Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Nights’ Tale

The Middle East's most famous work of literature is beloved everywhere -- except the Middle East.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, a group of Egyptian lawyers accused Gamal al-Ghitany, a famous Egyptian novelist and the editor of the country's most influential literary magazine, of printing obscene materials. The two-volume set that Ghitany had just published in his capacity as editor of a government-sponsored literary series had proved wildly popular, reportedly selling out its first printing in 48 hours. But according to his accusers, it was full of "shameless sexual terms" and "sarcasm towards the divine essence."

Perhaps Ghitany should have known better; after all, there had been unsuccessful attempts to ban the same book in Egypt before, in 1985 and 1998. But when I met him in his office recently, he was unrepentant. He said the goal of those who had filed the case against him was "to embarrass the government and terrify the intellectuals." He had no intention of letting them succeed.

"I needed to put the Thousand and One Nights back in the bookstores," he told me. "Whatever happens, it's one of the most important things I've done in my life."

Last month, a group of Egyptian lawyers accused Gamal al-Ghitany, a famous Egyptian novelist and the editor of the country’s most influential literary magazine, of printing obscene materials. The two-volume set that Ghitany had just published in his capacity as editor of a government-sponsored literary series had proved wildly popular, reportedly selling out its first printing in 48 hours. But according to his accusers, it was full of "shameless sexual terms" and "sarcasm towards the divine essence."

Perhaps Ghitany should have known better; after all, there had been unsuccessful attempts to ban the same book in Egypt before, in 1985 and 1998. But when I met him in his office recently, he was unrepentant. He said the goal of those who had filed the case against him was "to embarrass the government and terrify the intellectuals." He had no intention of letting them succeed.

"I needed to put the Thousand and One Nights back in the bookstores," he told me. "Whatever happens, it’s one of the most important things I’ve done in my life."

In the West, the Thousand and One Nights — a 10th-century collection of stories of Persian, Indian, and Arab origin that was first printed in Arabic in the early 19th century — is the Arab world’s most famous literary export next to the Quran. The work is best known for its framing device, in which the sultan Shahryar, unhinged by his wife’s unfaithfulness, decides to take a virgin to bed every night, and behead her every morning. Then along comes Scheherazade, who keeps the sultan’s attention — and her life — through the marvelous stories she tells, and cleverly leaves unfinished, over the course of those famously long nights.

But despite being widely admired in the West, in the Arab world the work has always existed on the border line between popular entertainment and literature, between opprobrium and admiration. Scheherazade’s latest would-be censors, who call themselves Lawyers Without Restrictions (and are apparently also Without a Sense of Irony), have reignited an old debate over the status of the book — and over the limits of freedom of expression in Egypt today.

Ghitany remembers when cheap popular editions of the Nights were commonly available in Cairo, where many of the medieval tales are set. The stories Scheherazade tells in the collection contain a bit of everything; in the words of Robert Irwin, one of the foremost Western scholars on the Nights, they include "heroic epics, wisdom literature, fables, cosmological fantasy, pornography, scatological jokes, mystical devotional tales, chronicles of low life, rhetorical debates and masses of poetry." It is the vastness, the complexity, the unpredictability of the stories-within-stories of the Nights that has made them an object of fascination and inspiration for writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Italo Calvino to Elias Khoury.

But the incensed lawyers and their supporters have a decidedly different opinion. A particularly radical group of religious scholars at al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic university, recently put up a statement provocatively titled "To the boys of the brothels, the fools of the Thousand and One Nights." In it they argue that the government’s decision to print a low-cost edition of the book — as well as more modern works such as Cairo University philosophy professor Hassan Hanafi’s A Call for Dialogue and the late novelist Tayeb Salih’s acclaimed Season of Migration to the North — is evidence that "The ministry of culture wastes the country’s money to destroy our youth and spread vice, from which has resulted behavior that presages ruin and catastrophe." They linked the publication of such works with the spread of "addiction, corrupted forms of marriage, devil worshipping, incest and rape."

Literature is not officially censored in Egypt; the scholars of al-Azhar are entitled to scour books on religion for objectionable material, but not other genres. Yet books are often the victims of insidious "street censorship," which occurs when the media and religious groups rouse public indignation to the point that the authorities must intervene. This is what happened in the case of the Syrian novelist Haydar Haydar’s Banquet for Seaweed, which was published by an Egyptian government-run press in 2000. (Government-published books are crucial to Egyptian letters, as low levels of readership and weak copyright laws have stunted the growth of a commercial publishing industry.) Based on a few provocative passages cited out of context, religious scholars and their mouthpieces in the press labeled the book "blasphemous." It’s a good guess that none of the riot police or hundreds of students at Cairo’s main Islamic university that fought pitched battles over the book had ever read a page of it.

