Book review: A Chapter of Nasserist Black Comedy

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 28 Jun 2012

The book by Mohamed El-Ezabi records his experience of prison under the Nasserist regime

Newspaper Rubbish

Kunaset al-suhuf (Newspaper Debris) is the latest book by journalist, translator and established editor, Mohamed El-Ezabi, who has spent over 60 years as a journalist in Al-Gomhoreya, an organisation producing a daily newspaper that requires daily tracking of events.

The title of the book is borrowed from a similar book by late writer, Yahia Haqqi, titled Kiosk Debris, made up of articles on literary criticism originally published in daily newspapers. Haqqi's book is still an important reference in literary criticism today.

Newspaper Debris includes articles published on various topics over an extended period of time; earlier articles were published in the 1950s and the latest published after the Abbassiya clashes between protestors and police in July 2011. The articles are organised around four themes: Years of Love and Prison, Some of Those I Knew, Nights of Fun and Travel, and Happy Ending; giving an impression of how the author saw the different phases of his life.

Particularly noteworthy is El-Ezabi's account of his five-year imprisonment under president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1960s for belonging to the communist organisation, the Communist Union.

The experience of the Communist Union under Nasser has not received enough attention although it involved many writers such as Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudy, Sayyed Higab, Salah Eissa and others, including the brother of the author, the late journalist Ahmed El-Ezabi who lived in the same apartment and was arrested and imprisoned with him.

In this context the author describes his experiences with the complete security control over El-Gomhoreya newspaper under dictatorship, starting with the big brother of the dissolved National Democratic Party of Mubarak, which was then called the Socialist Union. Housed within Nasser's Socialist Union was the Vanguard organisation, whose history could be said to be characterised by black comedy.

The Vanguard was a secret organisation established by Nasser and included many leftists just out of prison, but led by figures whom he fully trusted. The role of the Vanguard was to be present at universities and newspapers, monitoring them and working to protect the regime.

The nearly impossible idea of such a secret body was in fact true, but not at all as secret as it was meant to be; Mohamed El-Ezabi was himself selected for the organisation but dismissed for a reason he never found out. The two organisations, the Communist Union and Vanguard, were running into each other all the time, for they focused their efforts on the same areas of the political sphere and public space.

The security apparatus broadened in its scope. Many even volunteered to cooperate, so much so that one famous poet and song writer (who remains anonymous in the book) took on the role of handing in members of Communist Union to the police; all were imprisoned except for Yahia Taher Abdalla, who managed to escape, staying undercover for many years.

The dark comedy, as the reader can see, runs all through the story: some of those in prison were members of the state organisation itself, the Vanguard, and even some of those who had left the Communist Union and did no more than leading discussions and writing commentaries that nobody read.

Six months at the Citadel Detention Prison – now turned into a museum – many local and international figures intervened to release the imprisoned figures who included such renowned figures such as Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudy, whose poetry was sung by the greatest singers of the time, the journalist Salah Eissa, and Ghaleb Halsa, the Jordanian writer resident in Egypt at the time. The interventions included many some by such high-profile figures as Jean Paul Sartre who was visiting Egypt on the invitation of Al-Ahram organisation, and Simone de Beauvoir.

El-Ezabi’s isn’t the only testimony on the matter, and he benefits from the testimonies of other prisoners including Salah Eissa, Atteyat Al-Abnoudy and others. The book also includes other chapters of black comedy like the writing of police reports inside newspaper organisations, and anecdotes about the July 1967 defeat, which the author sees simply as debris.

The notable Al-Gomhoreya series had recorded very interesting history since the 1950s. Among their publications were the literary battles between Taha Hussein (Egyptian intellectual and minister of education in the 1950s) and his contemporaries, and similar battles to which the newspaper opened its doors.

Short link: