It is the mid-90s, and I’m sitting in a bar, drinking a cold Stella beer. I am somewhere on the Sinai coast. Next to me, an older man is sitting sipping his whiskey-neat. He looks like someone who works with money, not abstractly, with the arrogance of a banker or a stockbroker, but more directly. Maybe he’s a contractor? As it turns out, he’s laying the electricity grid of the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. We talk. The name of Arwa Saleh is mentioned (no idea how or why), and the man suddenly breaks out into a heated rant on the pretentious corruption of artists and left-wing intellectuals — their uselessness, their danger to society, the ways they can damage other people. He reveals that he is (to my utter surprise) Arwa’s brother — brother of the Arwa Saleh who threw herself off a Cairo balcony less than a month ago. His diatribe is suddenly contextualized.
To speak of a suicide — especially the suicide of a poet, artist, or writer — is to touch the glamour of dramatic gestures, the abandon of the unspeakable. A glamour that sustains itself precisely by glossing over the immense pain and despair leading to such an absolute act. To speak of suicide is, in a sense, to banish it beyond conversation. But maybe it’s apt and even productive to treat Arwa Saleh’s suicide as a metaphor that arises out of her one published text, the fascinating rumination on a generation and its convictions, El mobtaseroun (The Premature). The leaders of the generation under the microscope, the so-called 70s student movement, are now mostly at the helms of (largely co-opted) liberal-minded NGOs, who survive off of handouts from international agencies with different agendas. That is, if they don’t kill themselves, as Arwa did.
El mobtaseroun might not be especially brilliant as philosophy or radical as a revolutionary manifesto, but it is absolutely necessary. It has an urgency that gains in significance through the wide-reaching impact this generation has had, albeit unconsciously and in opposition to its stated aims, on contemporary Egyptian society. It points out how language — or, more accurately, discourse, a system of using language within historical context, is a main operator, the arbiter between self-defeat and the possibility of action. Saleh’s concern is not for style or dogma but rather the burning need both to critique and to validate an experience whose echoes still resonate within the cultural life and politics of this city.
Saleh’s introduction to the book is fascinating, an incisive analytical introduction written five years after the primary text itself. She states that upon reading the final proof, she was shocked to discover herself alienated from earlier political positions and even more from the very impetus to profess a political position that takes concern and empathy over the plight of a nation as a basic starting point. This is a documentation of the change in consciousness not only of a person but also of a whole society. Saleh was honest enough to decide to come to terms with what had changed within her own understanding of the self in relation to a public discourse — even while disavowing it. By relying on the age-old literary trick of disclaiming responsibility for the text we’re about to read, she places the whole experience within the parentheses of history.
And it is truly devastating to hear Saleh state “that all utopias in the world cannot overcome the joy of human warmth.”
ARCHETYPES AND LINGUISTIC TROPES
Different chapters introduce us to different archetypes of intellectuals. In The Intellectual as a Pessimist, we tackle the illusions that helped sustain the very workings of the movement and were simultaneously its downfall. Statements that became truths — producing history is easy and simple, society is to be condemned, and thus we possess a natural moral high ground. Statements that led to alienation, nihilism, and hence corruption and personal class aspiration. Saleh’s text demonstrates how the intellectual who gains in stature (in the eyes of the very bourgeoisie he so feverishly detests) by performing the role of the alienated critic, becomes the beloved of the object of his condemnation and is slowly but surely seduced into its orbit.
These are the memoirs of a complicated, obsessive, and disenchanted love relationship with Marxism. The disenchanted lover is not necessarily one who has lost faith so much as one who needs to come to terms with the driving motives behind that love — to uncover the bourgeois roots of all romantic gestures and most interestingly to analyze how those gestures played a part in the nascent birth of the Egyptian republic. The illusion that the 70s generation harbored, of being the dialectical antithesis to the fascist nationalism of the Nasser years, is uncovered as a construct of that very nationalism (which helps explain the later move of Marxists into the Islamic camp en masse). Nostalgia is explained as a movement that yearns for the context that produced it. The prematurity Saleh refers to in her title is the consciousness of a generation that was unable to forge its understanding outside the system that produced it — the very bourgeois need for validation — and was therefore unable to become a truly popular movement.
Language is clearly at play, as a source of power for the different actors on the stage of political involvement, and even more importantly as the means by which the zeitgeist comes to understand itself, discovering its own will and action.
HEGELIANISM AND THE CORRUPTION OF THE INTELLECTUAL
In discussing history, Saleh manages to sidestep the dangers latent in the Hegelianism of Marxist thought, that insistence on anthropomorphizing history and giving it a human face that suits their goals. She calls for a more dispassionate and modest approach that recognizes the power of a force that is not always reducible or comprehendible, where imagined rights and wrongs do not take their place automatically in some worked-out progressive diagram of human happiness and fulfillment. In her discussion of revolutionary kitsch — its totalitarian/authoritarian romantic sentimentality — Saleh insists on analyzing how kitsch functions across ideology, rather than through it — based on metaphors and linguistic tropes rather than concepts or ideas only. The profound possibility that ideology itself is unable to function without the layer of kitsch is touched upon. This is devastating stuff, for revolutionaries are, by Saleh’s description, self-interested romantics in love with ideas. The introduction of a superstition — a whisper around the corner, a way of speaking to yourself and imagining an audience that witnesses your every move on a stage-becomes the driving force behind one’s sacrifices. The stage of history itself is where we operate. Saleh states, paraphrasing Kundera, that “kitsch is a mask that hides death behind it” — an especially potent statement in hindsight. For within the empire of mutual gestures, political movements, utopias and hopes, the hysteria of demands, the narcissism of demonstrations, the drama of refusal, resides a deep illusion harbored by class. A bourgeoisie, enthralled by its own power to assert ideas and change the course of millennia.
It is therefore disheartening to see street movements such as Kefaya (although watching crowds chant “No, no, to Hosni Mubarak!” from my balcony last summer was like an amphetamine rush) adopt a similar discourse where an ethical and moral high ground is presumed. To see that the subtle understanding of political power as a form of linguistic play, an understanding of who and what we are in relation to the operations of power, is still lacking.