Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 April 2004
Issue No. 686
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

We always feel elated when one of our compatriots -- Arab, African or from the so- called Third World -- attains international recognition. This is what we felt when Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 and then Ahmed Zuweil received the Nobel Prize. But before them, in 1968, Wole Soyinka, the great Nigerian man of letters, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first black African to win the Nobel, since before him the white south African Nadine Gordimer did.

This month Soyinka has been chosen to give the famous BBC Reith lectures. Soyinka's selection created a controversy, reflected in the way the event has been covered by the British press. The title he has chosen for the series of five lectures is "The Climate of Fear". according to The Observer, the first four, which were given in Bristol, Leeds and London, treated audiences to "trenchant arguments against the war in Iraq and the situation in Palestine".

The fifth lecture will be given in the United States, at Emery University in Atlanta where Soyinka is Emeritus Professor of the Arts. In his profile of Soyinka, Ken Wiwa writes: "He will use the occasion to deliver a stinging attack on George Bush and Osama Bin Laden," characterising the two leaders as "a twin strain of the same fanatic spore that threatens to consume the world in its messianic fire".

No wonder a great controversy has been generated in the British press. Some believe it was a brave decision on the part of the BBC; others criticise the decision, claiming that it could not have come at a more sensitive time for the BBC as it is "trying to prove that it is not institutionally biased against the war in Iraq or Mr Bush".

Passages from Soyinka's Reith lectures have appeared in both The Observer and The Sunday Times. These are replete with powerfully-phrased, sharp insights. For instance, he argues, that "far from being the day that changed the world", 11 September "was a culmination of the posted signs that had been boldly scrawled over decades in letters of blood".

Elsewhere, he is quoted as saying in his lectures: "The first step towards the dethronement of terror is the deflation of its hypocritical self- righteousness." Of Soyinka, Ken Wiwa writes: "At a time when dissent is struggling to make itself heard, there can be few better qualified spokesmen for that cause than a writer who has lived his life in defiance of fear, imprisonment, torture, exile, professional disenfranchisement, psychological and bureaucratic intimidation."

Soyinka, whose plays have been translated into Arabic by Nessim Megally and some of his short stories and poems published in Lotus magazine, the organ of the Afro-Asian Writers' Bureau, has often been accused of modelling his works on European writers. In response, he published Myth, Literature and the African World, a book of essays in which he countered his critics by arguing against "encouraging prejudices of dichotomies between 'European rationalism' and 'African emotionalism'". "A tiger does not shout its tigritude," he pithily wrote, "it acts."

Soyinka achieved international repute as a result of his campaign against apartheid and as an advocate for reparations for the Atlantic slave trade and the cancelling of Third World debts. He also spoke out against African dictators and local corruption and -- like Achebe and Ngugi -- he analysed the perils of the post-colonial situation. For example, in his play A Dance of the Forest, which I watched in 1960 when it was performed during Nigeria's independence celebrations, he expressed some worries about his country's ability "to transcend the colonial legacy of corruption". Moreover, in his first novel, The Interpreters, Soyinka, according to Wiwa, "articulated his frustration at the impotence of artists and educated elite in the face of naked opportunism, aggression and tribalism of politicians".

"With poetic overtones," the Nobel Prize Committee said of Soyinka, he "fashions the drama of existence." Soyinka is a master of the adage. "Books and all forms of writing," to quote one of my favorites, "have always been objects of terror to those who seek to suppress the truth."

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