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Thursday, 18 April 2019

On youth

We suffer from a distinct lack of knowledge about young people who time and again take us completely by surprise

Abdel Moneim Said , Saturday 21 Apr 2018
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I apologise for not knowing who Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was.

This should not be understood as a form of snobbishness towards him or his writings. Rather, it is an admission of ignorance that is unforgivable in someone such as myself who works in the fields of thought, culture and the media. 

As it happened, it was the man’s death that suddenly brought his existence to my attention. From the flood of information about him I learned that he was a pioneering writer and a prominent figure in the social networking world. 

He is now deeply mourned by young intellectuals and journalists who saw him as a literary symbol for an entire generation of Egyptian youth.

I do not know whether the same applies to young people elsewhere in the Arab world. In the past, at least, what happened in Cairo would inevitably be felt in other Arab capitals.

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, who was 55 when he died, has been described as a prolific writer of science fiction, horror and adventure fiction for youth.

An entire generation of readers was brought up on his works and they were furious at the members of my generation who admitted to their ignorance of that important literary figure.

Perhaps, one day, I will return to him in this column, after having had the opportunity to read at least some of his works.

But what concerns me here is not my generation’s lack of knowledge about an important novelist for young people but rather our lack of knowledge about the young people themselves who took us by surprise with what became known as the Arab Spring and who surprised us further with their use of what was and may remain to many of us older folks unfamiliar forms of modern communications technology.

This is not just an Egyptian or Arab issue. We see it at work with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who was brought in to testify before both houses of Congress in connection with the leaks to the Cambridge-based Analytica firm which is alleged to have used the harvested data on behalf of the Donald Trump election campaign.

The probes, which were aired on international media, went into quite a few technical details while surprise seemed to reign all around: surprise that the Facebook CEO was in a suit and tie rather than a T-shirt; surprise on Zuckerberg’s part at how unfamiliar members of Congress were with Facebook; and surprise, on the part of the members at how far legislation lagged behind the technological instruments of this age.

There were times during the hearings when it seemed as though the universe had come to a standstill because the two sides could not agree on the most basic concepts.

The billionaire youth and his interrogators and the congressional representatives of the American people came from completely different perspectives. An intellectual dilemma unfolded in the hearings due to an unbridgeable perceptual gap.

Now if that can happen in the US, what about in this part of the world? In addition to the question of an older generation’s ignorance of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, we need to reflect on another important development: the death of Khaled Hamdi Al-Fakharani, the son of a former Egyptian member of parliament.

His was not a normal death, even if suicide is not uncommon among the Egyptian population which has now exceeded a hundred million. It has been reported that the young Al-Fakharani committed suicide by playing a game.

This one is administered over social networking sites and is known as the “Blue Whale Challenge”. The game essentially puts a player through various tasks over a period of time.

In this case, as I believe has occurred in other cases, the idea is to test his/her ability to undertake a series of challenges and to endure various horrifying and depressing virtual situations until eventually he/she receives instructions to commit suicide.

The ultimate test, apparently, is whether the young person - or whoever the player is - will have the power to refuse to obey the order. Unfortunately, Khaled obeyed and committed suicide.

I doubt that there is a direct link between Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Khaled Hamdi Al-Fakharani, or between the literature produced by the former and the game played by the latter.

But both youths tell a story that older generations are insufficiently aware of and that we had not expected. It is a story about youth during the second decade of the 21st century.

Our generation moved from the reed pen and ink pot to the fountain pen and ballpoint in about half a century. We had no problem learning how to type, even though the typewriter was an invention of the first Industrial Revolution.

Before the end of the 20th century, the computer suddenly appeared in our lives and, soon afterwards, so did the mobile phone, and then the iPod and iPad. We learned to live with them out of necessity.

But it seems like today’s young people approach these instruments differently, so much so that they produce different psychological and emotional effects in the user.

As the so-called Arab Spring came and went, it occasioned countless sociopolitical analyses. Now we also know that it had emotional and psychological consequences that call for new analyses.

We know this because we have just discovered our ignorance about a popular writer and a “Blue Whale” that drives young people to suicide.

Perhaps the negative uses of the tools has to do with a political or ideological vacuum. In our days, the void was filled to the brim with Arab nationalism, with rivals coming from the corners of political Islam and Marxism.

There were writers, poets and leaders of every kind. Today, we only learn about them after they die or commit suicide, or launch a revolution - not that all the above are necessarily synonymous.

Some days ago I read that Sophia the humanoid, who visited Saudi Arabia in the autumn of last year, will visit Cairo to attend a scientific conference. For me, “Sophia” was always short for Sophia Loren; no one else.

Now she is a human-looking robot and a symbol of the beginning of a totally new and different story. Ironically, the humanoid visit by “Sophia” to Saudi Arabia coincided with a CNN news report that Saudi Arabia has launched the largest ever project to discover Saudi Arabian heritage in the ancient kingdom of Nabatea (some years ago, I saw an exhibition of Saudi Arabian antiquities in Houston, Texas.

To my surprise, it featured some Pharaonic statues). Is there some connection between “Sophia” and “heritage”, which is to say between our rich past, which enriched the whole of human history, and our future which will attain what others in developed nations achieved before us?

If so, is there something in there that we can offer our youth in order to stimulate their imagination, inject them with positiveness and instil in them a fascination for shaping the world and a future complete with an exciting magnetism and magic? I believe there is.

I think that there is substance in the current reform programme that veers away from suicide towards a sense of wellbeing.

This is not idle wishing. It is more of an appeal for a grand idea as a source of motivation and a focus point to stimulate the creative and inventive energies of youth. Perhaps this is what is needed.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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