Middle East

Middle East

Egypt: A Writer's Rejection

Sonallah Ibrahim, one of the most celebrated contemporary Arab novelists, caused a ruckus when he issued a stunning public rejection of a major literary prize bestowed by the Egyptian government. Taking the podium after his name was announced at the Arab Novelists Assembly, a gathering of literati in Cairo, as the winner of the 2003 Supreme Council for Culture’s Novelist of the Year award on Oct. 22, Ibrahim briefly but eloquently explained that he wasn’t taking an award—of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$17,000)—from a government that oppresses the people, protects the corrupt, and kowtows to Uncle Sam.

In his speech (reprinted in many papers), Ibrahim—darling of the leftist set that has dominated the Arab novel since the 1960s—said: “I have no doubt that every Egyptian here is aware of the extent of the catastrophe facing our country. It’s not just the real Israeli military threat to our eastern borders, the American dictates, or the weakness showing in our government’s foreign policy: It’s all aspects of life. We no longer have theater, cinema, or scientific research; we just have festivals, conferences, and false funds. We don’t have industry, agriculture, health, or justice. Corruption and pillage spreads. And anyone who objects faces getting beaten up or tortured. The exploitative few have wrested our spirit from us.”

But he left the pièce de résistance to the end: “All that’s left for me is to thank those who chose me for this prize but to say that I won’t be accepting it because it is from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it.” The hall, according to press reports, erupted in shock and support, as Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni was left trying to call to order a jubilant literary pack.

Opposition and independent papers hailed Ibrahim, who was jailed for six years by Nasser’s regime, as having “returned some form of dignity”—in the words of Akhbar al-Adab (Oct. 26)—to the Arab intelligentsia, who have been co-opted by governments throughout the Arab world. “He has thrown a huge stone into still waters, and you could see it on the faces of the dozens who stood outside the conference hall waiting to congratulate Ibrahim,” wrote Hassan Abdel-Mawgoud in Akhbar al-Adab, the only state-owned literary publication that regularly attacks the government.

In Al-Osboa, the Oct. 27 editorial by its leftist editor Mustafa Bakry took courage from Ibrahim’s bombshell: “We demand that all honorable people in Egyptian society stand as one man and address President [Hosni] Mubarak about the demands of the people and tell the truth about what’s happening and express the feelings of the people clearly and honestly....Let’s build a social contract between all forces of society to save the nation instead of leaving it prey to conspiracy and collapse.”

Culture Minister Hosni has overseen the co-option of Egypt’s intelligentsia since taking office in 1987, creating many literary magazines and papers given to prominent writers and thinkers to edit. The state so dominates the media that rejecting an offer can lead to professional marginalization.

Ibrahim is one of the few Egyptian and Arab novelists whose works are regularly translated into foreign languages, allowing him to survive independent of the state. His most recent book, Amrikanli (“Americanish”), which was published in the summer of 2003, is a searing indictment of U.S. meddling in Arab political affairs.

“People consider Ibrahim brave because he was able to say no, since the only thing left to do is withdraw from the stage,” wrote Wael Abdel-Fattah in Sawt al-Umma (Oct. 27), which is run by opposition writer Adel Hamouda.

Hosni tried to strike back, accusing Ibrahim of hypocrisy for accepting the $50,000 Eweis Award, established by a wealthy arts patron in the United Arab Emirates. In the government’s flagship Al-Ahram (Oct. 26), Hosni even accused Ibrahim of rejecting the Egyptian award because it was of too little monetary value. Ibrahim responded that the UAE award was not from the government. He told the Cairo Times (Oct. 30),“I felt that it would be a disgrace to myself and to my work to accept such a prize from a government that is failing to face the problems we have in our country.”

Some writers suggested Ibrahim, his protest, and his intellectual generation are part of Egypt’s problem, not the solution. “There is no connection between the prize and the reasons he gave for refusing the prize,” wrote Salah Issa, editor of Al-Qahira, owned by the Ministry of Culture. “Ibrahim said he’s not against the [award] committee, but in the end he was against the committee.”