The Writer and the Dictator:
A Love/Hate Story
Alaa Al Aswany on Tawfiq al-Hakim's Return of the Spirit and its Influence on Egyptian Politics
If you want to understand Egypt, you have to read Return of the Spirit. Tawfiq al‐Hakim wrote it in 1927 when he was studying in Paris, and the moment it was published in Cairo in 1933 it took its place as a classic of Arabic literature. The author was more than just a talented novelist or playwright; he was one of the pioneers (such as Taha Hussein and Muhammad Husayn Haykal) who studied in Europe and then returned to Egypt and took it upon themselves to develop Arabic literature into something that could hold its own on the world literary stage.
Tawfiq al‐Hakim was born in Alexandria in 1898 and lived until he was 89, during which time he never stopped producing literary works and engaging in literary disputes over his oeuvre, defending the values of freedom and democracy to the very end. In his youth he suffered from the clash between his headstrong artistic tendencies and the stable professional life his aristocratic family wanted him to live.
His father was a judge and one of the great Egyptian land‐owners. His mother was a Turkish lady, proud of her origins, who considered herself a cut above Egyptians and who never allowed the little Tawfiq to play with the local peasant boys. When he was old enough, he was sent by his father to Cairo, where he lived with his uncles and went to the Mohammed Ali Secondary School. This distance from the pressures of his immediate family gave him a golden opportunity to submerge himself in the artistic life of Cairo, and when the revolution of 1919 broke out, al‐Hakim, along with his uncles, took part in it with the result that they were all arrested and thrown into prison for a few months. He was accepted at the College of Law, but his obsession with the arts did not diminish and he would skip lectures to attend musical and theatrical performances wherever they were taking place. A profession in the arts was considered beyond the pale at the time by refined members of society, and this led him to write his first works under a pseudonym.
After al‐Hakim received his degree from Cairo University, his father sent him to Paris to study for a doctorate in law at the Sorbonne. However, the spirit of the arts took hold of him in Paris and he neglected his law studies, throwing himself into the cultural life of the city and devoting his time to theater‐going and studying the latest literary trends. It was three years until his father discovered that he had abandoned his studies and brought him back to Cairo, where he joined the judiciary. His work as an attorney to the public prosecutor provided him with rich human experience, which he drew upon for his brilliant book Diary of a Country Prosecutor. This was followed by a stream of novels and plays that made him, justifiably, such a great name in Arabic literature that the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, upon being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, stated: “If Tawfiq al‐Hakim were alive, he would have won it!”
Al‐Hakim’s works for the stage played a role in establishing the “New Arabic Theater,” and he created the “theater of the intellect,” a term applied to theater as a literary form that incorporates the protagonists, plot, and dialogue into its dramatic elements. However, his stage works are not particularly performance‐friendly, as they speak more to the educated literary reader than to the ordinary theater‐goer. In this regard, al‐Hakim himself stated: “Today I am attempting to establish the theater of the mind. I turn the actors into free‐flying ideas clad in symbolism. That is why a gulf has opened up between me and the theatrical stage. I have not been able to find a conduit to make these works reach the people other than through the printing press.”
At the same time, the works of al‐Hakim generally incorporate many theatrical devices. He, like the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky before him, proved that it is the artistic content that defines the shape of a work and not vice versa, and that the creative energy borne by the literary text is more important than any academic strictures, because life precedes theory, and art is a living work whose creation comes before any hypothetical categorization of its supposed genre.
Although Return of the Spirit brought al‐Hakim literary glory, it caused him no end of trouble. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt, was greatly impressed by the novel when he was young and considered it an inspiration for the revolution of July 23, 1952. We have much evidence pointing to the fact that Nasser was not a regular reader and that he preferred watching films (particularly American) to reading novels, and when he took power in Egypt, he ordered a projector and screen for his residence and used to watch at least one film a day. Moreover, in 1966 Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer (the deputy supreme commander) took a strong dislike to Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Chitchat on the Nile due to its criticism of the Nasserite regime. Abdel Nasser had not read the book himself, but he asked his minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha, to read it and then accepted his opinion and authorized its publication.
