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The reunion of Anthony and Cleopatra
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 02 - 2007

Every year, Rania Khallaf goes to the Cairo Book Fair
Judging by sheer numbers, at least, there must be something special about this round of the Book Fair. People stood in lines out side the huge gates, waiting for their turn to buy tickets. After a long drive to Nasr City in the Al-Ahram-owned van, it took some 30 minutes just to get inside the Fair Grounds. It was a sunny day, reason enough for families to head for one of Cairo's more spacious outing venues, but still, in previous years at this point, the crowds weren't quite so impressive.
I headed for 6 October Hall to attend an interesting lecture by nuclear scientist Mohamed El-Nushae'e -- on the prospects of nuclear energy in the Arab and Islamic world; sadly, the lecture was more than an hour late. The horizon of cultural cooperation between Italy and Egypt, in the field of publishing, was the subject of another lecture at the same time at Hall 15. So I headed there to witness the ceremony for the reunion of Anthony and Cleopatra as the Fair director Nasser El-Ansary jokingly put it. Speaking of mutual cooperation, Mohamed Hashem, owner of Merit publishing house, focussed on the need of both parties to understand new styles and writing trends, instead of focussing irrevocably on the older generation.
Representing Rizzoli publishing house, Paolo Zaninonni admitted that Italian writers and publishers have but "a shallow knowledge about literature in Egypt", largely, he said, due to linguistic obstacles. "However," he continued, "owing to translation, we could overcome market barriers," confirming that readers in Italy require more information on the Arab world, not just through tourism brochures. He also pointed out the hugely popular book entitled Dreaming of Palestine, written by Randa Ghazi, an Italian-Egyptian young writer, which was first published last year in Italy as an example of individual endeavor by a prominent publishing house.
Some audience members attending the seminar expressed their fascination with Italian culture, including food and cinema. An Algerian young man commented that if Italy wanted to widen the scope of cultural relations with the Arab world, then it should exert more efforts, both on the political and the cultural level, throughout the region, capitalising the fact that Italy has no major imperialist history there -- compared to France or Britain, or indeed the USA. Italian culture, he said, should be experienced through its own language. "Excuse me," Italian ambassador Antonio Badini interrupted him. "Why you speak in English instead of Arabic?" Several people snickered in response, but the young man insisted that this very point was key, deeply relevant to what he was in the process of saying, "because of the fact that American and English culture control and prevail in the whole world today".
Moving back to 6 October Hall, I found the deteriorating situation of Muslims in Europe to be the -- hot -- topic being discussed. Abdel-Atti Mohamed, a political expert, was saying, in a rather emphatic tone, "Muslims in Europe live in a real crisis." Mohamed underlined the need for Muslims to be integrated into European cultures, not blaming either party entirely for the current situation.
Syrian sociologist Badreddin Arodky, who has lived in France for many years now, believes there is a dearth of modern intellectual Islamic discourse, even despite the survival of two powerful Islamic organisations: the Paris Mosque, financed by the Algerian government and the Union of Islamic Organisations, which assembles Muslims in France. Though Muslims are minority in a nonreligious society, he insists, two Islamic voices have triumphed in making Islamic religion and philosophy a debatable topic for the French public: the Egyptian thinker Tarek Ramadan, and the Algerian thinker . They are like two faces of a coin: Arkoun represents the critical trend of the Islamic history, while Ramadan, most recently the author of Questioning Islam, is a modernist thinker who attempts to encourage Muslims to co-exist with the fast-growing secular society without giving up their Islamic values. Citing Le Monde as an example, "The French media," he said, "plays a negative role in falsifying facts about Islam."
Outside the Fair Grounds, a seminar held on Sunday at the Higher Council of Culture, Italian and Egyptian scholars of politics convened to discuss geopolitics and globalisation, ways to narrow the space separating Europe and the Arab world. Surprisingly enough, more than 90 per cent of the attendants were Italian (the number of Italian intellectuals is fairly bigger than the that of German intellectuals who participated in the last round of the fair).
Antonio Ferrari, a journalist at Corriere della Sera, raised the issue of conflict between Shia and Sunnis, which has also erupted lately in northern Yemen, in addition to its notorious history in Iraq and Lebanon; to his mind this a more fatal conflict than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
For his part Lucio Caracciolo, director of Limes, the Italian newspaper specialised in geopolitics, expressed a persuasive view: "Without real cooperation with the Mediterranean axis, Europe will end up being a marginal continent. We should admit that Europe marginalises Italy and its association with Mediterranean countries. Our concern is to focus on our Mediterranean identity through the Mediterranean Forum and other mechanisms. We should also invest in building healthy relations with different communities in Italy, which can only result in a more secure and cultured society."
For his part ambassador Abdel-Raouf El-Reedy confirmed that globalisation in terms of economic hegemony (referring to US policy in the region) is the main reason behind wars and conflicts in the Middle East: "The Italian, Greek and Jewish communities in Egypt had once helped revive a positive concept of 'cultural globalisation', enriching Egypt culturally and economically."
Osama El-Baz, political adviser to President Mubarak, echoed that culture is excluded in the United States version of globalisation and its globalising policy alike: "I believe that the cultural exchange of opinions, concepts and visions helps in creating a more stable world. The cultural factor is the most important issue if we are to talk about deeper concerted relations between Europe and the Arab world, because it is the mind that moves and controls behaviour. The cultural resemblance between the Mediterranean countries can lead to a mutual trust in political and economic negotiations, and this is an added advantage."
On Monday evening, the French Cultural Institute was overcrowded with fans of the Algerian thinker , who was giving a lecture on the history of Muslims in France -- on the occasion of him publishing a new book on the topic. "Since 1945," Arkoun explained, "we have witnessed wars that are characterised by a severe ignorance of history; I mean, the misunderstanding of societies. Understanding the other is a necessary issue if we are to surpass the age of wars in the name of Islam and modernity, which promised a shift from the age of religious wars, fanaticism and improper exchange of knowledge." Arkoun heavily criticised the concept of "justified wars", raised by president Bush: "Being 'justified' allows the diffusion of the notion of 'holy war', which in its turn supports the concept of Jihad, allowing an endless circle of violence."
Arkoun gave another lecture at the 6 October Hall, on "the sociology of the failure of intellectual modernity in Islamic contexts" -- "a sarcastic title", as he describes it, which "suits Arab and Islamic societies nowadays". In this context, he gave the example of Ibn Khaldoun, who provided us with a critical vision of our history; however, from Ibn Khaldoun's death in 1406 and until the beginning of the 19th century, his manuscript had not been exchanged or studied by Arab historians themselves. The book had been peacefully lying on the shelves. And what, Arkoun asked, with evident emotion, does this indicate?
"Until this very day, when I talk about 'criticising Islamic thought', I am met with violent reactions on the part of Arab intellectuals, who are happy to call me a disbeliever, because the word criticism has negative connotations. And this is the reason behind the weakness of current Arab critical theories. Our Arab societies tend to consecrate their histories -- and this is a fatal fault. Without criticism, the human mind becomes worthless. We should discard the persistent idea that the West is the enemy of Islam. We should defend the three religions, and avoid ignoring the other. Ouvrez les yeux," he said, stretching his arms. "We need to surpass 'victim speech' to the 'self-criticism speech'."
As for the hijab crisis in France, Arkoun believes that Muslims in France enjoy their full rights as French citizens. "France is a cosmopolitan country; it is the duty of the French government to protect its schools from any violence that might erupt as a result of adopting religious ideologies or attitudes like wearing the hijab. Muslim women are free to wear hijab outside the realm of schools."


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