18 - 24 July 2002
Issue No. 595
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'Our Revolution'

Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, the most famous living poet of the Sixties Generation and one of Upper Egypt's best known writers and public figures, describes the impact of the Revolution on the nation's literary life in an interview with Youssef Rakha

Click to view caption
Abdel-Nasser granting Salah Jahin the state award
"I dislike the Q&A format, and I definitely refuse to speak into a dictaphone. So, while you transcribe my comments, let this be a kind of address -- inspired, nonetheless, by your presence and your desire to be informed -- for if you weren't here, I would not be giving it.

"First of all, the topic you suggest -- the influence of the July Revolution on culture and on intellectual and artistic life -- is too huge, too complex and too involved for me to pronounce on single-handedly without extensive research and prior thinking. I will therefore restrict my comments to my own experience, speaking not only for myself but also for the Generation of the Sixties as a whole, since it wouldn't be wrong to describe me as a representative of those writers and artists who came into their own, as it were, in tandem with the Revolution.

"We rose not only out of the Revolution but also with it, and it wasn't always soft on us, either. I will try to be as specific and as to-the-point as I can.

"In 1956, a new literary realism began to take shape, a school of writing that devoted itself largely to the poor -- the disinherited majority that had been more or less excluded from literature. Already the example of the Soviet Union -- as revolution, state and system of thought -- had exercised an influence on young writers, or, as they are called, intellectuals. Translations of Soviet books had begun to flood Egyptian bookshops, and the great Russian classics at last became available, to many of us for the first time. The great novelists and poets -- Dostoievski, Shulokhov, Gorki, Pushkin, Mayakovski -- were, as it were, knocking on our doors.

"Their arrival coincided with Israel, France and Britain's Tripartite Invasion, and in them we began to look for a literature that could act as ammunition for popular resistance. Such a literature we also found in the poems of Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, in the Spanish Civil War-inspired literature of Lorca, and in Hemingway and Pablo Neruda, whose voice had come all the way from Chile.

"A great wave, you could say, was breaking over the old, established literature, breaking it apart. To replace what was established, another literature was emerging, a literature that might contribute to explaining the struggle against Zionism and occupation. A literature that might resuscitate the national spirit and help the younger generations to come to terms with the transformations that were relentlessly sweeping over and past them, especially those developments that had resulted from the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and Nasser's insistence on building the High Dam -- the first national project of such magnitude and the greatest challenge facing the Revolution. While he received help from the Soviet ally, the Tripartite powers were still trying to hold us back, reign us in, stifle the resurgence.

"We too woke up, in our distant small villages, volunteering to join in the war and contribute to liberating our homeland. We practised using weapons, the late great poet Amal Dunqol and I. And when we discovered that it would be hard to contribute to an actual battle, we resorted to writing poems, the two of us starting to do so on the same day. These poems we began to recite to gatherings of demonstrators, in order to reinforce the national, revolutionary spirit.

"At that time Egyptian literature was in the process of being reviewed afresh, in the light of the criteria of revolutionary literature. Fil-Thaqafa Al-Misriya (On Egyptian Literature), the famous book by Abdel-Azim Anis and Mahmoud Amin El- Alim, was a manifesto that distinguished one culture from another, one intellect from another. It gave rise to yet another incarnation of the clash between art-for-art's sake and art-for- life's sake; those of us who belonged to the disinherited classes had no choice but to belong to that literary school that endorsed the poor -- the classes whose interests the Revolution would serve -- and our poems were conceived in the framework of the latter school.

"In 1961, the so-called 'July Socialist Legislations' were passed, and the regime directed its full attention to the poor. I don't know what it was that drew us all together -- from the southernmost villages and the hamlets of the north, from every nook and cranny both east and west of the [Nile] Valley -- in the downtown cafes, young authors who formed a kind of party of their own, producing poetry, novels, short stories, criticism, and practising the plastic arts, journalism, history, cinema, theatre and television. The whole era, indeed, ended up being imbued with the hues of that generation of young, revolutionary and largely underprivileged intellectuals.

"We had brothers and friends in prisons and detention camps who were among the most remarkable Egyptian intellectuals of the day and yet nonetheless had clashed with the authorities early on, prior to our own arrival in the big city. When we arrived, we began to look for them -- their words and deeds had, after all, resided in our hearts -- and most of them turned out to be in the Kharga Oasis concentration camps in the desert. This was perhaps the first crack in the great, glorious structure of the Revolution, the first fact that lent cynical eyes to the virgin face of our romanticism. We had thought of ourselves as being at one with the Revolution, but now, through these new eyes, we developed reservations about it.

