Saturday, March 10, 2007

Out on the balcony again

Apologies are in order.
To readers (apparently there are some out there); I haven't blogged in over a year: I lost faith in the medium and the message. I thought no one was reading when apparently there were comments that I should have "moderated" (duh!) So apologies are in order not really because I haven't written; after all, not much is missed in the world by my silence, but because readers' comments hadn't been posted and their writers might have assumed they were not appreciated, which they are. I will contemplate, reflect and write back, etc, etc.

Suddenly had an urge to blog today. "Procrastination?," asked my good friend who knows me too well. "It's Saturday," I blurted, as if that's excuse enough to flee from the magnum opus I'm writing. But there is so much to talk about and let me confess, the absence of a significant someone to talk things with is acutely felt. Not a certain someone, mind you, he's gone, but rather, as Meg Ryan had it "the idea of someone." Ok, so Someone isn't here but one can blog. Sounds pathetic? Not really, not when you think about it: there is something reassuring about the idea of a network of like-minded people being out there in the world.

The idea, item, that made me want to run and scream on the blogosphere is this:
Apologies to Mutannabi in al-Hayat by Ghassan Sherbel. Revisionism at its worst.
To summarize in case you haven't read it: we Arabs are finally revising, revisiting history. And how are we doing it? In a disgusting manner. That's the summary.
Arabs, and the Egyptian variety in particular, it is often said "do not read." Sometimes the common wisdom has it that "they don't read history." Have you heard the anecdote attributed to Moshe Dayan? I've tried to find it once online but failed. It might be apocryphal; it's certainly to good to be true. However, it goes along the lines of this: while preparing war plans for 1967 the Israelis were contemplating a move they'd used in 1956 (I forget which one). Some generals objected, reminding Dayan that a) they've used the tactic before and b) he'd written about it in his memoirs. Dayan, retorted "Ah, but Egyptians don't read history." (It sounds like something Heikal would quote in his books, forgive... )
And we all remember how 1967 ended, of course, and if we don't, well thankfully that's what Israeli Television is there for: to remind us. (More on that later, but meanwhile it turned out they weren't Egyptians, the POWs, but Palestinians: so that's ok. No harm done.)

So now we're doing history. History is, of course, continuously rewritten. That's the beauty of it, no one has the final say, no one has the last word. Every generation imagines the past in its own manner, in its efforts to shape its future. Revisionism, in western historiography, has had a lot to do with writing people into history who have commonly been left out (hence, women, minorities, the common people etc) and also questioning common held beliefs about the past. It also has had a lot to do with rewriting the history of great-men, questioning their glory and achievement. Revisionist history is generally against great-man history and some revisionists like to "deconstruct" (sorry, I had to use that word...) the history of great men and show them to be, after all, fallible and human and not so great, their achievements having relied on other, numerous "unknown soldiers" or larger forces of history beyond the great individual, usually, in fact always, a man. So that's fine. It's "good" even. But how do we do it? We question the sectarian identity of great men. No, it's not a joke. So in Beirut and in Baghdad they ask just what is the sectarian identity of the poet al-Mutannabi? Was al-Mutannabi Sunni or Shi'i? I mean, how sick do you need to be to even ask that question? Not very sick, apparently. And they talk of rewriting history textbooks. Now, that I understand. But I fear, I shudder to think how they will do it... wiping out one sect for another. Do we never learn? Will we never learn?

I know, I know: someone is bound to post a comment saying that the Nasser regime in Egypt did the same thing with the monarchy, rewriting their history or else excising it from textbooks and damning the king. Must we repeat the same mistakes again? And this time, it is not rewriting the history of a regime, gone and fallen or else happily in Switzerland or Italy, but of a religious sect, next door... crowds of them.

Religion is back in the ugly way, I'm afraid. Not in the spiritual contemplative manner. I yearn for my childhood days when my mother, herself a product of a combination of bourgeois provincial Egyptian Islam, Protestant missionary schooling, and secular state discourse, forbade me, forbade me, from asking people what their religion was or telling them what my religion is.
I came back one day from playing at the beach in Alexandria. I had made a new friend "her name is Marwa, and she's a Muslim too." That was it! How did I know she was a Muslim? and what difference is it to me if she hadn't been? When I went back to school the following year the girls certainly thought I was odd. In answer to the question: Are you a Muslim or a Christian (they had to ask...) I answered: "I am Egyptian." Quaint, I know... Would I even dare tell my child to answer similarly in the 21st century? Would I dare?

Besides, was al-Mutannabi Muslim to begin with?



Anonymous Amira said...

Welcome back Khadiga.

Do procrastinate more often. Your thoughtful posts put a smile on my face. Yours isn't fake humour.

I'm trying to imagine your expression when your mom warned you NEVER to ask anyone about their and not to reveal yours. As a child how did you receive this?

And if you do the same with your future child how long do you think he/she will last before he/she go to school and FIND OUT!

Sunday, March 11, 2007 6:35:00 PM  
Blogger khadiga said...

Thanks dear ;)
Naturally, I felt confused and guilty without knowing exactly why I should be guilty. Weren't we Muslims after all? I hadn't lied... She did explain, bless her soul, so that I understood what she was getting at and I think in the end it worked in some way: I really don't think about people's religion when I first am introduced to them, I don't try to place them in a religion box, which has resulted in some interesting discoveries :)
You know, Louis Greiss, the veteran journalist, once recounted how when he and his late wife the actress Sanaa Gamil first met and fell in love, he thought she was a Muslim. And then when he proposed he said: but there's this question of religion and I don't know what we're going to do about it, you being Muslim and all. And happily, after they were already in love, he discovered there wasn't anything to do about it. (She wasn't Muslim.)
But that's just rambling... and a piece of good luck. What if she had been...

how long would my child last? I don't know... I hope to teach her, or him, to look beyond the surface for religion, or rather to live religion at a deeper level. It sounds cliche, perhaps, but I owe it to them to try and pass on the little I've learnt. perhaps. Will it work? I don't know... I mean it's not a good idea also to replace Religion with Nation and to make of Egyptianness an equivalent to religion. But I think my mother saw it as an all-embracing identity of the nation that has room enough for everyone. I hope that by the time the kids go to school the wave of intolerance will have subsided, unlikely but possible...
Perhaps I should advise my child to answer with another question: "Why do you ask?"

But better yet is to wait and see how they'll handle it. They might surprise us after all.

Sunday, March 11, 2007 8:17:00 PM  

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