Why did Nasser particularly like Return of the Spirit? I believe it was because of an opinion uttered by one of the protagonists (a French archaeologist), who stated that the Egyptian people were a storehouse of enormous cultural energy built up over long centuries and that they were just waiting for a leader to adore. At that point they would as one fall under the leadership of a strong man who would bring about their cultural renaissance. This idealized relationship between the people and their leader was the benchmark for Nasser during his years in power, and in practice he silenced all opposing voices and relied upon massive popular support to cement his rule over Egypt.
After reading Return of the Spirit, Nasser developed a great fondness for Tawfiq al‐Hakim, awarding him the country’s greatest honor and dedicating to him his own book, The Philosophy of the Revolution. For his part, Tawfiq al‐Hakim liked Nasser on a personal level, but he never let himself become too close to him; he was perhaps the only Egyptian writer who offered his excuses when Nasser invited him to dinner. As al‐Hakim wrote: “Any ruler wants loyal, not honest, opinions from his intellectuals. He wants to hear words of support, not opposition, but it is truth and freedom that constitute the essential message of an intellectual who might make mistakes, mislead or lose consciousness, but who will never consciously betray his message. I always worry that too close friendship or affection for someone, or even hatred or resentment, can stop one being able to see things as they really are.”
The nature of Tawfiq al‐Hakim’s relationship with Nasser was paradoxical. He had an incontrovertible fondness for him and would never have questioned Nasser’s devotion, but at the same time al‐Hakim resented his heavy‐handed methods of rule and his ruthlessness toward any opposition. He expressed criticism of the Nasserite regime in two plays: The Confused Sultan, in which the sultan cannot decide whether to wield the sword or the law, but ends up choosing the law; and Anxiety Bank, in which al‐Hakim expresses the nervousness afflicting large segments of society as a consequence of oppressive military rule.
When Nasser died in 1970, al‐Hakim was greatly saddened and mourned him, but the writer’s conscience soon came back to the fore and he published The Return of Consciousness in 1972. In this work he directs stinging and objective criticism at the dictatorship of Abdel Nasser, stating that the great leader had plundered the people’s consciousness and that they had lost the ability to make decisions for themselves. He explained:
“[Abdel Nasser] somehow managed to cast a spell over all of us without our knowing it. Perhaps it was his so‐called special magic, or perhaps it was the dream he had us living in with all those hopes and promises . . . not to mention that romantic image of the achievements of the Revolution which he had brought about for us—an image reinforced by a constant diet of films and songs in the state media. We thought we were living in a great industrialised nation, a leader of the developing world in agricultural development and production and the strongest fighting force in the Middle East. The face of the adored leader used to fill our television screens. He would peer down to us from temporary pavilions and conference centres. He used to tell us these tales for hours on end, going on about how we used to be and what we have now become—and no one could get ever a word in, correct a fact he stated or make a comment! All we could do was accept it as the truth then applaud until our hands were raw.”
The book elicited a ferocious attack on al‐Hakim by some close supporters of Abdel Nasser. However, the writer, who was by then over 70, was in the habit not only of salving his conscience regardless of the consequences but also, despite his age, of making statements that aroused the ire of both the political and the religious authorities. In this vein, al‐Hakim himself collected signatures from intellectuals to add support to a statement he issued announcing his solidarity with Egyptian university students demonstrating against the president, Anwar el‐Sadat, and demanding democracy. This particularly irritated Sadat, who then described al‐Hakim as “that old windbag.” Shortly before his death, al‐Hakim wrote a series of pieces for Al‐Ahram, Egypt’s largest newspaper, under the title “A Question from and to God,” in which he imagined that he was conversing with God. This incensed the sheikhs and clergy, who launched vicious attacks on him, accusing him of insulting God. This had no effect on al‐Hakim and he went on writing. He died in 1987. The question remains as to why Return of the Spirit gained such significance.The Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli stated, “I only know two types of novels—live or dead ones. My job is always to publish the live ones.”
The Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli stated, “I only know two types of novels—live or dead ones. My job is always to publish the live ones.” Return of the Spirit is a live novel in the sense that it depicts the life of a middle‐class Egyptian family in 1918, and not only do we follow the protagonists almost obsessively throughout the novel as they shout and scream but we also feel their every breath and whisper. In addition, as with all great novelists, al‐Hakim is not judgmental. The novel is not populated by the standard good and evil characters of superficial melodrama; rather, al‐Hakim presents his protagonists as people of flesh and blood who all have evil and virtue within them, who all experience moments of weakness that push them into evil or whose better sides see them defending human values.
Al‐Hakim’s expressive power turned the novel into a historical documentation of Egyptian society a hundred years ago. Since 1882, when Egypt fell under British occupation, Egyptians had never stopped fighting for independence, but resistance to the occupation did not all fall under one banner. Some people held that Egypt was an Ottoman principality and consequently their resistance was that of Muslims and not of Egyptians. They wanted to see the British leave so that Egypt could return to the fold of the Ottoman caliphate. On the other hand were Egyptian nationalists who were fighting not to replace the British with the Ottomans, but for the establishment of an independent democratic state for all its citizens regardless of religion. The 1919 revolution aimed to resolve the conflict in favor of a secular state, and for the first time demonstrators held up banners reading “Egypt for the Egyptians” and “May the Crescent live with the Cross.”
After the revolution’s victory, Egypt drafted the first constitution in her history in 1923, and notwithstanding the British occupation and attempts by the palace to seize power, from the 1919 revolution on, Egypt lived through a highly liberal period in all aspects of her culture—until the military coup of 1952. Since that time, Egypt has remained trapped between two fascist powers: the military fascism represented by army rule, and the religious fascism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider Islam not merely a religion but an ideal for a state, and they are fighting for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate.This novel offers an eloquent description of Egyptian society when it was healthy, before it became afflicted with the distortions brought about by military dictatorship and religious extremism.
This political Islam gained much strength with the rise in oil prices in the 1970s, with millions of dollars from governments and various groups in the Persian Gulf states being spent to spread the Wahhabi version of Islam all around the world. In addition, millions of Egyptians went off to work in the gulf and then returned imbued with the Wahhabi outlook, which was so alien to the culture of Egypt. The extreme and aggressive Wahhabi form of Islam is the ideological root of terrorism; the Egyptian society described in the novel would perhaps be astonished by the new generations of Egyptians, as they now live in a completely different society.
In medicine, we can understand a disease only after we compare healthy body tissue with tissue that has been infected by the disease, and this novel offers an eloquent description of Egyptian society when it was healthy, before it became afflicted with the distortions brought about by military dictatorship and religious extremism. In the novel we read how Egyptian society was liberal and culturally diverse in the then‐prevailing spirit of tolerance and coexistence. Al‐Hakim does not focus on the religion of his protagonists, and we see that religion in society at that time was a completely personal issue and never in the foreground. When it is time for prayer, the only individual in the family who goes off to pray is Mabruk the servant.
We see how just how cosmopolitan Cairo was 100 years ago, with places of entertainment everywhere and foreign dancers performing and mingling with the clients. That was how Egypt respected diversity, privacy, and the right of individual choice. There were bars and nightclubs along with mosques, churches, and synagogues, and each and every Egyptian could decide where to go, with society accepting whatever choice he might make. Over the centuries, this sophisticated notion of personal behavior has set Egypt apart from some other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where strict moral behavior is imposed on the population by the vice police. In the novel we read about a young middle‐class man and woman who pass their talents on to each other, with him teaching her to sing and her teaching him to play the piano.
Sixty years later we find the Wahhabis promoting the idea that singing, music, and acting are activities forbidden by Islam, and this attitude has struck a chord with many Egyptians. The religious tolerance we see in the novel no longer exists in Egypt. In 1918 there was no confessional violence of any sort, and Egyptians lived together in harmony and respect whether they were Muslim, Coptic, Jewish, or even atheist. In the novel a dancer from a Jewish Egyptian family has to deal with a strange incident at her son’s wedding reception, but the writing is such that we do not feel any derision or lack of respect for the Jewish religion.
Dear reader, this is one of the greatest works of 20th‐century Arabic literature, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
Excerpted foreword from Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq Al-Hakim. Used with permission of Penguin Classics. Foreword copyright © 2019 by Alaa Al Aswany.
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