On the Meaning of Being a Sufi: The Wayfarer in the Footsteps of Al-Hallaj

Published in Egyptian Streets

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The Sufi is the traveler in the way of Love. This is how Khaled Muhammad Abduh defines the Sufi in his most recent book, On the Meaning of Being a Sufi. The book is a collection of essays that vary between narratives, personal experiences, academic insights and glimpses of the lives of great Muslim spiritual figures who deeply affected his life.

One such figure is the Persian mystic and Sufi master Al-Husayn ibn-Mansur al-Hallaj (c.858- 922AD/244-309AH). Since his introduction to the life and writings of Al-Hallaj during school years, Abduh became a wayfarer in his path.

In the introduction of his book On the Meaning of Being a Sufi, Abduh describes how Sufism was drawn into his life. His interest in the field of comparative religions made him immerse himself in extensive readings in the Sufi literature. After a while, he came to the realization: “I understood that Love cannot be taught. It cannot be sought in books.” He decided that the spiritual experience of the Sufi masters had to be felt; it had to be lived. This explained to him why so many meanings in Sufi texts are hard to grasp. “The inability to understand is in itself a realization,” a close friend consoled him when was faced with the difficulty of interpreting the full meaning of Al-Hallaj’s words.

Born in southern Iran, Al-Hallaj received a spiritual education from the great mystic Sahl al-Tustari. At a certain point, he distanced himself from the teachings of his Shaykh, embarking on his own spiritual journey. Seen as highly controversial, Al-Hallaj angered the orthodox theologians of his time, who disapproved of his mystical experiences as recorded in his writings and poetry. He was arrested on charges of heresy, imprisoned, tortured and finally crucified. The life and death of Al-Hallaj have stirred great debate and great emotion, but most importantly they have created of him an icon of the dervish sparing his own life for the love of the Divine.

Khaled Muhammad Abduh is known in the social media circles as Khaled Al-Hallaj. To his followers, he symbolizes a quest for learning and a world of enlightened spirituality.

Abduh launched an online site for Islamic and Sufism studies known as Tawaseen after the name of one of Al-Hallaj’s most famous as well as most controversial books.

The site aims at creating a platform for the Arab reader to have access to the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of Islam. By providing full attention to Sufism studies, Tawaseen hopes to renew the interest in serious scholarship on Sufism, as well as to redress the misconceptions about Sufism. Abduh says, “Tawaseen is not promoting any Sufi order or Tariqah. Indeed, it is the Sufi orders that almost killed the spiritual aspect of Sufism by caging it within a system of thought and behavior that has to conform to the hierarchy of its institutional leadership.”

Abduh graduated from Dar al-Ulum, obtaining both his B.A. and M.A. He is currently working on his Ph.D. from the Department of Philosophy in the Faculty of Art in Cairo University.

Like Al-Hallaj, Khaled Muhammad Abduh received guidance in the Bektashyah order, named after the 13th century Haji Bektash Veli from Khorasan. After a while, Abduh decided to embark on his own spiritual journey. He later developed a critical view of Sufi orders, calling for reforms and for what he describes as post-tariqah Sufism, i.e. a Sufism that goes beyond dogmatism and delves deeper into the spiritual aspects of Islam.

It is the latter point that made him find refuge in the world of Jalaluldin al-Rumi. He says: “Mevlana’s company enchants me. Sometimes I look at his name and smile. I think about how at a certain time he made me reunite with myself, and made me gaze at something beautiful that I will never forget.” He observes that Al-Rumi had all the training he could get due to the religious status of his father; however, it was only the encounter with his mentor, Shams Tabriz, that made him blossom spiritually.

Abduh also co-authored a book entitled Al-Rumi Between the Orient and the Occident.

Despite his academic training, Abduh is a wayfarer par excellence. Talking to him will take you to two irreconcilable worlds: Analytical criticism on the one hand, and ecstatic mysticism on the other. His sharp words reveal the quality of a solid researcher who takes nothing at face value. Yet, he does not hide an anxiety that is symptomatic of those yearning for internal fulfilment; a search for what is beyond external knowledge; a higher Truth.

He says: “The path is not a distance to cross in order to reach it. Our steps do not get us any nearer. Perhaps, the search is the path; perhaps the pain, the wonderment, the joy; perhaps the sum of it all. All what I know is that there is no path for an ever-renewed being that is paved for him/her by others.”

Abduh’s book On the Meaning of Being a Sufi is highly important at a time witnessing an increased interest in the Sufi symbols. He sees this phenomenon as a consequence of the tearing down of the authority figures of religion as well as the disillusionment Egypt had with its short experience of Islamist rule.

Such disillusionment created what he calls a segment of Egyptians that seeks an Islam-lite and that, by misperception, thinks they can find in Sufism. The Islam-lite fans are attracted to the dancing dervishes, to the festivities of mulids and inshad concerts. They recite lines by Al-Rumi and Al-Hallaj and feel their energy, but they do not go any deeper.

On the increased mania in Egypt about the dervish as an icon of the Sufi path, Abduh thinks that the attraction to the superficial aspects of Sufism has done injustice to the dervish. “In my observations and life experience, I witnessed the dervish as the real flesh of Sufism. He is not a symbol. He is this person in humble disguise giving out from his soul to assist others. The dervish has only one destination: Allah,” he explains.

The significance of the book On the Meaning of Being a Sufi is that it sets the tone for a true understanding of what Sufism is, away from the superficial attraction to its symbols. It starts from a realistic understanding of where Egyptian youth stand, and why they are in an almost state of disbelief. Disbelief in authority; disbelief in a faith not genuinely internalized. He says: “The Sufi searches for a heart that beats with life; he requests to be guided to ascension every moment in which he can renew his connection with God.”

Abduh will discuss On the Meaning of Being a Sufi in a book-signing event on March 22 at 7 p.m. in Al-Balad Bookshop.



The Hidden Spiritual Sanctuary of Cairo Where Sufi Mystics Celebrate


Walking through the southern qarafa cemeteries along the base of the Muqattam hills on a Friday morning is a sport for residents of this part of the huge Cairo necropolis, for beggars and for those who are following in the footsteps of Sufi saints, awliyaa’.

Several spiritual figures have chosen this secluded spot to build their zawiyas (recluse prayer areas) to meditate in isolation, far from the bustling city life. In their seclusion, they spent their time in dhikr, literally meaning remembrance of God. One such figure is al-Sayida Nafisa, the great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who resided in Cairo from 809 CE until her death in 824 CE.  Accounts tell of her voluntary seclusion in a retreat cell there where she meditated in khilwa, or utmost isolation from worldly preoccupations and a total concentration in the presence of God.

With time, the southern qarafa came to be called the Valley of the Overpowered by the Love of God (wadi al-mustad’afin) in reference to it being an abode of the saints.

