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Politics of the everyday

Al-Siyasa Aqwa min Al-Hadatha: Hikayat Misriya Mu'asira (Politics is Stronger than Modernity: Contemporary Egyptian Narratives), Dalal El-Bizri, Cairo: Mirette, 2003. pp298

In this new book which defies classification -- indeed, Mirette have listed it under their hodge-podge Mukhtarat Mirette (Mirette Selections) Series -- Dalal El-Bizri, Lebanese by birth, Cairene by residence, offers certain insights into contemporary Egypt.

The idea is tempting: to choose a sample of Egyptians and to talk to them about modernity. And the result, the conclusion, is what the author states in her chosen title, a polemic rather than a simple statement: "Politics is Stronger than Modernity." But what -- at the risk of sounding like a hair- splitting post-modern wannabe-intellectual -- is "modernity", or for that matter, "politics"? El-Bizri does not take enough time in her introduction, and one suspects not in her research either, to lay out the intellectual terrain of her investigation.

What she was looking for is not clear. This is important because though all researchers and writers end up arriving at unexpected destinations, one inevitably only finds what one is looking for. Herein lies the problem with this book.

Divided into an introduction, 18 chapters and a conclusion, each of the book's chapters is given the name of one of the interviewees as a title, together with his or her age followed by quotations from this person. The chapters are arranged by order of age, starting with the oldest interviewee. Left out are the questions and comments of the interviewer. We know from the introduction that the interviewer is not El-Bizri herself but is a research assistant, Dr Alaaeddin Arafat. However, the roles of neither are clear to the reader, and nor are their interventions -- a major frustration for this reviewer at least. Silencing and censoring the questioner in this manner leaves out the contexts of these encounters. It is as if we are meant to hear and read these individuals as they speak and see themselves. But one does not define (or read) oneself in a vacuum: one invariably does that in reaction to others, just as one does not usually talk to oneself but to others, who are absent here. The reader might feel a need for the interviewer to expose and reveal herself just as their "subjects" are exposed.

The subtitle of El-Bizri's book, Hikayat Misriya Mu'asira (Contemporary Egyptian Narratives), is perhaps more telling than is the title itself, for there is something uncanny about reading these stories, as we had better call them, following El- Bizri. Perhaps it is akin to the eeriness one feels glimpsing oneself unexpectedly in the mirror of a public restroom. The stories of these contemporary Egyptians, their voices, their perspectives, their vocabulary are all very familiar.

El-Bizri reaches several conclusions after transcribing and editing the interviews. The most important is that "politics is stronger than modernity", but in addition to that there are other interesting conclusions that perhaps could have been drawn.

One is that Egyptian society over the past century has been really quite dynamic, with people moving back and forth from village to city, from Egypt to the Gulf and back, and up and down the social ladder. The two competing forces driving this mobility have clearly been money and education, the latter receding in influence with the younger generations. However, what El-Bizri's interviews offer, perhaps ironically, is a macro perspective that covers several generations. The dichotomies she set out by searching for, such as those between politics and modernity, turn out to be as blurred as any number of others, such as between tradition and modernity, the urban and the rural, secular and religious, white collar and blue collar, educated and illiterate, individuality and family, etc. Also striking is the resilience of many of the characters in these stories and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The dominant institution to emerge from these narratives is the family rather than the state. While the state, its laws and bureaucracy, makes numerous appearances in the stories, it is the patriarchal family that comes across as being most influential in shaping people's lives and fates. In many stories, that influence is negative, individuals defining themselves in large part in opposition to the family and its traditions. However, for some the contacts and background the family offers have given opportunities and prospects. Whatever the case may be, an individual's stance vis-à-vis the family and that family's situation in society is a determining factor of success or failure, measured by most narrators in material terms.

Nevertheless, it is an "inclusive" definition of the family that transcends the nuclear model that emerges from these narratives, one that in many cases incorporates people from various class and educational backgrounds and that continues to tie city dwellers to their rural relatives. One narrator, a gardener for a former pasha, for example, considers himself to be part of his employer's family, and, in reconstructing his life story he ties his fate to that of this family.

Traditional politics makes an appearance in the stories, though often only in the form of political participation in elections. One striking element is the familiarity of the political discourse employed in defending or criticising the 1952 Revolution, or Sadat's open-door policies, the protagonists reproducing and echoing dominant discourse to the extent that one is led to wonder whether that discourse is not itself a parody of such perceptions. In rendering their political perceptions most narrators see themselves and their families as starting points and points of reference, perceiving and judging national politics through their own personal experiences. Many also explain how they have subordinated political participation to narrow interests of self, family or clan. This seems to be true both for the self-described apolitical, as well as for the leftist and the Muslim Brother included in the collection.

Much of the political game happens within the family itself. In many of the narratives the sexual subtext of the narrator's life is imbued with a political struggle for power over one's fate and over that of others. Perhaps, with the narrowing of the public space, the family has become the main locus of power struggles, and many of the women who make appearances in the book, not only as narrators, but also as characters in the men's lives, have a surprisingly dominant presence in these, even in the stories of men consciously trying to project a macho image.

El-Bizri's linguistic experiments are also worth mentioning, coming at the end of a long line of attempts to come to terms with Egyptian colloquial Arabic, an issue rife with political considerations. While the editor/author claims in her introduction that she has tried to be as faithful to the voices as possible when rendering them in the written text, there are numerous instances when it is obvious where her editorialising has left a mark. These instances aside, however, El-Bizri has to a large extent succeeded in preserving her subjects' individual colloquial voices. One could almost imagine sitting down for a cup of tea with many of them.

Finally, El-Bizri's experiment is worth reading if only because it attempts to include so many different voices. Aged from 29 to 90, including some women and Copts, as well as town-dwellers, villagers, leftists, Islamists, secularists and Muslim Brothers, these characters contribute to a book that comes close to being a snapshot of Egypt today.

In her concluding analysis, the author/editor argues that the political doctrines and edicts of the state have had a more lasting influence on the face of Egypt than has "modernity". She ascribes changes in the social, urban, political and economic landscape of contemporary Egypt to political decisions imposed from above by successive regimes. This conclusion -- that history develops as a result of decisions from above -- is not earth-shatteringly original. But El-Bizri arrives at it from the bottom up. There is some irony in that.

Reviewed by Amina Elbendary

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