I hope Sonallah Ibrahim is okay. He is an eminent Egyptian novelist, age 66. Last week in Cairo, at a prestigious forum, "organized every two years by Egypt's Supreme Council for Culture with the participation of leading novelists and writers from Arab and foreign countries," he rejected the Novelist of the Year award because, he said, it came from a government without credibility. He criticized Arab governments for their "oppressive" nature and "collaboration" with the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well as Israel's actions against Palestinians. Arab intellectuals must speak out against "authoritarian" regimes and not enter the "sheep pen," he said. A Cairo movie critic said the culture minister turned blue; then, taking a tip from Donald Rumsfeld after a protester was thrown out of the Pentagon, claimed it showed how free Egypt is. Another sign of Sonallah Ibrahim's courage was his timing: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Cairo that night to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who continues to support the U.S. on Iraq, and receive vast aid, though Mr. Mubarak did grumble before the war that it would create "100 bin Ladens."
Turning down literary awards isn't easy. Writers may consider such gestures, but usually decide against, or are dissuaded by friends who say: "At least you forced the cretins to recognize real talent for once," or "You need the money." In Mr. Sonallah's case, it was $16,000 (U.S.) and he is an artist who never took a state arts job as a form of subsidy. In his speech, he said, "We don't have theatre, cinema, scientific research or education any more. We only have festivals, conferences and bins of lies."
Interesting point. Instead of a truly popular culture, you get official or semi-official gatherings and prizes, which incorporate the artists and buy them off, while subtly instructing the audiences on what to read or admire.
Sonallah Ibrahim didn't really need this. He has paid his dues. At age 20, he went to jail for five years with Communists opposed to then-president Gamal Nasser. After release, he says he found it ever harder to combine writing with action inside a party or group. The complexity of depicting reality conflicted with the clarity needed in politics. "The problem with these phenomena and mysteries," he wrote in his 1981 novella, The Committee "is that they are not related to just one facet of life, but extend through diverse facets. This means the multiplicity is the common denominator." His protagonist likes reading action thrillers, a choice, he says, which "expresses an inability to act when necessary and goes hand in hand with the natural, rightful desire of every person for evil to be punished and good to triumph." When we met last year in Toronto, we discovered a shared interest in the Quiller novels of the Cold War years.
Mr. Sonallah's act has been little noticed in the West. I guess dissent too has a multiplicity. When U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz was here flogging his book on Israel, he congratulated the CBC for having him and a U.S. rabbi debate it on air, which doesn't happen in Palestine, he added. In fact, there is lots of debate there, under conditions of occupation, and some dissenters have wound up with limbs blown off. Smugness is not a good starting point.
Israel itself has brave dissenters, like the reservists who refuse to serve in occupied areas, and often go to jail. They are sustained, you could say, by the Biblical tradition of dissent and their own solidarity. Canadian writer Irshad Manji calls her new book on Islam, "a wake-up call for honesty and change." She talks about bulletproof windows on her house and her "burly" bodyguard, as well as her own "integrity," as she awaits reaction from, presumably, Islamists. The book, though, seems aimed mainly at non-Muslims, reassuring them that what they thought about Islam is true: "What's with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism? . . . What's our excuse for taking the Koran literally? . . ." It reduces the multiplicity of a vast faith to a unity --we . . . our . . . then stereotypes that unity and proceeds to rebut the stereotype. It's a good example of what the late Edward Said called Orientalism. I'd say true courageous dissent is usually not marked by self-advertisement.
Sonallah Ibrahim is an elfin, rather than a flamboyant or self-promoting personality. His books are inevitably called Kafkaesque, though with a broad, often sexual humor I don't discern in Kafka and a politics that definitely isn't there. He seems largely on his own in this protest, as a secular nationalist and leftist, under a regime edging toward rapprochement with Egypt's surging Islamists. When I e-mailed him this week to find out how he was, the letter bounced back sounding like a communication from The Committee itself: A message that you sent could not be delivered.
This is a permanent error. I'm hoping not.
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