Esam Abou Seif in Conversation with Walter Grond



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Esam Abou Seif in Conversation with Walter Grond


Translation by Janice Schützenhöfer
W.G. As a tourist in Egypt I noticed the exceptional hospitality. Does this hospitality play a roll in an Egyptians´ self awareness?
E.A.S. Hospitality is a part of the arabian- islamic culture which exists in Egypt and is a pillar of the old agricultural culture. In Egypt these two cultures are interwoven additionally with the Bedouin culture, and that is what leads to the special hospitality of the Egyptians. If you know Egypt, then you will have experienced that the Egyptian people are very, very poor, with many daily stresses and problems to tackle. Despite this the humane tendencies are quite extended. I mean, that one fosters humanity also to supress the poverty.
W.G. Were you ever in Europe before you fled Egypt?
E.A.S. No. It was the first time that I ever even thought of leaving.
W.G. Did you experience culture shock when you arrived?
E.A.S. No, but there is a very simple reason why. I am one of the well educated people from Egypt and probably knew more about Europe before my arrival than many Europeans.
W.G. What did you first notice about European life?
E.A.S. What amazes me and what I have since learned to admire is this exact and practical implimentation of a theory. The city plan for example; I was impressed that all the houses look alike in the district. In every district the fassades have almost the same color, the houses are about the same height, and there are no exceptions. The same applies to the streets so that every district has the same type and differentiates from the next, but within the district care is taken that the types remain similar. The symmetry and the cohesion of the constructions astounded me.
W.G. You must have noticed the materialistic life style.
E.A.S. I was amazed that the high living standards are mirrored by the people in daily life. I could see that the people are better behaved, content, get along with each other better than in the third world where the people are generallly more impulsive and very aggressive. Another important point is that democracy is not just an empty theory, rather put into practice. I admire over and over that an opinion can be openly expressed during an election. Even that during the presidential election more that one candidate can campaign, that one can attack a candidate both personally and politically, that the attackers are not immediately arrested by the polititians as is the case in other countries. I am aware that there are abuses but I still experience a democracy which is practiced here and that I only knew as a theory before.
W.G. Have you travelled around in Austria already?
E.A.S. Yes, I took a few trips. I admire the ideal use of the entire land in Austria. I don´t know if it is ordained by law or whether the people are so reasonable in how they deal with land. I noticed that here it is planned exactly where the green areas remain and where it may be built up. In Egypt it is totally different. It is very easy to build a really ugly building on the coastline and nobody would say a word against it. I have noticed that people respect nature here. Also totally new to me is the existence of a civilian society. That there are civilian organizations and that all these associations can exist freely. One can become a member and these members can meet when and where they want. They have the freedom, as with the PEN- Club, to support people and it is even possible that the government will support the association. That would be unthinkable in Egypt. Maybe you could found an association but then you would immediately come under survelience, would be buried with law suits from the opposition with the justification of treason and subvention from foreign countries, arrested and on and on.
W.G. There now exist diverse European projections concerning the Middle East, and most of them are stamped with colonialism. These projections also concern the self image of the Europeans. While the Europeans consider themselves to be liberal, reasonable, tolerant and so on, they consider the Middle East to be chaotic, totalitarian, perverse and so on. Have you discovered moments here in Europe in which these comparisons are questioned?
E.A.S. The machismo occurs to me.
W.G. As an European signature?
E.A.S. As an imprint of Europe as well as that of the Middle East. I always had the impression from the western cultures that women here are more free, emancipated. Here I noticed that in every day life the women are not as free and that life here in European culture is dominated by men.
W.C. Can you experience Middle Eastern moments in Vienna?
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E.A.S. My wife Silvia gave me the key word „moustache“. In the Middle East a mustache is a symbol of masculinity. The bigger and thicker the beard is, the more masculine the man. I once saw an Austrian with a very thick walrus moustache that I couldn´t explain to myself. It grew in stages up to the eyes- I can´t imagine how a barber accomplished it. It was such a walrus moustache that one would say in arabic, „An eagle could land on it“.


