Egypt’s cultural lights fading away
CAIRO - The world is getting smaller for Noha Mahmoud, a novelist in her mid-30s, and with it is the space for tolerating free speech.
Mahmoud, who has three novels and a collection of short stories to her name, has seen most of Egypt’s independent cultural centres closing and many of the country’s independent cultural activities disappearing, all in a matter of a few years.
“Culture is mainly organised, designed and controlled by the state,” said Mahmoud, the 2011 winner of the Dubai Cultural Award. “As for all cultural activities outside the territory of state control, they are all dying and making themselves scarce.”
This is not about a cultural recession or a downside from Egypt’s tough and deteriorating economic conditions. It is not about the new generation of Egypt’s people of letters, artists, writers and people seeing only the dark side of their country’s cultural life.
It is about the heavy-handed control the government imposes, what some writers and artists describe as the “nationalisation” of Egypt’s culture, the diminishing space for free speech and also about Egypt’s fading cultural light.
A number of Egyptian writers and artists say the country is becoming a graveyard for free speech, a prison for talent and a detention camp for those who think of writing down their thoughts.
Writers and intellectuals are going to jail, poets and artists are filled with fear and journalists and the media are becoming more aware of the dangers of not toeing the line of those in power.
“There is a new trial of writers every day, a new hearing aiming at punishing artists or a new arbitrary verdict against men of letters,” said Shaaban Youssef, a poet in his mid- 60s. “There is less tolerance for artistic innovation and this is becoming a general condition.”
Egypt was once a thriving centre of Arab cultural life. Writers and cultural figures travelled to Egypt from all parts of the Arab world to study, innovate and think without the limits they faced in their home countries.
Cairo used to boast a large number of cultural centres where unrestricted cultural discussions boomed and cafés where the cultural luminaries in the Arab world met. The capital’s cultural schedule brimmed with events and activities.
These activities are drying up, artists and people of letters say, blaming diminishing freedoms and the government’s and the religious establishment’s intolerance of free speech.
Mahmoud said some of her colleagues have gone to jail for writing a novel deemed offensive to public morality or writing a comment seen to be contrary to religious teachings.
A journalist by training, she said there have been restrictions placed on the freedom to criticise people in power.
“The problem is that some writers are brought to court simply for imagining,” Mahmoud said. “This shows that we are speaking about a very limited space for freedom.”
Egyptian Culture Minister Helmi al-Namnam said he does not view things as negatively. He said he is against jailing writers for expressing their views but added that he cannot prevent it.
“Writers were jailed by court rulings and I cannot comment on these rulings,” Namnam said. “We must not forget that the culture of the public sometimes dictates the limits to which writers can go to in expressing their views.”
An objective look at Egypt’s cultural life shows it is not totally moribund. Namnam personally sponsored a long list of events, including some during Ramadan. He said the events attracted a large number of people and enriched the cultural scene.
“Look at the busy schedule of state theatres, look at the success of the last Cairo International Book Fair and also look at the cultural activities we sponsor,” he said.
The government used to fund cultural activities, back writers, artists and cultural centres and institutions. Egypt’s deteriorating economic conditions removed state backing for culture but left its control intact. With private cultural institutions affected by the economic slowdown, writers and artists often have to fend for themselves.
Mahmoud, for example, had to pay half the cost of the publication of her latest novel Girl Made of Paper because her publisher did not have enough money to publish the book.
Some of her colleagues had to do other jobs because they can no longer earn a living by writing. Other writers are staying away from writing, lest they be jailed.
Gabir Asfour, twice Culture minister, a literary critic and a symbol of Egypt’s cultural life for the past 30 years, said freedom of speech and creativity is under attack.
“This is why we all need to join hands and defend this freedom,” Asfour said. “Our country cannot keep narrowing the freedom margin because this will make intellectuals fall silent one after another.”