Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Changing Society in Egypt Begets a New Literature

I found an intelligent, expansive piece on the effect changing demographics and society in Egypt is having on the literature from the country. I'll highlight it here, even though it comes from a publication called The New Left Review (My disdain for blatant partisanship and the hell I believe Western political labels like "left" and "right" wreak in developed European and U.S. politics is a topic for another day). Here's a taste:

The generation that has come of age since 1990 has faced a triple crisis: socio-economic, cultural and political. Egypt’s population has nearly doubled since 1980, reaching 81 million in 2008, yet there has been no commensurate increase in social spending. Illiteracy rates have risen, with schools starved of funds. In the overcrowded universities, underpaid teaching staff augment their income by extorting funds from students for better marks. Other public services—health, social security, infrastructure and transportation—have fared no better. The plundering of the public sector by the kleptocratic political establishment and its cronies has produced a distorted, dinosaur-shaped social structure: a tiny head—the super-rich—presiding over an ever-growing body of poverty and discontent. At the same time, youth unemployment has been running at over 75 per cent.

The cultural realm, meanwhile, has become an arena for bigoted grandstanding, prey to both official censors—the long-serving Minister of Culture, Farouk Husni, showing the way—and self-appointed ones, in parliament and the broadsheet press. In the political sphere, the Emergency Law, in place since 1981, has been punctiliously renewed by an almost comically corrupt National Assembly. The notorious Egyptian prison system has been made available to us, British and other European nationals subject to ‘extraordinary rendition’. Since Sadat’s unilateral agreement with Israel in 1979 a widening gulf has grown between popular sentiment and the collusion of the political establishment with the worst us–Israeli atrocities in the region, and its de facto support for their successive wars: invasions of Lebanon, Desert Storm, occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Egypt’s marginalization as a regional power has only increased the younger generation’s sense of despondency and humiliation.

It is within this unpropitious context that a striking new wave of young Egyptian writers has appeared. Their work constitutes a radical departure from established norms and offers a series of sharp insights into Arab culture and society. Formally, the texts are marked by an intense self-questioning, and by a narrative and linguistic fragmentation that serves to reflect an irrational, duplicitous reality, in which everything has been debased. The works are short, rarely more than 150 pages, and tend to focus on isolated individuals, in place of the generation-spanning sagas that characterized the realist Egyptian novel. Their narratives are imbued with a sense of crisis, though the world they depict is often treated with derision. The protagonists are trapped in the present, powerless to effect any change. Principal exponents of the new wave would include Samir Gharib ‘Ali, Mahmud Hamid, Wa’il Rajab, Ahmad Gharib, Muntasir al-Qaffash, Atif Sulayman, May al-Tilmisani, Yasser Shaaban, Mustafa Zikri and Nura Amin; but well over a hundred novels of this type have been published to date. From their first appearance around 1995, these writers have been dubbed ‘the 1990s generation’.

Read all of it. It's long, but well worth your time. I'm an advocate for good literature, so hunt down work from the writers whose names you see and check them out as well.

While we're on Egypt, brilliant journalists from Monocle World Affairs did an excellent photoessay on Alexandria. Check it out here.

1 comment:

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