Our meeting was to take place at Café Riche at 7.30pm, and I was keen on arriving a few minutes early. I felt the trepidation of a student doing homework for her mentor. Ironically, a misunderstanding resulted in novelist Bahaa Taher arriving some 45 minutes later than I expected, and hastening to ask, rhetorically, as if to downplay his embarrassment, “Have I not said enough about this topic already?”
But our readers need to understand, I protested.
“It was a completely personal decision,” Taher began, finally. “I’m convinced I couldn’t participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair under such circumstances.” By “such circumstances” it was clear he referred to the exclusion of major literary figures. Taher was nonetheless eager to emphasise his good wishes for the official participants, and his respect for those who have supervised the process — “Amr Moussa, the chairman of the Arab League,” he specified. “But had it been an agricultural fair,” he went on, expanding on his objection, “nothing would have been more natural than consulting with concerned farmers, placing them at the centre of the process. As it is intellectuals were kept very far from any decision making or planning throughout the process of preparing for this significant event.”
Why, in this case, did intellectuals fail to adopt a unified position with which to express their objections when preparations began?
“I’ve written more than one newspaper article in this regard, and I think other writers too have raised the issue in the press. Other than the press we have no means,” however. “But I can assure you of one thing. Had we been consulted, had our comments been taken into account, the programme would have been very different.”
Such a line of thinking finds support in the notion, expressed by many Arabs, that the fair organisers were wrong to assign the Arab League the task of organising the guest-of- honour presentation. In an Akhbar Al-Yom article published last Sunday, Moroccan intellectual Mohammed Bennees, for one representative, expressed the view that the Arab League was the wrong organisation for such a major cultural event. “The Arab League is a political institution,” Bennees wrote, “which represents traditional Arab regimes, and is thus divorced from modern cultural movements.”
Yet Taher disagrees. “I am completely against this idea. I respect the Arab League and its secretary-general. In fact my conviction is that this is perhaps the one aspect of the endeavour that is more or less faultless. Though not a cultural institution, the league does work as an umbrella organisation for all Arabs. To make that clearer, let me declare that I am an Arab nationalist, a writer who believes in Arab unity. What I am objecting to, rather, is the league’s procedural performance — the principle of excluding intellectuals from decision making,” Taher banged the table with his fist, “especially when the event in question is purely cultural,” he paused, somewhat abruptly. “Excuse me, I need to drink some tea before we go on with this conversation.” No doubt at home in Riche, Taher spent some time chatting with the waiter before ordering tea and water.
By the time we resumed the conversation, I was curious to find out about the cultural establishment’s reaction to Taher’s decision.
“Nothing,” he laughed. “I wasn’t expecting a reaction, simply because the establishment in Egypt typically fails to respond to actions taken by intellectuals. It’s a catastrophe,” he added, frowning. “This lack of dialogue is tragic.”
Nor is such reflection groundless. In the late 1990s Taher was an active part of the intellectuals’ tajammu’ (rally) set up by Radwa Ashour and the late Ibrahim Mansour to oppose the confiscation of the Egyptian (General Organisation for Cultural Palaces) edition of Syrian novelist Haydar Haydar’s Banquet for Seaweed. Compared to the upsurge of insurgent activity on this occasion, the Egyptian intellectuals’ stance on the issues surrounding preparations for Frankfurt seems terribly subdued. Since the tajammu’ fizzled out, in fact, the voice of opposition has hardly been heard at all.
“I cannot speak for intellectuals,” Taher retorted. “Individual intellectuals adopt individual positions in accordance with their principles and convictions. Intellectuals are not a political party,” he said, “nor do they make up an independent social entity. All that is required of them is that they voice their opinion when the need arises, thus assuming responsibility for cultural life. The problem,” he went on, “is that our voice isn’t heard at all, that there is no real dialogue going on in society.”