Across the corpus of Egyptian literary narratives, one can identify two major approaches in which Nasser is inserted into the narrative. In the first approach Nasser is featured as part of a historical background against which the narrative unfolds. Interspersed in these narratives are references to Nasser, his legacy, physical and moral attributes, as well as his perspectives on matters concerning both Egypt and the rest of the world. These references are put forward in the dialogues that occur among the protagonists of the work, in their streams of consciousness, or by the omniscient narrator that the work may adopt. Nasser remains part of the historical setting, however, and does not enter the narrative as one of the characters. In other words, in these works Nasser is described, debated, denigrated, or glorified, yet he is not reimagined or fictionalised. Rather, his image is constructed insofar as the main protagonists’ lives interact with, relate to, or are concerned with his. Falling into the famous dictum of Georg Lukács, these narratives represent Nasser ‘as only a minor character compositionally, a figure described from the outside, in action, whose character is not developed throughout the novel, but whose presence, words, and actions have a significant effect on the other fictional characters’.
In the second approach, Nasser himself is a main, if not the main, protagonist. Living side by side with other invented characters, Nasser emerges as a fictive figure whose external reference outside the text is recognisable yet whose actual representation in the text may drastically add to, differ from, or contradict this reference. By way of introducing him, explicitly or allegorically, these narratives open up a space for Nasser as fiction, as a literary character whose life becomes subject to ‘conscious distortion of history through omissions, exaggerations, and anachronisms’. In so doing, each narrative in this category may give us a Nasser of its own, a revised figure that is inevitably coloured by the perspectives of its producers.
Historical truth … is not what took place; it is what we think took place.
He did great things, and failed at many others.
If he has wounded our hearts, all the wounds have healed.
On 18 September 2011, almost eight months after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution and the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Egyptians gathered for the funeral of Khalid Abdel Nasser, the eldest son of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–70). SCAF, Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces, was ruling the country. While carrying pictures of Nasser and expressing nostalgia for him, the mourners were also chanting, yasqut yasqut hukm al-'askar (down, down with military rule!). The irony of the incident did not elude several Egyptian journalists. Many noted how the funeral became an occasion for protesting the rule of the military while celebrating the person who reinstitutionalised it in Egypt in 1952. Indeed, jokes about this irony abounded in newspapers the next day, one of which sarcastically asked whether those protestors had taken Nasser to be an obstetrician!
Besides Nasser's continued presence in Egyptian everyday life and discourse, the story above also reveals how many Egyptians separate Nasser as a person from the regime that he had created. For them, Nasser functions as a site of memory, a space of associations at times disconnected from the real figure that he once was. As French historian Pierre Nora argues, sites of memory are ‘moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded’. As such, they are the embodiment of memory, the residue of that long process of remembering and forgetting that takes place in living societies before it enters the realm of history. History, on the other hand, is ‘the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer’. Constituting a counterdiscourse, of which history ‘is perpetually suspicious’, these sites of memory take the form of films, songs, novels, and paintings, among other media.
The Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature is a new and unique series which will, it is hoped, fill in a glaring gap in scholarship in the field of modern Arabic literature. Its dedication to Arabic literature in the modern period, that is, from the nineteenth century onwards, is what makes it unique among series undertaken by academic publishers in the English-speaking world. Individual books on modern Arabic literature in general or aspects of it have been and continue to be published sporadically. Series on Islamic studies and Arab/Islamic thought and civilisation are not in short supply either in the academic world, but these are far removed from the study of Arabic literature qua literature, that is, imaginative, creative literature as we understand the term when, for instance, we speak of English literature or French literature, etc. Even series labelled ‘Arabic/Middle Eastern Literature’ make no period distinction, extending their purview from the sixth century to the present, and often including non-Arabic literatures of the region. This series aims to redress the situation by focusing on the Arabic literature and criticism of today, stretching its interest to the earliest beginnings of Arab modernity in the nineteenth century.
The need for such a dedicated series, and generally for the redoubling of scholarly endeavour in researching and introducing modern Arabic literature to the Western reader has never been stronger. The significant growth in the last decades of the translation of contemporary Arab authors from all genres, especially fiction, into English; the higher profile of Arabic literature internationally since the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988; the growing number of Arab authors living in the Western diaspora and writing both in English and Arabic; the adoption of such authors and others by mainstream, high-circulation publishers, as opposed to the academic publishers of the past; the establishment of prestigious prizes, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arabic Booker), run by the Man Booker Foundation, which brings huge publicity to the shortlist and winner every year, as well as translation contracts into English and other languages – all this and very recently the events of the Arab Spring have heightened public, let alone academic, interest in all things Arab, and not least Arabic literature.
