Islamist Furor in Egypt Over “Heretical” Novel

Banquet for Seaweed

A Review By Salah Shami
Walimah li-A’shab al-Bahr (Banquet for Seaweed) by Haydar Haydar
5th edition, 2000 House of Waves, Beirut, Lebanon

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 770, 7 December 2001.

The U.S. terror bombing of Afghanistan has triggered massive reverberations throughout the Muslim Crescent. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere in protest, targeting their anger not only at the American imperialists and their allies, but also at the bonapartist cronies and monarchs who run the local regimes in the interests of their imperialist masters. What is noticeable about these protests is that they have been dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, with nary a peep uttered by the petty-bourgeois nationalists or the Stalinists, both of which were once formidable political forces in the region and peddlers of anti-imperialist rhetoric. The dominance and growth of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism is a direct result of the manifest bankruptcy and failure of the bourgeois nationalists to deliver on their post-independence promises and of the betrayals of the Stalinists who tailed and capitulated to them.

The enormous power that Islamic fundamentalists have in shaping the social, political and cultural discourse in the Near East was in full display in Egypt in April and May of last year. Some months after the Ministry of Culture reprinted Banquet for Seaweed, a 1983 novel by the Syrian writer Haydar Haydar, an unprecedented wave of fundamentalist-led protests, drawn heavily from university students, erupted across the country. The bonapartist regime of Hosni Mubarak responded with riot police, armored cars, tear gas and rubber bullets.

The People, newspaper of the Islamist “Labor Party,” opened the campaign with a rabid, sermon-like front-page article headlined “Who Pledges to Die with Me?” Seizing particularly on a phrase in the book that followed the word “Koran” by “shit,” it pronounced Haydar “sinful, obscene, lewd,” called on Muslims to rise in defense of their faith and demanded the Minister of Culture’s head along with the heads of those responsible for publishing the novel. Succumbing to pressure, the Minister of Culture pulled the book from the shelves and appointed a committee of critics to investigate the charges against it. Despite the acquittal of the book and its author by the critics’ committee, and under pressure from parliament, the Minister of Culture referred the book to the head of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s central religious authority and censor, which issued a five-point condemnation: the Ministry of Culture did not check with Al-Azhar before publication; the novel included phrases scornful to Islam, Allah, the Prophet and the Koran; it was erotic and full of blatant sexuality; it insulted Arab rulers; it violated “divine laws” and “moral values.”

Seizing on the opportunity to extend its grip on cultural life, the head of Al-Azhar demanded that he oversee all the ministry’s future publications. In 1994, following an attack on the Ministry of Culture by an Islamic fundamentalist in parliament for translating “blatantly sexual and offensive foreign books,” it was agreed that all such translations would first be run by Al-Azhar for review. Condemning the “intellectual terrorism” of the fundamentalists, Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz issued a furious statement, declaring: “The censor in Egypt is no longer just the state. It’s the gun of the fundamentalists.”

In a powerful piece titled “The Novel, Politics and Islam” on the Banquet for Seaweed controversy, professor Sabry Hafez captured the hysteria that grew around the book. Contrasting it to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Hafez wrote in New Left Review (September/ October 2000):

Banquet for Seaweed, on the other hand, is a political novel about communism and nationalism, the Iraqi and Algerian Revolutions—themes which, two decades after its publication, in a context so reactionary that even the memory of these great movements has largely disappeared, were all but completely displaced by a grotesque fixation with an exclamatory aside of no structural significance for the work, as if religion is now the only issue left in Arab public life.”

In response to Al-Azhar’s verdict, Haydar’s book was banned. The State Security summoned the editor and managing editor of Literary Horizons, which published Banquet for Seaweed, and formally charged them with blasphemy. To maintain its hold on power, the Mubarak regime has cracked down on the Islamists when they pose a challenge while at other times turning to them when challenged by secular opponents. Around the time of the protests against Haydar’s book, Egyptian writer and humanist Salah-al-Din Muhsin was arrested for publishing a book, Flickers of Enlightenment, which openly advocated atheism. His earlier verdict of six months’ suspended imprisonment was revoked and under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, Muhsin was retried and sentenced last February to six years’ hard labor.

