A Promised Eternity

Some reflections on the influence Egyptian writers wield in a time of revolution.

CAIRO, late April - Three shoe-shiners, the same three who were sitting on the sidewalk in front of my hotel well before the glorious revolution of January 25, call me over, as they have always done, by using their brushes to drum on the box that holds their containers of shoe polish. One of them is Sabri, an unemployed, English-speaking accountant who has been forced to make his living shining shoes for several years now.

As he polishes my shoes, Sabri looks up from the sidewalk, suddenly and proudly declaring that Hosni Mubarak's end is near. With his free hand, he pantomimes this statement by grabbing his throat as if he were about to choke himself. I say to myself, "My poor Sabri, whether Mubarak lives or is executed, you will forever remain a shoe-shiner. Not one single penny of his vast wealth will be returned to you. You will only derive the crude animalistic satisfaction of watching a person experiencing final convulsions at the end of a hangman's rope."

Salah Jahin

Neither Sabri nor other unfortunate individuals like him gain anything from revolutions; the only ones who do are those who did not suffer too much under the previous regime. A prominent member of the latter group is author Alaa Al Aswany, who has become a national figure - primarily in the eyes of foreign journalists and intellectuals, who need someone capable of serving as some sort of mediator between order and chaos, and explaining the "situation" to them in an intelligent, albeit simple, witty and down-to-earth manner.

Al Aswany seems to fit that role perfectly. His English is reasonable, he is relatively young and, most importantly, he is a highly successful author who has written what is still considered the biggest best seller ever to hit the bookshops of the Arab world - a novel entitled "The Yacoubian Building."

"The Yacoubian Building" is undoubtedly a subversive novel that fires its arrows of deadly criticism at all strata of Egyptian society. The criticism is delivered in a clever, but not at all original, way: The novel relates the story of a building in Cairo, where each apartment or floor represents a different segment - and a different ailment - of Egyptian society. So "The Yacoubian Building" contains stories about government corruption, about nostalgic feelings toward colonialism, about longings for religion, and about sexual abuse. This daring novel even talks about homosexuality, a completely taboo topic in Egypt.

Is Al Aswany really a good writer? It depends whom you ask. What is clear is that, in crisis situations, those who manage to carve for themselves a path to the heart of public opinion are not necessarily the good writers. Often they're the writers who make a strong impression and who are prepared to play the role that is assigned them in this or that conference or panel in relation to their colleagues from the outside world.

Thus, during my stay in Egypt, I saw in one of the newspapers a photo of Al Aswany engaged in conversation with Spanish author (and renowned anti-Francoist ) Juan Goytisolo. Al Aswany was expressing his rage against Israel, while Goytisolo was trying to soften his words, and force him to admit that Israel does have people with a conscience - such as David Grossman and Amos Oz - and who are fighting against their evil government. In other words, beyond revolutions and national boundaries, there is a brotherhood of successful international authors and, if you want to be a part of that brotherhood, you'd better make sure you treat its members cordially.

The pressure to meet his commitments led Al Aswany to put together a collection of articles that he wrote in the recent and not-so-recent past about current affairs and which, after being hurriedly translated into English, were published in book form by the American University in Cairo Press as "On the State of Egypt: A Novelist's Provocative Reflections." These are rather enjoyable articles, which have some of the qualities of fictional writing. They are always offered from a personal perspective and they use the standard tool of Egyptian writers - a sarcastic, ironic view of the world (and that includes the Western world ).

In most of these articles, the bottom line is the inevitably patriotic conclusion that Egypt, despite all its problems, still outranks every other country by virtue of its steadfastness and its essential refusal to change. In other words, by virtue of its eternal character. This promise of an eternal character is demonstrated, among other things, by the shock that resulted from the "Tahrir Revolution."

While reading these short, personal essays, I thought of the parallel that is gradually being drawn between Egypt and Israel, which also lives with the sense of a promised eternity, and which scorns difficulties that always appear merely temporary in the light of eternity.

Another, much more tragic, figure who has recently become the topic of conversation in Egypt's literary supplements is Salah Jahin, a poet of an earlier revolution - the one that took place in the 1950s, and which led to the Egyptian monarchy's downfall and the ultimate rise to power of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Initially an enthusiastic admirer of Nasser, Jahin gradually became so disillusioned with the Egyptian leader that he died of a broken heart not long after Egypt's crushing defeat in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Every Egyptian can recite at least a few lines of his verse. Even today, his quatrains (ruba'yat in Arabic - poetry with four lines; this was the concise poetic genre he chose for himself ) are still printed in Egypt, sometimes on table napkins. I have a set of these napkins, with four of his love quatrains printed on them.

Jahin's name has returned to prominence in Egypt - a central segment of the literary section of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper was recently dedicated to Jahin and his poetry - perhaps because, in the face of enthusiastic support for the current revolution and those writers who are being borne on its crest, it is necessary to also hear the voices of those who participated in a similar event in another generation; distant voices that gradually became disillusioned with its outcome, and who have left behind them only quatrains, columns of poetry that look like the inscriptions on gravestones - where all illusions are buried.

Two years ago, a selection of Jahin's quatrains, translated into English by Nihad Salemnull, was published by an obscure publishing house, Sphinx Books, whose offices are located on Maruf Street in the heart of Cairo. The translation is full of errors. The third page of the introduction was printed twice instead of the fifth page and there is considerable chaos in the text. But who really cares? Sabri, the shoe-shiner, knows Jahin's verse by heart.