A taste of Prague spring for an actor in Egypt’s revolution

It was apt that one of the participants in this year’s Prague Writers’ Festival was the Egyptian novelist Hamdy el-Gazzar, who played an active part in the dramatic events last spring on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It is no coincidence that the revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East came to be known as the “Arab Spring”, taking their name from events in Czechoslovakia – the Prague Spring – over forty years earlier. You do not have to look far to find parallels between the atmosphere of then and now, and the events of ’68 are also a warning that not every popular uprising ends happily. David Vaughan talks to Hamdy el-Gazzar about his experience as a writer and journalist.

Hamdy el-Gazzar, photo: Standa SoukupHamdy el-Gazzar, photo: Standa Soukup All his life, Hamdy el-Gazzar has been fascinated by the backstreets of his native Cairo and the city is a protagonist in his work. His first novel, Black Magic, has become a best seller and has made el-Gazzar one of the best known younger novelists in the Arabic-speaking world. The novel sees the world through the lens of a television camera, and it comes as no surprise that the author has spent many years working with Egyptian TV. He was a witness and active participant in last year’s revolution, and has written extensively about those events – both as a journalist and writer of fiction. When I spoke to him in the studios of our partner station Radio Wave, he began by talking about Western misconceptions about Islam.

“How people consider Islam in the West is very different from what we believe in Egypt. Islamic culture is something very wide, it has a lot of elements; you can’t say it’s just some rules and forbidden things, but Islamic culture means a lot of things. It means everyday life, it means arts, such as architecture, literature and fine arts. You can see that especially in Sufi songs. So Islam is far from being religious habits only, and the practice of Islam presents a lot of shapes of life. That is very deep in Egyptian everyday life.”

Today you are going to be taking part in a discussion about the future of Islam with two other writers at the festival. You were there at the time of the revolution in Cairo last year. It seems that the revolution is not yet over. How do you feel about the strong position now of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Protests in Cairo, April 20, 2012, photo: CTKProtests in Cairo, April 20, 2012, photo: CTK “The result of the election disappointed people because the Muslim Brotherhood came to power and has a lot of seats in parliament. But when I contemplate this result I say that the Egyptians did the right thing, because this organization has a lot of power, weapons and they conducted violent acts under the Mubarak regime too. So the Egyptians want to avoid violence, want to avoid a civil war. Because the situation in the country was so bad in terms of security and a lot of people were afraid of the weapons that the Islamists have, they elected them in order to give them responsibility, to try to test them, to tell them: ‘So, now you are in the parliament, so solve our problems. What you will do is confront poverty, don’t speak a lot about God – we know God more than you – just work as politicians,’ and it brings peace to the country too. At the same time the Egyptians elected a lot of candidates of the left wing, of the liberals, so it makes balance in the society. I think the chair of the president will come from the liberal wing or the left wing.”

Czech readers will be very interested to read what you have written about the events last year in Egypt. Has your new book about these events already come out?

“I’m still writing it. I started writing it on 29 January 2011, the hottest day of the revolution. At first I felt I had to write something like articles, non-fiction work, because I was following events. So I wrote very short articles in Arabic and English, which were published very quickly. But I couldn’t keep on doing that and I turned back to my own style of writing. So I started to write fiction – very short literary works – and started to publish it. Every week I published a text in mainstream journals, which I had not published before. I tried to speak to a wider audience. But now I’ve turned back to what I think is my talent – as a novelist – and I am trying to finish this big novel. It will be something like an epic work.”

Could you tell us a bit more about your first novel, Black Magic?

“Simply it’s a short story about love, a very strange love story between a young man who works as a cameraman at Egyptian TV, and he saw the war through the lens of a cameraman. In it I try to discover the world of media. I’m working in Egyptian TV too, so I tried to put my experience of ten years in this novel. Photography and the camera can change reality.”

As far as your cooperation with the media, and particularly Egyptian TV, is concerned, is that still ongoing? How is it developing in the post-revolution situation?

Protests in Cairo, April 20, 2012, photo: CTKProtests in Cairo, April 20, 2012, photo: CTK “I think that not a lot of things have changed in Egypt, especially in the media held by the government. For example, I’ve tried to make a series of short documentary films about the revolution, and I haven’t been able to achieve that for about 14 months, because the old regime is still as it is. But at the same time we also have a lot of young artists in the building. A lot of them try to work and to express their support for the Egyptian revolution, and I think this struggle will take longer, but I think we have an avant-garde generation of technicians, announcers and writers in Egyptian media, who can totally change the policy of the governmental media. In the independent channels it’s better, but at the same time we have a lot of channels held under the control of the billionaires of the former regime, who try to protect themselves and to destroy the main aims of our revolution.”

What did you most want to talk about when you came to Prague?

“I wanted to speak about literature, about art, about the new values in the world. I think that what you call our Arabic Spring carries a peace message to all the world, to remind human beings that they can’t live without freedom, without dignity, without jobs, so I think it is a human message to all the world. It’s the role of the Egyptian and the Arabic new generation to tell the others that they don’t want war, they don’t want injustice and they don’t want any more hate in this world.”

What’s your attitude towards the internet and towards using blogs, especially as a writer, given that many writers have started using blogs?

“I think that blogs and Facebook and Twitter have played a big role in increasing the interest in reading and writing about any subject in Egypt. The main thing was the political situation and it gave evidence that talking to each other in this internet reality can change reality itself. For literature and the arts, I think it’s added a lot of possibilities to Arabic literature, a lot of young writers start to write in Twitter, in Facebook, and I think it’s played an important role in the map of Arabic literature.”

What are your impressions of Prague, and what else are you planning to do before you fly back home?

“It’s a very beautiful city and I enjoy it a lot. I’ve walked in its streets – amazing. It is a city of art and a city of enjoyment.”