Woman is a Simple Puzzle

One thing has always intrigued me while reading or listening to stories about Sayyid Qutb: that is, the boundless curiosity in his sexual life. There is a widespread opinion that Qutb’s mysterious private life is somehow responsible for his turn to Islamism.

In otherwise serious and academic biographies of Qutb, one could spot some by-the-way statements as “Sayyid Qutb probably died without even having had sexual relationships”. The current minister of Culture in Egypt has a more elaborated opinion on this subject. In a talk-show screened sometime ago on the Egyptian TV, he explained:

“He lived a full life. You will be surprised, but in his youth he was drinking and getting drunk. He knew women and girls. But he didn’t establish any full relationship with any woman. I’ve also read that when he was in the United States, a woman was pushed onto him and she discovered that he was not into this. And this made a big wound in his life. Also, he was ugly. And this, I think, was another problem for him, on the psychological level”.

Qutb was not into sex, the minister said. Surely, he was more interested in the fate of the humanity standing on the brink of a precipice, as he stated in the opening line of his infamous “Milestones”.

Young woman on edge of the cliff towards the moon

Why this dashing curiosity in Qutb’s sexual life, I wondered. One reason for this might be the fact that he never married. But was his bachelor life-style so exceptional in comparison with other writers of his time? It seems that the choice not to marry was rather a rule than an exception in Qutb’s literary circles. The prominent poet and literary critic ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad, for example, never married, and openly expressed his contempt to women for whom he saw no other role than housework. The playwright Tawfik al-Hakim, labeled “the enemy of woman”, married in secret when he was about fifty, and only after his bride agreed to fifteen conditions of marriage listed in their contract. These included the interdiction to accompany him in public events, to fully take care of the house, and to stay silent in her room when the playwright was receiving the whiffs of inspiration. Following the romantic image of a genius writer, intellectuals of Qutb’s time seemed to despise the family life, and preferred to float above the boring lives of their mundane folks.


Tawfik al-Hakim chatting with a beautiful woman whom he would never marry

But there is another possible reason for their bachelor life-style: maybe there were no women to marry for those effendi writers. The first generation of modern-educated Egyptians did not have their female counterpart, as one captivating book explained. In the first half of the twentieth century, female education was a rare thing, and effendi writers upon their graduation found themselves lonely as a cloud wandering in the male-dominated world. Roughly, they had a choice between Westernised high-class girls, whom they saw as morally corrupted and not authentic enough, and peasant women, whom they considered as too authentic and lacking education. One of the rare examples of married writers of that time, Taha Hussein, didn’t seem to care about these limitations, and happily married a foreigner. Ahmad Amin, another married intellectual, narrates in his memoirs that finding a wife was not an easy task, it was indeed “a torture”.

Torture might be not the right word to describe the sentimental tribulations narrated by Sayyid Qutb in his romantic novel Thorns – as well as to describe my experience of reading it – but it’s the first one that comes to my mind. Written in 1947, Thorns marks a break from Qutb’s previous convictions about love and women, informed by his youthful love dreams and books. In the 1930s, he had written a series of articles entitled “Woman is a Simple Puzzle”, in which he invited writers of his time to stop representing women in their novels as a mysterious and incomprehensible beings. Some thirteen years later, when he was writing Thorns, Qutb discovered that the puzzle was not so easy to solve.


The advertisement of Qutb’s novel Thorns, published in al-Risala

In Thorns, Qutb narrates an anxiety-ridden love affair between a young clerk Sami, who learns about women only from books, and a girl named Samira, who has a tempting bosom. The story opens with their engagement scene in which Samira announces to the clerk that she had a love affair with a young officer. Torn between the impulse to preserve his dignity and his feelings of love, a tortious and detailed description of Sami’s inner anxieties unfolds. The whole relationship with the girl is a rollercoaster, in which Samy’s decision to marry Samira is constantly overthrown by his suspicions of her still being enamoured with her former lover. We see Sami changing his mind on a daily basis, when Samira, exhausted by this war of nerves, pulls back. (It’s also the war of nerves for the reader). In creating the character of this exceptionally indecisive man, Qutb uses some details of his personal life, which makes the readers believe that Sami is actually Sayyid Qutb himself. In fact, this is what Naguib Mahfouz affirmed in his rave review of the novel.


