A short, challenging piece by Youssef Rakha, the Arabic original of which is due to be published in Egyptian weekly أخبار الأدب (Akhbar Al Adab). And now it is published, here.
A reader once advised me to steer clear of politics. He respected my literary output, he said, but the political views I penned placed this respect in jeopardy. Something like that. The insinuation was that I was one of those personalities who had strayed from the path and, as the chances of setting me straight looked slim, better that I keep quiet and stick to what I knew.
I remember because this annoyed me, as all negative responses tend to, but more than this, I remember because it made me ask myself at the time, Can literature ever be divorced from politics? And it seemed to me that the answer was one of two things: either my literary output really was utterly devoid of any political position, or the reader who respected it didn’t read into it the politics that they read in my opinion piece.
Subsequently, my eye was caught by a writer who justified accepting a prize from a body whose orientation was at odds with his declared principles by saying that politics was one thing, culture another. And this was taking place a full four years on from when I first started following the spectacle of intellectuals imposing themselves on the dance of historic change, whether to show off or make a profit, so that it seemed as though they were leading the nation down the path of sacrifice and conscience whereas in truth their own moral compasses were not in evidence and they were concerned only with their personal standing. More significant was their capacity, even in the midst of disaster, to not risk voicing an opinion which might imperil the respect people felt for their literary output.
It strikes me now that unvarnished opinion is in actual fact less politicized than the literary text. It strikes me that adopting a slogan or declaring a position is an ephemeral business, quite insubstantial when weighed against one’s approach to language or how one ascribes value within a text (two things, for instance, that can be evaluated on a spectrum of reactionary to progressive), and that the truth pursued by the consciousness of any writer remains a political truth even if the quest itself does not deal with issues even faintly related to matters of public interest.
It occurs to me, too, that for writers, politics is not so much a question of whom to support in elections, nor of what they might say about the minister of culture or the president, nor even of the extent to which they represent either the tragedy of the opposition figure committed to the narrative of the injustice suffered by the regime’s victims, or the epic heroism of the loyalist devoted to the state’s identity (not to mention the comedy of “serving society” through its legitimate bodies), as it is a question of the critical intervention contained in their writings, and their readiness to forswear material gain for the sake of independence from power, be it official and institutional, or a consequence of their loyalty to any group they supposedly belong to. And not because forswearing material gain is a value in and of itself, nor because writers are heroes of social reform: only because writing matters more.
As for unvarnished opinion in the context of the kind of broader discussion that historic change might be expected to generate, I’ve no idea what made it so difficult to engage with my opinions through anything more edifying than abuse, smart-arsery, or outright idiocy—if not by silencing your interlocutor forever by clicking block—especially after it became clear that the “conversation” was limited to a narrow circle of individuals who shared similar concerns and, lacking influence, were eager for debate because they were truly interested in what was taking place around them (unlike their more celebrated contemporaries who were shrewder in using events to serve their social status).
With time, I began to take the reader’s advice to heart, not to avoid any negative impact on those who respected my writing (interest in which was, in any case, disappearing amid a frenzy of commercialised competition) but because I felt the pointlessness of engaging with positions as rigid as petrified mould, even—and in particular—those of the revolutionary generation of young people who were supposed to be changed by reality as they changed it and supposed, as a consequence, to be primed for the back-and-forth of debate and prepared to make sincere attempts to understand what was being said.
Already literary figures in exile were making a living off the back of the catastrophes unfolding in neighbouring countries by peddling ideals, while literary figures at home sought to hurry the same catastrophes along, resenting anything that might impede their progress out of fear for the wellbeing of a new sacred cow called democracy—or maybe longing for an exile of their own. They presented themselves as the injured party, done down by a system that in reality had served only them over the years. At the same time, however, other figures, raking over the legacy of totalitarianism in which all the present evils were rooted, made a show of taking on these same evils. But I was sitting before the texts for whose sake I held my nerve, that I might exercise in them—as I do in my view of the world—all my political convictions.
I was making my modest living just as I had done before, trying to remain a writer without being a personality.