Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Elisabeth J. Fox


I went back to Egypt in 1982, thirty six years after I had left, and in a sense, it was no longer there.

The Egypt I had known had an extraordinary, rich, lively and many-layered identity. A brief visit, four years after the Revolution, showed remarkably little change from the time when I had lived there, but now, three regimes later, the difference was startling. Many of the layers had been stripped away, while others seemed to have been rather hastily patched on. The symbols of change were all around.

The centre of Cairo, the Khedive Ismail's Paris on the Nile, was curiously run-down and shabby. The marble facing of the apartment building where I had lived was cracked and uneven, the neglected mosaic sidewalks like rows of carious teeth. The Opera House which had been built to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal (and in which I had seen Gielgud in "Hamlet" and Louis Jouvet in "Britannicus") had burned down some years before, and had been replaced by a makeshift parking lot. The Ezbekieh gardens, created for Ismail at the same time, and symbolically separating the modern part of Cairo from the medieval, were crudely bisected by an extension of Sharic Fouad el Awal (renamed Sharic 26 July to commemorate the departure of King Farouk), the grass dusty, eroded and cluttered with garbage, and the trailing roots of the banyan trees exposed to traffic fumes. Surprisingly, the palace created to receive and impress the Empress Eugenie had been re-cycled quite harmoniously into a Marriott hotel to house international travellers and host meetings such as the Anaesthesiology conference I had come to attend.

The Galerie Commerciale, an ancient passageway linking two modern streets and lined with tiny shops that might have served as illustrations for "The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" (a place that I had often tried to find in dreams), had been replaced by a garish department store. There was still a mirror in the chemist's shop painted with an advertisement for Eno's Fruit Salts, and the Penguin sign still hung in the half-underground bookshop, although there were no longer any Penguins on its shelves.

In streets where the signs had once been bilingual, and where sounds of English, French, Italian and Greek had once mixed un-self-consciously with Arabic, there was little trace of all the cultures that had once been at home there and had left their varied impressions on Egypt. In their place, some of the worst aspects of modern cities anywhere in the world had been grafted on.

Ugly elevated roadways forced their way around the city and past the entrance to el-Azhar, the oldest university in the world. Sterile, generic apartment buildings were pasted in clusters in new suburbs with names like 'Nasser City.' The main station, once crenulated and striped like a Moorish palace had been re-faced, and in the process made faceless, with stucco.

Nothing seemed to function: the drains in the streets backed up, there was a permanent gridlock of cars, camels and donkey-carts, telephone directories were in Arabic only, but it made no difference, since the system did not work, anyway.

At Luxor, plastic Coca-Cola bottles floated in the Nile. In a caff, the clientele, instead of arguing or playing backgammon, was transfixed by a football match on television. Queues of determined Germans formed at the entrance to the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and package-tourists were herded quickly through temples by their guides. At Aswan, an enormous monumental arch attested to an undying friendship and co-operation with the Soviets that had already died some years earlier.

The only aspect of Egypt that seemed not to have changed was the face of the deep countryside, and it was easy to imagine that the life of the peasants had remained essentially the same since pharaonic times, a mixture of extraordinary beauty and abject poverty.

I knew, of course, that one cannot go home again, that not even Edward Said or Lawrence Durrell had been able to find traces of the Egypt they had known, and that I had no right to ask why goats we re being led down the streets of Zamalek, or why the music shop was still there on Sharic Emad el Din, but the music was not. But I have puzzled ever since over the identity of Egypt: what shaped it, and how it had metamorphosed since I lived there. I propose here to analyse these issues, considering first the historical perspective, and then exploring contemporary literature in order to try to appreciate the Egyptians' own view of their situation as they emerged from the colonial condition and struggled to find their own authenticity.


Egypt, because of its unique geographic situation at the junction of three continents, its ancient civilization and certain of its natural attributes, has probably been subjected to more foreign influences than any other single nation. It has been conquered, colonized and settled for many centuries, and has shown a remarkable capacity to absorb and assimilate the various cultures and identities of its conquerors, colonizers and settlers. In the last two hundred years, it has also had a peculiarly complicated and ambiguous interaction with the West in its struggle to enter the modern world--a struggle made more difficult by the constraints of poverty and an ever-increasing population. All of these factors have contributed to Egypt's unusual "composite" identity. The Revolution of 1952 was a turning point in which Egypt at last moved to disengage itself from foreign occupation and influence, and to reconstruct its identity.

In the beginning, there was the Egypt of antiquity, an empire in its own right, a cradle of civilization that gave the world art, architecture, science, mathematics, its first bureaucracy, and, if one is to believe the slogan of the meeting I attended ("Four Thousand Years of Pain Relief"), anaesthesiology as well.

This, together with its fertile soil and hospitable population, made Egypt an overwhelmingly attractive prey for more powerful nations. It was first colonized by Greece and Rome, then conquered by Islam, which added an outlook and a set of values that are still an absolutely vital part of its national identity. In the sixteenth century, Egypt came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, where it remained for three hundred years as a sort of backwater, its own identity submerged under that of the Turks. Turkish became the language and culture of the , and Turkish art and architecture left their mark on the country, which suffered patiently while paying dues to the oppressor.

Egypt was opened to the West for the first time in 1798 by Napoleon, and this began the extraordinary evolution of its present identity. The body of savants that accompanied Napoleon's army set about cataloguing and classifying Egypt, its flora and fauna, its art, its architecture, its monuments and its inhabitants, as if it were some newly discovered species. This set the tone for the "otherness" described by Edward Said that has characterized the Orient in general and Egypt in particular, in the Western mind. At the same time, Napoleon revealed to the world the prize that the expanding nations of Europe would compete for over the next two centuries, and revealed to Egypt the attractions of the West that would have such an enormous impact on its identity.

France considered that it had a "mission civilisatrice", which was, as Said expresses it:

To restore a region from its present barbarism to its classical greatness, to instruct (for its own benefit) the Orient in the ways of the modern formulate the Orient, to give it shape, identity, definition, with full recognition of its place in memory, its importance to imperial strategy, and its "natural" role as an appendage to feel oneself as a European in command, almost at will, of Oriental history, time and geography... Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 86. Napoleon, in fact, failed to appropriate Egypt as part of his empire, but French culture and civilization took hold there in a manner altogether disproportional to the total duration of France's occupation of the country. French replaced Turkish as the language of the cultivated , and Muhammad Ali was so impressed with Napoleon, his army and his savants (was it their Arabic printing press, their military skills, their discipline, their technology?) that he set about deliberately introducing European ideas and skills into Egypt during his forty years' leadership, and grafting European traits onto the Egyptian identity. Everything European was identified as progressive, powerful and desirable. Student’s were sent to France and England to acquire a European education and bring back habits of order, submission and obedience, which would supposedly transform Egypt's outlook, and move it very rapidly into the modern world. French administration, military organization and even sewer systems were transplanted into Egypt in the hope of turning it into a Western nation overnight. There followed an influx of French, British, Greek, Italian and Armenian businessmen, entrepreneurs, tradespeople and teachers that formed the nucleus of Egypt's interesting and varied foreign community.

