For four hours over two days I was fortunate enough to listen to the Spanish novelist and writer Juan Goytisolo impart his impressions on the revolutionary times in which the Arab world is living. The first came during a two-hour interview with the Egyptian author Alaa El-Aswany in the Spanish Cultural Centre’s garden overlooking the Nile Tuesday evening. The next morning, I took part in a panel with the writer and four other journalists.
In the time between the two events, I reflected on the significant impression Spanish writers have left on Egyptian and Arab intellectual life. One cannot forget Don Quixote, written by Cervantes and translated by the late professor Abdel-Rahman Badawy, as well as Lorca’s poetry, Antonio Vallejo’s plays, particularly Dr. Palmy’s Double Story which was performed on the Egyptian stage in the 1980s, and others that explored in their work pertinent issues of the human experience such as freedom, dictatorship and oppression,
Goytisolo’s visit marks the first by a major cultural figure since the January 25 Revolution. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that he witnessed and supported the Arab revolutions that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly that in Algeria.
The 80-year-old, widely recognised as one of the major European writers alive today, tempers his love for Arab and Islamic culture with a calculated take on the leaders that afflict the region. “I never criticize my enemies for they may never learn.” One day after the departure of the ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali, he predicted Egypt’s revolution during a book signing in Barcelona. When I asked him about how he came to this prediction at a time when all the indicators pointed to Egypt being a case apart from Tunisia, he related his own insight into the forces at work. “During my last visit to Egypt – and it was the first after 11 years – I noticed many social and economic pressures that may lead to revolution. I’m a curious man that likes talking to simple folks, so I talked with a traffic policeman and discovered that his salary is less than 60 euros. It made me wonder how he can live properly.
“The crisis was being aggravated between my two visits, at the time when information technology has brought the world to the Egyptians, including those simple people. I would point out that if technology such as Facebook and Twiter had existed at the times of the Bosnia massacres, they wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
Goytisolo’s sense was correct, although the question he faced in Barcelona was whether Algeria will be next. “Algerians are afraid after the civil war in the 1990s and may not dare face another confrontation with authority,” he said. “When Egypt erupted they asked me if I had insider information, I answered: not at all… I only imagined at the time the picture of the dictator Ben Ali in the streets of Tunis and imagined the pictures of the dictator Mubarak in the streets of Cairo.”
He notices a similarity between Spanish dictator Franco (1935-1975) and Egypt’s Mubarak, with Ben Ali and Stalin in between, in their shared hostility to culture and fear of education. He opened one of his articles about the Arab revolutions with a statement by Russia’s Empress Ekaterina II: “The public should not get any education … if they know too much like me they will disobey me to the same extent they obey me now.”
The Spanish novelist, who has lived in Marrakesh since 1997, followed news of the Egyptian Revolution round the clock on Arabic and English language satellite channels, immersing himself in the unfolding events. “These scenes reminded me of some memories about the Tahrir Square I knew before, to the extent that I was able to distinguish where the camera was and from where it was shooting … I truly felt amid you.”
For Goytisolo, it is easy to create a dictatorship. “Army takes over power … then say they rule … [it’s] that simple!” What is difficult, though, is creating democracy. “The road to democracy is difficult, long and full of obstacles. This is Spain’s experience during 36 years under Franco.” This was a time full of personal pain for our novelist whose mother died in one of the raids in the early days of the dictator’s rule. He added, “The day Franco died in 1975, I wrote an article reflecting what Spaniards think. It very much suits the instant of Mubarak’s departure to Egyptians.” He offered to give Al-Ahram publishing rights for the Arabic translation.
As to whether the army gives him cause to fear for the Egyptian Revolution, he offers advice on the way ahead as he sees it panning out. “There has to be an agreement about the democratic transition. The road is difficult and full of obstacles. The public pressure has to continue. As for the Brotherhood, I rule out their ambition for power now. I think they are now aware of the diversity of religion and thinking among the Egyptian public. I don’t imagine they would push for a certain regime, but rather push for something similar to the Turkish democratic model.”
Despite these challenges, the Spaniard remains optimistic about the future of democracy in the Arab world. “The wave of revolutions won’t stop, but each country’s different,” he added, giving the example of Yemen where the tribes are armed.
The impact of this awakening, he expects, will bring into focus old myths concerning how Israel is perceived outside of the region. “The Arab world may change but Israeli policy will stay the same. It was wrongly said that Israel is the only democracy in the region. Where has this democracy been for Palestinians? Now it’s difficult to continue such claims.”
A known supporter of the Palestinian cause and defender of their armed resistance, Goytisolo has visited Palestine many times, trips that have brought him pain at the suffering he witnessed. “I noticed during my visit to the Gaza Strip after Oslo the extent of corruption in the Palestinian authority. The poor neighbourhoods facing the palaces of Arafat’s friends.”
Gaza’s plight could now be eased with the old regime gone. “The demand now is to open the border with Gaza. The Mubarak regime was for a long time an accomplice with Israel in this criminal siege. The required Egyptian role now is to condemn violence and support international legitimacy.”
Last month, Goytisolo was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize in Ramallah, his first from an Arab country, of which he has described himself proud to receive. This was not the first time, however, that he has been honoured by an Arab awards panel. In 2009 he refused to accept an international prize for literature awarded funded by the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. At the time, he explained his decision in the Spanish daily El Pais in terms of his beliefs. "Precisely out of respect for the Arab people, I have always criticised the theocracies and republican dynasties that rule them and keep them in poverty and ignorance."
The same commitment to culture and justice has prevented him from visiting Saudi Arabia, a country he points where the works of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Arabi and A Thousand and One Nights are forbidden. “How can I talk about culture after this?”
Answering on where the Utopia of today’s world would be, he answered with a smile, “My own Utopia I found in what you did in Tahrir Square. I learnt that we have to ask for the impossible to make it possible, and have to keep raising our demands higher and higher… In the square, Muslims and Christians, veiled and unveiled ladies, I saw all of Egypt in unity, brotherhood and understanding.”
While he is full of praise for what Egyptians achieved in the cauldron of Tahrir, Goytisolo’s modest take on the role of his art prevents him from being so bold as to offer words of advice. “I have no message but would like to put my experience at the service of people … the true writer is a point of view. He has to ask questions and let people think, not present ready answers.”