Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 October 2005
Issue No. 765
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mona Anis

Marginalia: No Man's Land

"Hirst: I say to myself, I saw a body drowning, but I am mistaken. There is nothing there.
Spooner: No. You are in no-man's land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.
Hirst: I'll drink to that."
Harold Pinter's play No Man's Land

Click to view caption
John Gielgud and Ralph Richardon in a 1975 production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land ; Installation by Sawsan Bou- Khaled, Zawaya Magazine, Beirut

Very little of what goes on in the public sphere these days could hearten the intellectual. This is especially true of an Arab intellectual, living in an age of fabricated "clash of civilisations" -- at the receiving end of the incumbent "war on terror" -- and even more so of an Egyptian intellectual, surrounded by floundering cultural and educational institutions.

However, I was overcome by joy this week, in a way that surprised even me, when it was announced that this year's Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to British playwright Harold Pinter, and this was not only because of Pinter's vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, laudable as his position is.

My relation with Harold Pinter's work goes back to the mid-1960s, when Egypt had the benefit of a competent theatre. The Birthday Party (1957) and The Caretaker (1959) were among the plays seen at this time at the National Theatre -- or was it the 100-seat theatre, an experimental venue showing Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, Albee and other vanguard playwrights of the time? I forget. But of the work of all the so-called absurdist writers of that time it was the menace of Pinter's lines that remained with me long after having seen the plays, continuing to disturb and inviting further reflections.

In the mid 1970s, long before I had learned much about how culturally- specific languages can be, I embarked on a translation of a play by Pinter, No- Man's Land, into Arabic. Then I went to England, and the play was on at London's National Theatre, performed by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. I went to see it, and in the process learned one of the most beneficial lessons of my life: mesmerised by a production the like of which I had never seen, I realised that I had never really understood the play I had just finished translating and submitted for publication.

The British audience was laughing in places where I had not realised there was anything funny, and it was then that I understood that most of the allusions Pinter made to the British class system, and especially to cricket, were totally alien to me. I withdrew the play from the publishers and started on a new course of education.

I was living in England when "Harold Pinter reharnessed his genius for smart intimidation in the cause of political protest," as the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday wrote this week. In 1988, with Mountain Language and in other ways, Pinter embraced Third World causes, particularly prison torture by oppressive Third World regimes, which was inspired by his solidarity with the Kurds in Turkey.

This week I looked through my papers, unfortunately to no avail, for an interview with Pinter that appeared in the London Radio Times in the same year, in which he talked about the "obscenity" of not engaging politically when there is so much suffering happening around the world. Some 20 years or more after I had first been introduced to Pinter's work I was hooked on him once more, for he had given me the assurance that great artists have a role to play in fighting against all the ugliness that surrounds us, and that they may, contrary to what is claimed by many of those who benefit from the status quo, become better artists in so doing.

In recognising Pinter, the 2005 Nobel Committee receives my heartfelt thanks for assuring me that there are others that still share this point of view. This is particularly so, since many intellectuals, writers and artists in Egypt are today organising in an attempt to affect change in a cultural establishment riddled with corruption and fraud, which employs intellectuals as apologists for the regime, and which does not promote anything apart from the most stunted propaganda. Only last month 46 people, including artists, critics and art students were consumed by fire while watching a production of Edward Albee's play The Zoo Story performed in the cultural palace of the provincial town of Beni Sweif, as part of a theatre contest for amateur groups.

The shock waves generated by the cruelty of the accident, which was also laden with symbolism (watching The Zoo Story of all plays), have jolted those who have anything to do with the practice of culture in Egypt out of their complacency, making them question the conditions under which a culture is produced within a cultural apparatus that deals with it only as an ornament of the Establishment. This is an Establishment that has long stopped investing in the material base upon which real culture can arise. Meanwhile, the country's cultural palaces and other cultural venues do not provide even the most basic safety equipment, lacking even fire extinguishers in the event of fire.

How can one now have the faith to produce a play, or even to watch one, when the price of doing so could, quite simply, be one's life? It was painful questions of this sort that sent me out looking for Mohamed Abdel-Wahid's book Mothaqafoun taht al-talab (Intellectuals for Sale), which created uproar when it appeared in January this year since for a decade the author has been a close advisor to Farouk Hosni, Egypt's minister of culture for the past 18 years, before falling out of favour.