W.G. Do you meet with muslims in Vienna?

E.A.S. What always occurs to me about the behaviour of muslims here is that irregardless of how hard they try to cover it up, deep inside they keep their Middle Eastern core. That concerns Turks that have become Austrian as much as the Austrian who has converted to Islam. They behave in a Middle Eastern fashion without letting themselves be influenced by Austrian or western culture to the point that they live in a ghetto here.


W.G. What kind of picture should I imagine here?
E.A.S. I don´t mean the clothing or the rules of Islam. It is just the way in which they relate to one another, and also the authoritarien relationship between parents and their children. I experienced in the subway where the parents hissed at their children „this is allowed, that is forbidden“, and this allowed- forbidden is a typical Islamic Middle Eastern behavior.
W.G. Does this have a lot to do with the economic backround?
E.A.S. Yes. All these people live under absolute oppression, whether the oppression is from the police, the oppression of the business boss, the polititian, and of course the oppression of the father. These societies depend a lot on the authority of the father, and I can´t imagine that in such an atmosphere love can emerge.
W.G. Do you like to think of anything special when you think of Egypt?
E.A.S. No, it doesn´t exist. Entirely the opposite- when I think about past memories, I can only bring up very painful stories. They are situations I try to forget. I continue to suffer from deep depressions and am under a doctors treatment. I am trying to leave all of Egypt behind me. I try to forget what happened to me there because everytime I am reminded of it, it´s horrible for me. Despite everything, I read the newspapers to follow what is happening in Egypt, but everytime I read a newspaper my bad memories return. For example, I have to think about friends who were arrested because they demanded justice. I recall friends who spent years in prison. I am reminded of a picture of the masses who go to work in the morning and who come together in the evening at the coffeehouse table who have a great potential but are oppressed and will never have the possibility to realize it.
W.G. I want to make a request that you think back to an important moment in your life. You were an attorney before you were an independent author and you said yourself that you were a member of the educated class.
E.A.S. (laughing) I´m just an ordinary Egyptian and actually should have become an auto mechanic. One day my father swore that I had to go to a technical school to learn a trade because I was simply too disposed to playing around and he was afraid that I would never learn anything practical.
W.G. Was your father also an attorney?
E.A.S. No, my father was a farmer. He came from a village in Beheira province in the nile delta; he joined the others who fled the land and went to Alexandria, became a police officer there, and then abandoned the city again to return to the village to farm again.

W.G. Then you enrolled in the technical school?


