Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 September 2004
Issue No. 707
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

"No one listened"

Science, independence and grassroots art: a German-based Egyptian scholar offers critical insight into the Arab presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair

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Magdi Youssef

According to Gamal El-Ghitani -- perhaps the foremost oppositional cultural authority in Egypt -- it is the exclusion of intellectuals that undermines the official programme of the Arab world's guest-of- honour presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Of the many parties whose insightful input is said to have been ignored (El-Ghitani has been giving such input ample space on the pages of Akhbar Al-Adab ), comparative literature and drama professor Magdi Youssef -- president of the International Association of Intercultural Studies at Bremen University, Germany -- is a particularly obvious example. A resident of Germany since 1965 and a regular attendee of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Youssef describes his life's work as a single, protracted attempt at establishing, in the Western academic mentality, the existence of a contemporary Arab culture -- in the widest sense of the word. And it is on the vitality, creativity and "objective difference" of such a culture, he insists, that every successful step on the way to demystifying Orientalist preconceptions about the Arab world has depended. Based on what he describes as "four decades' experience of how the West's subtle psychological barriers complicate the process of intercultural exchange", Youssef produced several extended critiques of the official presentation programme in the form of open letters to, among others, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and executive director of the Frankfurt Book Fair committee Mohamed Ghoneim. Written like academic papers, they constitute a comprehensive, objective critique of the official perspective on the event. The fact that the organisers have not taken Youssef's comments into account would seem to support El-Ghitani's view that it is bureaucratic rather than epistemological considerations that underlie the official contribution to the fair.

Essential to Youssef's critique of the programme is his observation of a home-grown tendency akin to reverse discrimination -- the principle whereby Arab notions of modernity or excellence are mindlessly equated with the Western status quo, which, however superficially imitated, is perceived as favourable to independent endeavour. It is largely in this context that he draws attention to the programme's emphasis on canonical contributions to the natural sciences, contrasting it with the complete absence of any reference to contemporary science and technology in the Arab world. Examples of "a contribution to the active production of material knowledge", he remarks, are necessary for placing Arab culture on the map, since it is only through such present-day achievements that "Western reservations" regarding the status of Arab culture in the world today can be countered. Contrary to the prevalent view that contemporary Arabs have little or no part to play in the development of the natural sciences (expressed by, among other figures, Arab Publishers' Union chairman Ibrahim El-Muallem), Youssef points up examples of original scientific achievement that have had far-reaching consequences. He cites, among other accomplishments, the work of pharmacology professor Mohamed Raouf Hamed in Libya, where he discovered that the regular intake of a local hot sauce called harisa (which contains the compound capsasine) helps prevent rather than cause stomach ulcers, contrary to what had been generally assumed. Confirmed by the American Food and Drugs Administration, Hamed's discovery has revolutionised pharmaceutical thinking about ulceration. Why not invite Hamed to discuss his discovery in Frankfurt, he proposes.

Aside from specific recommendations -- holding a seminar on Islamic jihad, which is among the most popular topics in present- day Germany, and having Grand Mufti Mohamed Sayed Tantawi preside over it; promoting Arabic calligraphy, an art form that has proved well-liked in the past; employing the concept of imagology in comparative literature seminars, with a view to identifying and critiquing negative images of the other -- Youssef pays much attention to the structure and dynamics of the official seminars at Frankfurt, which seem to replicate the shortcomings of their Cairo Book Fair counterparts. Speakers, he explains, should start by putting forward the principal topics in the most neutral tone possible, inviting the audience to approach the issue from whichever angle they choose and encouraging them to begin asking questions immediately. Such an approach is a prerequisite for active interchange, Youssef insists -- something that would not be possible if speakers were to make premeditated pronouncements prior to engaging with the audience, however valid or correct such pronouncements are in themselves. He also takes issue with the number of seminars on contemporary Arabic literature, too many of which tend to take place at the same time, with the topics ranging too widely for attendees to make sense of them. To provide the necessary thematic scaffolding, holding the seminars together, and also to "neutralise inaccurate psychological prejudices in favour of a particular societal value system", Youssef suggests "a general methodological lecture" equivalent to a symposium topic -- on contemporary Arabic literature and world literature. This, he goes on to say, would help place Arab culture on an equal footing with the West.

Finally, in the context of the year-long arts programme, Youssef advocates focussing on the home-grown and the indigenous, contending that Western-inspired art is less likely to inspire confidence in the originality or independence of Arab culture. He promotes the kind of plastic art that "stands firmly on the specificity of its societal ground, away from any form of identification with Western visual-arts trends". Likewise he suggests folk music performances, citing as an example the madih (chanting in the praise of Prophet Mohamed) of Sheikh Yassin El-Tuhami. It is surprising, he insists, that no such programme item was thought of. And yet perhaps Youssef's surprise, much like his subsequent shock at the organisers' failure to respond to his letters, is ultimately misplaced. Such failures, El-Ghitani would say, are only to be expected of bureaucrats.

Based on interviews with and documents courtesy of Magdi Youssef

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