Speaking truth to power
Speaking truth to power
Nov 12 2003, 05:09 PM
التسجيل: 23-April 03
رقم العضوية: 388
Sonallah Ibrahim's dramatic last act finally made sense of the last minute dedication of the second conference on
the Arab novel to Edward Said, “Mona Anis”
In Alahram Weekly
When the distinguished Arab-American scholar and passionate proponent of the Palestinian cause Edward Said died three weeks before the
convening of the second conference of the Arab novel in Cairo the organisers -- the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and its Supreme
Council for Culture -- announced that this round of the conference would be dedicated to his memory. Thus, Edward Said's
name was "forcibly yoked" (the phrase is his) to an already too long and rather clumsy official title: Multaqa Al-Qahira Al- Thani
lil Ibda' Al-Riwa'i Al-Arabi, Al-Riwaya wa Al-Madina (the second Cairo meeting for Arab novel creativity, the novel and the city).
Most people recognised this late addition for the symbolic gesture it was and expected little more than the lip service Farouk Hosni, minister
of culture, duly paid to Edward Said in his inaugural speech at the conference. This speech, together with a hastily organised round-table
discussion on Said and literary criticism, was all that could be managed given the constraints of time and the fact that Said had not exactly
been popular with Egyptian officialdom -- or with any other officialdom for that matter. Or so we all supposed.
It took Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim to confound such expectations and, in doing so, to demonstrate how imaginatively impoverished
we had become, how accommodating to the constraints of time and bureaucracy. Sonallah Ibrahim's riveting act at the closing ceremony of
the conference vindicated, on more than one level, the appending of Said's name to the conference.
There was the obvious Palestinian connection as Ibrahim spoke, in his unsettling ten-minute speech, about Israeli rulers being received in
Arab capitals with open arms at a time when "Israeli troops are invading whatever remains of the Palestinian land... carrying out a methodical
and systematic genocide against the Palestinians".
But it was the dramatic turnaround Ibrahim so deftly staged, from seeming to accept the LE100,000 award of the conference to turning it
down because, in his words, "it is awarded by a government that in my view lacks the credibility that would make this award worth
receiving" that recalled to my mind what Said once said about the intellectual being "embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant".
Ending what we had supposed was an acceptance speech with an indictment of the Egyptian government and its cultural institutions Ibrahim
walked out, leaving the cheque and trophy on the podium, many of those sitting in the front rows angry, and at least half the auditorium
applauding. It was a moment I would have wanted to write to Edward Said about.
I am not saying that Edward Said would have agreed with what Sonallah Ibrahim did: there is, in any case, no way now of knowing what his
opinion would have been. Neither am I suggesting any close affinity between Sonallah Ibrahim and Edward Said. They are very different in
many respects. But I believe the theatricality of Ibrahim's act, the ethics of which are now being hotly debated in the Egyptian and Arab
cultural arena, would have appealed to Said.
Commenting on something the late Anglo-Russian intellectual Sir Isaiah Berlin once said about certain 19th century Russian
writers making their audiences conscious they were on a "public stage, testifying", Said said that "something of that quality still
adheres to the public role of the modern intellectual as I see it."
On Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the greatest public intellectuals of the 20th century, Said wrote: "When we remember [him] we recall the sense
of an important personal stake, the sheer effort, risk, will to say things about colonialism, or about commitment, or about social conflict that
infuriated his opponents and galvanised his friends and perhaps even embarrassed him retrospectively."
The affinity between Ibrahim's act and Jean-Paul Sartre's turning down of the Nobel Prize, hackneyed though it may sound, was, I am sure,
on the minds of a great number of those who attended the ceremony, perhaps even Ibrahim himself. The first words a distinguished Arab
critic and a close friend exchanged with me as we were both recovering from Ibrahim's bombshell were, "why did he make that public
show, insulting all those who attended, loved and supported him in the process? Couldn't he have acted like Sartre, holding a press
conference from his home to announce his refusal?"
I blurted out something about different times, and Egypt not being France, and that had he turned down the award when he was told
of the Jury's decision it could have been awarded to someone else, and he would not then have been able to gain any publicity
for his political stance. Perhaps, it would later even have been said that Ibrahim had not been awarded the prize in the first
No, my friend said, "this act was unethical, egotistic and cunning."
It was then that I remembered another influence on both Said and Ibrahim, a little more original, perhaps, than the readily available
comparison with Jean-Paul Sartre: Joyce's Stephen Dedalus in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "I will not serve that in
which I no longer believe... and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for
my defence the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning," Dedalus says.
Stephen Dedalus is a central figure in Said's BBC Reith Lectures on the intellectuals, a book I know well since I worked on its
translation into Arabic. What I had forgotten was that Stephen Dedalus and his wish to express himself as freely and wholly as
he can is also the epitaph to Ibrahim's first novel Tilka l-Ra'iha (1966), or The Smell of It, its title in the English translation by
Finally, in mentioning the influences that might have informed the intellectual formation of both Said and Ibrahim (the two are about the same
age, the first born in 1935, the second in 1937), another name should be mentioned, that of Palestinian-Egyptian physician Farid Haddad.
Said's first book about Palestine, The Question of Palestine, which appeared in 1979, was dedicated to two friends, one of them
Haddad. Of Haddad Said wrote: "More than any one I have known, he had the keenest sense not only of what human injustice
was all about, but also of what could be done about it. Thoroughly idealistic and selfless, he was tortured to death in prison,
although at the time he died (so far as I have ever been able to tell), he did what he did as a human being and as a political
militant, not necessarily as a Palestinian."
I had the privilege of helping Said in what he called "excavating" the Cairo of his youth when he started writing his memoir, Out of Place, in
1993. Farid Haddad was at the core of that excavation and I introduced Said to a number of Haddad's comrades so that he could hear
eye-witness accounts of what had happened to his friend and to others in Egyptian prisons during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sonallah
Ibrahim was one of those comrades who witnessed prison, and the torture and the death of friends that went with it, first hand. All this is
remembered in his landmark novel The Smell of It, which Ibrahim wrote after being released from a six-year period of harsh imprisonment,
though it is also present in most of his work.
It is this sense of what human injustice is all about and what could be done about it, of which Said spoke, that informs Ibrahim's work and
his act of defiance at the recent conference. And this is why I think Said would have liked what Ibrahim did.
On 22 March this year I saw Edward Said for the last time. Four of us were standing outside the Cairo building in which the Egyptian
writer and journalist Mohamed Sid-Ahmed lives. We had spent the evening with him, his family and friends. Edward and his wife
Mariam were waiting for a car to take them to their hotel while Sonallah and I walked away to get a taxi from the main street. As
we waved goodbye Edward said something about keeping him posted on our news, and I promised to do so.
I would like to think this piece is a fulfillment of that promise.
لا خُيْرُ فيِ الافْرُاطِ وُالتُّفْرِيطِ كِلاُهُما عِنْدِي مِنَ التُّخْليِطِ
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