The Egyptian Novelist Salwa Bakr dares to say nay


One may ask why write about Salwa Bakr now? I have an easy and straightforward answer: By mere coincidence. Ahmad Ali el-Zein interviewed Salwa Bakr on his weekly program, Rawafed, which broadcasts on Al Arabiya satellite TV. The interview, which ran in two parts, featured the Egyptian novelist, who openly, candidly, and courageously, offered provocative views on the state of the Arab world politically and culturally—views worth taking note of.

El-Zein asked Bakr the question on everyone’s mind: How did all this violence and extremism that has swept the Arab world come about? “From what womb” did it emerge? She did not hesitate when telling the interviewer that al-Istibdad al-Siyassi, or political repression, had birthed it. This repression planted the seeds that grew into a wave of violence, for when repressed people become desperate, they search for solutions in other worlds, in the heavens, the metaphysical, the religious, and the superstitious.

Bakr did not forget to assign a role to the external and historical conflicts between the Arab world and the West, even going back to past hostilities between the Muslims, the Arabs, and the Crusades.  However, the historical did not sidetrack the novelist from the centrality of political repression, for she held the promotion of only one discourse and one repressive regime voice is accountable for much of the Arab world’s problems.

As an early participant in the Egyptian Revolution, el-Zein sought Bakr’s assessment of whether the popular uprising succeeded. She pointed out that while the goals of the revolution, defined as freedom, human dignity, good standards of living, social justice, and human integrity, had not been accomplished, the revolution constituted a human process and not a drama nor a play in three parts. The novelist maintained that what had unfolded represented the first phase of that process, with more yet to come. She wanted the viewer to keep in mind that the revolution had led to the downfall of taboos between classes, between the powerful and the weak, between the ruler and the ruled, and between men and women, significantly raising the ceilings of ambition and aspiration for the Egyptian people. No matter what else still needed to be achieved, the revolution had overturned these deeply rooted taboos within society.

El-Zein raised an important question about how some groups lost what he called their “holiness” during Egypt’s revolutionary upheaval. Bakr immediately understood the allusion and concurred, associating the holiness with the ideology of political Islam and its prominent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. This group lost its “sacredness” during the first year of its tenure of ruling Egypt.

Another mask of “holiness” that has fallen concerns the transformation of the Christian Copts from a religious group – numerically speaking – into a major force in Egyptian society. Shedding their status as a minority defined by their numbers, they instead became a group that fought and died alongside Muslim Egyptians. Perhaps this represents the first instance in a very long time that Egyptian Copts participated in politics outside their church. Bakr recalled one of her country’s historical periods when poor Coptic peasants fought along Muslim peasants against the Caliphate, or the state. Ironically, because the church used to own land and capital, at that time their religious leadership had allied itself with Egypt’s ruler and Muslim upper classes. This became the topic of one of Bakr’s novels, where she questioned the characterization of the Coptic revolution as Christian, claiming to the contrary, that the Copts and the newly settled Arab tribes during the seventh century rebelled together against the Muslim Caliphate.

El-Zein asked Bakr, a prominent member of the Egyptian intellectual class, about the role of her colleagues in the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution. The novelist did not have kind words for Arab intellectuals, expressing her dissatisfaction of their preoccupation with the past, and labeling their discourse as fikr madawi, confined to analyzing and interpreting the past. Bakr considered this phenomenona flight from the present, as well as a failure to accurately read and explain it. The novelist found this problematic because these intellectuals have criticized and interpreted the past at the expense of analyzing the current moment. In her view, they did not dare to face and interpret the present, leading her to question how many actually challenged the political repression under Mubarak. Bakr’s criticism of these past-looking intellectuals included major pillars of Arab culture and letters, such as the Moroccan Mohammed Abd al-Jabberi, the Algerian Mohammed Arkon, and the Syrian Tayeb Tazzini (whose current silence remains deafening (at least for me) after his brief detainment early in the Syrian revolution.

Another question focused on her career as a novelist, to which she answered that she did not think of herself as a career novelist, nor did she see herself as someone who wrote for the sake of writing. Instead, she saw writing as a hobby. Nor did she concern herself with the commercialization and promotions of her novels, crafts which she confessed to not having mastered. She trusted that, in time, the reader would be able to judge the quality of her literary works, and thus concerned herself not with the present moment, but rather with future judgments. Bakr compared literary production to gold, meaning that the more time passes, the more value literature acquires.

