‘The counter-revolution is triumphant’

Ahdaf Soueif  

Ahdaf Soueif is a leading Egyptian writer and activist. With novels such as In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love, she marked out her space in Arab literature early, bringing a uniquely political clarity to both her contemporary and historical fiction. The latter was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999, but thereafter she turned away from fiction and has focussed on cultural activism and commentary. She translated into English the iconic memoir I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti, and most recently published Cairo: My City, Our Revolution on the Tahrir uprising. In Delhi this month for a Palestinian Writers’ Colloquium, organised by Women Unlimited to commemorate 30 years of feminist publishing, she spoke at length on politics, culture and much more. Excerpts from the interview:

In a recent piece in The Guardian , looking back on Egypt five years after the 18-day-revolution in 2011, you speak of how the next eruption will be “born of despair rather than hope”. Where does Egypt stand today, and what has become of the hope that the January 25 revolution fanned?

This is a big question. Basically, now we are at a stage where the counter-revolution is overall triumphant, and the two huge institutions which were designed to be checks on the power of the government have decided that their interests lie with the government. So, there is this really ugly coalition. It’s very active in lots of ways. It has many arms. One arm is attacking human rights, NGOs, students in universities, making people disappear from the streets. Another arm is handing down ridiculous prison sentences; another is implicating the country in more and more foreign debt, selling off bits of the country, giving franchises and rights to mammoth international corporations. So you have an extremely active counter-revolution.

And on the side of the revolution, a lot of the energy and effort goes into all the issues around the people who have disappeared, have been detained and killed. There is also the discourse on how to learn from our past mistakes, so as to be at a better place when the next wave comes. The certain thing is that nobody believes this system is sustainable. Something is bound to give.

The artist played a huge role in the revolution — the the graffiti, the posters. What happens to the artist now? What role does he or she play in answer to this counter-revolution?

I continue to believe that art is integral to a revolutionary movement. It is born of it, it feeds it, and it expresses it. At this moment, it would be insane to go out and try to draw something on the wall. However, for example, there was an amazing wall, the famous Mohamed Mahmoud Street graffiti wall at the American University in Cairo [AUC] building. Suddenly, AUC decided that the wall needed to be broken down, not because of anything political but because they had to put up a building. So they took it down. Just before I came, I saw notes on Twitter saying that anybody who wanted a bit of that wall better go and get it, because it’s gone. Then what happened was that some of the artists who had created that graffiti went to take a look and they found themselves entering a process of searching through the mound of pieces and rubble to locate bits of the artwork. Later, they made an arrangement with the AUC, which would leave everything in place for a day. The artists went through a selection process and put the pieces in a truck. These will be recycled one day into a new installation. Not a recreation of the old work, but something completely new. This is what art can do, build something new from the rubble of the old.

>Also read: Egyptians discover collective spirit

You’ve spoken before on how governments fear students. This idea finds echo in India.

Traditionally, what regimes fear is students and workers getting together. This is a rather old style of thinking because now the workers are also different from what they used to be fifty years ago. But it still holds that these are the populations that governments most fear. Students were a tremendous part of 2011 in Egypt. And when it became clear that the revolution was not going to take power in the country, then came the idea of revolutionising your space, whatever it was, and so a lot of stuff happened with the student unions in universities, etc. At the end of 2013, when this regime was tightening its hold, there was tremendous confrontation in the universities, and we went back to a situation where students were detained and killed inside the classrooms. Recently, what’s been interesting is that we’ve had elections for general students’ union. When the results came out, the president and the vice president made short speeches where they both declared themselves children of the January 25 revolution. After this, the Ministry of Education decided that the elections were faulty and would have to be redone.

There was a move you made too, in 2000, when you turned from fiction to non-fiction and political essays. As a writer, was this move, which entrenched you deeper in your country’s political context and situation, inevitable?

For me it was inevitable. I don’t regard it as a move forever, though. I have spent enough time sort of fretting over when I was going to write the next novel. There is a tug, simply because there are a limited number of hours in a day and one has limited energy. What happened was that after 2000, after I published the first two big pieces in The Guardian, it was like I had a platform, and there was a new discourse emerging. I would be asked to speak here and write there, and it seemed to me that it was a duty. Then of course, if you are a novelist, you can’t say that I am going to leave all this for three days while I write my novel, and then come back to it. A novel is a big project, and all these other things are also very defined. You think, okay well, the novel can wait for two days while I write this article, or while I go to this festival, and suddenly two days and three days and the weekend and the year have passed.

It was, in fact, your first visit to Palestine in 2000 which first saw you get caught up in cultural activism. Your involvement with Palestine also resulted in the Palestine Festival of Literature. How has PalFest’s journey been so far?

It has its audiences and has become more and more young as it’s gone on. It’s also become more inclusive of music and other art forms. People who have come for the PalFest have said that it’s a life-changing experience. Basically this has a lot to do with the idea that while you attend it, you live like Palestinians. So you can only go to the places where the Palestinians are allowed to go, you have no privileges, you can only go through the checkpoints, the bombed roads and so on. And the festival travels, so that every day it’s in a new city. That way, people live through this experience, and they also see the different manifestations of the occupation in different cities. By the end of the week they tell us that they understand; they can see how it is.

And for Palestinians, the festival is a way of accessing literature from around the world...

Yes, at the festival, we almost don’t discuss Palestine at all… Actually, people in Palestine are sick and tired of listening to their own situation. What they want is for writers to come and read a passage from their book which has nothing to do with them. Palestinians really go for the people who make them laugh. If it’s something funny, they love it. They just want something to lift them out of their context. I must say there is a very active art scene in Palestine; there are writers, there are debates, there is fantastic art, music, there is everything, but just having somebody come from outside, someone different, is interesting.

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Printable version | Oct 9, 2021 4:28:24 PM |

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