Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1262, (10 - 16 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Book Rack

Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida is probably the Ministry of Culture’s most active publisher, with a steady stream of readable material covering both fiction and non-fiction, and engaging the widest array of readers at reasonable prices. This week Book Rack delves into some of the state-supported publisher’s more interesting titles

Book rack
Book rack
Al-Ahram Weekly

Sigmund’s ghost

Nahla Karam, On Freud’s Bed (Ala Ferash Freud), Cairo: Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, 2014, pp268

“Many women try to convince themselves they can forget their defeat at the hands of a man they loved by being with another man. However, the first thing they do in the new relationship is that they start looking for the common traits that remind them of the man they loved before. They wait for the new man to talk about the same things, make the same moves, breathe in the same way as their ex. Without knowing it, these women become involved in a new relationship not to forget the past, but to revive it.”

Nahla Karam’s On Freud’s Bed is a successful attempt at analysing the “hidden under the bed” psychology of the Egyptian – or Middle Eastern – woman. The protagonist, Nora presents a wide spectrum of women forced by a society that adopts double standards to abandon their dreams and relinquish their souls. The author makes a strong case against a society that regards women as mere bodies and that has all the freedom to kill their feelings whenever and however it wants, registering the minutest details of the complex characters of Nora and her girlfriends, whom in many case Nora envies because they manage to succeed where she fails.

Sex, religion and traditions form the triangle that results in the psychological deformities that afflict the women in the novel, and in Egypt. Karam constructs, and deconstructs, each of the triangle’s sides by recounting Nora’s life since childhood, citing the complexes she develops, her fears and restrictions. Nora wants to realise herself on every level and to make amends with both the child and the woman in her, turning her restricted dreams into reality and regaining her body and soul.

In her childhood Nora decides that she will not marry because “men grow long pinkie nails with which to penetrate their wives on the first night of marriage”. Through her early teens she lives in fear that her “mother is hiding a scalpel somewhere because most girls are put under the knife to remove a part of their genitals.”

When Nora is 19, she develops a love of writing poetry and novels. Her writings are “described by her close friends as similar to those of Nezar Qabbani” because they carry many sexual and sensual references. Nora knows at this age that her writings can never see the light and should be hidden under the bed because it is morally wrong for a woman to express her desires.

At the same time, Mariam, Nora’s friend, seeks to fulfil her emotional hunger by throwing herself into the arms of the first man she meets after she was abandoned by her boyfriend Elhami. On Mohsen’s bed, Mariam seeks affection that Mohsen withholds. She shudders at the thought that he “wants to penetrate her from behind”, yet she gives in to him, wondering “why would a man turn his woman into a whore, then leave her to be the source of pleasure for another man… Fine, let me be this whore if this is the only way to forget about Elhami, even if the way to do this is through contaminating my body with another man.”

Sigmund Freud is the imaginary shrink Nora invokes on her bed every night to tell her and her friends’ story. A fictitious dialogue takes place between the two, in which Nora recounts and Freud provides psychological analysis. For example, Freud explains that “Mariam wanted to take her body to ultimate humiliation and degradation… and because she’s too weak to take revenge on others, she felt that she wanted to take revenge on herself… To seek revenge means that you have no other way to put out the fire of injustice within you. It is then that you direct the need for vengeance against yourself. And that is the lowest point of humiliation and weakness.”

Nora wears the veil, not because she wants to, but because society forces her. Freud tells her that she exchanged her desire to take the veil off with writing: “To you the veil was a restriction of your freedom... When you couldn’t take the veil off you surrendered to the status quo because it was the easier solution. But your desire to take it off lurked in your unconscious until you forgot about it, so it had to take other forms to move to the conscious mind and be expressed, hence you chose to write. The more you wrote about forbidden things, matters described as taboo by the community, the happier you became, because it made you feel courageous and liberated.”

One of the key elements in the book’s 16 chapters is confrontation – of self and others, and that’s where Freud plays the main role. However, when Nora and Ziad fall in love, Freud’s role becomes smaller. It’s at that time that Nora is happiest. Ziad’s role in the novel is to make amends to Nora for all the suffering that men and society have meted out. One day he “gets out of the car and buys her chocolates. ‘I wanted to give something to the child in you. Inside you is a beautiful child, do not mutilate it,’ he said.”

As Ziad manages to deconstruct Nora’s complex, evident in her taking off the veil and wanting to marry him, the only remaining complex in Nora that Ziad cannot solve is the fear and lack of confidence. Ziad and Nora part ways because of this, but when Nora takes the step to publish her novel under her real name, it becomes up to her whether she could win him back.

