UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

National Identity in the Egyptian Post-modernist Story, by Gemma Juan-Simo

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The Short-stories explored herein have not been selected according to a pre-ordained set of criteria or by any sort of calculated or formulaic method; it was the Short-stories themselves that stood out – indeed, that selected themselves – from amongst the rest. These are the narratives that resonated with me and to which I returned again and again; these are the Egyptian voices that so loudly and so vividly instilled in me the notion of the Egyptian nation that I retain now and which I strive to reproduce in the following pages. These stories are addressed in the thesis in the following order: Edward al-Kharrat’s “Within the Walls,” Yusuf Idris’ “House of Flesh,” Salwa Bakr’s “International Women’s Day,” Yahya Taher Abdullah’s “Rhythms in Slow Time” and “Grandad Hasan,” and Mohamed el-Bisatie’s “Drought.”

Minimal attention has been paid to the personal identities of the authors of said Short-stories within the thesis, partly because of evident length constraints, but mainly because it seems neither relevant nor possible to accurately or fruitfully interpret the infinitely complex and enigmatic relationship between author and narrative and, thus, to do either justice by trying. Suffice it to say that these authors span a range of identities – male, female, Muslim, Coptic, urban, rural – and, thus, are an ideal collection of voices to express the hybrid Egyptian national consciousness that is considered here.

It is, of course, pertinent to mention that these Short-stories were read in translation and, consequently, that innumerable nuances were unfortunately lost in the process – not least of which is the notable experimentation with āmmiyya in narrative. Thus, what I present here is but a humble and preliminary insight into a literature that is, for now, still largely linguistically foreign to me. However, as I study to become versed in Arabic, I hope that these observations will meanwhile prove constructive to initiating future discussions about Egyptian national identity and its articulation in the Postmodernist Short-story.


Why do I write then? I write because I don’t know why I write. Does the impulse come from some powerful force? I know that I use it as a weapon to bring about change, change both in the self and others…for something better, more beautiful perhaps… something warmer to ward off the bitter chill of barbarity and loneliness… something soothing in the oppressive heat of violence and suffocation…I write because I want there to be something in what I write—in everything I write—which will make even a single reader lift his head proudly and feel with me that in the end the world is not a desolate, meaningless landscape…I write because the world’s a riddle, a woman is a riddle and so is my fellow man.  All creation is a riddle…that is what I want to write about, and that is why I write.




Literature has often accompanied the creation of national identity as its popular voice and, as such, has been an invaluable instrument for the dissemination and success of the nation-building project, throughout both the so-called Middle East and Western world. Like the novel in Western societies, the Short-story has emerged in the modern Egyptian context as an evocative articulation of the construct of the Egyptian national spirit. Most importantly, it is an expression of the Egyptian nation’s self-perception as authored by itself – that is, by Egyptian individuals – who, in penning their own image, also actively construct and appropriate it. It is this very image that is, then, perused and excogitated in this thesis, in order to ascertain some of the themes and elements that preoccupy the Egyptian national consciousness of post-1967. Indeed, whether or not this national consciousness exists outside of this medium and the imagination of its creators is not in the immediate scope of this essay; the concern herein is strictly to delineate some of the founding components of Egyptian national identity that inform this literature. I turn now, briefly, to address some pertinent questions about the choice of short fiction literature to examine the articulation of this national identity and the history of nationalism in Egypt that contextualizes it; and, finally, to the themes and short stories themselves, with the objective of finding therein a more organic expression of this construct.


1. Literature as an ethnographic tool

It is in fiction literature that we find the richest source of popular stereotypes, images, metaphors, and conventionalities – the pith of national identity – from which we can, at the very least, begin to glean some of its general themes and preoccupations. Pulp literature is greatly concerned with the representation of the self, of life, and of the community via textual production – both in terms of who (or what) it features and how it does so; that is, through what symbols, techniques, and so on (Stanley 1993:50). Authors of fiction literature, thus, imply in the content, cast, imagery, perspective, style, vocabulary, and organization of their stories certain assumptions about their audience and their context, suggesting – perhaps more than answers, which are usually never very useful in matters of culture and society – some meaningful questions to pose. Therefore, instead of reading these stories as reflections of a social reality (regardless of whether they are or not), it is most fruitful to utilize the partiality or bias of these authors as relevant data in it of itself (Hammersley 124). This data comprises deeply personal accounts and observations of daily life and a series of social domains – confided, almost, as it were, between ‘insiders’ of the community engaged in an implicit textual dialogue – that reveal and disclose private experiences as they may otherwise be inaccessible to the ‘non-native’ reader. These stories are, in essence, glimpses into Egyptian (perceptions of) life that are heavily imbued with both the personal and the social – a complicated intersection of domains and spheres whence national identity at once emerges and is forged.

2. The Short-story Genre

I offer the following definition of the Short-story as based on Brander Matthews’ own description in “The philosophy of the Short-story” (Matthews 15, 17):

A true Short-story is something other and something more than a mere story which is short. A true Short-story differs from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression. In a far more exact and precise use of the word, a Short-story has unity as a Novel cannot have it. […]

            The Short-story is the single effect, complete and self-contained, while the Novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes. Thus the Short-story has, what the Novel cannot have, the effect of “totality,” as Poe called it, the unity of impression.

Of a truth the Short-story is not only not a chapter out of a Novel, or an incident or an episode extracted from a longer tale, but at its best it impresses the reader with the belief that it would be spoiled if it were made larger, or if it were incorporated into a more elaborate work.

 Extracting from this definition the idea that the Short-story is necessarily self-contained and that its merit lies in its successful compression of meaning and unity, I propose to adopt the term Short-story, thus capitalized and hyphenated in order to differentiate it as an established genre from the story that is simply short in length. However, I want to disassociate this definition from further remarks made by Matthews wherein he claims that “in a Short-story something always happens” (35): keeping in mind that Matthews was writing in 1901, this is not an adequate description of the Short-story genre as it has evolved into the late 20th century (Chekhov comes to mind) – nor does it seem to be a particularly constructive criterion, even if it were cogent.

The problematics of the critic Francis Paz’s assumption in light of this adopted definition are thus evident. I henceforth discard, also, the following statement in his “Review” of Egyptian Short Stories translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (Paz 119):

“If we understand by short story a work of prose fiction which organizes characters and their thoughts, actions and interactions into a plot which has a beginning, a middle and an end, moves to a climax and denouement, then it is doubtful whether this collection can be called short stories.”

This essay is, however, interested in his personal opinion that “the majority of these stories should be termed anecdotes, the simple and unelaborated narration of an incident, a dinner, as it were, of hors d’oeuvres” which “leaves this reader with an unfulfilled feeling as these stories appear trivial in content and often crude in narration” (Paz 119): it is the aim here to elaborate on this question, if not altogether disprove it, by reviewing this collection (and others) ourselves. It is not the intention, albeit, to determine whether said Short-stories are, in fact, worthy of being considered part of the Short-story genre as Francis Paz interprets it – or, perhaps, as the genre is so established amongst Western literary circles – but rather to claim the existence of an independent Egyptian Short-story genre, expressing a popular national voice, and to explore and venture some of the parameters that define it.

It is furthermore significant to note that this Short-story genre, while partially influenced by the Western Short-story that was flourishing in the 20th century (particularly amongst American and Russian authors), is likewise rooted in the indigenous maqāma – a short fiction Arabic literary tradition greatly acclaimed for its innovative poetics and hybrid rhetorical style that has its origins in the 10th century C.E. (4th century A.H.) at the hands of Badi’ al-Zamān al-Hamadhāni, and which was itself introduced into the West via Spain in the 11th century CE (5th century A.H. ).[1] While there is no need to dwell on the intercultural history and origins of the Arabic Short-story genre here – an extensive and thorough review of which is already provided in the Introduction to “Arabic short stories” by the great Western scholars of Arabic literature, Denys Johnson-Davies and Roger M. A. Allen – suffice it to say that the Egyptian Short-story reflects as a genre the multiculturality and hybridity of the Egyptian national identity it retails, and is a palimpsest of both the medieval Arabic maqāma and modern Western Short-story traditions that sought to narrativize socio-political concerns in fiction.

3. Contextualizing Nationalism in Egypt

The technological and industrial boom of nineteenth-century Europe and the subsequent era of colonialism created complex colonial orders throughout the world, not least in Egypt where France and Britain played a significant role in ousting Ottoman rulership and ‘modernizing’ the country – militarily, economically, politically, and, less explicitly but just as significantly, culturally and socially as well. Two important factors emerge from this era: firstly, a widespread dissatisfaction with European intrusion (among other factors) leads to the formation of the first Egyptian nationalist grouping in the late nineteenth-century; secondly, the print revolution and consequent introduction of the French feuilleton in Egypt paves the way for the mass popularization of the Short-story genre in modern Egyptian society (Hafez). An Egyptian national voice thus materializes in this intensely cross-cultural atmosphere both out of necessity – that is, in opposition to a heightened European and foreign presence, and imposed Other – and out of possibility, finding in print media and literary imports (i.e. Western Short-story) suited to what Paz calls “the morbid obsession with the self, so characteristic of the modern temperament,” a new vehicle of expression (Paz 119).

I define nationalism, then, in the simplest of terms as a marked self-identification of a group as a nation that shares a series of traits and a common consciousness. It seems pertinent, however, to make the following distinction before proceeding: that is, that Egyptian nationalism was both, but not necessarily simultaneously, a partisan and strictly political movement, on one hand, with roots in the 1880s (pre-British invasion); and, on the other hand, also a socio-literary movement that flourished (parallel to the former) after the first modern Egyptian revolution of 1919. This thesis focuses on the latter of the two and, thus, the literature examined herein pertains to this phenomenon that does not openly or remarkably associate itself with any one nationalist political party or trend, but rather dedicates itself to the broader exploration of the identity, and not (merely) the politics, of the emerging Egyptian nation.

4. The Unknowns: national identity and hybridity in the postcolonial Egyptian

In the opinion pages of The New York Times on January 30, 2011, Ross Douthat broaches a momentous subject: “Weighing the Unknowns in Egypt” (Douthat). Although the “unknowns” here refer most immediately to the many possible political futures of the country, it just as appropriately alludes to the “unknowns” of the Egyptian nation – a topic hitherto little researched in the Western world and an answer in the making in the current Egyptian revolution.

When I began my research in July of 2010, I hardly foresaw that, only six months later, an overnight revolution would radically and irreversibly change the course and history of modern Egypt – and that my topic of interest, Egyptian national identity, would soon make headlines around the globe. The current Egyptian revolution is, indeed, the material expression of this very identity that I have been studying in short fiction literature of post-1967, where it seems to have initially originated. The national consciousness that was brewing in the immediate post-Nasserian era is, hence, the same one that has emerged today – victorious, one might venture – to publicly assert itself and demand recognition in the political sphere.

It is likewise an extraordinary testament to the significance of (studying) national consciousness as it exists and is (in)formed in literature, as well as its tangible impact on the nation’s individuals, for it would be a grave mistake to assume that these ideas remain isolated in the abstract realm of literature and the imagination. Much like the fictional identities that Orientalists fabricated in their texts translated into, and endure today, as distorted but very real stereotypes, the Egyptian nation too was created in the literature and, subsequently, the consciousness of Egyptians, who have nurtured and realized this construct in their individual and political realities. To this end, the importance of defining one’s nation and national identity seems as evident to those Short-story authors five decades ago as it does today on the streets of Tahrir Square.

Indeed, a nation must define itself, and not be defined by an Other, if it is at all able to succeed in actualizing its national(ist) aspirations. In his discussion of Orientalism, Edward Said ascribes the fabrication of such Western-made concepts and entities as the Orient and the Oriental to the systematic colonial production of knowledge and scholarship on the colonized subject and territory for imperial purposes (Said 12). In other words, a colonized territory such as Egypt would (and did) become associated with a misconstrued and imagined idea of Egypt that was forged by and within the framework of the colonial project. With this in mind, Said notes that, in the last annual report by the then British controller-general in Egypt in 1879, the Earl of Cromer “proclaimed Egyptian nationalism to be an ‘entirely novel idea’ and ‘a plant of exotic rather than of indigenous growth’” (Said 39): indeed, in the eyes of the colonizer, it is quite impossible (and highly undesirable) that the colonized, relegated to sub-human status, could – or would be able to – aspire to formulate its own national identity, on its own terms.

In fact, a brief overview of Egyptian history reveals an even longer series of colonizers that has, in this way, been stifling the articulation of Egyptian national identity from the Pharaonic era to Nasser’s time: for over two millennia, Egypt has belonged not to the Egyptians, but to the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks, French, and British, respectively. Because of these (wildly successful) colonial projects, which endured well into the 20th-century, much of the literature about Egypt today features an anamorphic image of Egypt – an illusion projected by colonizers. Thus, the objective of this thesis is to find in Egyptian literature of post-1967, authored by Egyptians themselves, the expression of how Egypt knows and perceives itself; and how, through this process of self-perception and self-creation, it becomes what it perceives: a nation. Through Egyptian short fiction literature, then, this study aims to understand something of Egyptian identity, not as Euro-centric Orientalist texts portray it, but rather first-hand from ‘primary sources.’

It would be oversimplistic, however, to presume that one can define such a complex phenomenon as national identity, particularly in a postcolonial context, with only a few summarizing keywords and themes – this was the likes of Orientalists, after all, and thus indubitably not the objective here. I avoid, hence, the following assumptions: first of all, that the select stories that I explore here are representative of the genre as a whole; that those select authors were necessarily or consciously trying to define national identity through them; that each one of these stories, each one of these definitions, is fundamentally true or even congruent with one another (after all, truth as an absolute has little to do with the question at hand); and, finally, that this identity was ever fixed or clear-cut, in a way that it can be neatly delineated here.

Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that the Orientals cannot represent themselves and must therefore be represented, presumably, by Westerners (Said)[2]. My literary investigation is premised on the idea that this is the most evil falsism that, one might be surprised (or not) to know, lingers in the field of Middle Eastern Studies, and in general as well, even today. Thus, I discard the Western-made assumptions and concepts of Orientalism and the Orient to proceed, hopefully more openly, to learn about, rather than (re-)create, modern Egyptian literature and national identity therein.

Instead, I propose to embrace the inherent hybridity and multiplicity of identity, particularly at the national level, where various cultures, languages, and religious traditions coincide, and especially in Egypt, where local history has entwined so intimately with that of its colonial occupiers as well. Moreover, the result to which this search aspires is by no means a fixed and clear-cut answer or an essentialized definition of Egyptian-ness, but rather a collection of varied insights into the Egyptian nation at large. As Benedict Anderson discusses in “Imagined Communities,” the nation as a concept is wholly constructed and fabricated; thus, each Short-story assessed here will likely put forth its individual and unique perception of that nation forged, simultaneously but distinctly, in the imaginations of Egyptians – that same nation that raised its arms in protest this February and exerted its national consciousness as it has envisioned it, and not as others have dictated it. And in tune with this idea, Ross Douthat concludes his article – and I my introduction – on the “unknowns” of Egypt with these celebratory words: “The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.”


Part One. Hyper-criticism and self-consciousness

Egyptian national identity of post-1967 is marked by two parallel currents: one that looks to the fellah (peasant) figure and its Pharaonic essence as a source of pride and glory that roots the Egyptian nation in the land and in ancient history; and another that simultaneously urges a shift in perspective to present and future socio-political issues that, it suggests, are more important, more pressing, and more realistic than such myths and idealizations that have, as under Nasser and Sadat, proven to be futile without real accompanying change. In other words, Egyptian national identity is hybrid, not only because it is multicultural, but also because it unites these two seemingly opposing fragments or elements. We turn, first, to the self-critical aspect of this construct to explore the reforming mission of this national literature as expressed in three very different narratives.

1. An unlikely national heroine: Egyptian Postmodernism

Short fiction literature of post-1967 frames Egyptian national identity in an altogether unlikely figure: that of a woman. The embodiment of the Egyptian nation is both an attempt to materialize an abstract consciousness by granting it a tangible body and, in its adoption of the female form, an explicit trademark of the flourishing Postmodernist trend that emerged in Egypt post-1967 and sought to give voice to uncommon subjects. More specifically, the choice of a woman as national heroine also facilitates the introduction of a sexist discourse into the narrative that mirrors and elucidates that of the colonialist discourse, which is a pivotal target of criticism in the national identity project (and one that we will discuss further on in the context of a different story).

I turn now to Edward El-Kharrat’s “Within the Walls,” a contemplative Short-story about a daring Coptic woman, Haniyya, who travels to her family’s estate in rural Upper Egypt upon her relatives’ request. In the scope of this daylong journey, the story narrates her most intimate reflections on her mother, her deceased husband, her sexuality, and her relationship with her family and her community, fraught by feelings of estrangement and alienation, but also by a distant and ambiguous love and pride. The narrative intersperses intensely lyrical observations and descriptions of the surroundings with her profound musings on her role and position within her family, her society, and the world in general. As Haniyya makes her way from her village home, across the Nile, and through the dusty fields to her family’s orchard, her personage gradually unfolds as an intrepid and heedless young widow with an intense yearning for personal freedom that climaxes (and finds momentary comfort) as she traverses the waters on the ferry and, finally, recedes into fear and oppression as she nears land and, ultimately, her relatives. In the final and very brutal scene, her three male cousins corner her in their home and rape her, we are made to assume, for her supposed sexual indiscretions with a Muslim peasant.

It is in this complex and paradoxical protagonist that Egyptian national identity finds its personified embodiment and an altogether unexpected heroine: disappointed, but hopeful; violated, but valiant; lost, but searching; a vestige of her Pharaonic past, but very much alive and aware of the present, and modern in her perspective of her self and her surroundings; proud and loving of the older generations, but distanced from them and unable to connect; enamored of the orchards and Nile of Egypt, but clothed in European style and defying provincial laws of dress; adventurous and rebellious, but taking refuge within her self – and, above all, always centering her personal core within her walls (and never on an external object, aspiration, or figure), that is, self-sufficient and independent.

The first words of the story are the protagonist’s name, Haniyya, meaning “pleasant” in Arabic, which is repeated twice and already foreshadows the sensorial theme that pervades the narrative. The opening scene of the story is a birth of sorts: the birth of our protagonist from her nocturnal slumber and, figuratively, of Egyptian identity in its new (female!) form, “warm, fetid, imprisoned” (15). The rhetoric in this scene conspicuously stresses the physicality of this naissance: the narrative immediately and actively associates this burgeoning Egyptian identity – this imagined construct – with the physical reality to which it corresponds and reacts, as well as with the organic and natural, and with the territory of Egypt.

Rather than a birth, however, it is in fact a re-awakening after a long night’s sleep for both Haniyya and the Egyptian nation, “heavy, pungent and lubricous with the greasiness of entrails and buried lusts” (16), into one’s own body and entity; into the realization that “nothing existed outside these boundaries; the whole world lay within the confines of this thing she had. It was all she had and it belonged to her alone […] There had never been anything beyond it” (16). In other words, there is an attempt to frame this identity as both something that was already latent within and, now, in being expressed, in being awoken, it emerges “in an upsurging wave of warmth from her resilient flesh […]; never had it been granted her to feel such nearness, such compliance, such simple pleasure diffused from anything or anyone else” (15); and as some thing, as an entity greater than a mere floating idea, as a sense of being or self-perception that exists verily within the self and is yearning to be recognized as such. Indeed, it is a stirring that, when embraced, harmonizes the self, without which unity and wholeness is impossible: “Nothing had ever approached such complete and unadulterated fusion. In all other intoxications there was a severance, a disruption that rent every realization, every fulfillment” (15). Thus, the narrative suggests that this embrace of one’s inner identity is not only real, to the extent that it is not solely imagined, but that it is presumably also necessary for self-fulfillment.

One might even venture that it is also an attempt to distance the new national identity from the ideations that drove Nasser’s failed United Arab Republic and Sadat’s infitah policy, and is further a recognition that at the very heart of Egyptian identity lie not lofty ideals but the toiling bodies of peasants whose everyday reality is far removed from such abstractions. Indeed, that, for most Egyptians, the world and the self are defined by one’s immediate, physical realities: “her small body, which was all she owned in the world, all she owned anywhere, her slim, pulsating body which once again closed round the world, delineating it, defining it, encompassing it.” (22)

In fact, Haniyya is immediately faced with a series of physical and cognitive barriers in the world around her, unfolding sequentially: sleep, “the partly open door” (15), her body, the “unclosable” distance between her and her mother – at once, generational, psychological, and emotional (“She could never go up to her [mother] and encircle her emaciated shoulders with her arms and kiss her, although the desire to do so now agonised her. […] She would never know how to deliver to her mother the message of this tenderness that was now cutting a wound into her very soul. Her mother would know nothing of it, and would depart” 20), the walls of the house itself (“She crossed the roof-space to the oven-room, as though cleaving a way through a wave of heat and exertion that resisted her with pent-up obstinacy” 20), and the “certain strangeness” she feels with her relatives, “as though the blood of one and the same family did not bind them, as though she did not know who they were” (21). This is, at once, a mark of Haniyya’s alienation and introversion – figuratively, perhaps, a defensive reaction of the national consciousness to external attack (i.e. repression by the state) and humiliation (al-naksa), whereby the narrative adopts a series of veils and disguises to protect itself and its critical message – and a symbolic expression of the depth and complexity of this consciousness, which inhabits the many layers that separate, but also link, society and the individual. Thus, this identity or consciousness is not only tangible, as embodied in Haniyya, but also multi-faceted and pervasive – at once limited by the physical and psychological barriers that separate and distinguish it from the individual, yet simultaneously able to transcend these particularly because of its recognition thereof. Thus, Haniyya’s awakening from slumber represents not only the (re-)awakening of the national consciousness, but also its transcendence, by which it overcomes the “great distance” between its abstract self and the physical reality of Egyptian individuals (1 Johnson-Davies 17).

Continuing with the interpretation of Haniyya as a symbol for the nation, we can likewise interpret the other personages as embodiments of authority figures in the national Egyptian scope. The “mother” figure to whom we are introduced early on is, in this light, seemingly associated with Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt in the 1970s who is known for his infitah or “open door” economic policy: he is alluded to at the beginning of the story as “The voice [that] came to her [Haniyya] through the partly open door” (1 Johnson-Davies 15). This underhanded criticism alludes to the partial effects of Sadat’s economic reforms, “the partly open door” (1 Johnson-Davies 15), which created a wealthy and successful upper and small middle class, but had little beneficial effects on the average Egyptian, who became increasingly marginalized and dissatisfied with his rule. Similarly, the deceased husband appears to represent a colonial Other, further marked by the gender differentiation, which invokes the Orientalist discourse whereby the exotic and inferior colonialized subject is emasculated and subjugated – often, in erotic terms – by the colonializing subject that knows better: “Her husband who used to come to her of a night was rough and desiccated, almost middle-aged,” “her husband’s violations of her,” “The only feeling she had for him was a slight modicum of pity for this abandoned creature who would seek shelter by her side, under her arm, his head, with eyes tight-closed, almost falling upon her breast, prostrate, his life-force drained from him” (1 Johnson-Davies 17).

Indeed, Amal Amireh explains in her biographical article on Edward El-Kharrat’s work that the title of the famous literary and cultural journal that the author founded, “Galiri 68” (Gallery 68), in fact “symbolized a rejection of a corrupt past embodied by the crushing Arab defeat of 1967” (Amireh): evidently, the author viewed the emerging national spirit as defined, to a great extent, in contrast to the failed political projects of Egypt’s past, most notably, the colonial enterprise and Nasser’s Revolution. It is not surprising, then, that he went on to become one of the leading figures of the literary movement that emerged from the rubble of this defeat: Postmodernism. Furthermore, “Within the Walls” is an ideal exemplar of the new literary Postmodernist trend that al-Kharrat spearheaded and which accompanied the emergence of the post-Nasserist Egyptian national identity in literature. This trend is vehemently anti-Realist – mistrusting all claims to the truthful representation of reality or of Truth – and, while not necessarily opposed to it, also deliberately distinct from the Modernist sensibility that governed the general period between the turn of the 20th century and World War II. I take the time now to deliberate with more detail on this matter because it mirrors, and thus elucidates, the simultaneous flourishing of Egyptian identity in the social sphere.

In its rejection of Realism, Postmodernism employs what the Spanish Ortega y Gasset termed the suprarealism of the metaphor and the infrarealism of perspective (Ortega 53). Though he was then discussing the Spanish Avantgarde movement, the allusion is valid in its illustration of the mechanisms of the Egyptian Postmodernist Short-story. The first refers to the use of the metaphor (and, it follows, the allegory) to establish associations and reveal meanings that are not necessarily transparent or evident in our quotidian reality, thus elevating the literary lens above the plane of reality to refine and stylize it (suprarealism). This is evident in our Short-story’s personification and metaphorization of political and social entities, be they ideas or actual figures, framed in the form of the central personages (e.g. Haniyya, the mother, the deceased husband).

