Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri: A historical prerogative
Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri obtained Thanawiya Amma from the Damanhour Secondary School in 1955, and joined the English-language department at Alexandria University's Faculty of Arts -- from whence, on a Fulbright scholarship, to Columbia University, New York, where he obtained his MA, following up with a PhD from Rutgers College, New Jersey, in 1969. In the same year, he returned to teach English at Ain Shams University. He has since held many posts, including cousellor for the Ministry of Information, and produced the eight-volume Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism, a gargantuan, truly comprehensive work that has turned him into a household name. He has written widely on secularism and prejudice, Western culture and contemporaneity; he has also produced poems, stories for children and plastic art. The recipient of, among many other high-profile honoured including the Sultan Al-Uwaiss Prize, the State Merit Award in 2005, Elmessiri nonetheless decided to be general coordinator for Kifaya a few months ago.
By Sahar El-Bahr
Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri's decision to assume such a central post in Kifaya, the Egyptian Movement for Change, has raised not a few eyebrows, since -- being a respected, largely ivory- tower figure -- he had never involved himself so directly in (openly oppositional) politics, marching at the head of a demonstration on the streets of Cairo. Yet this is apparently not so. According to Elmessiri himself, his first clash with the regime took place when he was 16 years old, during his first year of secondary school, when asked by the Arabic teacher to write a composition on "the garden in your house", Elmessiri wrote, "We have no garden in my house, because it is not usual for homes in Damanhour to have gardens; rather, there are piles of rubbish all over the place." Indeed his performance at school was more or less completely bad, because the Egyptian educational system was -- still is, he says -- based on rote learning, and students are consistently prevented from using their imagination or excercising their powers of understanding. In that same year, for example, Elmessiri failed the drawing exam when he ornamented the fan he was meant to draw in an unusual way: "And for that reason alone, I became the only student in the entire school to fail the drawing exam."
A major shift occurred in his last year at secondary school when "Mr Rafael, my history teacher" declared Elmessiri different and a genius: "Actually I don't know why he said that. Maybe it was because when we had to write an essay on Napoleon, while all the other students declared he was a military hero, I called him a war criminal, discussing and analysing my viewpoint in an effort to prove my point." But it was Emil Georges -- a major influence not only on Elmessiri but on almost every Damanhour Secondary School student -- who facilitated the true beginning of Elmessiri's intellectual life. While many of his classmates had full marks in philosophy and went on to join the philosophy department of various universities, Elmessiri's lowest grade was in this subject, "maybe because I wrote down what I really thought of Plato and Aristotle". At Alexandria University he had a culture shock: the move from Damanhour was too great a change for what had remained a more or less provincial sensibility. "Because moving from what was in effect a small village like Damanhour to a huge city like Alexandria wasn't easy. I lived in Ibrahimiya, where most of the Greek community used to be. Most people there spoke Greek, even the vegetable sellers on the street." But it was nothing compared to the shock of arriving at the English department, where most students were either full- blooded foreigners or foreign-educated Egyptians who could hardly speak Arabic at all; he had trouble making out the lecture timetable. "For the whole month I stayed at home reading English newspapers and magazines and listening to English radio; and over the summer I read piles of books on the history, art, philosophy and ideology of the West; I never lost my self confidence. I continued to express my views, for which I got the highest grades -- in this way my university experiment was an amazing success story." So amazing, in fact, he was the first Egyptian ever to obtain an MA from Columbia. But a whole new series of struggles awaited him here in Egypt which he faced upon his return.
The way he puts it, he realised there were "three raging wolves" inside him. The first was that of wealth. "I come from a family of businessmen. On coming back I found my brothers' work had been very profitable. They led wealthy, luxurious lives, whereas my Ain Shams University salary barely afforded me a decent living." It was a moment of tension, so much so that he considered giving up his academic career and joining his brothers. "But then I realised that my lifestyle was actually better than theirs, all things considered. I could have fun, meet cultured people, go to the cinema and the theatre and enjoy the gardens and museums of Cairo. Even my nephews and nieces found being with us more fun than being with their parents. Because we had a more beautiful lifestyle." But, cured of the wolf of wealth, Elmessiri now had to face the wolf of fame, which he did not start enjoying in any degree until 1969, when Osama El-Baz introduced him to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, then chairman of the board and editor-in-chief, in order to contribute to the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies as a specialist on Zionism. Then he also started writing on the pages of the daily Al-Ahram. "Heikal would cancel the articles of well-known scholars and authors to make room for my work." He would personally discuss the final draft with Elmessiri and was often convinced of the veracity of his views: "He would sometimes suggest a sort of debate whereby my article would be written in response to his own column, and he would argue deliberately against my viewpoint to see how I would dispute his statements." Heikal also sent Elmessiri on a big-budget book buying mission to the United States to set up the Al-Ahram Library, an assignment he particularly enjoyed: "The wolf of fame had been assuaged. I needed the wolf of fame to grow, because it was important for spreading my views and the messages I had. Fame also protected me from the regime."