E.A.S. Yes, but I didn´t like it particularly. At the same time as the technical school I also applied to a private school to get a degree. I had to work as an apprentice mechanic to pay for the fees for the private school. My father found out that I was studying for a degree on the side and told me that I didn´t have to continue going to the technical school and that he would come up with the study fees. Then I completed my first level degree and went on to the university and studied law in Alexandria. It took quite a long time because I was arrested for the first time when I was nineteen.
W.G. So you were already politically active shortly after finishing your first level degree?
E.A.S. No, no. I was very naive, I was a young man and one day I was on the way to visit a girlfriend. I didn´t really know anything about the world, I was going along the street and suddenly saw a demonstration. It was the first time that I ever saw such a thing and was very impulsive by nature; this demonstration dragged me along with it. Suddenly I was going along with them and calling out the slogans louder than the rest. I didn´t even know what it was all about, I simply called in return and since I have a deep and loud voice a few noticed me and took me by the shoulders, so there I was practically the instigator of the slogans. The demonstration took place in front of the Technical University, the police came, we hid in the courtyard of the university, the police followed, arrested people and I was one of them.
W.G. What was the demonstration about?
E.A.S. I had no idea about politics but had to experience the most horrible torture that was ever done to me.
W.G. You didn´t know for which beliefs you were tortured?
E.A.S. No. I was constantly asked which party I belonged to, but I didn´t actually know whtt a „party“ was. In prison I met someone who informed me about what politics were all about. I was released from prison and a few months after my release I became a member of a secret party for the first time.
W.G. An illegal party?
E.A.S. Yes, of course it was an illegal party and therefore secret. You see, I went after my studies again, was in prison again, was followed, had to go underground, then studied for awhile again and finally completed my studies. I had a degree in general law and also in business, and actually became a lawyer.
W.G. Were you already writing at this time?
E.A.S. In my third or forth year at the university I got to know a television director who demanded that I write something. I was astounded because I had never written anything at the time- nothing official- only stories for myself. I told him that I can´t write, I only compose political articles. Despite this, the director insisted that I write a drama for the radio. I did it, and that´s how I became a writer for the radio.
W.G. Then you had your own law practice?
E.A.S. Yes, I worked as an independent attorney and simultaneously as an author for the radio and was also as politically active as before, secretly of course. It very quickly became clear to me that my work as an attorney left no time for other activities, and therefore I took a job in the government. I was active in the legal department in the Ministry of Sea Transportation. There I was responsible for drafting and checking contracts and also had to ask diverse beaurocrats and employees for example, when someone came too late or when something had been stolen or when other work problems arose. I had to work there six hours a day. Such a government job is usually quite routine which tested my creativity. I received more commisions from the radio and therefore turned in my resignation and concentrated on writing from then on. At this time...
W.G. In what year was that?
E.A.S. In the year 1985. By then I had written for the theater, drafted articles for the Alexandria newspaper, cancelled my party membership.
W.G. Which party was that?
E.A.S. Well, it was the Egyptian Communist party. Their ideal values differed greatly from mine for a long time and therefore I quit the party. I also notice that the party didn´t really deal with Egyptian realities and that the Egyptian people had very big actual problems in which the party did not engage. One of these main problems which was also of great concern to me was the religion, the Islam. So I began to write more in this direction and a circle of friends grew from this, who met regularly, always at my house so that the police wouldn´t notice.
W.G. Was it a muslim group?
E.A.S. I have to comment here that my view of Islam differed absolutely from the official viewpoint and naturally also from that of the fundamentalists.
W.G. Did that have to do with the „Historic Compromise“ as the eurocommunist movement tried in Italy, a reconciliation of the dilectic materialism with religion?
E.A.S. You can´t compare that at all. There are the conservative muslims, then the fundamentalists, and then there is a movement who called themselves Mu´tazalites, and this movement is the one I represent. I represent a reform of Islam but not in any connection with ideologies from a foreign country, rather a reform of Islam which comes from Islam itself.
W.G. So you were raised Islamic as a child, then joined the communist party as a student, quit the party as an attorney and joined the Mu´tazalite movement?
