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Essay

The Televangelist by Ibrahim Essa, translated by Jonathan Wright (American University in Cairo Press, 2016)
The Queue
by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (Melville House, 2016)
The Boy Jihadi by Youssef Rakha (Guernica, 2015)

 

IN THE EARLY HOURS of January 1, 2011, a bomb was set off among New Year’s Eve worshippers at a Coptic church in Egypt’s second city. Twenty-three people died in the blast.

No one has been held accountable for the Alexandria attack, and news of the bombing was soon overshadowed by country-wide protests that erupted later that month. But talk about this bombing, alternately blamed on Islamists and on Egypt’s interior minister, comes amid noisy and conflicting public narratives about the country’s religious and state terror. An attack much like it forms the violent anchor of Ibrahim Essa’s 2012 novel The Televangelist, published in Jonathan Wright’s brisk English translation in 2016.

Since 2011, popular narratives about Islam in Egypt’s public sphere—and the relationship between Islam and power—have undergone several shifts, influenced by the brief presidency of Muslim Brotherhood stalwart Mohamed Morsi and, afterwards, the summer 2013 takeover by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The latter has made the story of a powerful state standing against religious terrorists a centerpiece of his rule.

Following Sisi’s lead, the state has justified its many attacks on civil society by declaring war against terrorists, who are by turns the local Muslim Brotherhood or ultra-strict Islamists from organizations based in other countries. And yet this is not a contest between secular and religious authorities. The state, headed by an avowedly devout Muslim, has also dressed up its edicts with support from Islam, with a preacher on state TV referring to Sisi as “God’s shadow on earth.” So if both powers come from Islam, which is the right one? The narrators of poet-novelist Youssef Rakha’s blackly funny short story “The Boy Jihadi,” published in English in Guernica magazine in 2015, are torn between these two visions of authoritarian rule.

Rakha recently wrote in an essay in The Common that all literature is “a working-out of the power relations that control culture.” In the last century, Egyptian literature’s battle has been with autocratic rulers, both local and European, and with conservative religious leadership. Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, was keenly interested in the mechanics of power. Mahfouz tussled both with the legacy of colonialism and dictatorship and with the legacy of Muslim Brotherhood founder and one-time literary critic Sayyid Qutb.

Egypt’s recent fiction, like its public figures, is likewise interested in religion and power as centers of contested meaning. Three very different recent works illuminate religion and power in contemporary Egypt from different points of view: The Televangelist is told from near the center of power, looking outward; activist-novelist Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013) is narrated from the margins, looking in; “The Boy Jihadi” is told from a position of middle-class, collective demi-omniscience.

 

For Religious Men, Is Independence Possible?

A number of readers have suggested that the protagonist of TV personality and novelist Ibrahim Essa’s The Televangelist is based on the massively popular TV preacher Amr Khaled. But the central character could just as easily be based, at least loosely, on Essa himself. Although not a preacher, Essa is the son of an Azhar-trained imam and—like his protagonist—he has a complicated relationship with TV, religion, and power.

The book is set among Egypt’s ruling class during the tail end of the Mubarak era. While Essa insists on its status as fiction, it includes real gossip of 2010, such as the much-ridiculed adult breastfeeding fatwa, and it ends with a midnight church bombing in the Zeitoun district of Cairo—a clear echo of the Alexandria bombing.

The Televangelist is narrated from alongside and inside the tightest circles of power. Sheikh Hatem al-Shenawy, the titular televangelist (the book is called Mawlana, “Our Master,” in Arabic) comes from working-class roots but has used TV preaching to climb the social ladder. He is now part of an elite club that includes actors, military men, Muslim religious leaders, businessmen, and political functionaries inside the Mubarak regime.

Sheikh Hatem’s understanding of Islam is deep and wide, and draws on a millennium-strong written tradition, which is part of the appeal of the book. But his preaching is also at the service of economic and political powers. Hatem and men like him are beholden to the businessmen who own the satellite channels on which they preach, and, although Hatem is technically independent, he’s pressured to fall in line with the religious opinions of the state—and even more, to earn money for his sponsors.

Early in the book, we accompany Sheikh Hatem to a dinner with powerful men, where he does word-battle with one of the state’s top religious leaders: “Fathi’s fatwas were always ready to serve.” Here, at least, Hatem seems to be his own person. But later, he is ushered into a meeting with the unnamed “president’s son,” who Essa has insisted is not Gamal Mubarak. The president’s son tells Sheikh Hatem that his brother-in-law, Hassan, has decided to convert to Christianity, and charges him with returning Hassan to Islam.