The first Friday of the month of Muharram is a day that Sufi murids (students) and seekers never miss. It is the mawlid of al-Muharram, one of the established festivity traditions of the Wafa’iya Sufi order. This tradition was brought about in the 18th century to celebrate the new Islamic year by dhikr circles, prayers and almsgiving.

The minaret of the mausoleum and mosque of the Sadat Wafai’iya has already been decorated with neon lights in the past days in anticipation of the festivity. On Friday, visitors from various places inside and outside Egypt came to attend the mawlid and pay tribute to the Wafa’iya saints who, for centuries, were the heads of a great Sufi order and constituted one of the elite social and spiritual families of the city of Cairo.

Photo Credit Serag Heiba

The Wafa’iya is a Sufi order established by Muhammad Wafa (1302-1363) who was born in Alexandria. His family has its origin in Tunis and Sfax, and his ancestry goes back to Idris I (d. 791), the founder of the city of Fez and the first ruler of the Idrisid dynasty. Through this lineage, Muhammad Wafa is thus a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from the side of Hassan ibn Ali.

Muhammad Wafa was initiated into the Shadhili order by Dawud ibn Makhla (d. 1332), a student of the great Sufi scholar Ibn Ata’ Allah al-Sakandari (d. 1309), whose mausoleum is a short walk from the Sadat Wafa’iya mosque.  Wafa lived for a while in Akhmim, in Upper Egypt, then moved to Cairo, where he built his zawiya. His fame spread slowly and he acquired the name Wafa when one day the Nile water dropped to an alarming level. Fearing famine, the people of Cairo asked him to pray God. He went to the river’s edge and recited a prayer after which the water rose to its regular level, making the people believe that he commanded the Nile to rise and that his command was fulfilled (wafa).

After a long spiritual training, Muhammad Wafa established his own order. When he died in 1363, his younger son Ali, who came to be renowned for his poetry and treatises on mystical philosophy, followed him. Ali, as the khalifa of Wafa, was succeeded by 21 followers from his family until 1907 when the 22nd and lastkhalifa, Ahmad Abu al-Futuhat died leaving no male descendants.

On the day of the mawlid, the square in front of the mausoleum and mosque turns into a busy area where iftar tables are spread and rows of chairs are showcased to welcome visitors and guests.  Upon entering the mausoleum, one immediately notices the contrast between the noise of the outside and the serenity and tranquility of the inside. A strong smell of musk diffuses all across. Its source is the wooden chamber at the center containing the tombs of both Muhammad and Ali Wafa. Around this central chamber are 17 tombs of other members of the Wafa’iya. The number of tombs gives an air of solemnity to the place and one cannot help but be in awe.

The entrance to the central mausoleum has a headstone marking the genealogy of Muhammad Wafa. Next to it is a marble column with carvings showing the spiritual motif of the Wafa’iya: My Lord, the Everlasting, the High, and the All-Wise.


A small mosque is in front of the mausoleum and it has a beautifully decorated wooden mihrab. To its left, one sees an intriguing little door on top of which is written.


God grant us a seclusion with You and an isolation from all except You

This door is a reminiscence of the earliest zawiya built by the Wafa’iya in this area, which later turned to be a family burial area. In 1777, Sultan Abdul Hamid I issued a firman to repair the zawiya and build the mosque, which until then was nonexistent.

The mawlid proceeds in a peculiar way that is totally different from similar festivities by other Sufi orders. There are no signs of the market activities that usually accompany the religious festivities all over Egypt. There are no signs of tanoura dervish dancers or musicians. Perhaps it is because of the location in the heart of the qarafa cemeteries, or perhaps it is because of the nature of the Wafa’iya order that is known for its highly intellectual mysticism. Seekers who follow in their footsteps are scholars rather than dervishes.

Throughout the day, people come to quietly pay tribute to the Wafa’iya tradition. They recite al-Fatiha in awe and sit peacefully to enjoy the religious chanting in praise of the Prophet, or the poems of Ali Wafa sung by chanters who volunteer on the occasion of the mawlid.

One of the most famous poems written by him is entitled The Heart Has Stilled, which is believed to be one he wrote shortly before his death:

The Heart has finally stilled

So live contentedly thee Body

This bliss is everlasting and eternal

I have become the neighbor of the Beloved

And the one who is near Him lives in plenitude

So live in God’s sanctuary, under His banner

There is no fear in this dwelling; no sorrow

Do not fear loss because you have an abode

Of all desires; you have support from His Hands

He is the God of beauty, the sender of secret counsel

He is in all splendors the One and the Singular

The celebration of the mawlid definitely has a different flavor in the Sadat Wafa’iya Mosque. It is a true spiritual journey. Upon leaving the mausoleum and mosque, every visitor will be reminded by a quick glimpse to the right hand-side of a verse composed in the eulogy of the Wafa’iya:

The saints, no matter how high their ranks get

Are slaves, but the masters are masters 

It is this verse that inspired the title sadat (literally meaning masters) that is usually added to the names of the Wafa’iya to credit them for their mystical, poetic and scholarly mastery.


Uncertainty in Egypt: From Terrorism to Youth Anarchismaen

Site of the bomb at Shubra El Kheima.

The so much longed for dream of stability in Egypt seems to be unreachable. Waking up with the news of the car bomb explosion that targeted the National Security Building in Shubra El Kheima early this morning and injured at least 24 people, Egyptians carried out their daily routine with an apathetic attitude, almost submissive to the loaded summer of unrest.

Hours after the large explosion that shook Cairo early this morning, Egyptian Facebook users started sharing the page of a Black Bloc group that claimed responsibility for the attack. Activists of the group stated, “We claim the full and complete responsibility for the explosions that took place an hour ago. We also announce our official presence within the coming days in the Arab Republic of Egypt if political detainees, who are arrested with no criminal charges against them, are not released”

The group sent a message to the National Security Authorities stating, “The explosions are a reaction to what you do. The current situation in Egypt confirms that you do what you have always been doing since Mubarak. Free the detainees before the execution of the big event”.

The group also announced a second launch of their activities or “A Comeback” and posted a link to a new page, “Black Bloc Students” reporting its goals and activities.

However, the official Black Bloc Egypt denied any connection to the statements or the page. It described it as a fictitious group that aims at shedding doubt around the activists who founded the group back in 2013. The group officially accused the state security of trying to portray them as terrorists.

The first appearance of the Black Bloc date back to January 24, 2013, right before the second anniversary of the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. The group consisted of militant revolutionaries and soccer fans who expressed their dissatisfaction with the rule of President Mohammed Morsi as well as with the practices of the Ministry on Interior. They were visible in the demonstrations that preceded Morsi’s ousting with their black outfits and masks. They also used the tactics of street fights, railway blockage and vandalism.

Black Block members during a demonstration in Alexandria in March 2013. Credit: Omneya Elnaggar

In their video clip entitled “The first statement of the Black Bloc”, the group asserted that they aimed to bring down Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Members of the group mentioned that they were inspired by footage of clips of Black Bloc activities in Greece. They carry black banners showing the letter ‘A’ in a circle, the international sign of anarchism.

Despite the conflicting statements between the two pages, the official page of Black Bloc Egypt declared that they are planning for a comeback because they are against the Islamists and the army. One of their posts asserted, “Let the Islamists and the army play each other. Afterwards, it will be our turn to confront the winner”.

The comeback of militant anarchism by youth activists could be a sign of growing political dissidence unrelated to Islamist opposition. The bombing came after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified an anti-terrorism law on August 16 that increased police and judicial powers in the fight against terrorism.

The ratification of the anti-terrorism law was criticized as an attack on freedoms and a restriction to human rights in Egypt. In a statement, Human Rights Watch stated that “the law increases authorities’ power to impose heavy sentences, including the death penalty, for crimes under a definition of terrorism that is so broadly worded it could encompass civil disobedience”.

Recent attacks in Egypt included the car bomb explosion in front of the Italian Consulate in downtown Cairo on July 11, the assassination of state prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bombing in June, and the large-scale Islamic State operations in the Sinai Peninsula.


In Search of Spiritual Ecstasy: Egypt Goes Whirling

Sufi whirling dervishes performing at Beit Sanqar al-Saady in Cairo

Sufi whirling dervishes performing at Beit Sanqar al-Saady in Cairo

In a time when the materialistic world and its achievements seem to lie at the heart of the modern day pursuits, many youth have found themselves void of any spiritual belonging, leaving them with a yearning to find Allah (God).

Despite the deeply rooted origins of Sufism in Egypt, the recent times have seen a growing interest in Sufism and all that relates to it. Meanwhile, the symbolic Sufi dervish has become an icon for those who seek inner peace and tolerance.

The period following the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi’s regime saw a clear shift of attention towards Sufism, which may be traced back to multiple reasons.

The intimate merge of political campaigning under the name of the Islamic doctrine caused many Egyptians to be disillusioned, thinking that the political actors represented Islam. Furthermore, the association of political Islamist groups to the recurrent violent acts across Egypt made a lot, especially the youth, question the essence of religion.

Needless to say, this portrayal of Islamic religion didn’t logically add up the more people contemplated them. For as long as time, many people have often found sanctuary in religious teachings. But if religion does not inspire beauty and change from within, then one should dig for the fallacies of the mindsets calling out for such faulty religious practices.

Sufi Dervishes. Credit: Omneya Elnaggar

The diligent pursuit for moderate religious teachings has led many wandering worshipers to the tolerant path of Sufism. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is the continuous search for the divine by taking religious practices to a more internal, intense and soul-searching dimension. A core concept is dhikr (remembrance of God). Seekers of the Sufi path observe God’s dictates in their own thoughts and deeds.

Consequently, a growing number of Facebook communities started to attract thousands of followers, offering them a new stream of messages to decipher. While many of the Sufi teachings communicated on these online communities tend to be subtle ones, they are usually of deeper meanings which individuals tend to relate to differently.

However, the rising zeal about the inner mystical dimensions of Islam didn’t just stop at the virtual online world. Bookstores across Egypt also reported an increase in the demand on books about Sufism.

Sufi performance arts in Egypt have attracted more attention during the past few years

Last year, Diwan Bookstore, Alef and the AUC Press confirmed that their number one best-selling book was The Forty Rules of Love -a novel about Rumi by the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. Other books on Sufism had a great demand as well, including books by Youssef Zidan, Ahmed Bahgat and Ammar Ali Hassan.

Shafak’s novel which revolves around two parallel axes intertwining the 13th century life story of Rumi and his spiritual instructor Shams of Tabriz with the modern day story of the protagonist, Ella, exposes the forty rules of love taught by Shams of Tabriz. Those teachings included messages such as: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.”

Even though the Sufi teachings are projections of the novel rather than being academic writings, it succeeded at inspiring thousands of Egyptian readers to follow a more curious path of inquiry towards Sufism.

A whirling dervish clad in flowing white garments. Credit: Omneya Elnaggar

Yet despite the tolerance and peace that Sufism is famous for, Sufis have for long been dubbed heretic and “shrine worshipers” by Muslim extremists. This has raised doubts in the minds of many about the Sufi practices.

However, true Sufism means abiding by the main tenets of doctrinal Islam -Qur’an and Sunna- and moving to a further and deeper dimension of Tazkiyat al-Nafs (the refinement of the soul). Every Sufi practices the higher jihad against his/her own soul to tune it with the true Muslim ethics in order to attain Maqam al-Ihsan (the station of spiritual excellence). In this state, Muslims worship God as if they see Him as established in the Hadîth by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

If the literary world of The Forty Rules of Love has inspired thousands of Egyptians to inquire about Sufism, there was an earlier similar influence in the music and the world of performing arts by the Egyptian Mawlawiyyah.

The popularity of the troupe and its singer Amer Eltony has increased over the last years, and he has become a leading figure in the world of inshad (the art of chanting invocations of God). Eltony initiated the revival of the Sufi heritage through performing arts in Egypt since he established the troupe in 1994.

Eltony during a Sufi performance combining inshad and the whirling of dervishes

Through the breathtaking poetry of great Sufi masters, the mesmerizing music and the whirling enchantment, Eltony and his whirling dervishes are famous for performances that are enthralling to say the least. The effect of the Sufi lyrics has turned their performances to a group meditation. In fact, he described the Egyptian Mawlawiyyah as an inspiration to follow the Sufi path while asserting that it is not a Sufi order.

It was natural that a dervish mania in Egypt blossomed from the success of the Egyptian Mawlawiyyah. Fans of the troupe follow their performances regularly, often describing the experience as elevating to a world of ecstasy where they can enjoy the lightness of their souls as they are detached from the worldly clinginess.

Moreover, the influence of the troupe has extended to inviting appreciation for the Sufi poetry by great masters such as Suhrawardi, Ibn ‘Arabi, Omar Ibn al-Farid and al-Hallaj.

Fans of the group savor the lyrics with an unequalled enchantment. Eltony’s chant that starts with a slow rhythm takes them through different stations ormaqamat: repentance, awe, hope, contraction, expansion, love, extinction… etc. The rhythm gains momentum and speeds up, meanwhile accompanied with the whirling of the dervishes clad in flowing white garments.

Al-Mawlawiyya al-Masriya during a performance in Egypt

As the stage turns to a heavenly vision of light that engulfs the audience in its magical energy. Eltony chants for al-Hallaj, saying:

I swear to God, the sun has never risen or set without Your love being the twin of my breath;
Neither have I confided in anyone except to talk about You.
Never have I mentioned Your name in gladness or in sorrow,
Unless You were in my heart, wedged in my obsessive thoughts.
Nor have I touched water to quench my thirst without seeing Your image in the glass.
Were it possible for me to reach You I would come to you at once, crawling on my face or walking on my head.
I say to our minstrel that if he is to sing, he should choose for this theme my grief at the hardness of Your heart.
What cause do the foolish have to blame me? They have their own faith and I have mine.

Eltony and the Mawlawiyya al-Masriyya troupe chanting Sufi poetry

Eltony believes that the lyrics have their own soothing energy. He describes his inshad as an expression of the various ahwal (spiritual states) and maqamat(spiritual stations) of the Sufi masters who wrote the poetry, and not just a verbal poetic expression.

In addition to Sufi music, various cultural centers such as Al-Rab’ Cultural Center, Rab’ al-Salam Art School and al-Balad Bookstore now organize Sufi meditation and singing events.

If you have been inspired by the Sufi messages of The Forty Rules of Love, or by the beauty of the lyrics chanted by Eltony, then we advise you keep an eye on the various events across Cairo where you can be introduced to more aspects of Sufism.

You can also attend Amer Eltony and his troupe’s performances at the Damanhour Opera House on August 15 and at the Sayed Darwish Theater in Alexandria on August 17.


Between the mystic and the oppressed: Hammour Ziada’s world story of the marginalised

The novel is the story of Bakheet Mandil, a slave freed after the British troops, aided by Egyptian and Turkish troops, defeated the army of the Mahdi in the Battle of Kerreri, North of Omdurman.

In his novels, Ziada tells the stories of the marginalised. (Handout Photo)
In his novels, Ziada tells the stories of the marginalised.
(Handout Photo)

By Omneya El-Naggar

Tall, slim and eloquent, Hammour Ziada is very precise with words. He describes himself as a chronicler who narrates pleasurable stories. The serene smile on his face and the confident tone of his voice do not hide though a restless soul that has dug hard at the core of the essential questions of existence.

“There is no certainty. Man can never be certain of what he believes in or of the results of his actions. He is destined to head towards an uncertainty that he can never grasp with his present consciousness,” says Ziada.

He thinks that this is the problem of the faithful; even for them there is no certainty. However, Ziada does not paint a gloomy world of doubt; there is a way out. All what man can do and has to do, is to create an own will and seek its fulfilment. He adds, “There are levels of doubts; one can ignore them and continue to move on the road carved for oneself in this uncertain world. Only at the end of the road, one can know the answer to their seeking”.

With this Weltanschauung, Hammour Ziada writes his second novel “The Longing of the Dervish”. The novel won the 19th edition of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. It was also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an Emirati-funded prize, known in the Arab literary circles as the Arabic Booker Prize.

The novel won the 19th edition of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature (Photo Public Domain)
The novel won the 19th edition of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature
(Photo Public Domain)

The novel is the story of Bakheet Mandil, a slave freed after the British troops, aided by Egyptian and Turkish troops, defeated the army of the Mahdi in the Battle of Kerreri, North of Omdurman. When the prisoners of El-Sayer started fleeing their cells in September 1898, Bakheet thought of only one goal: to avenge the death of his beloved Theodora or ‘Hawwa’.   He did not feel free; vengeance stood as the only obstacle against his freedom.

Set in 19th century Mahdist Sudan, “The Longing of the Dervish” draws heavily on the historical and spiritual symbolism of an important era of the modern Sudanese history. Imam Muhammad Ahmad Ibn Abdullah proclaimed himself the Mahdi or the Islamic redeemer of the Islamic faith in 1881. He established the Mahdiyya Movement, and his message gained a huge popularity that marked the beginning of national sentiment in Sudan. In addition to his call for the reform of Islam, Imam Al-Mahdi mobilised the nationalist sentiments of the Sudanese people beyond their ethnic, tribal and denominational affiliations to fight against the Turco-Egyptian colonisers.

The self-proclaimed Mahdi and his followers, known also as the ansaar and the dervishes, managed to overtake Khartoum after a ten-month siege from March 1884 to January 1885. They defeated the Egyptian soldiers and established the Mahdist state that was based on the Shari’alaw. Imam Al-Mahdi died soon after from typhoid, and was followed by Imam Abdul Raham Al-Ta’aishi who was killed in 1899, soon after the British troops re-conquered Khartoum and put an end to the Mahdist rule.

The plot of the novel is set during the time of the fall of the Mahdist state and the vanishing of the dream of liberation. Even Bakheet Mandil, who is newly liberated, does not recognise his freedom yet. He awaits a new life: only vengeance can grant him freedom. When he is asked by Gohar, his prison inmate, what his crime was, he avows: “My crime is love.”

The last days of the collapse of the Mahdist state witness violence all over Sudan as well as a sense of identity loss. Ziada’s characters are caught in this identity crisis. No one knows what brought them on a road that no longer reflects their aspirations. All of the characters dwell on a spiritual journey, hoping to find a remedy for their wounds. The symbolic use of the words of the great Andalusian mystic Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi sheds light on the path the characters chose in their lives. The first lines carry his wisdom: “Every longing that is quieted by the meeting with what was longed for can’t be relied upon.”

This longing haunts every character. All of them seem to be dervishes who have willingly left the circles of dhikr or remembrance of God that is the essence of Sufism. They have become dervishes of their own obsessions. Bakheet is obsessed with Theodora, Theodora is obsessed with the need to redress “God’s lost black sheep” in Khartoum, Marisila is obsessed with Bakheet, and Al-Hassan Al-Grifawy is obsessed with the message of the Mahdi and his call for the holy war.

Like Bakheet, Theodora chose her obsession. She is working for the service of God. An Alexandrian-born Greek, she finds herself heading to Sudan as a missionary. With the fall of Khartoum to the Mahdi’s army, she becomes the slave of Ibrahim wad Al-Shawwak. When she plots her escape, she is betrayed by Younes, who will hand her over to the latter to be murdered brutally.

The plot of the novel is set during the time of the fall of the Mahdist state and the vanishing of the dream of liberation (Photo Public domain)
The plot of the novel is set during the time of the fall of the Mahdist state and the vanishing of the dream of liberation
(Photo Public domain)

Almost every character in the novel is a victim of their own situation. There is a sense of historical determinism that situated them in a state of slavery. Perhaps they are not to be blamed for their destiny, but Ziada does not portray anyone of the characters as innocent.

“We all create our choices, and we fool ourselves by them. Only at the end of the road will we be able to assess the whole journey. What matters is the continuous seeking,” Ziada explains.