The second refers to the change in perspective that Postmodernism proposes, whereby the microscopic – the seemingly mundane details of reality – becomes the focus. In employing this technique, then, the literary lens delves beneath (or into) reality to highlight the presumably insignificant stuff of life and, perhaps more importantly, the often-neglected subject, which in this instance is the peasant Copt woman (infrarealism). There is, thus, also a deliberate celebration of multiplicity – of cultural elements, figures, and themes previously deemed unfit for literature, as well as of points-of-view, perspectives, and versions of truth or reality (i.e. subjectivity) – and, subsequently, a mistrust of the claim to one single truth, to a correct perspective, and to a hierarchy of high-low that governs not only literature, but also society, politics, and so on.

While Modernism and Postmodernism generally concur on the intrinsic subjectivity of reality, they differ greatly in their presentation thereof: whereas Modernist literature often seeks to provide a profound answer or insight in response to this subjectivity, and thus frequently features an explicitly altered plane of reality wherein to frame it (e.g. in a surrealist or expressionist way), Postmodernist literature – as we see in “Within the Walls” – insists on allowing the reader to make his/her own interpretations of a realistic (not Realist) story, anecdote, etcetera, without presuming one single right way to do so. Indeed, “the aspiration typically pinned to so-called modernism, namely to create something unprecedented that surpassed existing works, was considered elitist and therefore undesirable. Instead of a coming age envisioned in works of art; instead of progress and emancipation obtained through the process of dialectical negation; focus now switched to paradoxical figures,” such as the national heroine Haniyya, “and the ‘end of the grand narratives’. Anything seemed possible, precisely because the belief in miracles had ebbed away” (Neuwirth 13).

Therefore, the Realist pretense to sincerely portraying Reality and the Modernist aspiration to finding a concrete meaning, an answer, to the overwhelming questions of life are herein utterly rejected and even, at times, ridiculed as ignorant and pretentious. The differentiation between Modernist and Postmodernist literature lies furthermore in this multiplicity of themes and figures, whereby the historically-ignored subject becomes – finally – a worthy protagonist. Indeed, the postcolonial anthropological trend that emerged in the mid-20th-century inevitably colored the Postmodernist literary trend, and they conspicuously share a fundamental suspicion of hitherto-accepted Western assumptions and points of view. It would seem that this is, to a large extent, a driving force behind the Postmodernist unwillingness to promote one particular answer in the Modernist style: the deliberate rebellion against the imposed uni-directional doctrine of Western thought results in an encouragement of the expression of all of those voices that were previously relegated to the periphery.

Thus, one may define Egyptian Postmodernism as self-reflexive: that is, aware of its (political and literary) historic context; cognizant of its social responsibility to give voice to the unheard both thematically and, even, syntactically (rejecting the parataxis so characteristic of Modernism); necessarily critical of both itself and of the colonial Other; and, hence, far less concerned with typically Modernist preoccupations such as sincerity, subjectivity, and the gravity of Art.

Moreover, the Postmodernist project aims to blur those (social) divisions that are taken for granted. This breakdown of the high-low dynamic that has governed societies throughout human history is expressed in “Within the Walls” in the paradoxical figure of Haniyya and her family, “Copts [who] were not exactly from peasant stock but were engaged in commerce and agriculture and used to send their sons to both schools and colleges, several of whom had graduated and were now living in Cairo as doctors, engineers and chemists” (1 Johnson-Davies 18). Haniyya’s rebellious nature, her refusal to adhere to “the provincial law that no woman in Upper Egypt – and particularly in a village – should go out without being completely enveloped in her black covering” (1 Johnson-Davies 18), her scandalizing affair with a Muslim peasant of the village, and her “delight in such defiance […] as though she knew – she who had scarcely completed her primary education – things that none of these people [her family] would dare to know, […] truths from which they always fled” render her the ultimate hybrid, the ultimate contradiction, the ultimate Postmodernist subject that bridges socio-economic and even religious gaps that are assumed to be well-defined and well-established, though they are evidently not, and which are conveniently left intact by most other literature (1 Johnson-Davies 18).

One of the mechanisms central to this Postmodernist trend, and vital to this breakdown of established dynamics, is the so-called hyperspace: “The characteristics of postmodern hyperspaces are thus not solely limited to eclectic styles and functions; integral is a closing-off from the outside world. Once one has entered these […], the outside world recedes and time seems no longer to advance linearly but rather to turn in a circle. Future and past subsequently appear to be equally present” (Neuwirth 14) – making it possible for a reformist national consciousness to align and embody itself in the Pharaonic fellah figure, in the oppressed woman, etcetera, because they converge in a space that is unbounded by time and place. Indeed, in this sense, the national consciousness envisions its context, Egypt, as a Postmodern hyperspace – at once aspiring to be independent of the outside world, but simultaneously recognizing its own internal hybridity and multiculturality; recognizing that it is fully and inextricably informed, from within, by that outside world.

Ines Kappert attributes this phenomenon to a process of “de-historicizing,” but I in turn think it is quite the opposite: it is a process of hyper-historicizing, by which this hyperspace and those subjects within it become so hyper-conscious of their multi-cultural and multi-faceted historical context, framed not linearly or chronologically in time and space but rather all at once, that “it causes the individual to feel engulfed, at times losing any sense of self,” indeed, causing “the individual’s difficulty in identifying his/her location” (Neuwirth 14). In other words, the individual (e.g. Haniyya) envisioned by this national consciousness exists and perceives itself as imbued with all of history – with a Pharaonic origin, a colonial past, and a postcolonial present, both Western and Arab – in the Egyptian hyperspace of the narrative, where all time and place converges. And such is the objective of this literary nationalist project: to frame and cognize the individual in a hyper-historicized context (i.e. the Egyptian hyperspace of the narrative) so as to subvert his/her individuality to his/her national identity or consciousness.

But Postmodernism is, as of yet, a confusing and largely misunderstood concept, largely because it is defined differently by different people and contexts. These definitions typically fall under two main points-of-view: one, that Postmodernism is in fact a part of modernity and, along with Modernism, one of the movements that characterize this general era; the other, that Postmodernism marks a new epoch, separate from the late 19th-century and early 20th-century modernity of which Modernism is the broader distinguishing artistic and philosophical movement. In both of these cases, however, Andreas Pflitsch notes that Postmodernism is regardless “an attempt to extricate thought from the premises and tenets of modernity, to escape the sense of self-assured contentment in its inner core, and to dare to take a look from the outside” (Neuwirth 27). It is of utmost importance to remark that modernity is, despite common assumptions, not strictly Western; or, at least, that there exist two modernities: a Western modernity, specific to the West, and a global or non-Western modernity (modernities?) that develops differently than the former – that is, with a different chronology and context (and, one might venture, even forcefully subjugated, colonized, and manipulated by it).

Likewise, the typical laissez-faire attitude of Western Postmodernism, which renounces a social or political agenda in literature, is unthinkable in Egyptian (and non-Western) Postmodernism, where writers – often living in autocratic societies where freedom of speech is limited if not inexistent – cannot afford the luxury of omitting pressing realities from their art. It is thus crucial to make a distinction between Western Postmodernism and Postmodernism in general, by which we can define Egyptian (and perhaps even Arab) Postmodernism: that is, that Postmodernism is generally characterized by skepticism, which in Western Postmodernism takes the form of apolitical-ness (i.e. a skepticism of said social and political agendas in literature), while in Egyptian Postmodernism it translates into a skepticism of “any claims of absoluteness and one-dimensional explanations,” which “amidst the clamor of Middle East political ideologies on the one hand and religious self-assurance on the other, is highly political” in it of itself, albeit more tacitly so (Neuwirth 29). The transition point between the end of Modernism and the origin of Postmodernism in Egypt is thus indubitably the June War of 1967, whose defeat marked the death of ideology and the birth of skepticism (al-naksa); and defined all literature that followed, thus, as post-Nasserian (and the authors as post-Mahfouzian, post-social/literary realism). A new narrative style materializes from the ensuing debris that is markedly anti-realist, symbolist, and alienating, both in the sense that it is deliberately cryptic and veiled in its criticism – a reaction to the systematic state repression of the Egyptian intelligentsia under Anwar Sadat (Afzal-Khan 139) – and that it is concerned with the subsequent distancing and retreat of the individual into itself (as we see in the highly introspective Haniyya).

What, then, is Egyptian Postmodernism, in relation to the national identity project? It is the hyper-historicization of the individual; vehement socio-political critique through allegory; and skepticism as both empowering and self-doubting. In other words, these Short-stories bridge the parallel movements of the national consciousness and the Postmodernist trend, by reflecting the critical aspect of this socio-political identity in its own skepticism as a literary endeavor. Therefore, this literature is particularly interesting, not only because of what it reveals about the national consciousness being herein constructed and expressed, but also because of the new literary form it adopts in order to do so – because these stories are the mothers of the Egyptian Postmodernist movement.

2. Negotiating morality and hope in post-Nasserian Egypt

The socio-political allegory, the criticism, and the skepticism that hallmark the Egyptian Postmodernist Short-story in its efforts to express the concerns and questions of the national consciousness are perhaps best expressed in Yusuf Idris’ “House of Flesh,” which recounts the somber tale of a family of four women – a widow and her three late-teenage daughters. The women are consumed in mourning for their father and the silence that his death has left behind in their humble home. They have limited social contact with the outside world beyond the mother’s house-cleaning day-job and the weekly visits of a blind young man who comes to recite the Qur’an every Friday, so the girls are unable to find husbands. When one day the reciter stops coming, then, the women realize to their own chagrin that his is the only sound – male sound – that they ever hear, so they decide that the mother ought to marry him and permanently fill their lifeless home with his resonating voice; and, they hope, that male presence in the home will entice future husbands.

The marriage is a great success: laughter and happiness return to the home and break the seemingly interminable silence that had previously reigned. Though at first the couple is hesitant to have sex at night in case the girls will hear them, this soon changes, and the mother becomes lively and spirited once again. However, one day the husband asks her why, earlier that day, when he returned home for lunch and they engaged in sexual relations, she was not wearing her ring and refused to speak to him during intercourse: the mother quickly deduces that it must have been one of the daughters pretending to be her, but she refrains from telling him, realizing that she has, presumably, become so absorbed in her own happiness that she has neglected her principal task – to find husbands for her daughters.

Slowly but surely, the silence creeps back into the home: at first, only to the mother and the middle daughter, accomplices in the great deceit. Not long after, though, the elder daughter asks her mother if she may wear the ring for a day, so she can know what it feels like to be married – and, we are to assume, she too sleeps with the husband, for silence consumes her again as well. Likewise, the youngest daughter one day asks when it will be her turn to wear the ring, and so the cycle begins and the chilling silence returns to each member of the family, including the husband, who eventually realizes – though he does not want to openly admit – that his wife is continually changing form.

Much like Edward al-Kharrat’s “Within the Walls,” this allegorical story depicts the socio-political context of the time as interpreted by Yusuf Idris through a series of symbols and associations: Egypt is portrayed as the modest single-room home, stricken with silence and melancholy, wherein a family – encompassing two generations – of despairing women must confront a less-than-perfect reality and make do with what they can. Like their silence, a perpetual vestige of the mourning of their father who died several years ago, Egypt too still mourns the loss of the Nasserian dream in apathetic silence: “Silence has reigned ever since the man died” (1 Johnson-Davies 1). And, just as this silence, the narrator tells us, is “in truth the silence of waiting” for future husbands (1 Johnson-Davies 1), Egypt likewise seems to await the emergence of another leader like Nasser – in vain, it seems, for “what madman will knock at the door of the poor and the ugly, particularly if they happen to be orphans?” (1 Johnson-Davies 2). And, yet, they await with “unimpassioned” hope, “a hope that is meager yet permanent, which is at least hope” (1 Johnson-Davies 2). As if the scenario were not dreary enough, the only solution offered by the story is the young, blind Qur’an reciter: in other words, blind faith; a leader without vision; the non-solution so characteristic of the Postmodernist narrative. Indeed, the narrator tells us that his Friday recitals are “like silence broken by silence” and, though his marriage to the widow momentarily fills the void, it is like building a house out of rotting wood (1 Johnson-Davies 2). The story, thus, seems to criticize both hope without change or action – the women’s passive hopeful waiting, and Egypt’s (political and social) apathy since the fall of Nasser – and the resignation or settling for an imperfect solution, for a future (i.e. under the leadership of Anwar al-Sadat) without vision.

In fact, although the blind reciter seems to bring harmony to the home at first – or so the desperate women hope, blindly as well – his presence eventually becomes corrosive, and we learn that it is not only his physical vision that is incapacitated, but also his moral vision or compass; for, though he is initially unaware of the women’s plight, he eventually chooses – consciously – to accept the silence rather than daring to ask the burning question(s), to make things right (1 Johnson-Davies 7):

The widow and her three daughters.

