Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Back to old glory

An intellectual living in an unstable region is a challenge. Doaa El-Bey listened to a group of thinkers debating the paradox

Al-Ahram Weekly

In its attempt to understand the meaning of being an Arab intellectual, a seminar on Egyptian-Lebanese cultural relations attempted to link the presence of a strong and democratic state to the creation of a healthy cultural atmosphere that would help in the rise of the proper intellectual; a person of culture.

Antoine Seif, a Lebanese intellectual, tried to draw a picture of a typical man of culture in the Arab world “at this unstable time”. He said that to be a man of culture today means the top priority should be stopping wars by democratic means. “It means to regard the Palestinian issue as a strategic priority and to believe that there is no future for the Arab world without resolving the issue and establishing an independent Palestinian state.”

It means, Seif continued, “that one has a firm belief that in order to participate in political life, one can do so via democratic routes. That is, you cannot build a genuine democracy except via democratic means.”

Being a man of culture or an intellectual, he added, “involves having faith in the modest role you can play, and that the desired Arab culture is the outcome of an orchestrated effort of men of culture as well as other resourceful men from various fields and all those who are after a humane life.”

Alieddin Helal, a former Egyptian minister of youth, said one must understand the state the Arab world is living in to know what is required of men of culture in such circumstances.

Helal said disorder was the main characteristic of the world today, illustrated by “regression in national values and that of the state in the face of ethnic and sectarian thinking and groups, the rise of violence as a political tool and flagrant foreign interference in military, political and economic affairs.

“As a result, the state today is threatened from the inside by ethnic and sectarian groups and from the outside by foreign intervention. Thus, it is the job of Arab men of culture to defend the presence of the state on which any cultural progress should be built. Meanwhile, he is required to criticise any negative practices in such a state,” Helal said.

Gaber Asfour, a former Egyptian minister of culture, recalled the cultural progress that Egyptian-Lebanese cooperation produced in the first half of the 20th century and how it gave birth to enlightened ideas and thoughts, but asked whether such progress can be regained.

Asfour did not rule out the possibility, provided there was genuine cooperation between men of culture in both states.

Khaled Ziada, a diplomat, historian and intellectual, pointed to Taha Hussein and Jibran Khalil Jibran as two men of culture from Egypt and Lebanon who managed to play their roles in culture.

“The proper man of culture today needs to play a strictly cultural role. If he plays a political role, he becomes a political activist, not a man of culture,” Ziada maintained.

Karim Morowa, a Lebanese writer, said political moves to make genuine change and the civil state that espouses a democratic system are two missing factors.

“Their absence contributes to the absence of a proper state, making the man of culture an individual role rather than within a group that aims to make genuine and effective change.”

Under these circumstances, Morowa questioned whether a man of culture should stop playing a role altogether or do as much as he can in a difficult situation. He leaned towards the second option, suggesting organising a conference to be attended by “100 carefully selected Arab men of culture to draw a roadmap likely to initiate a project for change and pave the way for establishing the proper state”.

Morowa acknowledged that this may be a mission impossible but that there were no other alternatives.

Hossam Eitani drew a dreary picture of the relationship between men of culture and authority. He said that spreading culture was linked to education and media, both controlled by the authorities.

That fact, he added, “creates an imbalanced relationship between the two”. Culture, he said, cannot be independent as long as it is controlled by the media.

“While the Arab revolutions carried a glimmer of hope, they failed to achieve what they started out to do.” However, Eitani pointed to some positive elements highlighted by the revolutions, including elevating public discourse and revealing the defects of the Arab states to the world. He said that while the time was not right to correct the flaws, “at least we know them.”

The seminar debated the historic relationship between Egyptian and Lebanese men of culture and its impact on both countries, particularly after the Arab Spring and the future of relations between the two countries.

The aim of the seminar, organised by the Al-Ahram Establishment and the Egyptian-Lebanese Businessmen-Friendship Association, was to revive the cultural relationship between the two states and return it to past glories.

Most participants agreed on the depth of Egyptian-Lebanese cultural relations starting from the 19th century.

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