More importantly, in this novel Qutb gives a hint of a type of a woman that an effendi writer was about to marry. Apart of being blessed with a tempting bosom, we learn that she reads books, but only those that Sami provides her with. She reads them to please him, because “she knows his opinion about women who don’t read”. Sami, on his part, is conscious that by encouraging Samira to read, he’s turning her into a “complex and complicated woman”, who will be eternally alienated from her unsophisticated family members. She also plays a piano, creating tunes that captivate the young man. Despite of all this, Samira – at the height of her doubts on her suitability to marry Sami – suggests him to take her as a servant, because “she’s good in arranging the house”. Books, piano, household, former lover, engagement ring, tempting bosom, all this creates a puzzle that Sami – or Sayyid Qutb – is unable to solve. This novel makes it clear that problems Qutb might have faced in issues of love were rather psychological, than sexual, and that they most probably were shared by most of effendi writers of his generation. However, all these reflections are no more than hot air, when Egypt has a minister of Culture, who with the help of his rare insight into sexual problems of intellectuals of the 1950s – and maybe of all of us!! – can solve any puzzle for you.



The execution of Sayyid Qutb on the night of the 29th August in 1966 was met with silence in Egypt’s literary circles. Almost none of Egyptian writers has publicly objected the execution of someone who two decades ago was an important figure in Cairo’s intellectual circles. This could be certainly explained by the climate of fear that marked Egypt of the 1960s, making it costly to stand up for someone accused of the conspiracy against the State. But this could be also due to the fact that a whole new generation of writers came to dominate the literary scene to whom Qutb was no more than an Islamist. For those who happened to know him personally, he was probably a lost cause after he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s.

An exception to that was Mahmoud Abu al Wafa, a renowned poet and a long time friend of Sayyid Qutb. They met in the Apollo Society, founded by Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi in the 1930s to serve as a forum for Egypt’s romantics, and stayed friends since then. They stayed friends even after they both abandoned romantic disposition and started calling for a revolution in Egyptian literary field.  In the late 1940s, Abu al Wafa followed Qutb in the latter’s supervised journals The Arab World and The New Thought, and 1954 joined Qutb’s edited ephemeral The Journal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their friendship had also led Qutb to write an introduction to Abu al Wafa’s diwan entitled Religious Hymns (Anashid Diniyya), in its 1953 edition. After Qutb was released from prison in 1964, and before he was re-arrested some months later, Abu al Wafa kept visiting Qutb in his home in Helwan (where he was spotted by the Qutb’s future brother-in-law.

Abul Wafa Sayyid.Fin

After the execution of Sayyid Qutb, Abu al Wafa composed a poem in his honour named “Sayyid”.

يا سيدأ كان عندي            أعز من اصطفيـــه

يا طاهر الطرفيــــن           من  أمـــــــــه لأبيـــــه

يا أبعد الناس  خلقــأ            عن كل فعل كريــه

أخي و من منك أولى          بكل وصف نزيــــه

و ما ذكرنا عظـــيما          إلا رأيناك فــــــــيه

شأوت عمرك حتـــى          بلغت ما تبتغيــــــه

حتى الممات فمــــــنه          حققت ما تشتهيــه

فصرت بالموت معنى        حيا بغير شبيــــــه

رجوت دنيا و ديـــنا         فنلت ما ترتجيــــه

 العصر إن يبك شخصا       فأنت من يبكيــــــه

و ما بكى أي عصــــر        إلا أعز بنــــــــيه

Intellectuals are revolting again, “electronically”

“I don’t like smoking” – says the minister of Culture to the woman labeled “Culture”. Her look is that of militante, a word to describe middle-aged and well-off women who have become Abd al-Fatah Sisi’s most fervent adherents.

