Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 February 2003
Issue No. 626
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Retrospect and prospects


At the end of this largely synchronic investigation, it may be useful to reintroduce the notion of diachrony in order to offer an answer to the question of what has changed, and what has not changed, in the Egyptian literary field from the 1960s to the present.

At first glance, the continuities are more striking than the changes. The recurrence of the same debates gives the impression that things have continued to operate much as they did in the terms defined by the founders of the modern Egyptian intellectual field in the first third of the 20th century: debates about language, about the status of religion, about identity and about relations with the world outside Egypt. These are all subjects that are regularly reopened without ever really being settled. In addition, the "scriptural superstition" -- the belief in the power of the written word -- remains as strong as ever, and it is a belief that is shared not only by opposing segments of the intelligentsia, but also by the large sections of society that read little or nothing, as was shown by the assassination attempt against Naguib Mahfouz in 1994 and the polemics about censorship that have never been as numerous as they were in the 1990s.

However, there has been at least one remarkable development, that concerning the transformation in status of the novel. From its appearance in 1959, to the attack on Mahfouz, the controversy over Mahfouz's Awlad Haritna [Children of Gebalawi] demonstrates well the rise in social power of the novel form as an important means of collective expression, of which the legitimacy, and this is a new thing, is recognised down to the most traditionalist parts of the intellectual field.

This continuity of the same debates can be explained, first of all, by the continuity of the relationships between Egyptian intellectuals, and of writers in particular, and the three major forces that determine their material and symbolic status: the state, the status group and the world outside. The double disconnection, political and professional, between the state and the Egyptian intelligentsia that occurred in the 1970s carried with it opportunities for emancipation that the actors in the literary field in the main did not, or did not know how to, take advantage of. Worse, these actors felt obliged to call upon the state for protection, falling into its lap when faced by the restrictions that other social actors attempted to apply on their freedoms. This second group of actors used religion in their struggle for control over and for the exercise of symbolic power, and a good proportion of them occupied positions within the state apparatus itself.

The "Islamisation from below" of Egyptian society, therefore, has tended to make permanent the osmosis between state and intelligentsia, and, in the same way, the over-determination by politics of symbolic conflicts within the literary field. This has in turn made permanent the "aristocratic" relationship between the intelligentsia and a society that remains characterised by mass illiteracy and by the weak consumption of printed materials by the educated classes. Finally, faced by the permanent character of the hegemony of Europe and America over the "world republic of letters", the Egyptian (and Arab) literary field has been obliged, today as much as yesterday, to define itself in identity terms in order to contest the universalism of the hegemonic fields, while at the same time attempting to find a place among them.

Should one be surprised when, in the present context of domestic political blockage and economic crisis and of the exacerbation of regional and international tensions, that this should give rise to a sort of MacCarthyite drift in the Egyptian literary, and, more generally, in the Egyptian cultural or intellectual field?

However, having said that, the sometimes deplorable image that these polemics give is misleading, and it tends to hide otherwise positive developments. In the first place, the fundamental achievement of the nahda [Arab renaissance] was to legitimate the idea of tagdid, of innovation, and to make this the fundamental law of development in the literary field. During the first third of the 20th century a dynamic was started in the national cultural field that meant that each new arrival, or group or arrivals, in the field would have to break with the previously dominant model, or at least go beyond it in order to get noticed.

As we have seen, the most eloquent example of this took place in the field of poetry: after having been dominated by imitation, and then by revivalism thanks to the generation of Ahmed Shawqi, this field opened up to innovation with the Diwan School, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas Al-Aqqad, was one of the first in the modern Egyptian field to claim for the younger generation the right "to kill the father". From here, each new generation of poets brought new breaks and new developments, condemning previous innovators to death as the defenders of tradition. This series of aesthetic revolutions, very often explained by Arab criticism as a result of external, notably political, factors, on the contrary seems to me to be a sign of internal movement in the poetic field and a sign of its autonomy.