And the house is a room.

And the new silence.

And the Koran reciter who brought that silence with him, and who with silence set about assuring for himself that she who shared his bed was always his wife, all proper and legitimate, the wearer of his ring. Sometimes she grows younger or older, she is soft-skinned or rough, slender or fat – it is solely her concern, the concern of those with sight, it is their responsibility alone in that they possess the boon of knowing things for certain; it is they who are capable of distinguishing while the most he can do is to doubt, a doubt which cannot become certainty without the boon of sight and so long as he is deprived of it just so long will he remain deprived of certainty, for he is blind and no moral responsibility attaches to a blind man?

Or does it?

Although there appears to be a momentary recognition that the Nasserian dream was, perhaps, too hopeful and ambitious, the narrator concludes that the lack of vision and of aspirations is likewise, if not more, damaging: “it is true that food is sinful, but hunger is even more so” (1 Johnson-Davies 5). Videlicet, aspiring for the impossible is indeed delusional, but not exercising any hopes – or morals – whatsoever is lethal to the spirit of a nation, particularly when the former has left a gaping void demanding to be filled. In a sense, the political void left behind by Nasser and his unsuccessful vision is filled by an inadequate successor, much like the death of the husband leaves behind a lonely widow and three orphaned daughters looking to fill their desolate home with a leading figure, a voice of comfort and guidance to break the hopeless silence, that is instead ineffectively filled by a blind man who is more interested in preserving the world he has imagined than embracing and acting within the reality in which he is immersed.

To recall a previous quote, the Egyptian nation – that is, the mother and her daughters – are in fact caught “amidst the clamor of Middle East political ideologies on the one hand and religious self-assurance on the other” (Neuwirth 29). Idris seems to warn of the danger of such a conscious resignation and settling for what is most convenient, for it implies a willful and consented acquiescence in the status quo that is detrimental to the self – be it the widow, the daughters, or, in the figurative sense, the nation – and to the eternal struggle towards self-fulfillment and amelioration (1 Johnson-Davies 7):

The strange, different silence in which they all sought refuge.

Intentional silence this time, of which neither poverty nor ugliness nor patient waiting nor despair is the cause.

It is, though, the deepest form of silence, for it is silence agreed upon by the strongest form of agreement – that which is concluded without any agreement.

Although the narrative functions mainly on this suprarealist allegorical level, it also weaves some underlying social criticisms into the immediate infrarealist reality or scope of the story and its personages. “The magnitude of Idris’s achievement,” a 1999 article in Al-Ahram Weekly assures, “can only be fully appreciated in relation to the history of society as a whole and its relentless transformations” (Al-Ahram):

“Youssef excelled at describing the group,” writes [Farouq] Abdel-Qader, “projecting its movement which transcends and includes the movement of the individual, but acquires its own special logic, a ‘group’ logic.” But Idris does not stop there. He also explores the individual as an independent force [on the infrarealist level]. For Idris, “the individual is part of the group, but it is in the light of the relationship between the individual and the group that the meaning of heroism emerges…”

Indeed, the narrative poses probing questions at this infrarealist level that are variably answered or left to the reader’s discretion. Among these are the moral responsibility of the individual, which the narrator asks us to consider most poignantly at the very end of the story, in regard to the blind man’s silent acceptance of the women’s arrangement; familial relations and obligations of each member; and repression at the personal level, thus both sexual and emotional (symbolized in the story, in part, by the gelid silence). These are all, of course, framed within – and intrinsic to – the larger social context, so that it becomes evident that it is Egyptian society – so seemingly removed from the immediate reality of the narrative at first, and yet so loomingly ever-present in every action and character, both in its allegorical and literal sense – that at once dictates those very specific and binding familial obligations that form the basis of the Egyptian social fabric; manufactures and perpetuates the often-repressive mores needed to warrant the former (and ensure its continued necessity); and establishes, via this binary, a rigid normative outside of which it is impossible to fulfill the former because of the latter. In other words, the death of the father distorts the normative: the widow and the daughters are left destitute both financially and socially; there is little to entice male pretenders, because there is no male bread-winner and generally no leading male figure in the family (an unfavorable sign); the mother is too busy working to procure husbands for her daughters; and it is inappropriate for the daughters to go out and meet men independently, so they grow older until they are deemed undesirable for marriage.

Perhaps most explicitly, however, the narrative advances its highly critical national(ist) – and Postmodernist – discourse in the figure of the mother, and poses the poignant question of the mother’s entitlement to happiness, which is briefly sated at the dawn of her marriage, but is quickly confronted by her obligations to her daughters: “They are famished, and it was she who used to take the piece of food out of her own mouth in order to feed them; she, the mother, whose sole concern it was to feed them even if she herself went hungry. Has she forgotten?” (1 Johnson-Davies 5). This passage insinuates the responsibility of the mother – of her generation and of these first or parent stories of Postmodernism – towards future generations, towards the future of the national consciousness, to not resign, even at the expense of one’s own comfort. In other words, although the status quo is always seemingly easier, this Short-story implies that this generation – of people, of narratives – owes it to the next to aspire to more. If the mother, then, is the Postmodernist subject, the house thus becomes, by association, the Postmodernist hyperspace: a metonymy for society, intrinsically informed by its traditions, but also closed off from the outside world – from visitors or suitors, etcetera – wherein time and space converge and become irrelevant, so that, in the end, only silence marks the boundaries of sentience.

3. The Short-story from behind a veil

In the introduction to her comprehensive anthology of modern Short-stories authored by women throughout the Arab world, editor Dalya Cohen-Mor quotes Yusuf Idris:

It is a new and strange kind of writing that the Arab woman who remains distant from the course of events [because of imposed gender segregation] has invented in order to do with it something that will affirm to her that she is a live being, indeed a person who possesses the power of action and reaction. It is a literary action arising under an overpowering feverish pressure that interferes with the creative process to the extent that the writing appears like a puzzle to the reader. She wants to say something and yet she does not want to say it. She wants to express something, and at the same time she does not want anyone to grasp her expression – I might almost say her secret.[3]

Yusuf Idris explains, thereafter, that he thus refers to this new literature produced by the female Arab author as “the short story from behind a veil.” It is this Short-story that we turn to next to explore the myth of the nation as female in the Postmodernist narrative through the point of view of a female author.

In my interpretation, the “veil” here refers to two important functions of this literature. For one, these narratives don a veil that, not so much obstructs the author’s perception or reinterpretation of reality, but rather protects the individual identity of the author: in other words, these authors can see very clearly from behind the veil; it is, rather, the reader who is “puzzled,” unable to see back into the author through the veil. This deliberate veil thus marks an essential difference in Egyptian short stories by female authors, whose writing deliberately distances the author from the story, so as to avoid the confusion of that which is expressed in the narrative with the author herself – both because this would often be dangerous to the female author writing about sensitive or taboo topics in the Arab world; and, especially, because it detracts from the value of the stories themselves, which are immediately filed into the category of “witness accounts” rather than being read as social critiques with multiple dimensions and narrative value of their own, like their male-authored counterparts.

Secondly, the veil serves as a type of mechanism of distancing or so-called Verfremdungseffekt, which the 20th-century German dramaturge and theorist Bertolt Brecht described as a means of “prevent[ing] the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor [and the narrative created by the playwright], and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer” (Brecht 91). Although he was, at the time, referring specifically to epic theatre, the allusion is relevant here as well: the veil intends to limit the extent of the reader’s blind and passive engagement with the story, and prevent the often-mistaken assumption that it is (or, at least, that it is merely) a biographical revelation of the author; and, thereby, to remind the reader that the narrative is, after all, a narrative – and not a personal account made in confidence or in the spirit of confession – with the ultimate intent of stating a vision, opinion, or critique of a situation, system, or reality of which the Short-story is an allegory. In other words, it is a tool employed to encourage the reader’s critical interpretation and interaction with the narrative – as opposed to investing emotionally in the story without considering its further or grander significance – in order to elevate the value of the narrative above the strictly personal and individual level and to accentuate its social and political import or commentary as well. This is, according to Brecht, achieved by distancing the audience from the narrative and thus appealing to its critical – and not emotional – sensibilities; to the reader and not to the individual. This is of particular relevance to this study because all of this literature speaks to the reader, not as an individual (citizen, wo/man, parent, child, etcetera), but – first – as a critical intellectual, and – second – as a thread of the greater national fabric. Thus, the aesthetic that is being created here is one that itself shapes its reader as both critical and national: the pith of Egyptian (and any) national consciousness.

Let us turn now to one story in particular to explore how such a veil is successfully woven into a Short-story. Salwa Bakr’s “International Women’s Day” is a revealing insight and damning criticism of the hypocrisy and sexism that pervades even in the most seemingly progressive domains of Egyptian society (Cohen-Mor 194). The Short-story introduces us to a classroom wherein the male teacher is lecturing on gender equality on International Women’s Day as the school’s headmistress silently observes. In the span of this lecture, the reader is granted access to the individual thoughts of these two protagonists: the male teacher is, ironically, preoccupied with how he is going to punish his wife for misbehaving as he is delivering his speech on the importance of women in present and past Egypt; while the headmistress, who is reviewing his lesson plan and prepared lecture, is too distracted by her own worries – i.e. trying to get transferred to a school closer to her home so that she can tend more easily to her family and her children – to pay attention. Their thoughts are interrupted by two distractions: the first by a boy and the second by a girl. But the male teacher, who is generally portrayed as rather authoritative and aggressive in class, lets the boy off the hook and hits the girl – enforcing an unduly harsher punishment on her than on her male peer. The reader is privy to the headmistress’ internal annoyance at this arrant discrimination, but she does not interfere and even admonishes the girl lightly before leaving. The Short-story ends as the headmistress exits the classroom – her thoughts consumed by what she will prepare for lunch for her family that day.

The narrative is permeated by a scathing irony: the male teacher is depicted as hypocritical and sexist; the headmistress is described as aloof and overly preoccupied with her own affairs to notice the former or much less do anything about it; and International Women’s Day in Egypt is revealed to be a sheer mockery – a purely ornamental holiday marked by frivolous lectures and words, and not by meaningful action, change, or progress… even at a school that seems relatively liberal. The editor of the anthology, Dalya Cohen-Mor, notes in her introduction that the author’s criticism is indeed directed at both the central male and female protagonists: both are evidently at fault for perpetuating the sexism in their society – the male teacher, because he actively shares and acts upon his gender prejudices, and the headmistress, in her silent consent of the former.

On a more figurative level, however, and continuing with our symbolic interpretation of the central female figure as representative of the Egyptian nation, the story becomes a harsh and unforgiving self-critique about the responsibility of the nation to not only officially and superficially claim and celebrate its independence from its (post-)colonial, ‘male’ counterpart – but to actually, and actively, seize it. In other words, it is not enough, the story seems to suggest, to superficially alter the implied hierarchy – whether in terms of gender or national independence; change can only verily eventuate when there is a psychological shift in perception, of both the self and the oppressive other. Thus, the Egyptian headmistress, in tolerating the male teacher’s discrimination towards the female student, especially in front of the other children, is condoning the continuance of the core sexist values that inform her patriarchal society, and consequently demeaning her own material progress and achievement in attaining a professional status above his. Likewise, the Egyptian nation, despite seeming to have taken the reins of its own government, still silently condones the (neo-)colonialist values in place in the global society and within its own nation – vestiges of the imperialist era. That is, under Sadat (and, later, Mubarak), the Egyptian nation only seems to have risen above its oppressive Other, but in fact still bends its back to it – crippled by years of coerced financial dependence on external colonial powers – and is too preoccupied, like the headmistress, with its own domestic affairs to address the underlying and reminiscent structures of colonialism that, despite appearances, continue in place, to its own detriment.

The colonial and sexist discourses, hence, are parallel: the same abusive relationship oppresses and represses the subjugated Other at the hands of the dominating party. In fact, the opening scene already establishes the core element of both colonial and sexist discourses: power. The structure and hierarchy of power is essential to any dynamic in which one subject is subjugated to another. In the introductory passage, the headmistress walks into the classroom, but it is the male teacher – and not her presence – which exercises authority in the school: he shouts to the students to “Stand up!”, “ascertaining that his order had been promptly obeyed” and instructing them, thereafter, “in a calm but haughty voice,” to “Sit down” (Cohen-Mor 194). In fact, he then offers her his seat and desk, which she silently accepts, and the class continues in charge of him, as she passively observes. The suggestion is flagrant: the headmistress is purely ornamental. It is relevant here to point out that the headmistress’ name is not given in the story, though she is its protagonist, while the male teacher is indeed identified by his name, Uthman – thus, granting him an identity, a name worth saying, whilst withholding hers, as though it were unimportant who she is, beyond being a woman… an ornament.