The metaphor of the “seeker” is another Sufi theme that is continuously present in the narrative of the characters. However, the novel presents a different view of the Sufi world by telling the story of the Mahdiyya Movement. In a lot of ways, the character Al-Hassan Al-Grifawy exposes the contradictions of a movement that claimed to be spiritual. When he arrests Bakheet Mandil after he killed the fifth person involved in Theodora’s murder, he decides not to kill him immediately. He gives his orders to his men to move to the city of Musalamiyah. In the meantime, he starts an eye-opening conversation with Bakheet in an attempt to understand what made him kill.

Bakheet’s story reflected the doubt Al-Grifawy had in his heart. Like him, he set on a path of love but ended up in a world of hatred, betrayal and vengeance. He asks himself: “Was it the path of God or was it an illusion?”

He remembers when he left his wife Fatima behind and divorced her to join the Mahdi’s army. He told her: “God called me, O Fatima. Don’t you see what plagued religion? Times have changed. Earth is filled with injustice. The Turk, the infidels, changed the religion of Allah and humiliated the pious. Am I not supposed to answer the call of God and His Messenger if they invite me to what gives me life?”

Ziada manages in the novel to tell the stories of the marginalised. He says: “History usually only tells us the stories of the elite and fails to tell us what happened to the many marginalised characters who found no one to tell their stories.”

He creates their world and exposes their oppression. According to him, they are oppressed not only because of the general atmosphere of defeat of the Mahdist state, but they are oppressed because of their own self-defeat. That is why the novel is the narration of both the physical and spiritual journeys of the main characters.

Ziada is a Sudanese writer and journalist, born in 1977 in the old city of Omdurman, the cradle of the Mahdiyya Movement. Despite his upbringing in a city that revered the Mahdi, Ziada chose to narrate a story that exposed the violence and contradictions of that historical era. He explains “I am not a Sufi, but I do not wage a war against Sufism. I only handle it with a critical view.”

Ziada now resides in Egypt. He worked as a journalist for a number of Sudanese newspapers, including Al-MustaqillaAjras Al-Hurriya, and Al-Jarida. He was Chief Editor of the cultural section of the Sudanese Al-Akhbar newspaper. His first novel “Al-Kong” was published in 2010. He also published tow collections of short stories: “An Omdurman Biography” (2008) and “Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain” (2014).


Imam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi: A man full of worries for Sudan’s future

In assessing the current political situation in Sudan and the prospects for stability, Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi referred to the need to follow a new approach that is at once democratic and inclusive of all political factions

Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi has served as the elected leader of Sudan’s largest opposition party National Umma Party (NUP) (DNE Photo)
Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi has served as the elected leader of Sudan’s largest opposition party National Umma Party (NUP)
(DNE Photo)

By Omneya El-Naggar

Imam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi is definitely a man of few words and a lot of action. His charismatic posture denounces an aristocratic demeanour, despite an ascetic lifestyle. Clad in the traditional white robe and turban, cane in hand, with smile unfading, he cheerfully greets his followers and guests of the lecture he gave in Daal Center for Research and Media, entitled “Political Islam between the Da’wah and the Authority”.

He is also a man full of worries about the future of Sudan. “If the status quo continues, disunity and disintegration of Sudan will be the outcome,” he assures.

Born in 1935 in Omdurman, Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi rose to political prominence through what he described as a “life of struggle”. He is the great grandson of Muhammad Ahmad Al-Mahdi, who founded theMahdiyya Movement on 29 June 1881, which rebelled against the Turco-Egyptian rule and was the first Sudanese movement to embrace nationalism beyond tribal loyalties. Incorporating an Islamic upbringing with Western education was a trait that characterised his political thought and career.

Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi has served since 1964 as the elected leader of Sudan’s largest opposition party National Umma Party (NUP), established in February 1945 under the slogan “Sudan for the Sudanese”. He served as prime minister twice. The first time was between July 1966 until May 1967, which was ended by Ja’far Al-Nimeiri’s military coup. The second time was from May 1986 until his last democratically-elected civilian government was toppled by the military coup headed by Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in 1989. The latter has ruled Sudan since then, and recently won the presidential election held last April with 94% of the vote, thus extending his 26-year rule.

Al-Sadiq El-Mahdy while talking about his worries of the future of Sudan (DNE Photo)
Al-Sadiq El-Mahdy while talking about his worries of the future of Sudan
(DNE Photo)

Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi became the Imam of the Ansar after his uncle, the Imam Al-Hadi Al-Mahdi, was killed in 1970 in the assault by Al-Nimeiri’s forces on his base in Aba Island on the White Nile, which resulted in the deaths of 3,000 of the Ansar.

In assessing the current political situation in Sudan and the prospects for stability, Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi referred to the need to follow a new approach that is at once democratic and inclusive of all political factions.

He says: “The great scholar Ibn Khaldun reminds us that every phenomenon in the natural and social existence must follow certain rules. This is manifested in the Qur’anic verse: Our Lord is He who gave each thing its form and then guided it (Taha: 50).”

The Imam does not see any of the four rules that he considers essential for the stability of all political regimes currently present in Sudan: popular approval, satisfactory provision of daily needs, security, and international recognition. With the lack of these four elements, the state becomes a “failed state”, and the regime can only survive through coercion and suppression. This is what he thinks we are witnessing now in Sudan. The “failed state” syndrome has caused a lot of sufferings to the people with the increase in the numbers of fronts for warring militias, the alarming situation of Sudanese refugees, and the widespread corruption.

Al-Mahdi adds: “The current regime has failed to abide by the dictates of the International Human Rights Law. It has also failed to carry what the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect describes as the responsibility of the state to protect its population from genocide, war crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”

In addition, the regime has failed in handling the diversity of Sudan that is manifested on racial, ethnic, tribal, religious and ideological levels. “This failure is symptomatic of the regime since it led its Islamist coup in 1989 and turned the civil war into a jihadist war that practices excommunication or takfir against its opponents,” he explains.

Al-Mahdi does not believe that Sudan needs uprisings similar to the Arab Spring countries (Photo Public Domain)
Al-Mahdi does not believe that Sudan needs uprisings similar to the Arab Spring countries
(Photo Public Domain)

“Not only did the Islamists impose their agendas, they gave the Southern separatist movement international accountability,” Al-Mahdi adds. He sees this as a huge mistake, because it showed how the regime was willing to defend its interests and ideology at the expense of the Sudanese national interest.

The NUP, in addition to other Sudanese opposition parties, boycotted the latest presidential elections and issued a joint statement rejecting its results. They also called upon the Sudanese people to unite and join a massive civil disobedience campaign to show their resentment to the centralisation of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and topple Al-Bashir.

Al-Mahdi does not believe that Sudan needs uprisings similar to the Arab Spring countries. According to him, these were spontaneous and unorganised. They also lacked vision and direction. As a result, they were either used by the military or by the Islamists.