Nahla Karam is a novelist. Her novel Suspended in the Air (2013) was short-listed for the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development award in 2014.


A communist classic

Vladimir Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (Marad Al-Yasareya Al-Tefouli), Translated by Progress Publishers, Moscow, Cairo: Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, 2014, pp138

Vladimir Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was written in April 1920 as a pamphlet in 10 chapters. A month later, five chapters were added as an appendix. Lenin wrote the pamphlet “to correct the mistakes” of communist leaders in Europe, particularly Germany. He insisted that the book should be published before the opening of the Second Congress of the Communist International, each delegate receiving a copy at the congress, because – using the “open letter” approach – it was to those delegates that he was speaking.

The book, written in Russian and translated to German, English and French in the same year, states the lessons learned by the Bolshevik Party throughout its involvement in three revolutions over 12 years (between 1905 and 1917). In the chapter entitled “In what sense can we speak of the international significance of the Russian Revolution”, Lenin writes, “Being a political party existent since 1903, the history of Bolshevism can explain why it managed to build and support, amid tough conditions, a system of discipline that led to the victory of the proletariat… the conscience and loyalty of the working class to the revolution, their steadfastness and heroism… bonding with the toiling crowds… the moral correctness of the political leadership and their building of successful strategic and political plans.”

Lenin’s book remains relevant even today – and in Egypt of the Arab Spring, at a time when protests in Greece, the Ukraine and Brazil as the Arab world are throwing the unipolar world order into question. The left-wing representatives of these movements may benefit from the early 20th-century history lessons given by the icon of an alternative system. In the case of Egypt, where two revolutions took place (in 2011 and 2013) and countless political forces and movements – liberal, leftist and Islamist – were formed, Lenin’s writings could have served as a guide on how to successfully engage with the masses, win the hearts of the crowds and attain the goals the people rallied after: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity.

Lenin insists that the main dangers for a working-class movement are opportunism and anti-Marxist ultra-leftism, adding in a chapter entitled “The struggle against which enemies within the working class movement helped Bolshevism develop, gain strength and become steeled” that another danger posed to the working class movement was “petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism… [and] does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle.”

Lenin adds, “Marxist theory has established — and the experience of all European revolutions and revolutionary movements has fully confirmed — that the petty proprietor, the small master (a social type existing on a very extensive and even mass scale in many European countries), who, under capitalism, always suffers oppression and very frequently a most acute and rapid deterioration in his conditions of life, and even ruin, easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organisation, discipline and steadfastness. A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries.”

Lenin attacks such non-doctrinaire communism for making the same mistake as the social democrats, but because the former is only a young trend it is “at present a thousand times less dangerous and less significant than the mistakes of Right doctrinairism.” He adds that “the mere presentation of the question ‘dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class; dictatorship of the leaders, or dictatorship of the masses?’— testifies to most incredibly and hopelessly muddled thinking. These people want to invent something quite out of the ordinary and, in their effort to be clever, make themselves ridiculous.”

Lenin heavily criticised the German leftists’ behaviour to point out to modern-day revolutionaries that they cannot voice abstract principles on strategic questions and apply them in all circumstances, giving the example of the “foolish arguments” presented by critics of the Bolsheviks’ decision to end the war in Germany in 1918, “that, because the Bolsheviks had compromised in that instance, this meant that any compromise with imperialist governments was legitimate.” Revolutionaries must also not ask “what is the most left wing thing to do?” but rather “which course of action will ultimately advance the revolution?”

Vladimir Lenin was a prolific political theoretician and philosopher. His “Collected Works” comprise 54 volumes, 650 pages each, translated into English in 45 volumes by Progress Publishers, Moscow


Crossroads

Hamza Qenawi, In the Direction of the Road (Bettegah Al-Tareeq), Cairo: Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, 2015, pp83

“Why do you teach us to lie?” Startled, the literature professor looks at the student. The student continues, “You said literature changes the world. The world has not changed. Literature is a pale picture of a world based on action. Power rules the world and manipulates everything, including literature. Can you mention a single literary text that has managed to eradicate poverty?”

This is one of the few questions Hamza Qenawi poses in his collection of short stories In the Direction of the Road, based on various life experiences, personal and otherwise. The book comprises 10 short stories, a few pages each, that deal primarily with passivity and its life-long consequences. Qenawi doesn’t give names to his protagonists, who seem to be the same characters at different points in their lives. Hence, the book allows the readers to mix and match stories and protagonists to make connections – not necessarily an ideal reading experience for everyone.

