19.05.2011In Dialogue: Khaled Al-Khamissi – Stefan WeidnerThe Arab Spring
Cairo, 8 May 2011
Dear Stefan Weidner,
Khaled Al-Khamissi, born in Cairo in 1962, studied political science at Cairo University and the Sorbonne. He works as a journalist for various Egyptian newspapers. In his novel Taxi he gives a voice to taxi drivers from Cairo, who denounce the political injustices of the Mubarak regime Many Egyptians have regarded "the West" as an enemy for decades. By that I mean the USA and the European colonial states such as Britain and France, but one could also include Germany because of its unconditional support for Israel. This rejection was accompanied by an even more deeply rooted aversion: the Egyptians' hate of their government. With the defeat in the June 1967 War, the Egyptian people grew alienated from the political project, and this feeling intensified with the policy of economic liberalisation that Sadat introduced in 1974.
It was at this time that the organised looting of Egyptian and Arab resources began. While the people spent their days in a vale of drought and heat, the government and a gang of businessmen lived in a vale of prosperity, cooled by American air conditioning. I think another reason for the hostile attitude to the West was that we understood that the West felt sufficient unto itself and took an arrogant stance towards others, forgetting that history moves in cycles: at one point we create knowledge and culture, at another we consume them.
I agree with you, dear Stefan, that there was a feeling before the revolution that we were occupied by the USA and that the Egyptian government was collaborating with this occupation and serving US financial and strategic interests in the region in return for billion-dollar payments.
This American-European-Arab project of comprehensive looting and destruction also financed and supported the project of a worldwide political Islam, while combating the revolutionary project of Arab secularism (from the mid-1970s on, for reasons too complex to list here). This was planned so intelligently that the assaults on the secular Arab project managed to undermine it to a major extent. The project of secular culture of which I speak had begun in the second half of the 19th century in Egypt and continued for almost a century.
Europe's stance of supporting the kleptocracies and thereby bolstering political Islam has led to an ambivalent attitude to the continent among many Egyptian intellectuals. On the one hand we understand that the future of humankind and the planet Earth depend on us standing together against regimes that make themselves accomplices to the stupidity, short-sightedness and greed of the multinationals. On the other hand, we see that these regimes now have unprecedented power to influence public opinion. Berlusconi is the prime example of how low a democratic system can go.
The Arab revolutions we are experiencing today are not taking place because people have lost patience, but because our cultural project has recovered strength and the citizen inside every individual is reawakening. This is coupled with a worldwide feeling that the planet Earth is threatened by one and the same colonial project. Not by the colonialism that once enslaved the Africans and wiped out indigenous populations or forced Catholicism onto "backward" cultures, but by a colonialism that threatens the entirety of humankind – by destroying the planet on which we live.
What, then, must we do? I believe we should uphold the values of rationality and reason, the values of culture and science, at the same time highlighting which cheap "culture" – including the media – is involved in propping up the rich. And we should be very critical of ourselves as we do so.
The Arab revolutions have opened up the possibility of forging a new friendship with Europe and the entire world. We can turn over a new page in human history and raise ourselves above the phase of oppression – of bleeding dry our planet and our Arab resources – by leaving the swamp of the past and entering a new terrain.
Dear Stefan Weidner, you mention in your letter those who defend the "Western" values of freedom, justice and solidarity. I would like to ask you in turn: are freedom, justice, solidarity, democracy and liberalism Western or European values in your eyes? Is the novel the European form of creative writing? What do you think?
I don't believe that's the case. You see, it is difficult to trace an idea back to its beginnings or to pinpoint the hour at which a principle was born. The human dialogue began in primeval times. How can I speak of solidarity without looking back at ancient Egypt, at Confucius or ancient Babylon and other early civilisations? How can I speak about the form of the novel without looking at all the prose ever written? How can we speak about democracy without going back to the beginnings of political systems, thoughts and principles, to philosophers who expressed their ideas thousands of years ago?
You too were doubtless an African a million years ago, you too are influenced by ideas of Arab-Islamic civilisation; without them, Europe would be inconceivable, and without the Greeks there would be no Islamic culture, and without the ancient Egyptians there would have been no Greeks. And perhaps I was a German, four hundred years ago. I believe we have to rethink many of these concepts. And that includes the term "Middle East", which has no meaning for me. I am in favour of abolishing the term.
And now to your question: What do we Egyptians expect of the West? My answer is quite simple: We expect genuine cooperation with Egyptian civil society, which stands for a spread of culture. This is precisely what collaborating Arab regimes are attempting to prevent, trembling in the face of the revolutions because they threaten their continued existence. They spend huge sums of money on destroying our simple dreams and Egyptian culture and on propagating outmoded ideas. Our part here is to fulfil our task. I genuinely believe that we all have to work together right now to start a new chapter.
With every sympathy,
(To read Stefan Weidner's reply click on "3" below)