Famous French writer Claude Askolovitch recently described France’s culture minister, Fleur Pellerin, as “barbaric.” Why would he use such a harsh term? Well, the reason is that during recent televised comments, the minister admitted she hadn’t read a single book for two years. Moreover, she was unable, when prompted, to name a single novel by French writer Patrick Modiano, who recently became the country’s 15th recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But Askolovitch is not alone in attacking the minister. Following her admissions, the literary establishment of the country of Sartre and Molière seemed as though they had all collectively been wounded. They began heavily criticizing her, attacking her credibility, and calling for her resignation.
Pellerin has been attacked and labeled “barbaric” for not reading a single book in two years (with the excuse that her busy work schedule does not allow her enough time to indulge in such pastimes). But for us in the Middle East, it can be exactly the opposite: one may be attacked and hounded for reading a book—or even worse: writing one.
These differences were highlighted last week, with only days separating the criticisms of the French minister who does not read, and the arrest of an Egyptian student who does.
True, the student was subsequently released; but the reality is he was detained and questioned, and the book he had in his possession used against him as a piece of evidence justifying his being held in police custody—this last detail is not a trivial matter, for the official statement which detailed the incident basically said that he was arrested for holding a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, a book which criticizes the idea of a military dictatorship.
How vast and oppressive are the differences between these two cases: that of the “barbaric” culture minister who does not read, and the “criminal” student who does. When Askolovitch called Pellerin “barbaric,” he said this was because for a culture minister not to read means she is a mere pencil-pusher, an employee, a technocrat, a drafter of budgets, unable, according to Askolovitch’s outlook, to keep up with cultural developments or appreciate them.
Is this not the pinnacle of the concept of citizenship, for a writer to be able to criticize and hold to account those in authority, not just for a technical mistake, or one strictly relating to their professional performance, but for their cultural and intellectual deficiencies?
On the other hand, we in the Middle East hold our students to account for reading novels.
I don’t think I’m overdoing things here. The student may have been released, but his arrest points to the accumulated problems in our region that allowed such a thing and others like it to happen. How, for example, can a journalist like Alain Gresh, chief editor of Le Monde diplomatique, be referred to the police after being overheard discussing politics in a café in Cairo by a concerned “citizen,” who thought this constituted a threat to “national security”? Is this not an indication of where things are right now?
Yes, Gresh, like the student, was also released. But here we are yet again witnessing this worrying phenomenon where security and police can act in such a random, haphazard manner when detaining people for whatever “crimes” they deem them to have committed—like reading a novel, for example. It is an atmosphere that can lead a “citizen” to become an “informer,” to feel threatened enough by two people having a conversation about politics in public that she may feel it necessary to go and whisper the incident to the police. Both of these incidents, unlike that of the criticism of the French minister, make a mockery of citizenship.
So here we are back at the beginning. And in the beginning there is always the word.