Wednesday, January 12, 2011

from romantic to realism

From Romanticism to Realism

Ibrahim Farghali

"My fathers and mothers go back to the pyramids and to histories of parrots, and even as far back as Mayan culture. So I don’t feel that I belong to a specific generation … However as far as the sixties are concerned, I suppose I only wanted to have experienced May 1968 – just as I would have liked to have been involved in the 1972 student demonstrations [in Egypt]."

Those words by poet and translator Huda Hussein, taken from an interview published in al-Sharq al-Awsat, both summarise the influence exerted by the "1968 movement" in Egypt and show that such influence has now vanished. The present generation, born around 1968, is not moved by Egyptians who directly experienced 1968; there’s only a sense of "nostalgic" connection with student demonstrations at Egyptian universities in the early 1970s. The real influence, felt by the 1990s generation, derives directly from the 68 movement as originally manifested in Europe.

Mixing politics, ideology, and culture

To fill out this depiction I turn for a moment to a leading personality exemplifying revolutionary rejection: the late Ibrahim Mansur, an intellectual who was one of the founders of the celebrated "Gallery 68", a journal which played a great part in providing roots for the sixties generation of writers. In addition Mansur was one of the best-known opponents during the seventies of the policies of Anwar al-Sadat, then Egyptian President. He is now established in Egyptian intellectuals’ collective memory as the "national conscience" whose keen sword of criticism descended on anyone who opposed generally-held patriotic feelings.

Ibrahim Mansur thereby embodied the Egyptian intellectual, mixing politics, ideology, and culture. That also typified his generation, and became one of the characteristics of Egyptian culture per se. But it is precisely this which is openly rejected by the nineties generation, pursuing its way towards individualism and favouring aesthetics at the expense of ideology.

More liberty for students associations

It may be correct that – as a result of special circumstances such as the defeat of 1967 – the Mansur generation played an important part in the sixties and seventies. However it is not improbable that the 68 movement in France was the main influence on the November demonstrations in Egypt. Those demonstrations developed such momentum that Abdel Nasser responded by yielding to students’ demands and conceding greater independence, effectiveness, and freedom of movement to their groupings. Student associations were also allowed to be politically active. This presidential decision in 1968 regarding the organisation of student bodies was in response to their demands.

However this generation, successful in exerting pressure on Abdel Nasser, didn’t play any great part later in influencing the modernisation of Egyptian society. Despite all of its political and ideological activities, this generation was not in a position to effectively counter corruption and the population’s marginalisation in political life – a state of affairs Egyptian society had to struggle against during the eighties and nineties. Literature was affected by that too. Perhaps this was the reason for the nineties rejection of its predecessors in the spheres of ideology, creativity, and politics.

Movement of the urban population

When the sixties generation was growing up it profited from the 1952 revolution, which led to free education and welfare benefits. On the other hand this generation was also the outcome of the revolutionary atmosphere which became characteristic of Egyptian society as a whole where people trusted by those in power were given precedence over the qualified. Another consequence of the revolution was the fact that youngsters from rural areas now enjoyed the advantages of education. In addition there were possibilities of work in Cairo with people bringing their customs, traditions, ways of behaviour, and values to the city, adhering to these instead of exchanging them for modern urban ways. So the capital imported values from the regions instead of the city spreading urban standards in rural areas.

So what happened in Cairo cannot be compared with the events accompanying the 68 movement in Europe since the latter involved an urban population with all that meant in the way of culture and patterns of behaviour. The Egyptian student movement was fundamentally different. There exists an essential difference between intellectuals in the two cultures. It can be said that Egyptian citizens – perhaps people in general in the Third World – are not the same as their French or English counterparts. The Egyptian is essentially a countryman [muwaatin], a son of the land, whereas the European is a son of the city.

Perhaps such an equivocal comprehension of culture and its relationship to the land (i.e. to the homeland) instead of to the truth was one of the reasons why the Egyptian 68 generation no longer influenced succeeding generations and thus failed to play its part in revolutionising and modernising society. This generation was equally incapable of liberating itself from the roots of traditional culture, founded on a dualism of contradictory values in turn based on a clash between the permitted [halaal] and the forbidden [haraam]. That generation’s thinking was also the outcome of this dualism.

