Book Review: The Students are Back

Mahmoud El-Wardany, Tuesday 7 Dec 2010

Revealing the Egyptian university as a site of intellectual life and contest, the latest edition of Amkenah presents a rich history that speaks to the present

Amkenah (Places) 10th Edition, Alaa Khaled, Salwa Rashad and Mohab Nasr, Cairo: 2010. pp510


Amkenah magazine has published nine issues since 1999. Its 10th issue, just published, crowns Amkenah’s accomplishments over the past 11 years. The edition can also be deemed a document of our era on many levels. First, it is a political, cultural and intellectual document —one that doesn’t pretend to “own the truth”. But it is also more valuable: it brings questions, and foregrounds research, honesty, diversity and breadth. 

The issue not only celebrates the magazine in its 10th year, it also marks the important role it has played in Egyptian cultural life. Published by a small number of writers and artists at their own expense, to confirm their independence from cultural institutions and systems, Amkenah is not concerned about hidden codes or ceilings within the cultural community or official literary organisations. It looks at knowledge from a different angle, at the relations between humans and places, and has delved deeper than previously achieved. One of Amkenah’s primary features has been its detachment from the traditions of earlier magazines, and which led to their demise. Over and above, this celebration is different, for it has opened to those who shared in it rare warmth, which one can only feel in open spaces where freedom is at its maximum, together with persistent hard work and the guarantee of high quality. 

Profound respect and congratulations are warranted to all those who handled this work in diligent silence over the past 10 years: Alaa Khaled and Salwa Rashad, with support from Mohab Nasr. They never looked for financial support or funding. On the contrary, they defied everyone to prove the value of “independence” and to defend and present a project able to sail smoothly against the tide for a decade, carrying on despite the pitfalls common to the field.

 In Alaa Khaled’s introduction there is a “dedication to the spirit of youth”, for those brief instances that pass by all of us: angst, revolution, departing from the norm, rejecting society, promoting justice, freedom and love. The idea of “the university” in this context is the centrepiece that the writers of this issue focus on; not from nostalgia, but rather each according to their own history and the location they were in. This type of literary form does not look for solutions, but brings forward intricate lived details, and the spirit that hovers over them. 

This method of writing is probably the greatest contribution of the edition. A vastness, resembling the sea washing the shores of Alexandria, extends over time and space, and its variety includes all the diversities of thought and the politics of today. The testimonials constitute a broad mural imparting the story of the spirit of youth. Sometimes it bursts forward, yet is unsure or even scared. Generations, one after another, seek to attain the dreams of freedom and justice, not only in Egypt, but also in other Arab countries. Amkenah even highlights the spirit of youth in France, the US and Denmark. 

The extensive investigation conducted by Alaa Khaled consumes 59 pages, entitled “The Students are Back, Am Hamza” (a famous song by Sheikh Imam commemorating the student revolt in the 1970s). It is without exaggeration a lesson in writing, for it includes, in addition to the research, interviews with Mohamed Abul-Ghar (medical professor), Alaa El-Deeb (novelist), Amina Rasheed (French professor), Salah Eissa (journalist), Mohamed El-Makhzangy (novelist), and Sayed El-Bahrawy (Arabic Literature professor and critic) in addition to a new reading of the history of nearly a quarter of a century, including literature that tried to answer questions put forward by the youth since Abdel-Hakam El-Grahy, through the revolt in 1946, until the 1972 uprising. There is also a very profound and enjoyable journey into the hearts and minds of Bint El-Shatee (Islamic writer), Nawal El-Saadawy (Egyptian feminist and writer), Dr Hussein Fawzy (writer), Latifa El-Zayat (writer and critic and professor of English Literature), Ahmed Fouad Negm (poet), Seham Sabry (activist) and many others. 

The interesting part is that the writer does not start with a hypothesis he is trying to prove. His conclusion is left open to his interviewees, and to the readings he uses, not only to answer improvised questions, but to the extent that the answers themselves were not as important as finding a thin thread that would tie together the revolt of youth and its perfectionism, the attendant dreams and willingness to sacrifice all. The mission was difficult and ambitious, but Alaa has put a great deal of effort into building his impressive collage. 

The result is a rare work of reference composed across generations and literary currents. Galila El-Kady, for example, has linked her personal revolution to her generation’s struggle for freedom through the uprising of 1972, while Essmat Waaly returned all the way back to 1947, when he joined the Faculty of Literature at Alexandria University, capturing stolen moments of love amid the drama of the era’s freedom and politics. 

Naeema El-Ayoubi writes about her experiences as the first girl in her university, while Khaled El-Gweily shares recollections on the 1972 uprising, its failure and aftermath. In the same period, artist Mohamed Abla tells the story of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria when a youth group belonging to the Islamic fundamentalist movement took over and refused to allow models into the university to be drawn. Abdel-Monim El-Sebaii describes the same period, focusing on the Faculty of Literature in Alexandria. Alaa Khaled also interviewed two artists who were part of a Western music band important to the youth of the same period —musician Hany Shenouda and singer Sobhi Bedeir. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, Islamic fundamentalists took over additional universities, not only the major ones in Cairo and Alexandria, but also in the provinces, and most importantly Al-Azhar University, with a crisis ensuing surrounding Haidar Haidar’s novel, A Meal for Seaweed

The space permitted here will not suffice to cover everything included in Amkenah’s 10th issue, for it is a document into which the reader is drawn, by the variety and diversity of writers, including those whose main art is not writing but yet who have great honesty and trust in the role of Amkenah and the value it brings after nine issues already published. There is a kind of unwritten agreement between Amkenah and its writers centred on complete freedom of expression and thought, which is both wholesome and refreshing. 

Compliments are not enough in celebration of this issue and its importance; hope now rests on its readers to carry forward its legacy as a bright light on the terrain of Arabic cultural life. 

The writer is an author and journalist 

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