The parable of the riots and the intellectual

11/6/2013 | postmuslim

First there was a riot, a kind of street fight with the police. Killings led to a sit-in that led to power changing hands. No one took issue with the hangman’s noose swinging symbolically at the maidan, though the riots were supposed to be silmiyyah. The killers never hanged in the end, and no one took issue with that. Only the rioters vowed to take revenge unless the courts hanged someone, but when the courts said not guilty it was all they could do to start a new fight. And in every new fight more rioters were killed. It became something of a national fetish to riot, and riots sprang up everywhere in the country, sometimes for no reason at all, often because no one was hanged.

In the meantime the tourists stopped coming, people stopped making money, the police grew timorous, criminals and fundamentalist nutjobs ran amok, and power ended up with religious rulers so unused to having it that electricity, fuel and water became scarcer than they ever had been. But it was all they could do to talk about the importance of religiosity, the new rulers. And that is how Culture came to be attacked in time, because they also believed Culture and religion (much like “driving and alcohol”, as President Morsi famously put it, in his very own English) “don’t mix”.

Now in the middle of all this was a person called Intellectual, left-wing and knowledgeable by birth, whose life depended on Culture; let’s say it was a male person. Wisely, Intellectual never actually risked his life in the riots, but the fetish played beautifully to his long suppressed desires, and he made a big show of taking part in them. He was very keen on power changing hands, not wisely. Intellectual went to great lengths in fact to make the story of the street fight sound like a heroic epic and a prophesy of utopia. Utopia would of course include him because he had been against the old rulers and he took part in the sit-in, he said. He said it was not the old rulers that he had worked for but the State they once hijacked. The State belonged to everyone and he had tried to serve it honestly despite its being in illegitimate hands. Now that the riots brought it to legitimate hands, he looked forward to serving it honestly.

He turned a blind eye to the country looking more dystopian than ever before now that power had changed hands, insisting that the riots were a good thing. What Intellectual forgot was that, since by birth he was irreligious, the State in legitimate hands would threaten his life.

The State being but a rhetorical device in reality, Intellectual was at a loss what to do. He had pretended to support the new rulers because it was the riots that brought them to power, though in the past he had cheered when the old rulers crushed religious power seekers. Now, to justify threatening his life, the new rulers accused him of being in the service of the old. Was he going to admit that, by supporting the riots, he actively brought death upon himself?

Occasionally he did, but most of the time he tried to prove that the riots were more like Culture than religion, or that religion and Culture do mix. He wasted inordinate time and energy on arguing with fundamentalist nutjobs.

In reality Intellectual had no idea what he was doing. By the looks of it he never had any idea that there was a culture bigger than his life, more widespread and powerful, real and subject to change; let’s call that other culture society. Intellectual had no idea by the looks of it that, if it was to be more than a rhetorical device like the State, his Culture must be one with society, it must be at least as keen on Culture as it is on religion and power.

Though they made a great show of supporting Culture, to the delight of Intellectual, the old rulers also encouraged religious power seekers and especially nutjobs to spread religiosity outside the political sphere (because if they could spread their message peacefully, they were less likely to blow up tourists or threaten to take over power).

By failing economically, the old rulers forced people to work in rich neighbouring countries, where religiosity was stronger and where it influenced them and their families, especially as it became associated with lack of need. By abusing power, they gave those countries’ emissaries, often the selfsame power seekers, credibility at home. They allowed the nutjobs to operate satellite channels and were pleased when the power seekers filled in the gaps that they, the old rulers, had left in basic services in the provinces. They let them persecute people who wrote sensibly on religion. They were even happy to crush Culture within the State on their behalf, on the rare occasion when it came in conflict with them; and Intellectual, fearing for his life or his livelihood, could never seriously object. Though he never stopped stressing his Role and the Value of his existence, Intellectual made no connection between religiosity and the old rulers. Except for occasionally complaining about the way society was changing, he made no connection between the old rulers and himself.

Intellectual saw both power-seeking and nutjob religiosity socially, as Backwardness: bad; or he saw them politically, as Resistance to the world order that supported Israel and the old rulers: good. But, whether from within or outside the government — and Intellectual had a foot in each space — he did very little to see, confront or, Allah forbid, imagine changing society: culture, reality, the world as it becomes were of no interest to him, so long as his own Culture was happening, however isolated it must remain from the vast majority of people.

Evidently Intellectual felt no need to think beyond changing the rulers, which he could imagine well enough and had sometimes attempted in the distant past. In fact he spoke of riots changing rulers, what he had taken to calling the glorious Revolution, as if it was enough for society to change. For it is an eternal and indubitable truth that Culture must support Revolution, that it must even support religious power seekers pitted against old rulers in Revolution’s aftermath, arguing with fundamentalist nutjobs on satellite talk shows while it did so. It came to Intellectual as a surprise that by following his script he put his life on the line, evidently.

And having done all this, finally, so long after the riots — at a point in time when disinherited agents of the old rulers, disillusioned rioters and many, many others plan to change the rulers yet again without a clear idea of who might replace them; when shortages make life unbearable for Intellectual himself as much as anyone, however right-wing and ignorant; when nutjob religiosity runs amok and the rulers do nothing to ward off very major threats to national security, including the availability of drinking water — what does Intellectual do?

Intellectual stages a protest at the Ministry of Culture. Intellectual has not been producing much Culture since the riots because he was too busy theorising about them, and with time on his hands he now decides to occupy the office of the newly appointed minister. Now it is true that this minister has been firing long-standing ministry officials in preparation for carrying out the religious rulers’ policies of making ministry activities halal, threatening Culture as it has always manifested within the State. And that, in theory, is worth protesting against. But what about the fact that Culture within the State has always succumbed to religious pressure anyway, that nothing of any importance has ever come out of the ministry in recent memory, that the ministry has always been corrupt and ineffectual? And, since the cabinet of which the ministry is part was appointed by the new rulers, what on earth does Intellectual expect?

Never mind, it is important for Intellectual to take a stand. He takes a stand not on national security, not on power cuts, not on the cabinet, not on Culture within the State as an outdated and ineffectual concept, but on the completely dispensable person of the minister, never mind who on earth might replace him under the circumstances, or how to stop the new rulers from carrying out their policies with or without such a terrible excuse for a cultural authority figure.

Intellectual, I am told, brought up and discussed all such questions during the sit-in at the ministry, amid food, conversation and appropriately revolutionary music — the usual risk-free gathering of friends. But he has not come up with answers. No? So what — so what if society or a large portion thereof fails to understand the Role and the Value of the existence of Intellectual? So what if the culture fails to understand Culture. Intellectual will defend Revolution. He will protect the State against alien incursions by evil religion mongers whom society just happens to be duped by. How dare anyone criticise Intellectual at such a time?

Psychosis is defined as loss of contact with external reality. And, where external reality consists of a dysfunctional government, nutjob fundamentalism and purposeless rioting — a country well on its way to becoming Afghanistan — will anyone but a complete psycho think to show concern for the future of ballet? But of course! Whoever calls Intellectual a psycho for so nobly, so patriotically and selflessly sacrificing his time at the ministry must be utterly mad, a philistine and a traitor to the cultural community…

Well, at least now you know that traitor’s side of the story.

Al-Ahram Weekly