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The Pharaoh’s New Clothes

By Sophia Azeb

Scene I. Arabité and its discontents

The first issue of Cairo-based magazine Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings featured an extended excerpt from Léopold Sédar Senghor’s 1967 lecture at the University of Cairo, “Négritude and Arabism” (Arabité in subsequent publications).  In it, Senghor asserts that Arabic-speaking Africans – the “Arab-Berber” – played an essential role in the maintenance and progression of African culture. To cultivate a united Africa, Senghor explains, “Negro-Africans” and their Arab counterparts must remain rooted in “conciliating accord”, neither deviating from their ties with sub-Saharan Africa nor turning away from “the radiant focus of the eternal Bedouin’s virtues”, or as the Senegalese president named it then, “Arabité”. Whatever these mystifying Bedouin virtues might be, Senghor fails to clarify. Instead, he uses Egypt as an exemplary model of having nurtured the equilibrium he believes Négritude and Arabité require. Egypt, having “founded the first of the historical civilisations,” explains Senghor, intercedes “naturally” on behalf of the African continent with its northern neighbours. In addition, the coalescence of Islam and Africa, the “alluvia from the Nile”, and the signification of the independent flag of Egypt in black, white, and red, provide the essential bonds of Senghor’s wholly African humanism.

The slippages between “North Africa” and Egypt proper in Senghor’s “Négritude and Arabité” are immediately apparent. What’s more, Senghor’s invocation of Egypt’s “natural vocation” for mediating between Europe and Africa at the University of Cairo is loaded with the baggage of his own preoccupation with culture over politics. As Egypt toed the line of both ideological investments in the course of the non-aligned decades, it’s worth playing voyeur of some of this North African nation’s own cultural self-imagining.

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arab edition of the Chronic (July 2015).

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arab edition of the Chronic (July 2015).

Scene II. Lotus Flowers

Back to the beginning, then.  Lotus: Afro-Asian Writing remains a marvellous record of the convoluted negotiations between “Arab-Berber” northern Africa and the continent south of the Sahara (more or less). Its location, vocation, and publication intended to speak to a politicised Third World imaginary from the writer’s quarter of downtown Cairo: Dar el-Odaba. Founded by the Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers in Tashkent in October 1958, after the Asian Writers’ Conference in New Delhi two years earlier, a yet unpublished Lotus and the Bureau made their first, brief home in Colombo. Cairo was soon deemed to be better equipped for such an ambitious trans-national project: Lotus not only published quarterly new works of literature and poetry in English, French, and Arabic but also translated into these languages previously published works from a breathtaking span of major and minor languages. To celebrate the pre- and anti-colonial cultural realms that Africa, Asia, and their respective diasporas encompassed, Lotus took on a project that proved (at best) unwieldy in its scope.

At $2 per issue (or its equivalent), Afro-Asian Writings had a slow beginning. Still, the magazine was pointedly devoted to its task of deepening the “revolutionary impetus” of cultural unity across Africa and Asia. In March of 1967 the first issue of Lotus was published in English and Arabic out of the United Arab Republic’s National Publishing House in Cairo – El-Kateb El-Arabi, literally. The French issue would follow one year later, contributing to today’s confusion over the magazine’s original premiere: it is often, mistakenly, dated back to 1968. In many ways, Egyptian writer Youssef el-Sebai’s first editor’s letter mirrored the general sentiment of Senghor’s “Négritude and Arabité” , which was printed just a few pages later (before Ousmane Sembène’s poem ,“Fingers/Les Doigts” and after a black-and-white photo spread of Ibrahim el-Salahi’s newest paintings). El-Sebai did however differ on the primacy of culture. He wrote:

“We Afro-Asian writers represent people along the entire length and breadth of Asia and Africa, from different climates, different environments and different traditions. Yet we are all bound by a deeply-rooted unity, which is both the foundation and the basis underlying our superficial differences. It is our common inheritance apart from the solidarity of our Afro-Asian peoples… that is at one time, a gift and a responsibility. It is a right, even a distinction, but also a heavy burden and a duty which we have to fulfill.”

El-Sebai sees in “The Role of AFRO-ASIAN Literature and the national Liberation movements” the linkages between all of Africa and Asia in “common heritage” and “our common struggle toward regaining our national characters, achieving complete freedom and striving for the development of our societies”. One might imagine Senghor’s unease at witnessing the primacy of culture that his négritude called for being overrun by el-Sebai’s essay just pages before his own. El-Sebai’s pointed emphasis on the linkage between political movements and cultural ones is largely unremarkable, but his intentions as editor are clear. As he writes, “The Afro-Asian writer is committed by need.”

By these lofty standards, Lotus assumed a responsibility that resulted in often overly dense issues. Numbering 200 or more pages each, the magazine typically featured studies of the historical and contemporary presence and value of Afro-Asian arts and literature, short stories, an entire section devoted to poetry, usually one extended overview of a speciality art (ceramics, say, or masks), folkloric retellings, a special section on a matter of especially urgent political and cultural importance (Vietnam and Palestine received several such special sections over the years), excerpts from the Afro-Asian Library, and extensive documents from various Afro-Asian writers’ conferences or meetings of the Bureau. The Lotus Awards kicked off in 1969 with winners To Hoai of Vietnam, Alex La Guma of South Africa, and Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish. The representation the magazine strove for was impressive, but riddled with a trend emblematic of the non-aligned movement.