“What is needed in Sudan now is a National Dialogue. If this fails, then popular movements with organised leadership should change the regime through political and peaceful means,” he insists.

After being deposed during the 1989 coup, Al-Mahdi was imprisoned and put under house arrest for almost seven years until he escaped to Eritrea in 1996 to return in 2000. He was imprisoned several times before as well in 1969, 1973 and 1983. Al-Mahdi considered time in prison as time to re-arrange his thoughts, read and write abundantly. Indeed, he is recognised as an influential moderate Islamist and political thinker. His books cover a variety of topics, including The Southern Question (1964), They Ask You about Mahdism (1979), The Future of Islam in Sudan (1981), The Rights of Women in Islam (1985),Legitimate Penalties and their Position in the Islamic Social System (1987), Democracy in Sudan Will Return and Triumph (1990), Challenges of the Nineties (1991).

Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi was arrested on 17 May 2014, on charges of defamation, dissemination of false news, halting the constitutional system and inciting hatred against the state. These charges came after Al-Mahdi accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces of committing abuses against civilians in Darfur. Al-Mahdi was released on 15 June 2014.

The Imam has been residing in Egypt for the last ten months, and contrary to his critics who see his influential role as an opposition figure declining, he states that he is extremely busy mediating between the different Sudanese political factions and building dialogue bridges with international mediators.

Al-Mahdi is known to be a very popular figure amongst his countrymen, as they see him as having both knowledge and wisdom (Photo Public Domain)
Al-Mahdi is known to be a very popular figure amongst his countrymen, as they see him as having both knowledge and wisdom
(Photo Public Domain)

A few hours after his lecture, the Imam headed to France to participate in a hearing with the European Union (EU) parliament for the “Sudan Call” forces on 9 June in Strasbourg, to discuss the prospects for peace and democratic reforms in Sudan after the elections.

Leading Sudanese opposition figures who were supposed to join him were barred by the Sudanese security authorities from travelling to France. Delegates prevented from leaving Khartoum included members of the coalition of the National Consensus Forces (NCF), the National Umma Party (NUP), the Sudanese Revolutionary Forces (SRF) and various civil society groups.

Serving as president of the International Moderation Forum, Al-Mahdi also launched what came to be known as the “Paper for Awakening the Umma” during the International Conference on the “Role of Moderation in Confronting Terrorism for Accomplishing Global Peace and Stability”, held in Amman last March. For him, there is now a need for a new interpretation of the Shari’a that can reconcile between the religious context and the concept of citizenship.

Despite criticism of failing to stand up to his duty as one of the most important opposition leaders in Sudan, Imam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi continues to see his role as an embodiment of struggle for a Sudanese democratic future. He still believes in the possibility of National Dialogue following the example of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that was set up in 1991, and by which 92 organisations united in their opposition to apartheid. His magical formula implies that only a good management of diversity and avoidance of violence by all means can present an effective breakthrough to the current political situation.


Will Egypt’s Arab Spring Turn Into an Arab Nightmare?

The revolution in Egypt is not over. It has hardly begun. The removal of President Hosni Mubarak, whose trial many Egyptians view as a public relations stunt, has done nothing to alter the lock the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has on power, the economy and the political process. Those who once united in defiance of the Mubarak regime have, in frustration and anger, fragmented into antagonistic camps. Islamists of varying shades are pitted against secularists in virulent street confrontations. The trust and euphoria that once marked the uprising have given way to distrust and paranoia. And those who seek fundamental change and an open society have come to the sad conclusion that we have a long, long way to go.

The sectarian and religious tensions that once seethed beneath the surface of Egyptian society, kept in place by a brutal system of repression, including torture and fraudulent elections, have burst with fury upon the body politic. Where these torrents will lead us is anyone’s guess. But the mounting frustration with the slow pace of reform is political dynamite. The more the military council uses the familiar tools of fraud, force and repression to quell growing dissent, the more radical and antagonistic the opposition will become.

The SCAF, which took control in February with the ouster of Mubarak, failed to meet its promise to schedule parliamentary elections within six months. It sidetracked public discontent over the performance of the transitional government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, as well as discontent over its decision merely to amend the Constitution rather than draft a new one before elections, by propagating alarmist fears about threats to the country’s stability. The parliamentary elections, now scheduled to begin on November 28, do not signal any better hope for stability. The SCAF has postponed presidential elections until after the new Parliament writes a Constitution, a process that could take a year or more. And the de facto head of the country, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has hung up his military uniform for a business suit and has begun to speak like a candidate for office, although the military leadership has assured Egyptians it will not put forward a presidential candidate.

If the elections are free and fair—something that remains very much in doubt—they will almost certainly see the Muslim Brotherhood take a plurality, perhaps a majority, of seats in Parliament. The military knows and fears this. Although the Brotherhood is demonized by Egyptian secularists and countries such as Israel and the United States, it is in fact one of the tamer and more moderate alternatives within the Islamist movement. Ever since its founding in 1928, it has promoted da’wa, social reform and political participation. Its declared approach is nonviolence (rare exceptions being its resistance to the British occupation and the attempt to assassinate former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954). The Brotherhood has pursued these goals covertly, during times of repression under military regimes, as well as overtly, during brief periods of political opening. It has mobilized millions of followers through charities, unions and social work, and has been especially successful in rural areas. In recent years the Brotherhood has moderated some of its longstanding demands, such as for the application of Sharia law, in an attempt to reach out to secularists.

The Brotherhood presented itself right after the ouster of Mubarak as a potential stabilizing force by embracing civil government and democratic ideals and by praising the model of moderate Islamist politics practiced by Turkey’s ruling AKP Party. But the military, backed by Washington, looks set to prevent the Brotherhood from achieving significant political power, a move that would not only discredit its call for nonviolence but also empower some very disturbing groups that have risen in prominence since the removal of Mubarak. The untimely release from prison of prominent jihadists and other radical Islamist figures is now read as a tactical move by the SCAF to undermine the power of the Brotherhood, to divide Islamist voters and to send a message to secularists that the military is needed to maintain stability.

But the army is playing a dangerous game by opening up political space for the radical Salafist and jihadi groups, which carried out acts of violence in the past, including a rebellion in the 1990s in which more than 1,000 were killed. Such groups received the harshest blows under the previous regime. The longer the military clings to power, the more these extremists, who justify themselves by holding up their many martyrs, gain in stature and popularity. They lack the sophistication and organizational skills of the Brotherhood, and they spurn the Brotherhood’s commitment to peaceful change and its call for a broad coalition that includes secularists. But the Salafists, who carry Egyptian flags to which they add the symbols of an Islamist government, are disciplined, steadfast and resolute. And they have increased their appeal to the frustrated majority, especially the tens of millions who live in rural areas, peripheral suburbs and slum cities, who hoped Mubarak’s removal would bring a quick end to their joblessness, hunger and suffering.

