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By Hosam Aboul-Ela

In conjunction with the London Book Fair's acknowledgement of the 'Arabic Book' this year (previously mentioned in this blog), the Guardian published a forum in which it asked Arab writers and other experts on Arabic literature to list books they'd like to see translated. Among the several interesting responses that caught my eye were Sabry Hafez's list of younger fiction writers (about whom I will devote a subsequent post), and NYU Professor Hala Halim's comment that publishers and translators need to start thinking about translating critical and intellectual work from the region. I have been a fan of this idea for a long time, but reading Professor Halim's statement from here in Cairo got me considering what exactly English language readers might be missing by having to consume a culture only through a few novels, stories, and books of poetry, without any exposure to the role and nature of the thinker in contemporary Arab culture.

An evening forum featuring one of Egypt's most prominent intellectuals, Nasr Hamid Abû Zayd, the Ibn Rushd Chair and Professor of Humanism and Islam at Universiteit voor Humanistiek in Utrecht, the Netherlands, held May 3 at the American University in Cairo, gave me a piece of my answer. Abû Zayd, a former professor of Arabic at Cairo University, left Egypt voluntarily, but under siege from Islamist legal activists in the late nineties. In fact, the forum was the first time he'd spoken publicly in Egypt since 1993. It's hard to exaggerate the excitement his appearance provoked. The only other cultural event I've seen that could compare to it would be the evening in the early nineties when I heard Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish read in Cairo at the annual international bookfair in a tent that hundreds of people had packed into. That night, the crowd's tumultuousness fell to total silence the moment the poet stepped up to the microphone, and the silence held until he sat down.

Nasr Hamid Abû Zayd had just this sort of command of the hall; and in fact, he seems on his way to having almost as fanatical of a following. Abû Zayd created his reputation as a thinker through the scholarly use of hermeneutical interpretive method cum historicization in analyzing the Quran and other holy texts of Islam. Recently, his scholarly preoccupations have moved him toward consideration of discourses of authority, which he sees as a plague on Arab states, in everything from state institutions to educational systems to religious authorities. In his May 3 talk, he spoke specifically to "tahreem" of art. (The word "tahreem" means to make something forbidden, and although it normally has religious connotations, he began his remarks by emphasizing that "tahreem" also occurred in political, social and other institutional contexts.)

Although my friend and I arrived early, we still found ourselves sitting near the back. We were lucky to have seats. There were probably as many people crowded into the aisle, pressed behind the back row of chairs, and straining to hear from the open back doors, as there were people seated. At least twice, someone tried to sit in my lap to reach a tape recorder up to the speaker not far from my chair. (Both failed; it was an evening of physical as well as mental exertion for me.) Amazingly, all the sardines voluntarily kept themselves in the can for the entire two hours until the very end of the Q & A that followed his remarks. The first thing that my European houseguests asked me the next day was if anyone had attacked him during the question period. Indeed a minority of questions expressed antagonism. What really surprised though was how many of the people sitting and standing nearby, including young people who couldn't have been in high school when Professor Abû Zayd left Egypt, were whispering supportive answers as the questions were being asked. Several things about this completely Arabophone evening stand out to me as challenging the way most Americans must imagine Egyptian cultural life. They include: the large contingent of younger attendees, the swarm of enthusiastic media that mobbed the stage at the end, the radically avant-garde way Islam and religion were discussed, and the sheer enthusiasm for ideas and the life of the mind expressed by everyone there. Broadening the outsider's view of the cultural scene here will take a big effort fueled by imagination, patience, education, hard work…and translation.

Published May 9, 2008   Copyright 2008 Hosam Aboul-Ela

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