Remembering Ibrahim Fathi (1931-2019)

Hala Halim , Saturday 5 Oct 2019

Ibrahim Fathi
Ibrahim Fathi. (Photo: Randa Shaath)

Egypt’s cultural world mourns the passing, on Thursday October 3, of Ibrahim Fathi, one of the country’s most outstanding intellectuals whose literary criticism, translations, mentorship of generations of writers, and, above all, unwavering integrity have made their mark on several generations. Below, we reprint a profile of Fathi, written by Hala Halim in 2002, in which she pays tribute to the man and his work.

In years of commissioning articles and book reviews from Ibrahim Fathi for this paper the ritual has always been the same -- receipt of material takes place at the Horreya Café in Bab Al-Louq.

A welcome respite from a windowless office and the relentlessness of deadlines, these meetings gradually brought a sense of being in the company of someone exceptional. In the long tradition of cultural cafés the intellectual fare tends more towards literary gossip, feuds and alliances; but as for Fathi, there is something of the peripatetic mode of instruction in his knack of spinning an interlocutor's throwaway comment into a wide-ranging discussion, seamlessly drawing on the pre-modern Arabo-Islamic canon, Western philosophy and literary theory, unencumbered by jargon and on occasion wonderfully acerbic.

I did not know then that he had conferred on himself the title "curbstone critic" (naqid rasif): the whys and wherefores of the title, what precisely it means, having to do with half a century's twists and turns in the relationship between the state and the communist movement, and Fathi's place therein as someone consistently left of the left.

When interview queries are put to him about his personal history, he is no less voluble but sometimes disconcertingly lapses into the passive voice or the plural (of modesty), or shifts into classical Arabic. Though originally from Menoufiya, his formative years were spent in Qena, in Upper Egypt. A much older brother was an Azharite scholar, albeit firmly situated within the tradition of rebellion against Al-Azhar, who spoke classical Arabic at home; it was from his world and his books that Fathi acquired his passion for the Arabic language and its literature (he memorised large portions of the Qur'an at an early age).

At school in the 1940s, the level of instruction in English was high, taught by native speakers -- including a retired archaeologist -- as was the case with French; but the school in Qena was also a place to which those whose political affiliations were frowned upon were exiled. Thus, the biology teacher, a communist, introduced his students to Darwin and evolutionism and thence to Marxism and social development.

"When the teacher explained about Stalin's 1936 constitution, we were so naïve that we accepted it as fact and not as mere talk. Social conditions in Qena and Aswan were incredibly miserable and in dire need of change, so Marxism was immediately seized upon," Fathi recalls. For young minds, he says, "it seemed to explain everything: the relationship between world politics and local politics in the aftermath of World War II, explanations of daily problems, of the different social classes and to which one you belong, of the meaning of exploitation and why people are illiterate and why there is injustice... Marxism offered explanations and solutions that seemed simple and coherent."

With his move to Cairo where he joined the Faculty of Medicine, Fathi entered the communist milieu and found that many modifications were necessary. "I had thought there was only one and the same communism in the whole world, but in Cairo I was shocked to find that there are many different organisations, that each one accuses the others of treason, and that there are problems that are much more complicated than the simplified picture I had," he says. A problem he identified at that stage, having read carefully the publications of these organisations, was that "most of what was written was either very theoretical and abstract, and divorced from reality, or it was very concrete, practical things that bear no relation to theory."

Much later, with long experience and vast readings behind him, and prompted specifically by the loud proclamations of the death of Marxism in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Fathi tackled this problem in its broader terms in a volume entitled Al- Markisiya Wa Azmat Al-Manhag (Marxism and the Crisis of Methodology, 1992). For now, he became involved in the student movement and its magazines and was, together with older medicine student and future novelist Youssef Idris, called in for a mild disciplinary hearing at his faculty.