All managing editors of Lotus under el-Sebai, who was both the editor and the secretary general of the Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers, were Egyptian. They included Edward el-Kharrat, Alexandrian lyrical novelist controversial for the overtly sexual themes in his writing, and Morsi Saad Eddin, founding cultural editor of Al Ahram and first presidential spokesman under President Sadat. Sometime in the early 1970s, popular radio host and literary critic Abdel Aziz Sadek replaced Eddin on the primary editorial board, though Eddin continued to contribute to the magazine from time to time. All men, all Egyptian, and all – at one point or another – official cultural attachés in various government-sanctioned capacities. The editorial committee was much more diverse, including Mulk Raj Anand, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mário (Pinto) De Andradé, Alex La Guma, Hiroshi Noma and Anatoli Sofronov, to name a few. Through the mid-1970s various writers from the African continent would join the editorial committee, but with the exception of a few – Doudou Gueye (Senegal), Mouloud Mammeri (Algeria), Abdulla Hamed El-Amin (Sudan) and Alex La Guma (South Africa), initially – the dominant African presence on the editors’ rolls of Lotus and the Afro-Asian Writers’ Bureau was solidly Egyptian. A readership poll on the size of the text used in the first issue of 1974 was prompted by a letter from Cameroonian writer Vincent T. Nguno, who highlighted the issue when he wrote, “The material is ample but difficult to peruse, for the characters are small and lighting in most African homes is weak.”

With Egyptians at the helm, the content of Lotus was, in large part, structured and presented as utilitarian in the way that Egypt’s nationalisation of culture under Nasser had required and Sadat’s regime formalised rather more fascistically. Culture was understood as a tool for maintaining constant revolutionary attention – a far cry from the focused appeal to culture that Senghor emphasised. The responsibility el-Sebai felt to direct Lotus toward this larger purpose becomes evermore evident in his editor’s letters through the years. It is also vividly apparent in the rigorously principled contributions from the magazine’s many featured writers.

In the mid 1970s Lotus became more crowded, with less colour and light (not to mention art) between its trilingual covers. Validating the existence of Afro-Asian cultures was often its clearest theme. Studies such as “Traditional African Music” and letters to the editor highlighting the similarities between a Cameroonian folktale and a Syrian one abound, and there are very few instances of literary or artistic spontaneity in its pages. Poems devoted to Fidel Castro, the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and the freedom fighters of Palestine are remarkable in their historical specificity but seldom move beyond obsessive revolutionary rhetoric. It is easy to understand Senghor’s oft-critiqued fears of culture being lost to politics now, having read Lotus so carefully in the archives. But Lotus was very much a result of the responsibility that Egyptian cultural figures assumed was their “natural” role during the period of African decolonisation: hyper-vigilant sustaining of cultural unity in order to sustain and validate Arab cultural worth in the eyes of both Europe and Africa.

Scene III. As Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor

Egypt, in the pages and management of Lotus as in its experiments with independence under both Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, frequently struggled with how to approach the matter of responsibility for a “united Africa” neither assigned to it (regardless of Senghor’s opinion) nor fully accepted. Egypt has politically and culturally occupied three spaces in its self-perception: that of an African nation, that of an Arab nation, and that of a nation that internalised the lessons of its European colonisers and African allies in non-alignment. Sadat’s first political move was to evict the Soviet friends with whom Nasser had surrounded himself during the tensest moments of non-alignment within the United Arab Republic in the 1970s. Sadat’s first cultural move was to move beyond Nasser’s limited attempt to cater both to Western admiration for Egyptian antiquity as well as to Third World attempts at transnational solidarity. They could not both be had, simply put. Egypt either made its own path forward or it did not. Sadat chose.

Sadat was perhaps smarter in his approach to securing Egypt’s identity as an autonomous nation with value for all sides – politically. The romance of Nasser’s “Egyptianisation” of the country, however, would continue to inform the cultural politics of Egypt and what cultural production Egyptian intellectual and cultural elites chose to export to the rest of the world. In this context, FESTAC 77, the Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture hosted by Nigeria in 1977, becomes a marvellous platform to witness Egypt’s rebirth and demise.

African-American novelist Paule Marshall was a guest of Kenya at FESTAC and marched in the opening ceremony with a motley crew (in her estimation) of fellow Americans. Well before the Americans stepped into the notoriously hideous new Lagos National Stadium, built with Nigeria’s oil wealth, she recalls the Egyptian contingent as striking in their presence. She wrote in her memoir Triangular Road:

“The Egyptians stole the early phase of the show hands down. Not only were they among the largest delegations present, their parade was indisputably the most spectacular. Ushering their sizable troupe into the stadium was no less than a half-dozen beautifully caparisoned, fancy-stepped, white Arabian show horses – with, seated high on each of their backs, a Sahara-brown beauty. The women riders were as sumptuously costumed as their mounts in great billowing Scheherazade trousers, tunics and sheer flowing scarves. Their arms and ears bejeweled. The glint of jewels as well in their elaborately dressed hair. Kohl rimmed their eyes, adding to their drama. Each rider was a Cleopatra look-alike holding aloft an outsized red, white and black Egyptian flag. The crowd wildly cheered them.”

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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