‘Revolutions everywhere’: Egypt’s novelists shift the red lines

The red lines that box in Egypt’s literary scene have both lightened and darkened under the 30-year Mubarak regime. Space available for writing imaginatively about sex and politics has widened, satiric literature has grown in force, and a number of independent publishers have taken on challenging books. But other restrictions tightened; writing about religion, for example, has become increasingly difficult.

In 1959, Naguib Mahfouz published Children of the Alley, his great novel addressing the Abrahamic religions. The novel was controversial from the beginning, but in 1994, the author was stabbed in the neck by a would-be assassin who objected to Mahfouz’s depiction of religion. In 2001, an attorney declared feminist author Nawal al-Saadawi an apostate and dragged her to court, demanding that she be forcibly divorced from her husband. In 2010, news about Anis al-Deghedi’s novel The Trial of Prophet Mohamed spawned attacks on its would-be publisher’s website. The site was hacked even though the publisher had declared that he wouldn’t print the book until it was approved by the religious authorities at Al-Azhar.

A number of critics and academics have blamed a lack of development in some areas of Arabic literature on these red lines for. Critic Rasheed al-Enany told Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2009 that strong societal taboos have led to self-censorship, which was holding back the Arab novel. He said that, “No Arabic writers can really write about religion.”

But now, in the post-25 January era, many ordinary Egyptians have felt their tongues freed. In the days following the revolution, banned political books were the first to find their way back to shelves; Abdel Halim Qandil’s essays have been among the most popular. Authors, too, have experienced the change. Novelist and critic Ibrahim Farghali called the revolution, “The most important event in my life. With such a great achievement [as the revolution], one finds himself face to face with many questions of values, justice, freedom, and humanity.”

Farghali expects the post-revolutionary climate will allow authors more freedom to discuss religion, sex, sectarianism, women’s liberation, illicit relationships, homosexuality, and other topics. He also hopes authors will be more willing to experiment, and that this will affect not only “literary” novels, but also crime writing, science fiction, and books for young adults.

As for himself, Farghali didn’t think that the revolution would change the themes he addressed, but it would help him to “write freely and raise the ceiling to its limit” in searching out new literary forms.

Novelist Mansoura Ezz Eldin, who was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2010, also experienced a great personal change during the revolution. On 28 January, she said, “In the middle of the demonstrations, I felt that I’m a different human being.”

Ezz Eldin said that self-censorship was a personal battle to be fought in each author’s imagination. However, she said, the public revolution was effectively liberating the Arabic language. “Of course, this was not one of its aims, but I think we managed to do this in the streets and squares. For decades, Mubarak's regime succeeded in spoiling words and distorting their meanings, but now we have begun to take them back.

“My generation used to laugh at words like ‘revolution,’ ‘the people,’ ‘the society’ and so on. Now every one of us is rediscovering the real meaning of such words.”

The revolution also has changed the way Ezz Eldin sees Egypt’s youth. She said she will revisit her novel-in-progress and re-examine its young protagonist.

Novelist and journalist Ahmed Naje, the author of Rogers, felt a less personal effect from revolutionary events. “I don't think what happened will affect my freedom in writing. I had it since I started writing.”

But Naje did hope for a shift in social attitudes toward the literary arts. These attitudes, he said, have been shaped by the military regimes that have ruled Egypt for the last 60 years. “If we could have a democratic state, this will be a first step. The coming steps will not be easy, but at least we will [start from] neutral territory.”

Ezz Eldin also predicted a long road ahead, saying that the biggest challenge will come in changing people’s understanding of the role of arts in society. “Most of the censorship cases during the last decade began because of reports from ordinary readers,” she said. These citizens “happened to read a novel or a poem and considered that it ‘threatened’ the society.”

It was such “ordinary” audience members watching the play "BuSSy", modeled after "The Vagina Monologues", who demanded that its second showing be censored. The Ministry of Culture responded to theater-goers’ requests by requiring that several parts of the play be omitted. The excised sections included a discussion of molestation and an act called “I Took off My Veil.”

Novelist Khaled al-Berry, shortlisted for the 2011 IPAF for Oriental Dance, talked about his yet more “ordinary” experience with the censorship of his first novel, Negative.

There was, al-Berry said, “a worker in the print workshop who…read one passage that contained an 'obscene' sex scene. He insisted on stopping the whole thing midway. I tried to convince him to go on but he was adamant.” But, in the end, “The guardian of morals took LE 20 and the novel was published.”

By any estimation, there is a great deal of work to be done in rolling back social and political red lines and in easing the effects of self-censorship on authors and readers. “I hope we can get rid of all sorts of censorship,” said Ezz Eldin. “And I hope for an equal revolution in reading.

“There should be revolutions everywhere.”

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