The president’s son believes that a conversion inside the ruling family could create a crisis of governance: “people in the West and the racists will jump on the subject and make a big deal out of it, and the extremists and the terrorists, if they get wind of the story, they’ll set fire not just to us but to the whole of Egypt.” He refers to the true story of Mosab Hassan Youssef, son of a Hamas leader, who converted to Christianity and published a high-profile memoir, Son of Hamas, in 2010.

This “setting fire” to Egypt is one of the few ways in which power might be exercised by those at the margins. The other is through TV viewership, through what ordinary people choose to watch. Both are slim mechanisms, but they do motivate the book’s ruling family to be very careful with their secrets.

While Hatem attempts to bring Hassan back to Islam, his real quest is to find a small, independent breathing space in amongst the demands of a television audience, sponsors, and the state—in order to have his own independent opinion about something. Urinating all over the furniture while being held in lockup at state security gives him a brief feeling of strength, but he is devastated to learn that the religious-seeming woman he falls for was an actress sent by state security to seduce him.

Political and economic interests are tightly linked. Sheikh Hatem is not only compelled to do the dirty work of the president’s son and military leaders, but also of the businessmen who sponsor his programs. A particularly unsavory sponsor, Ali al-Kaaki, is reputed to be a slave trader. He eventually confesses this to Sheikh Hatem, looking for a religious opinion that will allow him to continue with an easy conscience. Hatem makes fun of him, offering a ruling that the man is equal parts slave trader and pimp. And yet, although Hatem speaks his mind, he continues to earn money for al-Kaaki and follow al-Kaaki’s rules.

As the novel progresses, Hatem is tied closer and closer to the inner circles of power by the secrets he accumulates. Even most of his religious knowledge is secret from his TV viewers, both because he thinks the masses can’t digest complex ideas and because it’s not allowed. For the most part, staying on the good side of the state and sponsors doesn’t bother Hatem. But things come to a sudden head live and on the air, when his friend the Sufi Sheikh Mukhtar is suddenly denounced across the media as a “Shiite traitor” in league with Iran. The show goes to a break, and Hatem learns that his co-host—another friend of the ruling party—will force him to take a stand on the accusations against Mukhtar. He must decide in a matter of moments whether to betray his friend or potentially lose everything.

Before the break ends, Sheikh Hatem manages to slip his bonds and exercise his own power, of a kind: he knocks out his co-host, goes back on air alone, and side-steps the question. This sort of power is exceptionally limited. Hatem avoids betraying one of his dearest allies, but he does not take a stand for him. In the end, no one else does, either. Although Sheikh Mukhtar is described as having many followers, he is quickly portrayed as a traitor to Egypt and to Sunni Islam. In the world Essa’s novel paints, the power to define who has the right religion can come only from the center.

In the world of The Televangelist, many other religious meaning-makers are at work outside the immediate circles of power. Yet when the church bombing happens, it takes us entirely by surprise. Whoever the culprit may be—Al-Qaeda, or the Army of Islam, or another group—they and their power are a complete mystery to Hatem and to the reader. It springs out of nowhere, or from the internet, to wreak a mass killing.

Essa’s earlier novels were thrillers that used fast-paced plots and stereotyped characters to reach a wide audience, and they were commercial successes. On one level, The Televangelist works in much the same way, but its political insights into the late Mubarak era elevate it above his other books. The Televangelist was his first to be received as a literary work, and it was a controversial and popular shortlistee for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

 

The Direction(s) of Religious Power

Religious authority in The Televangelist comes mostly from the interlocking centers, where knowledge, meaning-making, and power reside. Based in a long tradition, it’s mediated by a few knowledgeable men. From this tiny point, it radiates outwards. Power is thus mainly unidirectional, like a television signal. Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, by contrast, is told from the perspectives of ordinary TV-watching Egyptians whose lives are entangled in fatwas and missives from the state, which—like magical vines that keep twining about their limbs—drag them down as fast as they can cut them away. But these ordinary people aren’t passive consumers or simple rioters. They’re in continual action: actively colluding with the state, preaching on the street, writing pamphlets, collecting funds, staging protests. In this novel, religious meaning is made and contested not just at the center, but in many locations.