The process was continued by Muhammad Ali's son, Said, who began the construction of the Suez Canal, a vast symbolic monument to Egypt's fascination with the West. His grandson, Ismail, carried it still further, and when he attended the Paris Exhibition , he was so impressed by Haussmann's reconstruction of the city that he decided to do exactly the same thing in Cairo. He brought in architects and planners to create an instant Paris on the Nile, cutting through medieval parts of the city, destroying whatever history was in the way of the desirable long straight boulevards, and building the elegant apartment houses, hotels particuliers and gardens that still give the centre of Cairo its (now shabby) European aspect. He built a palace (whose rooms reproduced those of the Tuileries), in which to entertain European royalty, and an instant Opera House in which to display the "Aida" he commissioned from Verdi ("Rigoletto" had to be substituted at the last minute because "Aida" was not ready in time), all to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal and to affirm Egypt's newly acquired "European" identity.

Ismail's deliberate separation of Cairo into a modern European section and the old medieval section symbolically began the separation that is characteristic of Egyptian society (as indeed of many colonized societies)-- that is, a splitting of its identity into East and West, ancient and modern that has persisted ever since, and which accounts for a good deal of the problem of Egypt's self-image. Ismail's wild extravagance in the pursuit of the European dream also set in motion the train of Egypt's perpetual indebtedness, and laid the country wide open to other kinds of colonization.

If Napoleon had his visions of incorporating Egypt into France's imperial schemes but succeeded only in implanting certain elements of France into the Egyptian identity, it was Britain that stepped in and took the country over, body and soul, on the pretext of straightening out Ismail's financial disasters, making Egypt virtually part of her Empire from the latter part of the 19th century until the middle of the twentieth, and imposing almost every aspect of the British way of life except cricket upon the Egyptians.

Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring, nicknamed "over-Baring") moved in essentially as Viceroy, and proceeded to set up British-style administration, education, police and army, keeping up the appearance of Egypt's independence, but in reality directing every move himself.

Cromer's apology for Empire is set out with horrifying clarity. He believed implicitly in the rightness of his mission to "save" Egyptian society, and apparently, in the gratitude of the "saved" as well. The advent of the Englishman was:

hailed with delight by the lawful rulers of Egypt and by the mass of the Egyptian people. The Earl of Cromer, Modern Egypt (London: Macmillan, 1908), 123.

...He would not annex Egypt, but he would do as much good to the country as if he had annexed it. He would not interfere with the liberty of action of the Khedivial Government, but in practice would insist on the the Khedive and the Egyptian ministers conforming to his views. Ibid., 125. This same Englishman, with admirable modesty:

looks towards the scene of other administrative triumphs of world-wide fame, which his progenitors have accomplished. He looks toward India, and he says to himself, with all the confidence of an imperial race. I have done it before now; I have poured numberless blessings on the heads of the ryots of Bengal and Madras, who are own cousins to the Egyptian fellaheen; these also shall have water for their fields, justice in their law courts, and immunity from the tyranny under which they have for so long groaned.Ibid., 130.

Indeed, the Englishman did look toward India, for which Egypt guaranteed him safe and convenient access; and while he may have had reasonably noble intentions, he made not the slightest effort to understand the needs of the people whose "salvation" was his supposed mission, nor to conceal the contempt he felt for them. For Cromer, who embodied the colonial outlook, the Egyptians were just another form of raw material for Britain's industrial society.

Cromer regarded the Egyptians as the ultimate in "otherness," without any of the civilized qualities of the European, or capacity to make progress. His comments are uniformly demeaning and insulting:

Want of accuracy, which easily degenerates into untruthfulness, is in fact, the main characteristic of the Oriental mind...The mind of the Oriental, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat high degree the science of dialectics, their descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusion from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth...Even highly educated Egyptians are prone to refer the common occurrences of life to the intervention of some supernatural agency.Ibid., 146-147. ....The silent Eastern is devoid of energy and initiative, stagnant in mind, wanting in curiosity about matters which are new to him, careless of waste of time and patient under suffering... Ibid., 148. The ways of the Oriental are tortuous; his love of intrigue is inveterate; centuries of despotic government, during which his race has been exposed to the unbridled violence of capricious and headstrong governors, have led him to fall back on the natural defence of the weak against the strong. He reposes unlimited faith in his own cunning...Look at the high powers of organisation displayed by the these attributes with the feeble organising powers of the Oriental, with his fatalism which accepts the inevitable, and with his submissiveness to all constituted authority.Ibid., 150-151.

He refers disparagingly to the "general muddle-headedness of the ordinary uneducated Egyptian," and proceeds with his outrageous generalizations:

A European would think that, where a road and a paved side-walk existed, it required no great effort of reasoning faculty to perceive that human beings were intended to pass along the side-walk, and animals along the road. The point is not always so clear to the Egyptian. He will not infrequently walk in the middle of the road, and will send his donkey along the side-path.Ibid., 152. ....Tell an Egyptian cook that he puts too much salt in the soup, he will abstain altogether from the use of salt. Or, on the other hand, tell him that he does not use salt enough; he will throw in a bucketful. He cannot hit the happy mean; moderation in the use of salt, or in anything else, is foreign to his nature; he cannot grasp the idea of quantity. Ibid., 153.

The best he could find to say about the "raw material" in his hands was:

He is a good imitator, and will make a faithful, even sometimes too servile a copy of the work of his European teacher. His civilisation may be a veneer, yet he will readily adopt the letter, the catchwords and jargon, if not the spirit of European administrative systems.Ibid., 154.

It is not difficult to imagine the effect of this sort of damning commentary must have had upon the Egyptian psyche, and, as we shall see later, the Egyptians must have eventually believed it themselves, for echoes of destructive self-doubt and self-criticism pervade contemporary literature as late as the 1970's.

Cromer undoubtedly did make the country run in a way that it had never done before, gave it an efficient administration, straightened out its financial chaos, built the first Aswan Dam and organized a flourishing trade in raw cotton; but at the price of making Egypt totally dependent, passive and convinced that it was incapable of directing its own affairs or developing in any way.

Cromer's successors may have been less arrogant, but the essence of Britain's occupation of Egypt continued unchanged for some seventy years: seventy years of humiliation and regimentation, during which Britain pulled the strings, and the Egyptians found themselves almost strangers in their own country, excluded from the centres of power, the higher levels of administration, and even from such absurd symbols of privilege as membership in the Gezira Club.

