Saad Kamel: Leper of the light
Worth it changing the world -- but there are those who pay the price
Profile by Mona Abaza
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Kamel leading the Culture Caravans in Mansoura, 1962; representing Egypt at the first International Conference for Peace, Poland 1945; with his friends Hassan Fouad, Abul-Enein and Ahmed Hamroush 1962; in Nubia before the construction of the High Dam and the innundation of its villages; with his wife Mary at a wedding
Six decades of tireless activism and passionate commitment to principles of peace and social equity have left Saad Kamel virtually unrecognised. In many political circles his pacifism and independence of spirit are categorically damned, with detractors bringing personal differences to bear on their final assessment of his role in recent history. Yet as a political figure Uncle Saad (as he is known to those of us who grew up under his influence) remains the sine qua non of a magnificent promise -- the promise of a cosmopolitan and progressive yet grassroots Egypt that, perhaps understandably, has not been fulfilled. He embodies an increasingly extinct oppositional attitude -- free thinking, engaged but undogmatic, and ultimately sincere. And he is important not by virtue of the ideals underlying his declarations and actions -- those are after all open to debate, and however admirable might just as easily have transformed him into another armchair revolutionary or one among many beneficiaries of corruption and compromise -- but rather because of palpable contributions he made and, in a perversely enlightening way, the lacklustre isolation in which they landed him.
His work was unrewarding because almost systematically unallied to his interests; and though far from a relativist, instead of subscribing to a deterministic order of thought, he was always adjusting and readjusting his outlook. At an early age he turned himself into the black sheep of Egyptian communism by opposing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: the Czech opposition might as well be co-opted by the capitalist West, he insisted; endorsing undemocratic acts is the first step on the way to totalitarianism. This stance also alienated him from a by-then sincerely socialist regime nonetheless undermined by Gamal Abdel-Nasser's allergy to democracy. Later, when he sought to critique Anwar Al-Sadat's decision to crush the Egyptian left in favour of an unthinkingly zealous Americanism in Iraqi newspapers, he ended up censuring Saddam Hussein's own democratic failures, thereby undermining his position not only in Iraq but throughout the Arabic oppositional press. The coup de grace occurred after Sadat made peace with Israel, to the horror of millions of unsuspecting Arabs sympathetic with the Palestinian cause: Uncle Saad took his time to think about it, then proclaimed his opposition to war, at the same time failing to consolidate relations with the regime by refusing to back Camp David. He pointed up the lack of procedure with which Sadat had advanced, expressing doubts about the substance of the agreement itself. To the vast majority of his tribe, however, he had effectively declared himself a leper; though his point is as lucid and persuasive today as it was then: "We should deconstruct Sadat's claims to peace but war must still be opposed on principle, since it cannot bring justice because it remains, by default, the rule of the stronger over the weaker."
The home of Uncle Saad and his lifelong partner Tante Mary is a small flat in a run down building off the souq of Soliman Gohar in Doqqi, originally belonging to Uncle Saad's father, an inspector at the near-by Orman School. From the staircase onwards, the atmosphere is decidedly charming. It seems to echo the promise of a better Egypt, barely conceivable at millennium's end; the kitchen, for example, could have been the setting of an avant-garde black-and-white film made in the 1950s. And every corner bespeaks nostalgia for a withering middle-class lifestyle, as thoroughly Cairene as it is cosmopolitan, forward-looking, spare and humane: high ceilings and large windows with old- fashioned cotton mosquito nets; art deco furniture purchased by uncle's parents in the 1930s that has, to the frustration of contemporary tastes, survived both dust and wear; piles of books and enormous stacks of old newspapers. Stickers and posters -- Che Guevara, Filastin Arabiya, Italian workers marching -- hang side by side with original art by painter and cartoonist friends. Tante's turn- of-the-century Singer sewing machine, which she still uses, is a marvel into itself; so is her ancient garlic-studded namliya. Nor is the experience of being here free from a more intimate nostalgia. For both the photographer who made this portrait and myself, and many other friends of the Kamels' daughter Nadia, now a filmmaker, this flat was the gathering spot in which cultural identity formed. It had Tante Mary's gorgeous homemade pastas and coffee-can espresso, the best in town. It had a heavenly atmosphere free from family constraints, which allowed us to philosophise endlessly, to establish that we were different and far from banal. And it had major cultural figures, friends of uncle's and tante's, the likes of Salah Jahin, Youssef Edris and Ahmed Bahaaeddin -- song, short story and article writers, respectively -- not to mention their other talents, nor status. It was here, too, that I first encountered cartoonist Bahgat Osman, marionette artist Badr Hamada, novelist Fathi Ghanem, composer Sayed Mekkawi, filmmaker Tawfiq Saleh, humourist Mahmoud El-Saadani. The artist couple Abdel-Ghani Abul-Enein and Reaya El-Nimr even met at the Kamels'. And the ceaseless conversation was always stimulating. People created as they spoke, or relished Tante Mary's culinary delights. They discussed Aragon and Eluard, they watched Charlie Chaplin, they anticipated the debut exhibition of an unknown artist with genuine emotion. Poets read their poems to the painters for whom they modelled; musicians performed impromptu as they drank; everyone was falling in love. There was hope...
