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’.
On that Yom Kippur one, we just had convinced ourselves that it didn't make sense. And it didn't!
I think we were surprised to some degree by the Egyptian's attack, but not totally.
On 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria coordinated a lightening surprise attack against Israel. Though short-lived, it was a war that would change the face of the modern Middle East. Launched at 2 p.m. on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath of Yom Kippur, the momentum of the attack carried Egyptian armoured units several miles east of the Suez Canal. Within just three days the Egyptian military were blocked by Israeli retaliation, yet the initial achievements of the Egyptians marked a symbolic turning point in world history. In retrospect the war marked the first step towards a bilateral peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that would dramatically alter Egypt's seminal role in the international politics of the Middle East. Moreover, it was a conflict with strikingly international implications, bringing the world's superpowers to the brink of a nuclear confrontation in support of their respective allies and provoking the first global oil crisis in numerous European capitals. Arab states united in an unprecedented manner to impose an oil embargo that would visibly punish the United States for backing Israel.
Most scholars have explored the intelligence failure of the Yom Kippur War from the Israeli perspective, with the assumption that the CIA was complicit in this failure because of the close relations that characterised the American and Israeli intelligence communities. Surprisingly few works have sought to explain how and why Britain and America were unable to foresee that Egypt was planning an attack on 6 October 1973. A leading intelligence historian concludes that the attack on Israel was ‘not foreseen by any of the world's major intelligence services’. A recently declassified post-mortem by the CIA found that intelligence of an impending attack was ‘plentiful, ominous and often accurate’, if only they had put the pieces together.
Many Egyptians never forgave the British for the ignominious treatment which we had meted out to them. Apart from occupying vast areas of Egypt with British bases, where Egyptian law was ignored, at the other end of scale there were the signs in public parks which read, ‘Dogs, nursemaids and Egyptians not permitted on these lawns.’ I was never surprised at the way Egyptians lionized Colonel Nasser and the way he freed the country from foreign domination.
The diplomatic and intelligence documents over these two decades reveal vivid imagery of two very different Egyptian leaders who both exploited, indeed mastered, the art of political surprise. Comparing Egypt's presidents several decades on, the notorious Arabist Sir James Craig reflected that Nasser
was a fine man and if he had been more patient and if British ministers had understood that Arab nationalism was a completely natural thing, they might have worked together. But no, successive British governments held onto the view that Nasser was anti-British and pro- Communist. They patronised him and he didn't like that.
Sadat, he suggested,
was of much smaller stature than Nasser … a much lesser man, less intelligent, vainer. Most of my Arabist contemporaries … agreed with me on that, but ministers thought that Sadat offered a chance to bring peace to the Arab-Israel dispute. How wrong they were.
As the previous chapter demonstrates, the diplomatic and intelligence community proved significantly more sceptical.
Indeed, it is true to say that over the two decades following Nasser's dramatic nationalisation of the Suez Canal, intelligence analysis performed better than scholars have conventionally thought. In fact, at times it is striking how far-sighted contemporary analysis proved to be with the benefit of retrospect. Moreover, bringing the ‘missing dimension’ of intelligence to the forefront of international history, it becomes apparent that historians of intelligence and diplomacy can do more with these analyses than merely identify which predictions emerged as either right or wrong, although this is of course an interesting undertaking in itself. A deeper examination reveals how ‘official wisdom’ on both sides of the Atlantic thought about critical events in the region and the role of ‘cultural Otherness’ in their assessments.
After the Six-Day War, Israel was no longer the object of sympathy and compassion, but rather an important strategic asset to be reckoned with.
Peace does not mean surrender … There is no other way for us but force, we have no alternative to safeguard our honour.
Egypt's humiliation in 1967 had a visibly dramatic impact on President Nasser. His associates recall that his hair ‘turned white’ and he lost the ‘spark’ in his eyes, subsumed as he was with the bitterness of defeat. In the context of frayed diplomatic relations, American policy-makers increasingly viewed Nasser as the ‘villain’ of the war and a ‘Soviet client’. As Arabist Richard Parker put it, ‘We had no particular interest left in Egypt. All the Americans had been kicked out … [It was] very hard to get anybody to pay any attention to Egypt. Very hard to get anybody to take Egypt seriously.’ Against this increasingly adversarial relationship, the British assumed the more neutral role of ‘honest broker’ in the Arab–Israeli dispute, authoring, for example, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in exchange for peace. The protracted War of Attrition on the Suez Canal, culminating in the unprecedented Soviet intervention of 10,000 men to protect Egypt against Israeli deep penetration raids, raised important questions about Egypt's commitment to peace and independence and Soviet willingness to escalate the regional conflict.