Romantic representation of the revolt

The second reason for absence of influence was a lack of will in putting new ideas into writing so that they could be discussed more widely and later further developed. In my opinion Ibrahim Mansur represents one example of this disparagement of the written word. When considering Ibrahim Mansur, we are confronted with an exemplification of oral culture. His influence is therefore limited to a small circle of people who were attracted by him or in direct contact, repeating his words without writing down what he said. So dealings with Ibrahim Mansur involve a kind of romanticism. That seems to be a general characteristic of the seventies generation and its predecessor. It was the main emphasis in Sharif Younis’s scholarly investigation of the Egyptian student movement where he wrote: "The different circumstances of the seventies led to the rise of a student movement characterised by romantic and abstract representation. The romantic hero is someone who does nothing but fight; he neither eats, drinks, nor works".

Nevertheless there were many exceptions, particularly within the student movement itself. One of its most important symbols was intellectually embodied in the person of the late "Ahmad Abdallah", who played an outstanding part in the student leadership during this revolt. Ahmad Abdallah, who studied economics and politics, headed the students’ national committee which directed the January 1972 upheaval, seen by many – especially on the Left – as a preparation for the 1973 war against Israel. He also led students’ most important campus protest, which was only brought to an end by security force truncheons. Abdallah was arrested three times in 1972 and 1973. Yet even though Ahmad Abdallah surmounted many of his generation’s afflictions, for students of the 1990s he remains closer to populist culture, which is not appreciated by the new generation, particularly its intellectuals.

Influence of the European 68 movement

Despite all that, we cannot make a distinction between the European 68 movement with its influence on Egypt and any more recent attempt at modernisation whether that involves the clothes worn then, open relationships, and the start of a new phase with a different understanding of relations between the sexes and an alternative way of life, borrowing from the hippies who let their hair grow long and much besides. However this approach declined at the end of the seventies with the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, made use of by President Anwar al-Sadat to suppress leftist and communist tendencies – with the outcome that conservatism and religious leanings gained acceptance in Egyptian society.

But the nineties generation is not unified either. Some of its members seem to have been influenced by 68, but there are also many intellectuals from rural areas whose writings and behaviour reveal numerous contradictions. Some of these intellectuals are traditional conservatives who view themselves as being enlightened and avant-garde, but that is by no means the case. The identity crisis from which Egyptian citizens and many intellectuals are suffering is one aspect of this situation. However it doesn’t only involve this conservative group of intellectuals and artists; the identity crisis also affects another stratum of rebels who wanted to undertake a different experiment. Perhaps the most prominent of these experiments was one carried out by the "Grasshopper Group", headed by Ahmad Taha, a seventies generation poet. He attempted to gather around himself a number of nineties poets who were just starting out, but this did not survive artistically.

Criticising the government

Despite everything, the Egypt of 2008 still has close connections with the 68 movement – such as rejection of prevailing values concerning power or society’s traditionally conservative code of behaviour. However this is a movement that can only be observed by way of such modern technological means as the internet – and within the past two years through blogs revealing a different awareness among many open-minded young people in the way they think and live, consciously and courageously criticising the government.

In the year 2008 another new phenomenon has emerged: the phenomenon of the formation of political, social, cultural, and artistic groups in cyberspace, particularly though increasing popularity of the Facebook. Among the virtual groups established recently is "Support Sawiris". Its objective is assistance for Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris whose "Sawiris Institution for Social Development" assists a variety of cultural projects. Most strikingly he established an Egyptian television channel which shows uncensored cinema films, arousing the rancour of some adherents of religious groupings.

To me the Egypt of the year 2008 seems to be strongly subject to the influence of the 68 movement as represented by a call for change, surmounting of traditional values, and liberation from oppressive chains whether these be political, social, ethical, or religious. This is happening by way of a generation of youngsters who seem to launch new movements dedicated to liberation and modernisation without any great commotion, inflammatory words, and revolutionary slogans. Things are happening quietly with real dialogue and development of new ideas which must spread so as to create a climate suitable for liberalism.

Ibrahim Farghali,

is a journalist and author from Cairo

Translation: Tim Nevill

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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