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Book Review: Mahmoud AbdelShakour’s socio-cultural biography tells ‘all about Egypt in the 1980s’

The book is a sequel to AbdelShakour’s first volume, ‘I was a kid in the 1970s,’ an earlier publication that shows a dedicated interest in biographies and social history

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 12 Apr 2020
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“I was a young man in the 1980s” (Kont Shaban filtamaninat), Mahmoud AbdelShakour, -295pp, AlKarma Books 2020

It was on a late summer day in 1983 when Mahmoud AbdelShakour arrived from his peaceful village in Upper Egypt to “suffocating, crowded Cairo” to start his academic years as a student in Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication – at the time a relatively new school that was assigned a floor at the building of the longer established Faculty of Economics and Political Science.

And from that day on, first for four years until his 1987 graduation, and beyond during his years in journalism that has now led him to the post of deputy editor of the weekly Magazine October, AbdelShakour has been living in the capital of the country for which the 1980s were in many ways a significant turning point.

“It was especially the years when the middle class fell into decline after having suffered the adverse impact of the open-door policy that was introduced in the 1970s,” he wrote.

In his 295-page book, “I was a young man in the 1980s” (Kont Shaban filtamaninat) AbdelShakour tells the story of the 1980s from the perspective of a University student and a young journalist who was born in the mid-1960s and who saw the 1980s essentially as the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

The 1980s, according to AbdelShaour’s narrative, marked the end of the years of great intellectuals – Tawfik AlHakim, Louis Awad, Youssef Edris and others whose articles appeared in the Egyptian dailies, particularly Al-Ahram.

It was also, as AbdelShakour showed, the end of the era of great movie-makers who gave Egypt its grand classics of the 1950s and 1960s and the beginning of a new era of film with new directors exploring new techniques like Mohamed Khan, Dawoud AbdelSayyed and Ra’fat ElMehi.

Essentially, the 1980s were the beginning – and perhaps most telling years – of the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was sworn in after the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat in October 1981.

AbdelShakour’s book, in fact, could be seen as a close up on the formative years of the Mubarak rule that would end 30 years later in an as a dramatic setting as it had started – this time with the January Revolution of 2011.

Mubarak, as AbdelShaour argues, was a largely uncharismatic head of state who for the most part opted to “just keep things going in the pursuit of an assumed – but maybe false – sense of stability.”

Right from the beginning, AbdelShaour argued, Mubarak was not showing a great deal of political talent or for that matter a great sense of efficient governance. “It always felt that there was something wrong,” he wrote.

According to the narrative offered by AbdelShakour, Mubarak allowed the 1980s to be the years of no political vision and of a confused relationship between state and political Islam, as the Islamists were subject to considerable security scrutiny on one hand but were also, or at least a faction of them, allowed to have a loose space in the political sphere, including to run for parliament.

Against this backdrop, AbdelShaour recalled, there were some very un-secular public moments, including a tough criticism from a famous conservative Muslim cleric, Mohamed Metwali AlShaarawi, against prominent literary figure Tawfik AlHakim over a series that the latter was publishing in AlAhram under the title of “a talk with God” – which he later changed to “a talk to God.”

Also in the 1980s, an orthodox fiery preacher, Omar AbdelRahman, issued an edict permitting the killing of prominent novelist Naguib Mahfouz for alleged blasphemy in his novel Children of Gebelawi (Awlad Haretna).

This novel was one of the main accreditations that gave Mahfouz the Nobel Prize for Literature on 13 October 1988 – the second most glorious day for AbdelShaour’s father after the crossing of the October War in 1973.

The growing conservative mode was not confined at all to major literary figures, as AbdelShakour recalls in his book. In the 1980s, he wrote, Mona Gabr, a then lecturer at the faculty of mass communication and an aspiring actress, was prevented from pursuing her academic career over a scene she played in a famous pro-family planning film – “AlHafid” (the grandson) where she portrayed a young pregnant woman going through labour.

This said, AbdelShakour’s narrative of Egypt in the 1980s gives credit to Mubarak for allowing considerable political satire in the literary and cinema production.

A major highlight for AbdelShakour was the movie (the bus driver) (Sawaq AlAutobis), which was very critical of growing corruption.

The one thing for which AbdelShakour seemed to be unconditionally crediting Mubarak in the 1980s was his determined pursuit of retrieving the last bit of Sinai from Israel. On 25 April 1982, Egypt regained Sinai according to the terms of its peace treaty with Israel, and on 25 April 1989, Egypt retrieved Taba in the wake of a long legal arbitration.

All the political views and cultural reflections that AbdelShakour is offering in his book come in a charming story-telling style that would keep any reader, especially if he or she too was also young in the 1980s, truly entertained.

“I was a young man in the 1980s” is beautifully anecdotal, telling AbdelShakour’s years at Cairo University and at its students’ hostel, his recurrent visits to the movie theaters all across the city, his attempts to find himself a permanent job and his interviews with top literary figures of the time. The interviews include two, which are indexed at the end of the book, with Mahfouz, who talked about his attempt at writing short-stories to gain sufficient exposure, and with novelist Fatehi AboulFadl, whose novels reflected on “this unmistakable resemblance between the power that beautiful women exercise to control men and the power dictators exercise to control people.”

The cover of “I was a young man in the 1980s” is exactly the bit where nostalgia is introduced – with a collage of pictures of some the decade’s most prominent figures: singer Mohamed Mounir, the 4M singing band, Mahfouz and the stars of soccer, cinema and TV.

The book is a sequel to AbdelShakour’s first volume, “I was a kid in the 1970s”, an earlier publication by AlKarma Books that shows a dedicated interest in biographies and social history.

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