Abdel-Wahid's book can easily be discredited as the testimony of an angry and prejudiced senior functionary, whom others conspired to remove from his privileged post as a mover and shaker in the Egyptian cultural establishment. There is validity to such an argument, which was repeated ad nauseam in the national newspapers when the book appeared nine months ago. Nevertheless, the stories of corruption, and perhaps more importantly the stories about the mechanisms employed by the ministry to co-opt intellectuals, are still hair-raising.

Regardless of the author's personal motivations, the wealth of material included in this 400- page book is a sociological document in what Noam Chomsky has called "Manufacturing Consent." This is something that we should be grateful to Abdel-Wahid for, especially since he has chosen to speak out, when, as he writes in the preface to the book, "all the people mentioned are still living and enjoying their official posts... and Farouk Hosni is at the zenith of his power and political glory."

To return to Pinter and No-Man's Land, when the two main characters in the play, Hirst and Spooner, meet again after many years apart, the former having become an established writer and the latter a nobody, Spooner tries to persuade Hirst to let him work for him.

He says: "I ask you... to consider me for the post. If I were wearing a suit such as your own you would see me in a different light. I am extremely good with tradespeople, hawkers, canvassers, nuns. I can be silent when desired or, when desired, convivial. I can discuss any subject of your choice -- the future of the country, wild flowers, the Olympic Games... I remain capable of undertaking the gravest and the most daunting responsibilities. Temperamentally, I can be what you wish. My character is, at core, a humble one... I have a keen eye for dust. My kitchen would be immaculate. I am tender towards objects. I would take good care of your silver. I play chess, billiards, and the piano. I could play Chopin for you. I could read the bible to you. I am a good companion... I come to you as a warrior. I shall be happy to serve you as my master. I bend my knee to your excellence. I am furnished with the qualities of piety, prudence, liberality and goodness. Decline them at your peril. It is my task as a gentleman to remain amiable in my behaviour, courageous in my undertakings, discreet and gallant in my executions, by which I mean your private life would remain your own. However, I shall be sensible to the least wrong offered you. My sword shall be ready to dissever all manifest embodiments of malign forces that conspire to your own ruin. I shall regard it as incumbent upon me to preserve a clear countenance and a clean conscience. I will accept death's challenge on your behalf. I shall meet it, for your sake, boldly, whether it be in the field or in the bedchamber. I am your chevalier. I had rather bury myself in a tomb of honour than permit your dignity to be sullied by domestic enemy or foreign foe. I am yours to command."

These are universal words that speak yards about submission and co-option anywhere in the world, and they have great resonance here since the destruction of culture that has taken place in Egypt over the past three decades would not have been possible without the intellectuals for sale Abdel-Wahid talks about. However, in the play Hirst refuses Spooner's offer, and the play ends with his drinking to no-man's land where nothing ever changes.

This week marks 40 days since the Beni Sweif incident, and 40 days it used to take Ancient Egyptians to bury the dead. But for those of us who have family and friends among the victims of the inferno -- this writer included -- it is impossible to do so with any degree of self-respect before we stop drinking to no man's land.

Laurels for Pinter

CROWNING a long list of awards, Harold Pinter (b. 1930) was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature last week. In announcing the award, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl lauded Pinter as writer "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms." Known primarily as a playwright -- his plays include such texts as The Birthday Party (1957), The Dumb Waiter (1957), and The New World Order (1991) -- Pinter's is a multi-faceted career. A number of his plays have been adapted for the screen, such as The Caretaker (dir. Clive Donner, 1963) and The Birthday Party (dir. William Friedkin, 1967), and Pinter has written some 24 screenplays, including adaptations of literary texts, such as The French Lieutenant's Woman (1980), based on the novel by John Fowles, The Trial (1989), based on the novel by Franz Kafka, and The Heat of the Day (1988), based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. A fierce critic of the war on Iraq, Pinter gave a number of speeches on the subject at the time, and his poems written in opposition of the war won him the Wilfred Owen award for poetry. The opening lines of the oft-quoted "God Bless America" read: "Here they go again/ The Yanks in their armoured parade/ Chanting their ballads of joy/ As they gallop across the big world/ Praising America's God./ The gutters are clogged with the dead/ The ones who couldn't join in/ The others refusing to sing/ The ones who are losing their voice/ The ones who've forgotten the tune..."

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