One day before 2011, I was assigned to cover a conference for children's literature. And just as all other childhood and motherhood activities, the conference was under the auspices of Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak and was organized by one of the many associations that she headed at that time.
It was a tedious assignment for me because long and redundant speeches are usually delivered at such conferences.
First came the security personnel, then came the president's wife who delivered a written speech that was distributed among the journalists that attended the conference.
Interestingly, the hall was filled with “intellectuals of stature,” most of which had nothing to do with children's literature. I wondered why they were there in the first place, but later found out when the president's wife finished her speech, which was no more than a composition written by a schoolboy, after I went out to wait for 20 minutes at the entrance of the hall.
She was standing there surrounded by a few “ladies of society.” To her left stood the information minister's wife, Anas al-Fiqi, whispering in her ear and pointing to some “intellectual of stature,” who would approach them and start praising the president's wife for her achievements for children, for literature, for enlightenment, for culture and for the intellectuals.
Then she left and the intellectuals who had the chance to talk to her felt a few centimeters more of stature and smiled, while the others who did not have the honor felt small. And after they all left, the conference continued without audience.
As a young journalist who was attending such an occasion for the first time, what those people did seemed to me like they were presenting – or rather exposing – themselves to the political circle that Mubarak's ruling family had founded.
But there was a similar situation in Badr al-Deeb’s magnificent novel “Sabbatical,” which takes place before the reign of Mubarak's family. In it, he says that since the revolution nationalized culture and formed the Supreme Council for Culture and other bodies, this type of intellectuals has grown stronger to the extent that they have seemingly developed crocodile scales on their backs as they move through a putrid swamp searching for a spot where they can practice a bit of power and raise their voices. They talk about big things like Arab unity, scientific socialism, the future of imperialism and the counter-revolution just for a chance to publish a book or an article or two, or to attend one of those conferences and deliver some speech that might reward them with a post at an important body close to the ruling circle.
The works of Badr al-Deeb, and Sherif Younis as well, made me understand that such “exposure” was the result of a new rule for culture that makes the recognition of an intellectual contingent upon the regime's recognition. It is a rule that is not written in the regulations of the Ministry of Culture, but in the minds of the intellectuals themselves. It is a rule that links enlightenment to working for the state, whereby an intellectual walks beside a politician, chants for him and calls it art.
Youssef Ziedan is a victim of that rule. Unlike Ismail Serageldin, he had no international relations and spoke no foreign language for him to represent culture. He only found a place for himself on Facebook, compiling information and ancient texts already available on the Internet. And when he was ignored by the state, he announced his withdrawal from the cultural life in a last attempt to attract attention to his sad case.
The crocodiles of culture wrestle for petty posts like the prime minister’s advisor for cultural affairs, while a poet and writer like Amr Hazek, who took part in dozens of demonstrations and vigils against the corruption of Ismail Serageldin, ends up in jail on charges of breaching the unconstitutional protest law. Yet he manages to produce his book “The City’s First Novelist” from prison, as the crocodiles still wrestle to come closer to Prime Minister Mehleb.
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm