Culture and innovation in the Arab world

Where are the new Arab icons?

As the photo of Fairouz talking to French President Emmanuel Macron spread around the world, many asked if Arabs today had any contemporary stars of Fairouz's standing. In this essay for Qantara.de, Khaled Al-Khamissi answers this question and asks whether there is a place for up-and-coming stars in a world that is so hostile to creativity and originality

Why haven't we seen any stars take the place of the Arab greats like Fairouz, Taha Hussein, Umm Kulthum and Muhammad Abdel-Wahhab? Do we have today any short storytellers of Youssef Idris' stature? Or any novelists to match Naguib Mahfouz? Or anyone in theatre who can compare with Tawfiq Al-Hakim?

In journalism, is there anyone of Muhammad Hassanein Heikal's standing? In cinema, can anyone match Salah Abu Seif? In sculpture, is there anyone in Mahmoud Mukhtar's league? In visual art, does anyone shine as brightly as Abdel-Hady El-Gazzart? Or like Louis Awad in philosophy? Like Amal Dunqul in poetry? Like Dr Ali Mustafa Mosharrafa in science? Or like Talaat Harb in economics?

Alas, the answer to all these questions is no.

Are we being unreasonably hard on ourselves in asking these questions? Is this denial merely a reflection of the blindness of those on the ground?

I don't think so.

Has any book over the past 50 years had anything like the impact of Taha Hussein's "Pre-Islamic poetry" when it was published in 1927?

So what is the reason for this? It doesn't make sense. Surely, there are young voices that can compare with those of Fairouz, Umm Kulthum, Layla Murad and Asmahan? So why don't we hear them? Where are the composers in the mould of Riad Al-Sunbati, Baligh Hamdi, Mohamed El-Mougi and Mohamed Al-Qasabji?

Let me try to shed light on some of the reasons.

Umm Kulthum (photo: Screenshot YouTube)
Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian singer and icon of the twentieth century. Her fame is comparable with that of Maria Callas or the Beatles in the Western world. In this article, Khaled Al-Khamissi explores why it is that there are no icons of Umm Kulthum's standing in the Arab world today

Cities that foster creativity and innovation

Cities play a major role in the process of inventiveness and innovation. The environment and the relationships that are created within that space provide the impetus for the spawning of new ideas. Equally, cities can play the opposite role in suppressing novel ideas. The issue is about more than whether one political system promotes creativity or not.

Let us take a look at how a city like Budapest in the first quarter of the twentieth century provided a vital platform for the emergence of many greats who had a significant influence over the course of the last century. Notable among them was the physicist Leo Szilard, who was one of the first to develop ideas for nuclear chain reaction in 1933, and John von Neumann, the mathematician and physicist who made major contributions to quantum mechanics.

Closer to home, let's take the case of Alexandria during the same period; it was also a place where innovative thinking developed. It is enough to mention Sayyid Darwish, Bayram Al-Tunisi, Tawfiq Al-Hakim and Mahmoud Said, whose stars all shone brightly during this rich phase in Alexandria's history.

As an attractive city for all kinds of specialist talents from a broad mix of races, Alexandria provided a positive cultural and physical environment that allowed people to develop their ideas. Creativity does not fall from the sky in the same way an apple falls and an idea emerges. Innovation requires a network of people to provide a catalyst for the development of talent. Sayyid Darwish needed Badi' Khairy, and both of them needed Najib Al-Rihani. And the three of them needed dozens of others to bring their creativity to the fore.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Egypt was an attractive place for Armenians, Levantine Arabs, Italians and Greeks, among others. If we look at the worlds of cinema, music, theatre or academia, we find dozens of different ethnicities, all of whom contributed to this rise in the arts. It was the same in Paris and New York in the first quarter of the twentieth century – both cities that drew artists to them.

Does any Egyptian or Arab city currently offer the right environment for nurturing new ideas?

Not one does, that's for certain. There are no serious spaces for dialogue and exchange. Scientific and cultural institutions are out-dated, in poor shape and have inadequate budgets. Educational and artistic endeavour lacks the sort of modern techniques that support original thinking. And school education is, as we all know, based on rote-learning. We simply do not have the right environment for fostering innovation.

