Courage Through Conformity

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Sonallah Ibrahim is more than just a dead ringer for M*A*S*H's Dr. Sidney Freedman. He's now being widely applauded as Egypt's most courageous writer, after turning down a $16,700 prize from the Cairo International Conference for the Arabic Novel.

I'm not going to question the chutzpah of a writer who spent six years in jail for his political activities, but this interview is not exactly a bold portrait of the artist as iconoclast. Bitching about the effects of television on intellectual life, predicting the impending demise of the American Collosus, comparing U.S. hegemony with the Ottoman Empire—are these daring or inventive or surprising or even minutely unusual stances for an Egyptian writer to be taking in 2003? The Marxist novelist himself concedes that his gesture was made possible mainly by the feebleness of the Egyptian government. But for me the money quote is Ibrahim's description of the intellectual's role: "To date no Egyptian official can cross what we may call a red line and call for cultural normalization with Israel, due to the strong opposition from Egyptian intellectuals."

That an intellectual should oppose normalization until Israel stops blocking the creation of Palestinian nation, returns the Golan, and so on is a perfectly defensible position (though Ibrahim doesn't include any such modifiers in his comment). But the formulation here isn't about taking a position; it's about blocking other positions. So now you know what an intellectual is: somebody who decides what topics people aren't allowed to think about.

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  1. “Bitching about the effects of television on intellectual life, predicting the impending demise of the American Collosus, comparing U.S. hegemony with the Ottoman Empire?are these daring or inventive or surprising or even minutely unusual stances for an Egyptian writer to be taking in 2003?”

    Yeah, he’s got a ways to go to meet Western Standards. Let me know when he’s half as iconoclastic as, say, Elizabeth Wurtzel. Maybe if he had half-naked pictures of himself on his book covers.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but US authors who are “iconoclasts” these days seem to get the label because they write scenes involving butt plugs or overdoses or french kissing their father, not because they have anything particularly interesting to say about significant current real-world situations.

  2. “…made possibly…” That doesn’t look right to me. 🙂

  3. Sounds like a good definition to me.

  4. Marxism is so happening, baby.

  5. Israel is “blocking” creation of a Palestinian state? Isreal isn’t perfect (see Settlements Policy”, but this is just an idiotic oversimplification. Ya think the Islamist radicals blowing up Seders has anything to do with it? Or are we just talking about Jews here?

  6. I just like using the descriptive term, “chutzpah” when talking about an arab. Sweetly poetic.

  7. Reading all these blogs made me miss my iconclast class.

  8. blogs are gay

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