E.A.S. I would refuse to say that I joined anyone because in Egypt there is no mu´tazalite movement. I considered going in one direction and then in the other. In Egypt there are some intellectuals who support the Mu´tazalite body of thought. There are some in Tunesia, there is Dr. Hassan Hanafi, there is Dr. Mohamed Ahmed Khalafallah, Dr. Nasr Abu Zaid, Dr. Sobhy Mansour, and Tunesia is the philosopher Saad Haddad.
W.G. Can you give me an insight into these ideas?
E.A.S. The Mu´tazalite teachings, which can be seen as reform teachings actually have a very simple basis. The conservatives and the fundamentalists say that the Koran is as old as God: that means simultaneous with God, therefore as meaningful as God. That could be interpreted as having two Gods which is blasphamy. The Mu´tazalites represent exactly the opposite. They declare that the Koran was created by God but not equally important as God. So one can compare the Koran to every living thing created by God and that means once again that the Koran is not in itself holy and that we have the right to discuss it. Therefore Islam is an Arabian text like any other to us. And therefore when we read it we must understand and interpret this Arabian text so; always with reference to the universal values that God followed when he created these texts. These universal values were treated twice during Arabian history. Imam Shatiby once defined these values in the following way: it is the preservation of the self, the reason, the soul of the body and the preservation of the material goods. The modern philosophers of today say that the preservation of the soul excludes the preservation of reason therefore the Koran is once again to be read as holy. They have built the values newly on these main columns which are the reason, justice, and freedom.
W.G. What consequences did these reform teachings have?
E.A.S. For example it is practiced by the conservative representatives of the Scharia and also the fundamentalists that the daughter only inherits the half of what the son receives. For a mu´tazalite and a practical modern thinker that would be pure injustice. Also the bigamous marriage is anchored in the Scharia and contradicts the reform ideas of freedom and justice. Many fundamentalists and conservatives even believe that originally slavery was allowed because nowhere in the Koran is it stated as forbidden. The modern philosopher says that of course slavery is forbidden.
W.G. Are you commited to this modern interpretation of the Koran?
E.A.S. It is my opinion and it is also the opinion which I have declared, which I have embraced and have defended.
W.G. In 1985 you decided to become an independent author. What role did literature play in your socialization?
E.A.S. My father is to blame that from early childhood I was always around literature and that I began to love reading literature at an early age.
W.G. What books did you read in your youth?
E.A.S. The first book was about the Egyptian freedom fighter Ahmed Orabe which I read in the fourth grade. I discovered my love for literature with this book and afterwards I read anything I could get my hands on. I also read translated novels and stories. During puberty I read French literature mostly, really all the French novels I could find. I also read Russian literature, American literature, very little classical German literature because there were hardly any translations in Arabic. It has changed in the last few years and that is why I read Kafka so late. I was always so sure that he was a German and first realized in Vienna that he was Austrian.
W.G. If your escape had taken you to Prague you would have learned that Kafka was a Czech and not an Austrian.
E.A.S. I believed that he had become a great author.
W.G. He was a German speaking jew who lived in Prague and felt a duty to the Czech culture.
E.A.S. In Vienna someone told me that he was Austrian through and through.
(Both laugh)
W.G. Which literary movemant influenced your work?
E.A.S. In the sixties the Egyptian theater went through a renaissance and I have read all the theater pieces written by this generation. I have read theater whether it was classical, comedy, or absurd theater.
W.G. Do the oral narrative traditions play a role in Egypt as in other Arabian countries?
E.A.S. We know these storytellers who are actually from Morroco. In Egypt we had a similar tradition which was more like improvisational theater. I knew this tradition from my childhood, unfortunately it doesn´t exist anymore. For example an actor would come for celebrations or at the fairground, collect a group around himself, light candles, make up his face white with flour so that it was totally white and act out a theater piece. I think that goes back to the phaeroaic theater as opposed to the roman and greek which had little influence in Egypt. Despite the fact that this Egyptian improvisational theater was rich with dramatic content; content which could have been built upon, the entry of western influence which came with the defeat of Mohamed Ali brought the western theater with it and ousted the traditional because there was more money and power behind it. The colonization flooded everything and after just a few years theater was known only as the western theater; that means the house, the stage, the director, the actors. Therefore, from then on the Egyptian authors wrote only within the western framework.
W.G. When did the cultural colonization of Egypt take place?