Foreign communities within Egypt were privileged and protected, even to the extent of being immune from the laws of the country, but liable to be tried only in the special Mixed Courts, which was yet another thorn in Egypt's flesh. Yet, strangely enough, on the individual level, people of very diverse backgrounds managed to live harmoniously together, and Egypt became a marvellous, multicultural society--a society in which , as Lotfi al Kholy expresses it: "Apollo rubbed shoulders with al-Hassan, Diana lived comfortably with Sitt al Husn and the Virgin Mary with al-Sayyida Zeinab...There was no distinction between European and Egyptian." Lotfi al-Kholy, "L'Europe Vue du Monde Arabe" Qantara, October 1992, 16. (tr. E. J. Fox)

However, Egypt was systematically barred from the sort of industrial development that would have enabled it eventually to become financially independent. In particular, it was made to rely mainly on the production of raw cotton to supply British factories, and was then a convenient, captive market for British manufactured goods. The myth was perpetuated that the climate was too dry for textile production. The only significant indigenous enterprise that took off during the time of the British occupation was the establishment of the Banque Misr. Other than that, it was astonishing to find even a few locally manufactured items such as canned mangoes and tomato ketchup.

Egypt was in effect kept in a position of extreme dependence, and its identity was affected accordingly. Egypt lacked stature, and its self-image was diminished by the perpetual humiliation of its occupation. While the life of the peasants who made up the greater part of the population was probably largely unaffected by such an overpowering presence in their country, there were undercurrents of discontent and rebellion which found their expression in demonstrations inspired by nationalist leaders such as Urabi and Saad Zaghloul and which culminated in the abortive attempt to rid the country of its occupation in 1919.

However, Britain was an overwhelming force, and for the moment, there was nothing effective that could be done about it, or about the corrupt monarchy that had been propped up by the British presence. Until, that is, everything erupted, the monarchy in the form of the obese and degenerate Farouk was swept away one Saturday in 1952, and with it, the accumulation of many centuries of foreign domination.

The Revolution represented the fulfilment of the nationalist dream, and with it the hope that Egypt could recover its own identity at last. The symbols of foreign privilege such as the Turf Club and Shepheard's Hotel had already been burned. The foreign communities uprooted themselves or were eventually expelled, and went off to find a new life in Paris or somewhere in Australia, after living in Egypt for several generations. Streets were renamed "Republic" or "26 July," and the old names of Kings, Queens and foreign engineers vanished. Street signs appeared in Arabic only. It was now "Egypt for the Egyptians," even if it meant that the country would function less well, and certainly less interestingly, without the leavening of its diverse and cosmopolitan population.

Nasser himself embodied in one charismatic and larger-than-life figure the hero who could redeem the humiliation of the past, who could restore Egypt's former greatness, give it stature and dignity, allow it to take its appropriate place in the modern world, and to assume what he took to be its rightful position as the natural leader of the Arab nations. He would also sweep away social injustice and the corrupt of the past. Egypt eagerly embraced the Revolution, the myth, the hero, the hope of instant change and its new identity.

In Nasser's words:

Today in their new found freedom, the Egyptian people have found self-respect. The old social hierarchies have given way to civil and political equality. Our hope and faith in a regenerated Egypt are wiping out from our memory the humiliation and sufferings of an earlier time.Anwar El Sadat, Revolt on the Nile (London: Allan Wingate, 1957), viii.

Wiping out the memory of humiliation meant rejecting everything beyond the Arab world, in a vision of pan-Arabism. Egypt was to be the leader of the Arab world, which would stand up and collectively defy its western oppressors. Nasser's dramatic gestures, such as the expulsion of foreigners, seizing control of the Suez Canal, and turning the struggle of the two super-powers to Egypt's own advantage, gave the Egyptians instant stature, and confirmed Nasser as the new Saladin in the eyes of the Arabs.

At home, Nasser claimed to represent the people, using dialect for his speeches instead of classical Arabic, and amongst the many slogans of his was "We are all Nasser." His portrait was displayed in every public place, in every office and cafe, and for the moment, Egypt had the sort of unified identity that it had not had since the times of the Pharaohs. At Nasser's death, even though his dreams and the country's had been shattered by the humiliating defeat of 1967, there was a mass outpouring of grief in the largest funeral procession in history.

Nasser attempted, in one sweeping gesture, to establish a system of Arab socialism that would guarantee justice, employment and the good life for all. But, as in the case of the sweeping gestures of previous regimes, Egypt was too poor to afford the change, even if it could have been established overnight, and the end result was to cripple the country financially , just as Ismail had done before, and to establish another kind of colonialism, the colonialism of economic dependence. In addition, Nasser's policy of full employment for all college graduates not only led to general expectations of support from a paternalistic state that the state could not afford, and stifled any of the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that might have put the Egypt on a good economic footing, but firmly entrenched a monolithic and obstructive bureaucracy that was in the long run to become a serious obstacle to progress.

It has been said that the Revolution of 1952 was not really a revolution at all, but merely the dressing up of old ideas in Arab clothing. The changes were only cosmetic, the underlying problems of poverty and social injustice were not dealt with realistically. The old social hierarchies did vanish, but reappeared in another guise, as a new and equally corrupt , largely the elite of the powerful bureaucracy, eventually took the place of the old one. The latter part of Nasser's regime amounted to a police state of the most repressive kind, and the country became alienated as people realized that they were helpless once more, and could do nothing but try to look after their own safety. When the whole dream failed ignominiously after the disaster of 1967, and Nasser became, in the words of his successor, "a living corpse," the national identity suffered once again from intense humiliation, worse perhaps than under the British occupation. This time, there was no external oppressor--Egypt itself was a failure, and no amount of rhetoric could save its self-esteem.

Sadat inherited a country with a battered identity, humiliated, disillusioned and alienated, and he did not have the stature or personal charisma of his predecessor. He did, however, have the characteristically Egyptian belief in the possibility of instant change, and he proceeded to try to reconstruct the image once more. Nasser's pan-Arab vision had failed, and Sadat, following a period of aggressive "denasserization," turned inward, creating the myth of Egypt as a village, self-reliant, simple, religious, and with all the sturdy virtues of the fellaheen. It helped that he had been born in a typical village in Upper Egypt, and Mit Aboul Qum became a sort of icon and eventually almost a shrine. He portrayed himself as the father of the people, or at least as a village elder. The country, though, was more cynical by now, and did not buy into this myth quite so enthusiastically as it had done into Nasser's.

Sadat realized, too, that Arab socialism had been an economic failure, and tried both to bring back "instant" capitalism, and to interest the rest of the world in investing in Egypt with his policy of Infitah . However, by this time, twenty years after all the foreign engineers and entrepreneurs had been expelled, the infrastructure had reached such a state of decrepitude that businesses could not flourish, and so his policy was a failure. Egypt was forced to practise a sort of economic and cultural prostitution by relying very heavily upon remittances from the workers it exported to other, richer, Middle Eastern countries, and upon revenues from package tourists herded conveyor-belt fashion past its historical treasures. Egypt became more and more dependent on foreign a id, which was forthcoming only because Egypt was an important pawn in the superpower struggle in the Middle East. The Egyptian identity was now even more subject to the humiliation of the colonial condition that it had been when it was a satellite of the British Empire.

Sadat was able to increase his own stature, and the collective stature and self-esteem of the country first by expelling his Russian advisors in a dramatic gesture of independence, and then by his Camp David diplomacy, which turned him into an instant international hero. However, even the euphoria that Camp David produced could not save Sadat or his regime, which was every bit as corrupt and repressive as Nasser's, with the same social injustice, the same poverty and an even greater gap between the rich who made fortunes out of Infitah , and the miserably poor inhabitants of the symbolic village. The village elder himself was addicted to such symbols of the good life as Dunhill lighters and Savile Row suits. It was inevitable that religious fundamentalism should flourish in these circumstances, and not surprising that Sadat was assassinated.

Egypt's identity must have been very confused indeed at this point-- now it was neither the leader of the Arab world, nor a self-sufficient village. It was also completely beholden to the United States for financial aid, to which many strings were attached, so that the projects that were carried out were often completely unrelated to Egypt's actual needs. It had no more say in the way that its policies, domestic or international, were directed, than it had had under the British protectorate. In addition, the organizers of U.S. aid tended to live flamboyantly, flaunting their Coca-Cola and all the other good products of Western capitalism in the face of Egypt's continuing poverty. It was the Gezira Club syndrome all over again, but worse, Egyptians were once more second class citizens in their own country, and their self-image must certainly have suffered accordingly.

Then came Mubarak. He was scarcely known at all outside Egypt, lacked the charisma of Nasser and the flamboyance of Sadat, and inherited an apparently insuperable collection of problems; yet, without the dramatic gestures and wild leaps that characterized the two previous regimes, he seems to have provided the sort of direction that Egypt really needs. The big difference between Mubarak and his predecessors is that he is a realist who has not resorted to rhetoric, or absurd and grandiose gestures, and has not tried to change Egypt overnight. He claims that he has "no magic wand," and has simply steered a modest middle course, while keeping Egypt afloat and stable. He has dealt systematically with Egypt's underlying problems, related principally to economic self-sufficiency, instead of merely trying to construct yet another new image.

Mubarak's diplomacy has increased both his own stature and that of Egypt. His quiet handling of the potentially explosive situation at the time of the Achille Lauro incident earned him respect at home and abroad, as he managed to preserve Egypt's dignity when it looked as if yet once more the United States would call all the shots. The Gulf War provided Mubarak with a providential opportunity to gain recognition as a statesman and to establish Egypt's importance internationally. There is now a solid and tangible basis for national pride that must surely help improve Egypt's self-image.

To the outside observer considering the evolution of Egypt's identity, several patterns seem to emerge. First, the receptiveness, hospitality and general lack of resistance that seem to be characteristic of the population--admirable in themselves, but not conducive to independence of spirit. Then the qualities of submissiveness, dependence, acceptance and obedience that are all perhaps related to the constraints upon a "hydraulic" society that from the earliest times was subject to the vagaries of the Nile and its floods and was forced of necessity into a bureaucratic rather than an entrepreneurial mould. These characteristics have perhaps made Egypt rather too easily "governable," and too easy a prey for more powerful nations who could move in one way or another and impose their own identity on the country. Then, Egypt has always shown an amazing capacity to assimilate other cultures into its own, thereby greatly enriching its own identity. The obverse of this coin is its fascination with "other," in this case the West and its attractions, whether in the form of power and importance, or consumer goods. It has also usually countered its love of Western "things" with a hatred of the values that accompany them, thus effectively "splitting" its identity.

Egypt seems also to have a burning urge to "belong" and to take its place in the modern world that has made it tend always to live beyond its means, and led it into extravagances it could not afford on its own, whether in the form of the Suez Canal and the lavish gestures that accompanied its completion, or the High Dam, which forced it into a state of permanent indebtedness to other nations, and hence into one form of colonization or another. It has almost flagrantly laid itself open to occupation and then seethed with resentment at the occupiers. The Pyramids were probably Egypt's last affordable large-scale monuments; the others have placed the country in a posture of dependency that has made self-realization more difficult.

It has often appeared as though Egypt were on the verge of becoming economically self-sufficient, which would enable it to emerge from the dependency that is ruinous to its self-esteem, but it has never actually happened. Perhaps the lack of resources, the poverty, the indebtedness and the sheer size of the population have been simply overwhelming.

Egypt seems instead to have believed, at least until the advent of Mubarak, in the possibility of the "quick fix," whether in the form of Ismail's instant Paris, or Nasser's instant socialism, without ever taking a realistic view of the underlying problems or looking for an effective cure. Instead, it embraces the latest solution with enthusiasm and then lapses into apathetic disillusion and helplessness when the cosmetic "miracles" fail and the problems reappear in an only slightly different shape, or one corrupt and oppressive is substituted for another. Rightly or wrongly, one may get the impression that the Egyptians love myths, heroes and pharaohs to an unhealthy degree, and always seem to have a ready supply of new ones at hand: there are portraits of leaders in every cafe and on every office wall, and sometimes it does not seem to matter too much which particular ones they are.


If this is how the evolution of Egypt's identity appears to the outside observer, we must look instead through the lens of contemporary literature in order to appreciate the perspective of the Egyptians themselves as they emerge from their centuries of foreign domination, grapple with the central dilemmas of their situation, (in particular, their ambivalence towards the West), deal with the disruptions of change, find their own voice, and assume their own identity.

In attempting this, we have to accept several limitations. The novel and the short story are relatively recent developments, and their accessibility in translation more recent still-- it took the Nobel Prize to stimulate the appearance of more than a handful of Mahfouz's works in English. We have to make certain assumptions in taking the views of intellectuals for those of the people in general, although our justification is that if writers are widely read and accepted, then they must be touching on matters that reflect the concerns of their readers. Some subjects, particularly relating to religious themes, are not, as we shall see later, readily treatable in fiction. Finally, and most significantly, at certain key points in Egypt's history, when we should most like to know what they thought, Egypt's writers were subject to the most repressive sort of censorship, and many, including Mahfouz himself, became temporarily silent.

Nevertheless, fiction helps to bring the incomplete picture that the historical perspective offers into sharper relief, because it provides a cover for opinions that might not otherwise be safely expressed, and because there are novels and short stories that can be read as illuminating national allegories.

Permeated throughout the literature of modern Egypt, there is an astonishing degree of self-criticism, illustrating the crippling emotional legacy of colonialism. It is almost as if the Egyptian people had come to accept Cromer's valuations as the truth about themselves, and to doubt, at the deepest level, their own intrinsic worth and capabilities, and as though the centuries of occupation had diminished both their vitality and the capacity to flourish once they had evicted the occupiers. For instance, in "Mirrors" by Mahfouz, (a series of barely fictional vignettes in which fifty-five characters and their interactions, set against the backdrop of political events from the 1920's to the 1970's, reflect the attitudes of the Egyptian people as a whole, though not necessarily those of Mahfouz), we find the following example that might have been dictated by Cromer himself:

Do you like these shops and stalls? They're just commercial prison cells...Just look how filthy these streets are, right in the middle of the city! One day soon, flies will start demanding their citizens' rights! And what do you think of those boys going barefoot along Suleiman Pasha Street? Just look at that incredible sight, A cart, a camel and a car in caravan one behind the other. And you say complete independence or else sudden death? Do you really like that peasant called Ali Mahmud, a blind repulsive old man croaking like a fool? Just compare him with a Catholic Mass celebrated in an atmosphere of eternal music! Believe me, the politicians you admire wouldn't even be fit to be junior employees in a foreign embassy! By what logic do millions of dirty peasants deserve to be alive? Why don't they dispense with them by using modern machines? The best thing Egyptian civilization has produced is hashish, and, even then, it's pretty vile compared with whisky! Do you really like these writers and litterateurs? Believe me, on a world scale, they're illiterate! Allow me to piss on all the leaders, litterateurs and singers you admire! Nagib Mahfuz (tr. Roger Allen), Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977), 172. We find more echoes of Cromer in the thoughts of other characters in "Mirrors":

Europe's the spirit of the world, its people are the angels of mankind. All the rest are insects. I sometimes get sick with amazement when I look around me, I find that I'm a stranger in the middle of a group of wretched, ignorant civil servants who are cringing, submissive, flattering and hypocritical. Ibid., 171.

Do you realize what's the greatest favour ever bestowed on us? European imperialism! Future generations will celebrate its memory just as you do the birth of the prophet!...Wouldn't it be better it Europeans spread over the face of the earth and everyone else was eliminated? Ibid., 172.

...he felt sure that the English were the lords of mankind, and that, as part of heavenly solicitude, they had been sent to civilize man, especially backward people like the Egyptians. Ibid., 206. The image of a people inert, asleep or comatose is equally common. In "The Saint's Lamp" by Haqqi, Ismail, who has been sent to Europe at great sacrifice to his family to acquire a medical education, and who represents the hope and future of Egypt, surveys the faces of a crowd of poor ignorant townspeople assembled in a square:

...but he could only see the marks of a profound torpor, as if they were all victims of opium. Not a single face wore a human expression. These Egyptians, he thought, were a chattering, dull race, hairless and beardless, naked and bare-footed with blood for urine and worms for stools. They received blows on their elongated necks with but a smile of humility that distorted the whole of the face. Egypt herself was nothing but a sprawling piece of mud that had fallen asleep in the middle of the desert... Here was petrifaction that would kill any progress, a nothingness where time had no meaning an d the wild imaginings induced by drugs and sleepers' dreams in broad daylight. Yahya Haqqi (tr. M.M.Badawi) The Saint's Lamp (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 28. "Wake up! Wake up from your sleep and open your eyes," he exhorts them, but clearly without any great hope that they will do so. Similarly, Egypt is described in "Mirrors" as being "like the beast in popular folk wakes up for several days and then sleeps for several generations." Nagib Mahfuz (tr. Roger Allen), Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977), 3. The metaphor of blindness as an affliction of the Egyptian people is also common. The Egyptians are frequently portrayed as passive victims, once great, but now without hope and beyond salvation, so accustomed to their experience of occupation that they are completely incapable of helping themselves. As Haqqi expresses it through Ismail in "The Saint's Lamp":

What was the use of struggling in a country like Egypt and with a people like the Egyptians who lived under oppression for so many centuries that they even began to enjoy and savour its taste? Yahya Haqqi (tr. M.M.Badawi), The Saint's Lamp (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 31.

Poor people...nobody had helped them for the love of God or of them...This was a people in its second childhood...History had passed its verdict which was unalterable: there was no means of denying that we were once a great tree that blossomed forth, produced its crop of fruit for some time and then shrank and died out. Ibid., 33-34. These expressions of negativity are so widespread throughout contemporary Egyptian literature that we must believe that their authors have struck a chord that reflects an important aspect of the national consciousness, and that they are indeed speaking for the people as a whole.

The extent of the incapacitating hopelessness engendered by the colonial condition is damningly summed up thus:

Despair had convinced them that there was nothing good in store for them, and--what is worse--they were convinced that nothing good could come from them. Yahya Haqqi (tr. Miriam Cooke), Good Morning! (Washington: Three Continents Press, 1987), 97. This despair and lack of confidence did not help Egypt in the struggle with its central dilemma: that of having seen the West, the desirable "other", but not possessing the resources to join it, or the insight into how to integrate Western ideas and civilization into its own traditions and its own particular circumstances.

Idris's short story "The Cheapest Nights" is a powerful allegory of this situation, and of the way in which Egypt, lacking the moral and financial resources to overcome its colonial past, simply falls back into old patterns of action that perpetuate its misery. Abdel Karim, who represents Egypt, is overburdened with children, irritated with his own, and frustrated by the teeming numbers of them in his village. The night is cold, and he is unable to sleep because of the strong tea he has drunk:

...what was he to do with himself? Stay up? But where? Doing what? Join boys playing hide and seek? Hang around for little girls to gather round and snigger? Where could he go with his pockets picked clean? Yusuf Idris (tr.Wadida Wassef), The Cheapest Nights (London: Heinemann, 1978), 2-3.

Like Egypt, Abdel Karim is attracted to things that are beyond his reach:

Not a wretched piastre with which to take himself to Abou el Assaad's den, for instance. There he could order a coffee and then smoke a water pipe and stay till all hours, or sit and watch solicitors' clerks at their game of cards, and listen to the radio blaring out things he didn't understand..but he hadn't a wretched piastre...If only he could just grab his ferruled cane and go collect Sama'an and together make off for the neighbouring farm...there was fun to be had over there, wedding feasts, dancing girls, high jinks, merry-making. But where was the money for all that? Ibid., 3.

Like Egypt, Abdel Karim is at a loss and confused:

Anyone...seeing Abdul Karim planted in the middle of the square like a scarecrow would have thought him touched in the head or possessed of a devil. He was neither. Just a man whose perplexity was greater than he could deal with. A simple man, unfamiliar with the things of the night, the tea playing havoc with his head; his pockets stripped clean on a cold winter's night, and all his companions long since sunk in deep sleep. Ibid., 4-5.

