Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1323, (8 - 14 December 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1323, (8 - 14 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Is Muslim Brotherhood rule really over?

The constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of literary and artistic creativity. But some MPs appear blissfully unaware of the fact, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

All of sudden I began receiving a torrent of phone calls, here in Paris, from French and Arab journalists asking my opinion about the news they heard from Cairo that a member of the Egyptian parliament had described the literature of Naguib Mahfouz as “offensive to decency” and called for judicial action to have it banned.

There flashed before my eyes the image of Egypt still under Muslim Brotherhood rule. That was when one heard such denunciations of the works of Egypt’s great novelist as “literature of whorehouses and hashish dens”. That was when MPs, government officials and others in those circles were going around calling for a ban on the art of ballet on the grounds that it was “obscene” and calling for the destruction of the Egyptian antiquities that have enthralled the world for centuries on the grounds that they are “idols”. Such warped thinking, which clearly has not the faintest concept about literature or art, says more about the psychological state of those critics who are unable to elevate themselves above the tangible and sensual in order to perceive all that is spiritual and lofty in art.

We had thought that such demented thinking had fallen on 30 June 2013 when the Egyptian people revolted against those who had imported their ideas from barren deserts that had never known cosmopolitan culture and certainly had never developed a civilisation that served as a beacon for intellectual refinement, art, culture and development. That type of thinking, we had imagined, had gone out the window along with their firearms on the day when their armed encampment that they called a sit-in was broken up. Unfortunately, that same demented thinking has reared its head again, and from inside our legislative establishment, in the form of slurs and accusations, now that its advocates have lost their loaded guns and unsheathed swords.

One cannot help but be amazed. This is supposed to be the parliament of the revolution. We had such high hopes in it. Yet it is turning out to be one of the worst parliaments in our modern history. We had believed that this was to be the parliament that would introduce the body of laws to compliment the constitution and create the legislative edifice to enable the realisation of the new society that our revolution had aspired to usher in. Instead we get some MP — from the legislative committee that is charged with formulating the required bills of law, no less — spouting the same drivel as that which was issued from the mouths of those deranged souls who could only see “debauchery” when they looked at our artists. I can still recall one of those lascivious madmen, on some talk show, asking a prominent actress, “How many men have had you?”

It is very disturbing to hear this drivel from parliament at time when the young novelist Ahmed Nagi is behind bars on the same charge as that uttered by the MP in question, in spite of the fact that the constitution contains no provision that warrants it, and at the time when unconstitutional rulings were handed down against Islamic thinker Islam Al-Beheiri and poet Fatima Naoot. These two individuals were also sentenced to prison on a charge that has no basis in the constitution. It really is as though we are still living under Muslim Brotherhood rule, as though the revolution of 30 June had never occurred and no new constitution had ever been promulgated in order to lay the foundations for the new society the revolution called for.

I wonder, what are the academic qualifications that entitled that MP to delve into the arts of literature, a discipline in which some scholars spend years of study to attain the highest certificate in some of the most famous universities in the world? How could that MP so blithely pass judgement against the pearls of Arab fiction, the author of which was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in the world, without having the slightest notion about the rules and principles of literary criticism? Surely that fact that he was elected to parliament by some constituency in Damietta does not give him the right to impersonate a literary critic and evaluate the creations of our great novelist, whose works have won universal admiration and a worldwide readership, as though he were in the league of Louis Awad, Mohamed Mandour, Ali Al-Rai, Rashad Rushdi, Abdel-Qader Al-Qott or other famous literary critics and scholars who unanimously praised the works of Naguib Mahfouz and his extraordinary genius as a writer of fiction. I have here in front of me a copy of “Egypt between two Eras” by the famous Egyptian thinker and playwright Tewfik Al-Hakim. He had given it to Mahfouz as a birthday gift in 1983. The dedication reads: “To the fictional genius Naguib Mahfouz who had elevated the Arab novel to towering heights while we remained on the ground floor … ”
And what is this “offensive to decency” business? The Egyptian people are not minors. They are the most ancient of all peoples and have engaged in literature and the arts centuries longer than any other people. They hardly need someone to act as their guardian and dictate to them what they can and cannot read and what he, personally, takes as “offensive to decency”.

The fact is all literature — apart from children’s stories — has an element that ignoramuses in the fields of literature and the arts might describe as “offensive to decency”. Indeed, even religious scriptures are not devoid of what that MP from Damietta thinks of as indecent. He need only to read the Song of Songs, the story of Zuleiqa or the tale of Lot to realise that the quality he condemns in a work of the art (as is the case with Holy Books) is not intended as to incite or promote sin but, rather, the complete opposite. It is meant to promote virtues and moral refinement and, therefore, it has educational value.

Art, like religion, is not something to get offended about. Ballet is not “obscene”, our antiquities are not “idols” and the literature of Naguib Mahfouz is not a violation of public morals. We send our children to museums so that they enhance and hone their aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities. Yet, to the layperson some of the works on display might seem “scandalous”.

When one thinks about it, the MP who voiced that dangerous accusation should himself be brought to justice for attempting to violate the very constitution that he has sworn to uphold. Taking that oath is a prerequisite for being admitted beneath the parliamentary dome. The constitution explicitly states that the freedom of literary and artistic creativity are guaranteed. If the MP is unwilling to uphold such constitutional provisions, it would appropriate that he should be taken to court; not our great novelist who fills us with pride but who the MP wants to drag before some inquisition ruled by the logic of Wahhabis and Daeshites.

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