Since the 1960s, therefore, it has been a combination of this logic of purification, characteristic of literary fields possessing a relative autonomy, and of a logic of engagement, characteristic, on the contrary, of non-autonomous fields, that has defined the most widely shared ideal among members of the national literary elite. This has been that of the "magical dualism" referred to in the expression borrowed from Ferial Ghazoul, or of the fusion of engagement and creation, in the terms used for the Arab Novel Prize awarded to Abdel-Rahman Munif in 1998.

The self-discipline (or self-censorship) that the field observes by virtue of its "social responsibility", its loyalty to the realist paradigm and its construction of a particular literary identity designates the "engagement side", the non-autonomous side, of the magical dualism. However, these constraints are continuously reinterpreted, even subverted, by the autonomous side, which plays them off against each other: in the name of realism, moral, ideological or linguistic norms are gone against, while in the name of the refoundation of identity, literary forms and modern literary genres are renewed, and material taken from the educated and popular heritage integrated into them.

On the whole the record is positive. Egyptian literary production has become increasingly rich and rejuvenated over the past decades, unlike what has happened in other fields undergoing long-term crisis, such as in the universities, in scientific research (in both the natural and human sciences), and in cinema, theatre and journalism, but unlike what has happened in the plastic arts. As one would expect, those forms of creation that require the least material investment and institutional support have best resisted the decline in the material and symbolic conditions for intellectual work.

This positive record can be measured in three ways. First, there has been the quantitative explosion in production: for literature alone, meaning the canonical genres of novel, short-story, poetry and theatre, Egyptian production has tripled from the 1960s to the 1990s, from 100 to 150 titles published per year to at least 500 titles per year. Certainly, nothing indicates that a comparable increase has been seen in terms of the number of copies sold, or that there has been an increase in relative terms, such as in the spread of reading in the population as a whole and of the reading of literature in that section of the population that habitually reads printed materials. However, this does not stop one from finding this a reassuring figure and one that contradicts the usual discourse of the crisis in book production and the marginalisation of writing and writers.

A second remarkable and promising transformation has been the feminisation of the literary field. By contrast to the generation of the 1960s, which was exclusively, or almost exclusively, masculine, the new generation of writers and poets that emerged in the 1990s has achieved parity in quantitative terms, and its production seems to have been almost dominated in qualitative terms by works by women, who have thus played a significant role in the rejuvenation of the content and the forms of literary production.

Last but not least, there has been the internationalisation of the field. A growing number of writers have had access, and at earlier points in their careers, to the resources of the international literary world -- there have been more translations than ever before, but also more invitations, grants and periods spent abroad. This internationalisation certainly brings risks with it, but it also works to goad writers on. For a writer of the periphery, the export of production towards the centre risks that production's "touristification", but it also shows that that production can stand up to "universal" standards of quality.

Will the magical dualism, the happy mix of political engagement and aesthetic innovation brought about by the recognised avant-garde of the generation of the 1960s, survive that generation? In other words, have the developments described brought about the end of an era, and will Egypt, too, see the "death of the great author", even the "death of literature", as literary fields at the centre have done? Concluding his analysis of the Latin-American literary field, André-Marcel d'Ans asks: "should one deplore in the Latin-American case the same death of the great writer that we have ourselves experienced? If this takes place, how are we to avoid feeling nostalgic for the 'literary clerisy' that made revolution their dream?"

The theme of the death of the great writer, often put together with that of the "death of the intellectual" as a "bringer of enlightenment" (Al-Muthaqqaf Al-Tanwiri), has become fashionable in an Arab intellectual field that has imported postmodernist ready-made ideas, reformulating them and using them in its own symbolic struggles. Without risking hazardous predictions, however, one might think -- the same causes giving rise to the same effects -- that the system of relationships between writers, the state, the nation and the world outside that has been described in this book will not see substantial changes, and that the Egyptian "literary clerisy" will have many happy years ahead of it, both for better and for worse.

Conclusion to Richard Jacquemond, Entre scribes et écrivains: Le Champ littéraire dans l'Egypte contemporaine, translated by David Tresilian.

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