19.05.2011In Dialogue: Khaled Al-Khamissi – Stefan WeidnerThe Arab Spring
Cairo, 18 June 2011
Dear Stefan Weidner,
Today really was a day for a sunshade! The Cairo sun excelled itself, blowing burning hot air into our faces; the world like a frazzled morsel of dry cooked meat, shrivelling below its merciless blast. I had the forlorn hope that perhaps I might somewhere find a vendor selling sunshades, but, unfortunately, here in Cairo, there is no such thing. We are quite used to being hard on ourselves, to putting up with more than we can bear and then asking if there is not more to come. We have always made fun of ourselves, too, as though addicted to self-torture. But now that we have had a revolution and proved to ourselves that we are capable of overthrowing those responsible for our torment, the joking has stopped.
I was fascinated to read of your interest in Ottoman poetry. I, too, love poetry, it is everything to me, its music the rhythym of my life. But these days, somehow, I don't feel very poetic. I find myself almost unable to listen to music. My soul fears the cries and clamour that surround me. At the moment, demagogic rhetoric dominates everything in Egyptian society. I am convinced, however, that the achievements of our revolution cannot be undone and that a new and more humane system will arise from the ruins. Are they somehow linked, the demagoguery and the burning sun? Is this something one should think about? Even thinking is beyond me at the moment.
On the one hand, we are now experiencing something that we had always hoped for – a mass culture, a consumer culture, the opening up of the education system to large sections of Egyptian society. That is wonderful, but the Egyptians are not really learning anything. Then there was globalisation that brought large sections of the lower class into the middle class and created a populist culture as the revolution in information technology coincided with a population explosion in the Arab world.
The use of "free time" also needs to be discussed. The failure of the economic and social policy meant that a new semi-literate, semi-rural generation suddenly found itself in an era of communication technology that was awash with images. Since finding work abroad was practically impossible, and jobs in Egypt almost nonexistent, they turned to the only thing left available to them – to cyberspace, where it was at least possible for people to express themselves. For the first time ever they had the freedom to write, to say what they wanted, even if, due to their poor standard of education, it was expressed rather clumsily. There was no authority to prevent them from doing this. In the era of globalisation interaction is horizontal, not vertical.
The Egyptian Revolution had no leaders, no particular ideolgy. As one of our writers has said, it was a revolution that gave genuine expression to a postmodern world. Just like the death of the author in literature, the Egyptian Revolution was a revolution that marked the death of the leader. And just as the postmodern world rejects ready-made ideologies, the Egyptian Revolution, too, had no special ideology. It restricted itself to general demands, but these demands still meant a great deal to millions of people.
In response to your question about the role of the intellectuals in contemporary Egytian society, undoubtedly they are playing a crucial role, but I have the feeling that their voices are not being heard. It was Brecht in "In Dark Times", who said, "they won't say: the times were dark. Rather, they will ask: why were the poets silent?" Our poets have not remained silent, though they are out on the margins. But does that mean that they are unimportant, or is it a conscious choice to stay out on the edge, spoiling the party for others?
The battle for a new political system in Egypt is underway, and our anguished cries are always heard more loudly than our dreams. But our cries impair our sight every bit as much as the blinding sun. So if you should happen to find a sunshade in Istanbul, please send it to us. Maybe it will protect us a little against the demagogues and the clamour. Lies, ugly press campaigns, the army and reactionary Islam are the disseminators of a discourse that is lacking any reasonable or rational basis and one which, as usual, contents itself with impressive sounding but meaningless slogans.
As alternative to this we have a revolutionary force that lacks experience and which attempts to curry favour with the lying press, the military and the reactionary Islamic and Christian groups because it believes that by doing so it can gain popularity. The real intellectuals have been slow to react. We need another revolution – and I need poetry that can offer me some refuge.
(To read Stefan Weidner's reply click on "5" below)