In the early 50s Fathi was briefly part of HADETU (Al-Haraka Al-Dimuqratiya Lil-Tahrir Al-Watani; The Democratic Movement for National Liberation). He quickly left, though not for the reason many others left -- HADETU's pro-1952 Revolution stance at a time when the Soviet Union had written off the officers' movement as a coup d'état manipulated by the US -- but because of the organisation's continued support of the revolution following the imprisonment of striking textile workers in Kafr Al- Dawwar and the execution of two. As arrests and censorship threw into relief the new regime's authoritarianism, demonstrations calling for democracy took place in March 1954, and Fathi was imprisoned.

After his release Fathi worked as an editor at the publishing house Al-Nadim, then headed by Lutfallah Soliman, a leftist who imported a great many foreign books and magazines. Fathi credits this phase with giving him access to much of the left-wing literature of the time in English and French. He co-authored introductions to the books brought out by Al-Nadim, and also published his first book, Al-Hazima, the Arabic translation of a Russian novel by Aleksandr Fadeev.

Fathi's translation was made from an English translation, The Rout, and then checked against a French translation. "What I liked about the novel," he comments, "is that his approach to the [1917] revolution is very different from the standard Soviet depiction: instead of giving you heroic creatures, moving from triumph to triumph, his characters are all- too-human, with warts and flaws intact, and are caught in a liberation movement riddled with contradictions, but are also altered, somewhat, by it."

Soon he was translating Maurice Cornforth's Science Versus Idealism, finding its discussion of positivism and pragmatism particularly relevant given that these trends were well-represented in Egypt at the time.

Among some of his contemporaries Fathi is seen as gratuitously contrary, charged with having taken to an extreme the factionalism that characterised (and considerably weakened) the various communist groupings, a factionalism whose true motivation, it is said, was competition over leadership. But this may well be a facile take on his interpretation of milestones of the communist movement, such as the unification of the different organisations, and the decision they made some seven years later to dissolve themselves.

Fathi did in fact keep aloof from the unification of 1958, which lasted for a very few months. "The joke about the party of 8 January, 1958, is that it was dissolved on 6 January, because that day two of the organisations got together and decided to exclude the third from their 'unification'," he says laughingly. He stayed away, he explains, because "the unification was not preceded by a democratic conference where disagreements would be discussed, and was not based on a genuine programme, but contented itself with generalisations -- it was merely a bureaucratic move that quickly came to nothing."

On 1 January, 1959, there began what Fathi calls "the long night", when many of the best minds in Egypt were imprisoned for five years and six months. Generally referred to as the Oasis Prison period, though prisoners were, in fact, shuttled between several other prisons, it was a time of intense debate and interaction among the members of different groupings. All manner of seminars and clubs were organised -- for translation, literature, philosophy, and even exhibitions of creative writing or translations written on cigarette paper, with cardboard binding, and illustrated by the artists.

Fathi's most intimate companions were Adel Rifaat and Bahgat El-Nadi who later co- authored, under the penname Mahmoud Hussein, such titles as Class Conflict in Egypt 1945-1970. One on-going debate was about socialist realism, two of the key proponents of which, Mahmoud Amin El-Alim and Abdel- Azim Anis, being among the detainees. Years after, in Al-'Alam Al-Riwa'i 'Inda Naguib Mahfouz (The Fictional World of Naguib Mahfouz), Fathi would refute the socialist realist interpretations of the future Nobel laureate then current.

In a nutshell, his position on socialist realism is that it gives precedence to the propagandist content of the text, specifically the class conflict, at the expense of its artistic quality, whereas the development of human sensibility and the senses is in itself the target of the future socialist society in Marx's thinking (Fathi elaborates this reading, approached through poststructuralism, in the introduction to his translation of F D Klingender's Marxism and Modern Art).

Before their release in 1964 the members of the different communist organisations were already deliberating whether there was any longer a need for a left-wing party now that the state was taking care of socialist reforms. The decision that the two main organisations be dissolved was made when everyone was released. Once again, Fathi did not tow the line. "The way I saw things was that I should adopt neither the Soviet nor the Chinese line, and that I should try and come to grips with Egyptian society and the Nasserist experience and its limitations on new grounds, unlike previous, superficial analyses," he offers.

