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.


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.

Was Taha Hussein a felool?

At the end of the 40s, Sayyid Qutb, attacked his intellectual colleagues with these words : “this generation of old intellectuals has abandoned their duty. Not only towards young intellectuals but towards their homeland, society, humanity and finally the literary consciousness”. After accusing the whole generation of established intellectuals of serving “imperialist propaganda” during the war, Qutb continued : “and then, when the war ended and Arab nations rose to fight imperialists asking for their rights, I found you all behind, not in the frontlines of the battle. I found you in dens of political parties, not in the national battlefield”. Addressing these words to a whole generation of writers, the one of Abbas al Aqqad, Tewfik al Hakim and Ahmad Amin, Qutb pointed out the most blameworthy one, Taha Hussein. For Qutb, Taha Hussein was guilty not only for national treason, but also for the assassination of literature. “The literature has died!” solemnly announced Qutb in July 1951. “It was killed by the ministry of Education. And where is the minister now? The minister is in France!” It was Taha Hussein who occupied the post of minister of Education at that time. In the fashion of bashawat of those royal times, he was accustomed of spending summers in European countries, accompanied by his French wife.


“In dens of political parties..”

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to describe Taha Hussein as an “organic intellectual” of political parties to which he belonged. By joining a new party, Taha Hussein would make the party’s official journal his platform where he would wage a merciless war on that party’s rivals. As a member of Liberal Constitutionalists in 20’s and early 30’s, it was on the pages of the party’s official newspaper al Siyâsa that Taha Hussein was accusing al Wafd’s leader Saad Zaghlul of dictatorship. His hostility to al Wafd remained consistent after he joined for a short period the royalist Ittihâd party. In 1932 Taha Hussein joined his former enemies, the Wafd party, after accepting the offer of Nahhas Pasha to edit Kawkab al Sharq journal. There Taha Hussein revealed himself as a tireless critic of Sidqi and Nuqrashi Pachas’ cabinets in Wafdist newspapers al Balâgh and Kawkab al Sharq. His attacks were so violent that he had to face two complaints filed against him at first by Saad Zaghlul and later by Sidqi Pacha for insulting his minister of Education.

Back then, switching from one political party to another was not an unusual move. Writers were often under patronage of political parties and acted as their mouthpieces. Taha Hussein’s bonds with Liberal Constitutionalists most likely helped to accelerate his career in the Egyptian University after its members-intellectuals managed to tighten their grip on the University council in 1922 by stripping the exiled Saad Zaghlul from his vice rectorship. The Liberal Constitutionalist party comprised the major intellectuals of the time, most of whom were linked to each other by family bonds or friendships : Ahmad Lutfi al Sayid, Abd al Aziz Fahmi, Muhammad Husain Haikal, brothers Mustafa and Ali Abd al Raziq and Taha Hussein. During the controversy stirred by Taha Hussein’s On the Jahili poetry in 1926, it was Liberal Constitutionalists who defended the author while his adversaries were Wafd party members allied with al Azhar. To Taha Hussein’s luck, the University’s rectorship, the ministry of Education and the ministry of Justice were occupied then by his party friends. Similarly, his reasons of joining Liberal Constitutionalists’ rivals al Wafd party were not only ideological. Taha Hussein enjoyed a precious support and sympathy of University students which grew in particular strong after his dismissal from the university by Sidqi Pacha. It happened that the majority of students who walked to the house of Taha Hussein in Heliopolis protesting against his transfer from the University were Wafdists. As a Dean in the University – the epicentre of political activism in the 30’s – Taha Hussein could not but join the Wafd party. In 1935-6 the Egyptian University would witness a massive wave of student demonstrations that would force the authorities to restore the Constitution, abrogated by Sidqi Pacha some years before. A second reason of choosing al Wafd was economical. After his dismissal from the University, Taha Hussein lost his main source of income and his family experienced “the years of famine”, as his wife once defined it. The rumour goes that Taha Hussein was paid nearly 300 pounds for his first article in Kawkab al Sharq, a huge sum for a writer in 30’s. It is not surprising that excellent writers and figures rich of “symbolic capital” such as Taha Hussein were solicited by the leaders of political parties. At the times when partisan press was one of the main political weapons, influential and sarcastic pens such as Taha Hussein definitely added considerable weight to the party. His membership in al Wafd party would allow him to foster his career and to become the minister of Education in the last al Wafd cabinet in 1950.

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Taha Hussein in Azhar                                                 Taha Hussein in the University

Was Taha Hussein a felool ?

