Intellectuals reunited to rescue al Adab

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Intellectuals drafting a plan to counter a Tatar attack against al Adab

One could hardly ignore the colorful invitation of freshly upgraded Akhbar al Adab magazine to assist the celebration of its 1000th issue. Not only because of highly concentrated crème of intellectuals whose presence was announced. It is in fact rare to see Gaber Asfour, Baha Taher, Faruq Shousha, Wahid Hamed sitting around the same table, kindly passing the microphone to each other and eventually savouring the same birthday cake. The event could not be ignored because of the vital and urgent task for which intellectuals were reunited – to finally find the answer to the long standing question asked by Taha Hussein in late 30’s : What is the Future of Culture in Egypt? 

Of the announced crème of intellectuals only Wahid Hamed showed up. But the withdrawal of the main speakers was not an issue when Egypt had such an easy going and approachable Minister of Culture who kindly agreed to replace them all. The tide of suspicion rising in the audience toward to what could be falsely understood as a new attempt to subject intellectuals to the state control was quelled by Magdy al Afifi who reassured that “the Minister of Culture would speak as an intellectual not as a minister”. Good news, given that the minister had earlier announced of having developed a rare and useful skill of identity doubling helping him to beagainst the power while being in power.

As expected, the banner of the event was the concept of tanwîr, or enlightenment, which constitutes the editorial policy of the reformed Akhbar al Adab. Every editorial thoroughly penned by Magdy al Afifi of the magazine is introduced by this magic word added to the photo of the author elegantly leaned to the desk and gently holding his enlightened pen. The devotion of Magdy al Afifi to the policy of tanwir is demonstrated by his fascinating mastering of the light related vocabulary, as revealed by his description of intellectuals colleagues as “the carriers of enlightenment lamps and torches of illumination”. The torches of illumination are being aimed not at the illiteracy as one could naively suppose, but against the Islamists. The image of eschatological struggle between the “enlightenment and obscurantism” – between tanwir and tayarât zulâmiya – constituted the main argument of Faruq Hosni’s ministry of Culture in soliciting liberal and leftist intellectuals to join the State cultural institutions. A number of intellectuals surrendered to the tempting suggestion of the State which contained not only the promise of ensuring the comfort of material life, the access to the publication market and the glory, but also provided them with the new and meaningful mission to lead. The concept of tanwîr  unfolds the contradictions entrenched in the contemporary Egyptian intellectual field which consist of denouncing both the Islamists and the State while at the same time forging alliances with one of them in order to fight the other. 

The birthday of Akhbar al Adab was dominated by the same contradictions.  While Sayyid Yassin regretted the demise of intellectuals in the last revolution by ‘political activists’, Waheed Hamid reproduced the long standing apocalyptic discourse of “the trial of Adab”. “The Adab is being attacked by the new Tatar invasion!” – he cried out to the terrified audience. 

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After a minute of observed bewilderment in the audience, Hamid passed to nostalgic praising of intellectual life under Nasser. “A book every six hours, a theatre piece every two weeks! The intellectual life was boiling in the 60’s!” – Wahid bitterly remembered. Great times of cultural policy of quantity established by the July revolution which subjected intellectuals to the absolute State control. But luckily again, there was the minister of Culture to instill a dose of optimism. “Everything will be all right!” – he joyfully reassured the audience still aghast by the images of Tatar invasion. “No one could never tear the culture off an Egyptian!”.  An Egyptian, by his nature, was, is and will be the embodiment of culture. Naam al Baz, the last speaker, continued on the same theme by describing the “culture of the illiterate Egyptians”. “The culture of Egyptian peasants reside in  their agricultural expertise to recognize the fertile land”, revealed al Baz as a secret. The audience cheered. Wishing to end the talking part in an optimistic note in order to pass to the cake eating phase, intellectuals did not ask how, if Egyptians were naturally cultured, they could justify the need of the crème of intellectuals in Egypt? The cake devoured, intellectuals dispersed without answering to Taha Hussein’s question the future of culture in Egypt. 

A word on Intellectuals and Revolutions

With the Arab revolutions, the old Marxist inspired question of intellectuals and their role in revolutions regained its importance. In Egypt, the post-revolutionary celebrations gave way to a bitter realization that most intellectuals were in the rear of the battle not in its frontlines – as leftist ideologies had promised. Two contradictory and extreme discourses followed. The first one boldly stated that intellectuals betrayed the revolution, while the second one boasted on the contrary that they provoked it. The intensity of these discourses was at the measure of danger for not being accused of reactionary tendencies – no one wished to be compared the Syrian poet Adonis. The threat of digging up past sins was constant, but, thanks to God, intellectuals were also humans and their courting of the fallen regime could be attributed to human weakness. As Bourdieu said, revolutionary moments offer the best opportunity for the weak to wage the cultural wars against the strong in the intellectual field. It is insightful to explore strategies, arguments and discourses formulated by the powerful to protect themselves and saveguard their power positions. 

This blog is about Arab – mostly Egyptian – intellectuals representing higher and official culture. It’s about yesterday’s Pachas and Beks, and today’s Doktors and Ostazs. It’s about those moments when the contradictions hidden deep in the intellectual identity come to the surface : the gatekeeper of the symbolic order and its contester, the interpreter of a revolution and its actor, the guardian of the order and the agent to change. It’s about intellectuals acting under pressure.

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Little Lenin with a full shewal of intellectuals, 1881