Political inspiration from fiction: Ahdaf Soueif

Posted on May 31, 2006


Ahdaf Soueif is perhaps the pre-eminent English language Egyptian author. However, she’s not very good. Her romanticism is forced and insipid; and the undercurrent of old money and faded aristocracy makes me faintly sick. Nevertheless, her descriptions of scenery and atmosphere are good, and I read on for great stretches with pleasure until I come up with an abrupt halt against some maudlin conversation or some incidence of anglophilia. But I mostly enjoy her attempts to animate history and politics. I’ve always had a weakness for historical fiction. I’m currently reading “The Map of Love”, set in 1901, and was suddenly struck by how little the issues have changed over the last century, as far as Egypt is concerned. Consider the following passages.

‘Would you believe,’ the Prince says sadly, ‘they are accusing me of encouraging kufr?”
‘Kufr, your Highness?’
‘Drawing! Sculpture! Here -’ He takes out an envelope from his pocket, draws out a letter and shakes it open. ‘Read this.’
Sharif Basha reads:

…and doubt does not enter our hearts regarding the elevated nature of your Highness’s intentions and the nobility of your aims, but we find it out duty to remind you, with all the respect that is due to…of the clear injunction against the activities that you propose to foster in the establishment Your Highness intends to set up [an art school]. This injunction is expressed in the sound Hadith of the Messenger of God – the prayers and peace of God be upon him: ‘Those who will be most severely tormented on the day of judgement are the image makers.’ Therefore, we now request that you reconsider …money can be better used to promote and strengthen our Faith which is being daily eroded by the presence in our land of the unjust and infidel Occupier…

Sharif Basha hands back the letter. “Your Highness can hardly give weight – ’
‘I have to take them seriously,’ Prince Yusuf says. ‘They could incite the people. Ya Basha, all they would have to say is that I am in collusion with the British to import evil European arts into the country, to train our young men into them…’

‘What do you propose to do?’ Sharif Basha asks.
‘I don’t know. Give me your opinion.’
‘Set up a public debate. You can wipe the floor with them.’
‘What’s the use -? ’
‘Accuse them of conspiring with the British to hold us back.’ Sharif Basha laughs at his own idea, but Prince Yusuf is troubled.
‘You cannot convince these people with logic. You have to speak to them in their own language.’

‘If you speak to them in their own language, you have already agreed to fight on their ground,’ Sharif Basha says, picking up his fork. ‘Our position should be that faith is one thing and colleges – civil institutions – are another.’
‘They will never accept that,’ Prince Yusuf Kamal objects.
‘But we shall have this problem with the university, with the education of women, with banking – with everything. This is the question that has to be decided once and for all: to what extent should these people interfere in the practical development of the country? And notice that their interventions are always in a negative direction – everything in their book is haraam – ’
‘Ya Basha, this is a debate we cannot enter into now. With the British here, people will not say of us, “These men are patriots who think differently from us.” They will say, “These men are in the pay of the British”, and they will conspire even more with the Sublime Porte to tie us closer to Turkey. For the moment, we keep our eye on our target, our limited target: the School of Fine Art.”

And there you have it. For British, substitute Americans. For Turkey, read Saudi Arabia (or the Islamic stronghold of your choice). The rest of the debate remains the same. The struggle between economic or political development – always identified with the West – and the age old structures and religious doctrine remains the same. I personally believe it is possible through interpretation to find room for everything with Islam, but with the current strictures on ijtihad and the general curtailment of freedom of speech, this may no longer be on the cards. And ultimately, this system will fail non-Muslims, or simply those who disagree. The only solution then, is the separation of religion and state.

But here’s another passage on the obstacles to achieving any sort of a change, whatever it is. This one is set in 1997. Funny how, almost 10 years later, September 11th and the “War on terror” notwithstanding, the author is more right than ever.

‘What do I think? I think we’re a nation of cowards,’ he says bitterly. ‘I hate to say it, especially in front of a – guest. But we live by slogans. We take comfort in them: “the Great Egyptian People.” “The peaceful, patient Nation, that when it is aroused shatters the World.” Shatters the world? Tell me, when in all of history did the Egyptian people rebel? When? When Urabi spoke up for them, they sold him out. They ran away and let the British in. You’ll say 1919, but 1919 wasn’t a revolution. It was a few demonstrations and it changed nothing – ’
‘Slowly, slowly, ya Mustafa. 1919 – ’
‘Fifty-two? That was not a rebellion of the people. It was an army movement which rode the people and told the people that it spoke with their voice. The people have no voice.’
‘What are we then?’
‘We’re a bunch of intellectuals who sit in the Atelier or the Grillon and talk to each other. And when we write, we write for each other. We have absolutely no connection with the people. The people don’t know we exist.’

Ah. We’re a bunch of “intellectuals” – quote marks needed more than ever – who sit at our computers and talk to each other. And when we blog, we blog for each other. We have absolutely no connection with the people. The people don’t know we exist.

And back to the 19th century: who remembers Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi, the short- lived Prime Minister of Egypt in 1882, whose attempts, with Urabi’s, to rid Egypt of what ailed her were to end so disastrously with the British occupation.

‘Do you realise,’ Dr Ramzi says, smiling broadly, ‘when you speak of a political programme, that your programme now is the same that Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi’s government tried to establish more than a hundred years ago?’
‘Is that right?’ Isabel says.
‘Yes. Yes, for sure,’ Dr Ramzi says. ‘Listen: the ending of foreign influence, the payment of the Egyptian debt – ’ he counts them off on his fingers – ‘an elected parliament, a national industry, equality of all men before the law, reform of education, and allowing a free press to reflect all shades of opinion. Those were the seven points of their programme. These young people -’ the wave of his hand takes in the group – ‘they still ask for this.’

You could arrive at any number of conclusions from the excerpts above: that Egyptians are in fact weak and cowardly and have not, in the past 120 years, ever been able to shake off foreign oppression or economic colonialism AND establish democratic institutions and economic development? That the people don’t really care as long as they eat? That Islam really is the solution? That Islam really is the problem? That none of these issues are related? That economic development necessitates foreign influence (read: the free market)? That political development necessitates a secular government?

I don’t know what to think. What do you think?

Posted in: books, politics, religion