E.A.S. It began in 1840 and was the beginning of the end of Mohamed Ali. He was very beloved as a ruler and led in a real renaissance in all areas of society. In 1840 he suffered a military defeat which led to the agreement of London- Russia, Prussia, England, France and Austria took part in it. They imposed many conditions onto Mohamed Ali such as that foreign money could be invested in Egypt. With it the first step was taken also for the installation of the western theater.


W.G. You were mainly a radio writer in Alexandria. What can I envison about that?
E.A.S. You have to know that Egyptian radio- as in all Arabian spheres in general- deal mainly with drama. The programs contain mainly drama. All series and radio plays are set in the dramatic. For example, for six years I wrote the stories for a continuing story that was played every week for half an hour- we called it „Out of the Legal Archives“. It dealt with criminal stories, some which were closed cases which I simply made up. Or I wrote a continuing story for thirty days that was played for an entire month long for fifteen minutes a day. I wrote a lot of radio stories, mostly of a social nature.
W.G. Were you a socially active author?
E.A.S. In general one could say that an author can not believably seperate himself from his own beliefs. His ideas simply turn up in his works. Concerning myself, I have tried to present characters in my dramas who can say the things that the public can´t hear from me as a private person. Those fabricated persons have protected me to some extent.
W.G. You gave up your profession as attorney in 1985 and became an independent author. How did this change your life?
E.A.S. A person with my career and my backround had no other choice other than to continue being politically active. I couldn´t do anything else and had to continue my attacks on these militaristic islamic convictions. In the following years the fundamentalism spread out even more, the fundamentalistic voices became even more strident, the retreat of the government from the fundamentalist voices also became more intense for a simple reason. Parallel to the fundamentalist voices, the voices of the left and liberal also became very loud and the governments´ priority was to bring those voices to silence at any price- even to let the islamic voices to grow louder. They allowed the fundamentalists freedom of moverment in order to kill the left leaning voices.
W.G. Can you explain this in detail?
E.A.S. From 1985 on it often came to pass that entire sections of society would be declared as nonbelievers. Radio and television became more islamic, from there the attacks against people who were supposedly nonbelievers increased. In 1992 Farag Fouda was killed, everything in this islamic wave, Nagib Machfuz was shot at, they threatened Hassan Hanafi with death, also the feministic author Naval El Saadawi was threatened and had to leave Egypt. I was convinced that someone had to do something against this and looked back to my many years of experience with the secret party. I knew how one could be secretly politically active. For example how to write a leaflet and also how to make sure that many, many, many were distributed without getting caught.
W.G. The pressure on you got continualy stronger?
E.A.S. So is the nature of the thing, that one was observed by the police. The police knew the handwriting of all the old activists. So it continued until the occurance with Nasr Abou Zaid, an islamic scholar who strove to develope the teachings of the Mu´tazaliten. He was forced by law to divorce his wife and then fled with her to Holland. The politics of this government presented for me the absolute danger for every free thinker. After this incident with Nasr Abou Zaid it was no longer a matter of fundamentalist grouping that encouraged such attacks, rather it was then possible to declare someone to be a nonbeliever in the courts and this person could be sentenced to death. I began to deal with this law with which one could be indescriminately declared as a nonbeliever. I organized demonstrations, passed out leaflets until it came to having my house set on fire. Four neighbors told me that it was four fundamentalists, but I am convinced to this day that it was the police who sent someone to set my house on fire.
W.G. The pressure became unbearable.
E.A.S. Yes, then came the arrests, detainments. I tried to at least get my wife and son out of Egypt. My wife Silvia even got an American visa, but she refused to leave me behind in Egypt because she knew that would mean my death.
W.G. In many countries it has been observed in the last years what one can mean with the privatization of the state censorship. No longer do the police arrest critical intellectuals, rather neighbors are killing them. Is there a connection with this developement and what you called the Egyptian „provisional solution“?
E.A.S. Since then the fundamentalists have moved in various unions, authorities and so on. The Egyptian police have a long history and with it also prove some inconsistancies. It is easy for them to recruit from the islamic groups for the purpose of terror. It lies in the nature of the fundamentalist for example to storm a coptic apothecary, it lies in their nature to set bombs in a christian quarter, and it lies in their nature maybe to kill a christian. But I doubt if it really lies in their nature to move against a political opponent. They cursed me as a nonbelieving, Godless, athiest in their mosques and they have cursed me as the man whose son left it up to his wife if she wanted to go into the christian church, but they would never have burned down my house on their own. That´s why I see the fingers of the Egyptian police in this case, see the traces of their fingerprints. The Egyptian police have a long history of murder of the opposition and activists.
W.G. Do you mean that this „provisional solution“ was a coordinated effort of the government and the fundamental groups to prevent a modern Egypt? The fundamental terror looks like a strategy of a state power hiding under the coat of democracy.