At the same time, non-Islamist forces are slowly losing ground because of their lack of organization and internal divisions. Many leftists, secularists and youth factions of traditional political parties, including pro-Western democrats, believe falsely that they own the revolution, perhaps because they were so prominent in the early days at Tahrir Square. They are openly distrustful of all Islamist groups, including the Brotherhood, and their arrogance and sense of self-importance have doomed the possibility of coalitions. The national referendum held on March 19 dealt a serious blow to the credibility of these secular groups. They had called for a “no” vote, rejecting the referendum’s proposal for immediate parliamentary elections, instead supporting establishment of a presidential council to take over power from the military and pave the way for the creation of a new Constitution, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections. But only 23 percent of the public voted “No.” It was an early measure of the secularists’ lack of unity and common vision and of their inability to appeal to the Egyptian public.

Egypt is splintering. The SCAF; the government of Essam Sharaf, which was once cheered by the Tahrir protesters; the Muslim Brotherhood; the Salafists; the Sufi groups; the April 6 Movement, which has organized thousands of young Egyptians since its formation in 2008; the various revolutionary youth coalitions, which were created after the revolution to voice the demands of Tahrir Square; opposition parties under the previous regime; newly established parties—these are pieces in a political mosaic tainted with shortcomings and self-serving agendas. The country is beset with wild conspiracy theories, including persistent rumors of a military coup. The fragile Coptic Christian–Muslim entente is in tatters, as radical Islamists burn Coptic places of worship and attack individual Christians. On October 9, confrontations between the army and Coptic protesters left at least two dozen people dead and more than 200 wounded.


The sacking of the Israeli embassy in September, when looters found documents that confirmed Egypt’s collaboration with Israel in enforcing the siege on Gaza, had already discredited the military. But the SCAF’s response was perhaps even more chilling: it instantly reinstated emergency security laws and has hauled thousands of suspected dissidents before military courts, where long prison sentences are dispensed swiftly and without due process. In the eyes of many Egyptians, it is the old Mubarak regime without Mubarak. The obsequiousness of the military to Washington, and by extension to Israel, was further exposed to the Egyptian public when the military council announced it was lifting the Gaza blockade at the end of May, but then under pressure from the Obama administration continued to restrict passage through the Rafah border. There is little support left for the military council, and it is doubtful that any candidate approved by the military stands a chance of winning in a fair election.

Washington’s mounting unease over the revolution, which it originally opposed and was never enthusiastic about, was spelled out for Egyptians in the humiliating House appropriations measure on US aid to Egypt, now $1.3 billion a year. The bill stipulates that funding can proceed only if “the Secretary of State certifies that the government of Egypt is not controlled by a foreign terrorist organization.” The secretary must also affirm that Egypt is “taking steps to detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza strip.” And it insists on continuation of “border security programs and activities in the Sinai, with the expectation that the Egyptian military will continue to adhere to and implement the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.” The Obama administration’s decision to allot an eye-popping $120 million for “promoting democracy” in Egypt and Tunisia also makes it clear to Egyptians that if the military does not successfully manage the elections to keep all Islamist groups from power, Washington will pull the plug on the billions in foreign assistance.

* * *

Street clashes between opposition factions are becoming increasingly violent. This is certainly true where I live, in Alexandria, a Mediterranean coastal city of more than 4 million. If these factions begin to inflict serious casualties and even deaths, the country’s vaunted peaceful revolution could look more like internecine warfare. The October 9 clashes in Cairo between the police and Coptic Christians reflect the deepening sectarian divisions as well as the growing frustration of Egyptians with the military council’s unfulfilled promises of justice and reform.

Saad Zaghloul Square is the headquarters in Alexandria for protesters who carry on in the tradition of Tahrir Square. The walls of the garden surrounding the square are colorfully decorated with slogans and flags. Vendors sell drinks, food and souvenirs like T-shirts with various revolutionary slogans. There is only one entrance to the garden, and it is heavily patrolled by ad hoc security guards, who are dressed in regular civilian clothes and distinguishable by name tags. Members of the People’s Front to Protect the Revolution, as they call themselves, ask for identity cards, check bags and conduct body search. They are usually friendly and apologize for the inconvenience.
“We have to be cautious. Thugs and thieves infiltrate. We have to protect the demonstrators,” said one of the female team members.

One of her male colleagues, who spotted my camera, added, “We also do not allow journalists working for state-owned media.” Their supervisor, a karate coach named Tamer Ahmed, confirmed that they had arrested two “thugs.”

Tents exhibit photos of those who have lost their lives since January 25. The parents of Alexandrian martyr Ahmed Abdel Latif Ahmed left a note welcoming people who come to pay condolences. No tent shows signs of any political affiliation.

The old emblems of a united opposition such as this tent city, however, are swiftly disappearing. I expect it will be shut down soon as the opposition solidifies into antagonistic camps. I will miss this moment in our history.

I often walk along the seafront in Alexandria, where there are visible signs of both political tension and the deep desire for normalcy. Revolutionary graffiti and drawings, generally written and painted in the colors of the Egyptian flag (red, black and white), cover walls. Couples sit and chat on the cement rocks used as a breakwater. Families perch atop the rocks to share an evening picnic. Men patiently fish. Schoolgirls giggle and sip tea. Knots of impassioned men and women discuss politics. Joggers in brand-name outfits dart between walkers. Kite runners and bikers maneuver to avoid colliding. Dark-skinned Upper Egyptian vendors fan the grilled corn they sell for one pound. Piles of yellowish-green husks surround them. Shisha boys run hectically to serve their customers. Vendors blow their horns to advertise homemade ice-cream cones or the traditional paper-thin biscuit candy known as fresca.

The messages of the graffiti at the sea front, however, remind Egyptians not to forget God. “If you do not see Him, He sees you,” goes one slogan. Another is directed at the young lovers who congregate at sunset along the shoreline. It asks men, “Would you accept it if it were your sister or your mother?” These are the stark messages of the Salafists, which call on us all to repent. There is also counter-graffiti, which denounces the Salafists and other self-righteous Islamists.

One evening I was listening to loud music pumped out of a stereo player carried by a man out for a walk. The song lamented the fortunes of the poor. The man was passing in front of huge cement rocks on which were written, in rhyming Arabic words, “Revolution means change. The poor are still too many.” Under a beach sign for “Cleopatra’s Baths” a sleeping beggar was jolted awake by the loud music. He had a sun-baked face and oily, braided woolen hair. I watched him pick up a half-eaten cob of discarded corn from the ground and eat it. Poverty in Egypt is endemic, and the rise in food prices is one of the engines of the revolt. It ticks like a time bomb as the army council dithers.

