“For the last three decades Egypt has been the playing field of a myriad cultural movements which have taken a hostile stance towards freedom of expression and rational thinking. It comes hardly as a surprise, therefore, that the Cairo cultural magazine Ibdaa (Creativity), noted for its progressive and liberal editorial policy, has been a prime target for hostilities.”
With these prophetic words, intellectual and poet Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Higazi, Ibdaa’s editor-in-chief, began his last editorial. The magazine has been banned and issues withdrawn several times in the past few years; once because of a poem that was deemed immoral, another for a painting portraying Adam and Eve naked, and a third time for publishing a study of Jewish culture.Auto-censorshipSome two weeks ago the magazine, which is published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), affiliated to the Culture Ministry, was withdrawn by order of none other than Nasser al-Ansari, head of GEBO. If anything, this smacks of a harsh form of auto-censorship.
As is usual in the absence of any official explanation or statement, there was no shortage of stories and rumours about the recall. For a full week—until Ansari confirmed the story on Egyptian TV’s Channel II—there was wide conjecture within Cairo’s cultural circles that the offending article was a poem entitled “Shurfit Laila Mourad (Laila Mourad’s Veranda)” by Helmy Salem. Laila Mourad was a charming Egyptian singer and actress in the 1950s; her films are widely popular to this day and there is scarcely a household without one of her recordings.
GEBO print officials have a notorious history of cutting or altering texts—in some cases by such noteworthy writers or novelists as Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous—in order to delete what they perceived as ‘indecent vocabulary’. At one point this caused an outcry from intellectuals, who said it was better not to publish in the first place rather than have work tampered with, especially in cases where authors were no longer alive to approve or reject changes to their texts.Story of a magazineLast Sunday, a seminar was held by the Egyptian society for enlightenment, a Cairo cultural NGO, to discuss the issue. During the seminar, which hosted Mr Higazi and Mr Salem, and from which the absence of TV news or satellite channels was especially conspicuous, Mr Higazi told Watani that Ibdaa was first issued in 1983 as a cultural monthly at the head of which sat one of the most prominent of Egypt’s enlightenment figures, the late Abdel-Qader al-Qott. In 1990, Higazi was asked by Samir Sarhan, the then head of GEBO, to edit Ibdaa, with the explicit objective of fighting extremist, terrorist notions through spreading fine culture and enlightened thought. “But, Mr Higazi laments, we were appalled to find out first hand that fundamentalist thought had succeeded in invading and infiltrating the major part of Egyptian society. Many issues of Ibdaa were banned, so that the reportedly monthly magazine could no longer adhere to a regular date, and consequently lost readership.”
In 2002, in a move of protest against the all too frequent bans, Higazi resigned his post as chief editor. The magazine was discontinued.
Some seven months ago Mr Ansari, current head of GEBO following Mr Sarhan’s death in 2006, asked Mr Higazi to resume editorship of Ibdaa. Mr Higazi accepted on condition it would not be censored.Worse than the Danish cartoons?The recalled issue was the first in Ibdaa’s recent publication. “When it went on the newsstands Mr Ansari called me and informed me of criticism of Salem’s poem,” Mr Higazi said. “Since I could see nothing wrong with the poem; I said anyone who objected to it was welcome to write his or her viewpoint, and pledged that we would duly print it.” But Mr Ansari said that MPs would criticise GEBO in Parliament—20 per cent of Egypt’s Parliament is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood—since this was a government publication, financed through taxpayer money. He recalled the magazine.
Mr Ansari said on TV that the offensive portion of Salem’s poem was worse than the Danish cartoons, which induced Sheikh Youssef al-Badri and others—including one Islamic missionary, 11 lawyers, two medical doctors, and one university instructor—to submit an official complaint to the prosecutor-general, accusing Mr Higazi and Mr Salem of spreading atheism and apostasy, and mocking the Divine.
It is heart warming though, commented Mr Higazi, that a considerable portion of Egypt’s media is against the recall incident, has decried the censorship, and sees nothing wrong with the poem.A loving GodAccording to literary critic Magdi Tawfiq, “Shurfit Laila Mourad” simply depicts God as loving and forgiving; the poem, in fact, portrays a more humane world.
Mr. Salem, who is currently chief editor of the Cairo monthly Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), himself says it was never his intention to “mock God”. He merely criticised those who took no responsibility for their lives and depended upon God to set it all out for them without their lifting a finger to advance their lot. He depicted God as free of any cruelty or injustice.The offensive lines run to the following effect:God is not a policeman who harshly captures wrongdoers. He is a farmer who feeds the ducks and milks the cows. …God is not a traffic policeman. He is a bird that soars high above our heads. We should raise our eyes up to Him, But we have no right to complain why He is up so high. Do we desire Him to march the streets with a stick to beat violators?A question lingers in my mind: Is GEBO, the publisher that banned its own publication, the most recent incident of fathers who have the heart to kill their babies?