This dynamic recalls that of the British colonial presence in Egypt: under the monarchy of Ismail, the first Controller-General of Egypt, Lord Cromer, “moved in essentially as Viceroy, and proceeded to set up British-style administration, education, police and army, keeping up the appearance of Egypt’s independence, but in reality directing every move himself” (Fox 3). Indeed, “he believed implicitly in the rightness of his mission to ‘save’ Egyptian society, and apparently, in the gratitude of the ‘saved’ as well” (Fox 4). If the school represents Egypt, then the male teacher is Lord Cromer – exerting dominion and influence over the Egyptian nation, figured in the headmistress, all the while maintaining the illusion of her ultimate authority; and justifying his sexism, which he projects on those women – his wife and his student – over whom he can claim some sort of authority, by framing it as punishment for bad behavior:

The headmistress was slightly annoyed, because Uthman seemed extremely violent with Aisha. She had no idea at all that one of the reasons for this violence was perhaps that, while speaking of olden times, he kept thinking about the best way to punish his wife and discipline her, because of her bad behavior towards his family. Should he give her a good beating until he heard her bones shaking, or should he abandon her in bed and withhold her allowance until she repented and recognized that Allah is the Truth? […] He couldn’t control his anger and slapped Aisha across the face. The headmistress thought of whispering to the teacher to remind him that hitting was legally forbidden by the Ministry of Education. She thought the slap was very hard. Perhaps it injured the little girl’s ear. However, she decided to postpone this matter until after the end of the class, deeming it was better to soften the atmosphere and say something in her capacity as the distinguished educator, headmistress of the school. […] Then she turned to Fatima, pinched her ear lightly, and demanded that she apologize to the teacher. As she walked out of the classroom, heading for another one to make sure that the teacher complied with the instructions of the Ministry of Education on International Women’s Day, she was thinking of the necessity of hurrying home from school to prepare lunch. Meanwhile Uthman was scratching himself between the thighs with satisfaction. As for the students, they began to breathe a sigh of relief because the school bell started to ring, announcing the end of the class.

Evidently, the headmistress never gets around to informing Uthman that his actions are out of line, and he remains satisfied that he has acted correctly and justifiably.

In fact, Uthman’s role is itself characteristic of the vestiges of colonialism in the colonized male, who internalizes the intrinsic violence of the colonial discourse and replicates it, albeit perhaps unconsciously, in his own language and life. Thus, he too abuses his power over his own dependants, in a direct replication of the abuse and victimization that he has experienced at the hands of the colonizer; it is a reproduction of the colonial hierarchical power structure within the colonized community, where the colonized male in turn becomes the colonizer over the colonized female (in this case, his wife and the female student). It is suggested that this is an unconscious expression, though one that nonetheless bears the utmost responsibility (that is, his sexism is not forgiven or justified –  at least here): he follows the orders of the school administration and prepares a lesson plan that extols several important Arab female figures as well as quoting Hafiz Ibrahim and Mohammad’s panegyric words about the female and mother figures, and publicly shows respect and submission to the headmistress; but he instinctively discriminates against his female students in a physically violent way and, hypocritically, thinks about punishing his wife as he delivers his lesson on the equality of women.

Similarly, we learn from the headmistress that the undersecretary of state, Mr. Abd al-Hamid Fakry, denies her petition for a transfer to a school nearer to her home, despite being aware of all of her tasks and the difficulty of balancing them. In a sense, he is forcing her to choose one or the other – her job or her family. Figuratively, this dynamic suggests that the male figure and the patriarchal society deliberately frustrate, if not altogether thwart, the ability or opportunity for women to be part of the same worlds or spheres that the man is: that is, that the patriarchal society demands that women be confined to the domestic sphere – and, if not, as punishment for her disobedience, ensures that she is unable to succeed at juggling both, and further places the blame on her for being overly ambitious and selfish (i.e. neo-sexism). It is evident, of course, that the male is able to be part of both because the burden of domestic life falls on the woman, and that, even if the woman has a job as well, she is often still expected to fulfill those obligations on her own[4].

The story presents several instances of this sexist expression, ranging from the conscious – Uthman’s thoughts about punishing his wife – to the semi-conscious – his instinctive violent reaction to the female student – to the subconscious, when “he turned toward the blackboard and wrote in large, ungraceful script, unbefitting a teacher of Arabic: «Woman and Life»” (Cohen-Mor 194). The most poignant subconscious expression, however, is Uthman’s omission of Zarqa al-Yamama from his list of important Arab women, which the headmistress notes but does not linger on. As the legend is recounted by al-Tabari (d. 923 CE), Zarqa al-Yamama was a jahili woman whose sharp eyesight and intuition allowed her to spot the enemy from far off – an invaluable skill in the jahiliyya days of frequent tribal warfare. She was married to a man from another clan and subsequently incorporated into his tribe, the Jadis. Some time later, the Jadis attacked the tribe of Zarqa’s father, with great success. Upon retaliating, Zarqa’s father’s tribe, well aware of Zarqa’s ability, decided to camouflage their troops with trees that they carried whilst advancing to the Jadis’ camp. Seeing this, Zarqa notified the Jadis, but they paid her no attention and the attacking tribe succeeded in their assault. Zarqa was thereafter captured, blinded, and crucified. (Khoury)

Although this story has been part of Arabic folklore for centuries, it was only until the latter half of the 20th-century that the figure of Zarqa al-Yamama was popularly acknowledged and featured in Arab poetry – at the hands of poets ‘Izz al-Din al-Manasra (Secretary general of the Arab Contemporary Literary Society since 1984) and, later, Amal Dunqul. It is significant to note that the former’s poem “Zarqa al-Yamama” was published in December 1966, about half a year before the Six-Day War, and that the latter’s was written just a week after the 1967 defeat – the former predicting, and the latter chronicling, the poignant Arab defeat through the symbol of Zarqa al-Yamama. Salwa Bakr herself claims to be greatly influenced by the Six-Day War (Faqir 34), and so her allusion to this legendary figure, which is both a legacy of ancient Arabic folklore and a modern symbol for the Arab defeat of 1967, cannot be without some emblematic significance of its own in “International Women’s Day”.

In al-Manasra’s poem, Zarqa is at once an ancient Arab legend to be learned from; a symbol of 1948 Palestine, whose eyes, i.e. truth and power, are torn out by the conquering tribe (Israel) – a fault, too, the poem suggests, of Arab negligence; and a warning that, as long as the “uncles” (Arabs) of the “dejected orphans” (Palestinians) continue to ignore the imminent danger that they face, exemplified many a time before from antiquity to modern-day Palestine, they will continue to be defeated – a frighteningly accurate prophecy of the 1967 Arab defeat. Thus, in light of the colonial-sexist discourse of the narrative, the omission of Zarqa’s figure in the celebratory speech of the male teacher suggests that the teacher – at once, the sexist male, the emasculated colonized, and the colonizer – is deliberately excluding the only vision that could truly induce progress towards equality; indeed, that history repeats itself because the winners re-write it, omitting the heroes and the lessons that challenge their version.

Moreover, the headmistress, even before she finished reading his speech, “had already realized from her twenty years’ experience in primary school education that he would inevitably conclude his speech with the well-known verse of the poet Hafiz Ibrahim: ‘The mother is a school; if you prepare her, you prepare a nation with a strong foundation.’” (Cohen-Mor 195). That his speech on female equality excludes an Arab heroine and concludes, instead, on a quote by an Egyptian male poet is significant: it is a celebration of the woman through a man’s words, and not through the example of a woman herself. It becomes excruciatingly evident, thus, that his conspicuous omission is deliberate.

“International Women’s Day” thus elucidates the parallels between sexist and colonial discourses, which are both rooted in the dualistic rationale that we are taught from birth, “the subject-object duality,” “the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts” (Anzaldúa 379). We are, thus, all victims and complicit participators of this manipulation, “for each of us in some way has been both oppressed and the oppressor” (Moraga 32), and, hence, while we may only seem to feel the burden of one or some of these oppressions (e.g. sexism, ageism, classism), we are in fact engaging with all of them, since they are but varying permutations of the same underlying binary mentality that informs them. This narrative is thus a critique of both the dominant and the subjugated in (neo-) colonialist hierarchies, in sexist dynamics, and in politics, which equally perpetuate their respective roles and statuses either through active participation or silent consent; and a salient reminder to all that equality and progress are never achieved without a struggle, without the critical questioning of the status quo and the established rationale, which consistently reaffirm and protect the interests of one group over another – despite ornamental gestures that suggest otherwise and thus veil reality with convenient charades/untruths. Perhaps, this is what Yusuf Idris was suggesting, then, after all, when he termed these narratives “short stories from behind the veil”: they are, indeed, short stories that expose the veiled realities in which we live.

4. Conclusion: the self-critical national consciousness

The national consciousness that is both expressed and constructed in this literature is, thus, as we have seen from these previous stories, embodied in the woman because, in her struggle against sexism and against “that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us” (Lorde 380), she is the ideal representation of a nation striving to disentangle itself from its colonialist chains to assert its own independence. But, at the same time, this aspiration is by no means idealized: there is a profound mistrust of ideals without action, of naïve hopes and myths, which is vividly reflected in the critical and skeptical Postmodernist literary voice that narrates this arduous struggle.

 Part Two. Celebrating the fellahin: a mythical portrait

Egyptian identity is hybrid and often contradictory. For one, the nationalist project is characterized by its rejection of the near past (Nasserism) and an embrace of its glorious Pharaonic history as distinctly Egyptian, which is ironically reminiscent of Napoleon’s 18th-century intellectual campaign and mission civilisatrice that claimed a moral responsibility and duty to “restore [the] region from its present barbarism to its classical greatness” (Fox 3). Thus, the nationalist objective mirrors that of the colonialist enterprise, if perhaps to appropriate it. Furthermore, under the reigns of Muhammad Ali, Sa’id, and Isma’il, Egypt actively acquired a European identity and Cairo was remodeled into a sort of Paris on the Nile that subsequently divided the city into a modern European section and old medieval quarter, foreshadowing the parallel division in society and the fragmentation of the national identity. A core component of this fragmented identity, then, is the contrast between the progressive, critical, and reforming element of the nationalist project, and its aesthetic and moral association with the fellah figure and the countryside as its natural context – (nearly-unchanging) vestiges of Pharaonic times characterized by its simultaneous and equally antithetical poverty and beauty.

The construction of this fellah image featured in the national discourse has its foundations in Egypt’s immediate past. In 1956, Nasser brought relief and dignity to the humiliated self-image of Egypt and, through his pan-Arab vision, a promise to its hopeful adherents of a unified and dignified identity that the nation had not enjoyed since the Pharaonic era. But change rarely occurs overnight and the Nasserian dream failed – partly because, in its sweeping vision, it was unable to address the underlying problems (e.g. poverty, debt) that plagued the country. The Six-Day War defeat and the downfall of Nasserism are complex and multifaceted phenomena, but the general impression is pellucid: the legacy of Nasserism inherited by the national identity was one laden with humiliation and failure – implying that Egypt had only itself to blame for the failed experiment of independence.

Consequently, President Sadat – who already lacked the charisma of his predecessor – inherited a damaged and self-doubting identity. He embarked on an aggressive “denasserization” mission that was as deluded in its vision of rapid change as Nasser’s pan-Arab ambitions. Most interestingly, however, to this study, was Sadat’s own fragmented (and, one might venture, hypocritical) image as a political figure: though he increasingly associated Egypt with Western capitalist powers (instead of Soviet influences), instated a reformative infitah policy that strived to encourage investment in the private sector, and personally indulged in a rather lavish lifestyle, he simultaneously generated (or redesigned) a mythical image of “Egypt as a village, self-reliant, simple, religious, and with all of the sturdy virtues of the fellaheen” (Fox). It is this mythical portrait of Egypt rooted in the fellah figure and in its associated Pharaonic historicity that I will explore in the following stories, and which makes up the second half of the fragmented and hybrid Egyptian national identity that I am interested in as a whole.

The celebration of the peasant figure in Egypt is, like in many nationalist projects, an attempt to glorify what is viewed as the purest unit of society – the natural essence of the national identity. Though nationalist projects are themselves hardly ever spear-headed by said figures, they nevertheless serve as idealized models of the unadulterated version of, in this case, the so-called true Egyptian. The fellah figure and the countryside in the Egyptian Short-story are thus either used as the backdrop or setting in a social critique or allegorical narrative, as symbols of a series of values (such as simplicity, religiosity, and Pharaonic descent), or, in some occasions, as the protagonists and objects of critique within the text; or, of course, all of the above.

