10: The present Arabic cultural scene
From Jawdat Said
Q. 10: What is your reading of the present Arab cultural scene? What books or projects do you rate as interesting and not just repetitive?
A. 10: I am not pessimistic about the current intellectual Arab scene, despite the snail pace at which it develops. There is the shift from glorifying or condemning politicians to looking inside, and this is a step ahead. During the early days of the Palestinian crisis someone asked Amin al-Husaini, the mufti of the time, how he read the situation, and he answered: "Now it is for the sword to talk, so let the pen be silent." And the sword did talk; there have been noise, uproar, coups, wars, the exchange of accusations; the intellectual has in the meanwhile been silent or when he spoke, he spoke in inaudible whispers. All this has happened, and a stage has passed. But things are not like that now. After the Gulf wars, people no longer charge the politicians with the responsibility for what has happened; the intellectual is thinking along new lines – he now thinks of the social evolution. Before that, at the 1967 defeat, there were some voices, though too low, but it was a kind of proclamation, when they said that the defeat was not just military, but intellectual as well. So history is making its impact; culture is not confined to reformers like al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and their disciples; it is now a general phenomenon. There are now no charismatic figures that pose as heaven-guided, or the quintessence of change – it is rather a trend now. An example is the establishment of the Center for Arab Unity Studies, a non-political, non-governmental, organization: it is an intellectual organization that attracts thinkers and researchers; and it has published some noteworthy studies, and has held serious research seminars. Another distinguished organization is the International Institute of Islamic Thought. It certainly represents an advance, a good accomplishment. It now produces young enlightened researchers with good brains. Affiliated to it is also a college for Islamic-social studies, which trains scholars of both sexes. It keeps track of what is taking place in the Muslim world.
No matter how slow these organizations are, and despite all their drawbacks, they are taking root, and gaining in resolution and confidence; and they are finding better response; two or three generations have now served them. On the other hand the audio-visual media and the T.V. channels now compete in stimulating thinkers and researchers to discuss interesting issues; people watch and hear with interest. It is indeed a splendid thing to observe how new ideas keep emerging as a result of the discussions. Competition is leading to variegating the topics and styles in political, social and economic affairs; and things are going apace, in presentation, direction, and reception. It would be an excellent thing if someone followed up all that, taking down the facts and making the necessary statistics to bring to our notice what developments are indicated by the statistics. The idea of democracy, though very little showing up in the discussions, is having some more roots. When so much is said about the other, when plurality of opinions and freedom of opinion are hailed, when these and associated topics are raised, they cannot but add up to something positive. Even censorship is not possible now in the old sense – the authorities have no hold on the spread of ideas, as information is being exchanged at faster and faster rate.
Another thrilling aspect to watch is the increase of book fairs in all Arab metropolises, the wider circulations of publications, the exchange of visits of scholars and lecturers, the development of Arab art, and the ever more creative and ingenious serialized drama. I do realize how serious the gaps are in all the above; but things are picking speed, with sure steps: there is definitely no way back. One may conclude that things will come together and conglomerate to end up in real changes. And once communication and contacts are established among us, they will be unlikely to regress into older situations. And all these things happen without anybody's planning for them; it is circumstances that bring them about. It just is not possible for things to stay as they were, for the evolution is going at great speed. Of course there will be some who see nothing but repetitive, tedious events that are of no interest at all, even in the political arena.
Here is an example of a seemingly minor thing. After a recent election in Algeria, one of the ministers declared: "It is true that we have lost the election, but we have won democracy." Of course we have not won democracy, but such statements are new, and they have their significance. Similarly, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, the Saudi minister of defense, declared recently in Washington that nations had their desires that could not long be ignored. These words are not just a repetition of old stuff, and they count. The point is that all such declarations indicate that development is taking place. One also hears a Jordanian politician say: "Why is it that if we listen to our people it is extremism and retrogression, while if they listen to their people it is a human value, and it indicates their progressiveness and marching upwards?" So it is not one or a few declarations like these, although they often get lost in the uproar and chaotic noise of indictments and counter indictments. The fact is that the Arab world, and the whole world are quite shaken as a result of the two Gulf wars; everyone has had to review their calculations, whether oppressors or oppressed.
No one but has to adapt to history. You can see how nations are going through rebirth, on a global scale, in Africa, Asia, and South America; but like any delivery, this cannot happen without labor.