An overambitious literary seminar of existential proportions

On December 26, two days before it was closed in a raid, a seminar on the internal life of language took place at Townhouse Rawabet. With the clamor that followed and the disappearance of the venue (where I work), remembering it feels like remembering a happening that took place in a moment that was uncounted and ahistorical, almost like its own treatment of the literary experiences it discussed.

Tarek Ghanem, the new AUC Press commissioning editor and the seminar’s moderator, began by explaining that the seminar — co-organized by Mada — was a culmination of questions that evolved as artist Malak Helmy formed a reading group influenced by her own move to Kuwait early on in life and the collective experience of Egyptians’ exodus to Gulf countries during the 1990s. It discussed bodily experience in literature as exemplified in experiences of exile and migration — and how, embedded in collective memory, they affect language, ontologically and as a being independent of the writing process.  

The event announcement read like an existential manifesto, concerned with meta questions on evolving language construction and meaning in parallel to political change, how economics affects subjectivity in the writing process, and collective memory as the root for what manifests in literature.

In an introduction, Ghanam spoke of 1952, after the military ousted King Farouq, as a marker for the state’s interference in “describing reality” as it put forward its own rhetoric. This resulted in several phenomena, the first being a gradual stripping of meaning from vocabulary once untainted by political use. The state has a habit of internalizing popular language and reappropriating certain words to fit its narrative, Ghanem said, citing the evolving use of “istiqrar” (stability) through constitutions and legislation.

My feeling is that this internalization process is partly organic, however, rather than entirely strategic: The state is a part of the populace after all, consisting of individuals inevitably using the language that surrounds them.

Novelist Nael El Toukhy (Women of Karantina, 2011) spoke of his conscious practice of extracting words out of a state of dormancy that resulted from this chronic political use. Toukhy repeatedly likened his vocabulary choices to needles: he’s interested in “poking” the reader, making them slightly uncomfortable. A blend of colloquial and classical Arabic is organic for him, the most honest form to write in now — he wouldn’t doom himself to choosing one over the other. To him, language choice is more significant than even character development. Writing needs to rid itself from its obsession with immortality, he said, and in order to honestly convey the time in which it exists, it must allow itself to indulge in the current moment of hesitant oscillation between two dialects.

In an episode that flowed like an interview, Ghanam asked novelist Iman Abdel Rehim (Chambers, 2013) to speak about the influence of reality on writing, a question so broad that it sounded rhetorical. Abdel Rehim is concerned with her daily encounters and the contents of her dreams: “Imagination can only stem from reality and I’m not interested in writing about reality in its existing form but the alternate scenarios of what could be.”

Of her short story collection, recently shortlisted for the Sawiris Literature Award, she said: “Mental patients are always written about in the scientific context of medical books. I was more interested in delving into the subjectivity of a mental patient and ridding myself of conformist logic to adopt another.”

I found it problematic to suggest that this experience is entirely detached from a history of literature doing the only thing it can do: explore subjectivity. Mental illness and themes of normalcy and conformism have been thoroughly probed, including contributions from Dostoevsky, Ken Kesey and Naguib Mahfouz, whose novella The Beggar depicts a clinically depressed protagonist in Nasser’s post-revolutionary Cairo. (Abdel Rehim did mention the influence of Russian literature, an all-inclusive abstract “it” that she never intended on reading but found herself being drawn to). Newer experiments are valid in their own subjectivities, but I believe a level of acknowledgment of precedence is necessary for a constructive discussion to take place.

Author Mahmoud El Wardany (Mall Music, 2005) came to the rescue with a more grounded context for the discussion. He noted that the Egyptian novel has surpassed everything one would think it could achieve in a state of political and social oppression. It has reached its potential, he said, citing the 1960s as a starting point and referencing authors from Yusuf Idris to Ibrahim Aslan, who experimented with both form and content. The experiments being discussed in the panel discussion are only a continuation (superb as they might be) of what has come before. Wardany urged us not to ignore the January 25 uprising as the fundamental backdrop for the development of contemporary Egyptian literature; according to him, internet political activism has freed Arabic from the authority of state rhetoric and the untouchable sanctity of religious texts.

Writer Tamer Waguih, as the last speaker, ended on a fiery note. Citing Walter Benjamin as a theoretical reference point for analyzing economic influences on contemporary Egypt, he said mechanical printing had marked the end of the writing process as a solitary sacred act and the evolution of text into a communicative consumable product. He then moved onto the “dangerous phenomenon of the bestseller,” claiming that anyone can write and publish nowadays. He cited bloggers and long-form Facebooking as departure points, and stated that sales numbers have become assertive in dictating literary categorizations, regardless of quality. Counterculture is overstated (young dissenters are overestimating their self-proclaimed liberation from the capitalist monster), he suggested, and is gradually seeping into the commercial. He expressed concern that rebellion is obliviously becoming “mainstream.”

From the audience rose novelist Ahmed Naji to refute what he called Waguih’s narrow depiction of publishing. Supply and demand has long ceased being a driver for what goes to print, he said, and contrary to Waguih’s claim, it has not become easier to publish since the emergence of internet platforms that allow for direct literary communication. In fact, he went on, the publishing industry is motivated and controlled by both state sponsorship and foreign capital, which endorse a handful of authors, a filter that leaves out many unpublished writers who possess a substantial virtual following.

Writer and musician Rami Abadir, who was also a part of the audience, chimed in to state that it has become largely outdated to assert a negative connotation with the word “mainstream,” which can be associated with a brilliant inventory of published work. Abadir concluded by proclaiming that Benjamin’s binaries cannot be so loosely applied today and should only be invoked in a context that acknowledges their limitations. Waguih refrained from responding to his critics.

In retrospect, I’m reminded of a trip I once made into the White Desert organized by a group of astronomers. We listened to a presentation about the mapping of stars and planets and got the chance to ask fifth-grade-level science questions without being judged. It was an overambitious package of an endeavor, but we had no knowledge of astronomy, and the vastness of the subject was overwhelming and magical, like one’s first IMAX experience.

With an innocent zeal, the seminar attempted to bring together themes on a spectrum so wide — one could even say astronomical — that, at points, it bordered on rudimentary. There was exciting potential to refine the questions in the event announcement into more specific conversations, and even though we did end up in some interesting kinks, we quickly recovered to stay on the track of the too general, asking questions along the lines of: “Does imagination dictate reality or is it the other way around?” However, unlike the astronomers, the seminar spoke to an audience that was literarily shrewd.

Sara El Adl 

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