Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A question of ethics

Awlad Haritna should be published in Egypt, writes Sayed El-Bahrawi

Click to view caption
Naguib Mahfouz

Nothing objectionable

The fetters of faith


The Muslim Brotherhood won a third of the seats in the People's Assembly in the recent parliamentary elections. The officially outlawed group would probably have won more had it not been for the violence inflicted upon its supporters by security forces and NDP thugs.

The election results surprised many Egyptian intellectuals who expressed alarm at the prospect of growing intervention by religious spokesmen in cultural affairs and the consequent restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression. Such fears are not without foundation. There is not, after all, any shortage of precedents: Muslim Brotherhood MPs have in the past demanded bans on the publication, and even the burning, of certain books.

In a bid to allay these fears Abdel-Moneim Abul- Futouh, a moderate MB leader and erstwhile student movement leader in the 1970s, called Naguib Mahfouz to express approval of the publication of Awlad Haritna ( Children of the Alley ). Other MB leaders were quick to stress Abul-Futouh's decision was a personal one and did not express the opinion of the group.

As though to test the waters Dar Al-Hilal announced that it planned to publish the novel and Al-Fagr newspaper went so far as to print its final chapter. Then came the surprise, not from the Brotherhood or Al-Azhar but from Mahfouz himself. The novelist would agree to publication of the book on two conditions: that Al-Azhar signal its approval and prominent MB member Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd write the introduction.

Outraged secularist intellectuals accused Mahfouz of abandoning the principles of enlightenment and freedom of opinion and expression. In Al-Ahram of 26 January Mahfouz clarified his position. His refusal, he explained, was a personal decision taken on the basis of his commitment to an agreement he had concluded with the publishing house's former director, Hassan Sabri El-Khouli. He stressed that he was not yielding to any ban issued by Al-Azhar, which had not issued any pronouncements and did not have the right to do so.

As serious as the situation is, what concerns me most are the contradictions and inconsistencies it throws into relief with regard to the three parties immediately involved: Naguib Mahfouz, the Brotherhood and Egyptian intellectuals.

I was particularly struck by the indignant, self- righteous tone of the intellectuals whose position displayed a lack of awareness of the personality of the author and his role in Egyptian cultural and political life. Unfortunately there is nothing new in this.

Intellectual attitudes towards Mahfouz have fluctuated between extremes of condemnation and adulation. In the fifties and sixties he was regarded as a great writer. Esteem began to dwindle in the following decade: artistically, said many, he was running dry and beginning to repeat himself while professionally he was caricatured as a diligent functionary who clung to routine and never ventured a public opinion critical of the regime or its practices; indeed, he openly approved of Camp David and Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. After Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, however, his stock with Egypt's intellectuals once again rose, reaching its peak following the assassination attempt against him at the hands of alleged Muslim extremists. Today, following his purported deference to Muslim fundamentalists, his popularity among intellectuals has again dipped.

I cannot help but wonder at the failure of these intellectuals to appreciate Mahfouz's limitations. To a large extent this stems from a failure to appreciate the limitations of Egyptian liberals in general, from Taha Hussein to Sayed El-Qimni, whose personal battles for freedom of thought, opinion and expression have invariably ended in surrender. These are not so much individual limitations as they are the limitations of a fragile middle class dependent upon the ruling authority regardless of its political orientation and unwilling, or unable, to build the kind of relationship with the wider social environment and, in particular, the popular classes, that might support their struggles. As contemporary ruling authorities have always tended to compromise on issues in which religion is involved in order to placate and win to their side self- appointed religious spokesmen, intellectuals have constantly been left in the lurch and eventually back down or throw in the towel. In the case of Mahfouz, in particular, it is interesting to note that the authority that originally banned Awlad Haritna was not Al-Azhar but the government's censorship bureau, in one of the departments of which Mahfouz himself worked.

If Mahfouz's position with regard to the publication of this novel comes as little surprise given the factors noted above, not to mention the possibility that the assassination attempt has made him even more cautious, it holds little water from the artistic and ethical standpoint. Ironically, it is the latter standpoint that has been adopted by Abul-Futouh and Abul-Magd (the latter has agreed to write the introduction to the book in an edition to be printed by the Egyptian publishing house Dar Al-Shorouq in Beirut and marketed in Egypt; see extracts below). Banning the publication or confiscating books is, from this standpoint, simply wrong. In an open society there should be as few constraints as possible on the ability of ideas to confront their antitheses in public debate. If, as is the case here, the work in question is a novel, that is to say an artistic work, then its worthiness for publication should be judged on the basis of its artistic merits, the depth of sensitivity and the degree of verbal deftness the writer employs in order to bring to life a human experience in a convincing and profound way. A work that meets these criteria performs an aesthetic, and through it a moral and social, function. In penetrating beneath the contradictions of a human dilemma or social phenomenon, no matter how bizarre or unconventional the characters, it leads the reader to a greater awareness of the nature of these contradictions and, hence, enhances his or her ability to overcome them. This is not the place to review Awlad Haritna, but I can ascertain that it fulfills these criteria even if it is not the best of Mahfouz's works.

That the Muslim Brothers are obviously at odds with themselves over the publication of this novel betrays sharp divisions in their organisation, both in Egypt and abroad. It also reflects the inconsistencies between their ideological positions and their methods of political campaigning, a situation made all the more confusing by the absence of a concrete platform that addresses society's day-to-day concerns. It is one thing to parade beneath the banner of "Islam is the solution," another to come up with workable solutions to people's needs. This is precisely the predicament in which Hamas has found itself in the wake of its success in the Palestinian legislative elections, a consummately civil, as opposed to theocratic, process of selection.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been more astute. Before the legislative elections it announced that it had no interest in taking part in government but sought only to have greater influence upon it. Certainly, with all the seats they have won in the People's Assembly, they are poised to accomplish this objective, which is precisely what secularist forces must be alert to and handle appropriately if society is not to be dragged hundreds of years backwards. Whether his reluctance to have his book published stems from personal conviction or fear, Naguib Mahfouz seems to have conceded that the Muslim Brotherhood has already become a moral authority to be deferred to. If this is the case it is a position that must be fought with vigour, and through rational means, one of which is to press for the publication of Awlad Haritna -- which has already appeared in print several times abroad -- in Egypt.

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