The Queue, now in smooth, persuasive translation by Elisabeth Jaquette, is Abdel Aziz’s first novel, although the psychiatrist and activist had previously written two nonfiction works about policing and power. If The Televangelist asks whether a man at the center can find a path toward independence, The Queue asks about the source of all this power and whether it’s possible for ordinary Egyptians to act independently of it, in their own interests.

A political allegory in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984, The Queue follows a number of characters, most of whom are standing in a kilometers-long line outside a government gate that never opens. This gate was erected after the “Disgraceful Events,” which are alluded to without being described, but which certainly involved the mass shooting of civilians. The gate was formed to clamp down on the citizens’ anger and the questions that followed, and with it came new paperwork requirements for anyone who wished to live and work in the unnamed country where the novel is set.

Most people are standing in line to obtain a fictional “Certificate of True Citizenship.” The practice of using incomplete paperwork as a pretext to shut down independent organizations is commonplace in Egypt. Last December, four branches of the Egyptian government—its Censorship Authority, Tax Authority, National Security Agency, and an office of its Ministry of Manpower—all came together to raid and shut down downtown Cairo’s independent Townhouse Gallery, saying various paperwork hadn’t been properly completed.

At the center of The Queue is a taciturn man named Yahya Gad El-Rab Saeed, who needs government permission to get a government bullet removed from his private pelvis. Yahya’s own body is a space of contested meaning, as he carries proof that the police did shoot at citizens during the Disgraceful Events. But state missives forbid doctors to remove bullets without explicit permission. Later, they forbid x-rays, and yet later, x-ray machines. Copies of suspect x-rays are removed from all but the police hospital.

State authority, at first, seems to be the central and primary mover. But, as in The Televangelist, no authority stands alone. When people in the queue protest against state edicts, religious fatwas from the high sheikh are marshalled in support of the state. Small-time preachers inside the queue also shore up state authority, echoing and supporting those fatwas.

As Yahya slowly bleeds to death, the high sheikh issues a ruling that “if citizens were pious, God-fearing believers (and not weak of faith), they would not bring destruction upon themselves.” And if, by some chance, a true believer were accidentally struck by a bullet, the fatwa asserts this believer should accept this bullet as though it came from God and not “question the unquestionable—such an act could lead him down a perilous path towards doubt…. He must acknowledge how lucky he was to be struck by a bullet, and exalted to a place in heaven ordinarily reserved only for the most dutiful.”

In themselves, these edicts have no actual power. It is the police officers, jailers, citizens, nurses, and doctors—all legitimately afraid of the consequences of stepping out of line—who make sure edicts are enforced.

Economic interests also work in tandem with the state and religious authorities. After people in the queue stage a boycott of the powerful Violet Telecoms, a company that’s colluding with the state to spy on mobile-phone users, the high sheikh issues a lengthy fatwa. He declares that it’s religiously impermissible to harm the country’s economic interests. “Believers shall not boycott their brothers, nor cause them to suffer financial or emotional distress, and shall not call upon others to take such actions, as this is one of the gravest sins, unless done in support of religion.”

This fatwa does nothing on its own. But it is taken up by people like the unnamed “man in the galabeya,” a central conservative figure who organizes his own small congregation in the line. The man in the galabeya (a traditional Egyptian garment) works to end the boycott and demonize the journalist Ehab and the “short-haired woman,” two anti-establishment leaders. When one of the high sheikh’s fatwas is met with outrage, the man in the galabeya “rose to the occasion, and began his thirty-first weekly lesson in support of the High Sheikh’s fatwa.”

The man in the galabeya doesn’t support only religious or state authority. He even goes as far as “collecting donations in support of Violet Telecoms, which he regularly announced during his lessons.” But he is not just a dupe: we learn that he also owns a large amount of stock in the company.

In The Queue, the power of TV doesn’t play the central role it does in The Televangelist. Newspapers and radio are important, but usually in how they withhold information, not as meaning-makers. But Abdel Aziz does locate one further source of authority: patriarchal social practice.

A schoolteacher named Ines, who arrives at the queue in a turquoise hijab, starts out by speaking her mind. She initially joins with the short-haired woman, the journalist, and others who stand against blind obedience. But after people begin disappearing from the line, Ines grows afraid. She feels herself targeted and finds safety in the galabeya-wearing man’s congregation. In her fear, Ines dons progressively more modest clothing. “She felt a deep sense of relief and was gradually accepted by a new crowd, which was somewhat different from the groups of women she’d known at her school.” She gives up her previous rebellious behavior and eventually marries the man in the galabeya.

