Sunday, 4 November 2012

Like bumping into Tolstoy: Ibrahim Abdel Meguid

We took refuge in the old Café Riche  
and there, sipping his coffee, was the great
Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. It was like
bumping into Tolstoy

Robert Fisk, Independent, *Saturday, 29 January 2011*

The Arab world in Revolution(s) - Ibrahim Abdel Meguid
Portrait Egypt ~ Visit site for full video view

One would need a whole book to record their thoughts on this honourable revolution, but I will keep it short due to the limited time and space, and talk a little about what I saw the first week, until the time comes to tell everything. 

Abdel-Meguid talks to Ahram Online about his work and his views of Egypt’s politics and its future. (12 Aug 2012)

Ahram Online: As a writer and novelist, how do you perceive the book Who Makes Crisis in Egypt within your writing career?

Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid: As a young writer, I always thought of journalistic writing as a danger to creative writing, and didn’t think it could be possible to mix the two. At the same time, I looked at great novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez who worked as journalists and it didn’t impact their careers.

I decided to delve into this language when I realised I could make a distinction between the two modes: the fast, mass-reading, simple style required for writing in a newspaper versus the rigorous building and language required for novels.

These different modes were reflected even in my routine: I write articles in the mornings or at least when people are awake before midnight, leaving my door open and sometimes I write listening to the television or to crowds. Novels and creative writing I start after 2am when everyone is asleep and the world is silent. Then I close my door, put on some classical music, diving into a different mode.

My compiling these articles in a book is actually a form of documentation. I realised that some of the articles I wrote somewhat tell the story of what happened. They record history, as I perceived it then, not as a historian but as a writer. The way I look at things is that the SCAF are the cause for all the crisis in Egypt, this is my perspective.

In Egypt it’s usual to think in terms of specialisation; a writer should only write novels and stories but not scenarios. But looking at European renaissance artists and writers, many of them went across various forms of creative practice; Victor Hugo the great writer had some paintings, Dali wrote books and so on. I decided not to limit myself to one form or style but to experiment with different forms.

AO: Your newest book, Iftar Hour Stories, is a whole new style. How did that happen?

IAM: The idea started when the newspaper where I write regularly, proposed that I write something about Ramadan folklore, but the time was too tight to allow for this. I suggested instead writing these short stories all related to the hour of sunset, Iftar, to be published daily in serials throughout Ramadan, and they agreed.

I'm not afraid to experiment and to try myself in new genres, since the world is vast and large there's room for many things.

As a first experience, it was scary and even Khairy Shalaby, the late renowned writer, called me in total surprise that I write at this pace, knowing that I normally would write, review, re-review, and proofread before sharing. It was an exciting experience, but not likely to be repeated unless a similar insight comes again. This year it is collected and published as a book.

My sad memories of this hour have been with me since my early days in Cairo when I lived alone for several years. Iftar bears for me the saddest memories when I was alone, while my whole family back in Alexandria were gathering for Iftar and enjoying each others' company. This sad recollection has stayed with me till now, and it made me realise that many people have memories about this very unique hour when Muslims around the country gather to break their day-long fast at the same instant. I gathered these memories from many years ago, and added other imaginary stories.

The spirit of the revolution is present in various stories: the first for example depicts a family whose son died in the revolution and they were missing him on the table and received a spiritual message from him. There's the story about the police who were waiting for an official to pass by, and he never came despite Iftar and they had to endure additional time in the heat without food. There's the real story of the youth sitting in Tahrir Square during Ramadan, who offered the police food when they were breaking their fast, knowing these same people will be hitting them as soon as they finish eating.


AO: Are we likely to see the impact of the revolution on your writing anytime soon?

IAM: I'm not sure yet, I still have to find a way to look at this great act of revolution in its entirety. Right now, the efforts to document are somewhat fine and tackle diverse angles, but I'm still missing what I experienced myself.

In general, we must acknowledge that creativity had already crossed the taboos of politics, sex and religion long before the revolution. What the revolution brought to the surface is a breaking of remaining fears.

