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Imagining more Autumns for North Africa’s Patriarchs: The Dictator Novel in Egypt

By Hosam Aboul-Ela

In the mid 1970s, at a time when Latin American countries chafed under brutal dictatorships, an amazing literary phenomenon swept through the region. Three powerful novels were published within months of each other by three of the greatest authors of the region hailing from its varied corners. Inspired by Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Angél Asturias’s 1946 classic, El Señor Presidente, and working in open collusion with one another, Cuban Alejo Carpentier published El Recurso del método(1974, translated as Reasons of State), followed in rapid succession by Colombian Gabriel García Márquez’s El Otoño del patriarca (1975, The Autumn of the Patriarch), and Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos’s Yo, el supremo (also 1975, I, the Supreme). These three novels not only solidified the dictator novel as a serious literary genre, but could fairly be said to have shaken the very social consensus that allowed the dictatorial system to persevere in Latin American society.

In the Arab world in general—and in Egypt in particular, the relationship between the novel and its dictators has evolved differently, developing over decades as the social/political system has grown ever increasingly intertwined with corrupt, centralized authority, and literary trends have waxed and waned. But a discussion of the relationship between Arab novel and Arab dictator must inevitably begin—as so many discussions of modern Arab fiction do—with Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. The current Egyptian regime traces its beginnings back to another uprising sixty years ago led by Egypt's Free Officers, one which caused a six- year stoppage in the output of the famously prolific Mahfouz, who seems to have been disillusioned by Gamal Abel Nasser's consolidation of his power shortly after the King's departure in 1952. Mahfouz's hiatus from writing was finally broken in the late 1950s, first with his Cairo Trilogy, widely regarded as his masterpiece, then with the novel that must be considered the foundation of dictator fiction in the region, Awlad Haratna, rendered as Children of Gebalawi by Philip Stewart in 1981, and then re-translated by the incomparable Peter Theroux as Children of Our Alley in 1999. With its network of gangs of thugs deployed by a central authority to terrorize the populace, no other work of fiction strikes a more haunting note today. In the novel's notorious ending, the decrepit god, who has allowed the system to run amok, dies. Generations of clerical scholars have misinterpreted this figure to be God, but if the real reference meant by this centralized authority was murky in the fifties, Mahfouz's regular return to the theme of dictatorial authority in his fiction in the 1980s, as Mubarak took over for Anwar El-Sadat, should have made it all too clear that the god in Children of Our Alley was really the Arab dictator.

Since Mahfouz first laid down the gauntlet, Egyptian and other Arab writers have regularly offered up their own idiosyncratic versions of the dictator novel. In 1974, for example, Gamal El-Ghitani published Zayni Barakat, named after its main character and rendered into English in a renowned translation by Farouk Mustafa first published in 1990. El-Ghitani used the historical circumstance of corruption in Mamlouk-era Cairo to allegorize the way Abdel Nasser's dictatorship planted the seeds of its own collapse through the regime of surveillance and senseless brutality that it visited upon the populace. In the novel, as in 1960s Egypt, society is rife with spies, turncoats, and other elements that tear the national sense of community to bits and leave the nation vulnerable to outside invaders: Ottomans/Israelis. Having gathered absolute power around himself, the despot finds it impossible to control the state at a micro level, and society devolves into chaos.

Anwar El-Sadat, in spite of his volte-face from Nasserist foreign policy, proved no less autocratic at home, and so he too took his own turn in the Egyptian dictator novel, notably in Nawal El-Saadawi's high-profile The Fall of the Imam, which appeared in Arabic in 1987 and was then translated into English by her husband, Sherif Hetata, in 1989. El-Saadawi, who has a particular gift for being blatant, brought a personal grudge against the despot who had thrown her (and many other Egyptian writers) in jail. After her novelistic treatment of him, it became difficult not to see an implicit critique of dictatorship in almost every feminist novel produced in the region.

Although there has not been a moment of explosion in the genre of the Arabic dictator novel like the Latin American moment of the mid-70s, the specter of dictatorship has pervaded most of Arab (or at least North African) fiction as a theme in the past several decades. Remember that for Asturias, dictatorship was never about a person; rather, the person symbolized a social system. That system was patriarchal, arbitrary, and corrupt in all its structures and in too many of its habits of life. The dictator novel portrayed this insidious aspect of the system as the actual body of the dictator hovered around its margins.  Back in Egypt, one thinks of the way thoroughgoing and at times comical corruption pervades Mubarak's Egypt, as represented in Sonallah Ibrahim's Zaat, the way the King pops up repeatedly in everything from card games to coffeehouse banter in the same author's more recent Stealth, the suggestive cameos by al-rajal al-kabir, or "the big man," in Alaa Al-Aswany's celebrated The Yacoubian Building, or—to offer a non-Egyptian example—Moroccan Bensalem Himmich's treatment of the historical figure of Hakim bi Amr Allah as a sort of Arab Caligula in his The Theocrat, set in Medieval Egypt. Here we see (through allegory) the extent that self aggrandizement at the expense of the state had been taken to in the 90s—not only in Saddam's Iraq, but in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

So many things have contributed to the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt right now: not only the efforts of young tech-savvy activists on Facebook and the inspiration from Tunisia that we have heard so much about, but also labor unions, human rights organizations, independent newspapers, professional syndicates . . . and novelists. Beneath the surface of the pervasive dictatorial system, there has always been organized (if bedraggled) resistance in every sector of Egyptian life and culture. For example, the current ongoing protests were begun by a group that calls itself the "April 6 movement," named after an industrial strike in the spring of 2008 that started in a city in the Delta and ended up paralyzing Egypt for the first time in decades.

I had recently begun writing dispatches from Cairo for Words without Borders when that strike erupted. Unable to focus on the topics of literature and translation, I posted about the life of the Egyptian writer in the shadow of the regime. Writers were affected by the same social oppression. Everyone in Egypt then had the same sense that something big had happened that day, but few could have envisioned this evolution to revolution. Having stepped away from the literary at that time, I now see its role more clearly. If the dictator novel never had a singular moment in North Africa as it did in Latin America, the novel, like other arts, has been helping to dismantle this system of dictatorship for decades now, through sheer verisimilitude, through its critique of an Egyptian and Arab society built on exclusivity and corruption, through proffering a new type of social relations, and through imagining more autumns for North Africa's patriarchs.

Published Feb 11, 2011   Copyright 2011 Hosam Aboul-Ela

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