But Ines’s is hardly the only path for women. Um Mabrouk worked as a cleaning lady before she came to live her life in the queue. Here, she becomes a great entrepreneur, selling tea and snacks to others who are waiting. At times, Um Mabrouk is swayed by the man in the galabeya’s sermons. Following a fiery sermon against the Violet Telecoms boycott, Um Mabrouk weeps: “Her tears streamed down her face, and she swore to herself repentantly that she’d abandon the cell phone boycott.” Instead, Um Mabrouk is swayed to boycott a candy company that was “producing candy made of sugar swirls, in which—in a certain light—one could make out the word ‘God.’”

But Um Mabrouk also can hold firm to her beliefs and her personal loyalties, particularly when her economic interests are not at stake. Several times the man in the galabeya “advised Um Mabrouk to distance herself from the [short-haired] woman and to stop providing space for her meetings, and when she didn’t obey him, he berated and shamed her, and ordered her to throw the woman out right away. But Um Mabrouk—who had raised nearly enough money for her daughter’s treatment—was unshakeable, and faced him brazenly, refusing to get rid of her new friend.”

It is not only the women in the queue who are confined by gender roles. Men also are pushed to valorize nationalist and soldierly values. But they, too, can change. Shalaby, who is standing in the line to get compensation and recognition for his cousin—a soldier killed during the Disgraceful Events—is changed by his interactions in the line. In the end, “he wanted to know the truth, but what truth that was exactly, he wouldn’t say.”

The Queue is much less interested in received religious texts, or Qur’anic exegesis, than The Televangelist. It’s more interested in how interlocking authorities can move individual people to act and react, particularly when these authorities might convince people to ignore bullets in their bodies, even as they are bleeding to death.

In its larger-than-life political dystopia, The Queue is clearly written in the tradition of 1984 or Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Committee. But it is also built from the type of finely wrought observations of Egyptian life found in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Futurist dystopias have become a popular mode of expression among Egypt’s young writers (Nael Eltoukhy’s 2013 Women of Karantina, Mohamed al-Rabie’s 2015 Otared). But Abdel Aziz’s novel is distinct for its attention to gender and its sensitive, fine-grained depictions of women as they come in conflict with power.

 

With Us or Against Us?

Youssef Rakha’s 2015 short story “The Boy Jihadi,” written in English and published online in Guernica, is narrated collectively and ironically by the residents of a Cairo building: “two dozen upstanding families, good citizens, and good Muslims, the pride and joy of their third-world country’s bourgeoisie.” This self-aware group addresses an unnamed army general, a distant relation of the banker on the top floor. Although the voice occasionally shifts to the first person, the storyteller assures the general “that I speak for all of us even when I say I.”

The boy jihadi, who is about fourteen years old, interrupts the lives of these upstanding citizens who place themselves firmly on the side of the state, stability, and safety—and firmly against this skinny boy bearing an ancient Kalashnikov. The boy’s appearance reinforces the idea of an either/or reality: one can stand with the power of the state, or with foreign Islamists. At first, all the building’s residents know exactly where they stand: as one, they threaten the boy with kitchen knives, yank at his turban, and even brandish a semiautomatic, the property of a retired colonel.

In this first meeting, the only message the boy has for them is “Al-khilafah qadimah” (“The caliphate is coming”).

At first, the group is firmly on the side of those Egyptians who dressed up in army fatigues and did battle for President Sisi from their couches. As such, the narrators claim:

Long before the arrival of the boy jihadi, we had all individually fantasized about hunting down a religious fanatic to defend the nation. We would engage them in mortal combat and emerge triumphant, handing over the corpse to someone like yourself, General, Sir, and be named an honorary brigadier or something. For a year or more before the six months that we spent preoccupied with our strange visitor, counterterrorism was our spiritual life.

The group’s collective power comes from a wartime identification with the state: thus the state’s authority is the group’s authority. If the state wishes building residents to fight against terrorists, then they will do it, and gladly. But just as groupthink underlies the residents’ authority, it also forces them to act as one. And as one changes his mind, so do they all.

It is not long before their adherence to state and religious authority becomes confused. The narrator mordantly explains: “One of us would be warning the other against the insidious ratsbane of extremism even as he admonished him for missing the last salat at the mosque. Fanaticism was one thing, but no one could afford to be lax about doing the homework assigned to them by Allah, could they now.”