In one of the stories, “Distances”, Qenawi tells of a man who couldn’t confess his feelings to his shy co-worker at the newspaper where he is employed. Both admire each other yet their passive attitudes led the woman to be married to another man, while the protagonist returned to his routine of “drawing intermingling circles on a piece of paper and solving crosswords.” Twenty-five years later, “On the way to their homes, he leaned on his walking stick wondering, ‘Did she really love me?’ while she clutched her son’s arm to support herself asking, ‘Could he possibly have been this shy?’” The reader may not find the ending of “Distances” logical, since Qenawi explains in the beginning that the feelings the protagonists developed were through “random chats in the corridors of the newspaper headquarters”, implying that the protagonists were not really in love with each other. But maybe what he meant to highlight was the importance of seizing the chance lest we live in regret.

All of In the Direction of the Road’s short stories have depressing endings, even when the protagonists have a chance at a successful love story. For instance, two lovers are strolling down the Corniche holding hands.

With a dim smile she asks: “Where are we going?”
He replies: “To the sea”.
“Which route will we take?”
“The route via the cemetery.”
End of story.

In “Love Story”, Qenawi recounts the tale of two people who have been writing to each other for five years but have never met in person. When they decide to meet, a love story ensues – for seven days. Writing about their nights in bed, Qenawi makes extensive use of natural imagery: hill, flower, rain, cloud, light. “Her fount gushed in euphoria and the flowers of her wild nakedness flushed. Reborn between his hands which re-sculpted her, she screamed, ‘Don’t leave me.’” A few mornings later, however, the man wakes up not to find her by his side. He calls her, and she yells, “I hate you.”

“But something real is being born here.”
Still yelling, “That’s exactly why I hate you.”

Hamza Qenawi is a poet and short story writer. He published three collections of poems between 2002 and 2005. He won the Iqraa Institution Award for Best Poetry in Egypt in 2005.


Mind games

Fekri Andrawss, The Mind and Politics (Al-Aaql wal Seyasa), Cairo: Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, 2014, pp187

“Americans spend 20 percent of their incomes on products they don’t really need… This is the result of ingenious marketing operations based on studies of the mind and the importance of emotions in changing minds and deluding consumers into buying products that are of no importance to them, and that could be at times harmful… Electoral campaigns are not much different. They are not based on logic, political affiliation or party programmes, but rather on emotions and the ability to respond to others’ emotions. They don’t necessarily depend on making sense in statistics or theories...”

“How can people choose their true representatives without falling for empty slogans” is the question Fekri Andrawss attempts to answer in The Mind and Politics, citing similarities and drawing comparisons between the American Republican Party and political Islam on the one hand and the American Democratic Party and progressive parties in Egypt on the other. Through explaining how the mind works and the factors that lead a person to form certain principles and notions, the author endeavours to analyse how Egyptians came to elect the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 and how to use cognitive science in the service of a better political future.

“Did religion change politics by adding a moral value to it, or did politics change religion and ruin some religious notions?” Andrawss believes that “the religious right wing has become dangerous to any real democratic system that calls for the rule of the people by the people for the benefit of the people. This powerful minority will use every weapon at its disposal – including religion – to gain more power. About 6,000 individuals manipulate the lives of the people on the planet. They own multinational companies, sit at the helm of governments, financial and media institutions, they even control religions and international criminal organisations.”

Misusing religion in politics is as ancient as history, but in modern times has become a growing global trend. The author writes that this could be for the following reasons: “the governments’ failure to improve the lives of people; the gap widening between the rich and poor; the failure of communist or left-wing regimes in poor countries; the absence of democratic systems that allow for correcting mistakes; foreign threats and economic failures.”

In Egypt, the 25 January 2011 Revolution resulted in the rise of political Islam culminating in an Islamist parliament (November 2011) and a Muslim Brotherhood president (July 2012). However, the Brotherhood failed to win the hearts and minds of Egyptians once it came to power. “The Brotherhood failed to present a comprehensive plan of their political agenda, whether economic and foreign policy or education and human rights. Even when they announced their electoral programme they didn’t go through with it, because they had ulterior motives, as when the former supreme guide Mahdi Akef said, ‘To hell with Egypt’. The caliphate was the real goal of the Brotherhood.”

Fekri Andrawss is an Egyptian chemist and writer based in the US. His books include Civil Disobedience as a Means to Change and Muslims and Copts.

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