“Abbas was the ultimate ruler in the village; he literally ruled the people, the mayor and his assistants, and the guards too; he ruled the landowners and the peasants. This he did while he was only the assigned agriculture supervisor, but it was actually this job that put him in charge of the cooperative associate [which meant everything for the agricultural operation of the whole village]… Abbas’ powers had no limits; he went from ruling everyone to taking charge of everyone’s life, and then he found his way into everyone’s homes; he did not just got into our homes, but into our very own rooms… he then went to Fatemmah; my cousin, my love.”
The words of Mohamed, the leading protagonist of Ihsan Abdel-Quddous’ ‘The Bullet is Still in my Pocket’, a two-volume story that came out in the wake of the October War, were inevitably politically metaphoric. Abdel-Quddous’ Fatemmah is Egypt and Mohamed is the Egyptian people. Abbas is the tyrant who oppressed everyone and violated Fatemmah.
It was after Egypt’s humiliating defeat of 1967 that Abdel-Quddous wrote the first volume of the book, titled ‘A Single Bullet in my Pocket’. Then, after the October Crossing in 1973, he wrote the second part: ‘The Bullet is Still in my Pocket’ (AlRossasa latazal fi gaybi). By October 1974, the book was adapted into a movie that is still aired every year on Egyptian TV to mark the October War.
“This book has a very clear political message, and even though Ihsan had put the famous disclaimer to disassociate his protagonists from any real-life characters, it was very clear who he was talking about,” argued Khairy Douma, head of the Cairo University faculty of Arabic Literature.
Abdel-Quddous, Douma said, was very critical of the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser – not just for his record on human rights, but also for the defeat of 1967 that allowed Israel to occupy Sinai.
“This political position and message were typical of the works of literature by the prominent novelists of the 1950s and 1960s, whose political and intellectual consciousness was formed in the years following the 1919 Revolution with calls for freedom and liberal values,” Douma argued.
“This was the case with Naguib Mahfouz, who was born in 1911, and Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, who was born in 1919,” he added.
This year, the centenary of the 1919 Revolution and the birth of Abdel-Quddous were widely celebrated.
Abdel-Quddous was widely discussed as a journalist and a novelist who wrote some 600 novels and collections of short stories – with some 70 of these having been adapted into films or radio and TV soap operas. However, the political story in Abdel-Quddous’ literature received little attention during most of the events held throughout the year to celebrate the centenary of Abdel-Quddous’ birth.
“I think there was always a deliberate disassociation of Ihsan’s literature from political satire,” said Hatem Hafez, editor of the art and literature magazine Fonoun (Arts).
Hafez argued that Abdel-Quddous wrote many of his novels under the rule of Nasser, of whom he was very critical; consequently, his political literature “was either dismissed or snubbed by most of the critics who did not share his liberal values and banked more on the hardcore socialist ideology.”
Throughout his writing years, which started in the 1930s until he passed away in January 1990, Abdel-Quddous had one thing to advocate: liberalism and freedoms.
“He truly believed in liberal values and he really took exception to oppression; this was not something that fared well before or after 1952,” Hafez argued.
Abdel-Quddous never made a secret of his dismay over the autocratic style of the rule of the Free Officers who took over the country after the elimination of the monarchy in 1952.
Already an established journalist in the 1940s, Abdel-Quddous was already critical of the state’s management under King Farouk, the last king of Egypt, and his political entourage. It was actually Abdel-Quddous who wrote several investigative pieces by the mid-1940s to reveal the corruption among the political and executive elite.
In the book ‘Ihsan Abdel-Quddous: The Battles of Love and Politics,’ which came out earlier this month, writer and researcher Zeinab Abdel-Razik reminds us that Abdel-Quddous was also very critical of the role of the “political police” under the monarchy.
Abdel-Razik says that in the late 1940s, Abdel-Quddous wrote: “You have to die or to kill your opinion so that you would be of no interest to the political police, which simply wants to eliminate anyone who has any opinion.”
Predictably, Abdel-Quddous joined many intellectuals and writers in offering support to the 1952 Revolution.
However, Abdel-Razik says, it did not take long for Abdel-Quddous to see that things were not taking the path of democracy and freedom that he hoped the Free Officers would embrace.
It was then that he wrote his highly controversial article ‘The Secret Association’ (Al-Gamaiyah Al-Serryah), where he criticised the Revolution Council for failing the cause of liberty and freedoms.
In his novel ‘My Dear, we are all Thieves’ (Ya azizi kolona lossous), Abdel-Quddous has his protagonist, Mortada Al-Salamony, say, “We are the kings now; we took over from the king and anything that belonged to the king is now ours.”
And in his novel ‘To Keep the Smoke Inside’ (Hattah layatir aldokhan), Abdel-Quddous’ protagonist Fahmy Abdel-Hady is an opportunistic lawyer who started off as a poor student who did favours for richer students by holding their marijuana smoking sessions. Abdel-Hady ends up in the full service of the rich and influential men of the post 1952 Revolution, who, like the powerful and influential men of pre-1952, would come to the same apartment to smoke weed and have fun.
According to the Abdel-Razik’s recent book, Abdel-Quddous continued to be critical beyond Nasser. He had his share of disagreements with Nasser’s successor Anwar El-Sadat. He was not only critical of the deficit of freedoms, but also of the haphazard management of the economy.
Abdel-Quddous, Abdel-Razik writes, was a political prisoner during the rule of the monarchy and during the rule of Nasser. Under Sadat, Abdel-Quddous was abruptly removed from editorial jobs he was assigned to, and his prominent political column ‘Café on the political street’ was suspended twice. Sadat later arrested Abdel-Quddous’ elder son, Mohamed, on political charges.
“Ihsan was very concerned about freedoms; he was hopeful in 1952, but things did not go the way he wished,” Abdel-Razik writes. She actually quotes Abdel-Quddous in a mid-1980s press interview where he said, “despite the restrictions on the freedom of the press during the years of the monarchy, things became much worse after 1952 as the state took control of all the papers and inevitably turned them into sheer propaganda stages.”
According to Hafez, Abdel-Quddous was as critical of social and cultural oppression as he was of political oppression.
In his novel ‘Beggars go on Strike’ (AlShahatoun yonazmoun idrab), Abdel-Quddous tells of a group of beggars who decided to boycott a regular charity event by a rich man unless he agrees to a more generous donation. The rich man, who was holding the charity to clear his conscience over the illicit deals he was involved in and to get social credit, had to finally bow to the wish of the beggars.
“We also get to see his criticism of the abuse of workers by a factory owner in ‘The Black Glasses’ (Alnadarah AlSawda’),” Hafez said.
According to Hafez, critics who wished to dismiss Abdel-Quddous’ call for liberal values deliberately reduced this call to an alleged call for sexual liberties.
“The presentation of ‘The Black Glasses’ as merely the story of a woman with wild sexual adventures is one example of this,” he argued.
This unfair representation, Hafez added, has never been really readdressed.
Hafez, however, is not sure whether and when the full political significance of Abdel-Quddous’ literature would be addressed – not strictly in the academic context, but at a much broader level.
“I guess the one thing that needs to be underlined more is that there needed to be more attention paid to the political message of his literature during the celebrations of Ihsan’s centenary,” he stated.