Youssef al-Qaeed: At the Forefront of Defending Freedom

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Qaeed literary journey began while he was a conscript in the armed forces.

By: Mohammad Khawly

Published Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Egyptian Shura Council, with its Islamist majority, recently appointed new editors for all the national newspapers. Their first casualty was an article by the novelist Youssef al-Qaeed in the Egyptian daily, al-Akhbar, banned as part of a new strategy. There may have been several reasons for the article to be censored, such as the writer’s sharp criticisms, but one clear reason is his critical position on the Muslim Brotherhood.

“There are many lessons from history here for anyone who wants to learn from them. Those who have been given freedom have already become weary of it a month after enjoying it. Those who have been granted democracy reared their heads to tell us that they believe in it only as a one off. After that, democracy becomes haram - religiously prohibited.” This was the conclusion of his banned article titled Your Wish Is Not My Command. In it he spoke about his own experience a few weeks ago when a number of Brotherhood President Mohammed Mursi’s supporters besieged the Media Production City where Egyptian satellite television is broadcast.

There was much protest against censoring Qaeed’s article, but the ban remained in effect. Soon, articles by other writers were also banned. This is when Qaeed decided that this vicious campaign had to be confronted. He refused to remain silent and chose to expose the newspaper. In press and television interviews, he insisted that a “disaster” was in the making if silence was maintained over the new policy of dealing with commentators and journalists. He called on the Union of Journalists, the Writers’ Union and civil society organizations to stand up to the “Brotherhood’s attack on the press and to stand up to editors belonging to the party, before the issue becomes more widespread and other people, who call for freedom of opinion and expression, are censored. This is because freedom of expression is no less important than the right to eat, drink and breathe for any human.”

Qaeed literary journey began while he was a conscript in the armed forces. Being a conscript in a hospital receiving hundreds of dead and wounded every day turned him into a unique novelist and storyteller. He wrote five books while in the army, some published after he had completed his service. The books were: The Mourning (1969), News of Al-Minisi Farm (1971), Days of Drought (1973), Hibernation (1974) and A Week Has Seven Days (1975).

It seems that the experience had a lasting effect on him even after he completed his military service. He says: “The idea for my novel War In The Egyptian Desert which was published in 1978, and adapted into the film An Egyptian Citizen, starring Omar Sharif and Izzat al-Alayli, and directed by Salah Abu Saif, grew out of my experience at the Ghumra Military Hospital - in fact, specifically my experience at the morgue.”

In repressive regimes, calls for the freedom of creativity and the establishment of a democratic society are usually penalized with arrests and threats against one’s livelihood. Qaeed confirms, however, that he has never been detained. He says: “I was a conscript in the armed forces during the notorious arrests of 1965-1974. Despite that, I do have many complaints against the Nasser and Sadat regimes.” He adds: “But I have never joined a political party.”

The author of Peasants Rise to Heaven (1996) is heralded as the true voice of the Egyptian countryside, the chronicler of the lives of people in those areas. He insists that he has never thought of himself as the historian of the Egyptian village, it is simply the place he knows best. “After living in Cairo for a while, I wrote many novels about it, about conditions and people in it. The novel is first and foremost the art of writing small details.”

Qaeed’s work on Cairo is very similar to that of Nagib Mahfouz. The Nobel Prize winner is one of his literary influences, “Mahfouz in literature, Salah Abdul-Sabour in poetry, Alfred Faraj in theater, Ahmad Bahaa al-Din, Muhammad al-Tabi and Mustafa Amin in journalism.” He says of the Dean of Arab Novelists: “He is the only one of his generation who toiled for the sake of writing. You can differ with him on a human level, but he does not hate you and you can never hate him. He safeguarded his independence and that is not at all easy.”

Qaeed is one of the novelists who left their villages for Cairo because it was the only place that could accommodate their creativity. He describes Cairo as “a city that stands for a whole country, or at least it summarizes all that it is. It has the publishing houses, newspapers, theaters and cinemas.” He tells us about his birthplace, Dahriyya, a village in the province of Bihera in the Egyptian Delta. “It is not a village, it is farmland and houses. For me, it sums up Egypt.” In the village, he first went to Quranic school, then joined the elementary and middle schools. After that, he went to the Teachers’ Institute in Damanhour, where he graduated in 1961. He worked as a teacher until he was conscripted into the army.

He left his village to become a conscript in Cairo in 1965 and has lived there ever since. During his time in the army he participated in the June 1967 war, the War of Attrition and the October 1973 war. After completing his service, he became a literary editor in the Musawwir magazine in April 1974. He rose to become the deputy editor of the magazine. However, he suddenly decided to resign in February 2000, determined to be a writer independent of any institution, private or state. Qaeed criticizes the saying “journalism is the cemetery of writers,” pointing out that his work in journalism boosted his work as a novelist. He says: “Because of journalism, I was able to witness every event in Egypt.” He adds: “There is a saying by Hemingway, often repeated by Marquez, that journalism is very suitable for a writer.” Qaeed believes that his journalism helped him “as a writer and novelist because I knew when to use the language of journalism and when to write as a novelist.”

Qaeed wrote many novels, such as Taking Place in Egypt Now (1977), Stories From the Land of the Poor (1983), The Pain of Being Away (1987), The Upper Egypt Train (2004) and The Fate of Rivals (2005). Some of his books were translated into many languages, including English and Russian. His novel, War In The Egyptian Desert was translated into Russian, English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch and Hebrew. He insists that the translation into Hebrew was illegal, and had said so in a statement at the time.

Qaeed has received many prizes including the National Recognition Prize for Literature in 2008. He was nominated by the Arts Department in the province of Sohag. The department wrote of him that he “combined a prolific output with a wide circle of those he cares about, those whose plight worries him, those for whom he is sad and those he cries with. He writes about Egypt and the Egyptians in terms of society, politics and economics.”

Today, and for the sake of Egypt, Qaeed remains on the battlefront, fighting for freedom of opinion and creativity, which he believes are threatened by the rise of political Islam.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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