Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

‘Like water and air’

Nevine El-Aref speaks with Gaber Asfour a month after he was sworn in as minister of culture

‘Like water and air’
‘Like water and air’
Al-Ahram Weekly

Gaber Asfour was first appointed minister of culture in February 2011, in the cabinet led by Ahmed Shafik. Nine days later he resigned. He was offered the portfolio again in Kamal Al-Ganzouri’s caretaker government but refused. Asfour remained out of the spotlight until May 2013, when protests erupted against Mohamed Morsi’s minister of culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz. A month ago Asfour began his second tenure as minister of culture, appointed to the post in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s second cabinet.  

Born in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra in 1944, Asfour studied Arabic literature. In 1966 he began teaching in the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. Asfour chaired the Arabic Department at Cairo University from 1990 to 1993. Between 1993 and 2007 he was secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Culture. He has been a visiting professor at a number of universities, including Stockholm University in Sweden and the University of Wisconsin Madison in the United States.

Asfour’s publications include Artistic Images, Poetic Concepts, Time and the Novel: Literary Criticism and Cultural Papers.

He is the recipient of many prizes, winning the Ministry of Culture’s award for literary studies in 1984, the Kuwait Foundation’s prize for literary criticism in 1985, an International Book Fair prize in1995, the Tunisian Presidential Cultural Medal in 1995, the Sultan Ben Ali Al-Oweis Award in 1997, the Arab Woman’s Shield in 2003 and the Gaddafi International Prize for Literature in 2009.

Two weeks into his new tenure as minister Asfour was embroiled in a dispute with Al-Azhar over the screening of the Paramount film Noah. He has been accused by the Salafist Nour Party of acting in violation of the constitution, and denounced by the Muslim Brotherhood as spearheading the return of Mubarak-era intellectuals. Not that Asfour is a stranger to controversy. He was among the first intellectuals to take President Anwar Al-Sadat to task for allying with Islamist groups.

It is rumoured that the ideas you presented to President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi during his election campaign are behind your appointment to the culture portfolio. Is this true?

It is the first time I have heard this.

My suggestions focused on developing cultural structures in Egypt. In essence they revolved around ways to develop cooperation between
the seven ministries — Education, Higher Education, Youth and Sports, Endowments, Antiquities and Heritage, Tourism and the planned National Information Centre — that play a direct role in informing cultural consciousness.  

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and the president have commissioned me, and all the concerned ministries, to work towards furthering this goal.
I also stressed the importance of working with civil society to organise cultural events on the fringe of the usual agendas.

We have already started. Protocols with the concerned ministries have been signed and the concrete steps needed identified. For example, the Ministry of Religious Endowments has agreed to send clerics to cultural palaces across the country where they will expound a religious discourse that supports the notion of a civil state, freedom, justice and enlightenment.

Seminars and discussion are due to be held between clerics and intellectuals in order to address controversial issues.

The Supreme Council of Culture (SCC) has been commissioned to help revise educational curricula and cultural training courses will be made available to teachers. School and university theatre and cinema groups will be encouraged and seminars, and competitions across all fields of artistic production organised.

The Ministry of Culture will distribute books covering the whole gamut of culture and the arts to school and university libraries. There are also plans to provide low cost passes — LE25 for school pupils and LE 50 for university students — that will provide a year’s access to government theatres, culture palaces and cinemas.

What lay behind the ministry’s conflict with Al-Azhar over of the film Noah?  And was your recent visit to the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb – as has been reported – made after Mehleb ordered you to apologise for your statements?

Not at all. Mehleb had nothing to do with it. He did not ask or demand anything from me. My visit to the Grand Imam was not to apologise. I went on the occasion of Ramadan to return Al-Tayeb’s congratulations on my taking office. We have been friends for a long time, well before Al-Tayeb became the Grand Imam.

What did you discuss?

During our meeting we agreed that Al-Azhar should be engaged in dialogue with intellectuals through the participation of clerics and scholars in the cultural nights held by the ministry at the Small Hall of Cairo Opera House and in different culture palaces.

Al-Azhar was at the forefront of the first wave of enlightenment in Egypt. The ministry is seeking to work with Al-Azhar, which represents moderate Islam. There is no real conflict between the two institutions. If Al-Azhar disagrees with the ministry in cases that are subject to interpretation then obviously the issue should be discussed.

Al-Azhar is not looking for a political role but to carry out its religious, national and constitutional duties. It is not a censorship office. It delivers verdicts in cases it is asked about. What Al-Azhar issues is the opinion of the Council of Senior Scholars, the Research Council and Dar Al-Iftaa. Al-Tayeb is keen to set aside anything that might create sedition or undermine the peace and unity of the nation.

In the end Al-Azhar is an institution that offers advice which we may or may not accept.

Do you support the depiction of God’s prophets, messengers or the companions of the Prophet Mohamed in films?

Prohibiting the depiction of messengers and their companions in movies has no basis in the Quran, Sharia or Sunna. Clerics take decisions in these cases based on fiqh al-mostahdasat (the jurisprudence of modernism) which is evoked in the absence of an applicable religious text.

Nobody, including me, is calling for the representation of God’s prophets.

But you allowed the screening of Mel Gibson movie The Passion of Christ?

We live in a country which has a variety of religions which we must respect and whose rights must be supported. Christians can worship their God according to their own beliefs. They can depict their prophets as they wish. The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief. When Christians produce a film about Christ I will allow it to be screened because I respect their beliefs.

As chairman of the SCC, I approved the screening of The Passion of Christ, with the proviso the audience be at least 18 because the film included scenes of torture. Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, who was the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar at the time, also agreed the film should be released.

Would you permit the screening of a movie depicting Prophet Mohamed and his companions?

