Courage Through Conformity


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.