Nabil Abdel-Fattah: A Crisis of Clones

I was good at asking questions that needed mental exercise and expression, but I got zeros on anything requiring memorization (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohammed Shoair

Published Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Egyptian activist and author Nabil Abdel-Fattah reflects on his useless Cairene schooling and explains how he got a real education.

At the age of four, Nabil Abdel-Fattah’s mother dragged him to the kuttab, or Quranic school, in Cairo’s Shobra district to memorize the holy book. In lessons, Sheikh Hassan Wanas emphasized memorization without interpretation. Anyone who failed would literally feel the wrath of Sheikh Wanas. Fattah received his share of beatings.

"I was good at asking questions that needed mental exercise and expression, but I got zeros on anything requiring memorization," said Fattah, explaining that he "rejected and hated the duplicating mind that clones itself and adds nothing new.” This type of mind, he said, is at “the root of the crisis in the modern Islamic world."

Al-Akhbar interviewed Fattah, an expert on Islamist groups and affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies in Cairo where stacks of books fill every nook and cranny of his office.

The author of The Quran and Sword said his interest in this field was based on his trying to understand the Islamist mind.

Fattah was born in the Shobra area, a sprawling, poor district of Cairo where, he said, the hardships faced by residents are a result of accumulating social problems that must be endured.

Shobra was once diverse, home to Armenians, Copts, Italians, and Greeks.

"Daily coexistence among all those people and the overlapping of different lifestyles formed the model of everyday life without tension or dispute," he recalled.

Fattah's Muslim mother would regularly go with her Coptic friends to Mar Girgis, or St. George Church, where she would light a candle as her friends prayed. He remembers the "good spankings" he got whenever he cried about wanting to take a candle home.

His mother still becomes upset when hearing about the present tension between Muslims and Copts.

"Damn them! We always lived together," he quoted his mother saying.

The writer said that the term “tolerance” did not carry the same weight it does today because at the time, it was simply practiced naturally and without effort.

"It's impossible to describe the importance of life in a pluralist environment," said Fattah.

In the midst of a neighborhood filled with misery, poverty, and deprivation, there was always hope, especially with the rise of Jamal Abdel Nasser after the July 1952 Revolution.

"With the 1956 tripartite aggression of the Israelis, French, and British, we would hear the enemy shelling and go outside barefoot with the adults to chant, 'Eden died, O Jamal; we are with you, O Jamal.' We also went out to chant in favor of Egyptian-Syrian unity," recalled Fattah.

Fattah’s father was preoccupied with the political world. He briefly joined the Liberal Constitutionalist party before moving to the Wafd party. Father and grandfather both opposed the July Revolution and constantly criticized it, but only within the confines of their home.

Fattah, author of Freedom and Evasion, began his career as a poet and writer, sending his manuscripts to the late critic and thinker Mahmoud Amin al-Alem, chairman of the Egyptian Al-Akhbar newspaper, for publication. Fattah then decided he would be a failure as a literary author.

The political atmosphere at home and the misery of the neighborhood prompted him to study law. "The world of law is a mixture of critical, deconstructive, and structural thinking; a world of abstract structures. At the same time, it's a world that organizes the changing world," he said on his choice of studies.

After graduating in 1974, he briefly worked in the field of law, but his passion for the world and realization that he had only received "sprinkles of selective Western legal thought" drove him to Paris. Fattah smiles when he remembers that time of his life. "When it comes to Paris, I have to repeat clichés about learning from the streets. It's true that when you walk in its streets, you feel you are entering the world and reading life," he said.

In Paris, he discovered that he was "academically handicapped." All he had learned at Cairo's law school were “outdated ideas and general theories found in the history of science and knowledge of any specialty." Thus, he practically had to start all over again in order to reformulate his legal and educational concepts.

Fattah’s face became sad when he shifted from memories of his college days to the present. The intellectual and rights activist, who was at the forefront of the January 25 Revolution and co-founder of Kifaya and the Writers and Artists for Change Movement, reflected on what has become of the revolution.

"What happened was not revolution. It was an uprising or a rebellion that did not succeed in destroying the old structures and building new ones in their place," he said. "The rulers now are the Muslim Brotherhood; they are a strong part of the former regime, even if their legitimacy was blocked all these past years."

Nevertheless, Fattah still believes that substantial and radical change will eventually counter what he called the duplicating minds. "All the prisons of conscience in the name of the new Islamist patriarchy will be destroyed," he said. There will be "revolution against the guards at the gates of the man-made temples, where the sheikhs speaking in the name of Islam justify taking power, as they use it for their political and economic interests."

As the interview wrapped up and he was preparing to join a demonstration against the Muslim Brotherhood's new constitution, Fattah said, "Unfortunately, Egyptian constitutions were not tailored for the people and their history, but for its tyrant rulers who thought themselves to be above the nation."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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