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Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Connecting Africa and Asia

Culture is essential to forging cooperative and collaborative relations between peoples, the history of the Afro-Asia Writers’ Association being a case in point

Mohamed Salmawy , Wednesday 3 Oct 2018
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I feel sad whenever I visit the headquarters of the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation in Manial on the island of Rhoda in Cairo.

Born over 60 years ago, this people’s organisation is one of the oldest international NGOs in the world.

Over the course of its more than six decades of existence, it experienced the massive political, social and economic changes in both continents, but it remained a bedrock for the defence of the independence of Third World peoples and their liberation from colonialist rule.

The organisation was an outspoken supporter of all national liberation movements and decried all forms of oppression and racial discrimination.

It was an ardent opponent of the apartheid system in South Africa and a staunch champion of the Palestinian people and their rightful cause.

Do we not still need this organisation in this phase of our history? Are we merely to consign it to the past now that we, along with other African and Asian nations, have won our independence?

Surely our current circumstances plus our desire to re-establish contact with African and Asian nations, which Egypt once led in international forums, should make us realise that we continue to need that solidarity organisation which remains widely respected on both continents. Why has our government lost interest in it? Why doesn’t this organisation receive the funding it used to get in the 1950s and 1960s?

The Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), which was established in January 1958, was one of the fruits of the international conference of non-aligned nations that was held in Cairo that year.

Today, it oversees a large number of national committees in more than 90 African and Asian countries and it has associate member committees in Europe and Latin America.

It has been headed, in turn, by Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharkawi, Mourad Ghaleb, Ahmed Hamroush and Helmi Al-Hadidi, its current director. It was AAPSO that fostered the establishment of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, the first chairman of which was Youssef Al-Sibai.

I can personally testify to how deeply African and Asian countries are concerned for AAPSO and its writers’ association, the last chairman of which was the great Egyptian intellectual Lutfi Al-Khouli.

After Al-Khouli passed away in 1999, the government lost interest in the federation, in the organisation from which it stemmed and, indeed, in Africa and Asia.

The writers’ association fell into neglect and ceased all activity. About a decade later, a delegation from the Delhi-based Progressive Writers’ Association, led by Ali Javed, arrived in Cairo to inquire about the fate of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association.

They were not pleased with what they found. Javed wrote to AAPSO saying that if Egypt was not interested in the Afro-Asia Writers’ Association, which was headquartered in Cairo, then India was ready to revive it and move its headquarters to New Delhi.

I was present at that meeting with the Indian delegation, in which Helmi Al-Hadidi, head of AAPSO, rejected Javed’s request to move the Afro-Asia Writers’ Association to New Delhi and, instead, appealed to the visiting delegation to work with us to revive that historic association, which counted many famous African and Asian writers among its members and which once had such great influence among cultural and political spheres on both continents.

AAPSO then began to organise a general conference, to be held in Cairo, of African and Asian writers’ associations in order to revive the Afro-Asia Writers’ Association and elect a new leadership.

I was elected to chair the committee that was formed to prepare for that conference. We had a year to prepare amidst the upheavals ushered in by the 25 January 2011 Revolution.

The conference was held in December 2012 and was attended by representatives from more than 40 African and Asian nations.

We had wanted the conference to be held under the sponsorship of the Egyptian president as an affirmation of the bond of brotherhood between the participants and as a sign that Egypt had not abandoned the association or its connections with African and Asian peoples.

However, the office of the presidency, at the time, had ended up in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, which rejected our request.

Still, in spite of all those circumstances, the conference was a success and I had the honour to be elected secretary-general of the Afro-Asia Writers’ Association which entered a new phase in its history after a 10-year slumber.

We had drawn up a new charter for the association to bring it up to date with the developments that occurred since it ceased activities a decade earlier and the charter was approved in the general conference.

Since its revival, the Afro-Asia Writers’ Association has held conferences in Vietnam, Jordan, Pakistan, Russia and Egypt. It is currently preparing for a forthcoming conference in Morocco in November.

It has also resumed publication of Lotus upon the instance of member countries that gave us back issues that they had preserved all these years. Lotus is a trilingual magazine, in Arabic, English and French.

The reason I relate the foregoing, which I personally experienced, is to underscore how much African and Asian countries care for AAPSO and its Afro-Asia Writers’ Association, the activities of which encouraged Al-Hadidi to use it as a model to launch another important organisation: the Afro-Asia Journalists Association.

Four decades in which Egypt turned its back on Africa, Asia and the Third World are over. Egypt, today, once again aspires to establish closer contact with the many African and Asian countries with which we shared such strong friendships and cooperative relations.

Such relations added a force and impetus to our presence in the international domain, which helped make Egypt an authentic leader of all Third World countries.

We should bear in mind that this organisation, with its venerable history and record of achievements, is still cherished in the hearts of African and Asian nations which joined together to help foster its revival during the past six years.

Is there a better gateway than this organisation to rebuild contacts with these nations? One of the main advantages of AAPSO is that it is an NGO. Real contacts between nations do not take place solely at the governmental level. People-to-people contacts support and strengthen the bond.

There is no need to say more. Who will heed this appeal?

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Connecting Africa and Asia

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