Sartre and Hadith

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 23 Nov 2021

Mohamed Salmawy takes issue with one parliamentarian’s retrograde views

Now that a modern development process is in full swing after years of stagnation, some people’s minds remain mired in outlooks and attitudes that predated the last century. Not only are they out of tune with the rapid progress around them, they are also in enough conflict with it to obstruct it. Development is an indivisible process. A society can not move forward economically and politically while regressing intellectually and culturally. Development is unsustainable in a society that can not grow intellectually and culturally because it has to rest on a solid and constructive intellectual foundation in order to take root and flourish. This is why our political leadership called for a modernisation of religious discourse when it launched the national development project. If the religious tenets we abide by are to be both true to the faith and commensurate with our age, the discourse must shed the residues of narrow-mindedness that have accumulated through ages of underdevelopment. Only then will Egypt be able to release the full powers of creativity and ingenuity for which it was famed in antiquity and which can take the country to the renaissance we aspire to.

Frankly, I was stunned when a member of our parliament described a play by one of the great philosophers of the 20th century as “pornographic.” His judgement was based entirely on the title that Jean Paul Sartre had chosen for the play, which was hailed by critics when it premiered in 1946, The Respectful Prostitute. Have we become so shallow that we literally judge a book by its cover? In a society where impromptu savvy has become the substitute for hard work and study, one would think that an MP would be able to see it as his responsibility to educate the public in his constituency rather than trying to outperform them in playing smart. One would also think he would take the trouble to read a bit of the play, or at least read something about it, before calling it “pornographic.” But apparently that would be too much to ask, which is why he did not know that this play had been translated into Arabic in the middle of the last century, widely read in translation and performed at the National Theatre in Cairo. It had never occasioned the kinds of judgement that MP utters so glibly. How can someone promote the welfare of his constituency if he will not take the trouble to know what he is talking about? 

It even reached the point where he formally asked the prime minister and minister of culture to appear beneath the parliamentary dome to answer questions about the play, the “dramatic treatment” of which was “inappropriate to Egyptian society.” I can only venture a guess at the extent of the MP’s knowledge of dramatic treatment, which led him to the conclusion that the play was obscene, especially given the fact that Egyptian audiences who saw it in 1958 thought nothing of the kind. Of course, it could be that the lawmaker is the kind of person who thinks all art is obscene and should be banned. Perhaps he shares the view that pharaonic statues should be covered with wax to conceal their limbs. I thought we had left that type of thinking behind us with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now that was an era when art was frowned on, when the works of the Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz were dismissed as the “literature of hash dens and whore houses,” and the noble art of ballet was damned an “incitement to licentiousness and vice”. It was an age when one Islamist sheikh had the nerve to ask one of our most widely revered actresses - on television and heedless of whose sensitivities he might offend - how many men had laid on top of her. Is that mentality still so ingrained among some parliamentary representatives that their knee-jerk reaction to any art is to reach for the Muslim Brotherhood manual? 

If the MP in question had truly read the play, the “dramatic treatment” of which he objects to so strongly, he would know that it is set in the US some time in the first half of the 20th century and that its subject is racism. One of the protagonists is a white woman, a prostitute, who refuses to lie in court in order to convict a Black man of a crime he did not commit, so that a white man can get off. What, exactly, does the MP find so objectionable about this? 

No sooner did that MP speak his piece than a representative from the Salafi Nour Party, which is as remote as can be from any forward-looking society aspiring to progress, suddenly awoke from his slumber beneath the parliamentary dome in order to second his colleague’s motion. He said that the title of the play was so provocative and immoral that he, himself, could not bring himself to say it. Perhaps that Salafi MP is unaware of the Prophetic Hadith (Saying) that, like Sartre’s play, combines the very word he is unable to say with an act of virtue. My friend, the noted scholar Saadeddin Al-Hilali drew my attention to this Hadith, which appears in Sahih Al-Bukhari, and kindly sent me the text. It relates that Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet said that a prostitute had come across a dog circling a well and panting. It was about to die of thirst. So the woman took off her slipper, tied it to her veil and lowered it into the well in order to draw up water for the dog. God absolved her because of this. 

I wonder whether that Salafi MP will apply that same twisted logic and demand that this Prophetic Hadith be banned.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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