An examination of the diplomatic and intelligence assessments of these events provides a more nuanced view of the War of Attrition than that which exists in the current literature. The historical record thus far has emphasised Western miscalculation and the West's broad misunderstanding of Nasser's intentions in launching the War of Attrition. One study, for example, asserts that ‘the Americans were still unable to assess Egypt's motives correctly or the logic behind its military actions’ during this period. Similarly, Richard Parker attributes the failure to predict Soviet intervention in 1970 to a ‘lack of imagination’.
Want of accuracy, which easily generated into untruthfulness, is in fact the main characteristic of the Oriental mind … Endeavour to elicit a plain statement of facts from any ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half-a-dozen times before he has finished his story. He will often break down under the mildest process of selfexamination.
Orientalism was a library or archive of information commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held. What bound the archive together was a family of ideas and a unifying set of values proven in various ways to be effective.
From the Iranian revolution to the ‘Arab Spring’, the West has consistently been accused of misunderstanding the culture and politics of the Middle East. In 1995, Samuel Huntington's controversial ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis revived the argument of controversial Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis that there was a fundamental ‘cultural divide’ between East and West.3 Western intelligence communities have borne the brunt of such criticism, yet little historical scholarship has explored how Arab culture has been conceived by the world's most important and powerful producers of ‘knowledge’ in recent history.
The theoretical underpinning for this chapter is an important and ongoing debate about Western cultural representations and their validity, evoked by Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism. Said's 1978 study raised groundbreaking questions about Western depictions of the Arab ‘Other’, the purpose and utility of these depictions in justifying European imperial rule and their relation (or lack thereof) to the ‘real’ Arab world.
This chapter brings to scholarly attention for the first time several recently declassified documents of a different nature to assessments usually produced by the British and US diplomatic and intelligence analytic bodies: those focused primarily on the issue of ‘national character’. Unsurprisingly, the declassified documents that deal in length with this issue are few. We can be certain that their authors never imagined that these reflections on Arab culture would ever be available for public consumption. Nonetheless, there are sufficient links between them and repeated reference to their underlying assumptions in more routine diplomatic and intelligence analysis to warrant a critical examination of the intellectual archive or ‘library’ that the Western political elite compiled about the Arab world.
Recent events may present us with the best opportunity since 1954 for a limited marriage of convenience with the guy who I think is still, and will remain, the Mister Big of the Arab world.
On the 29 September 1961, Nasser announced at a public rally that he would agree to the secession of Syria from the UAR. Admitting that maintaining the union would require the intervention of Egyptian troops, Nasser asserted that ‘Arab blood would not be shed by Arab hands’. Scholars would later observe that ‘with the exception of the Six-Day War this was the greatest setback of Nasser's political career’.
Political and intelligence assessments of the Syrian secession from the short-lived union have been largely neglected by historians. In fact, analysts demonstrated a long-standing awareness of the difficulties Nasser would face in Syria, although this fell short of outright prediction. They correctly identified the major obstacles to a successful union: the political domination of the regime in Cairo; military rivalry between the Egyptian and Syrian militaries; the role of the unpopular Syrian spy chief Abdul Hamid Sarraj; economic incompatibilities between Egypt and Syria; and contrasting political cultures between the two states. Yet somewhat derisive views of Syrian culture and positive perceptions of Nasser combined with the uncertainty of the secessionists themselves to impede prediction of an outright break-up.
Analysts were more astute in assessing the implications of secession. It is striking that despite fears in 1958 of an ‘expansionist’ Nasser absorbing Syria into an ever-growing Arab empire, the intelligence community was reluctant to welcome the break up and in fact regarded it as a potentially disruptive force, particularly in inter- Arab relations and the Arab–Israeli conflict. The Americans were particularly pessimistic about the prospect of a stable government emerging in Syria, perhaps reflecting an increasing sense of respect for Nasser. By 1961, the Egyptian President had come to be associated with ‘moderation’ and ‘stability’ in the region. As the American ambassador had predicted in 1958, the difficulty of realising the rhetorical ambitions of pan-Arab unity had nurtured a more reasonable and statesman-like Nasser. At the same time assessments perceptively warned policy-makers that such a severe setback to Nasser's pride or ‘honour’ might provoke an extreme reaction elsewhere.
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