Among the surge of serialised television dramas which were sweeping the Arab world during the month of Ramadan 2012, an Egyptian one was highly anticipated. Featuring the first appearance of veteran comedian ‘Adil Imam on the small screen in thirty years, Firqat Naji 'Atallah (Naji ‘Atallah's Team) chronicles the life of an Egyptian diplomat (Imam) who works in the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv. Unable to contain his critical and, at times, anti-Semitic comments against Israelis, Imam finds himself dismissed from work. As he prepares to return to Egypt, he stops by the bank to collect his money, only to discover that the bank has placed a hold on his account. The manager attributes the procedure to instructions he received from high officials who suspect that Imam is involved with a terrorist organisation. Dismayed and infuriated, Imam leaves the bank, returns to Egypt, and embarks on an Ocean's Eleven-like mission to recruit a team of Egyptian youths to rob the bank.
Naji ‘Atallah's Team was largely panned by critics who faulted it for just being an attempt to gather all Imam's now stereotypical cinema characteristics – heroism, nobility, extreme intelligence – into a rather silly plot. Also attacked was the serial's superficial recourse to the Palestinian cause as a way of selling its message to viewers. Imam's first work since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, it was argued, was an effort to divert attention from his reactionary position against the revolution and to present him as a dauntless figure.
It is the way in which the first episode of the series opens that is of interest here, however. A new press attaché arrives in the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv. Following a brief meeting with the ambassador, the latter summons Imam to introduce him to his new colleague. The encounter takes place at the ambassador's office, and runs as follows:
AMBASSADOR (addressing Imam, pointing to the attaché) ‘I would like to introduce you to the new press attaché in the embassy: Gamal Bey; Gamal Abdel Nasser.’
More than forty years after his death, Nasser is still present in the Egyptian imaginary. His character is widely invoked, his legacy debated, his pictures raised, and his speeches circulated. Of all the Arab leaders of the past century, few had a lasting impact that extended to other Arab countries as had Nasser. His unparalleled position, still felt to this day, transforms him from history to memory, from the realms of political scientists to the works of writers and artists – in short, from a real figure to a metaphor. Whether glorified or demonised, elevated or debased, hailed as a symbol of freedom, anti-colonialism and social justice, or tarnished as a ruthless dictator who cultivated a personality cult and popularised the authoritarian model of regimes among Arabs, Nasser is an emotional and divisive subject, an agglomeration of meanings that transcend the direct outcomes of his rule to dwell deeply in the psyche of generations of Egyptians and Arabs, becoming a site on to which they project their dreams and aspirations, defeats and disappointments.
In his recent attempt to analyse the Nasserite ideology, Egyptian historian Sharif Yunus concludes by arguing that detractors of Nasser as well as his panegyrists testify to the perennial omnipresence of the president in Egyptian life. For Yunus, Nasser is the ultimate materialisation of the notion of the ‘saviour’, the dream that is so ingrained in the Egyptian imaginary. Why cannot even those who realise the falsity of this concept ‘leave Nasser in his tomb and transcend him?’ asks Yunus. His argument is that Egyptians have yet to produce an alternative political model that can replace Nasser's. Those who no longer believe in the ‘individual hero’ are liberated from a grand delusion but they still cannot fill the vacuum that is left by Nasser, the supreme representative of that model. In other words, for Egyptians to cease invoking Nasser and his associations and consider him part of a distant past, a drastic change must occur to the way they conceive of themselves vis-à-vis their reality, history, and nation state – a transformation of their social imaginary.
Throughout his tenure as president of Egypt, Nasser managed to transform the Egyptian public into an audience. Whether in his official processions in the streets of Egypt, on his visits to factories, schools, universities, and companies, or in the mere photographs of him that were ubiquitous in Egyptian society, Nasser was a spectacle to see, a human landmark whose presence in a geographical space would turn it into a Mecca for glances, gazes and stares. Abundant in Nasser's biographies and accounts are descriptions of the passion that would sweep people – men or women, children or adults – upon seeing him. That a few of those encounters were non-verbal – where Nasser would just stand and smile and people would merely look and cheer – only adds more aura to this extraordinary phenomenon. Far from being an exclusively Egyptian phenomenon, however, Nasser was able to turn any Arab people he visited into a similar audience. It is, indeed, his visit to Syria in 1958, upon declaring the formation of the short-lived United Arab Republic, that offered an unprecedented instance of Nasser and the people-as-audience. Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal (1923–2016), prominent Egyptian journalist and Nasser's lifelong confidant, presents the following account:
The news of Nasser's arrival spread dramatically. People filled the streets between the airport and the palace. And once he arrived, the palace's squares were teeming with thousands, then hundreds of thousands, of people, who expressed their jubilation at Nasser's arrival in unprecedented ways. They would come, one group after another, to greet him, and he would peer from the palace's balcony, then go inside … and so on.
