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Inquisition interrupted

Youssef Rakha recapitulates

Samir Sarhan; Ahmed El-Shahawi
Samir Sarhan; Ahmed El-Shahawi
Following a People's Assembly appeal against the publication of poet Ahmed El-Shahawi's Sufi- inspired Al-Wasaya fi Ishq Al-Nisaa (Commandments for Loving Women) in the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) Family Library Series, GEBO Chairman Samir Sarhan promptly banned the book last week. Submitted by an Islamist MP, Mustafa Mohamed Mustafa, the appeal stated that the book contained phrases that desecrate sacred principles of Islam and abuse religious sentiments.

The most recent episode in an inquisitorial saga that started three years ago with Syrian novelist Haydar Haydar's A Banquet for Seaweed (to be followed, a year later, by the so called "three novels crisis", in which three General Organisation for Cultural Palaces books by young novelists were at the centre of a sectarian campaign), the appeal is one more instance of the tendency of self-assigned religious faultfinders to select books published by government institutions as the subjects of censorial campaigns to which the institutions in question have tended, regrettably, to succumb.

The present campaign, the first to target GEBO, was initially no exception. In an official statement issued on Friday, Sarhan said that no sooner had he become aware of the possibility that the book might denigrate religion or offend believers than he gave instructions for it to be withdrawn from the market. Sarhan also referred the "reading committee" responsible for its publication to questioning. And he sent the book to Al-Azhar for a review of its content by the religious authorities, who would finally determine whether or not the charges levelled at the author were valid.

The MP's verdict aside, the reading committee had sanctioned the republication of Al-Wasaya with wholehearted support. First published by the Egyptian Lebanese House, headed by Mohamed Rashad, the secretary-general of the Egyptian and Arab Publishers' Union, the book was thought to reflect El- Shahawi's sense of belonging to the Arabic canon, its author having chosen as his subject "the woman, or the female, heir of the myths of the world in her capacity as mother and giver of life". He was said to be following in the footsteps of major literary figures of the past like Al-Jahiz, Ibn Al-Muqaffaa, Abu Dawoud Al-Zahiri and Al-Antaki, as well as showing an affinity with such 20th-century authors as Al- Rafie and Jubran.

"The importance of this text," the committee went on to point out in the wake of the crisis, "resides not in its connection with the writings of these figures but to the sacred heritage it draws on in the Qur'an and Sunna, followed by its affinity with Irani Sufism, which employs the love of women as a means to love of God." The importance of the book is evidenced, further, in its attempt to modify the male dominated amorous traditions in question -- to place men and women on a par with each other in search of the eternal union, rather than making man forever the active seeker and woman his passive object of pursuit. This necessitates elevating the status of woman, a task at which, the committee insisted, El- Shahawi succeeded.

The committee went on to describe El-Shahawi's all-embracing interest in Sufism, which led him, in Al-Wasaya, to employ a symbolic frame of reference in which signs, implications and insinuations play the most vital role. The book is consequently full of the terminology of those Sufis who saw love as the horizon of human existence, describing its absence as the closing down of that horizon. The book is therefore rich in references and quotations from love poets and philosophers as well as Sufis.

And in order to invest his own text with the appropriate sense of gravity -- an important precaution against it being read as an erotic text -- El- Shahawi resorts to evoking Qur'an and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohamed), whether by direct quotation, stylistic mimicking or semantic transfer. Equally, however, he evokes poetic and prosaic dsicourses of relevance. This tendency to embrace, the committee believed, reflects the book's overriding impulse of love rather than any aggressive or offensive drive.

El-Shahawi, the committee indicated, is careful to sustain his essential sense of belonging to Arab culture, presenting his text as an extension of the "virgin poetry" of the Ummayyads. This belonging, in addition, gives him some of the authority of the towering figures in question -- something reflected in each commandment beginning with an imperative construction -- a feminine-directed "do" or "don't". Written predominantly in prose, the book nonetheless employs poetic tools: dramatic opposition, rhetorical stress and metaphor. The resulting expressiveness is counterbalanced by the poet's emphasis on chastity as a necessary constraint, since the law of love, in the Arab context, incorporates legitimacy as a prerequisite clause.

El-Shahawi quotes the Qur'an and the Hadith Qudsi (divine saying) to demonstrate the importance of woman as an integral part of the duality of the universe, heir to divine love. The MP's reading of Al-Wasaya, the committee implied, "does not possess the ability to understand language correctly, since an understanding of individual words or phrases can only be achieved through an understanding of the context that gives them meaning," a process without which the result is not only decontextualisation but, more often than not, complete incomprehension. To accuse the author of promoting illegitimate love, declaring the loved one divine or distorting the meanings of sacred texts is to misconstrue not only his intentions but the workings of language and literature. Al- Wasaya, the committee concluded, constitutes a valuable contribution to the Arabic canon.

It was on the strength of this view -- following the reported intercession of powerful official figures in favour of El-Shahawi -- that Sarhan retracted within hours of issuing his initial statement. On Saturday all talk of questioning and Al-Azhar's verdict was abruptly dropped and the book returned to the market. Sarhan declared the author to be "a respected poet and responsible journalist", drawing attention to the status of the book's original publisher and the reading committee's position.

"It was stated in the organisation's reading committee's report that the book is valid for publication and that it comprises a valuable addition to the Arabic library," Sarhan wrote in his official memo to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni. "And after presenting the reading committee with the claims of MP Mustafa Mohamed Mustafa, it stated that the book contains no denigration of religion or offence to the feelings of Muslims, since it contains only words in common Arabic usage and no more than three short Qur'anic quotations set apart in quotation marks and intended as legitimate reference, which the author never confuses with his own text."

In the mean time both "the Islamists" and "the intellectuals" -- the principal contending camps in such crises -- had gone to work, with the latter issuing many statements of solidarity and critical texts in denfence of El-Shahawi, to which religious scholars contributed. Some 20 leaders of the Muslim Brothers Jama'a, to which the aforementioned MP belongs, began reading the book on Saturday. The Jama'a was never opposed to freedom of thought or expression, leader Esam El-Eryan said to Al-Hayat .

"All that we ask is that everyone should abide by the values and conventions of religion," he said. "It is important to protect the state's funds, moreover, so that none of it is spent outside the valid framework or without proper parliamentary supervision." Mustafa was merely inquiring into the criteria by which books published by state institutions are selected, he explained, "especially after numerous complaints about some of these selections". Many have interpreted this as a gesture of retreat -- evidencing, perhaps, a reconciliation between government and Islamists.

Thus El-Shahawi's text was spared almost instantly, the last of the censorial crises coming to an early and somewhat anticlimactic close, with little or no Islamist-intellectual sparring. Whether Al-Azhar would have approved of the book, on the other hand, whether Sarhan's initial stance compromises the autonomy of the literary establishment -- the GEBO chairman's sudden change of heart can only reflect lack of focus -- and whether the Islamists' willingness to make peace points to an end of the inquisitorial saga... these are questions that remain open to debate.

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