A large number of devotees gathered at Shorouk Bookstore in Zamalek Tuesday to meet renowned Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher in a rare open discussion on one of his earlier works.
It was before 7pm when Taher showed up, respecting everyone packed into the small bookstore reception area, to the surprise and delight of his hosts who were expecting such a famous writer to arrive late. Taher sat silent among his fans, waiting for the host, Wael Kandil, who arrived 15 minutes later.
Taher considers the book under discussion, Abnaa Refaa (Refaa’s Sons), the first edition of which was published in 1993 and won the Cairo International Book Fair’s award for best book of the year. "The book then went to oblivion," Taher complained, noting that nobody spoke about it, even those the book attempted to defend, with the exception of the late critic Farouk Abdel Kader.
Refaa’s Sons, written at the time when terrorism was ripping Egypt apart, was intended as a reflection on the history of Egypt, which Taher was keen to analyse, considering what events had led Egypt to its condition.
"Egypt before Mohammed Ali was in ruins, and even the population was at its lowest points. Not a year passed without a disaster or war," Taher reminded his listeners, continuing that Mohammed Ali Pasha took over and then things started turning around. Apparently the reason behind this renaissance was not the Pasha himself, but Refaa Al-Tahtawy, the religious man sent with the Egyptians studying abroad to help retain their identity amid Western societies. Because of Al-Tahtawy, ideas about the state and the nation came to Egypt and he awoke an understanding of identity where this awareness had been lost.
Taher spoke about Al-Tahtawy's defence of the idea of equality among the sons of the nation for the first time in Egypt's history. Mohammed Abdo, the religious leader and thinker who was a student of Al-Tahtawy, went one step forward, speaking about citizens’ civil rights vis-a-vis the ruler of the state, and asserting equality among everyone without religious discrimination.
"The intellectuals did many services to the nation," Taher continued, recalling Kassem Amin who sided with women and social liberation, who was also a student of Mohammed Abdo, and finally Taha Hussein and his battle for free basic education for everyone. "These steps, one by one, led Egypt from the middle ages to modernity."
Taher concluded that we owe much to intellectuals who were invited by the ruling authority to partake in uplifting the nation, "but this totally receded after the defeat of 1967," pointing to the reduced value of intellectuals like Gamal Hamdaan, "whose project would have lifted Egypt to a different and new level."
According to Taher, the displacement of intellectuals started and increased gradually until reaching it's maximum during the Mubarak era, where intellectuals were "replaced by religious leaders who seek to return Egypt back to pre-modernity."
"Please go back to your history, and tell your children that they have to go back to that track of Refaa and his sons that guided Egypt throughout its first stages," Taher said. He finished his introduction thus asking his audience to not let current events overtake their knowledge of and pride in their history.
Yahia Yakhluf, the Palestinian poet, was among the guests. He praised the great work of Taher and his battle for freedom, democracy, human dignity and social justice, commenting about the bravery of these first renaissance leaders. "All the topics we talk about today were tackled back then, but this thought completely died with the death of Abdel Nasser."
"Writers like Taher lead us to optimism. The role of the intellectual today is political and not only cultural, in order to root cultural thought against the new thoughts of today and the fears of returning backwards," Fathia Al-Asaal commented.
For Taher, independence from the West and from Wahabi thought is a must to be able to move forward, and that requires more confrontations. He insisted that culture is sustained not only by accumulation but through battles, one by one, until we create the new culture we need.
Regarding the new president, Mohamed Morsi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood current, Taher said he would send him two words: first, fulfill the promises made the night before he became president; second, he wished him good luck as the new president of Egypt.