The atmosphere of fear that followed in the wake of the violent protests and the subsequent state intimidation of liberal intellectuals was aptly captured by the testimony of Hamdi Abu Gulayyil, a writer and Ministry of Culture employee, after his interrogation by the State Security:

“Since that day I have tried to evade ambushes. I reread any story I write several times. Given the number of prohibitions and my inability to determine them I have resorted to a legal adviser, a young lawyer who is my neighbor. He reads every story I write and every book I publish especially when written by a naïve writer. My agony begins as soon as the book enters the print shop: the book contains a scene of a woman sitting with a man, the book contains someone who thinks, the book contains someone eating with appetite, the book contains people, and wherever there are people, there is sin. I dream, I hallucinate, and I am drowned in nightmares. Once my wife caught me completely dressed, at four o’clock in the morning, at the door of our apartment. I had imagined that one of the books in the print shop contained an indecent scene and was on my way out to stop the printing before morning.”

Middle East Report, Summer 2001

Feeding off the despair and anger that grew out of the dire misery and degradation of the masses and capitalizing on the ineptitude and corruption of despotic capitalist regimes, in the absence of a viable communist alternative, Islamic fundamentalism emerged in the last two decades as a mass movement posturing as the only anti-imperialist force, the savior from mass poverty and the promoter of social justice through upholding the “word of god” and application of Islamic law. “It’s easy for the average Egyptian to say, we tried modernity but it didn’t take us anywhere and we didn’t become Europe,” Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian political analyst, told the New York Times (14 October). “It’s easy for him to say, we tried pan-Arabism and it didn’t work. And, if he’s a simple-minded person, he might say they didn’t work because God wasn’t with us.”

The witchhunt of writers and liberal intellectuals that intensified in the aftermath of the spring 2000 events was not confined to Egypt; it spilled over its borders, in the same way that Islamic fundamentalism, originally an Egyptian phenomenon, spread to engulf much of the Near East. From Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen to the Gulf sheikdoms, Arab writers are being assailed and hunted by fundamentalist zealots for “disseminating blasphemy.” The Yemeni writer Abd al-Karim al-Razihi was forced to seek asylum in Holland; legal charges were launched against the Kuwaiti women writers Layla al-Uthman and Afaf Shu’aib, as well as against the Jordanian poet Musa Hawamidah. In Algeria, Wasinin al-A’raj’s novel, The Hostess, was banned for “impiety.”

When Banquet for Seaweed was first published in 1983, it barely got the attention of the fundamentalists. At the time they didn’t have the power they wield now. Today they are already in power in two countries, Iran and Sudan, and vying for state power in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. The fact that they could mobilize tens of thousands of students against a work of fiction, 17 years after its publication, which most of them hadn’t even read, is a measure of how much sway fundamentalists hold over the minds of youth. It is also a measure of the abysmal depth of obscurantism and regression of mass consciousness in the post-Soviet era. For over 50 years, Naguib Mahfouz grappled with god and wrote passionately about prostitutes and homosexuals. Yet fundamentalists had never made an attempt on his life until 1994, when he was eighty-two years old. Similarly, they were not able to assassinate Faraj Fawdah, a radical liberal intellectual and a lifelong crusader against zealotry and obscurantism, until 1992.

We print below a review of Banquet for Seaweed, which is still only available in Arabic, by Salah Shami, a supporter of the International Communist League.

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“The city is beautiful, surrounded by the sea and the forest, but like any Arab city, it is dreary; ruled by tyranny, hunger, bribery, corruption, religion, hatred, ignorance, cruelty and murder.”