This is a hypothetical matter. The special position which Prophet Mohamed occupies makes the question a far-fetched one.
There was a TV series written by Osama Anwar Okasha on Amr Ibn Al-Ass, which was broadcast here. Nobody objected to its screening. There has been a TV series on Omar Ibn Al-Khattab and the Prophet Youssef Al-Seddik which was screened in Saudi Arabia and viewed by several sheikhs from Al-Azhar. Again nobody raised objections. How could Egypt, the home of Refaa Al-Tahtawi and Mohamed Abdou, of writers like Taha Hussein and Tawfik Al-Hakim, ban Noah when other Arab countries have allowed the film’s release?

So what caused the controversy, fanned by some salafis and Al-Azhar sheikhs, over the film?

Some Muslims are not enlightened. We are passing through a very dangerous stage. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) makes this abundantly clear. Our position should be equally clear: support for a civil state, the rule of law and the constitution.

Some Al-Azhar sheikhs claim the Ministry of Culture has published books that insult the Quran and Prophet Mohamed and encourage atheism.

These people have either been misled or else they failed to correctly understand the point of view of the author. It is very easy to take a phrase from a Naguib Mahfouz novel out of contest and then accuse him of atheism. It is just as easy to take a part of Quranic verse to give it another meaning.

The Muslim brotherhood has described your appointment as heralding the return of Mubarak-era intellectuals…

The Brotherhood has attacked me since the time of Sadat. When Mohamed Morsi was president I did not receive an invitation to a single cultural event. We have a history of conflict. I support the civil state. I advocate enlightenment. I have never had any truck with the concept of a religious state.

Supporters of Sadat blame you for accusing him of Islamicising the country.

This is not an accusation but the truth. The coalition between Sadat’s state and the Brotherhood began in 1972, when an agreement with the Brotherhood leader Omar Al-Telmesani all but handed the keys of Egyptian universities to the Brotherhood.

I was a teaching assistant at Cairo University at the time. I witnessed how the Brotherhood operated in the university under the leadership of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Essam Al-Erian, both students in the faculty of medicine. I saw the way they sabotaged any art event.

I remember when Abul-Fotouh became the head of the students union in the faculty of medicine, and then expanded Brotherhood influence until he became head of Cairo University students union in 1976. That was the golden year of the Sadat-MB coalition.

My opposition to Sadat’s policies, especially the Camp David Peace Treaty, led to my dismissal from the university staff. I was sent to the Public Authority for Social Security and Pensions. A few months later I took a long vacation and subsequently accepted a post as visiting professor at Stockholm University.

Abul-Fotouh denies any aggressive acts.
He cannot deny them. He cannot rewrite his memoirs. They were published by Dar Al-Shorouk, and itemise the aggression.

What is your opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis?

I have known the Brotherhood since I was a student. When you became a member it is because you believe you are better than other Muslims. Your way is the only right way. Everyone else is deluded. Remember when Brotherhood lawyer Sobhy Saleh decreed a Muslim Brother should only marry a Muslim Sister? It says it all.

The Brotherhood believes in an Islamic caliphate. Their loyalty is not to the nation state. This makes it easy for them to betray their nation.

Salafists represent – perhaps – the lesser threat. I am not as afraid of them: according to their imam Ibn Taymeya they cannot revolt the ruler.

Does the Ministry of Culture include Brotherhood members?

Yes, there are sleeping cells. Under Mubarak the Brotherhood placed many members within government organizations as well as the professional syndicates. The process began under Sadat was accelerated under Mubarak.

You resigned from Ahmed Shafik’s government in 2011 after nine days. Why did you accept the post in the first place? And why have you accepted once again under Mehleb?

Accepting the post in 2011 was really a great mistake. I became part of a government of which I was unconvinced. I should not have accepted the post. I should have listened to the advice of those friends who counselled against my accepting. I owe them an apology.

My intentions in 2011 were good. I thought I was joining a national salvation government. But the government was doomed to failure. It could not succeed because it excluded many political factions. It was little more than a new face for the National Democratic Party (NDP) to which I was appointed as a technocrat. I have never been a member in the NDP or of any other political party. When I said in cabinet that the crisis could not be solved unless all political factions were brought on board I was attacked by many ministers, led by the then minister of information Anas Al-Fiqi. I left the meeting, went to my office and wrote my letter of resignation.

I accepted the post in Mehleb’s government for two reasons: first it is a real coalition that does not seek to monopolise power; and second, it emerged from a revolution that reminded me very much of 1919. In that year Saad Zagloul and his followers went to the British High Commissioner. He accused them of not representing Egyptians. In response Zaghloul’s followers flocked onto the streets, in cities and villages, across Egypt, and a massive petition was launched.  

Mehleb’s government promises hope for the future for three reasons. It has the ability to take decisions which previous governments shirked. It is willing to allow a broad range of inputs, from all ministries, to promote development. And it has drawn up a realistic plan for the coming phase.

How will you restructure the Ministry of Culture?
I am working with the Ministry of Planning in order to find ways to improve our administrative infrastructure. Many ministry offices resemble slum areas in need of rehabilitatation. New administrations and sections are to be created. Others will be merged. Some will be disbanded.  

What about the theatre?
The International Experimental Theatre Festival will be revived. The Night Traveler and Laila and the Madman will headline at the National Theatre Festival starting on 10 August.

The ministry is to adopt a new motto, based on the line of Taha Hussein’s — “Education is like water and air — a right for every citizen”.  Culture will replace education in the quote.

Work on Al-Samer Land has already begun in 6 October City. The 11-storey complex will house several cinema screens and theatre stages. It will also be home to the National Circus which is to be moved from Agouza.

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