"For my part, there was always a huge distance between the intellectual side of the Revolution and the thoughts that inspired it and the real-life effects it implied for my people's lives, the reality that the Revolution was supposed to transform and didn't. My voice rose up to express the pains of the people in the south (Upper Egypt). Perhaps my first book, a collection of poems entitled Al-Ard wa Al-'Iyal (Land and Children) which made an impact in intellectual circles, was the first such cry of pain. It was definitely an attempt to get the real-life conditions of the people across to the authorities, outside the glowing robes of the propaganda in which all revolutions tend initially to be draped.

"In 1964, the book was banned, and this was another blow to my romanticism. I realised that the process required a constant battle. As the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said during his sojourn in Egypt in the 1960s, what is important is not that you should create art but that you should defend the art that you create. What was at stake was not simply art, for the defense that I put up transcended art to be a very straightforward, an almost documentary obligation. I had come to give an account of the conditions at hand, back there in the south, not to gorge my ears with praise or to make a name for myself.

Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi

"The Revolution, I was saying, concentrated on national liberation movements, joining the Non-Aligned Movement and making significant achievements on that front. Internally, however, we were always followed, there was always someone trailing our steps on the pavement and looking over our shoulders as we had our morning coffee."

"The greatest disillusion came when I realised that my aims and the aims of the Revolution might not be identical, despite the many gifts presented to the fellahin in my birthplace, like the wihda mujama'a, which included a school, a social- services centre and a hospital through which the concept of a doctor was introduced to the village. This was despite Nasser's delightful slogan, "Raise your head, brother, for the age of subjugation is over." In my village and in the surrounding area, we lived on two narrow strips of green, in the space where the two hills pressed down on the river's ribs. Therefore, there was neither feudalism nor feudal lords. Where fellahin elsewhere saw their oppressors finally being opposed and being given their land, we did not benefit from the Revolution in any tangible way. In fact, the image of the feudal lord whipping the back of a fellah aroused in me more amazement than resentment, and I found it hard to believe that this had really happened in Egypt. That is why I went to great lengths to express the sufferings of everyday people in Upper Egypt, because even though I was part of the momentous events that were taking place, my reality was different from that of the newspapers and the books. Hence, my first book was banned, which represented a new poetry previously unknown to cultural life.

"The vision of the Revolution and that of the intellectuals who endorsed it was often contradictory, however, in a number of different ways. And that is not even to mention our brothers and long-distance mentors, whom the regime had decided to arrest and detain. In wondering why this happened, I sought out the roots of their predicament. Thus all of the Generation of the Sixties, myself included, found ourselves in the detention camps. We had barely managed to question the regime regarding the cause of our treatment as enemies of the Revolution, when we had invariably thought of it as our own.

"Back home, people were not hugely interested in battles waged by one leader of the Revolution against another, as in the democracy crisis of 1954. People had emerged out of slavery, and they believed implicitly that the injustice they suffered was the destiny to which divinity had confined them. The mere thought of observing closely, debating or discussing them was never a possibility, let alone changing their conditions. When Nasser suddenly appeared asking them to raise their heads -- and they had never trusted an effendi before -- they found their identities in his voice and they believed him. But as soon as Nasser died, the Egyptian fellah of my village put on his old, Ancient Egyptian slave's mask once again. He had realised that the one man who had loved him, who had given him dignity and made him aware of his humanity, perhaps for the first time since God created the Egyptian fellah, was no longer alive. Those who would take over would go back to the old game, the Egyptian fellah felt, and so he retired back to his hide.

"In real terms, therefore, the Revolution had very little impact on the life of my village. There is no doubt, however, that this period played an illuminating role in the life of Egyptian literature -- the mingling of generations, the insurgent energy, the new forms and content, gave rise to a wide-ranging harmony whose resonance can still be heard today. Naguib Mahfouz's continuing project met with Youssef Idris's explosions, and together they intersected with contemporaries like Youssef El-Sharouni, slightly younger writers like Gamal El-Ghitani, and many others. Others, like Youssef El-Seba'i and Ihsan Abdel-Qudous, wrote differently after the Revolution, irrespective of the value of their work, whether before or after. In poetry, I've already mentioned Amal Donqol, in whose work the modern poetry movement found an Egyptian champion, whose earliest echoes emanated from the voices of the Iraqi pioneers Nazik Al-Malaeka, [Badr Shaker] Al-Sayyab and [Abdel-Wahab] Al-Bayyati, and were met with the valiant breath of Egyptians such as Salah Abdel-Sabour, Abdel-Mo'ti Hegazi and Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi.

