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Destination paradise

Mona Naggar looks at the reluctance of Arab writers to deal with political Islam in their works

"My brother Abu l'Qaqa, we are approaching paradise. In just a matter of seconds we'll be there, God willing. Where are you? An enthusiastic voice answered: We're right behind you, Abu Abdarrahman. We'll join you in paradise just a few minutes, God willing. God is great!" This is how the Saudi Arabian writer Turki al-Hamad imagines the last radio contact between the pilots who flew hijacked American passenger jets into towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Al-Hamad's novel "Rih al-Janna" (the scent of paradise) is an attempt to deal with the attackers' lives in literature.

Step by step, he sketches the radicalisation of the young men. In Cairo, Hamburg or a Saudi village, the future attackers come in contact with Salafite ideas, preaching hatred of all things which could threaten the faith: family members, a society that has strayed from true Islam, the West, materialism, Jews or women. The small community of holy warriors becomes a replacement family. Delivery from the decadence of this world and entry into paradise with its pleasures and delights is achieved through sacrificing one's life and killing non-believers. The book, which appeared in 2005, is not particularly good literature. But it does represent a rare attempt among Arab writers to deal with the attacks of September 11, examine what makes people receptive to Islamicist ideology, and relate the changes they go through.

Supporters of political Islam do appear now and then in 20th century Arab literature. For instance there is Abdalmunim, the grandson of patriarch Ahmad Abdalgawad in "Sugar street." This third volume of Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy spans the time from 1935 to 1944. Abdalmunim is an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his brother Ahmad is a communist. At the end of the book, both are arrested for their political activities. The forced alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the communists in the so-called "prison literature" seems like a continuation of Mahfouz' work. Prison literature is the work primarily of leftist authors, who work through their experiences in Nasser's jails in the 1960s, taking a somewhat critical stance on the Arab Left and its social visions.

However the greater the role played by Islamism in Arab societies, the less it is dealt with in their literature. One exception is Algerian writing, in both its Francophone and Arabic variants. Since the middle of the 1990s, various works by writers like Rachid Boudjedra, Waciny Laredj, Tahar Ouettar, Salim Bachi and Assia Djebar have sought to explain the radical phenomena that took place in Algerian society at the end of the 1980s, and the excess in violence that broke out following the cancellation of the parliamentary elections in 1991. The reason for this is to be found in a particularity of Algerian literature - its intense engagement with recent history. The French cultural background and the proximity to the French language make it easier for Algerians to deal with topics such as religion, sexuality and politics – taboo areas in which Arabic-language authors from other countries have their difficulties.

Political Islam has been gaining ground in the Arab world since the end of the 1970s. Radicalised groups try to establish an Islamic order through violent means, while others react with violence to the repression of the state. One example is Syria. In the end of the 1970s, the armed wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood attempted to destabilise the state apparatus, comprised largely of representatives from the military and secret services. President Hafez al-Assad reacted with the utmost violence. Thousands of people were arrested. Events reached a bloody climax with the quelling of the uprising in Hama. The exact number of victims is still unknown, but estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000. However until this day, no writers have set themselves the task of addressing the deep-seated social repercussions of this time. For the young Syrian author Maher Sharafeddine, this shows a fundamental weakness of new Arabic literature. As he puts it, this literature moves in the air without any reference to the life around it.

What Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswani misses in Arab literature are characters that stand for the more recent development of Islamism. That's why he introduces such a figure in his bestseller "Imarat Yaqubian" (The Yacoubian Building). Within just a few years Taha, the son of the building's caretaker, changes from a shy, ambitious, talented young man into someone for whom violence in God's name seems the only solution. The way is paved by disappointed love, social discrimination, torture and prison rape. Taha represents the young Egyptians of the Mubarak era who fled into a parallel society. Their microcosm is supposed to function along primordial Islamic lines, but in fact it is a mirror image of the social and political problems faced by the Egyptian youth.

The best insight into this Islamic youth culture is given by a writer who dropped out of the scene. In the thin volume whose title can only provoke devout Muslim ears, "The here and now is more beautiful than paradise," Khalid al-Barri works through his experience with the radical Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya in Upper-Egyptian Assiut. As the leader of a high-school cell, he gains respect for himself through the divine laws, and is feared by his schoolmates and teachers. Belonging to the group is also a rebellion against his parents and family, who are shocked at his beard and gallibiya garment, typical for Islamists. The pubescent Khalid and his brothers in faith attempt to harness their awakening sexuality and bring it in line with strict Islamic regulations. But they are only moderately successful: the cell has to deal with the homosexual affairs of one of its members.

For Alaa al-Aswani, the reluctance of Arabic writers to deal with the topic of Islamicism has to do with to the classic rivalry between intellectuals and the Islamicist movement. Followers of Islamicism see intellectuals and people working in the cultural sector as anti-religious advocates of secularism. In the Arab-Islamic world this often counts as a slur. Secular intellectuals, for their part, see the Islamicists as "religious fascists." The confrontation between Marxists and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Arab world in the 1950s and 60s is passed on from one generation to the next, says al-Aswani. And many authors are not able to free themselves from their political affiliations while writing.

Fadhil al-Azzawi, a Berlin-based Iraqi writer, observes an ambiguous attitude among many of his colleagues toward the growing influence of Islamicists. Many of them, he assumes, are ready to collaborate in one form or another. "For the time being, they're afraid and refuse contact. But when the Islamicists take power by force or gain an upper hand in elections, as happened in Palestine, the attitude of many writers will change." This ambivalent attitude can also be seen among publishers. Waciny Laredj, for example, whose novels are critical of Islamism, was turned down by well-known Lebanese publishers and could only publish his works through an Arab publishing house in Europe. Political developments in the Middle East since 2001 only serve to complicate matters. Clear words against any supporters of political Islam are all too quickly interpreted as a pro-Western stance. The resulting uncertainties influence literary creation, with the result that literature only prolongs the crisis in the Arab world as a whole.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 11, 2006.

Mona Naggar lives as a freelance journalist and translator in Cologne. She is managing editor of the Internet portal, presenting topics from the Arab and Islamic world.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european