Bahaa Taher: Asking Unanswerable Questions

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At 16, Bahaa Taher read Mahatma Gandhi's biography and decided to become a vegetarian just like his newfound idol. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohammed Shoair

Published Sunday, June 24, 2012

Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher, born in 1935, is the author of several novels which deal with the themes of blood feuds, sectarianism, massacres of Palestinians, and colonialism. Banned in his country in 1975, he went into exile for two decades. Now, the 25 January revolution have plunged the old writer back into Egypt.

At 16, Bahaa Taher read Mahatma Gandhi's biography and decided to become a vegetarian just like his newfound idol. The skinny teenager refused to listen to the advice of family and friends and eat meat, even though he became exceedingly thin and anemic.

Two years later, Taher would finally listen to the doctor who told him, "I respect your views. But you can choose: either eat meat or you’ll die."

Taher thus ended his boycott of meat, he says, laughing at his intense romanticism in those early days. But Gandhi remains one of his personal heroes and he has held on to many of the Indian leader's principles, namely asceticism and renunciation of worldly goods.

"Unfortunately, we live in a time of greed hidden behind the idea of consumerism," the Egyptian novelist tells Al-Akhbar. "This is the main reason for the disasters happening in Egypt today."

Taher inherited his big appetite for reading and his self-esteem from his father, an Al-Azhar sheikh. From his mother, he took sensitivity, which was sometimes excessive. It made him stop reading newspapers and watching the news, years before the January 25 revolution, especially after Israel attacked Gaza in 2008.

At the time, he became deeply depressed at his helplessness. Children were being killed by bombs day after day, while the world remained silent about these crimes. But this did not stop Taher from writing or criticizing this silence. He also participated in demonstrations, which he describes as "a national duty."

He has inhaled his fair share of tear gas and was on the receiving end of excessive violence from the Egyptian authorities, even days before the revolution.

During a candlelight vigil of intellectuals protesting the bombing of the Two Saints Cathedral in Alexandria on 1 January 2011, Egyptian troops attacked the demonstrators and Taher was pushed to the ground.

When other angry protesters confronted an officer and asked how this could happen to a prominent writer who had received an award from the president, the officer said he had not meant it to happen.

He said that they had orders to forcibly prevent demonstrations these days "for fear of being infected by the Tunisian revolution." The officer paused before adding, "But who is this Bahaa Taher that everyone is so angry about?"

Days passed and the Egyptian revolution erupted. Taher was at Tahrir Square most of the time, although his leg was still hurt from the earlier fall. Even when he could not go down to the square, he would call friends to brief him on the details of what was happening on the ground.

On the day of the infamous "Battle of the Camels," Taher announced his renunciation of the award from Mubarak in an important symbolic gesture of rejecting the regime's legitimacy.

The revolution apparently changed many of Taher's habits. He says that he became "glued to the TV set, passionately and addictively watching what was happening."

The revolution put on hold the novel that Taher has been trying to write for years. It's about "justice" – the eternal question since the days of Plato.

Taher refuses to divulge any details about the novel, which still has no title. "I will not be able to write the book if I speak about it," he says. Perhaps this is one of the secrets behind the success of his creativity.

After the revolution, Taher turned down an offer to be a cultural minister because he believes that an intellectual should not be in a ministry. "It is enough to write and to be heard," he says.

But [famous Egyptian critic and writer] Taha Hussein once accepted a ministerial position. Taher replies that the "period and health conditions" were different for him.

He recalls that Hussein, the dean of Arab literature, introduced him to the art of writing. "During high school, the school librarian said to me, 'Instead of playing in the courtyard, why don't you read a bit in the library?' Since then, Taha Hussein has been my constant companion," he laughs. "It was a turning point in my life when I read Hussein's The Days."

Most of the thoughts preoccupying Taher in recent years are related to the marginalization of intellectuals, the neglect of culture, and the cultural decline of Arab societies, which left ample room for the Salafi and Islamist culture to flourish.

Nevertheless, he believes that "it is a miracle to see an audience for literature amid the tyranny of media entertainment, a highly inferior education system, and economic crises that make writers the least of the regular citizens’ concerns. Actually, I don't have a solution to this puzzle."

Taher, whose novel My Aunt Safiya and the Monastery addressed national unity, is not surprised at the rise of political Islam in the parliamentary elections. He was diligently monitoring the gradual cracking, "or actually, the systematic destruction of the foundations of the civil state, and the organized rise of political Islam."

He says that the leftist, centrist, and liberal trends were efficiently and effectively fought "so that only the Muslim Brotherhood remained."

He describes the situation in his country today as an attempt to either reproduce the old regime or bring Egypt under the control of political Islam. "I will be very sad for Egypt if political Islam reaches power," he says.

"The intellectuals have made great sacrifices for a renaissance; many were fired from their jobs; some were thrown in prison, displaced, or exiled; and some were killed," Taher explains. "This history will completely collapse if the Islamists come to power."

Taher is angered by the view held by some that the January 2011 revolution came counter to the July 1952 revolution. He strongly believes in Gamal Abdel Nasser's project that sought to build a "national socialist state," as he put it, before the project ended with the 1967 war. "Only those who lived in those days appreciate what Abdel Nasser did," he remarks.

Asked about what he thinks of the revolutionary slogan, "down with military rule," he pauses before describing this question as "complicated."

"I adore the Egyptian army, it stood by the people since its establishment," the author says. "But at the same time I'm against what the military council did in terms of measures to abort the revolution."

Taher believes that the revolution will succeed, but when? "My friend [ and prominent poet] Abdel Rahman al-Abanoudi says that the revolution will triumph after 12 years but I don't know why," he says. "I tried to convince him that we have only five or less years for its success. We finally reached a compromise of eight years."

Trying to shift the interview away from politics, Taher speaks about his passion for crime and mystery novels, especially Agatha Christie's work, "which I keep returning to whenever I face a psychological crisis."

Asked whether he is represented in any of his novels, he says that none of his characters portray him. "My works do not include details of my life and they are not autobiographical. But at the same time, they reflect the outcome of personal experiences," he says.

But Taher mentions the character perhaps closest to his own personality, Dr. Farid, in his novel I, the King, Have Come. "He resembles me in searching for answers to questions that do not seem to have answers. Therefore, he is restless with questions, like me," he says.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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