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No novel proscription
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 01 - 2001

By Omayma Abdel-Latif
When Gamal Heshmat, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament, submitted a request for information to the Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni about the publication by the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces (GOCP), an arm of the Ministry of Culture, of three novels containing what the deputy described as "explicitly indecent material amounting to pornography," he began a chain of events that has illustrated, once again, just how quickly the cultural scene can be transformed into a battleground rather than a site of creative activity. And when, three days later, Prime Minister Atef Ebeid issued a decree sacking Ali Abu Shadi as head of the GOCP, the battle had claimed its first victim.
Intellectuals, including Abu Shadi himself, have interpreted the sacking as marking "a radical change in the position of Culture Minister Farouq Hosni on intellectual freedoms," and accuse the government of caving in to Islamist pressure and jeopardising literary freedom. "I am only a scapegoat because the minister does not want another confrontation with the Islamists on this issue," Abu Shadi told Al-Ahram Weekly hours after his dismissal.
The three novels targeted -- Before and After, Forbidden Dreams and Sons of the Romantic Fault -- are published in the literary "voices" series, edited by Mohamed El-Bisati, himself a prominent novelist. Their de facto banning, combined with Abu Shadi's sacking, has led a number of intellectuals to threaten a boycott of culture ministry activities, including the Cairo International Book Fair, which begins on 24 January, and provoked four chief editors of ministry publications to tender their resignations.
Culture Ministry officials concede that the decision was intended to avoid a repetition of the drama surrounding A Banquet for Seaweed, the Syrian novel at the centre of a similar controversy last year.The republication of the novel by the GOCP caused an uproar among Islamists who alleged it held Islamic symbols in contempt. Al-Shaab newspaper, mouthpiece of the now frozen Labour Party, orchestrated a campaign against the novel; Al-Azhar University students were incited to demonstrate for two days and a deep sense of polarisation in intellectual ranks emerged. This week's events prove that the polarisation lingers on.
Heshmat described Abu Shadi's dismissal as a "positive step," but dismissed as groundless the claim that the decision was taken to avert a possible confrontation between Islamists and the state.
"It is not a question of the government bowing to Muslim Brotherhood pressure. Anyone would have done the same thing because this time it involves a breach of public morality," Heshmat told the Weekly
What has surprised many commentators, however, are the similarities between Farouq Hosni's statements to the press and Heshmat's own position. Hosni denied any link between the dismissal of Abu Shadi and Heshmat's request for information, while at the same time agreeing that the novels contained pornographic passages that go against society's morals.
"What I have read in these novels has nothing to do with politics or religion; it has to do with morality and manners," Hosni told reporters on Tuesday. "And my job is to defend society against such pornographic works."
Hosni's position has hardly reassured intellectuals. In the words of Gamal El-Ghitani, a leading novelist and editor-in-chief of the literary weekly magazine Akhbar Al-Adab, "the minister is speaking the same language as the Islamists. Both the minister and the government appear to be allying themselves with the extremists against freedom this time," he told the Weekly.
Al-Ghitani believes the minister's new position reflects the end of a consensus between the state and intellectuals on the need to defend the right to literary freedom.
"We were all standing against the Brotherhood then, and it is beyond my comprehension what the government is doing by siding with the extremists now," El-Ghitani said, pointing out that Egypt is the only country where literary works are targeted to make political gains. In El-Ghitani's view Abu Shadi's dismissal has only one meaning -- "giving in to extremism."
Unlike El-Ghitani and others who place the blame squarely on the minister's shoulders, Salah Eissa, editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira, believes that the sacking of Abu Shadi was a political decision. "This is not the minister's decision; it is more of a cabinet decision and the prime minister, not the minister, should be held responsible," Eissa told the Weekly, rejecting El-Ghitani's claims that the minister, fearing another confrontation with Islamists, had bowed to pressure. "It would be an exaggeration to say that the government bowed to Islamist pressure. It just did not want to give the Muslim Brothers reason to manipulate public opinion in the name of defending morality," Eissa argues. And although he believes that the novels contain what he describes as "unwarranted sexual hallucinations," he expressed dismay at the government's "extreme reaction."
Eissa warned, however, that if Islamist members of parliament planned to target culture and urge the confiscation of books and the banning of novels, they would end up losers. "They will lose the sympathy of many intellectuals, some of whom, under normal circumstances, could be expected to rally to their support in their numerous battles against the state."
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Students riot over novel 11 - 17 May 2000
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Precarious politics 25 - 31 May 2000
Banquet serves up indigestion 25 - 31 May 2000
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