By Nida Ghouse
In the wake of Youssef El-Sebai’s death, the streets of Cairo swelled in protest.
On 19 February 1978, as his body arrived from Cyprus to be wrapped up in a flag and readied for a state-sponsored service, the newspapers had spread a rumour that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was responsible and this, in turn, had spurred hate. The crowds were in a frenzy as the procession took place, and ceremonious sorrow – with its customary incantation, “There is no god but God!” – gave way to more passionate and perverse political refrains:
“No more Palestine, no more Palestine! Arafat, round up your dogs!”
Prime Minster Mostafa Riyad stood up and declared: “No more Palestine after today!”
The bullet that had killed the minister of culture was seen as having hit all of Egypt. Aggrieved as he was, Anwar al-Sadat did not attend his dear friend’s funeral, and sent Vice-president Hosni Mubarak to show face instead. Sadat was six months from secretly signing the Camp David agreement, and he had already gone across to talk peace at the Knesset – which was, after all, why El-Sebai had been targeted in the first place.
In the summer that followed, the fault lines of a complex web of relations between Cyprus, Egypt and the PLO got reorganised and reimposed – and on the sidelines of this was the undetermined future of Lotus.
It’s hard to tell whether Youssef El-Sebai’s last editorial, which only appeared in print after he had passed away, was specifically intended for the thematic issue on Africa in which it was included. Titled “The Historic Cultural Task of the Afro-Asian Intelligentsia”, it covered more or less the same ground he had covered for the launch of the journal a decade before – that one had been called, “The Role of AFRO-ASIAN Literature and the National Liberation Movements”. Marked for the months of April–September 1978, the posthumous volume was co-edited by South African writer Alex La Guma – who had probably stepped up as deputy secretary-general from his position as assistant editor at the last minute. And it was this issue no. 36/37 that also concluded Cairo’s term: Dar al-Odaba was no longer the permanent bureau of the Afro-Asian Writers Association.
This article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.
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