With this bleak portrayal of the Algerian town of Buna, Haydar Haydar opens his remarkable novel, Banquet for Seaweed. Through two love affairs that take place in Buna during the 1970s, and moving between Iraq and Algeria, Haydar tells with anger and indignation the unwritten history of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and its disastrous destruction, and the grim realities of daily life in Algeria under the military regime of Boumédienne.

An intelligent blend of fiction and historical events written between 1974 and 1983, in a fine mix of classical Arabic and local dialects, and published to great acclaim in 1983, the novel details the series of betrayals committed by the ICP and the lost revolutionary opportunities in the period from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 to the defeat and bloody annihilation of the party at the hands of the Ba’athists following their 1963 coup. In four chapters devoted to the ICP, Haydar captures the sense of betrayal among its ranks and the militant cadre who split, forming a faction determined to seize power through a strategy combining urban uprisings, guerrilla warfare and military support of Communist officers.

Seething with anger and disgust, militant ICP cadre rail against the “traitorous, revisionist and cowardly leadership who deviated from Leninist practices, tailed the bourgeoisie and refused to seize state power, which was at hand more than once, and erect a revolutionary proletarian dictatorship...supporting instead the dictatorship of the great leader [Qassim]” and who, “heeding the godfatherly advice of Khrushchev, opted to follow the example of the Egyptian Communist Party which dissolved and joined Nasser’s revolutionary democratic party.” In collusion with the regime, the ICP leadership purged the army of militant communist elements who, “afflicted with the infantile disorder of ultra-leftism, dream of erecting a communist regime in that sensitive area of the Near East, ending the alliance with the revolutionary national bourgeoisie that is blessed by the big brother in the Kremlin, bringing to an end the policies of détente and peaceful coexistence and pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war.” Haydar describes in great detail the bloody massacres of communists, workers and peasants in the aftermath of the Ba’athist coup. Tens of thousands were killed, jailed, tortured or forced into exile. He also devotes a chapter to the short-lived guerrilla uprising in the southern marshes of Iraq and its crushing by the Ba’athists in 1968.

Haydar paints a gloomy picture of Algeria in the 1970s, so remote from the glorious war of independence that monuments for the martyrs of that war are buried under layers of sand. The Boumédienne regime doesn’t even make a pretense of belonging to that era. The streets are teeming with gangs of unemployed and homeless youth whose “source of food is garbage dumpsters and leftovers from fancy restaurants patronized by the thieves of the new class.” The city “is ringed by cardboard and tin shanties, infested with swarms of flies, crawling insects and lice, dysentery and bilharzia.” The dreams that were born in the crucible of the war for independence, of “achieving a democratic revolution in the land of the million martyrs, were thwarted by the generals who handed the country on a silver platter to themselves, the merchants, the bureaucrats and the imperialist exploiters.”

Bankruptcy of Bourgeois Nationalism

Born in 1936, Haydar belongs to the generation of writers and intellectuals whose political consciousness was shaped by the social upheavals and ferment of the 1950s and ’60s. The victories of the Red Army were a recent memory; the salvos of Stalingrad echoed in Dien Bien Phu and the Atlas mountains of Algeria; revolution triumphed in China and Cuba; liberation movements seemed to have been successful in driving out the colonial powers from most of Africa and Asia; the monarchies were overthrown in Iraq and Egypt; millions of workers, students, radical intellectuals and peasants were flocking into the ranks of Communist parties from Indonesia to Iraq to Iran; nationalist leaders—from Sukarno to Nasser to Nkrumah to Lumumba—filled the airwaves with anti-imperialist rhetoric and promises of egalitarian societies free from oppression. Aspirations were high and expectations boundless.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the masses saw their hopes thwarted one after another as the bourgeois-nationalist regimes, installed with the aid of Communist parties, crushed workers organizations, leftists and national minorities. Revolutionary opportunities were sacrificed on the altar of the Soviet bureaucracy’s futile pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” with the imperialists and the workers were tied through the dogma of “two-stage revolution” (bourgeois national revolution now, socialist revolution later, i.e., never) to the bourgeoisie. In spite of their “anti-imperialist” rhetoric and “socialist” pretensions, these bourgeois-nationalist regimes were tied by a thousand threads to imperialism. Acting as agents of imperialist domination, they perpetuated the social and economic backwardness of their countries. Vast shantytowns ring the cities of Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Khartoum, inhabited by millions of landless peasants driven off their lands by wealthy landlords. The streets of these cities crawl with millions of unemployed youth and lumpen elements. Desperate, disappointed and failed by both bourgeois nationalists and Stalinists, they turn to Islam as a kind of consolation and hope. Among these elements and among students with no visible future, Islamic fundamentalists found an inexhaustible recruiting pool.

