Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 April 2006
Issue No. 791
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Resistance and escape

Magdi Youssef ponders the West's continuing fascination with mysticism during a meeting with Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, author of Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt met with Arab writers at a seminar organised as part of the series of events marking the 30th anniversary of the Egyptian Writers' Union (EWU). The French writer spoke at length about his trajectory as a student of philosophy, and hence of abstract thought, who later turned to literature, producing plays as well as novels, including Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Quran).

Monsieur Ibrahim met with acclaim in this part of the world, not least because it seeks to treat the vexed feelings of Europeans specifically, and Westerners more generally, vis-a-vis Islamic values which in fact call for tolerance, by meditating on the meanings of the "flowers of the Quran". Though Mohamed Salmawy, president of the EWU, did well to invite Schmitt to meet Arab writers it is a pity that no more than an hour was allocated to the meeting. Still, it was time enough for some pertinent exchanges to take place.

One of the writers at the meeting asked Schmitt about the length of Monsieur Ibrahim, which is closer to a novella than a novel. The French writer responded that he had modelled himself on French predecessors during the siècle des lumières, who wrote half of the text leaving the second half to be completed by the reader. The criterion, according to Schmitt, then, is not one of length but the shortness of the text, which allows the reader to complete and add to it.

While Schmitt's response was among many witty remarks during the course of the meeting one significant question -- asked by Helmi El-Namnam -- received little attention. It is an omission that urged me to write this piece, particularly in light of Schmitt's admission that his studies in philosophy operated, initially at least, as a hindrance to his creative writing.

The question El-Namnam asked concerned the attraction felt by many Westerners towards Islam's Sufi dimension, and their focus on this essentially inward tendency to the exclusion of Islam as a more active, vibrant element in people's relations with one another. El-Namnam gave the example of the late German orientalist Annemarie Schimmel, to whom I had introduced him during her visit to Cairo in the 1990s, citing her passion for Islamic mysticism, particularly Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi, though it is important to note that Western fascination with mysticism is not confined to Sufism but extends to various traditions, Islamic and Christian. One example is the reception accorded in the West to Jibran Khalil Jibran's writings; another, the sudden growth of interest in the 1950s across the Anglo-Saxon world in the poetry of Umar Khayyam.

That was, of course, a time of rebellion in poetry and art, of which John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1956) is in many ways representative, as too was the emergence of the hippies. It is a trend that in some ways paralleled the Expressionist movement that emerged around World War I, one key German exponent of which was Arno Schmidt.

The salient characteristic of these cultural movements was a retreat from rebelling, in any organised way, against forms of authority, to concentrate on the self rather than seeking to change the reality individuals faced. But what is the relationship between these inward-looking -- though still rebellious -- movements and a novel like Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran that calls for religious tolerance and acceptance of the other? Doesn't the novel, which, incidentally, was turned into a film with Omar Sharif in the lead, actively intervene in an attempt to alter a racist and prejudiced Western conception of Islam as a religion that urges hatred of the other?

This is undoubtedly the bright side of the work; the key question here, though, concerns the mechanisms that enabled the novel to engage Western readers. Its success in doing so is undoubted: simply consider Monsieur Ibrahim 's high sales figures and the number of languages into which it has been translated.

In Cairo Schmitt spoke of his conversion from atheism to religious belief which occurred, he said, as the result of an experience in the Algerian desert where he had lost his way and almost died. It would seem that his terror when faced with death -- a terror that recalls Sartre's existential anxiety -- led him towards mysticism as a possible escape from such harsh experiences and as a crutch to support, and continue, living. Typically, a resistance towards facing the harshness of nature, and especially death, led the French author towards mysticism and Sufism and a passion for Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi's poetry.

If this analysis of Schmitt's return to the religious fold holds true, then how might it explain the popularity of his book in the West? Replace Schmitt's trauma in the Algerian desert with the economic trauma that has come with globalised, deregulated capital, and the panic it has spread not only among direct producers but also small and medium scale owners of the means of production, and we come closer to understanding the appeal of Monsieur Ibrahim in the West. Such economic frustration tends to remain veiled -- its cause not clearly apparent -- leaving people to turn inwards and seek refuge in the "aesthetics" of mysticism and Sufism, a turn that resembles Schmitt's own when confronted with death.

In modern Western civilisation, based on the nuclear family in a more extreme fashion than in the modern Arab world, the struggle to obtain a livelihood in the job market is the dominant feature except for a small, ever-decreasing segment that enjoys secure resources. All this leads to a search for self-fulfillment via the safety valve of the nuclear family. The alternative, which can also go hand in hand with the turn to the nuclear family, is an inclination towards spirituality, whether in a religious or aesthetic key. This may explain Goethe's fascination -- in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as war swept Europe -- with Islam, his only reservation being its prohibition of alcohol.

Annemarie Schimmel, my friend of 40 years and with whom I edited the magazine Fikrun Wa Fann between 1963-1971, was infatuated with Sufism. So much so that while serving as a visiting professor at the University of Ankara in her youth, she married a follower of the Mevlevi Sufi order in Turkey, though she soon awoke from her romantic dream and divorced him.

From the age of 15 Schimmel had been devoted to Sufism, emulating in this respect the writings of her intellectual ancestor, the 19th century German orientalist Friedrich Ruckert, to the extent that the first prize she won, in the 1960s, was one devoted to his works. For most Germans and Westerners, and not only for orientalists, the East is a torrent of dreams into which one can pour all the desires that cannot be fulfilled in daily life. This is why their relationship with the East is typified by ambivalence. For them it represents an alluring exoticism and simultaneously all that is unrealistic, so much so that the German proverb used to describe the unattainable compares it to a day from the Arabian Nights.

All this aside, there is one question that needs to broached concerning Schmitt's statement that he follows in the footsteps of 18th century Enlightenment French writers, particularly Diderot. These writers sought to propagate a consciousness very different from the one he proselytises. Did not Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie set itself the task of effecting an epistemological overhaul that would transform the religious consciousness of French readers, forged in the feudal system that obtained before the French Revolution, into a vision of the world characterised by a stern scientific materialism? Did not Diderot's own novels seek to tackle religious consciousness in relation to the writer's opposition to French feudalism by critiquing a religious world view that sanctioned and consecrated feudalism?

How, then, is it possible for Schmitt to ascribe his literary works to the heritage of a century that laid the groundwork for the French Revolution, and designate himself as "one of the writers of that Enlightenment century"? I would have liked to ask him this question, if only there had been time.

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