‘The real glorious summer is coming soon’

2012-03-28 00:00

THE Protection of State Information Bill featured strongly during the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban last week, with writers expressing concern about how it could stifle them. But of all the writers who participated it was perhaps Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher who knew best what it means to be stifled.

Born in Cairo in 1935, Taher’s talent was identified by those around him when he was in primary school. His father, who had previously worked as a teacher, had taken ill when Taher was still a little boy, and his mother, who couldn’t read or write, took care of him and his eight siblings, encouraging each of them to acquire an education.

After graduating from the University of Cairo, he started working for Radio 2, the cultural channel of Egyptian Radio. But in the seventies he was forced to leave Egypt because some of the programmes he presented didn’t sit too well with then president Anwar Sadat’s regime.

“I lost my work because I was considered very leftist … I was doing my work, to the best of my ability, allowing everyone to say what they wanted. I think this was the problem, some people who were against the government spoke about their views, and I allowed them to do so. The government didn’t like that. They wanted only propaganda — for everyone to say everything was all right,” he recalled.

A short story he wrote about a man proposing to his colleague, prompting her father to investigate him, was also viewed as being controversial. “The father starts an investigation like a police investigation — people thought it was very dangerous to publish this at that time.”

Taher spent 20 years in exile in Switzerland, where he worked as a translator for the United Nations. During this time, he was prevented from publishing in Egypt.

“I thought I’d be leaving for a few months, but it turned out to be 20 years, not being able to publish a word in Egypt. I believe the relationship between the state and culture affected my life very badly,” he said.

Taher, who was awarded the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, said that this relationship was an important ever-changing one within the Egyptian context.

“It’s an integral relationship with can affect both sides either negatively or positively,” he pointed out. “Last week we lost a great person who was the minister of culture during Nasser’s period. He initiated many cultural activities, including an academy for arts and drama, and a national theatre in Egypt.

“During that period, the relationship between culture and the state was very positive in the sense that the regime was trying to give Egypt a particular status in the region and in the world and therefore encouraged writers and artists to produce great achievements, and encouraged its minister to initiate programmes.”

This changed during Sadat’s rule. “The state purposefully neglected anything to do with cultural activities which led to the decadence of literature and art and the whole country in a way that they did not let the soul of the country express itself. The country lost itself for two decades during the seventies and eighties.”

Everything was lost during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, he said, but he had hoped the country would revive its aspirations and hopes. “But so many things still stop us from doing what we dream of doing.”

According to Taher, a religious party that holds one fifth of the seats in the newly elected Egyptian parliament has a negative attitude towards culture. “Art and literature according to this party are very badly seen as forms of decadence if not symbols of heresy,” he said.

He added that three factors contributed to the current standstill in the country. “The businessmen who sapped the country’s wealth over the last decades, the government’s corrupt bureaucracy that benefited from the falling regime and the police and security forces, also corrupt and loyal to their old masters — because of the efforts of these combined elements the country is suffering and is paralysed in a standstill,” he said.

But he continued to remain hopeful that the Egyptian Spring would flourish, he said. “Our modern civil state is the oldest in the region. It developed values of democracy and freedom for men and women through two centuries.

“Supporters of this civil state do not give up and they are almost in a daily battle to defend freedom of expression and in many cases, they win. As a student of history in the first place, I believe that the forces nearer to the aspirations of the future win at last. This doesn’t happen overnight, but the real glorious summer is coming sooner than some people may expect.”

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