I don’t like fatties” – says the minister of Culture to the woman labeled “Culture”. The cartoon refers to the famous comment by the minister on physical appearance of one of his female subordinates in the ministry


“The minister of Culture : I don’t like fatties”. The elephant : “i don’t like ministers of Culture neither”

It’s been two months that some Egyptian intellectuals are involved in an initiative calling to remove the current minister of Culture, Abd al-Wahed al-Nabawi, from his office. The official Facebook page of the campaign yesterday published the following two posts revealing rather unsurprising accusations leveled against him : lack of enthusiasm for  the Egypt’s new Suez Canal, ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and his lukewarm support for the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram :

“While Opera House was producing a show for the New Suez Canal following direct orders from the political leaders, the minister of Culture was having a protocol meeting with the ministry of Religious Endowments”.

“While Nancy Ajram was rehearsing her new song about the Suez Canal, the minister of Culture was busy increasing Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in the ministry”.

The event page calling for a demonstration has already mobilized nearly 400 souls, a crowd which would be sufficient to occupy the ministerial building and to force al-Nabawi out as it happened against Morsi’s unfortunate candidate for Culture, Ala Abd al-Aziz, in 2013. In Sisi’s Egypt however filling the streets with protests would mean chaos and destruction of the State, and the organizers of the campaign specified that they demonstrate only “electronically” on Facebook.

A lack of visible enthusiasm for the New Suez Canal is a serious accusation. With the approach of inauguration of the Canal, intellectuals as well as other public figures were rivaling each other to find the most original and creative ways to express their emotions.

A piece to celebrate the New Suez Canal by an opponent to the minister

A piece of al-fann al-ta’areesi to support the New Suez Canal

Hilmi Namnam, the current head of GEBO and a historian specializing in Sayyid Qutb’s conspiracies and crimes, went as far as to burst into tears in Mona Shazli’s talk-show in the same studio in which Wael Ghoneim cried for the martyrs back in 2011. Reacting to this unexpected outburst of emotions by such a solid man as Namnam, Shazli explained to the audience that it was the first time in her life she saw him crying, and that it was an undeniable sign of patriotism and integrity.

Hilmi Namnam, the new head of GEBO, crying for the New Suez Canal

Hilmi Namnam, the new head of GEBO, expressing his emotions over the New Suez Canal

The accusation of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood is nevertheless a more serious one. In these accusations, the organizers of the campaign rely on a mysterious report allegedly issued by the Bureau of National Security which stated that al-Nabawi is “a sleeping cell of the Muslim Brotherhood”. Those who find it surprising that these cells might be sleeping on the top political shelf should remember that Egypt has previously even elected such a cell to the presidency. As for al-Nabawi, the proofs of his forming such a cell are countless : it’s his stay in Qatar where he, under the cover of the university job, mediated between Qatari intelligence and the Muslim Brotherhood; it’s his links to his hometown in Daqhliya, where numerous pro-Brotherhood demonstrations were organized after Sisi came to power; and finally, it’s his dismissal from his post in Egyptian archives during Muhammad Morsi’s rule. While it might seem as a result of Morsi’s insatisfaction with al-Nabawi, he was in fact made available for bigger missions with Qatar, and his dismissal was meant not to attract suspicions.

No matter how incongruous these charges might seem, it must be noted that the accusation of ties with the Brotherhood is also directed by the opposite side against the organizers of the campaign. Back in July 2015, when al-Nabawi announced the sacking of Ahmad al-Mugahed, the president of GEBO, he attempted to shore up support for his decision by reminding that in 2011 GEBO published Sayyid Qutb’s novel, Ashwak. The attempt proved a failure, and a number of powerful intellectuals, as Ibrahim Abd al-Maged, Baha Taher or the painter Muhammad Abla, mobilized in support of al-Mugahed causing the current crisis in the ministry of Culture. Despite the spiral of mutual accusations of ties with the Brotherhood, what seems to matter the most in the dusty corridors of the ministry of Culture is the high degree of solidarity. “He is not like us” – huwa mish zayyina – this is how Muhammad Alba summed up the reasons of the ongoing opposition against the minister.