The historical layers of this once-cosmopolitan city have been covered by an Islamist tide. It began, as the Alexandrian writer Ibrahim Abdel Meguid described it, with the invasion of the “culture of sand”: the growing influence of harsh Islamic practices and intolerance imported from Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Women who once bathed on the seafront have been driven away by Islamists. All of us wait now to see how high that tide will get. There remain varying tones of Islamists, as well as secularists, but for how long? The more fiercely the military council clings to power, the more polarized and deadly the conflict becomes. I fear for my country. If there is not a political opening soon, if we do not achieve the freedom hundreds died to attain, our Arab Spring could turn into an Arab nightmare.


Workers do not eat fruits

Published in Daily News Egypt on 01 – 01 – 2008

The year 2007 witnessed heightened activism among the Egyptian workers and a record in the number of sit-ins, strikes and peaceful demonstrations. The common denominator is definitely an increasingly deteriorating situation of those workers who suffer from poverty, low wages, bad work conditions, the lack of safety measures, an ineffective insurance system, and a growing social and cultural marginalization. These conditions led for the first time to an unprecedented level of despair which caused Ahmed Idris, a worker in Cairo, to kill his two-year old daughter last May after he failed to buy her the medicine that her health condition required. The drama of Ahmed Idris was emulated by 26 other workers who committed suicide in the first six months of 2007 alone.

Whether these extreme cases rang an alarm bell to the authorities is now a settled matter. The Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady obviously failed to see these cases as signs of a growing discontent. Her era is described by members of the Free Union of Egyptian Workers (FUEW) as the worst ever in terms of workers rights. The FUEW is a dissident group of activist workers who have been denied the right to run in the 2006 elections of both the Egyptian General Union of Workers and the various syndicates. Aly Al-Badri, the President of the FUEW, stated that these workers who were denied the right to run for elections were the ones who criticized the government’s privatization measures and accused it of causing the deteriorating condition of Egyptianworkers, including unjustified mass lay offs, replacement of the local work force by an expatriate one, and endangering the strategic industrial section of the Egyptian economy.

The statement published by the FUEW upon its establishment indicated that the union aimed at working as a supervisory mechanism that oversees the work of the Egyptian General Union of Workers and that voices the real problems faced by Egyptian workers. The FUEW worked hard since its creation to achieve the goals of having an accurate account of the numbers of workers listed as a work force in each factory, improving the insurance systems, increasing the wages to reflect the market price increases, creating safety measures for the workers, and integrating the workers in the social and cultural environment inEgypt. What the FUEW tries to voice is obviously met with attempts to keep it quiet by frequent arrests of its members; however, these attempts failed to stop the wave of nationwide activism of workers from Alexandria to Aswan.

A recent publication of the FUEW entitled “Workers do not eat Fruits: Strikes, Sit-Ins and Demonstrations in the first half of 2007 estimated an amount of 100 sit-ins, 109 strikes and 33 demonstrations to have occurred in the first six months of 2007. The demonstrations of the workers in El Mahalla Al Kobra were by far the largest and worst. They also proved that the Egyptian workers represented an underprivileged segment that was kept for years in the periphery of national priorities. While the current Egyptian government follows a path of aggressive liberalization and economic reform, its strategies do not take into account the necessity to liberalize for all. The privileged sections managed to benefit from the reform measures while the underprivileged sections trailed behind. A growing discontent in the fashion of the Egyptian workers in 2007 is by no means benefiting the Egyptian national interest. On the one hand, its persistence continues to point at the inefficiency of the government to handle the needs of its work force. On the other hand, this discontent with its roots going back to years of poverty and social alienation, is nothing more than a legitimization of the growing radicalization of Islamist thought among the workers who find refuge in the haven of an ideology that promises more justice and equity.


Muslim Literary Voices Call for Redemption

Published in Daily News Egypt on 06 – 08 – 2007

Several Islamic blogs have recently started a discussion over means to combat the “pornographic imagination in Arab literary works through the spread of what has been labeled the Islamic novel.
This type of novel calls for the need to follow the right path of true believers who should steer clear from the obscenity of word, imagination, and action.

The idea of an Islamic novel was embraced by some Saudi writers who started their career with an ambition to spread the moral values embedded in the faith of Islam. These writers think that the literary work is the new method to convey the daawa or mission of spreading the values of Islam.
Some of the new Islamic novelists are surprisingly young women, such as Joumana Ali and another writer who publishes under the pseudonym of Al-Muhajira. Most of these writers have been criticized by literary critics who evaluated their work as lacking in literary merit. But driven by their ambition of being part of the daawa, they ignore their critics and focus on their readers.

Joumana Ali reported that she uses a literary style to preach the values of Islam, and that her targeted readers are Arab youth who are exposed to immoral influences. She has published a collection of short stories and is currently working to publish a novel. Al-Muhajira, on the other hand, considers herself a preacher, rather than a novelist. For her, the novel provides a good medium to convey the morality of Islam.

Another interesting aspect of the new Islamic novelists is avoiding the romantic plot and their use of figures from the history of Islam or among contemporary scholars and preachers in the development of their work. But the fact that their novels are Islamic does not necessarily mean that they agree with the existing Muslim rhetoric. On the contrary, some of them heavily criticize the extremist rhetoric and invite the fundamentalists to embrace a more compassionate discourse that can mobilize the youth in a non-aggressive way.

Al-Muhajira, in her critique of the extremist rhetoric in books, speeches and tapes widely available in Saudi Arabia, mentions that she expected her opinion to draw angry criticism. She published three novels that could be tracked in a lot of online discussion forums. Her latest novel titled “So that we do not lose the veil is an unstructured debate about the meaning and the purpose of the veil. Several female characters struggle to reach a common ground, and the writer consciously tries to lead them to a good path away from extremism and rebellion.

These young men and women are definitely caught between two dilemmas in Saudi society: Wahhabist extremism, and underground rebellion against a repressive system. Deciding not to be caught in either, they attempt to create a new voice that can reach young minds in a way that can discuss real issues instead of avoiding them. 

But one serious problem with such an attempt is it forfeits the individual imagination that can only come out of a creative and free-thinking mind. All plots will eventually have to prove the values; all dialogues will have to observe the red lines, and some themes will always be taboo. Imposing Islamic topics on the plot sounds more like the creation of a pre-planned forum to convince.

Amidst all other aspects of blooming Islamic forums for fatwas, daawa, jihad, and match-making, the Islamic novel is definitely a novelty worthy of consideration, especially that it never received praise either from the literary critics or from the Islamist scholars. It may be used to counter the effects of several recent Saudi novels that harshly exposed the repressive aspects of Saudi society, and were well-received by readers. But it’s hard to see how the Islamic novel could succeed as a literary genre and survive its loaded ideological purposes.