Khaled Al-Khamissi (photo: Screenshot Youtube/France24)
Khaled al-Khamissi (pictured here) is a well-known Egyptian writer, author of several novels, university lecturer and cultural activist. In his novels "In the Taxi. On the Road in Cairo", "Noah's Ark" (both published in German translation) and "Shamandar", Khamissi dissects Egyptian society in the second half of the 20th century. His works have been translated into numerous languages. His first non-fictional work "2011" (title of the English translation) was published in 2014. His essays, published in Egypt and abroad, provide a comprehensive insight into his work as a political analyst and novelist

Openness to big questions and new ideas

In the first half of the last century, Egypt was in a state of intellectual and cultural foment. Questions arose about identity. There was a quest to discover the secrets of Egyptian civilization. Questions arose about Egypt's place within Mediterranean civilization, its place vis-à-vis political Islam and its place in the Arabic-speaking world. New questions were being asked, and intellectual currents such as Marxism, Islamism and fascism appeared. The feminist movement came into being, as did the labour movement. There was a general consensus about the need to delve into the corpus of history and thought. Within this milieu, which was generally supportive of civil rights, societal debate was possible, and this in turn fuelled creative energies. Debate was even possible in cases that led to ostracism and intimidation, which is what befell Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek after the publication of his book "Islam and the Fundamentals of Governance". This notwithstanding, the book did what the author wanted and it enriched the dialogue across society about the question of the succession in Islam and about the Caliphate.

Over the past half-century, there has been a general trend in politics to prevent examination of the big questions. Those who have executive power set the questions and hold in their hands the keys to all the answers. A dark fate awaits anyone seeking to raise issues that make political leaders feel uncomfortable.

Transparency and tolerance vs. introspection and extremism

A few days ago, I read that the Algerian president had issued a decree granting Algerian citizenship to Pierre Audin. He is the son of Maurice Audin, who was a French mathematician and member of the Algerian Communist Party who fought for the independence of Algeria before being killed by the French occupying forces when he was 25 years old.

Many Algerians have expressed their disquiet about granting Algerian citizenship to a non-Muslim Frenchman. It is a position that clearly shows how inward-looking and extremist many Arabs are. This same introspective attitude was evident in the case of an Egyptian journalist who was talking to French journalist Alain Gresh in a traditional cafe in downtown Cairo. What happened was oddly painful: a woman who had been eavesdropping on their conversation went up to a policeman to warn him about a possible Egyptian spy giving the country's secrets to a prying foreigner. Sadly, the policeman actually approached Gresh and the female journalist and asked her to accompany him to the police station. There is this terrifying fear of the Other. How can ideas be nurtured in such an environment? The world's ceiling has fallen in and broken our bones.

By contrast, let us consider the song "Boukhmar Khanfashar", the lyrics of which were written by Badi' Khairy and the music composed by Sayyid Darwish: in it we find Levantine Arabic, Turkish, Egyptian and Greek voices all present in the text.

Support for young talent

After completing his studies at the Higher Teachers' College in 1917, the Egyptian Ministry of Public Education paid for Ali Mustafa Mosharrafa to go on a scientific mission to Britain. The 1919 revolution erupted after he got his degree in mathematics, but when he expressed a desire to go back to Egypt, one of the leaders of the revolution told him: "We need you more as a scientist than as a revolutionary". Dr Mosharrafa eventually returned to Egypt with his PhD in General Sciences in 1924 to work as an associate professor in applied mathematics at the Faculty of Science. He was made a professor in 1926, before he was even thirty years old, contrary to Egyptian University law. It is clear from Mosharrafa's story that he was fully supported from the moment he excelled at school until he became the first Egyptian dean of the Faculty of Science.

Yes, we continue to send our PhD students abroad, but that is not the only kind of support which the foremost scholars and thinkers need. The road to success needs on-going support for those who have the ability to make that most difficult ascent to the summit. This is not something I have seen happen in this world. Those who get the support are the sons of officials, servants of power, and those who lick the shoes of the leaders into submission.

Imagine a skilled zither player performing masterpieces while accompanied by a mediocre band producing loud, intrusive sounds with trumpets. Or a chemist working on a new formula for a cure while someone spills water all over the experiment. Or a poet writing a verse while being inundated with countless letters that have no meaning save that they are all banal.

This is my own experience. How can any bright idea flourish in this environment, which is so detrimental to thinking and originality?

Khaled Al-Khamissi

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Chris Somes-Charlton

More on this topic