By David DiMeo
One could be forgiven for believing that the age-old struggle of the activist writer to affect his/her society had been decisively settled in February of 2011. For a popular movement that seemed to hang on the typed word—whether that be in the form of blog posts, Facebook updates or Twitter bursts from opposition thinkers of all sorts—the swelling ranks of Tahrir protestors offered an audience that the activist writer could only have dreamed of a few scant years earlier. Indeed, authors like Alaa al-Aswany, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid and Khaled Berry became opinion leaders with a reach and immediacy that their predecessors had never enjoyed. The danger of the last days of the Mubarak era served not to intimidate, but rather invigorate them. As al-Aswany confidently stared down heir apparent Gamal Mubarak or prime minister Shafik, he could brashly assert of the government: “Before doing something to me, the regime must calculate the repercussions…I don’t need them—and they do need me.” (Kostyal) With the latter two gone, Al-Aswany’s boast seemed quite valid.
This was a world that writers had long envisioned, yet inevitably despaired of seeing. In the mid-twentieth century, the activist movement of al-adab al-multazim (itself a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s engaged literature) had so defined the Arab literary output that critic Muhammad Wahbi, in one of countless such assertions of the time, would state that it “dominated” the Arab world. (Wahbi 24) As I trace in Committed to Disillusion, the vision of al-adab al-multazim rested upon an engaged writer, leading a caring public to enlightenment about the injustices of society, all under the helpful eye of a socialist state. Naguib Mahfouz confessed that the promises of the 1952 revolution embodied everything that his generation wanted “if only they had been implemented in the manner promised.” (Mahfouz, Speaking 98-99)
The disillusionment of previously multazim writers in from the 1960s on peaked so sharply, however, that the very concept of committed writing became something to be mocked in the pages of the Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris of Sun’Allah Ibrahim. The latter two writers had gone to jail for their beliefs—Idris multiple times—but eventually despaired of reaching the public with the means at their disposal in late twentieth century Egypt. In works like Mahfouz’s Karnak or Idris’ The Black Policeman, the authors depicted the crushing hand of the state against intellectuals and writers. Yet it was not the coercive power of the state that broke Idris, but rather the public’s preference for the mindless entertainment of American TV shows brought on by the Infitah of the seventies. Idris described taking to his bed, giving up “the responsibility of changing a world which does not change,” (Idris 24) decrying the “the total lack of value of writing. Not only my writing, but all the writing since man learned to write.” (Idris 20) Similarly, Ibrahim’s admittedly semi-autobiographical protagonist of The Committee endured threats of torture at the hands of the eponymous controlling body, yet crumbled when he found nothing but apathy on the streets, eventually acquiescing to eating himself in resignation. In his own life, Ibrahim had emerged from prison in 1964 and frankly registered shock at the materialist culture around him, finding post-revolution Egypt “a different world, therefore, than that of which I had dreamed.” (Ibrahim 101) As for Mahfouz, the disillusioned artists filling the pages of his works in the 1960s offered capitulations like that of his broken writer in The Beggar, confessing “I absolutely decided to renounce art and here I am selling seeds and popcorn through the newspapers and television.” (Mahfouz, The Beggar 20)
What a dream it must have seemed, then, to see the crowds of youth forming human chains to stand against hired thugs, or the complete failure of the Mubarak government to shut down the internet—the virtual, immediate mass communications platform that the public had appropriated for itself. The state, seemingly, had been shunted out of its communications monopoly, allowing for an organic connection between an activist writer and an energized public that retweeted their words with a range that even the most prolific writers of the 1950s would have dismissed as fantasy.
Surprisingly, though, the most famous expression of Egypt’s literary artists in the post-Tahrir Revolution period was not a declaration of the triumph of activist writing, but rather the “urgent plea” by over 150 literary figures for military intervention against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013. Perhaps the most surprising voice among them was Sun’Allah Ibrahim, who not only stepped back from writing, noting “I have no desire to work seriously…It’s not wrong, it’s not impossible, to write directly about what’s happening. But in my case I need some distance,” but also sharply discouraged criticism of the military, stating “if the police officer who used to insult me and kick me and beat me under Mubarak, if now he is fighting against terrorism, I am with him.” (Lindsey) For a writer’s whose Black Policeman flatly condemned the destructiveness of kicking and beating for any purpose, and whose entire career was marked by bold defiance of authority, it was a sharp turn, but one that was not, in the least, exclusive to Ibrahim.
The puzzle of how to view the role of the activist writer amidst the dramatic changes in Egypt in the last five years, then, is not solved by a clean return to, or rejection of the committed literature of al-adab al-multazim. How much of that vision can, or should, be carried forward into the information age is still an evolving question. Although some of its ideas may seem naive, even quaint, in today’s world, a re-investigation of al-adab al-multazim is much needed. An understanding of this most monumental effort at activist literature, its failures and broken assumptions, as well as a revision of those ideas in the light of an instant mass media are essential for envisioning the role of the author in the coming years. I hope that Committed to Disillusion, in its small way, will contribute to that exploration.
Ibrahim, Sun’Allah. “Tajribati al-Riwa’iyya [My Literary Experience].” al-Adab 28.2-3 (1980): 100-103.
Idris, Yusuf. “Yamut al-Zammar [The Piper Dies].” Idris, Yusuf. Uqtulha. Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1982. 19-51.
Kostyal, Karen. “Alaa Al Aswany: Voice of Reason.” September 2006. National Geographic.
Lindsey, Ursula. “A Voice of Dissent Joins the Nationalist Chorus.” 6 October 2013. Mada Masr.
Electronic. 20 May 2015. https://www.madamasr.com/sections/culture/voice-dissent-joins-nationalist-chorus
Mahfuz, Najib. al-Shahhadh [The Beggar]. Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1982.
—. Atahaddathu Ilaykum [I’m Speaking to You]. Beirut: Dar al-‘Awda, 1977.
Wahbi, Muhammad. “Adabuna al-Multazim [Our Committed Literature].” al-Adab 2.8 (1954): 24-26.
David DiMeo is the author of Committed to Disillusion: Activist Writers in Egypt from the 1950s to the 1980s (AUC Press, 2016). He is assistant professor and coordinator of the Arabic program at Western Kentucky University. He is also the co-author of The Travels of Ibn Battuta: A Guided Reader (AUC Press, 2016).