It is Nasser's speeches, however, that effectively demonstrate this audience– spectacle relationship. Characterised by their passionate and hyperbolic rhetoric, defiance, and even humour, those speeches punctuated the president's decisions and responses to international and local events – from the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 to the infamous ‘resignation speech’ in the wake of the 1967 defeat, to name but the two most memorable ones. They were ‘dramatic performance[s]’, with the spectators ‘looking as if they were seeing something messianic’.
In the previous chapter, I discussed the works of Egyptian fiction where Nasser is one of the protagonists. These works are concerned not so much with representing a full biographical account of Nasser as with offering a particular model of engagement with his character. By introducing Nasser as an intellectual, a beast, a martyr, and a defendant, these narratives engage in a process of fictionalisation of the president, whereby Nasser's life is reimagined, altered, distorted, or anachronised. In so doing, the readers of these works are left with multiple Nassers whose representations in the texts, while claiming a link to the historical character that he was, do significantly depart from it. As was mentioned in the previous chapter, however, a larger corpus of Egyptian narratives opts for a different negotiation of Nasser's character. Represented through the actions, dialogues, or monologues of the main characters, Nasser in this category of writings does not emerge as a protagonist. Rather, he is described, debated, glorified, or undermined by protagonists whose lives interact with, or are influenced by, Nasser's. Nowhere in these narratives is Nasser given a voice. Nowhere does he directly speak. Nor, for that matter, do any of these narratives seek to portray portions of Nasser's life. In other words, Nasser emerges as a background, as a major or minor constituent of the history during which the events of these narratives develop.
In this chapter, I shall examine select literary narratives that feature Nasser as part of its discourse. These works, I argue, offer invaluable access to Nasser in the Egyptian imaginary, where the otherwise unknowable subjects of Nasser's Egypt are empowered to speak. As Naomi Sokoloff shows, ‘Imaginative writing may penetrate the intimate, never communicated thoughts of someone else and so reveal the hidden side of people, or give voice to those not readily heard by society.’ Of all imaginative writing, narratives possess a salient position as a medium in which ‘the unspoken thoughts, feelings, perceptions of a person other than the speaker can be portrayed’.
A historic regime change took place in Turkey between 2007 and 2011. This book provides an account of the change and the use of power in its immediate aftermath, offering a prismatic survey of virtually all of the major issue areas in the domestic politics, with some emphasis on rights. As such, the book is very much about the political rule under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), a self- defined ‘conservative’ force that emerged out of the local Islamist politics to be in charge from late 2002. The book charts the phenomenal rise of this political party, notably supported by a group of secular intellectuals intent to use it as a vehicle for reform, the turnaround it led by wresting power from the grip of the bureaucracy long at the helm, and the no- nonsense majoritarianism the change would subsequently initiate. The discussion attempts to make sense of the shift in the political order by placing it in the larger context of political modernisation in the country from the second half of the nineteenth century, articulating and rehearsing answers in so doing to one apparent conundrum that pervaded the assessments of some of the salient aspects of authority in the wake of the recasting of power. The drive behind the readjustment had looked, for most of the way, a bona fide quest for political normalisation, with the masses to be fully enfranchised via unqualified observance of basic rights for the first time, and through in-depth integration with the wider world, principally Europe. The unhindered mandate of the elected government, achieved by 2011, was only the initial goal towards that much- promoted end, dubbed ‘advanced democracy’. How did this pursuit of normalisation along the model of more evolved democracies develop, shortly after an all- embracing sway had been secured for the political rule, into what seemed to be simply a new form of authoritarianism?
The transformation drew on a broad base, convincing along the way key international policy circles, which would extend considerable support to the repositioning in process, in turn inhibiting much that would otherwise have been in the way domestically.
What enabled the regime change? How exactly did the drive for change gather the steam it needed by 2007, when, following roughly the first five years of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) in power, the turnabout would finally be put in motion? Of all the factors that should be taken on board in rehearsing a possible answer, the interim shift in the patterns of the long enduring identity politics should perhaps be accorded the greatest weight. The republican Turkey was set up in 1923 as a centralising body politic with a fixed and increasingly assertive identity vision, seeking to create a new, ‘European’ nation out of the bulky and sharply fragmented Ottoman polity. The aim was thus to modernise not only the administration but also society, chiefly through an instrumental concept of reason that was largely indifferent to the diversity that prevailed in the periphery of the political centre. In addition to a major concern about a new civic culture cleansed as much as possible from the local patriarchy, chiefly religion, building a homogeneous nation state out of the leftover Ottoman public also required the suppression of what was ethnically ‘outlying’. The liberal–populist rule for about a decade from 1950, which was loyal on the whole to the earlier vision, would nevertheless be overthrown by the bureaucracy for having ‘betrayed’ the original republican notion of identity in its somewhat loosened approach to domestic diversity.
