Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2008
Issue No. 893
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Everything is under control

The Egyptian and Arab Writers Unions last week celebrated the opening of new premises at the Citadel in Cairo. Rania Khallaf was there

An hour before the inauguration ceremony for the new premises of the Egyptian and Arab Writers Unions in the Salah Eddin Citadel in Cairo, buses are at the ready at the old Egyptian union premises in Zamalek to carry writers and journalists to their new home. The famous story of the massacre of the Mamlukes carried out by Muhammad Ali, Egypt's ruler at the beginning of the 19th century, in the Citadel is on many people's lips, writers and critics apparently hoping that this event will not set a precedent for any critical carnage to come.

Following a bus journey across Cairo we enter the Citadel by the main gate and are ordered off the bus for inspection. From there, it takes another five minutes to the new building. From the outside, the historic two-storey building, restored to serve as the Writers Unions' new headquarters, looks spacious enough. But inside the main hall soon fills up, and it proves too small for the increasing crowd. Many have suggested that the new premises, ideal as a conference centre, are not really suitable for the Unions' offices due to their remote location in the Citadel high above Cairo.

However, criticism of this sort does not discourage the secretary- general of the Arab and Egyptian Writers Unions, the Egyptian playwright Mohamed Salmawy, who now appears with Egyptian minister of culture Farouk Hosni to announce that the Sudanese poet Mohammed El-Faitouri has been awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Prize as Arab Writer of the Year. Literary critic Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim is also awarded the Ragaa El-Naqqash Prize for Criticism.

Fewer people turn up the next day for a lecture by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh about In an Antique Land, an "anthropological travel book" set in the village of Al-Latayfa in the Al-Behaira governorate. Ghosh is warmly welcomed by the audience, however, and in a wide- ranging talk he considers the language barrier that existed between him and the villagers. This barrier was not as high as Ghosh had feared due to the villagers' knowledge of popular Indian songs and movies.

Many of the Egyptian villagers had fixed views of Indians. "They asked me whether I worshipped cows, and what time I said my prayers. They used to slow down if we came across a cow when walking about the village, just in case I wanted to pray," Ghosh says. On a more serious note, he also says that the Non-Aligned Movement still served as an important link between Egypt and India in the 1980s. "People of my generation proudly recall towering national figures like Nehru, Nasser and Sokarno, who managed to forge strong trans- national relationships. It was no accident either that Mahatma Gandhi chose to stop in Egypt to meet the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul."

Egypt has always been an attractive country for travelers, Ghosh says, and it was his experience staying in an Egyptian village that allowed him to develop as a novelist, as well as being "an exceptional opportunity for me to discover modern Arabic literature. Besides the towering figure of Naguib Mahfouz, I had the chance to discover prominent writers such as Taha Hussein, Tawfik al-Hakim, Nawal El-Saadawi and Tayib Saleh, including his masterpiece Season of Migration to the North, which had a special influence on my first novel, The Circle of Mind, which discusses the immigration of Indian labourers to the Gulf."

While Ghosh's lecture is a highlight of events staged for the new building's inauguration there are also others, including a lecture by the Egyptian intellectual Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri and the presence of the Mexican novelist Alberto Ruy-Sànchez and representatives of various Arab writers unions, including Abdel-Hameed Aqqar, chairman of the Moroccan Writers Union and Al-Mutawakel Taha, chairman of the Palestinian Writers Union, who both commented on their hopes for the invigorated Arab Writers Union in Cairo in interviews with the Weekly.

For Aqqar, the opening of the new premises in the historic area of the Citadel in Cairo is a symbolic gesture testifying to the important position occupied by writers in Arab societies. "These unique premises will encourage the Arab Writers Union to intensify its activities, especially those aiming at reviving the dialogue between North and South," he says, while also commenting on the absence of prominent Egyptian writers from the celebrations.

Aqqar feels that national Arab writers unions should be places in which real democracy is practiced, and all literary and intellectual currents should be represented. The Moroccan Union enjoys independence from government, Aqqar says, and "all our activities are decided upon by us and funded from the revenues of the Union" -- possibly a reference to the fact that the new premises of the Egyptian and Arab Writers Unions are a gift of the Egyptian government.

For his part, Al-Mutawakel Taha, chairman of the Palestinian Union, says that the Arab Union, fortified in its new headquarters in Cairo, should now work harder to promote literary works by Palestinian writers living in Israel, in the Occupied Territories, or in exile. He suggests holding "cultural weeks" at the Union for each Arab country, which could help bring Arab people closer together.

The next general meeting of the Arab Union will be held in Tunisia in May, and the focus of discussion will be the role of translation in strengthening cultural dialogue between Arab countries and the West. A need has often been felt to strengthen the translation of modern Arabic literature into foreign languages, and there are encouraging initiatives underway. Iraqi membership of the Arab Writers Union will be given special priority at the meeting, Aqqar says, adding that the affiliation of expatriate Arab writers to the Union also needs to be looked into.

Taha adds that another priority is freedom of expression, which is sometimes endangered "in Arab countries, especially Palestine and Iraq. We also need to discuss ways to promote the status of writers during the Writers Union meeting," though he only shrugs when asked if he has any concrete recommendations.

In a lecture delivered as part of the celebrations, on "death, and life in death," Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri discusses the English Romantic poet S. T. Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from the perspective of "a meeting point between Christian and Islamic humanism". At the end of the poem, God forgives the mariner, Elmessiri explains, who has committed a heinous act and been condemned to sail the seas forever. "The vision of death in the poem is synonymous to that of life: the moment of death generates existential questions about truth, life, love and hatred."

Though it is his first visit to Egypt, Mexican novelist Alberto Ruy- Sànchez is a regular visitor to Morocco, where his novels have been published. Talking to the Weekly, he says that Arab heritage has had a huge influence on Mexican culture, having reached the country from Spain. This heritage includes parts of everyday life, as well as everyday design and architecture.

"You can enter a Catholic church in Mexico, for example, and find a roof constructed according to the Arab architectural style. We call this Arab influence mudeair, and it is one of the main characteristics of Mexican culture. It is also obvious in crafts, though people tend not to recognise the Arab origins unless they go to Morocco, and specifically to a city like Fez, where you find the same techniques."

"The Arabic language has also influenced our language, which contains some four thousand Arabic words. For example, for oil we use the Arabic word Al-Zayt. " However, Ruy-Sànchez says that there has been little Arab influence on Mexican literature, and modern Arabic literature is unfamiliar to most people in Mexico, something he blames on "American control of the international book market."

Nevertheless, "when I read one of Naguib Mahfouz's novels, I feel almost as if I am reading a description of Mexico City, such are the similarities between Cairo and Mexico."

I decide to leave even though the celebrations are not yet over, and looking around for transportation on a freezing night, I overhear a security officer talking on a walkie-talkie to his superior. "Yes pasha," he says. "Everything is under control....most of them are inside the building. Very few are standing around."

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