Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Arab Spring

One way of making sense of what has been going on in North Africa and the Middle East over the last year is to look at literature and film. Of Gods and Men, which won the Grand Prize at Cannes, for example, clearly struck a chord with a great many people and is well worth watching. (The press kit also provides some useful information which could easily be used in the classroom.)

However, great a movie as it is, it doesn't provide the last word on North African politics. Clearly there is plenty more to the Arab Spring than what is going on in Algeria. There have been some wonderful books written in Egypt, for instance, which help shed light on the difficulties faced by Coptic Christians in recent weeks and months (to pick just one important topic among many). A novel I particularly enjoyed was Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery by Bahaa' Taher (some of which can be read here). 

As the translator, Barbara Romaine, points out in her interesting introduction: "just as it is no accident that [Taher's] novel - about a remarkable alliance between a Muslim village in Upper Egypt and the inhabitants of a nearby Coptic monastery - emerges precisely when it does [in 1996], it is no coincidence that the novel has not just one chief heroic figure, but two: the one a Muslim and the other a Copt."

She further points out that "it is arguably not primarily the issue of religious identity that has historically given rise to conflict between Muslim and Coptic communities. In fact, the most serious trouble between Coptic and Muslim groups has occurred at times when external or internal political forces have disrupted Egypt's social fabric to such a degree that its citizens 

have found themselves in a struggle to assert their identity as Egyptians."

Which is why this book is so important in the contemporary climate. Taher doesn't give us the sort of novel we might want because he doesn't play on our western prejudices. What he gives us instead is something much more profound and, ultimately, something much more hopeful:

"[T]he Western reader...," he wrote in an interview with Egypt Today, "wants to read about the exotic East, and about the discrimination against women. They want to hear that the regimes are dictatorial, and that there are fierce problems between minorities. 
Khalti Safeyya said that things are not that bad, and this is something they do not want to hear. The BBC interviewed me about it, and the anchor kept interjecting, ‘Surely things are not really as you describe them.’ At the end I told her it is your testimony against mine. Go back to what Lucy Duff Gordon wrote, and she was a visitor to the area I write about. If I write a novel about [discrimination], it will become a best-seller tomorrow."

However, I'm not recommending this book because it's timely or because it offers a hopeful picture of life in Egypt but because it's a great piece of literature. It's short - a mere 124 pages - and yet the plot, the characterisation and the sense of place are all vividly realised. There is, admittedly, little sense of what the Coptic monks actually do in the monastery - Of Gods and Men is much better at giving us a sense of the liturgy - but we are given a wonderful portrait of ordinary village life among ordinary Muslims and their relationship with at least some of their Christian neighbours.

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