Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Alaa al-Aswany is a bestselling Egyptian novelist who was heavily involved in the Egyptian revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Burhan Ghalioun is a Syrian political scientist and a professor of political sociology at Paris’s Sorbonne University, who now heads the most prominent Syrian opposition organization, the Syrian National Council. Khaled Youssef is an Egyptian director and scriptwriter who struggled alongside Egyptian poets, writers, and artists in Tahrir Square, calling for the ouster of the Mubarak regime. Alawiya Sobh is an award-winning Lebanese writer whose latest novel was delayed because she was too engaging with the Arab Spring. Has politics stolen the Arab intellectuals? Or will the involvement of such prominent Arab writers, directors, poets, and intellectuals grant the Arab Spring greater momentum and impetus, allowing it to have greater impact in the coming months and years?
With the blooming of the Arab Spring, and the upsurge in popular uprisings and revolutions taking place in the region, politics became a central issue in everybody’s life, whether this was via the general public following up on news of the successive uprisings taking place, or people actively taking part in demonstrations and protests calling for the ouster of this tyrant or that. In the midst of all this, a large number of Arab writers, poets, and artists have appeared, transforming themselves into political activists, whether through their physical presence in Arab streets and squares amongst the protesters and demonstrators, or via their work, penning revolutionary articles and poems, and appearing in the media to proclaim vive la revolution. These artists and writers are undoubtedly having an impact on the Arab uprisings and revolutions, whilst these same revolutions have also impacted upon the artists and writers in question, as well as their work.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to a number of prominent Arab writers and artists regarding their role in the Arab Spring, the nature of intellectuals transforming themselves into political activists and revolutionaries, and the impact this will have on the Arab Spring at large, as well as their own lives and work.
Egyptian writer and novelist Mohamed al-Makhzanji is of the view that a “writer must be very empathetic, and must respond to all types of human pain and agony. Despotism, corruption, suppression, and fanaticism are all clear examples of the source of pain and agony in our region. Literature is a process that requires a long period of consideration and reflection…however there are urgent requirements today that do not grant a writer time for reflection but rather these must be responded to immediately.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Egyptian writer stressed “for me, I responded to the call of duty to immediately respond [to the revolution]…and I still am responding, just like other Egyptian writers who devoted themselves entirely to writing about these issues during this particular period.”
Al-Makhzanji added that well-known Egyptian playwright and novelist Yusuf Idris had summed up this situation perfectly. Idris said “if you saw a house on fire, would you sit down and contemplate the tragedy, writing a wonderful story or poem about this…or would you rush to rescue the victims and put out the fire?”
Al-Makhzanji said “as for the many writers and literary figures who recently transformed into political activists, there is no problem with that so long as the writer is capable of doing so. Being a writer and a political activist at the same time is extremely laudable but it requires abilities other than literary talent; for the writer must also be eloquent and capable of influencing and interacting with the public. I cannot say that I have become a political activist, but I am interested in writing about public affairs at this critical time.”
Whilst poet Shaban Yusuf told Asharq Al-Awsat that he considers what is happening now in Egypt to be a major uprising conducted by the Egyptian people and youth, and he stressed that “no writer or poet can be content sitting alone in his house, separate from reality, when history is unfolding outside.”
He added “writers and poets have strongly contributed to the Egyptian revolution, whether we are talking about their physical presence in Egypt’s streets and squares, or their literary output. A writer is also a citizen after all…and there is nothing wrong with writers participating in political events.”
Shaban Yusuf confirmed that “a number of poets and writers were involved with the Egyptian revolution from the beginning” stressing “whether one is a writer or poet; one is always an Egyptian [citizen].”
He said “the Egyptian revolution served as an inspiration to many writers and poets, who decided they could not stand idly by and merely observe what was happening…a real writer is connected with the world around them, and the present period we are living in is more dramatic and inspirational than any other.”
Many Egyptian writers and poets have written about the Egyptian revolution, such as Abdel Rahman al Abnoudi’s poem “Al Midan” [The Square], about Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and Ahmed Abdel Muti Hijazi’s poem “Debris of Time.”
Yusuf also told Asharq Al-Awsat that literature and poetry are two very different art forms, adding a poet might be able to have a more immediate impact, whereas a novelist, for example, might require more time and contemplation to create a novel dealing with the Egyptian revolution.
Speaking about writers transforming themselves into political activists, Shaban Yusuf also stressed that this was “natural” during times of revolution. He asked “why shouldn’t we [writers and poets] get involved with this [revolution]?” He also stressed that “creativity and politics are inseparable, yet the literary methods of express this differ widely between poets and writers.”
Whilst Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid believes that a writer must not be isolated from what is going on around him. Meguid is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books including “No one sleeps in Alexandria” and “Birds of Amber”, whilst he was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel “The Other Place.” He told Asharq Al-Awsat “I participated in the Egyptian revolution over 18 days in January…and it had a profound influence on me that led me to write my book ‘Every Land has a Birth: Days in Tahrir’”.
He said “this is because Tahrir Square and the first days of the revolution were like an artistic or literary gathering and a cultural forum…it served as an inspiration to all artists”.
Meguid also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “people often confuse creativity with writing or works of literature that are supposed to contemplate a certain incident or event.” He also stressed that writers often require time to contemplate and digest a subject or even, whilst it takes even longer to write a novel. However Meguid added that there are other literary forms that allow a writer to immediately deal with such events, including memoirs, commentaries, editorials, and even poetry.
Egyptian Poet Yasser al-Zayyat told Asharq Al-Awsat “for me, I’m different: I’m a poet and a journalist at the same time. But it is a paradox to think that I am two persons with the same name; one a poet, and the other a journalist with political opinions. At the beginning of my career, I was warned by senior writers that journalism kills poetry; therefore, I was keen on being a journalist only during office hours, but the rest of the time I am a poet.”
Al-Zayyat stressed that “both careers were beneficial to me: journalism allowed me to be connected with reality and politics, whilst poetry, broadened my imagination to horizons of the future, prompting me to dream and yearn for a better future.”
As for the issue of artists and writers becoming increasingly involved in politics and political activism, al-Zayyat asked “who else could perform this role other than writers and poets?” although he warned that “a writer or poet should not be affiliated to any political party.”
He stressed that “a politician must inevitably have an obligation to a certain [political] party or movement, but not a writer or poet. Generally speaking, every form of poetry has some political dimension, even love poetry. A poet is inseparable from his society, and his poetry is a reflection of the social or psychological conditions of his interaction – or isolation – from society. Therefore, poetry is inseparable from politics.” He added “the poet is also inseparable from politics, because everything that we experience is part of – or influenced by – politics, even love and friendship.”
Asked about the revolutionary literature and poetry that has been produced following the Egyptian revolution, al-Zayyat told Asharq Al-Awsat “with all due respect to much of what was written, I think that it requires much more time [for writers] to contemplate and digest what happened during these revolutions. However what was written represented a sincere and timely interaction [with the Arab Spring], and this was all part of some poets and writers attempts to shift into political activism.”
He added “this moment of truth, following the revolution, is akin to an act of change and purification from the corruption that prevailed for long decades. Nevertheless, in art and literature, the revolution will remain an inspiration for change and the creation of different forms of art, something that may require time for writers to contemplate and digest it.”
Perhaps the best way to sum up this strange and exciting interaction between Arab poetry and literature and the Arab Spring is a line from Abdel Rahman al Abnoudi’s poem “Al Midan”.
In my blood, I shall write a new life for my country.
Is this my blood, or the Spring? They are both green.
And am I smiling out of happiness or sorrow?