The main character in the novel is the militant Iraqi Communist Mahdi Jawad, who rebelled against the ICP leadership when it refused to overthrow the regime of Abd al-Karim Qassim, paving the way for the Ba’athists to take power. Once in power, the Ba’athists unleashed an unprecedented terror against the Communists. After spending a few years in jail, Mahdi managed to escape and found his way to Algeria, working as a teacher in a country where he thought “the Arabs have surprised themselves and made a genuine revolution.” He dreamed of being part of that country’s egalitarian society, “where a commune was erected...where nobody is oppressed or exploited.” To his disappointment, he would soon discover that life in Algeria was not different from that in Iraq. “The revolution lost its fertility and reached its menopause; Boumédienne rules the country with tyranny and murder”; Communists, leftists and intellectuals are being tortured and raped in prison; gangs of unemployed youth roam the city streets. He is “always walking hurriedly; always apprehensive; always on the alert fearing someone will attack him at the next corner...and there are many dark corners in this dreary city that has lost its sense of security.”

Mahdi would soon fall in love with Assya, his student, and the relationship offers him an emotional release from the melancholy of his time in Algeria. Daughter of an FLN fighter who was tortured to death by the French, Assya lives with her mother, Fadila, and her younger sister Manar. Her mother was forced by her family to marry a merchant, Yazid, as his second wife. Yazid, who played no part in the war of independence, realized that marrying the widow of a martyr would enhance his prestige and increase his opportunities with the regime. He spends his days pursuing shady deals in the black market. He regularly beats Fadila and oppresses her daughters. He detests Mahdi, who has begun giving Assya extracurricular lessons in Arabic. He opposes the girls’ education, telling their mother that to protect the family’s honor “your daughters should stay home. The city is full of wolves.”

In a chance encounter, Mahdi meets his compatriot Mihyar, an “intellectual who is infatuated with the glory of the Commune and Che Guevara.” Mihyar also works as a teacher and, like Mahdi, once belonged to the militant wing of the ICP. He participated in the brief guerrilla uprising of 1968. Captured by the army, he spent several years in prison but was able to escape. Mahdi and Mihyar find intellectual support in each other, venting their anger at the ICP and the Algerian regime.

Mihyar lives in a boarding house owned by Fullah, a former militant FLN fighter. She was a victim of rape by French officers. As a woman in post-independence Algeria, she has to submit to the traditional Islamic order imposed by the new regime. However, Fullah is very defiant; she takes lovers among the Arab teachers who lodge in her house, drinks alcohol and smokes in public. When she is scoffed at, she explodes, “Men are allowed everything...the only thing women are allowed is to open their legs!”, giving them the finger and emphasizing her disgust with a powerful spit. She constantly expresses her bitterness toward the “pimps who strangled the revolution and stole its fruit...they didn’t even participate in the fighting.” Fullah is drawn toward Mihyar because he is capable of seeing her personal predicament as an FLN fighter denied her share in the gains of independence, as a victim of women’s oppression and because he identifies with her sense of defeat as he sees the social deterioration engulfing the country.