Police are assigned to the building after the boy jihadi first appears and building residents call the incident in. But these police hardly made our protagonists want to identify with the state. They “would grab our women’s bosoms in the same breath as they pored over their pocket Qurans.” Contrasting these loathsome authorities with the mythic young boy who utters only a single phrase, the residents are slowly won over. After all, isn’t the caliphate what observant Muslims should want—not a secular-ish state?

As messages from the state media about the terrorist threat increase, the narrators report: “Watching the news, my neighbors and I were growing even more patriotic (just as we were meant to) but also, out of fear for our lives and uncertainty about the future, more pious.” In the end, “patriotism and piety, the state and the caliphate, taper into the same ungraspable thing.”

When the boy shows up again, the people of the building welcome him. This time, they don’t report him to the police. He comes every day, not speaking, not really even able to speak. After all, he’s only fourteen. In this, he allows the residents to invent their own meanings around him. This is something that the state, with its stream of messages about terrorism, doesn’t allow.

In the end, the boy leaves the residents a message, which begins with a verse of the Surat of Repentance. After this Qur’anic quote, there are—we come to understand—orders to kill the counter-terrorism general to whom the monologue is addressed. By the end of the story, we have come to realize that the general is standing with the residents on the roof of an office building, and we must assume they kill him, as per the boy jihadi’s instructions.

Here, state and religious authority are battling for the souls of the building’s residents, but Rakha introduces a new element of collective decision-making and the groupthink of the neighborhood: As one moves, so do we all.

Rakha’s over-the-top allegorical world is similar in many ways to the one Abdel Aziz creates in The Queue. Yet Rakha is far more scathing in tone and far blacker in his humor. While Abdel Aziz searches for a reason to hope and emphasizes the agency of the individual, Rakha manages to scorn hope. His characters are caught between two authorities, and for them there is no way out.

 

Religion, Terror, and Conscience

Both The Televangelist and “The Boy Jihadi” end with an act of religiously inspired killing. In The Televangelist, Sheikh Hatem—like the reader—is shocked to find out who’s behind this horrible act: Hassan, the brother-in-law of the president’s son. In the end, we have no idea why Hassan has bombed the church. We spent the whole book thinking Hassan genuinely wanted to convert to Christianity. But here he is, on video, ruthlessly enacting the deaths of more than forty Copts. All we know is what we hear in the final pages: that he’d been looking at al-Qaeda sites on his computer. So another authority was working the whole time, entirely behind our backs. It slaps us in the face just at the end, so that we—like Sheikh Hatem—have no idea what might come next, except perhaps chaos and destruction. Indeed, all authority outside the ruling circles seems to be the authority of violence.

Because “The Boy Jihadi” is narrated in the collective first person, we know exactly why the general was murdered, and indeed there is blood on all our hands. Our ideas about who is a terrorist and who is a legitimate authority change throughout the story until we—ordinary middle-class Egyptians—assassinate the general. It is a relatively small shift in allegiance from the authority of the state to the authority of the caliphate, and indeed the caliphate offers us more space to dream.

There is nothing we could have done to change this decision, because we are all compelled to act together, as if two dozen people were tied together in a three-legged race. Still, because the narrator insists so strongly that he speaks for everyone, he creates some doubt.

The Televangelist and “The Boy Jihadi” both stage a contest between formal and informal authorities, and in each case, the informal authority of the Islamist outsiders gets the final word. But The Queue’s outsider-authorities are not al-Qaeda or Daesh (a more accurate name for ISIS): They are activists, journalists, and ordinary Egyptians. Here, we end not with an act of violence, but an act of salvation.

Salvation seems impossible. After all, interlocking authorities have converged on Yahya and his bullet, and on Tarek, the rule-abiding doctor who wants to take it out. The net is so tight that it seems impossible for them to act. Nagy, a philosophy professor and Yahya’s best friend, doesn’t think they can. Nagy recognizes the self-sustaining power of rules once they’ve been put in place. He tells himself that “rules and restrictions were stronger than everything else, stronger than the ruler himself, stronger than the Booth and even the Gate.”

And yet Nagy is wrong, at least in the world of the book. The Queue ends with a tiny (or enormous) act of rebellion against the structures of state, as well as religious and patriarchal authority. A small dot is written on a piece of paper. A life is, perhaps, saved. The Queue loses a number of people along the way. But it offers by far the most optimistic vision among the three works, showing how an individual might use the prevailing narratives of religion and power around her to reconstruct a world that also aligns with a personal conscience.


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