If Sayyid Qutb’s accusations hailed upon Taha Hussein for playing a highly discredited party game make sense, no one could accuse him of insensitivity for social ills. Taha Hussein was deeply concerned by Egypt’s social problems and joined widespread calls for social justice and political reform. His stance towards the King was more complex. As a Dean of the University in 40’s, he could not but adopt a conciliatory stance to the King – dedicating his books, inviting the King to the official university occasions, praising and thanking him for his existence. Nevertheless, after his dismissal from the University, Taha Hussein tempted several tentative attacks on the King in his articles.  This visibly contradictory stance towards the King derived probably from a double and contradictory identity that intellectuals were upholding : the one of a civil servant serving to the state as a scribe, muwazzaf, and the one of a duty-bound engaged intellectual serving to a society. Put in other terms, intellectuals had to conciliate two contradictory dimensions of their identity, the voice of the State and the voice of the society. This task would reveal disastrous in political crisis when the society goes against the State, as it happens in revolutions.

Nevertheless, by joining al Wafd cabinet as the minister of Education in 1950, Taha Hussein ceased being ambiguous about the King.  As a mouthpiece of al Wafd, he was following the official line of the party which adopted a controversial politics of appeasement with the King. Taha Hussein’s conciliatory attitude towards the King while in the minister office will be remembered after the revolution of 1952 : he will be accused of trying to please the King in the Speech of the Throne during his investiture in the ministry, of kissing the King’s hand (while three other ministers refused this honour), of calling the Kind “The moral teacher of people” (ustâz al sha’ab fi al akhlâq), of using his political influence to mount to power, and last but not least, of accepting the rank of Pasha given by the King several months before the coup which will abrogate all ranks. In order to ensure the purity of his revolutionary consciousness, which will be needed in his new role of the mouthpiece of the revolutionary regime, Taha Hussein will deny all these charges. He will seek to attract the attention to his accomplishments while in Ministry such the adoption of free secondary and technical education.

Hand in hand with the Revolution

With the military coup of July 1952, al Wafd’s career was over but the one of Taha Hussein was not. His role in the building of the military regime was crucial. It was Taha Hussein who named for the first time the military coup “the revolution”, one week after the coup in a letter sent to his friend Tewfik al Hakim from his annual summer vocation in Italy. One week after, he compared Egyptian revolution with the French one by stating that the Egyptian revolution is an original one (thawra asliya) for it sought to reform the society. Taha Hussein would insist on naming the event “the revolution” in December in more explicit terms : “it’s not the coup d’Etat, nor the renaissance, nor the army movement, it’s the revolution”. Other intellectuals would rapidly take over this idea. For some weeks, the definition of the event would oscillate between the blessed bounce (al wathba al mubâraka), the army movement (harakat el geish) and revolution (thawra) until the last one imposed itself definitely ar the end of the year. In November 1952, Mohammad Nagib was proclaimed “the leader of the revolution” and in January of the next year the ruling junta switched its name into The Council of the Revolutionary Guidance. It was Egyptian intellectuals – with Taha Hussein in the front line – who defined the event as the revolution thus constructing and providing the Free Officers with the necessary political legitimacy shield.

After greeting with fervour the Revolution, Taha Hussein adopted the stance of uncritical support of the new power, loyally playing the role of the mouthpiece of the military regime. In a number of confrontations between the regime and various political forces that followed, Taha Hussein took always the regime’s side, even when it was attacking his former colleagues. For example, in Mars 1953 with the anxiety mounting over the freedom of expression, Taha Hussein took the side of the regime justifying the censorship in the name of “the protection of the state and the revolution”. He explained : “I don’t think that the freedom to criticize (the regime) is being limited, if by criticism we mean the devotion for the reform and guidance… We tend to forget that we live in the time of the revolution which has the right – and the duty – to protect itself”. He did not change his mind following the wide-spread arrests of communists,  the press censorship, the closure of oppositional journals, including al Masry to which Taha Hussein himself was contributing, but rather he would insist that the revolution “has liberated the minds”. Unsurprisingly, Taha Hussein took the side of Gamal Abd al Nasser against Mohammad Nagib in 1954 Mars crisis and in July of the same year was calling to “the stability” because “people cannot be revolted all the time”.

In exchange to his unconditional support, the regime will grant Taha Hussein with superficial but symbolically powerful positions. Although he would never get a minister position – a possibility given by his omission from the “political exclusion” law adopted in April 1954 – Taha Hussein would be placed on the top of the new born cultural institutions, included in the comitee of the Constitution writing and finally appointed as the chief editor of the state owned Gomhoriya newspaper. By giving the key positions to a younger generation of intellectuals playing the role of experts, the regime sought the loyalty of renowned intellectuals of the older generation for propaganda reasons. Take the example of Taha Hussein’s participation in the State published collective propaganda book “Them, the Brotherhood” following its clash with the Muslim Brotherhood at the end of 1954 where Taha Hussein contributed with two anti-Brotherhood articles. The destinies of two intellectuals who were formerly friends – Taha Hussein and Sayyid Qutb – have definitely separated before this date, the former taking the side of the regime, the latter that of the opposition. In the year of 1966, while Sayyid Qutb will be condemned to the death penalty for his controversial book “Milestones”, Taha Hussein will be granted the highest state honour The Order of the Nile.

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