Along with these characters the narrative includes a group of expatriate teachers from Palestine, Syria and Egypt. Their presence gives the novel a wider scope, implying that the dimensions of misery and the sense of failure and defeat extend beyond the boundaries of Iraq and Algeria. “By 1977 [Cairo] was bursting with more than five million exuberant Cairenes. Brightly painted carts of garbage collectors, herds of goats and sheep competed with the city’s 250,000 private cars,” writes Mary Anne Weaver in A Portrait of Egypt (1999). “I was told that it was a difficult, if not impossible, place in which to live. There were recurrent power failures; food shortages were sometimes acute.... It was often impossible to telephone an apartment downstairs. Cairo specializes in a state of total pandemonium.... I remember one evening in particular as I watched with friends the flickering lights of a funeral procession passing through Imbaba. The next morning, we read in the newspaper that two children had been eaten alive by rats.”

In Banquet for Seaweed, Haydar succeeds not only in capturing the palpable sense of failure, bitterness and defeat as expressed by the characters of Mahdi, Mihyar and Fullah, but also foreshadows the coming upheavals that exploded in the late 1980s: “The times of civil wars whose fodder will be the hungry, the orphans, the workers, the peasants and the unemployed,” and predicted the rise of Islamic fundamentalists who were able to channel the anger of the unemployed urban youth into religious obscurantism.

The novel ends tragically with the death of Mahdi. With his hopes shattered by the defeat of the revolution in both Iraq and Algeria, faced with the increasing hostility of Algerian society and tailed by agents of the Iraqi regime, “he could see only darkness and death.” Consumed with despair, he committed suicide by flinging his body from a cliff into the sea to become a “banquet for seaweed.”

Contrary to the claims of the former Egyptian Stalinists, bourgeois liberals and Arab leftists who came to Haydar’s defense, Banquet for Seaweed is revealingly blasphemous and Rabelaisian in character; this is what makes it powerful. Unlike the Arab Stalinists who long ago capitulated to the Muslim bourgeoisie and its reactionary ideology, Haydar is uniquely and profoundly irreligious. His heroes are advocates of a secular society based on “science and not on religion.”

The famous passage which Islamic fundamentalists used to ignite the riots in Cairo against the book in the spring of 2000, no matter how it is punctuated by apologists, is an unambiguous cry against religion: “In the age of the atom, space exploration and the triumph of reason, they rule us with the laws of the Bedouin gods and the teaching of the Koran. Shit.” On several occasions, Mahdi talks Assya, who is soft on religion and tends to abide by the traditional family rules, into “breaking with religion, god, marriage sanctioned by Islamic laws, traditional values, the fairy tales of heaven and hell and all the centuries-old myths.” One of the reasons why the novel is so popular is its anti-religious theme. And, contrary to claims by Max Rodenbeck in the New York Review of Books (16 November 2000) about Haydar’s obscurity, his books generally run seven or eight editions, in spite of the ban imposed on them in most of the Arabic-speaking countries. According to Middle East Report (Summer 2001), Banquet for Seaweed is in its eleventh edition as of March of this year.

Egyptian Stalinists, who remained silent during the Salman Rushdie affair, perpetuated Islam as a “progressive revolutionary force that throughout history helped to galvanize the masses.” Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi’s books, Mohammed, the Prophet of Freedom and Al-Husain: The Martyr (about the prophet’s cousin), were their bibles. Algerian Stalinist leader Baschir Haj Ali once told his audience: “We will uphold the Koran with the right hand and Capital with the left hand.”

Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Against the array of ruling cliques sustaining the “carcass of this sacred world and protecting the temple of the desert monster floating on oil wells and incantation of Islam,” Haydar evokes images of historical events and names—the Paris Commune, the Quarmatians, the Zanj and Ibn Rushd (Averroës)—that send shudders down their spines and whose significance should be explained.