Hamdî Qandil, a policeman or a journalist ?

Often when we read or watch an Egyptian intellectual taking political stances today, we have no clue where he stood in the past. Yet the sixties is not a distant past. Accordingly, most public intellectuals who have hit their nineties – a widespread phenomenon in Egypt, despite its generally young population – must have built their careers under the encompassing and all-protective Nasser’s shadow.

For writers, the sixties was a decade of contradictions : the period of imprisonment and abuse by security services for ones, and « the best period of Egypt » permeated by the dream of Egypt becoming « the best country in the world » for others. However, no one would probably deny that the fastest path to arrive at the peak of one’s career was a strategy of boot-licking, identified by an overused Arabic term starting with a letter T. The relevance of this term in Egypt’s intellectual history is perfectly illustrated by the list of reports, written by members of the Avant-garde organization (al-Tanzîm al-Talî’î), a secret governmental structure established in 1964. In these reports, they were informing the central authority of the breaches of their colleagues’ commitment to the Nasserist spirit.

The TV veteran Hamdî Qandîl is one of these intellectuals who built their fame and career in the sixties. Recently, Qandîl recalled the wave of repression launched against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1965, by giving credit to Abd al Nasser for having done well in acting against the conspiracy prone organization. However, he failed to mention the role he himself undertook during the 1965 crackdown. Then a young and promising TV anchor, Hamdî Qandîl was entrusted to lead public interrogations of arrested elements of the conspiracy. Placed in front of TV cameras, in a special room in the Military prison allocated for filming purposes, the culprits would confess their crimes, and confessions would be broadcasted all over the country to a terrified audience. The following day, the text of confessions would appear in the government owned al-Gomhoriya newspaper. Each article included an announcement of whose confessions would be published the following day.

Taking up the role of a security service officer, Hamdî Qandîl would proceed like an interrogator. He would start the TV show with : Name. Age. Profession. According to some Muslim Brothers, he would even hit the interrogated ones with a shoe seeking to extract confessions pleasing the regime. These public sessions continued for one month, october 1965, then they were cancelled for an unknown reason. The TV watchers were thus unable to see the confession of Sayyid Qutb, planned for december 1965.


A screenshot from a TV show : Qandil is interrogating Hilmi Hathut, a member of the Brotherhood accused of conspiracy in 1965

Ahmad Ra’ef, a former MB member, recalls these public interrogations as exercises of absurdity and humiliation. Everyone was waiting their turn to be called to the « filming room », known among prisoners as « the room of fabricated confessions ». When the turn of Ra’ef came, the unexpected happened : he was violently expelled by Qandîl who was angered by a big injury visible on his face. « How dare you bring me an injured person ?! », reportedly screamed the presenter. « What will people say of us ?! ».

The « us » signifies the symbiosis created by regime, media, and public intellectuals in the sixties. « People » are the ones to be convinced by the transparency of the investigation, ordered by the regime and entrusted to the media. This episode tells a great deal about the foundations of the present day Egyptian media. Also, it says a lot about the mission in which Egyptian intellectuals nurtured by Nasserist milk still believe. Far from being a flip-flop, Hamdî Qandîl didn’t stop believing in the Nasserist dream, while often taking critical stances against political leaders such as Mubarak. A revolutionary and critical intellectual. This is the image of him drawn by the media.


 Born in the 30’s, Qandil join the television in 1961. He stayed there until 1969

Nevertheless, one could ask the question of whether the resistance remains the resistance, and the revolution stays the revolution, when it becomes appropriated by the repressive State. One could also ask what happens when the regime gives intellectuals power to « protect » the revolution ? Can they ever protect it against the regime itself ? These are the questions that are equally relevant today.