Ahdaf Soueif (middle) speaks at a session at the Hay Festival
Dhaka with William Sieghart(left) and Zafar Sobhan(right). Photo: Prabir Das
Ahdaf Soueif, Photo: Prabir Das
The prospect of meeting Ahdaf Soueif, an award winning Egyptian author, nominated for a Booker in 1999 for 'A Map of Love' and a prominent political commentator in the international media for the revolution in Egypt, is a little overwhelming. But meeting her at the Ruposhi Bangla last Wednesday afternoon as she prepares to take part in the three day Hay Festival in Dhaka, dispels any misgivings one might have of encountering someone who has received so much attention for all the hats she has worn – writer, scholar, columnist, political analyst, activist. Charming, elegant and eloquent she seems quite at ease sitting in the hotel lounge, speaking of the revolution, while police cars whizz outside as the city finishes the last leg of the three-day hartal.
Does it all seem eerily familiar – the empty streets, the armoured police, sporadic noises that sound like bullets or a cocktail cracking into the silence? Ahdaf smiles acknowledging the similarities – but she is unfazed. Her beloved Egypt, after all, is on a flimsy tightrope, with a political scenario that can be described as a volcano still erupting. Being very much a part of the movement that brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011 and that brought in Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government through a referendum, later protesting against it when it failed to keep its promises and now struggling against a fascist military regime, Ahdaf finds it hard to think about anything other than the revolution. She has left her home in London to move back to Cairo, writing both in English and Arabic and supporting the movement for a free, progressive, just Egypt, in any way she can. She has vehemently condemned the massacres by the Mubarak government and the military regime that have killed thousands of her people – whether progressives or supporters of the Brotherhood. She is constantly trying to unearth the shortcomings of a revolution that, from the outside, seems to have lost steam.
The newspapers have announced that the emergency has been lifted. But Ahdaf is far from being relieved. “The authorities are trying to put into place a law…that actually legalises extrajudicial procedures. It will for example, criminalise, writing on the wall…”
The massacres of people both secularists and Islamists, the coming to power of regimes (both elected and unelected) that go against all democratic ideals, have left many of the ardent revolutionaries heartbroken and disillusioned, she says. Egypt is as divided as ever. In this brutal, confusing scenario, will the country ever come out of this mess? Ahdaf explains that the different political phases the country has gone through from January 2011 till now, has brought with it important lessons for people.
“There would be protests and sit-ins against the Brotherhood and then people would be breaking for prayer and they would come back from prayers and continue the protests. It was very important that this was happening in Egypt because it made it very clear that the issues were not religious issues but political issues.
“The discourse of the Brotherhood and the discourse of the president which was kind of about defending Islam… made people angry. They thought: ‘Are you saying we are not Muslims, that you are better Muslims? Who are you defending Islam against, in Egypt?’
“It was clear that the party who for so many years, proposed they would govern well because they were closer to God than we were, turned out to be liars and actually just wanted the same things the Mubarak regime wanted.
“Of course the reaction against the Brotherhood was very strong when they appointed a Minister of Culture whose first act was to strengthen the security clearance required for people to access documents in the national archives for example and whose second act was to try and outlaw ballet. The (staff of the) Ministry of Culture went on a strike and prevented him from going to office for a month until the government was deposed.
“There was a premiere of the Opera and when the curtain went up, instead of a performance all the actors and staff of the Opera house were on stage and announced a strike against the Minister of Culture. The audience applauded. A sit in followed and everyday there was a cultural demonstration in the streets outside the Minister's office, for a month and then the whole government was deposed on the 3rd of July.”
Does all this mean that the forces of political Islam are less strong than before? Ahdaf says that they have been considerably weakened as the people have become disenchanted with them. "And had it not been that the police and army had gone in and killed all those people in Rabaa Al Adawya, killing at least a thousand people in a space of a week - the sympathy vote would not be with the Islamists. It would have been completely over (for them)."
One cannot help but notice the similarities with our own situation where despite having the democracy label there is little practice of democracy and where religion continues to be used as a dangerous political weapon. It begs the question: In countries like Egypt (and perhaps Bangladesh) should there be a redefinition of democracy different from the prescribed formula?
"I think that's one of the big questions we have to deal with. Is it enough to have a ballot box? Is that the measure of democracy?” says Ahdaf.
“It is not a matter of illiteracy really because you can have people who are illiterate but politically aware and wise. It is the absence of any training in critical thinking that is important... And another thing is that if you're going to be able to judge who will be better for your interests you have to have information. But where is that information? In the absence of a responsible and truthful media the information is not available so you could say what happened on January 20, 2011 and 30th June 2013 were exercises in democracy. There were people voting with their feet to say: 'we do not have confidence in this government and we want it changed'."