More recently, the literary magazine Ibdaa ("Creativity") had its license revoked over the publication, in 2007, of a poem by the renowned poet Helmy Salem, deemed blasphemous because it personified God with lines such as: "The Lord isn’t a policeman/who catches criminals by the scruff of their necks/the Lord is a villager who feeds the ducks/who probes cows’ udders with his fingers, calling out:/Plenty of milk…" Before Ibdaa was shut down, Salem had already been forced to return a State Award for Achievement in the Arts, honoring his entire body of work. The court that rescinded the award found that "The sin that he committed … against God and against society, challenging its traditions and religious beliefs should fail the sum total of his work, rendering him ineligible for any state honor or prize." 

Salem was the victim of a hisba case — what has become the legal weapon of choice in the arsenal of would-be censors. These are cases — based on a principle in Islamic law — in which an individual may sue another on behalf of society, alleging some grave harm has been done it. Several Islamist lawyers specialize in hisba lawsuits and use them with alarming frequency against writers, intellectuals, and professors whose opinions they deem to have denigrated Islam. Egypt’s minority Christian Coptic population also has its self-appointed moral guardians, eager to take novelists to court. And while charges against a book, author, or publisher are being investigated, the book is usually confiscated from the market.

Ghitany is a veteran of these battles. He has had to move his office because of anonymous threats and was recently ordered to pay a 50,000-Egyptian-pound ($9,000) fine over an offending article. The writer was also a close friend of the late Nobel-prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, who was nearly killed in 1994 by a young extremist who believed his novel Children of the Alley was blasphemous.

The attack was part of a campaign of violent intimidation against intellectuals at a time when Islamist groups were almost at open war with the state. Today, the threat of violence has receded. But it has been replaced with an ongoing culture war, in many ways reminiscent of the United States’ own internal struggles over subjects such as evolution and abortion.

Islamists use provocative, out-of-context quotes from books to mount morality campaigns and put the government on the defensive. Controversies erupt regularly, but unpredictably. Many explicit and provocative works are published without anyone raising an eyebrow. But any one book or film may find itself the center of a public scandal, singled out on the basis of a few lines. The arbitrariness of censorship in Egypt makes publishers (especially the government-run ones) afraid to take risks and leads writers to second-guess themselves. "In Egypt we’re born and we live in a state of constant self-censorship," the writer Khaled Al Khamissi, whose book Taxi has been an international hit, once told me. What’s more surprising is how often, given these circumstances, Egyptian writers still decide to push the envelope. 

In the uneven tug of war between the religious and the cultural establishments, the Egyptian government presents itself as both the enlightened protector of individual freedoms and the guardian of traditional Islamic values. How it reacts to the calls to censor a particular work — what attitude the controversial minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, takes — is entirely pragmatic, governed not by principle but by the balance of power and the political necessities of the moment. The regime acts as a "referee," writes Samia Mehrez in her book Egypt’s Culture Wars, but a profoundly cynical one, which believes that "the cultural is the handmaiden of the political and must always abide by its rules."  

How will the controversy over the Nights play out? It’s too soon to tell. The Egyptian public prosecutor is looking into the accusations against Ghitany, as well as several others who were involved in the publication of the book. According to Article 178 of Egypt’s penal code, they could go to jail for two years for publishing literature that is "offensive to public decency." But the prosecutor could also dismiss the charges altogether.  

Ghitany is a well-respected, well-connected public figure, and he and other Egyptian literati have mounted a vigorous counterattack, defending the Nights as a work that belongs to, and is admired by, the entire world. In a typical act of triangulation, the Egyptian authorities have decided not to bow to Islamist pressure, but also not to push the point too far. Ghitany has been allowed to go ahead and publish another 1,000 copies and distribute them only to government-run bookstores. But that’s all. Until, that is, the next "pornographic" or "blasphemous" book is published. It’s a story that’s starting to feel as long and as cyclical as the Thousand and One Nights itself. 

<p> Ursula Lindsey is a writer based in Cairo. She contributes to the Arabist blog. </p>

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