E.A.S. The state powers, rulers and terror go hand in hand in Egypt. They are so woven together because their ideology is an islamic religion. One example: the state operates on the principal of Jihad, the holy war, which is an invitation to the fundamentalists to kill someone. Or a further example is the Hisba law where everyone is allowed to go to court to give a statement that another is a nonbeliever. In 1997 the state wanted to expand on this law and the parliament amended it. Earlier it was a civil complaint, now a person must go to the public prosecuters office who will then raise the complaint. That means that since then the public prosecuter will charge the person who has supposedly become a nonbeliever. That has important repercussions. Since then the public prosecuter gives the orders that the government can raise charges against Mr. X.


W.G. You once mentioned that speaking is even more dangerous than writing.
E.A.S. In Egypt yes, simply because many people are not educated- maybe they can read and write but basically never read anything. Therefore the personal speeches play a large role in the education of the public. You see how it was with me in Alexandria. I was already well known and was becoming more famous and was often invited to lectures or also to readings. For example to the theme „What is Your Opinion about Islam in Todays Egypt?“ or „What is Your Opinion about the Case of Abu Zaid?“. Naturally I reached hundreds of people and that was more dangerous than writing a hundred articles.
W.G. Finally you fled for your life.
E.A.S. I fled for my life. My problem which caused me to flee Egypt was this Hesba law. Anybody could have declared me to be a nonbeliever at any time. I could have been considered fair game and could have been murdered at any time.
W.G. Because of this you accepted the consequences and fled to Austria?
E.A.S. Yes.
W.G. Why specifically Austria?
E.A.S. Practical circumstances. It was obvious that I had to abandon Egypt and I just wanted to go anywhere. It had to happen quickly so that I didn´t draw anyones attention. My wife Silvia organized it and someone suggested Austria, so we landed at the airport in Vienna.
W.G. Since then you have the status as a political refugee and can feel safe now.
E.A.S. At the airport I had a drastic reaction. The airplane landed and we went through the halls to where you pick up your luggage. As soon as I was in this room I noticed that I could breath deeply. Suddenly I no longer felt like I had to keep looking behind me as if I were being followed.
W.G. You came with a tourist visa?
E.A.S. Yes the economic circumstances allowed us to move about freely then. Then came a difficult time. We had money and went to a hotel, then the money was gone and we went to a much cheaper hotel, then we came to Caritas (Christian social assistance) and stayed for three months in a Caritas shelter. And those were the worst months ever, whether dealing with the other occupants of the shelter or the treatment of us by the employees. The routine there reminds one of Chechov, because we received a room in a cloister and there we all had to live together in the smallest space and the uncertainty of what our fate would be was very embarrassing.
W.G. Do you still have contact to friends and family in Egypt?
E.A.S. My wife, yes. Concerning my family, no- the contact had become worse and worse already in Egypt and was broken off. I don´t correspond with my friends because I fear for them. My wife, Silvia corresponds with a friend by post.
W.G. I read in a newspaper that your mother- in- law wanted to visit you in Austria but was expelled.
E.A.S. My mother- in- law? No, no. My mother- in- law is much too old to be able to travel.
W.G. Maybe I wasn´t concentrating when I read the article- maybe it was your sister- in- law that had been expelled from Austria.
E.A.S. Oh, my sister- in- law, Silvias´ sister actually was here twice. She visited us but nobody expelled her. That´s what a newspaper stated? Nonsense. It concerns a sister of my wife who lives in the U.S.A..
W.G. Do you keep up the contact to exiled Egyptians who are politically active?
E.A.S. No, unfortunately not. I tried to ask around if there are any exilled Egyptians living in Vienna who write or are politically active, but no one could help me out.
W.G. Are there any exile organizations, media, or publishing houses that are run by Egyptians in Europe?
E.A.S. There are some newspapers, but as far as I know they are published by the Egyptian secret service.
W.G. You are writing volume of stories and I hope that we will be able to read them in German soon.
E.A.S. Yes, a story is being translated now. It is a story which takes place in Egypt and deals with the culture that I come from. I hope that I can set roots here. I won´t be able to go back and am slowly learning how to get along in this new world.


This text in „Refugee (Writing on the Run)“ is to be used only for private lectures. Take note of the copyright!
You can contact the author at: grond@nextra.at

(house) an art project about the fringes: http://www.kultur.at/3house


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