Like Egypt, Abdel Karim acts in a way that is guaranteed to prevent him from escaping from his abject poverty:

What was there for him to do? He stood thinking for a long time before he made up his mind. Having no choice he crossed to the other end of the square. He could only do what he always did on cold winter nights...Months later, the women came to him once again to announce the birth of a son...And months and years later, Abdul Kerim was still stumbling on swarms of brats littering the lanes, tumbling about in all directions and getting in the way as he came and went. And every night, with his hands behind his back..he still wondered what pit in heaven kept throwing them up.Ibid., 5.

An even more compelling allegory of Egypt's central dilemma is Haqqi's "The Saint's Lamp", which illuminates the tensions, the ambivalence and the clash between traditional and Western values that Egypt has experienced since Napoleon's time. Ismail, the hero, is sent to Europe to be educated. For his family:

...the word "abroad" had a secret and magic sound, which like a strange and entrusted spirit, crept stealthily into the house where the Koran was always recited and where Moslem law was both truth and science...the father pronounced the word "abroad" as if it were a favour offered by an infidel, which he had to accept without humiliation, but with the intention of arming himself with the same weapon as the infidel.-720 Yahya Haqqi (tr.M.M.Badawi), The Saint's Lamp (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 12. He becomes an ophthalmologist, and while he is in Europe he acquires a totally new outlook on life from his Scottish friend, who teaches him to search within himself for answers, instead of relying on external sources of support such as tradition and religion. When he returns home, he is greeted eagerly as one who will be able to cure his country's ills:

I bet you anything that the spirit of a Pharaonic doctor-priest has been revived in you Mr. Ismail. Your country has great need of you, for it is the land of the blind...Come to us like rain and good health and take your place in your family. You will find it like a machine that has stopped and even rusted because its motor has been removed. Ibid., 16. Ismail passes through a crisis in which he completely rejects his background, but finally emerges with "a new self, confident and secure". Ibid., 20. He is moved by compassion for his countrymen whom he sees as "victims of ignorance, poverty, disease and age-long oppression", Ibid., 22. determines to "deal ignorance and superstition a mortal blow, even if that should cost him his life",Ibid., 27. and immediately sets about trying to apply his European medical training to the cure of his cousin who is losing her sight, and who is being treated with applications of oil from the saint's lamp. However, his European treatment is a complete failure, an d his cousin's condition begins to deteriorate very rapidly--an apt metaphor for Egypt's own failures in the years following the Revolution. His perplexity reflects that of Egypt:

He wondered why he had failed. He had come back from Europe with a huge quiver stuffed with knowledge, and yet when he examined it now he found it all empty. It did not contain the answer to his question but instead it lay there, insignificantly small and dumb.Ibid., 34.

The question of the difficulties experienced in integrating the ideas of the West into Egypt's traditional background is examined further in Haqqi's novel "Good Morning!" which deals with the threatening prospect of the advent of a train (representing modernity and progress) to the village and the eccentric clientele of its tavern, all of whom reflect different aspects of Egypt's situation and problems. At first, the villagers are relieved that the train will not after all be passing through their village, even though it might perhaps be appealing at a distance:

From afar, at night, when it slips past like a large, elegant worm lit by a miracle from God, the train is beautiful. But close up how different is its whistle, how deafening and disturbing! But when it comes like a warning from behind a veil, its distant moan can break your heart as you lie securely in bed. It flings you into turmoil.Yahya Haqqi (tr. Miriam Cooke), Good Morning! (Washington: Three Continents Press, 1987), 44. Progress would disrupt the comfortable if imperfect status quo described by the tavern keeper:

We are not happier than anyone else, nor are we free of cares, anxieties and sorrows, for life, no matter where, is full of these. All I am saying is that we have woven a garment out of the threads of our shared environment and circumstances, a garment that is cut to fit us and no one else.Ibid., 48-49. The villagers, representing the general public, are characterized as uninvolved bystanders:

the salt of the earth, living by the sweat of their brows and toiling like animals...don't understand fate and wondered when injustice would cease. They were patient and wanted to be left to their wives, children and animals, to their problems, faith superstitions and history. Ibid., 76.

Eventually the train does come to the village, bearing a mysterious "professor", representing Nasser, who will sort everything out; but the result of the change is the complete alienation and fragmentation of the inhabitants, who no longer have a friendly tavern to congregate in (it has been closed because it was considered a source of corruption), and who scatter to their homes "like lizards returning to their holes."Ibid., 93. Progress has brought an awakening, but the awakening has not brought happiness:

Waking up can sometimes come as a shock. There is nothing harder than for someone accustomed to servitude to be given his liberty, to be made responsible for himself, and to be told "You are the master of your own destiny, defend your rights, do your duty ."ibid., 97.

Nor has modernity brought comfort:

Some villagers praised the new era, but they wore it like new clothes in which one cannot move. One is delighted but also annoyed by their newness, comparing the restriction in the new clothes with the remembered comfort of the old, tattered clothes. Ibid., 97-98. The narrator himself is stricken with a mysterious illness "which sucked away all my health and drained me of all strength and drove me to bed", Ibid., 84. and he is sent hither and yon by the village doctor in search of a cure for his malaise, much as Egypt itself seems always in search of a cure:

The internal diseases consultant sent me to the dental surgeon who sent me to the radiologist who sent me to the ear, nose and throat specialist who sent me to the cardiologist who sent me to the heart surgeon. Then they said to me, "You must travel to a distant country. You can only be cured by very complicated surgery in which a doctor of that country is specialized."Ibid., 85.

Faced with the disruptive effects of change, the debilitating legacy of colonialism and the tensions of its ambivalence towards the West, the Egyptians have looked to their roots, their history, traditions and religion for strength and support, and this, too, is reflected in their literature.

Mahfouz in particular made use of historical themes, returning to the pharaonic era in a series of novels, (one of which, "The Theban War", is a thinly veiled representation of ridding Egypt of the British occupation) because he saw it as "the only luminous period of our history that we had to offset the bitterness of our present existence."Gamal Ghitany, Mahfouz sur Mahfouz (Paris: Editions Sindbad, 1991), 84. (tr. E. J. Fox) He later abandoned this because, as he expressed it in an interview, history had by that time become powerless to express what he felt, and he was more inclined to attack social questions instead.

The land is another powerful emotional anchor and source of continuity for the Egyptians, as expressed by a peasant in the novel "Egyptian Earth":

The earth itself seemed to him a symbol of strength, of that which will endure for ever, and of honour. This land was his own life and his own history...Not one detail connected with this land would he ever forget, and after him his son would inherit his memories with the land itself. The land never let you down. His father had planted berseem, had changed to cotton, then to beans, or perhaps sugar cane, and always the land was generous, if you were generous to the land. If you were faithful to the land, if you tended it and cared for it, it would care for you.Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi (tr. Desmond Stewart), Egyptian Earth (London: Saqi Books, 1990), 40.

In the same way, tradition is a stabilizing and comforting element, transcending and unaffected by the miseries of the post-colonial condition:

The sight of little girls playing reminded Abdul Hadi that Waseefa, too, had once played in the same way in he same place... and before her another generation had done the same thing... and after Waseefa, a new generation would sing the same sad, yet beautiful songs...would play in the same way...would make the same traditional movements in their dancing...would beat out the same rhythms on an upturned tray. Ibid., 54.

Similarly, the peasants in "Egyptian Earth" are portrayed as wily and resourceful: they may fight amongst themselves initially when their water supply is threatened and their land is about to be taken away from them to construct a road that will not benefit them, but they band together to defend their common interests and manage to outwit their corrupt Pasha and Omda. This surely represents the realization by Egyptians that they too must stand together in order to survive:

Abdul Hadi himself did not own land by the canal; all of his land was by the river. He was not threatened with loss. Nevertheless he was as sad as though the menaced land was his. He felt that if one man was struck, then the whole village was stricken. If land was taken from one man, it was taken from them all. If he was silent today, when Abu Suweilim's land was taken, and Diab's, he would be the sufferer tomorrow. Ibid., 204.

Islam is another important element in Egypt's national identity, and yet it seems strangely under-represented in literature. It may be that by its very nature, Islam does not lend itself to fictional treatment; and as Hilary Kilpatrick points out in her survey of the modern Egyptian novel, traditional Islam is an accepted part of life, its basic beliefs underlie the attitudes of Egyptians, yet it is a very personal matter, and therefore less likely to be treated by writers than other themes, both more pressing and less controversial, such as politics and society. Mahfouz did, of course write a major novel dealing exclusively with man's relation with God, "Awlad Haratina" ("The Children of Gebelawi"), which was serialized in the press, but which provoked such an uproar from the religious establishment that it has never been published in book form in Egypt. The treatment of "Awlad Haratina", as Kilpatrick points out, was "enough of a deterrent against discussing any subject connected with religion in general or Islam in particular", Hilary Kilpatrick, The Modern Egyptian Novel (London: Ithaca Press, 1974), 185. and this seems sufficient reason to explain the apparent dearth of religious themes in contemporary literature. The same deterrent may also account for the fact that religious fundamentalism, which has been and still is an important political force, does not appear other than peripherally in literature. For further explanation, we may turn to Mahfouz's interviews with Gitany, in which he states: "The one group I could not stand right from the start was the Muslim Brotherhood. At first, they included Wafdists and those with other political leanings in their membership, but once we realized that they were really in competition with the Wafd, we turned against them. We believed that any rivalry with the Wafd would weaken its authority."Gamal Ghitany, Mahfouz sur Mahfouz (Paris: Editions Sindbad, 1991), 124. (tr. E. J. Fox) Hence, considering religious fundamentalism an obstacle to progress, Mahfouz chose not to write about it, although he expresses its aims through one of the characters in "Mirrors" who says:

The Quran must take the place of all those imported laws! Women must go back to the home. There's no harm in their being educated, but for home purposes, not for getting a job...Socialism, nationalism and European civilization are malignancies which must be got rid of... We're behind in science and we always will be however hard we try. We haven't got a scientific mission which we an offer the world. But what we have got is the mission of Islam which is guaranteed to save and restore the world. We have social justice, human brotherhood and the worship of God alone, not capital or dialectical materialism.Nagib Mahfuz, (tr. Roger Allen) Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977), 178.

A unifying amalgam of hope and patriotism is also revealed in Egyptian literature, together the somewhat naive expectation that all would be well once the colonial era ended. This is expressed clearly in "Mirrors":

...for the first time, I felt that a wave of justice was sweeping away a deep-seated decay without any indulgence. I dearly wished that it would keep going without hesitation or deviation for ever. Ibid., 167.

Those satanic forces which stopped our people from progressing have vanished for good, the King, the English, corrupt rulers. The whole thing is back in the hands of the real people, rule of the people, for the people, for the good of the people. Corruption and dissipation are over and the stream of reform and progress will go on for ever! We told ourselves it was time for this dream to come true and to give freedom, progress and justice to this people who had suffered through injustice, slavery, poverty and exile for thousands of years. Ibid., 229.

It was this sort of expectation that greeted the Revolution and swept Nasser into power; yet, although Jad, in his review of the modern Egyptian novel mentions the existence of patriotic and nationalistic novels, none of these seems to have been been very substantial, and none has reached us in translation. Still less can one find the great novel of pan-Arabism, or even references to Nasser's vision in "Mirrors" where one might expect to find them, and this void is so striking that we must look for an explanation. Perhaps it is that important writers and intellectuals are more likely to be critical than to produce paeans of praise for new occupation more appropriate for hacks seeking political favour.

Nasser himself had been much impressed by Pirandello, and wrote:

It seems to me that within the Arab circle there is a role wandering aimlessly in search of a hero...this role, exhausted by its wanderings has at last settled down, tired and weary, near the borders of our country and is beckoning us to move...since no one else is qualified to play it.Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1956), 87, quoted in Joseph P. Lorenz, Egypt and the Arabs-Foreign Policy and the Search for National Identity (Colorado: Westview Press, 1990), 21. But, in reality, although Egypt had successfully rid itself of colonialism, it did not have the material resources to become the leader of the Arabs, and was never qualified to play the role or to assume the identity that Nasser (and, according to Lorenz, his associate Heikal Joseph P. Lorenz, Egypt and the Arabs-Foreign Policy and the Search for National Identity (Colorado: Westview Press, 1990), 24. ) had constructed for it. Then, by the time the great novel of Nasser's regime might have been written, it must have already been obvious that the realities of the Revolution were very far removed from the dreams that had greeted it, and that many of the evils of the past had already started to reappear, hydra-fashion. The poor asked, "When are we going to enjoy the promised prosperity? When will I eat meat every day like our leaders and not once every two weeks?", Yahya Haqqi (tr. Miriam Cooke), Good Morning! (Washington: Three Continents Press), 98. and the intellectuals in "Mirrors" realized that "the King's gone, and countless other kings have taken his place"Nagib Mahfuz, (tr. Roger Allen) Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977), 97. and asked, "what's the point of being free of one class only to fall into the clutches of the steel r?" Ibid., 99. Mahfouz himself remained completely silent for six or seven years after the Revolution, saying diplomatically that it had accomplished all its objectives and that there were no further causes remaining to stimulate his imagination. But we must obviously look beyond this facile response and speculate that he remained silent because even he could not have freely expressed his opinions in the repressive atmosphere of Nasser's Egypt; and, as he commented in an interview, "This interpretation had the virtue of appearing believable and protecting me from the political suspicion implied by the question,'why is it that you have stopped writing?'" Gamal Ghitany, Mahfouz sur Mahfouz (Paris: Editions Sindbad, 1991), 124. (tr. E. J. Fox) The shock of the 1967 defeat had a very profound effect upon the Egyptian people, and throughout "Mirrors" one finds references to the bewilderment, collapse, and despair that it engendered. Mahfouz says of one character:

When the disaster happened, his whole being was shaken just like everyone else's. He was sucked in by a violent wave of criticism, self-contempt, torture and a loss of self-confidence. Nagib Mahfuz, (tr. Roger Allen) Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977), 198. This might serve equally well to describe the Egyptian psyche during the remaining years of Nasser's regime.

Just as Nasser's contrived national identity failed to take hold because it was not grounded in reality, Sadat's myth of Egypt-as-village remained a figment of his own imagination; nor did his regime give rise to the great village novel with the village elder as hero. On the contrary, while Sadat was indulging his very un-village like tastes, these were being parodied in Hetata's "The Net", while the grim reality of the political situation was clearly depicted. Nawal al Saadawi's play, "Les Douze Femmes dans Kanater", while based on her own experience of imprisonment, could well represent the condition of Egypt itself during the later years of Sadat's repressive and corrupt regime--as she says:

The communal women's prison cell at Kanater, where I spent three months with these women of differing political and religious backgrounds, was more or less a microcosm of Egyptian society in the 1970's. It reflected all of its contradictions, but also its capacity to turn its defeats into victory.Naoual Saadaoui, Douze Femmes dans Kanater (Paris: des Femmes, 1984), 10. (tr. E. J. Fox) Mahfouz became silent once more, and when he began to write again, he produced short stories describing the alienation that now engulfed the people. One such is "At the Bus Stop", in which a group of people waiting for a bus witness a series of grossly violent events but do nothing, deluded into thinking that they are watching the shooting of a film; and when they eventually inform the police, they themselves are shot dead. Naguib Mahfouz (tr. Denys Johnson-Davies), The Time and the Place and Other Stories (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 149-156. The characters in "Mirrors" echo the same sort of alienation. One says, "I have often felt that I'm living in a huge house that is scheduled for demolition, not a society at all." Nagib Mahfuz (tr. Roger Allen), Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977), 76. Another says, "Many people ask me why the theatre is flourishing these you know why? It's because we've all become actors."Ibid., 88. Several characters talk of emigration, because "the country hasn't got any value any more...they've left it in a bitter ordeal because they don't care or have given up in despair." Ibid., 89. They go to the United States "so they can find bread and freedom."Ibid., 98. Mubarak, unlike his predecessors, has not attempted to impose any sort of contrived identity upon Egypt, and the literature of his regime has not yet reached us or provided us with an allegory, so we might offer the following in the meantime:

Nagwa (Egypt) is a woman with a distinguished and cultivated, if rather secluded, family background, and unfortunately without much in the way of financial resources. She is introduced to the outside world, finds it very appealing and wants to become part of it, but spends far too much trying to do so, and falls into an extremely oppressive forced marriage. Her overpowering and unloved spouse puts her affairs in order but allows her no life of her own, and convinces her that she is incapable of achieving anything, anyway. She believes him. Eventually, after putting up with him for a number of years, she throws him out, has two face-lifts and makes several grand gestures of independence.

Unfortunately, she finds that her original problems are still there, that she still cannot live as she would like to, and that she has so many children that she cannot support them all, even though she sends some of the older ones off to earn a living elsewhere and desperately tries to earn some extra money by exhibiting the family heirlooms to tourists. She finds herself flitting from one benefactor to another, playing one off against the other and getting further and further into debt. As with poor Emma Bovary, she finds that the joys of adultery are no better than those of her bad marriage.

The story does not end with arsenic, though, for just as things seem completely hopeless, some brilliant diplomacy at a moment of external crisis increases her stature, her grateful creditors suddenly wipe out a good part of her debts, and she finally decides to listen to her banker, tear up her credit cards and set herself a budget, however painful that might be. She realizes, at last, how unwise it is to rely on heroes, and that she must take advantage of her particular talents and look her after her own destiny. The question of identity then begins to take care of itself.


More than forty years after the Revolution, Egypt still struggles, as perhaps all post-colonial nations do, with a poor self-image, ambivalence towards the West, and uncertainty about its place in the modern world. A review of its history shows the reason ns for this, and contemporary literature, reflecting the central concerns of the people, demonstrates the extent of the difficulties that Egypt faces in coming to terms with its past and in finding its own identity.

How might this evolve? Egypt clearly cannot recover its former greatness. It might, on the other hand, go back to sleep for a few more generations, or it might all too easily become isolated and engulfed in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism. What one would wish for Egypt, instead, would be for it to accept its history not as a bur den, but as an advantage: in a world of disappearing boundaries and changing alliances, it is still favourably placed at the junction of three continents, and it has already had the experience of living as a cosmopolitan society that other countries have yet to deal with.

If we are optimistic, therefore, we may invoke for Egypt's future the surprising ending of "The Saint's Lamp", which seems to offer the only solution to its apparently insuperable dilemma. Ismail, who has abandoned his own background, and who regards the traditional treatment for his cousin's eyes as mere superstition and yet is unable to cure her with his Western medicine, suddenly has a flash of insight (the nature of which is not explicitly revealed) while surveying the crowded square outside the saint's shrine:

He did not think there was a people that kept its distinctive character and temperament despite the changes of rulers and the vicissitudes of events like the Egyptians...Ismail began to feel secure and the ground seemed solid under his feet. There were no masses of individuals in front of him, but a whole people united by a common bond of faith tempered by time. Then he began to see in those faces a new meaning hitherto unnoticed by him...the dome was flooded with light which emanated from something swinging inside it. Ismail shook from top to toe. "Oh light! where have you been away from me all these years? You are indeed welcome! The thick cloud of darkness that has been shrouding my heart and eyes has gone. Now I understand what has been hidden from me."...He returned anew to his science and medicine, but this time fortified by faith...Fatima recovering under his hands gradually day by day. Yahya Haqqi (tr. M.M. Badawi), The Saint's Lamp (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 34-37.

The thrust of this prophetic allegory (it was written nearly fifty years ago) is not, of course, that some supernatural power restored his cousin's eyesight, but that Egypt cannot simply reject its past and the layers of its culture (for the past has been lived, and the layers are still there), and blindly embrace Western concepts that may not be appropriate for its situation, assume some constructed identity, look backwards to its ancient glories, or lapse into religious fundamentalism, in the hope of finding a cure for its post-colonial woes; and that tradition and science, past and present, East and West must all somehow be integrated to forge the truly authentic Egyptian identity.


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