|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Issue No. 501
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Confer and contrastBy Mona Anis
The 15th Conference of Egyptian Men of Letters in the Provinces (a bit of a mouthful, but we'll come to that later), held in Mersa Matrouh between 16-19 September under the sponsorship of The General Organisation for Cultural Palaces furnished, in all too many ways, an accurate reflection of the state of culture in Egypt today -- or more precisely, of the cultural policies sponsored by the state. On the positive side, providing an annual opportunity for writers from all corners of the country to meet and discuss matters of common concern is something not to be frowned on or sneered at. Less positively, for this opportunity to become anything other than an exercise in rhetoric requires a little more than even the best of intentions, which were present in no small dose, particularly on the part of the organisers of this year's event, Ali Abu Shadi, head of The General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, and Fouad Qandil, secretary general of the conference.
Unfortunately, it has become nigh on impossible to imagine a vibrant cultural movement taking place in the provinces, or in the metropolis for that matter, without a significant re-channelling of the resources of the cultural establishment, and one capable of addressing those long-standing ailments that make of state-sponsored cultural activities the travesty they all too often become. And chief among such ailments is the confused and often clashing mandates of existing cultural institutions, which all too often speak at cross-purposes.
The lack of any clear demarcation between what one institution engages or dabbles in and what should be the province (whoops! there goes that word again) of another -- governmental or non-governmental -- lies at the heart of the anomalous state of culture in Egypt today.
Which brings us back to the name of the conference. One cannot help but ponder the exact meaning of a term such as "Egyptian Men of Letters in the Provinces" -- even given that the anomalies it contains are amplified by translation. Yet just attempting a translation can serve as a measure of meaning beyond the rhetoric of the original language. In Arabic the word Aqalim is something of a mixed bag: it has connotations of provincialism, in its unpolished, rustic sense, but also refers to the administrative division of the governorates of Egypt into five regions -- Greater Cairo and North Upper-Egypt; East of the Delta; West and Mid-Delta; Suez Canal and Sinai, South and Mid-Upper-Egypt -- adopted by the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces.
So was the Mersa Matrouh conference a conference of all Egyptian men of letters -- let us for the sake of simplifying things leave aside the question of women, and agree with Iris Murdoch who, in the 1970s, was perfectly happy to be interviewed for a book entitled Men of Ideas? And if this was the case, does it really matter whether these men of letters -- the term, after all, carries with it an aura of at least a minimum of recognition -- come from Upper-Egypt, the Mid-Delta or the metropolis?
The source of all the confusion could well lie with the prescribed functions of the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces which many are happy to stigmatise as a hangover from the Nasserist era, one that, having lost the purpose for which it was established, has been consigned to the no-mans land of the cultural dinosaurs. The truth of the matter, though, is that the organisation is not some Nasserist quango, but one that has existed, in various manifestations, since 1945.
We did like to be beside the seaside
photo: Ayman Ibrahim
Inspired by any one of several post-World War II experiments in spreading and disseminating culture and knowledge to the underprivileged classes, the grandfather of today's General Organisation for Cultural Palaces was probably the Popular University, based in Cairo and with a clear mandate to bring culture to the people. In 1948 a royal decree changed the name of the institution to The Organisation for Popular Culture while simultaneously entrusting it with the task of spreading culture to every corner of the kingdom.
Following the 1952 revolution, the institution lingered, with the usual renaming, until in 1966 the ministry of culture, under Tharwat Okasha, annexed it as a special organ of the ministry (the Organisation of Popular Culture) charged with fostering a cultural movement in the countryside. The following four years saw a flurry of activities, including the regular despatch of cultural convoys, comprising metropolitan writers, artists and intellectuals, to the countryside, and the construction of cultural centres -- palace being perhaps a little to grandiose a term -- in many places.
But as the 1970s rolled on those who had assumed control of the cultural establishment expressed little, if any interest, in these earlier experiments. From the mid-1970s onward the organisation appeared to be in its death throes. In 1980 a presidential decree stipulated that it be dismantled and its functions assumed by local municipal authorities, a merciful killing, many thought, but one that was overturned when, in 1983, parliament reversed the decree. The organisation then continued under its earlier name until, in 1989, yet another decree changed its name to the present General Organisation for Cultural Palaces.
None of which explains why if, despite its many changes of name, this is an organisation that since its inception has been perceived as a tool to disseminate culture among the deprived, it does not leave the task of holding a conference of Egyptian men of letters to the Union of Egyptian Writers, or any other group, for that matter, that sees itself as being up to the task of organising such a gathering. The General Organisation of Cultural Palaces might then be able to devote itself with more energy to its purported raison d'être -- delivering culture to the culturally deprived.