An example is Haniyya in Edward al-Kharrat’s “Within the Walls” who, in her role as the personified national spirit, associates Egyptian identity with both the physical setting of the countryside and the territory of Egypt (in this particular case, of Upper Egypt); and the values that dictate the rural society in which she lives. This association is significant. In the first case, the Egyptian identity is being rooted in the territory of Egypt, meaning that it is establishing its claim to the land (and not just to an abstract nation) by associating itself with the large peasant and rural populations, with agriculture as a tradition of physical connection to the soil, and with the history of the terrain – i.e. with the Pharaohs. In the latter case, Egyptian identity is not only linked with the dignified values of the fellahin, but also with the conflicts and problematics of peasant society (that are vividly and graphically portrayed in the tragic story of Haniyya), which seemingly intend to be representative of the problems of the larger Egyptian society, and not just that of the rural community.

In other words, the issues found in this society are, in this view, not so different from those of the Nile Delta or urban Cairo communities. Thus, this unified identity roots itself in the rural community, not in order to isolate the urban and industrial communities, but rather to frame general social critiques in the specific context of the fellahin, in such a way as to suggest that this figure is not only a part or fragment of Egyptian identity, but is in fact at the heart of it, and representative of the whole; indeed, to suggest that there is only a superficial and cosmetic difference between, say, the urban, educated Cairene and his inner fellah spirit, when it comes to issues of the national consciousness. In this light, the fellah in fiction literature does not so much represent the actual Egyptian peasant as it does a mythical and symbolic figure for the national spirit, immersed in the territory, the history, and the values of this projected identity.

            The ensuing interpretation of the mythical portrait of the fellahin is organized around a series of values and themes that I have arbitrarily selected, earmarked, and categorized to facilitate discussion, but it is vital to remember that the success of this myth relies particularly in its compelling integrity and cohesion, so that, much like the construct of national identity, what is here explored as a fragmented whole is, in reality, generally perceived as a solid entity. Having said this, the themes that are presented hereafter are: constancy, which is largely informed by isolation; a hybrid discourse of religion and folklore, expressed through varying symbols and forms, including hospitality; silence; historicization or Pharaonism; and color.

1. Values and themes of the fellahin myth: constancy, isolationism, and a religio-cultural ethos

The first value attributed to this mythical fellah figure that I consider here is constancy, which is conveyed and expressed in the short narrative as a rhythm or regularity – a simple harmony – that is putatively connate in the fellahin. Yahya Taher Abdullah’s “Rhythms in Slow Time,” a very brief Short-story that limns the daily trifles of a fellahin family, echoes this intrinsic euphony – quite literally – in the rhythm and style of the narrative itself. The story starts by tracing the childish mischief of the young son, who is trying to grab a hen from the hutch when it suddenly escapes his grasp and leaps outside, scattering dust and finally disappearing. The mother reprimands the child – which prompts the only dialogue in the story, consisting of ten words at most – and then the narrative turns its scrutinizing, but impassive, attention once again to a family of cats, the vast surroundings, the two daughters performing banal chores, the impending dusk, the drab home, the sleeping father, and, finally, a man poised at the top of the nearby minaret, preparing to deliver the morning call to prayer. In so doing, the narrative captures and reproduces the sedate pace of peasant life in Upper Egypt and the inherent simplicity that pervades the setting, lifestyle, and spirit of the fellahin – expressed not only in the content and rhythm of the narrative, but also via the dispassionate and detached narrative voice (2 Johnson-Davies 15):

The houses, the lanes, the date-palms and trees had merged, forming an intensely black mass.

            In the riverside room, the mother’s arm remained on the small child’s chest, her palm exactly where his heart lay; alongside them lay the two girls, their breasts rising and falling in regular movement. The lamplight winked with the cool draught of air that penetrated through the solitary blocked-up aperture. On the bed opposite, the old man who was head of the household coughed and spat. From underneath the bed he took a water skin made of a rabbit’s pelt filled with warm water; he drank a couple of mouthfuls, then, wrapping round his body a woolen waistband, he went back to sleep and to snore.

            The fire had died down and its smoke was thick on the ceiling, which was supported by the trunks of date-palms. The air that penetrated through the aperture in the wall grew cooler; the aperture was blocked up with the cover of a wall diary. The diary had writing on it and pictures of people in military uniforms, also congratulation[s] to the Egyptian people on their glorious army from the owner of the sweet factories who had sponsored the calendar.

The narrative emphasizes the placidity of fellah life by highlighting and reproducing the serenity of this tempo in its own rhetoric elements, i.e. the uneventful plot, the prosaic form and tone, and the subsequently staid rhythm – not to mention the title of the story itself, “Rhythms in slow time.” One might venture, even, that this passage further insinuates the restorative effects of this halcyon condition through the depiction of a harmonious family embraced in a ceremonial and almost spiritual silence, whose very breathing dances “in regular movement” to the subdued beat of pastoral cadence (2 Johnson-Davies 15). There is, herein, an implied sense of unity and accord between the surroundings and the people in fellah life, expressed through this mellifluous rhythm: indeed, “the lamplight winked with the cool draught of air that penetrated through the solitary blocked-up aperture” – and not ‘at’ or ‘because of’, suggesting that there is a mutual symbiosis or inherent interconnectedness between the environment, the people, and, even, in this case, the man-made things, that make up fellah life (2 Johnson-Davies 15). More specifically, this symbiosis, and its rhythmic expression, is both physical and metaphysical in nature: that is, fellahin rhythm reproduces the natural rhythm and harmony of nature and of its surroundings physically – in the daily pace of rural life – and metaphysically – in the moral congruity and stability of the fellahin and their staunch values. It is this concept that I refer to as “constancy.”

It would not be a stretch to posit that it is this very constancy, inherent in the mythical fellahin, that is being implied, too, in the parallel relationship between the mythical fellahin and the national identity. In other words, in its mythical portrait, the fellah professes a series of attributes – namely, an inherent symbiosis with its surroundings (its territory), ontological harmony and unity within itself, and somatic stability or constancy through tradition and sturdy values – to which the Egyptian national identity aspires and which it strives to replicate by incorporating this myth within itself. Egyptian national identity is thus interested in associating itself with the fellah figure in order to both absorb it into its entity (and thereby to include in this national identity that large portion of the total Egyptian population that ascribes to this fellah image or myth) and emulate its constancy and unquestioned raison d’être, by appealing to a territorial discourse that states its claim to the nation of Egypt, not just as a political or social entity, but as a people and culture physiologically and metaphysically rooted in the land.

Moreover, at a time when increasing urbanization and the rapid burgeoning of cities (e.g. Cairo) demanded a readjustment in the pace of life for those who migrated there, this celebration of the constancy of fellahin life seems to be a deliberate and nostalgic expression of discontent with the implied distancing from traditional values that had once been central to Egyptian life – and, perhaps, a call for their return. In the fellah narrative, this sentiment translates into a celebration of the fellah figure as a being isolated from such transformative influences as modernization and urbanization. Indeed, much of this perceived constancy is elicited – and portrayed in narrative – by the inherent isolationism of fellahin life. In “Rhythms in slow time,” signs of modernization are few, but poignantly placed and inserted with a deliberately distancing effect[5]: in the above passage, the diary with military images sponsored by a factory owner is not perused or observed by the family, but is instead used to cover up a hole in the wall – thus, we see modernity infiltrating into the isolated fellahin life, but not integrating in it (i.e. being misused to the point of losing its original, modernizing significance); at another point, the fleeing hen is metaphorically described as “a white aeroplane [that] ran along the ground of the small airport, behind it a white ribbon of smoke, and suddenly the airplane flew off to some unknown land,” a modern metaphorical image that is fairly shocking and contrasts awkwardly with the bucolic atmosphere, thus reminding the reader – likely, an urbanite – that this is a rural context, as though to jerk him/her into acknowledgement of the unique fellahin setting (2 Johnson-Davies 13).

This isolation is likewise present in another Short-story by Yahya Taher Abdullah, “Grandad Hasan,” which focuses noticeably more on the metaphysical aspect of fellahin existence. The narrative traces a day in the life of the elderly Grandad Hasan during the month of Ramadan, interweaving fragmented descriptions of his limited interactions and activities with his personal philosophical reflections and spiritual visions. The isolationism of fellahin life is illustrated in this whimsical narrative in multiple ways. For one, the serene bucolic setting is itself detached, to a great extent, from anything but its immediate surroundings, socially, economically, culturally, and so on: the critic and translator Roger Allen describes that “the inhabitants of this rural microcosm all live, work and die in a social atmosphere akin to a fishbowl” (2 Johnson-Davies 73). Moreover, Grandad Hasan’s view, like the narrative’s and our own, is bound by the range of his vision, which spans merely the front entrance of his house to the end of the street, where “the lane takes a turn” and “a large, black, kneeling camel” marks the horizon of his sight. Secondly, the narrative concentrates heavily on Grandad Hasan’s metaphysical musings (marked by parentheses) and routine, rather than on the physical world around him; and the narrative’s overall philosophical tone and content signal a very specific interest in the spiritual, as opposed to material, experience of Grandad Hasan – one which is minimally aware of an external reality and interrupted only singularly by the occasional passer-by or intrusion of a family-member, at which he is momentarily forced to return to ‘reality’. This isolation is, thus, both physical and psychological.

Time passed and sunset drew near. The black camel rose with its mighty body and walked slowly towards Grandad Hasan. Gradually the houses withdrew from view, first the distant ones, then those close by, while the camel moved on, large and black, towards the grandfather. The grandfather closed his eyes. (The universe was vast, limitless, of a dark blueness, and the deserts were spacious, without bounds, the sands yellow and fiery, and from out of their belly there exploded forth hill upon hill upon hill, a whole series of hills, blood-red like the colour of dusk. Everything now was at the prime virgin state of creation, and the eye of the believer could make out that black spot separating day from night, which looks so small and grows bigger as it draws nearer to the viewer.)

Grandad Hasan’s heart grew dry and his failing body shook as he spoke to himself: ‘How puny is this human being in Allah’s Kingdom!’ and he asked himself who the guest might be? Who was that person who was wandering through the earth? The Messenger of Allah who appears from afar as a black spot, who could it be? Was it the Khidr, upon whom be peace, the teacher of Moses?”

In fact, even here, the outside world remains in the background, almost as mere inspiration to the imaginary universe that Grandad Hasan consequently constructs on it and with which the former is ultimately replaced. Grandad Hasan’s connection to the land stems not only from his proximity and direct interaction with it but also from his imagination, and is attributed to the virtue of isolation insofar as he is able to derive significance from his relationship to the land because the polluting, intrusive, and distracting effects of modernization are omitted. Through this imaginative process, he ascribes metaphysical (“how puny is this human being”) and religious (“The Messenger of Allah who appears from afar”) significance to his connection with the land, so that the isolation is not just material or psychological, but spiritual as well. And, thus, in so doing, the land of Egypt acquires significance through the fellahin: that is to say, just like the national identity expressed in Egyptian literature only acquires tangible significance in the imagination of its reader, the territory of Egypt likewise assumes spiritual and metaphysical significance (i.e. constancy) in the fellahin.

It follows, thus, that this isolation protects the fellah from the corruptive elements of modernization and urbanization, which would presumably disrupt his inherent interconnectedness with the land, both physically and spiritually, and his role and ability to invoke the territorial, spiritual, and Pharaonic discourse that the nationalist project was interested in promoting. The underlying assumption of this idea as entertained by the nationalist project is that, upon ‘straying’ (as, indeed, many felt Egypt had after the downfall of Nasserism), one must return to the point of origin to find the true essence that has been lost – in this sense, the reversion to Egypt’s Pharaonic roots and the fellah ideal are an attempt to recover that which once made the Egyptian nation Egyptian, in some sort of romantic attempt to recapture its essence and re-incorporate it into the national consciousness. In other words, the seeming simplicity and constancy of the fellahin would – according to this notion – hold the key to that pure (Egyptian) essence that nationalism is always looking to recover.

But these idealizing narratives are far from naïve: the objective is not to pit the fellahin against the modern, or to exclude one at the expense of the other – quite to the contrary, in fact. The fellah is intended to represent but a single aspect of the whole national identity, whose significance is to root the identity in a time, place, and culture in order to give this consciousness perspective and tangibility. In fact, it is in concordance with the heightened critical quality of this consciousness (the other essential element of Egyptian national identity) that the fellah figure reminds the nation that there are certain intrinsic values of its identity that ought not to be compromised in the process of modernization and reform, in the future of Egypt – indeed, that the nation of Egypt has its roots in the land and the people, whence it emerged, and that their defining values must not be, and certainly do not have to be, contrasting to or conflictive with those of (a) modern Egypt. Therefore, the celebration of the fellahin is one of many elements of Egyptian national identity, whose purpose is to give dimension to this largely abstract consciousness by locating it temporally and spatially, and by bridging the metaphysical aspects and values it upholds with the territory and history of Egypt.

