"The Fanatics Dampen the Enthusiasm"

Gamal al-Ghitany is one of the most influential Arab authors of our time. His latest edition of the collection of medieval tales "Thousand and One Nights" brought him to the attention of puritanical critics. In concrete terms, they are calling for all the erotic passages of the work to be censored. Magda Luthay spoke to Gamal al-Ghitany

Gamal al-Ghitany (photo: DW)
Religious zealots versus critical intellectuals: "A handful of fanatics can't stop the wave of success of 'Thousand and One Nights'," says the Egyptian author Gamal al-Ghitany

​​ A group of self-appointed defenders of morality, who describe themselves as "Lawyers without Restrictions", has again brought charges against you. They accuse you of portraying Islam in a highly negative light in your latest publication, and say you have thoroughly besmirched the faith. What really lies behind these charges?

Gamal al-Ghitany: The actions of these lawyers reflect a profound conflict within Egyptian society. This long ceased to be against me personally, or the contents of "Thousand and One Nights", it is merely a cover to manipulate the public and enforce a quite fundamental agenda. Egyptian society is deeply divided. There are advocates of progress, liberals, artists, intellectuals – the educated class. Then there are the conservative religious members of society. These are narrow-minded people who support a religious regime. In short, a political Islam, or rather how they themselves interpret that concept. They see themselves in permanent competition with the government, and everything revolves around the central question: Who is more religious?

The intellectuals were and still are the target of religious zealots, who have a fundamental problem with critical, free thought. They operate on the streets and recruit supporters primarily from the ranks of the uneducated people whom they can manipulate with their doctrine. Writers and artists have long been a thorn in their eye – just think of Nagib Mahfuz, one of the greatest intellectuals of the Arab world.

When several excerpts from his work "The Children of Our Alley" appeared in the newspaper "al-Ahram" in 1959, it was the ultraconservative groups that prevented the preprint of the book. Mahfuz was repeatedly confronted with the accusation of blasphemy and violation of Islam. As a consequence, this book was only published in Arabic in Egypt a few years ago. In 1994, Mahfuz was attacked with a knife in broad daylight by a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. He survived but he was badly injured. You see how long this conflict has already been smouldering in Egypt. I'm just another link in this chain of hostilities.

How do you explain the radicalisation, indeed the increasing fanaticism of these social groups?

Gamal al-Ghitany: There is a huge chasm between rich and poor in Egyptian society. Many people have a meagre livelihood, and can neither read nor write. This results in a high rate of unemployment. Then there is a very wealthy upper class, and a small middle class.

This makes it easy for the radicals to construct supposed bogeymen. In addition, many Egyptians are travelling to Saudi Arabia for religious instruction, and return with fanatical views. They then fight for their take on religion in their homeland.

What role does the Egyptian government play in this protracted conflict?

​​ Gamal al-Ghitany: The last few years have seen highly positive developments in the areas of freedom of speech and media freedom. There are a great many newspapers reporting critically and controversially on a huge spectrum of issues. Journalism here is very dynamic, and even reports that criticise the government are the norm.

There is no censorship, on the contrary: reports that criticise political and social structures are part of Egypt's journalistic culture, in fact they are even welcome. But nevertheless, I would warn against only airing criticism, that fails to convince after a while. If the discussion is to be moved on, you must always offer constructive ideas for a solution.

Meanwhile the Internet also plays a significant role, particularly with the young generation. No, the government does not hamper the work of artists, the problems come from society itself. These are indoctrinated people who are pursuing quite specific goals. They hinder progress. The most dangerous thing about it is that these fanatics are not able to demonstrate a well-founded appreciation of the many issues in question here, just as in the case of "Thousand and One Nights". A few catchphrases are enough to encourage these people to follow each other blindly, an approach that unfortunately often has very negative consequences.

Do you think that a vibrant political life could root out these fanatics?

Gamal al-Ghitany: Absolutely, the key to change also lies in an active political exchange. A vigorous political life also makes a significant contribution to creating an open, well-informed society.

How are writers and intellectuals reacting to these latest charges against you? Do creative people feel intimidated by the actions of the conservatives?

Gamal al-Ghitany: The Egyptian writers' association has announced its full solidarity with me and my work. There are a great many very talented young writers in Egypt, and the young upcoming literature scene in Saudi Arabia is also a real hot tip. It's very important to foster this talent and offer these writers long-term perspectives.

It is very gratifying that a real surge in the popularity of reading has developed in Egypt over the last two years. This is a great incentive to new writers. The Egyptian cultural scene pulsates with life at the moment; a handful of fanatics can't stop this wave of success, but they do dampen the enthusiasm.

Several court actions were brought against an illustrated edition of "Thousand and One Nights" in the year 1985. Are you confident that the charge will be rejected? After all, the latest edition is being subsidised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

Gamal al-Ghitany: The initiators at the time were religious zealots complaining that the work's content was pornographic. The judges ruled in three instances that you can't simply rip individual words from their context to denigrate an entire book in this way.

So no, I'm not afraid. That may sound very audacious, but this latest accusation has blessed the current edition of "Thousand and One Nights" with an unimaginable circulation. We have sold more than 10,000 copies in just a few months. The book is in the news, everyone's talking about it and it's never been so popular.

In this respect, the radicals have achieved the opposite of what they intended: They have given "Thousand and One Nights" publicity and ensured that this wonderful book gets the attention it deserves. It's a very positive side-effect, a victory for the multiplicity of views in today's Egypt.

Interview: Magda Luthay

© Qantara.de 2010

Gamal al-Ghitany has published numerous novels and short stories, and is also a presenter of various programmes broadcast on private Egyptian television channels. He was arts editor for the newspaper "al-Akhbar" and is publisher and editor-in-chief of Egypt's only literary magazine, "Akhbar al-Adab". In March 2009 he received the "Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature" – an internationally renowned book prize awarded annually in Abu Dhabi to an outstanding Arab creative.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de


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