"The vernacular poetry movement, which I've been part of, in a parallel way addressed extremely important needs in the human dimension of poor people's lives. When it became obvious just how far illiteracy extended, some of us decided to resort to a language understood by everyone. Notwithstanding our different cultural backgrounds, experiences, visions and ability to communicate, the Generation of the Sixties as a whole had the single, inclusive aim of revitalising literature, exactly as the Revolution wanted to revitalise society; and it is in this sense that I claim it was our Revolution.

"At the beginning of the 1960s, when I first settled in Cairo, as I have mentioned some of the greatest vernacular poets, such as Fouad Haddad, Magdi Naguib, Samir Abdel-Baqi and Mohsen El-Khayyat, had gone through the experience of political detention. It was imperative that my generation should follow suit, paying the price of addressing the poor in such an insistent and forceful way. Perhaps Salah Jahin -- Nasserism's most melodious voice -- was the only vernacular poet who did not experience prison. Others, due to the unique access they had to the public, invariably did.

"As a literary theme, the Revolution did not always lend itself to effective treatment. Very soon emphasis was placed on what was happening to human beings all over the world, perhaps more attention was paid to the affairs of other countries than to the human being who lived in a village like my own. It would be a form of ignorance, though, terrible ignorance, to ignore the growth of light and heavy industry through which the Revolution dreamed of turning Egypt from an agricultural to an industrial economy. You musn't forget that I spent a year with High Dam construction workers -- on location, as it were -- sharing the cruel circumstances under which they lived. This great national project thus produced my most popular book, Jawabat Heraji El- Gutt Al-Amel fessad El-Ali ila Zoujtuh Fatna Ahmed Abghaffar fi Jabalait El-Far (The Letters of Heraji El-Gutt, High Dam Construction Worker, to his Wife Fatima Ahmed Abdel-Ghaffar in Jabalai El-Far).

"It was the industrial movement, exemplified in the High Dam, that absorbed the largest number of our villagers, my area in Qena having one of the highest emigration rates in the country. And if I concentrated on the cruel day-to-day details of the life of one such migrant worker, that is because such day-to-day pain has always been my source of inspiration, the nutrition that feeds my writing.

"The Revolution, I was saying, concentrated on national liberation movements, joining the Non-Aligned Movement and making significant achievements on that front. Internally, however, we were always followed, there was always someone trailing our steps on the pavement and looking over our shoulders as we had our morning coffee. For my part, my voice did not find free expression until the 1967 defeat, which took place less than two months after I came out of prison. Now that the military authorities had been humiliated, I could raise my voice and sing as I wanted. I went back to my nationally oriented poetry with even greater force, living by the Canal in Suez and observing closely every stage of the war of attrition that lasted from 1968 to 1973, running away from the despair which beset intellectuals in Cairo.

"I also toured Egypt, prophesying the dawn, the victory that was to come. I even acquired the pseudonym "Poet of the Dawn." I would visit the soldiers in their barracks and recite my poems, with which the radio had made them familiar. That was when I wrote Wujouh ala El-Shatt (Faces on the Bank) about a period I spent with fellahin who refused to emigrate from the Canal Zone, preferring death on their homeland's soil to life anywhere else. We died together under the Israeli bombardments, and we lived together. And afterwards I returned, prophesying victory.

"After 1967 I witnessed the rebuilding of the army, and sometimes I am deeply pained when Nasser is blamed for the 1967 defeat, for which he was not entirely responsible, and is not praised for the way he rebuilt the army from scratch, all the training that enabled the Egyptian Army to cross the Canal into Israel taking place during his rule before President Sadat's appearance on the scene. After the 1973 victory, Egypt took an even more erratic turn, and once again we found ourselves facing the enemy. Local and international politics had yet to reach a head, however, with the Palestinians in the position they are in now.

"It is the blood of the Palestinians that has inspired me since then, for both their own sake and for that of the Arabs, whom I encounter everywhere in the Arab World, to read out my Palestinian epic Al-Mawt Ala Al-Asphalt (Death on Asphalt), the most recent battle in my life-long revolution."

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