I mention the house at this point not only because it retains traces of that milieu, a personal paradise of mine, however depleted. More importantly, through the most productive years, it bore witness to the love story of Saad Kamel and Mary Rosenthal, an account of which is essential to grasping Kamel's life.
They were both grassroots Egyptians, each in his way. Mary's mother had fled her oppressive family life in the village of Ripatrazone, in Italy, in the 1920s, seeking an aunt in Egypt, only to end up marrying a second-generation Turkish Jew named Elia Rosenthal almost as soon as she disembarked. Mary grew up in the Italian- Egyptian community, attending a Catholic school in Rod Al-Farag. And born in the comparable middle class district of Sayeda Zeinab on 4 November 1923 -- his Muslim fellah family hailed from Beni Sweif -- Kamel lived with his parents in Fayoum as well as Cairo before enrolling in law school in 1939. When he met Mary he was still affiliated with the National Party. His maternal uncle, the late Fathi Radwan, veteran politician and activist within the National Party -- a party founded by Mustapha Kamel and Mohamed Farid that championed the national liberation cause from the time of the British occupation of Egypt and until the emergence of the Wafd Party in 1919 -- was a seminal influence on Kamel. "I was born into Al- Hizb Al-Watani," Kamel is known to declaim to this day. And thanks to Radwan's connection with editor Mustafa Amin, he had also found a way into Akhbar Al-Youm, at which he was earning the impressive sum of LE35 per month as a journalist.
Kamel had been implicated in the assassination of the pro-British politician Amin Osman and briefly imprisoned in Sijn Al-Ajaneb. After his release he drifted away from National politics and towards the peace movement. Though the youngest member, he became the secretary of the National Committee for Peace, headed by El-Bendari Pasha and boasting the membership of, among others, Youssef Helmi (with whom Kamel was to found the well-known Harakat Ansar Al-Salam "The Peace Partisans Movement", whose mouthpiece, Al-Katib, he edited), the women's liberation advocate Cesa Nabarawi and painter Inji Eflatoun. Approached by Michel Brughier on behalf of the international peace movement in Paris, he eventually represented Egypt in the preparatory committee for the foundation of the World Peace Council and in 1951 attended the Warsaw Peace Conference in that capacity, the first step on a long journey. By the time he joined the Al-Haraka Al- Dimoqratiya lil-Taharror Al-Watani (the democratic movement for national liberation, abbreviated in Arabic as HADITO), Mary was already a member of that communist organization, having been introduced to the principles of Marxism at a similarly early age by like-minded Egyptian-Italians.
They met at an exhibition of children's art Mary was organising as part of her work at the Hungarian Embassy and Kamel was attending in a group representing the Egyptian national committee for peace. Neither paid any attention to the exhibition. Instead the two of them sat side by side on a couch outside the gallery -- and talked for hours. It was love at first sight. And it happened right before the July Revolution (1952), which divided communists into two camps for and against the Free Officers. The newly met couple believed in the Free Officers' integrity but were disillusioned when the nascent regime hanged the two Kafr Al-Dawwar workers Khamis and Baqri. Protests in 1954 demanding the restoration of democracy and the return of army officers to their barracks were brutally crushed. The clampdown would eventually extend to the more democratically minded leaders of the revolution. Khaled Mohieddin was expelled from Egypt, Youssef Seddiq edged out of the circle surrounding Nasser; dozens of communists were jailed. Kamel and Mary had been detained for a few months in 1953; on their release they were married (it was then that Mary converted to Islam and adopted the name of Naila Kamel). Being poor, Saad and Mary moved in with Uncle Saad's parents in Doqqi. Only a few months later, however, they were arrested again.
There is a life-affirming quality about Saad Kamel, a peculiar assurance, a capacity to keep your head on your shoulders under the direst circumstances imaginable. Old and alienated, his face abraded by the pain of disappointment as much as the strain of struggle, he emits it still; and in the absorbing atmosphere of the Soliman Gohar flat it tends to bring to mind the thought of light -- the light of hope; light as knowledge, power, mind; light at the end of the tunnel; sunlight; "the light of the heart" -- a literal as well as metaphorical light.
His reminiscences about his experience of imprisonment, for example, are remarkably cheering, especially when supplemented by Mary's -- going to the trouble of climbing over the toilet sink in order to catch a hard-won glimpse of her young husband across the courtyard of Sijn Masr. The censorship to which their letters to each other was subject never undermined their insistence on speaking as much of their commitment to changing the world and upholding universal values of human life as of their yearning for each other. In Al-Sijn Al-Harbi, the military prison, in common with every other prisoner, Kamel was subject to solitary confinement: he recalls how the political prisoners developed a kind of Morse code through which they could communicate with each other using only their footwear and the walls of their cells. At Kharga Oasis, the concentration camp where he spent some five years, together with Hassan Fouad, Zuhdi, Salah Hafez, Alfred Farag, Kamel managed to build a strong community. Taking control of three wards, they redecorated their living quarters: Fouad painted the doorways, Farag inscribed both prose and verse on the walls; the most open, positive discussions were held in the corridors for hours.
