary and social history.
Reviewed by Nadia Abou El-Magd