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DISSSENT: Globe & Mail compares the courage of Sonallah Ibrahim with the conceit of Irshad Manji

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friday, October 31, 2003 Comparing acts of dissent By RICK SALUTIN The Globe and Mail
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31 9:27 PM
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      Friday, October 31, 2003

      Comparing acts of dissent

      The Globe and Mail

      I hope is okay. He is an eminent Egyptian novelist, age 66. Last week in
      Cairo, at a prestigious forum, "organized every two years by Egypt's Supreme
      Council for Culture with the participation of leading novelists and writers
      from Arab and foreign countries," he rejected the Novelist of the Year award
      because, he said, it came from a government without credibility. He
      criticized Arab governments for their "oppressive" nature and
      "collaboration" with the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well as Israel's actions
      against Palestinians. Arab intellectuals must speak out against
      "authoritarian" regimes and not enter the "sheep pen," he said.

      A Cairo movie critic said the culture minister turned blue; then, taking a
      tip from Donald Rumsfeld after a protester was thrown out of the Pentagon,
      claimed it showed how free Egypt is. Another sign of Sonallah Ibrahim's
      courage was his timing: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Cairo
      that night to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who continues to
      support the U.S. on Iraq, and receive vast aid, though Mr. Mubarak did
      grumble before the war that it would create "100 bin Ladens."

      Turning down literary awards isn't easy. Writers may consider such gestures,
      but usually decide against, or are dissuaded by friends who say: "At least
      you forced the cretins to recognize real talent for once," or "You need the
      money." In Mr. Sonallah's case, it was $16,000 (U.S.) and he is an artist
      who never took a state arts job as a form of subsidy. In his speech, he
      said, "We don't have theatre, cinema, scientific research or education any
      more. We only have festivals, conferences and bins of lies."

      Interesting point. Instead of a truly popular culture, you get official or
      semi-official gatherings and prizes, which incorporate the artists and buy
      them off, while subtly instructing the audiences on what to read or admire.

      Sonallah Ibrahim didn't really need this. He has paid his dues. At age 20,
      he went to jail for five years with Communists opposed to then-president
      Gamal Nasser. After release, he says he found it ever harder to combine
      writing with action inside a party or group. The complexity of depicting
      reality conflicted with the clarity needed in politics. "The problem with
      these phenomena and mysteries," he wrote in his 1981 novella, The Committee
      "is that they are not related to just one facet of life, but extend through
      diverse facets. This means the multiplicity is the common denominator." His
      protagonist likes reading action thrillers, a choice, he says, which
      "expresses an inability to act when necessary and goes hand in hand with the
      natural, rightful desire of every person for evil to be punished and good to
      triumph." When we met last year in Toronto, we discovered a shared interest
      in the Quiller novels of the Cold War years.

      Mr. Sonallah's act has been little noticed in the West. I guess dissent too
      has a multiplicity. When U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz was here flogging his
      book on Israel, he congratulated the CBC for having him and a U.S. rabbi
      debate it on air, which doesn't happen in Palestine, he added. In fact,
      there is lots of debate there, under conditions of occupation, and some
      dissenters have wound up with limbs blown off. Smugness is not a good
      starting point.

      Israel itself has brave dissenters, like the reservists who refuse to serve
      in occupied areas, and often go to jail. They are sustained, you could say,
      by the Biblical tradition of dissent and their own solidarity.

      Canadian writer Irshad Manji calls her new book on Islam, "a wake-up call
      for honesty and change." She talks about bulletproof windows on her house
      and her "burly" bodyguard, as well as her own "integrity," as she awaits
      reaction from, presumably, Islamists. The book, though, seems aimed mainly
      at non-Muslims, reassuring them that what they thought about Islam is true:
      "What's with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism? . . . What's our excuse
      for taking the Koran literally? . . ." It reduces the multiplicity of a vast
      faith to a unity --we . . . our . . . then stereotypes that unity and
      proceeds to rebut the stereotype. It's a good example of what the late
      Edward Said called Orientalism. I'd say true courageous dissent is usually
      not marked by self-advertisement.

      Sonallah Ibrahim is an elfin, rather than a flamboyant or self-promoting
      personality. His books are inevitably called Kafkaesque, though with a
      broad, often sexual humour I don't discern in Kafka and a politics that
      definitely isn't there. He seems largely on his own in this protest, as a
      secular nationalist and leftist, under a regime edging toward rapprochement
      with Egypt's surging Islamists. When I e-mailed him this week to find out
      how he was, the letter bounced back sounding like a communication from The
      Committee itself: A message that you sent could not be delivered. This is a
      permanent error.

      I'm hoping not.
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