She was asked to explain the large quantity of novel publications in the Arab world. Once again, Bakr pointed at political repression as a clue, especially when repressive regimes, under which most Arab intellectuals live, curtail freedom of expression. She indeed found the large number of published Arab novels amazing, for half of the Arab world remains illiterate, something that hits home, since Egypt constitutes half of that population. According to statistics, the average Arab reader reads no more than a quarter of a page annually. Thus, the novel, in Bakr’s view, becomes the vehicle through which these intellectuals express opinions they cannot openly air through other political means such as political parties, unions, media.

In the second part of the interview, Bakr discussed questions of gender and women’s issues. She came across as a feminist, but not in the conventional sense, since her activism cannot be positioned within the framework of traditional women’s organizations. Instead, she identified with a large segment of the female population, mainly with the marginalized. She tended to favor the great majority of women who fall into categories like the divorced, the war widows, and those deserted by their husbands. Unlike men who approach women from an opportunistic or self-centered perspective, focusing on them as lovers, mothers, wives and daughters, the novelist wanted to incorporate this marginalized strata of women into the map of literature.

Bakr noted an interesting phenomenon featured both in Arab and world literature, where the sister remains mostly absent, and when present, is viewed negatively, characterized as being disloyal, resentful, hateful, plain, and jealous of her sisters-in-law. The novelist observed such attitudes even in the works of Arab literary giants like Toufic al-Hakim and Naguib Mafouz.

Traditional literature tends to feature beautiful women, like those seen on television, who, consequently, appear quite different from the millions of featureless females found on the streets. Bakr introduced these women into the map of literature. She positively recalled the legacy of the Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198), who recommended that teaching and educating women could transform them into mothers of great military and fleet commanders. Illiteracy and ignorance, rather than inherent inferiority,  then explains this undesirable status of women which leads to their exclusion from the work force, and subsequently results in a handicapped society

Bakr defined the problematic of gender in society as a contradiction between women’s actual conditions and the values and concepts of the distant past. Women act as participants in all domains of Egyptian life, with many of them educated, and 22 percent of Egyptian families supported by females (the numbers could be much higher since these figures are not up to date). Thus, the women who make all these contributions in and outside the home are, ironically, being judged according to centuries-old convictions and beliefs.

Bakr cited a significant incident that occurred while attending a meeting of the Higher Council of Education in Egypt, where the head of that organization reprimanded her, “Don’t raise your voice.” She answered, “Why are you saying this to me while other men are raising their voices. Why should I lower my voice?” Bakr offered this anecdote to illustrate the contradictions between accepting antiquated concepts and acknowledging the current roles and contributions of women to Egyptian society.

When it comes to the treatment of women in literary works, Bakr’s criticism did not spare some intellectuals whom she considered as “revolutionaries” and “modernists.” She described them as remaining loyal to the old discourse, and that they still saw and portrayed women as subjects of sex and reproduction, as opposed to equal and full citizens, enjoying the same rights and duties of men.

El-Zein asked Bakr the reasons behind the deluge of novel publications in the Arab world, especially when unaccompanied by a body of scholarly publications of analysis and evaluation. A legitimate question by all means. Bakr’s answer remained on the mark. She attributed this absence to sociological rather than literary causes: To provide an academic evaluation of the large number of Arab novels necessitates an academic specialist in the subject, but scholars, busy earning their livings, tend to have little to no spare time to perform this role.

The absence of professional cultural publications constitutes another contributing factor in a region of more than 350 million people, with those available can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Be they visual (TV) or print, like the cultural pages of daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, most publications tend to be non-professional, falling into the promotional and propagandistic advertising categories. In this environment, media attention tends to focus the spotlight on unworthy literary output.

Mr. Ahmed Ali el-Zein’s interview with Ms. Salwa Bakr offered a fresh and daring discussion of sensitive topics, especially in the post 2011 upheavals in Egypt and parts of the Arab world. The novelist’s insightfulness, boldness, and determination singled her out, as did her refusal to be intimidated when discussing key figures such as Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfic al-Hakim, men whose reputations and literary stature would make most Egyptian intellectuals think twice before criticizing them.


Interview by Elie Chalala, Aljadid Magazine

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