The Quarmatians were egalitarians who broke with the Ismaili sect and rose against the Abbasid state at the end of the ninth century. They established a secular state based on communal property in what is today Bahrain. They abolished the religious rites of fasting and Haj. Their elected government included a woman. It took the central government in Baghdad over 70 years to subdue them, killing over 60,000. Official history textbooks never mention them.

The Zanj were the black slaves brought from East Africa to work the plantations of Basra in southern Iraq. Led by a Persian peasant, they also took up arms against the Abbasids in the ninth century, seizing the plantations and establishing their own state. They were crushed after surviving for 20 years.

Ibn Rushd (Averroës), the great chemist, astronomer and materialist philosopher of Muslim Spain, was one of the sources of atheism during the Renaissance. In his treatise titled Incoherence of the Incoherence, a polemic against the theologian and defender of dogma Al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers, Averroës professed the eternity of the world, implying the existence of uncreated matter, and affirmed the primacy of reason over faith. He was exiled to the North African desert and his books were burned. His followers were condemned and persecuted during the Inquisition.

Against the prudish and pious self-image presented by Islam, Haydar presents profane sexual love themes, in contrast to the abstraction of religion, with its hostility to the senses and its supposed happiness in the afterlife.

What adds more strength to Banquet for Seaweed is the unique way Haydar presents the woman question, threading its text with issues that the Stalinists, who pay no more than lip service to the oppression of women and whose ranks teem with wife-beaters, wouldn’t deal with. Through Mahdi, Haydar rages against the family, its traditions and Islamic laws. The novel opens with Mahdi and Assya strolling on the beach. They are accosted by a gang of louts who taunt them for walking together: “Decent women don’t mix with strangers.” The “stranger” is anyone other than a husband or a close relative and a woman in the company of a stranger is up to no good.

Both Mahdi’s and Assya’s mothers are widows who were forced into remarriage. According to tradition, a young widow, without a man watching over her, will bring shame and dishonor to the family. This not only frees the family from the terrible responsibility of having to protect her but of having to be in charge of her economically for the rest of her life. Both mothers suffer from constant beating and oppression by their second husbands.

Yazid is opposed to the education of his stepdaughters, Assya and Manar. He complains to their mother about their talk on the phone and watching Western soap operas which are corruptive and against religion. He imposes a 7 p.m. curfew on them because “the city is full of wolves.” One of the reasons for the high illiteracy rate among women in the Muslim world is that young girls, before reaching the dangerous age of puberty, are pulled out of schools and kept in the confines of home as the only way to save them from scandal and a lost life until they are forced to marry the men whom they didn’t even get the chance to know.

One of the characters in the book who took part in the failed guerrilla uprising in Iraq is Abu Sabri, who was the military organizer. He was recruited in prison while serving a short term for slaying his young cousin, who shamed the family by having sex outside marriage. He has to wash the family’s shame in blood and restore its honor. This is what is called “honor killing,” a heinous crime committed against tens of thousands of women throughout the Muslim world every year for the “crime” of having sex, eloping, insolence or disobedience. Even raped women should die; they are a dishonor and a disgrace to their families. They asked for rape by leaving the house without the company of a relative or by the way they dress. Recently a young woman was killed in Jordan by her younger brother for kissing a neighbor. He was released from jail after serving only six months. The Jordanian parliament voted down a bill that would criminalize “honor killing.” In countries where it is illegal, it is a socially acceptable act. A former Palestinian official told UNICEF that “honor killings” constitute 70 percent of all murders in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Soap operas glorifying the heroes who “wash the family’s shame in blood” are regularly broadcast on national television. In Assia Djebar’s novel Children of the New World, the revolutionary hero fighting the Algerian war of independence must kill his “loose” sister before the maquis would admit him to their ranks: a man who cannot restore his honor cannot defend the honor of the country!

In the Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, signed by André Breton and Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky wrote, “The artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very senses its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his arts.” For doing this, from the artist’s independent standpoint, Haydar got his book banned. However, the uniqueness of the book, its power and its literary merit will compel it to be read by young Arabs, especially women.

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