Today the Kamels see their militant experience in HADITO as indispensable to their sense of the world. On their release in 1959 -- again, it was more or less simultaneous -- Kamel resumed his work at Akhbar Al-Youm, Mary, writing under the name Naila Kamel, embarked on a rich career as a journalist in Hawwa, the women's magazine established and edited by Amina Al-Said in 1955. There occurred a short-lived respite when, under a secure Nasser regime committed to employing the intelligentsia in the service of the people, Kamel performed the feat for which he is most fondly remembered -- instituting the state-supported qusour al-thaqafa (cultural palaces) throughout the country. Tharwat Okasha, then minister of culture, had taken the trouble to visit Kamel in prison during his last year of confinement; the brother of Ahmed Okasha, Kamel's doctor, he had heard enough about him to be insistent on assigning him the task of spreading the experiment of the first (Cairo) cultural palace in the provinces.
Kamel conceived of these incredibly beneficial institutions, which were to become the liveliest centres of creativity and culture under his supervision, as "miniature ministries of culture with a local responsibility". He started with Alexandria, logically enough, moving to Tanta, Kafr Al- Sheikh, Beni Sweif, Assiut, Aswan and many other governorates. The position allowed him to utilise the talents of his friends and realise, in a palpable, immediate way, his dream of democratising and decentralising culture. The logic of al-thaqafa al-jamahiriya (people's culture), the palaces' parent institution, of which Kamel was soon made director, gave rise to a golden age during which simple people hitherto dispossessed of art found their way to some of the best performances, screenings and exhibitions to take place in the country; the folk arts were triumphantly revived; an unprecedented "Nuba barque" bore artists like Gazebiya Serri, Abdel-Ghani Abul-Enein, Hassan Fouad, Bikar, Heba Enayet and Bahgat Osman to the Nuba, where they abundantly and beautifully documented, in photographs as well as art works, the last vestiges of an ancient culture about to be irrevocably lost to the High Dam; qawafel al- thaqafa (culture caravans) drew thousands of villagers to quality events managed out of a van as they trekked through the countryside; and folk performances (supervised by Abul-Enein, whose wife El-Nimr became the director of the Giza Palace) proved especially popular. Once, Kamel recalls, the ambassador of Vietnam gave the keynote at a festival in Banha, expressing solidarity with al- thaqafa al-jamahiriya. The Anfushi Palace conference in Alexandria had an audience of over 10,000. The Soviet ballet performed in Aswan, opera found its way to Assiut, Ramadan nights -- a tradition frequently imitated since -- took place in tents erected for the purpose outside Al-Hussein Mosque during the holy month. Three musicians -- Sayed Mekkawi, Khadra Mohamed Khedr and Zakareya El-Heggawi -- took it upon themselves to resurrect popular music, with the last talent scouting in almost every village on the Nile Valley. With tears in her eyes, Mary remembers the euphoria that overtook the tent on the last night of Ramadan when, spontaneously, with real emotion, thousands of audience members broke into the national anthem...
It is with admirable equanimity that Uncle Saad now explains how, barely two years into the experience, from 1966 to the end of 1968, the regime gave in to fear of the masses. Large groups of people, whatever their purpose, were perceived as a potential threat; in the wake of the 1967 defeat especially, the regime's emphasis on culture shifted to a hollow resistance rhetoric and free collectives were suspended. And Okasha, who had publicly commended Kamel's work, quietly asked him to resign. Refusing, Uncle Saad was fired; and it later transpired that Okasha had been forced to expel him by the powers that be. Sadat's rise to power could only have made things worse, not only because of his distinctly capitalist orientation but because he had been friends with Uncle Saad in the early years of the liberation struggle. They had never liked each other much, and the new president was intent on isolating him from public life. No sooner had he become president than a notice was displayed on the lift leading to Akhbar Al-Youm 's offices categorically banning Saad Kamel from writing. Other newspapers followed suit, and until Sadat's assassination not a word of uncle's found its way to publication in Egypt; under Mubarak he was given a column in Akhbar Al-Youm entitled Khawater Siyasiya (Political observations), which he still writes.
Do you have regrets, Uncle Saad? "Not at all," he says. During the silences he stares intently into nothing, as peaceful as he is resigned. "I've had a tough life," he tells me, knowing that I'm there to capture some of his memory, which he knows is slipping away even as we speak, "but I enjoyed every single moment of it." Incredibly, I feel, it's easy to believe Uncle Saad when, sitting on the art deco furniture of his parents, the light emanating from his face, he tells me, "I am not bitter."