His greatest intellectual challenge, he explains, was the task of "Egyptianising the Marxist movement," because "the main trend was of a Marxism subordinated to the USSR, and the main line that the USSR exported to the rest of the world was shaped by its foreign policy, and did not pay much heed to the national specificities of these countries." He has a great deal to say about the USSR, about the absence of democratic rights and freedom of speech, and about the role assigned literature as handmaiden to the party line. The Egyptianisation of the movement entailed adapting Marxism's five stages of modes of production to Egyptian history, and the specificity of the agrarian situation of Egypt -- he cites in this context his one-time close associate Ibrahim Amer's Al- Ard Wal-Fallah (The Land and the Peasant).

Fathi, finding he was not banned from publishing, became a contributor to Al-Magalla magazine, edited by Yehia Haqqi, and the Beirut-based Al-Adaab, among others. It was a time when he started making inroads with the new generation of writers. But all this was put on hold in September 1965 when Fathi was imprisoned once again, together with several writers; they were released only in 1967, thanks largely to Jean-Paul Sartre's personal intervention, following which he had little access to print.

A complete bibliography of Fathi's output is not a task that can easily be undertaken. He eventually published more books than the titles cited above, as well as many articles, but these publications, seminal though they are, are a fraction of his contribution. The greater portion of this contribution was for several decades a direct, oral dialogue with the cultural field outside official institutions. It is not that Fathi did not want to publish, but that the doors of publishing houses and print forums were closed to him, as he discovered in 1967.

Editors had been notified that Fathi was not allowed to publish, "and the only one who broke through this siege was Abdel-Fattah El-Gamal [novelist and editor of the prestigious Al-Messa culture pages] who said 'I don't have any instructions concerning you, so write, and let's see what happens,' and I did, and censorship let my articles through." He also contributed to Galerie '68, the independent, alternative culture journal. Another breakthrough was radio's cultural channel, the Second Programme, where in his occasional one-hour programme he introduced for the first time writers, like Mohamed El- Bisatie, who would later make a big mark .

So, the curbstone critic did a lot of walking and talking, his forum primarily cultural cafés, whether located in Cairo such as the famous Riche, or in cities as far apart as Minya and Alexandria. He would read manuscripts and work-in-progress, in a cross between the roles of mentor, critic and editor -- hence the diffuse, hard-to-pin-down nature of his influence. Many of the manuscripts belonged to what he calls "drawer literature", literature that could not be published then, though some texts did appear in print.

When Gamal El-Ghitani tried to publish his, Awraq Shab 'Ash Mundhu Alf 'Am (Papers of a Young Man Who Lived a Thousand Years Ago), he was warned that the book could not carry the introduction Fathi had written for it or it would be banned. El-Ghitani had the introduction printed in Al-Messa and would then insert it into the volumes he distributed by hand.

If there is one generation of writers with whom Fathi as a critic is closely associated it is the '60s generation -- in fiction names like Yehia El-Taher Abdallah, Bahaa Taher, El-Bisatie, Ibrahim Aslan, El-Ghitani, and in poetry, Sayed Higab and Abdel-Rahman El- Abnoudi. Despite their differences, he says, these writers had in common a suspicion of slogans and of the exhortation to commitment which to them meant commitment to authority. "Instead, they sought to redefine reality away from both the right and the old left which had become part of the establishment, and to question the boundaries of genre," Fathi adds.

Was his critical position vis-à-vis the '60s generation one of an unmitigated support? Only up to a point, he maintains, because most of them considered that redefining reality was a matter of the writer's individual vision and experience, without realising that this "individual experience" is socially and ideologically conditioned.

Fathi was part of a group that, in the early Sadat period, founded Gam'iyat Kuttab Al- Ghad (The Association of the Writers of Tomorrow), a forum for literary seminars that also published new texts. Although he absented himself from the elections for the association, so as not to compromise it with the communist charge, he was elected as chairman.