Ahdaf explains that during the movements of January 20, 2011 (against the Mubarak regime) and June 30, 2013 (against the Muslim Brotherhood) there were independent channels and print media that gave a reasonable picture of what was going on. "But what happened in June was shocking. It was as if you had flicked a switch and suddenly everybody - the state media and independent channels were speaking the army line." Ahdaf also adds that the anchors who had previously been seen and were very respected chose to stop appearing. Currently she says, there are two channels and one newspaper Shorouk which she writes for, which carry opinions from across the political spectrum. Consequently it is very much under verbal attack as is anyone who insists on telling the truth and are not counted as pro- Islamist or pro-army. "And of course they are the ones called the 'fifth column' and traitors of Egypt", says Ahdaf.
So why isn't there a concerted effort to, form political parties that endorse the revolutions ideals?
Ahdaf refers to the front (officially known as The Way of the Revolution Front or Thuwwar-Revolutionists) which is not a political party but a group representing the revolution that is trying to reach out to people on the streets and villages and articulating a vision of what the country wants.
One of the important consequences of the revolution she says is the formation of small groups working on particular issues such as a group against court martial of civilians, another against torture, another for conservation of old buildings and so on. The front will be seen as connecting all these groups.
"I imagine what will happen is that if we do get to elections possibly groups like the front will decide to back candidates who are closest to revolutionary positions. I imagine a lot of people might boycott the polls. I don't know. It's hard to say as everything changes so much."
Ahdaf believes that while the various referendums can be called democratic exercises, the participation has dropped with each referendum indicating people's disillusionment with elections that did not bring freedom, economic relief or social justice. But when it came to voting either for a military leader or an Islamist party, the participation was higher as the stakes were very clear.
"So if people were to believe that elections were really going to matter then people would vote. It's not a matter of being politically aware. It's a matter of having hope or being disillusioned."
At present Egypt is at a critical juncture as its constitution is being written by a committee of 50. There are two factions among those who are writing the constitution, the acceptability of which will be decided by a referendum. According to Ahdaf: “One is widely democratic and trying to achieve the aims of 2011. The other one supports the military and Minister of Interior to reinstate the same system (as before) and this time strengthen it and underpin it with new laws.
"The point is that you are asking people to study the constitution in a week or two, they don't have the training to study" says Ahdaf "and also the only organisations that can reach the villages and poor parts of the cities are Islamists and the government. We can't reach them and that is a serious structural problem - how do you as a liberal, progressive, revolutionary movement, with no money, no facilities, create a network that allows access and credibility with the majority of people?"
Ahdaf adds that this is where the front comes in - the hope is that local people will themselves try to form their own groups and the central people (from the front) will be called to support them.
So far the revolution survives through personal donations - funding from outside being completely out of the question. The revolutionaries says Ahdaf are not wealthy, they raise money amongst themselves say.
It is obvious that keeping the revolution alive takes precedence over writing fiction for this highly acclaimed writer who wanted to be a musician as a child but ended up becoming a novelist, much to her mother's delight. Ahdaf says her mother Fatma Moussa (Hemdan) an English literature professor and scholar, had a lot to do with everything (in her life) simply because of who she was. "The fact that she taught me to read when I was five, that I had access to her library, the fact that she thought that there was no question that literature was important... Of course she encouraged me when I started to write. And then she translated my book A Map of Love into Arabic. I am very much my mother's creation." In her latest book Cairo- My City, My Revolution Ahdaf has many references to her mother: "because I missed her so much, her presence and opinion - she comes into that book a lot."
For now Ahdaf is focusing on translating Cairo. into Arabic and being part of the movement. Is fiction out of the question? Ahdaf, realises that it will take longer to realise the dreams of the revolution. Meanwhile it is also important to get on with life. She plans to return to a novel she had started before the revolution. Many of her fans are revolutionaries - some have asked while running into her at protest rallies: "When is the next novel?" A woman once came to her during a rally with a copy of 'A Map of Love'. It had post-its, stickers and comments in the margins. The young woman said she had been passing around to her friends during one of the sit-ins. They had been reading it together. "It was so moving. So now I think it would not be an act of turning away to try to work on the next one. It would be an act of engagement of a different kind."
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 and translated into 28 languages), as well as In the Eye of the Sun and the collection of short stories, I Think of You. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004, as was her translation (from Arabic into English) of Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah. She writes regularly for the Guardian in the UK and has a weekly column (in Arabic) in al-Shorouk in Egypt. 'Cairo: my City, our Revolution', was published by Bloomsbury. Ms Soueif holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Lancaster and has received the Metropolis Bleu and the Constantin Cavafy Awards (2012) and was the first recipient of the Mahmoud Darwish Award (2010).