It was in 1979, exactly 10 years after Elmessiri's return from the US, that the wolf of fame turned on him again: "I was banned from television and radio, I could hardly go into Al-Ahram; all the doors of fame had been shut in my face. The reason was simple: I had publicly opposed the Camp David Accords. It was a horrible feeling, but then one day I took the wolf of fame aside and said to him, 'Look, I'm going to be famous, but only by my rules, not yours.' It's been asleep ever since." The third wolf, "the Hegelian wolf", on the other hand, was never to let go of him at all. "This wolf set me apart from my friend Mohamed Said Bassiouni," Elmessiri's mentor and friend for 40 years, a person, in Elmessiri's own words, of unique character who, though he never obtained Thanawiya Amma, had one of the most formidable intellects in the country; he had knowledge of impressive range, far-reaching vision and the ability to tackle complex issues. It was with Bassiouni, with whom he would spend a few days in Alexandria every time he encountered a serious intellectual problem, that Elmessiri thrashed out the more complex issues he has dealt with. "Though Bassiouni was more intelligent and cultured than I, he never managed to achieve much because of carelessness and depression. Besides, he didn't have a message to communicate to the world -- I do. But the most important difference between us is that, while he fell prey to the Hegelian wolf, I managed to tame it. Bassiouni never managed to complete a single essay, you see: every time he started writing, he was overwhelmed by the connections between things."
The desire, in short, to produce theoretical work that combines the highest level of generalisation with exhaustive detail -- a compulsion the Encyclopaedia reflects -- which eventually turned out to be impossible: Elmessiri says this was the point at which he discovered the difference between perfection and completeness, whence he began to chasten the Hegelian wolf. Still, it took him a quarter of a century to complete that tome of 3,500 pages and over two million words. It required "a strict regime" and a sense of complete devotion: "The encyclopaedia controlled my life. I had to give up all academic, professional and social responsibilities. I was awake before six even though I went to bed long past midnight; and the whole time I was working, taking breaks only to eat or sleep for an hour at noon. It also implied giving up my job at the university and thus being without an income for the whole family -- something my wife accepted within five minutes of the discussion." However perfect, Elmessiri has no doubt that the work suffers from loopholes which he hopes the coming generations of scholars will manage to fix. He also has new questions on the topic he would like to see answered, and growing understanding of more recent developments.
But why, once the Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism was finished, should he opt for Kifaya? To which he simply stated that we live in historic times during which the political situation -- a miserably undemocratic status quo preserving itself at all costs -- categorically must change; Kifaya is the beacon. Kifaya could turn into a democratic institution, he says, with new mechanisms enabling members to participate in the decision-making process within the movement itself and in so doing generating ideas for improving performance. "In Kifaya we try as much as possible to avoid the negative mechanism into which the autocratic regime has fallen. We are keen on participation and pluralism where decision-making is concerned."
And no, Kifaya will not become a political party. To Elmessiri there is a very obvious reason for this: Kifaya's mandate is to represent the full spectrum of public consciousness, gathering a multiplicity of dissident forces with which to confront the government. Besides which, he adds, in Egypt parties have their own legacy of weakness and oppressive dynamics. He will not hold his current post for longer than a year in order to maintain principles of democratic pluralism but, more importantly, due to his health conditions. In fact he has just returned from the US where he underwent treatment for cancer -- at the expense of one sympathetic Saudi prince who was quick to step in while the government took too long to "examine the possibilities" for covering the expenses: "The examination is ongoing, because we live under such a methodically objective state." Illness is new to Elmessiri who by the time he completed a huge chunk of his life's work at the age of 60 had lived in perfect health: the day he submitted the final draft of the Encyclopaedia to the publisher, in 1999, he experienced the symptoms of partial paralysis and inability to talk normally: "My nervous system rebelled against me and started functioning of its own volition, having been under such tight control for at least half a century. I went to Switzerland where they said I had a stroke." In Switzerland, a fellow patient suffering the same symptoms advised him to rest and relax, which he did for two months during which his condition improved significantly. "Then, in the span of two days, my health rapidly deteriorated and I could no longer move the lower half of my body -- which is when I discovered that cancer had damaged part of my spine." Inevitably, the conspiracy theorists spread the rumour that Elmessiri's illness was actually the work of Mossadin reaction to the Encyclopaedia. But Elmessiri's own response was very much more sensible than such meaningless conjecture.
Illness has taught him two things, he says: that there are limits to human capability; and that, rather than disease per se, it is the so- called patient's response to their condition that matters the most. "When I was in the hospital, I received heaps of flowers from friends and students who visited me, and that's when I realised how important it was to visit ill friends and family, which I had only ever done on very rare occasions." After being informed that he had cancer, in the US, where the illness was discovered, Elmessiri was asked to come back to hospital at 3pm for medication. "I asked the nurse if she could delay the appointment by an hour because I was taking my wife to the museum -- and she was shocked. She kept saying that on first being told that they have cancer, patients normally required a psychiatrist on the spot!" Illness has also effected a reunion with God, making Elmessiri realise how deep a believer he is. He had been a Marxist since age 16, he confesses, embracing the incumbent materialism after his religious education teachers failed to provide him with answers to the questions about the origin and point of existence and the universe. When his first-born daughter came into being, he goes on, he became a believer because materialism could not explain the miracle and mystery of creation... Elmessiri is currently writing another book on Judaism, in which he foresees the disappearance of Israel from the face of the earth.