The identity politics safeguarded by the bureaucracy in the run-up to the regime change was still largely defined by a steadfast dedication to this original project, which this book has referred to as ‘republicanism’, following the strong emphasis that the term ‘republic’ would start receiving in opposition circles under the AKP rule, and, no less significantly perhaps, in acknowledgement of the apparent affinity of this ideology with the more fully developed discourse of republicanism in France.1 The overall catechism communicated in this creed invoked a sharp distinction of the private and public spheres in society, with the traces of the peripheral identities, religious or ethnic, greatly to be purged from the latter. Left solid among the past communal bonds would solely be a non- pious, almost ‘nominal’ Sunni Muslim identity, and a purportedly non- ethnic nationality.
Intransigent to the end, the popular republican opposition in the media and everyday life kept questioning before and during the regime change the democratic credentials, nay, the sheer legitimacy, of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), given the allegedly concealed ‘sinister designs’ of this political party that had emerged out of Islamo- nationalism (Millî Görüş). In so doing, the republicans were often teased for the purported anachronism of those ‘prejudices’ by the group of liberal intellectuals who supported the transformation. Accordingly, the republicans had never really ceased hankering after a ‘golden age’ that had lasted just over two decades from 1923 when modern Turkey had been set up, effectively until the advent of the liberal- populist era in the country in 1950, considered by the core republicans as a ‘counter- revolution’ towards aborting and undermining the earlier advances. In the wake of the regime change from 2011, the bitter confrontation between these two groups of ‘white Turks’– the diehard republicans on one side and the formerly pro- government liberals on the other– would prove to be somewhat double- edged. The joke would now appear to have been very much on the over- optimistic liberals, increasingly embarrassed with the suddenly ‘Islamistic’, gauche and clumsy policies of the government. Feeling a betrayal of sorts, most liberal intellectuals would soon become almost more raging than the long- time critics in opposing the AKP rule. More ironically perhaps, the republican ‘wish’ for a return to the earlier era, as mockingly claimed by the former pro- government intellectuals, would seem to have come true in some measure: the promised order under a growing Islamo- nationalist populist sway, to be dubbed ‘the new Turkey’ by the government- sponsored media literati, would appear to be turning more and more into the old Turkey of the single- party rule that had branded the early republican regime.
Only, it was dubious that the oppressive political atmosphere that had marked the early republican era had in fact been this stifling. That the feel in sections of society was now getting palpably heavier compared to the historical period in question was probably to do with three novel factors. (1) Mass media and telecommunication technologies arguably gave the new power holders an unprecedented and increasingly daunting edge.
From the epistemology of a narrative paragon, Joseph in the the Qurʾan, we move on in this chapter to consider three case studies, one from each of the following genres: tafsīr, sīrah and hadith. These are all still emphatically religious textual corpora. The aim is to evince how echoes of the Joseph story inflect each of the three examples – the stories of Zayd ibn Ḥārithah, Salmān al-Fārisī and the slander against ʿĀʾishah, which are centred on prophecy, the early mission of Muḥammad, revelation and the ethics of communal conduct.
Tafsīr: The Seal of the Prophets and Accounts of Zayd ibn Ḥārithah
Early exegetical and biographical sources report that in Mecca the Prophet Muḥammad took one Zayd ibn Ḥārithah as his adopted son. This story is analysed in great detail by David Powers in two recent books. One fascinating element in Powers’ interpretation of this multi-part narrative, assembled mostly from the tradition of Qurʾanic exegesis, is the fact that he views it in significant ways as a rewriting of the story of Joseph. In Powers’ reading, the story of Joseph is the underlying intertext of the way the story of Zayd is inflected, shaped and relayed in tradition. Certainly, many elements of the two narratives bear comparison. In sum, they are both stories of family separation and recognition. But the family romance does not follow a standard course such as to end in a point of final resolution – of recognition and stable reunion. Indeed, in the story of Zayd ibn Ḥārithah, the main predicate of anagnorisis is not the establishment of kinship – rather a claim of kinship is repudiated – but the establishment of Muḥammad as the Khātam al-Nabiyyīn (‘the Seal of the Prophets’), a quite different kind of validated relationship. This crucial phrase in revelation follows up and qualifies – even intimates at an abrogation of – what Muḥammad had said before to Zayd years earlier, very humanly, when his father had come to reclaim him: ‘I am the man you know full well.’ With time, this claim of affection and adoptive kinship was abrogated by what came to be considered a critical issue of Islamic prophetic doctrine. One anagnorisis is effectively superseded by another.
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