We are, however, still waiting for new creative production that can match this new liberation from fear. Right now the common sense on the street has surpassed complex analysis, and creative production will hopefully soon catch up.

Artists remain skeptical about free expression after meeting with Morsy

Wed, 12/09/2012 
On Thursday, President Mohamed Morsy met with a group of writers, filmmakers, actors and artists at the presidential palace in Heliopolis. The turnout among the invitees was moderate, as some of the country’s intelligentsia refuse to “deal in any way with an Islamist state.” From those who showed up, many hailed the president’s statements, reassuring them that freedom of opinion is guaranteed, and the country’s creative and cultural richness is as relevant as its material developments according to the state-owned Middle East News Agency.

Still, skepticism looms with the events that followed the meeting, from the police raid on book vendors on Nabi Daniel Street in Alexandria on Friday to the repeated controversial statements by some Salafi sheikhs describing artists as “prostitutes” and condemning cultural icons like Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez for their romantic lyrics. Over the past few months, Egypt’s top comedian Adel Imam, along with a number of established filmmakers and screenwriters, has also been charged with committing blasphemy against Islam for films they took part in over a decade ago, and Imam was sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of LE1,000. (The Haram Misdemeanor Appeals Court acquitted Imam of those charges Wednesday).

Renowned author Gamal al-Ghitany is among those who refused to attend the meeting with Morsy, describing it as one for “taking photos rather than running cultural dialogue.” Ghitany believes that “there aren’t any chances for real dialogue, especially under their [the Brotherhood’s] exclusionary practices.” He cites how all of the public figures suggested by the Culture Ministry as potential members of the Constituent Assembly were not included in the final selection. He does not foresee dialogue, but rather predicts a full clash with Islamists.

Others, including author Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, have different views. Before attending the meeting, Abdel Meguid supported running dialogue with the new regime, saying cultural practitioners should communicate their concerns, get clear answers and discuss solutions. This, however, did not happen during the meeting, according to Abdel Meguid.

“The president gave a small speech around how he appreciates ‘meaningful’ arts,” Abdel Meguid tells Egypt Independent. “[Then] we told the president our demands. But, he did not give any [concrete] reassurances, and that is depressing.”

He does, however, see a beginning of a conversation as Morsy stressed his appreciation of the arts and condemned the recent attack on actress Ilham Shaheen by a Salafi sheikh who described her as committing “on-air adultery” in her films.

“The apology is a good sign,” says Abdel Meguid, adding that it needs to be supported with laws and actions on the ground to protect freedom of speech and creativity.

“We are not demanding the president prevent Islamists from expressing their opinions, but we need laws to protect arts and our freedom of speech as well,” he adds.

Film producer Medhat al-Adl supports dialogue with Islamists. Although his column criticizing the president’s relationship with the Brotherhood was banned last month in the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm after the appointment of Mohamed Hassan al-Banna as editor-in-chief, he participated in a recent open discussion with Islamist activist Islam Bokhary and preacher Fadel Suleiman at El Sawy Culture Wheel. Adl also told Egypt Independent that he would not have hesitated to attend the meeting with the president, had he been invited. He sees the president’s recent statements as positive, but believes that Morsy has limited influence on radical Islamist groups.

“I think we should accept any invitation for dialogue, in order not to give radical groups the chance to criticize us,” Adl explains.

Prominent novelist Sonallah Ibrahim — known for his staunch criticism and his stand against the Mubarak regime through his writings and refusal of the 2003 Arab Novel Award — also recognizes the importance of dialogue. In a talk Tuesday night at the Alef Bookstore in Heliopolis, he told the audience, “I disagree with President Morsy, but this regime has legitimacy and was brought about by the people.” He added though that the recent meeting with Morsy is not a measure of respect for freedom of artistic creation and expression. “We want to see respect for creativity on the ground; this is the most important thing, along with the need to represent all creative workers in such meetings.”

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