The second fellahin value that emerges from these narratives is a hybrid religio-cultural discourse or ethos. In a more tangible form, this is expressed in the story of “Grandad Hasan” through the virtue of hospitality. This is relevant to our study insofar as it is an explicit instance of the intrinsic hybridity and multiculturalism of Egyptian identity, since the idea of hospitality is borrowed from or shared considerably with (religious) Islamic and (cultural) Arab identities, which are then integrated into the Egyptian national discourse.

On the two mats spread out in front of the stone bench above the ground that had been sprinkled with water was a place for God’s guests on earth, the needy and the deprived. From the basket Grandad Hasan gives out bread with his right hand, while from the basket of dates he scoops up with trembling hand more than can be held in one’s palm. ‘All is good from Allah,’ he would say, ‘and is done in order to gain His approval.’ Thus the ancestors, those who had journeyed to the House of the True One, had retained the wealth and position they had inherited, so gaining the blessings of this world and Paradise in the next. I in my turn must sense my forefathers’ inherited ability to give for the love of Allah, and it will be for my sons to know that the branch of the tree does not approach being good other than with Allah’s permission, that this happens only to the few chosen of His worshippers, to those with full hearts. (1 Johnson-Davies 11)

Hospitality is here simultaneously identified as a religious duty (for Allah) and a cultural practice (the legacy of his ancestors): “I in my turn must sense my forefathers’ inherited ability to give for the love of Allah” (1 Johnson-Davies 11). In its association to the fellahin, however, hospitality is being explicitly identified as Egyptian, rather than just as a merely religious (Islamic) stipulation or a socio-economic circumstance (i.e. inherent to peasant life in general). This is particularly evident when it is framed in contrast to other cultures – in this case, Maghribi culture:

Likewise the wily Maghribi knows what form the Khidr takes and so makes himself look like him. Then, taking you unawares, he makes his way to the house – and he is the only one who knows where lies the treasure, perhaps buried by ancestors possessed of many wiles. The vagabond takes you unawares, kills the guardian of the treasure, who is one of the djinn, and the Maghribi disappears with not a trace of him to be found. So, Grandad Hasan, you should be wary about your guest. Treat him hospitably, certainly, but keep a very close eye on his every move. (1 Johnson-Davies 14)

The passage reinforces the association of this value of hospitality with Egyptian-ness by juxtaposing the hospitable Hasan with “the wily Maghribi” who, the narrative voice warns, will violate that hospitality if given the chance (1 Johnson-Davies 14). It follows, thus, that Egyptian national identity is here defined (in its hospitality) in opposition to Magribi culture, and as independent of the two greater discourses, Islamic and Arab, that inform it.

Much like Lila Abu-Lughod explains in her Bedouin ethnography “Veiled Sentiments” that Bedouins define themselves in opposition to Egyptians, whom they deem non-Arab (and thus inferior), Egyptian national identity similarly defines itself here as non-Arab (but, in contrast, as superior to it). In other words, there is a mutual – albeit, perhaps, largely imagined – differentiation between Egyptians and (Bedouin) Arabs, though each party holds the Arab identity marker in opposite regard. This difference revolves, in great part, around the Pharaonic background of the Egyptians – held in low esteem by Bedouins and celebrated by Egyptian nationalists.

Blood is the authenticator of origin or pedigree and as such is critical to Bedouin identity and their differentiation from Egyptians, who are said to lack roots or nobility of origin (asl or mabda). Some Bedouins stated this idea by characterizing the Egyptians as mixed-blooded or impure; others attributed to the Egyptians Pharaonic origins, as the following story told to me by one Bedouin man suggests:

When Moses escaped from Egypt, the Pharaoh and all of the real men, the warriors, set off after him. They left behind only the women, children, and servants/slaves [khadama]. These were the weak men who washed women’s feet and cared for the children. When Moses crossed the Red Sea, the Pharaoh’s men drowned chasing him. This left only the servants. They are the grandfathers [ancestors] of the Egyptians. That is why they are like that now. The men are women and the women are men. He carries the children and does not take a seat until he sees that she has. (Abu-Lughod 45)

Though the Pharaonic background is discussed more extensively later on, what is perhaps most interesting about this passage – and more immediately relevant to our current topic – is that both parties define each other by what they are not: Bedouins are not Egyptians and Egyptians are not Arabs. There is a deliberate manipulation of identity at work here, whereby each group creates an imagined identity based on the Other’s criteria or definition of their own identity (in this case, the opposite thereof). In other words, the relevance of such a differentiation lies in that these identities are constructed – and, it follows, based not on reality, but on self-perceptions. From this, it is possible to conclude both that Egyptian national identity is constructed (rather than naturally emerging); and that it is constructed in opposition to Arab identity. Abu-Lughod continues:

“[Bedouin] men variously described Egyptians as lacking in moral excellence (fadhila), honor (sharaf), sincerity and honesty (sadag), and generosity (kurama), at the same time claiming these as Bedouin traits. […] Of the Egyptians one man said, “It is rare for them to invite you to their homes. You are lucky if they invite you for a cup of coffee or tea, and that after you have invited them to your home, slaughtered a sheep for them, and given them everything it was in your power to give.” Some Bedouins also accuse the Egyptians of being opportunistic, of not knowing the meaning of friendship.” (Abu-Lughod 45)

It is noteworthy that these Bedouins defined the Egyptians as inhospitable and themselves, by contrast, as hospitable, for – as we have seen – hospitality is one of the values that was specifically extolled as distinctly characteristic of Egyptian identity in “Grandad Hasan.” Thus, it becomes apparent that not only are these identities often constructed in opposition to each other, they furthermore frequently and arbitrarily associate the same values with their own identity, in an exclusive way – and simultaneously designate them as markedly absent from the Other.

To a great extent, this poses a problem for the study of national identity – or, at least, the validity of its results: if national identity is indeed as arbitrary as it seems, the conclusions of such a study would appear to be similarly arbitrary – and, thus, superfluous. Furthermore, Myryam Segal observes in her introduction to a study of Hebrew poetry that, “[e]ven as the future leaders [of Israel] tried to build a modern nation, they propagated an idea of the people’s essential unchanging character that could be tapped in the present as it had been in prior moments of greatness” (Segal 14): she touches on an assumption of nationalism in general that is often taken for granted but is rather significant, albeit tacitly so. That is, that there exists a fixed “essential unchanging character” around which a national identity can be created and defined. Thus, while we have vowed to tread carefully and avoid generalizations, stereotypes, and boxed categories, the subject of this study may paradoxically well be founded on those very absolutes. The answer, however, is plain: even if the construct of national identity is arbitrary, founded largely on myths, and based on misleading absolutes, its significance to those who identify themselves by and through it – that is, anyone who interacts with this identity, i.e. all Egyptians – warrants our study thereof.

Returning to the religio-cultural ethos in “Grandad Hasan,” the narrative avails itself of a profoundly mythological discourse that assumes the reader’s familiarity with popular figures of Islamic as well as Egyptian folklore, which suggests that the reader and the subject of the narrative (the fellah) speak the same language – be this true or not. The narrator warns Grandad Hasan of the greedy Maghribi, referred to variably as a “vagabond” and “wily” impostor, who will try to make himself pass as the Khidr[6] – an Islamic figure that reputedly accompanied Musa and was, depending on the source, either a righteous servant of God (Abdan Sālih) or a prophet. (Leaman)

Catch hold of your guest by the collar and look into his eyes. The eyes of the Khidr gleam just like two jewels, for he is a prophet. As for the Maghribi’s eyes, they take on a sly look directly they see wealth. If it’s the Khidr, O Grandad Hasan, say to him: ‘Your pardon, Master,’ and kiss his shoulders and rain down upon them tears of remorse. If it is the Maghribi, then bargain with him” (1 Johnson-Davies 13, 14). Likewise, the narrative voice then refers, too, to the “djinn” (or genie)[7] – one of the three sentient creations of God, along with humans and angels (1 Johnson-Davies 14).

This passage obviates the intimate intertwining of religious and local culture in fellah tradition by employing a folkloric rhetoric that features and merges Islamic legends (e.g. Khidr) and popular cultural knowledge (e.g. wily Maghribi). As such, this rhetoric is the expression of a hybrid cultural and religious discourse that pervades the mythical fellah ethos, and which frames the celebration of the fellahin in a rich folkloric (that is, both religious and cultural) context wherein such values as constancy are experienced and performed.

It is significant to note, however, that Islam – and Religion in general – is not directly discussed in any of this literature. Albeit an indubitable element of Egyptian national identity[8], Islam is conspicuously excluded from these narratives. Various theories have emerged to explain this: some theorize that Islam does not lend itself to fictional treatment (Fox); others argue that, while it underlies all aspects of Egyptian life, it is a very private and personal matter (Kilpatrick); and others, even, posit that religious fundamentalism was regarded by some modern writers as a threat to progress – the ultimate objective of this national consciousness – so Islam (or any other specific Religion) was not toted as an explicit ingredient of this identity (Mahfouz). It is most likely, of course, that all of these elements were decisive in the deliberate omission of any direct references or commentary on Religion, though the significance of this exclusion lies – for this study – in its consequence: that is, that, for whatever reason, Religion (be it Islam or Christianity, etcetera) is not explicitly incorporated into the depiction of this national consciousness beyond its latent influence on the values that inform fellahin life and society in general, either as a defining characteristic or as a target of criticism and reform.

2. Values and themes of the fellahin myth: silence, Pharaonism, and color

Another characteristic element of these fellah Short-stories is silence. While some of these narratives simply lack dialogues, others like “Rhythms in Slow Time” by Yahya Taher Abdullah and “Drought” by Mohamed El-Bisatie are furthermore narrated by an omniscient voice that imparts no opinion or commentary on the observations and descriptions related, and feature characters to whose most intimate thoughts the reader is not privy. In one sense, the silence of these narratives is a sign of protest against a long and sterile era of Nasserian idealism: after so many visions and hopes, the fellah and his/her silence serve herein as an important reminder that words and dreams are fruitless without action, without the acknowledgement of the real issues – which are not, and are in fact almost never, a lack of hope or of vision, but rather a lack of e.g. food, money, education, etcetera. Indeed, there is a parallel between the dichotomy of idealisms and actions in politics, and the dichotomy of the often existential, abstract dilemmas of the urbanite and the more material preoccupations of the peasant, whose priorities presumably lie not in existentialist questions but, rather, when the next rain will come and the welfare of the harvest. There is, to some extent, a play on the binary of intellectual versus realist, here, although the suggestion seems to be that they are, in fact – or could be – mutually inclusive.

Yet this silence also functions to echo the simplicity of the fellahin in the very narrative itself, because it directs the reader’s attention not to the words or impressions of the characters, but rather to what is happening. This is not to say that these stories are necessarily active – in fact, most merely depict brief, uneventful fragments of rural life. Instead, what speak in these narratives are the images, colors, and (limited) actions of the fellahin existence. For example, Mohamed El-Bisatie’s “Drought” narrates the brief story of a man that is followed by another man across the open country of the Nile Delta and, finally, murdered – although the bulk of the tale focuses on the description of their journey. What is striking about this narrative is that it lacks any dialogue or internal monologue whatsoever, does not share any thoughts or sentiments of the personages with the reader, and leaves the final murder entirely unexplained, imparting to the reader a vibrant – albeit seemingly senseless or impenetrable – image. As is discussed later on, this image then communicates meaning through a different language, that of color, thanks to this silence that mutes the often-deafening voice of dialogue (and monologue) in order to accentuate and promote other expressions.

What is featured in these narratives, then, instead of dialogues, sermons, or rationalizations, are subliminal languages, discourses, and associations that paint a more complex image of the mythical portrait of the fellah figure. One such subliminal discourse that is sculpted in these narratives and depicted as a defining characteristic of this mythical fellah figure is Pharaonism. In the attempt to distance Egyptian national identity from Arabness, and at a time when Egypt was striving to disentangle itself from Europe’s puppet strings, Egyptian Short-story writers turned to their glorious and unparalleled Pharaonic past to fuel nationalist pride, embrace their uniqueness, and emphasize their distinguishing roots. Fellahin adherence, even today, to the traditional lifestyle of ancient Egyptians is thus extolled as evidence of enduring affiliation with Egypt’s Pharaonic past – and, hence, to origins that distinguish Egypt both from the rest of the Arab world and all other civilizations as well. (Indeed, this is an evident instance of the hyper-historicized status of the Postmodernist subject.)

