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Ministry of culture or ministry of intellectuals?

Published in Ahram Online on June 8, 2013

The battle between Islamists and secular intellectuals over the cultural domain comes down to posts and a false struggle around identity, whereas the real culture crisis goes unremarked

Since the new minister of culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, took up his post, conversations about the attitude he has adopted to prove himself have not ceased within Egypt’s cultural scene.

The minister commenced his work in the ministry with a series of decisions to sack leading ministry figures, starting from the head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, and then the head of the Fine Arts Sector, followed by the head of the Cairo Opera House, and finally, the head of the National Library and Archives.

Many other culture ministry figures have in turn resigned in protest of what they consider the appointment of unqualified individuals to leadership positions.

And the press swiftly rushed to mimic the familiar tone: “The minister seeks to infiltrate all the cultural institutions within the ministry and plant them with loyalists of his, with the intention of creating divisions inside the ministry.”

And in other shorelines: “This is the latest in a series of initiatives to Brotherhoodise the country, and the Brotherhood rushed to control the culture ministry and dominate its junctures.”

I have to admit, that I have been puzzled not by the stance of the minister and the Muslim Brotherhood but rather by that of artists and intellectuals.

For sooner or later, it was expected that the Brotherhood would turn their avarice for control to the cultural sector, and to attempt to dominate it after their attempts to exercise control over the police, the army, the judiciary, the media and the economy met with obstacles.

The Brotherhood’s interest in the ministry of culture does not spring from their desire to make room for their own intellectuals, writers, directors, musicians, visual artists, sculptors, photographers or dancers, for a simple reason; such Brotherhood artists and intellectuals do not actually exist. A Brotherhood intellectual is an oxymoron.

The interest of the Brotherhood in the ministry of culture is based on an old and long engraved belief they have; namely, that Egypt’s identity has been hijacked by a handful of Westernised intellectuals, and that the time has come for Egypt to regain its original, pristine Islamic identity.

I am not the least bit comfortable with this question of identity, and I consider it to be a fake and misleading quest. Time has proven that the quintessential identitarian slogan, “Islam is the solution,” could indeed win elections, yet it could not solve the problems of traffic, diesel shortages or the Ethiopian “Renaissance” Dam.

Furthermore, in my own historical research, I discovered that Egyptians in the 19th century have not objected to practices such as autopsies, even though these emerged from the West, and even though the doctor who introduced such novel techniques was a “Christian” named Antoine Barthelemy Clot.

Rather, they embraced forensic medicine for they believed that it could be a tool they could use to convict those they accused of having murdered their sons and loved ones in police stations (just as in the case of Khaled Said). I also discovered that the appearance in 1883 of the National Courts, which implemented new laws, was not met with rebuttal by Egyptians; they rather welcomed these courts for delivering fast, efficient and fair justice, while the Sharia courts were plagued with corruption, ineptitude and inertia.

My reference to these two fields in particular, medicine and law, which are not at all related to the culture of the cultured elite, is to reveal the hoax that is the question of identity posed by Islamists. For when people visit a hospital, they do not ask if the medicine is indigenous or imported, and when they go to court they do not ask if the legal system is derived from Sharia or the Napoleonic Code. People seek medical treatment and justice before concerning themselves with the question of identity.

If we move to the domain of culture, what intrigues me is how both parties of the equation, Islamists and secularists, relish in limiting their battles to the question of identity, and overlook what the public may need in terms of cultural services. Islamists constantly argue for returning to the “true, unchanging principles of the nation” and blame intellectuals for disseminating a culture of “nudity and promiscuity.” On the other hand, intellectuals call for “enlightenment” and accuse Islamists for setting up “an inquisition” and spreading “bats of the night.” And between these two warring faction, people get lost hungering for literature, music and art.

Suffice to mention the examples of the status of the National Library, of the National Archives and of our museums across the entire country. Intellectuals and artists are right to be concerned about the cultural policy of the Brotherhood, such as it exists, and of their new head of the National Library and Archives.

But as someone who frequents the National Library and the National Archives, I realise that these two central institutions have been seriously impaired even before their Brotherhoodisation. The National Archives holds approximately one hundred million documents, while it is visited by less than 10 researchers daily. Where are the intellectuals? Have they not been concerned with this situation? A visit to the reading room at the National Library is a true insult to any individual.

On principle, I actually sympathise with the female staff, who do not hesitate to turn up the radio or nurse their children or prepare their vegetables for the family meal, or even converse loudly about their marital problems. I simply hope that they treat my request for a book or a periodical with some attention. Intellectuals, have you ever visited the reading room of the National Library? Are you happy with the miserable state it is in? If you are not happy, why do you say nothing about it?

As for the status of our museums, it is a truly shameful. The tragedy of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, in my opinion, is not limited to the failure of its curators (I hesitate using the word as it may offend the profession) to protect its acquisitions, which resulted in the theft of Van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” painting not once, but twice.

The real tragedy lies in the fact that the average number of daily visitors of this museum is eight, in a city that has 18 million inhabitants. The fact of the matter is not that the museum’s outreach policy is ineffective or needs updating; such policy is non-existent. Intellectuals: are you not distraught at the status of our museums?

Brotherhoodisation is a threat to our culture, as it is a curse on Egypt, I have no doubt of that. Yet the problem of the Ministry of Culture is not so much its Brotherhoodisation as it is the belief of intellectuals that the ministry should serve them and not the people.

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