The battle for the language academy

Mohamed Salmawy
Thursday 19 Aug 2021

Celebrating Arabic

The survival of three of our most important cultural institutions hangs in the balance. These are the Academy of the Arabic Language, which currently lacks political support; the Story Club, which lacks financial support; and the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation and its subsidiary, the Asian, African and Latin American Writers Federation, which lack both political and material support.

The three organisations belong to the civil society sector, on which most cultural activities now depend. Unlike the1960s, the state no longer controls cultural activities, which increases the importance of civil society cultural organisations, in general, as a bastion against the decline of cultural activity caused by the state’s decision to disengage. 

In the 1970s, President Anwar Al-Sadat went so far as to abolish the Ministry of Culture, replacing it with a minister of state for cultural affairs, to which post he appointed Mansour Hassan. Although President Hosni Mubarak reinstated the ministry in the first cabinet he formed, his was an era in which Egypt, under the influence of sweeping international changes, began to institute a range of political and economic reforms.

As a result, the state ceded its central role in many activities, especially in the economic sector, paving the way to a greater role for the private sector which now became an “authentic partner” in national development plans, as the government called it at the time. 

The cultural sector obviously has a significant economic dimension, and the impact on it was profound, something to which the revival of private sector theatre testified. The Samir Khafagi, Fayez Halawa and Fouad Al-Mohandes theatre companies were the bywords for a new theatre movement, one that contrasted with an early theatrical revival that was born in the state-run theatres of the 1960s.

However, while the state amended economic laws and regulations to facilitate the shift from a centralised to a market economy, it did not take similar steps in the cultural sphere. In this context, it merely reduced its role without compensating with measures to enable civil society to step in to oversee, support and encourage cultural activity. This is why, today, we need to come to the aid of civil society cultural organisations to help them sustain their activities and ensure their survival. To me, the three organisations mentioned above merit particular attention.

The Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo, as it was officially called, was founded in 1932. Modelled on the Académie Française, it was an independent scientific institution whose president had the status of a minister. Taha Hussein, Ahmed Lotfy Al-Sayed, Abbas Al-Akkad, Muhammad Hussein Heikal, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Ibrahim Bayoumi Madkour and Shawky Deif were among its best-known members. According to the royal edict with which King Fouad established it, half the members of the academy had to be Arabs.

The academy, itself, was a member of the Federation of Arab Scientific Language Academies, which Egypt chaired during Taha Hussein’s tenure as the academy president. The institution’s aims were to produce dictionaries, study Arabic language issues, coin scientific and technical terms in Arabic, research Arabic heritage and organise cultural activities. 

Unfortunately, this great institution has been gripped by a crisis since Muslim Brotherhood affiliates gained control over its board of directors, which triggered calls to investigate the results of the organisation’s last elections. The minister of higher education intervened, appointing Salah Fadl acting president until new elections were held. This eminent and widely respected literary critic is also well known for his efforts to combat extremist thought. However, what good are new elections when the same majority continues to prevail? 

Many great cultural figures have been reluctant to join the institute precisely because of the nature of its leadership. However, if some of them were appointed to the board, as occurred with Taha Hussein and Mohammed Hussein Heikal in the organisation’s earlier history, they would offset the current majority which espouses the kind of ideas and attitudes the Egyptian people rose up against on 30 June 2013.  

The battle inside the academy is vicious. Yet the government appears indifferent to the paralysis that has struck this venerable institution, which is an important source of Egyptian soft power because of the universal respect and esteem it has long enjoyed throughout the Arab world. Just a decade shy of its centennial, the academy must not be abandoned to those purveyors of deviant ideas and attitudes that nearly tore our society apart.

Surely the government should come to the aid of the enlightened camp fighting on just one front in the greater battle against the infiltration of fascist thought into cultural institutions. The battle of the Arabic Language Academy concerns the state and society at large.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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