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Sunday, 18 August 2019

INTERVIEW: Novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid talks about lasting impact of 1952 Revolution

Novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid talks of 1952, his hometown of Alexandria, and other cities around the Mediterranean

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 30 Jul 2019
 Novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid
Novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid
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When King Farouk headed to the port of Alexandria to dock his yacht Al-Mahroussa in July 1952, novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid was only six years old. He was getting ready to join his primary school in September of the same year.

His political awareness had not yet developed, but his recollection of the charged emotions all around him would not be something that would escape his mind in the years that followed, as he grew up to be a vehement supporter of the rising star of the 1952 Revolution, Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

For 15 years, including the years of political turbulence that came with the split within the Free Officers Movement and the confrontation between the Free Officers and their former allies the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel-Meguid was totally fascinated with the Nasser experience.

“Nasser was doing lots of good things to achieve socio-economic independence and justice; I was truly impressed and I was truly enthusiastic,” Abdel-Meguid recalled on the 67th anniversary of the day the Free Officers forced the last ruler of the Mohamed Ali Family to step down, and thus brought about the end of the monarchy and the beginning of republican rule.

In his book 'Where do the birds over the ocean go?', which came out late last year in a new edition by Battana Publications, Abdel-Meguid does not come across as anything but a dedicated Nasserite.

Reflecting on what, in his eyes, was the beauty and cleanliness of Casablanca during a first visit to the city in the early 1990s, Abdel-Meguid sounds quite defensive in the face of a companion’s remark that compared Casablanca’s architectural treasures to the sad loss of Cairo’s architectural heritage – blaming this loss on the rule of the Free Officers.

“I have always thought that the July Revolution has been subjected to extreme unfairness. When we assess the outcome of this revolution we tend to overlook the colonial attempts to undermine Egypt’s independence. We also tend to forget that the revolution had enemies, and it was them rather than the men of the revolution who brought about the damage that came in subsequent years,” Abdel-Meguid wrote in his book.

Today, this widely translated novelist does not necessarily have the same position he held less than two decades ago.

“Today, I must admit that I think differently,” Abdel-Meguid said.

“I still think that there were sincere attempts by Nasser to bring about social justice and establish a strong economy; these attempts succeeded only in part," he argued.

However, he says, a political movement cannot only be judged by its intentions, but rather by what it actually did.

Close to seven decades down the road, Abdel-Meguid said that the 1952 Revolution cannot be separated from the totalitarianism it brought about.

“The 1967 defeat should have been a wakeup call for everyone; it partially was – or at least it was for a while, but not for long,” Abdel-Meguid said.

He added that once a dictatorship is put in place, it most likely remains in place – “and the fate of the nation becomes subject to whoever comes to take the seat of the ruler.”

“When [Anwar] El-Sadat came after Nasser, he kept the totalitarian style of rule and almost fully erased the socialist agenda that Nasser had adopted that favoured the wide majority of the population,” Abdel-Meguid said.

Abdel-Meguid, as he describes in the early chapters of his book, was not at all unaware of the human rights violations associated with Nasser’s era.

During a visit to Moscow, practically on the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Abdel-Meguid recalls with subtle dismay the fact that leading Russian officials made regular visits to Nasser and that they took part in the celebration of the operation of the High Dam – “without thinking twice about the Egyptian communists that were in Nasser’s prisons over political charges of promoting communism.”

“When I was there, this idea came to my mind. This is the thing about visiting places with which one has developed an intellectual association; it makes one think of things, or rather it brings to the surface, certain ideas that have been hiding in one’s mind for a while,” he said.

“This is why I thought it would be interesting to collect the articles that I had already published on my travels in a book. It was not just about sharing my impressions about the places I have been to, for I am not a travelogue. It was about sharing the ideas that I had,” he argued.

'Where do the birds over the ocean go?' is precisely that: a series of reflections that the author had during visits to cities he related to in one way or another.

In Moscow and other cities of the former USSR, including Ukraine’s current capital Kiev, Abdel-Meguid explored with fascination communism and Russian politics.

“My generation, or at least many of its writers and intellectuals, thought that the USSR was the aspired Utopia,” he said.

Abdel-Meguid was strongly influenced by Paul Hollander’s ‘Political Pilgrims’, which came out in 1981 and reflects on the travels of Western intellectuals to the lands of communism in the USSR, China and Cuba – from the late 1920s until the late 1970s – in search of fairness and welfare.

However, “when I was there shortly before the end of this fallacy, I realised that this assumption was very far from the truth.”

“So we watch films – I have been watching films with an incredible passion all throughout my life – and we read books and novels and we build images about ideas and places; but it is only when we travel that we get to see things for real. Some of the images we had might be proven right and others might be proven wrong – or simply incomplete,” he said.

One thing that Abdel-Meguid often thought about during his travels was the lack of translation from Arabic into other languages, especially French and English, the two languages whose authors have been made familiar to the Arabic reading audience through translations that have been coming in abundance.

“During the era of the USSR, there was a considerable volume of translated works from Arabic into Russian; this stopped after fall of the USSR,” he said.

“Obviously, some of our leading writers are famous in many parts of the world; but still there is a very big vacuum that we need to work on filling,” he argued.

The overlooked memories of the many foreign communities that came to Egypt is another thought that often pops up in Abdel-Meguid's book.

He laments the little that has been recorded about the Russian community that sought refuge in Egypt, especially in his hometown of Alexandria, during the rule of the Tsars.

He also laments the lack of accurate documentation about the Arab tribes that have travelled through Alexandria from eastern Egypt to the Maghrab and the other way round.

The lack of detailed documentation about the expat communities in Alexandria is also lamented by Abdel-Meguid, who wrote his famous trilogy that profiles the history of the city from the 1930s through to the 1970s.

“My only direct experience with the foreign presence in Alexandria was really in 1956 during the Tripartite Aggression,” he writes in his book.

Speaking on his experience writing this trilogy and other literary work that involved Alexandria, Abdel-Meguid said that it was always a hard process of research.

Alexandria is the one thing that is clearly very present in the observations and reflections of Abdel-Meguid. In his book, he calls it "a place in the heart."

The surviving beauty of other Mediterranean cities that Abdel-Meguid visits is often compared to the declining glory of the city that was built by Alexander the Great and that once was, at least partially, truly a city of the world.

“When we travel and we see things we like, we sometimes cannot help but feel saddened about what we had and what we lost,” Abdel-Meguid said.

He added that the debate would “perhaps continue for very long” on what really caused the decline of aesthetic values and whether or not the 1952 Revolution should be blamed for this.

The impact of politics on society is something that can always be seen from different perspectives, Abdel-Meguid argues. His most recent novel, 'The Cyclops,' is precisely about this. Published in Tunis, the novel is effectively an eulogy of the Arab Spring.

“The fate of the January Revolution was no better than that of the July Revolution; it too went astray,” Abdel-Meguid said.

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