Novelist Mahmoud El-Wardani, one-time member of the now defunct association, recalls that "it was one of the most important experiences of an independent gathering of intellectuals and writers -- one should mention that since coming to power and until the establishment of the association, the Free Officers' main task was to nationalise the social struggle and all associations had to operate under the wing of the Socialist Union and were conditional on membership in it. It is no secret," he elaborates, that "the association was established under the law for NGOs, such as associations for burial service [yet] Ibrahim Fathi, as the oldest and most experienced among us, succeeded in forming a large vanguard of writers and artists, and the role he played in this independent activity is singular, one might even say pioneering."

At the same time the student movement, which Fathi supported wholeheartedly, was reaching its peak. Many of the association's members would be arrested, the first being Fathi, who by 1973 was already in prison, the immediate cause being opinions he had expressed openly at workers' conferences in Alexandria. This phase in prison was the worst in his history, he says, psychological torture having been imported from the US.

Following Fathi's release he was again banned from publishing, a situation which changed only gradually. It was in 1989 that he brought out Henri Curiel Didd Al-Haraka Al-Shuyou'iya Al-'Arabiya: Al-Qadiya Al-Filistiniya (Henri Curiel Against the Arab Communist Movement: the Palestinian Question). Polemic in tone, this work of revisionism draws on both painstaking research and direct experience and centres around one of the Jewish figures of the communist movement, Curiel.

It questions the foundation myths surrounding Curiel and the airbrushing by his followers in Egypt of his stance on the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian question, as it documents the solidarity of different Arab communist parties with Palestine, in an effort to undermine the continuing influence of his thought here regarding the issue.

But the larger part of Fathi's publications has been informed by a search for a literary theory that speaks to and enriches the Arab context. He admits to having had to overcome an early dogmatism regarding psychoanalysis and structuralism, and to having benefited from the writings of the Frankfurt School, of Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser and Mikhail Bakhtin.

The search for theory has led Fathi to translate Pierre Bourdieu's Questions de sociologie and Les règles de l'Art, as well as to compile a dictionary of literary terms, Mu'gam Al- Mustalahat Al-Adabiya (an expanded second edition appeared in 2000). The latter is particularly valuable in that it steers clear of the inadequate and sometimes discrepant translation of terms (whereby the same term can be translated differently in Egypt and in Lebanon) and in its synthesis and comparative work concerning the varied schools it covers.

In all this Fathi has found a vital mainstay in Hanaa Soliman, his wife since 1980. A professor of psychiatry at Minya University, with many noted publications in her field, she is a steadfast intellectual companion and supporter. Fathi recounts that when they stayed at an artists' commune in Switzerland a few summers ago "she was there not just as my wife, but in her professional capacity, in the sense that she gave presentations based on her research." He says that Soliman reads his work-in- progress and that her criticism is always objective. Soliman also arranges for his unfinished manuscripts to be typed up, as an incentive for him to complete the work; thus he recently published translations of books on globalisation and on Eurocentrism, and is about to publish a new book on Mahfouz and another on Arabic narrative discourse.

In the cultural field, many are aware that Fathi has not received the full recognition that is his due. Novelist Salwa Bakr says that he is one of the rare critics who creatively work with the text rather than force it into a mould, and that it is a pity that while Fathi has played a signal role in mentoring a whole trend of writing, through seminars at the Atelier and elsewhere, much of this is hard to trace because of the direct nature of his intervention.

Expressing the wish that homage should be paid him, she comments that "it's enough that when Mahfouz won the Nobel the only valuable book about him was the one by Ibrahim Fathi." Without the many offices Fathi rendered to the generation of the '60s writers, reflects El-Wardani, they would have lost a great deal. "In a sense," he adds, "Ibrahim Fathi is a phenomenon: he has methodology, vision and critical tools, but operates outside the academy, and he has also maintained his independence from the cultural establishment; it is time a group of researchers collected his articles and reprinted them in book form to preserve that consistent, significant endeavour."

As for Fathi himself, he will continue to walk, talk and write, impelled by a faith in the roles of literature and criticism in today's world that arises from an optimism of the will.

*This profile was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly, under the headline “Curbstone critic,” in the issue of 5-11 September 2002

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