I find it hard to believe that no one in government has concerned themselves with the distressful state of health of one of the greatest contemporary Egyptian novelists. Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid has published more than 20 novels in Arabic. Among the best known are The House of Jasmine, No One Sleeps in Alexandria, The Other Place and Clouds over Alexandria.
He also has produced five short story collections. I personally have come across his work in English, German and French translation in bookstores abroad, and it made me feel proud. This vibrant and energetic man who was once a familiar and influential presence at cultural events is now practically immobilised, requiring the assistance of others in order to leave his home. Surely it is not right for this writer to be ignored as long as the government devotes attention to artists, athletes and other figures who make Egypt’s name shine in various international forums.
When an Egyptian athlete makes it to the finals in an international sporting competition, it is a confirmation of our excellence in that field. Yet that excellence might only last until the next season when an athlete from another country takes the gold. With novels translated into foreign languages the situation is different: thousands of people read them, generation after generation, and so the impact is more durable. The more the readership expands, what is more, the more these works shatter the stereotype of our society as one riddled by ignorance, poverty and religious violence. A single novel in translation showcases the diversity, sophistication and historical richness of our culture. The many modern works that appear in translation are proof of how fertile this culture remains.
True, our government’s concern for developing its soft power has not stopped at athletes. Recently, artists and performers have been included in a health insurance plan. They merit nothing less for having dedicated their lives to being beacons of light, joy and moral elevation for all of us. However, I fear that writers are not receiving their rightful share of attention for being at the forefront of Egypt’s soft power. They are the intellect and conscience of the nation, the repositories of culture and the builders of civilisation across the centuries through their art, their vision and literary output. Today, they are one of the mightiest weapons in our fight against extremism and terrorism. They are the vanguard of the renaissance we aspire to. No society has ever experienced a period of development and growth without a cultural renaissance at its heart.
It filled me with pain to read Ibrahim Abdel- Meguid’s recent article, “To whom it may be of no concern.” He writes:
“I apologise in advance because I am going to speak about myself. This may not interest anyone, but I will try my best to take the specific to the general. Over two years ago, my right knee gave out and I nearly fell. To be brief, I have seen numerous doctors since. Once I fell and broke my leg. After some months in a cast, I began physical therapy. It was useless. After about a year, I gave up and despaired of all possibility of treatment. After having been able to walk with a crutch, I now need a zimmer frame and cannot manage to move for more than five minutes. I have stopped going to doctors and have grown accustomed to being housebound, confined by three jailers: Covid-19 outside, my inability to move inside and the poor internet coverage in my area."
"The balcony has become my world. I tried to prepare myself for this life. The development of events around me increased my isolation. I began to feel that this is not what I had bargained for and quitting it all would be better. But then one day, I decided to pick up the ball again. I had grown tired after two years of giving in. So I began to see doctors again, attend physical therapy sessions, do blood tests and have enough X-rays to fill my body with more radiation than the victims of Hiroshima. Eventually I learned that I have a swelling in one of my vertebrae and the area around it. Now I am about to undergo a major surgery. I am currently in the process of bringing order to my scattered bits of unfinished articles and literary works before the worst happens. Death does not bother me. Most of those I know have preceded me to that place and I have long been of the conviction that the world stops for no one. Having derived so much pleasure from writing, I can only feel content and grateful to God for having given me that gift. When God blesses you with such a beautiful thing, why should you worry if you are called to Him?”
My dear Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, I beg to differ. This is not a personal matter “of concern to no one.” Caring for creative writers and intellectuals is a public concern. Indeed, given their importance to our soft power, I am almost inclined to say it is a question of national security. They are the guardians of cultural identity. To care for them is to care for that identity which will be of little value to us unless we help it evolve.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly