Witch Hunt in Egypt

“In a nuclear age, a space age, an age of expanding minds, they still rule us with the law of the Bedouins’ god and the Koran …Shit!”

—Haidar Haidar, A Banquet for Seaweed


Arabic is a uniquely concise language, so much so that it regularly dispenses with the verb “to be.” There is no need to say “The sky is blue.” It’s quite enough to say “The sky blue” and your meaning is clear. This is not just a bit of linguistic arcana. If it weren’t for this grammatical convention, the recent stormy controversy over a book banning in Egypt may never have taken place. The center of the controversy is a single blank typespace on the back page of the April 28 issue of a Cairo tabloid called al-Shaab. The name means “The People,” al-Shaab being the biweekly newspaper of Egypt’s Socialist Labor Party, a noisy but feeble opposition grouping that has drifted with prevailing fashions from vague leftism toward a particularly shrill, xenophobic brand of Islamism. The blank space is to be found in an article that purports to be a review of Syrian writer Haidar Haidar’s novel A Banquet for Seaweed.

What should have filled the space are the three little dots you see between the words “Koran” and “shit” in the passage quoted above. The passage is drawn from a conversation between two characters in Haidar’s book—a pair of jaded Iraqi communists living an unhappy provincial exile in 1970s Algeria. The word “shit” was meant to characterize the tendency of revolutionary Arab regimes to use cheap populism to legitimize their rule. In its review, however, al-Shaab made it appear that what the novelist had actually written was “The Koran is shit.”

Al-Shaab’s treatment did not stop there. Pulling other bits of dialogue out of context to prove his point, the article’s author, a hitherto obscure columnist named Muhammad Abbas, asserted that the book was nothing less than a viciously anti-Islamic tract. It did not matter that A Banquet For Seaweed is a work of fiction, that it was first published in 1983, or that it had received modest critical praise at the time. What mattered was that it had just been reissued in the modern Arabic classics series sponsored by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture. Thus, said Abbas, the government of a Muslim country was itself promoting rank atheism and blasphemy. Nothing in his life, he declared—neither Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967, nor even the death of his own father—had ever shocked him so deeply as this. The columnist concluded by urging his government, and the Islamic world as a whole, to rise up in defense of Islam or forfeit their right to be called Muslims.

Abbas’s piece soon had dramatic results. Mosque sermons took up the cry against this insult to the faith, and soon after, the biggest riot Egypt had seen in a decade erupted at al-Azhar, Cairo’s one-thousand-year-old Islamic university. Crowds of Koran-waving students…

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