Middle East Journal: A Woman’s Journey into the Heart of the Arab World by Laila Abou-Saif
Book Review by Barbara Grant
posted October 6, 2013
It is easy to recommend this book with a four-zill rating and I do. I applaud ground truth data–here, in the form of interviews–diligently gathered by someone qualified to interpret it. Through a series of interviews conducted primarily in Cairo between July, 1986 and August, 1987, Laila Abou-Saif, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian feminist with a PhD in theater from the University of Illinois has recorded as broad an array of Egyptian (and other Arab) opinion as possible on issues including the future of Egypt, the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Interwoven with her interviews are snippets from her journal allowing readers to glimpse her daily life in Cairo.
What is not easy in the post 9-11 world is to agree with the author’s primary conclusion: that there will be no peace in the Middle East absent a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and I don’t.
Today, the dynamics of the Egyptian Revolution, begun in 2011 along with those of the broader Arab Spring, have yet to fully unfold. The Iraq War, with its “nation-building” goal, has yet to build anything in the region other than instability and factionalism. Libya has undergone regime change as Moammar Qaddafi was swept from power after he’d ceased to oppose United Staes’s policies; many Americans still wonder why. While the U. S. has recently backed down on its threat to hit Syrian army targets with an itty-bitty missile strike, officials have not excluded the possibility of doing so. In short, the region has changed dramatically since the late 1980s.
This work is valuable primarily as a record of how Egyptians see Egypt. The interviews provide threads we can follow to see how the situation of decades past has evolved into what we see today.
A Political Tapestry
Western consumers of media outlets who believe the propaganda that Egyptians come in only two political stripes—Islamic fundamentalists and strongman-worshipers — will find their perceptions challenged by the diversity of political opinion reflected in these pages. In 1986, Anwar Sadat had been dead five years, his assassination by Islamic fundamentalists mourned widely in the West but not in Egypt, where a majority of citizens considered the last several years of his reign to be tyrannical. Hosni Mubarak, his successor, was not the hated autocrat who would be deposed 25 years later. Interview subjects include fundamentalists, secular leftists both socialist and Marxist, internationalists–a highly-privileged few like Boutros Boutros-Ghalli (Minister of State for Foreign Affairs; he became the United Nation’s Secretary-General in 1992) and those who might best be described as listening to the beat of a different drummer, like famed novelist and (subsequently, in 1988) Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
What impresses is how many—absent the Brotherhood fundamentalists—believe that the best course for Egypt to take is democracy…a quarter-century before the Arab Spring, and long before the United States decided that this was the best solution for the Middle East.
Here is Ahmed Ismail, a thirty-something journalist with anti-American views who writes for a Marxist newspaper:
“The great catastrophes in Egypt are caused by the military regime….Egypt is ruled by despotic, tyrannical, undemocratic military men… we need a multiparty system and parliamentary democracy.” (p. 61).
And here is Mustapha Amin, former owner of Akhbar al-Yom, one of Egypt’s two most important daily publications, and at the interview, its Editor-in-Chief:
“All our troubles stem from the lack of democracy and the prevalence of dictatorship,” he said. Unlike Ahmed Ismail, Amin is pro-American and will not place blame on Americans for Egypt’s troubles. “What I like about America is democracy and freedom,” he says. “I wish we could learn that from them.” (p. 122).
Opposition to the ruling authority was also voiced by Pope Shenoudah III, Coptic Patriarch and spiritual leader to Egyptian Christians. The Pope had been incarcerated by Sadat in a desert monastery for three years; upon the latter’s assassination, many Copts celebrated by “drinking sharbat, a fruit syrup used on festive occasions” (p. 149). The Pope also voiced his concern in the event that shariah were ever to become law in Egypt: “The entire Coptic community would have either to segregate itself or become servants,” he said (p. 151).
Not your mother’s feminist icon…
“What do you think of the woman with the veil?” Abou-Saif asks Mahfouz. “She is being pulled back,” the novelist replies, “and she thinks she is going forward.”(p. 113).
Muslim and Western feminism meet face to face when the author interviews Zeinab al-Ghazali, Supreme Guide of the Muslim Sisterhood. She is dressed in white from head to toe and wears no makeup, and speaks of the necessity of the veil and loose clothing that conceals the contours of the female body.
The name, “Muslim Sisterhood,” prompted me initially to think of the group as a kind of “Ladies’ Auxiliary” to the Brotherhood—but it is not. Al-Ghazzali and her three million female followers are on the front lines with the Brothers in their efforts to restore the Caliphate. “I am a soldier of Islam,” she declares (p.41) and she not only talks the talk: she has walked the walk, having served years in prison where she endured solitary confinement and torture, released only after then-Saudi King Faisal appealed to Nasser and Sadat on her behalf. Her publications “have become the manifestos of the Muslim ‘feminists’” (p.37).
…but an equal partner on the path to shariah.
“Those who suggest torture as a way of making people give up their beliefs were ignorant,” al-Ghazali says, “because they did not realize that people who have beliefs are ready to sacrifice their lives for these beliefs.” (p. 47). Do we in the West understand that mindset, I wonder?
While Sadat’s assassins were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood*, al-Ghazali states that she opposes assassination because “our cause cannot be solved with the assassination of any individual or any people.” (p. 44). “The one responsible for the assassination of Sadat is Sadat himself because he angered the people and made them rebel,” she said, also noting that “[t]hose who established terrorism in the Middle East are the world Zionists.” (p. 43).
At the time this book was written, few in Egypt except perhaps the Islamists might have envisioned a government with someone like Mohamed Morsi at the helm; odder still would have been the degree to which the U. S. and other western democracies have supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet as revealed by the diversity of opinion seen in these pages, Egypt is not an extremist country.
One can only hope that Egypt will right itself, and the present turmoil give way to a brighter future. “[t]he Nile,” writes the author, “like my people, is a gentle river, which flows slowly and serenely.”
Rating: 4 zils
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