The Cultural Salon of Dr. Alaa Al Aswany

Written by  //  April 27, 2008  //  The Salon  //  1 Comment

Brought to our attention by Anne Sophie Coleman OWN, this is a fascinating description of a very different approach to a Salon, and under dangerous conditions which we, fortunately, do not have to endure.

One evening last fall I joined a small crowd in a dusty room off busy Qasr-Al-Nil street in Cairo, facing a banner that read, “Welcome to the Cultural Salon of Dr. Alaa Al Aswany.”
By PANKAJ MISHRA

Many of those seated around me seemed to be simple celebrity spotters, there to see in the flesh the biggest-selling novelist in Arabic, Al Aswany, who is also an increasingly bold critic of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which in Egypt has held power uninterruptedly for 27 years. The rest appeared to be aspiring writers or students eager for literary and political instruction. Austerely furnished with a single fluorescent light, half-broken chairs and a solitary table scarred with overlapping teacup rings, the room defused all expectations of literary glamour. Nevertheless, it offered a frisson of political danger. When the salon was held the previous year, Egyptian intelligence agents so intimidated the owner of the cafe where the meeting was taking place that he screamed at Al Aswany and his audience to go away. He later apologized, explaining that he had done it for the sake of the government spies who were watching him.
This year the weekly salon was being held, more provocatively, in the office of Karama, a center-left political party that is still awaiting full official recognition. (Political parties in Egypt have to be licensed by the government; the most influential “illegal” party is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates, standing as independents, won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in 2005 and now form the biggest opposition bloc to the ruling National Democratic Party.) Al Aswany, a barrel-chested giant with a disarmingly genial manner, usually walks to the salon from his office-cum-residence in nearby Garden City, a British-built, elegant Cairo neighborhood, where he combines his decades-long practice of dentistry with an increasingly successful literary career. On the September evening I attended the salon, he was late. It turned out that he had been inquiring into the fate of his friend Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of the antigovernment newspaper Al Dustour, who had been interrogated for nearly seven hours by security agents early in the week for spreading “false” rumors about Mubarak’s health.
It was warm inside the unventilated room where cigarette smoke hung in straight sharp columns. From where I sat, I could see a photograph of a handsome man in military uniform. It was Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970. Grime covered the laminated picture as thickly as it did everything else in the party office, which, surrounded by naked-brick buildings, suggested hard days and nights of often fruitless idealism. But there was an especially forlorn quality to the image of Egypt’s greatest postcolonial leader — the secular nationalist (and dictator) who was the icon of Arab and third-world unity before he lost the Six Day War of 1967 to Israel and was repudiated by his own successors.
As though underlining Nasser’s failure to build a modern and secular Egypt, there were budding Islamists in the audience that evening: two thin young men, most likely students, wearing piously long beards. Defiantly asserting their faith in a secular setting, they invited curious, even slightly hostile, glances, especially from a woman with dyed blond hair who wore stilettos and a purple T-shirt over tight white pants. A balding middle-aged man, who while we waited for Al Aswany smilingly passed around copies of a book with a glossy green cover (self-published, it was dedicated to “all the oppressed people in the world”), ignored the young men.
Silence fell as Al Aswany, wearing a bright yellow short-sleeved shirt, entered the room. After some brief remarks about the books to be discussed the following week, he began to speak about the evening’s topic, “art and religion.” Initially slow, he gathered speed until something like passion appeared in his Arabic speech, and he leaned forward on the table and waved his long thick arms.
He described the controversies surrounding Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, explaining why the two realms of art and religion, which in the West were typically seen as separate, often clashed. It was a complicated argument, and I could follow only some of it in the translation provided by my interpreter. But the bearded young men diligently took notes and then were the first to raise their hands after Al Aswany, exhausted from his exertions, collapsed back in his chair and invited questions from the audience. “Why,” one of them asked, “did Salman Rushdie’s novel” — “The Satanic Verses” — “which insulted Islam, receive so much prominence in the West?”
It was at just at that moment that Al Aswany’s cellphone rang. He glanced at the screen and then briskly excused himself from the room. His listeners, rapt so far, relaxed in his absence, pulling out their own phones. Al Aswany returned to his chair, and beads of sweat broke out on his forehead as he tried to explain, again leaning forward and gesticulating with his hands.
“Rushdie,” he began, “is a good writer. I haven’t read ‘The Satanic Verses,’ but whatever was in the novel did not justify Khomeini’s fatwa against him. Islam doesn’t give anyone the right to kill.” He stressed the importance of compassion in Islam by recounting a story of the prophet. One day his grandsons jumped on his back when he was bent in prayer. Such was the prophet’s kindness to people weaker than him that he extended his prayer so as not to disturb the children. Indeed, he would often cut short his sermon if he heard a baby crying, and he forbade the cutting of trees even during war. “How can anyone,” Al Aswany asked, “use the same prophet’s name to kill? You can see clearly there has been a terrible interpretation of Islam.”
The bearded young men wrote faster in their notebooks. Al Aswany was just warming to his theme. The Islam, he continued, of Egypt and other large metropolitan civilizations like Baghdad and Damascus had been marked by tolerance and pluralism. It couldn’t be more different from the Islam of the desert, such as had developed in Saudi Arabia. Desert nomads did not have much time for art; they hadn’t created any. The tragedy for Egypt was that it now had to deal with the philistine and intolerant versions of Islam coming from places like Saudi Arabia. All the battles won in Egypt after the 1919 and 1952 revolutions — especially the battle for women’s rights — had to be refought.
Looking directly at the bearded young men, he said: “The Muslim Brotherhood says, ‘Islam is the solution.’ So when you oppose them, they say, ‘You are opposing Islam.’ It’s very dangerous. Very dangerous.” He repeated in a louder voice: “In politics, you have to have political solutions. What does it mean to say, ‘Islam is the solution’?”
By the end of this speech, Al Aswany was gesticulating furiously. Later, surrounded by reverent fans in the corridor, patiently signing autographs and receiving unsolicited books, he seemed calmer. But some of his exasperated passion of the previous few minutes returned when he looked up and saw me. As the small crowd around him gaped, he said: “Did you see those confused young men? This is the big problem today in Egypt. You have the dictatorship, and then you have the Muslim Brotherhood. People’s thinking is limited by these two options. Young people in my time were not so confused. My generation, we of the left, knew where we stood. These young men don’t know what is what. So I have to explain everything to them.”
Where Alaa Al Aswany Is Writing From

One Comment on "The Cultural Salon of Dr. Alaa Al Aswany"

  1. nasheeds October 3, 2009 at 5:40 am · Reply

    i like his personality.

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