To this end, Edward al-Kharrat’s protagonist, Haniyya – a unique, self-conscious, critical, and visionary fellah woman – is described by means of a Pharaonic discourse on various occasions, associating this nationalist heroine to ancient Egypt and the Pharaonic era, a historic past that the nationalist movement was very interested in resurrecting and re-introducing into Egyptian identity:

“She raised her head from the pillow, her luxuriant hair hanging round her. No one knew how she had come by that wealth of thick black shining hair on her delicately-featured brown head, making her look like some girl from ancient Egypt” (1 Johnson-Davies 19)

The effect of her association with Pharaonic background is twofold: her personage’s strength and valor are transplanted onto the reader’s perceptions of Pharaonism, while the conjuring of a Pharaonic past grants a certain glory and honor to her. Thus, in this mutual exchange of implied values, the story successfully identifies these Pharaonic roots with Egyptian national identity in the reader’s mind through the vehicle of Haniyya and, subsequently, attaches a series of shared values and attributes (originally pertaining separately to either the Pharaonic past or the modern Egyptian present) to Egyptian national identity as a whole, hence merging a distant past and a much different present into the construct of the Egyptian nation. In this process, there is a very explicit and purposeful distancing from Arabness, both in Haniyya’s affiliation with a distinctly Egyptian tradition, Pharaonism, and in her rejection of Arab traditions (e.g. her lack of modesty in dress).

Interestingly, her association with this past is furthermore singled out as shocking and even threatening to others around her: indeed, the reminder of greatness would have produced humiliation and intimidation at a time when the national consciousness felt defeated. Thus, in a sense, the fellah is here both historically and culturally rooted in Pharaonism, and pitted against it.

With the nervous, startled movements of her small body, taut with an almost unquenchable impetuosity, her brazen laugh and confident, graceful womanly walk, she would silence them all, not with words but simply by her presence and the diffusion of her vitality; in fact, she always caused them fear and unease, as though she were placing her finger on closed wounds that were still sensitive and which by her touch she would rekindle, would almost open up, almost revealing to these people the troubled portals to avenues of thinking which their whole lives had been one continuous struggle to repress. Her flashing, unconcerned, nonchalant way of looking at people – like that of a Pharaonic cat – through black eyes opening out on horizons of the body, seeing everything in it and nothing wrong in it, her whole body which knew itself and was not afraid of itself – it was in these things that the danger threatening these people lay, and so they would cover their eyes against it; it was in these things, too, that the danger that encompassed her lay, the danger searching out the extremities of her life. (1 Johnson-Davies 18)

In this sense, the paradox of Egyptian nationalist identity becomes most apparent here: while there is a deliberate and celebrated association with Pharaonism and the fellahin lifestyle, there is a simultaneous rejection of Arab traditions – perhaps, indeed, a protest of Nasser’s pan-Arabism – that are implied and intertwined with these, and a general disregard for what are perceived and portrayed as problematic and stagnant conventions. It is, however, this complex intersection between the historicization of the Egyptian nationalist subject and its encouraged criticism of itself and others that informs the uniqueness of this nationalist spirit.

Another related element that pervades and distinguishes the Short-story on the fellahin is the emphasis on color. An evident function of color is to reproduce the vivid palette of the rural setting, particularly in opposition to that of the urban scenery (though this is more figurative than real, as cities are often quite colorful); and to bring to life a setting that, for the urban reader, may be hard to imagine in all of its vibrancy and exuberance. Moreover, it is significant to note that color was given great importance in ancient Egypt. (And, because the fellahin are often associated with the Pharaonic era and ancient Egypt, it is not surprising that narratives featuring peasant life emphasize color as one of its characteristic qualities.) In the art of ancient Egypt, color was used largely for symbolism and to lend a realistic and natural value to reliefs (Bunson 86). Six hues, derived from mineral and vegetable sources, were used to connote certain attributes or characteristics: white (hedj) symbolized the crown of Upper Egypt, joy, luxury, purity, and the passage of time; black (kem) represented death, fertility (from Nile mud), corruption, and the heart; red (deshier), blood-red (yenes), and blue-red (tjemes) signified masculinity, brutality and anger, and chaos; blue (kheshed) implied divinity (in association with the skies), truth, justice, virtue, and faith; green (wadj) was associated with health, fertile fields, strength, and flourishment; and yellow (ketj) indicated nature (or vegetal matter), protection, some foods, and the female body in some eras (Bunson 86, Cullen 131).

Let us turn to the following passage from Mohamed El-Bisatie’s very short Short-story, “Drought,” to examine the application of this color scheme (2 Johnson-Davies 74):

The air was colored a pale yellow, the sun covered over with a turbid coating.

The green patch rose slightly above the ground and the man disappeared into it. The other was still striding behind him in the dust storm, his gallabia wrapped tightly around his body.

The man walked along a narrow watercourse, on the sides of which were dark green thornbushes tipped with yellow flowers.

As mentioned earlier, the significance of many of these fellah narratives lies not in the dialogue or intimacies of the personages, but in fact in the descriptions and setting of the stories. In “Drought,” then, which lacks any dialogue, intimation, or explanation to render the story concrete meaning, the whole narrative hinges on the image – or, rather, series of images – presented and delineated to the reader for his/her own interpretation. This image, as is evident in the passage, is fraught with color and symbolism, which in this case follows a pattern of “pale yellow,” “green,” “dark green,” and “yellow.” Two relevant notes come to mind: first of all, there is an implied symmetry to this sequence of colors, yellow – green – green – yellow; secondly, in the ancient Egyptian color scheme, the colors featured in the passage of “Drought,” yellow and green, generally represent nature and, more specifically, green represents strength and health, and yellow indicates protection.

It follows that the symmetrical color pattern used to describe the bucolic setting seems to want to reproduce the intrinsic symmetry of nature. The same pattern dictated by the sequence of colors of the natural image is reflected in the interaction between the two men: short man (yellow) follows tall man (green), tall man (green) is killed and left behind by short man (yellow). But the narrative’s preoccupation with order and symmetry extends further. The two men are described likewise by color and order: the “tall man left first, wearing a black shirt and light shoes” while the short man “was wearing a dark-colored gallabia and had a dirty white shawl”; moreover, the narrative emphasizes that “the distance between them remained constant” (2 Johnson-Davies 73). The dynamic between the men is a careful balance of power and proportion: they are mirror images of each other, that have been distorted – one is short, one is tall; one wears a black shirt, one wears a dark-colored gallabia; one has light shoes, one has a dirty white shawl; one is following the other, the other is killed by the first. Similarly, the symmetry of the colors of nature is somewhat off: rather than strictly yellow – green – green – yellow, the hues have been slightly distorted, becoming “pale yellow” – “green” – “dark green” – “yellow,” so that they are not accurate reflections of one another.

The Modernist Ramón Valle-Inclán once said, here translated from Spanish, that the most beautiful images, in the face of a concave mirror, are absurd[9]. He composed literature on the premise that the tragedy of life can only be adequately expressed through a deformed and deforming aesthetic – modeled after the mathematic or calculated effect of the concave mirror –whereby he would distort classical forms, figures, and heroes to turn them into something grotesque. (Indeed, his narratives’ objective was always social or moral criticism, and death was always the result.) El-Bisatie here is not far off: he employs the narrative – his own concave lens – to gradually pervert these images (by distorting the symmetries of the colors and proportions of nature and the personages), whose natural order and balance is tipped – resulting in tragic death. Therefore, the narrative reveals an imperfect reality, which, beneath its idealization, is tragic and grotesque. In other words, behind the imaginary, mythical portrait of the heroic and idealized fellah is a deformed image, which is at once a distorted version of reality and also the more truthful depiction of our deformed reality – indeed, the real(ist) fellah figure.

Returning to the second use of color in this passage, wherein ancient Egyptian color schemes attribute green to strength and health, and yellow to protection, we see an extension of the first use: the parallel symmetry by which yellow – green – green – yellow is associated with short man – tall man – tall man – short man associates the Pharaonic mythological attributes of the former to the latter. In this way, the short man (the murderer) is associated with protection; while the tall man (the victim) is associated with strength and health. The inversion is evident. With the utmost irony, the symmetry and order of the image is once again distorted. Indeed, there is a strong criticism at work here (and criticism was, after all, the objective of Valle-Inclán’s esperpento): the invocation, idealization, and glorification of heroes in national consciousness, be they the mythical fellahin or the Pharaohs, is self-deceiving and pernicious to its ultimately reforming and unifying mission, because a nation cannot identify itself merely in visions – as Nasser did – but in tangibility and in reality.

Indeed, Nasser once postulated: “It seems to me that within the Arab circle there is a role wandering aimlessly in search of a hero… this role, exhausted by its wanderings has at last settled down, tired and weary, near the borders of our country,” presumably, within his own person (Lorenz 21)[10]. It is this fabricated “role,” this search for a “hero,” that El-Bisatie seems to criticize here: the creation and investment in mythical portraits and heroes that go unquestioned and uncriticized, which are as stagnant and fixed as the very distorted image that was painted of Egyptians (and so-called Orientals) by Orientalists and imperialists in order to dominate them, are toxic to the national(ist) struggle for identity and independence. Roland Barthes suggests in Camera Lucida that “color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses)” (Barthes 81): indeed, the use of color in “Drought” is distorting and superficial, for it deliberately disfigures and veils reality. Thus, the emphasis on color in the fellah narrative has a paradoxical effect: it both associates the fellah and thus the national identity with a celebrated Pharaonic past, and it simultaneously recognizes that, in so doing, it is merely constructing a vision – a variegated myth painted onto the black-and-white reality of the tragic fellahin life.

And therein is the importance of literature to the nationalist struggle, for verily the power of literature lies in what Federico García Lorca once called the (re-)ordering of landscapes (Lorca) – that is, the ability to reinterpret and imagine a new reality by deconstructing and reconstructing old metaphors, images, and myths; by rearranging the Pharaonic and fellah landscapes (and, quite literally, the colors and symmetries within them) to create a new national consciousness.

4. Conclusion: the fellahin in Egyptian national consciousness

The fellah figure and culture in Postmodernist literature serve at once to appropriate a traditional symbol that roots Egypt in a glorified Pharaonic past and associate it with certain values that are still deemed relevant to the nation today; but also to warn of the dangers of rooting identity in sterile myths and symbols, and to re-imagine the fellahin in a way befitting the self-perception and objectives of the contemporary national consciousness. Thus, the national consciousness being brewed here is, as initially discussed in Part One, adamantly realist and critical of any idealization, even as it adopts the traditional fellah myth in the attempt to reimagine and redefine it.

Conclusion: the postcolonial mestiza consciousness of the Egyptian nation

Egyptian national identity is born out of these Postmodernist Short-stories as a hybrid, multicultural, and critical consciousness that dares to ask and refuses to answer: to borrow the term of Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicano theorist and feminist, it is a consciousness that embraces its nepantilism – an Aztec word meaning torn between ways, which is used to describe “the conflict we experience as a people of mixed breeds who don’t fit into our ancestral culture or our adopted culture either;” that is, a hybrid nation that does not entirely fit in with its Pharaonic past and sterile fellah myth, nor strictly with its adopted (or imposed!) colonialized and, now, postcolonialized culture either (Anzaldúa 377). She further observes that nepantilism is not purely a psychological or emotional struggle, but a spiritual one as well: “It touches the very roots of our beings, our identities. If we do not address it at a conscious level and try to develop a tolerance for its contradictions and a tolerance for its ambiguity, the tug-of-war will destroy us” (Anzaldúa 379). It becomes evident from these stories, from the rape of Haniyya to the headmistress’ plight, that if the internal contradictions of Egyptian life are not exposed and questioned on the conscious level of these narratives, they will continue to fragment and debilitate the Egyptian nation, forced to define itself by imposed binaries – male and female, traditional and modern, oppressor and oppressed – that were inherited from its colonial ancestors and do not (cannot) apply to a modern Egypt that is intrinsically hybrid.

The national identity that emerges, then, from this embrace of fragmentation and of hybridity is a so-called mestiza consciousness, at once denoting a mixed heritage and also femininity, which fuses the reforming and critical aspect of the new nation as well as its re-imagined relationship to the fellahin and to its roots (Anzaldúa 378):

Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war. Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision [whence this new consciousness is brutally forged]. […] Rigidity means death. Only by remaining flexible [i.e. critical, self-questioning] is she able to stretch the psyche horizontally and vertically. La mestiza constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes. […] She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned [neither the fellah nor the colonial within]. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. […] In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts. That third element is a new consciousness – a mestiza consciousness – and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes form continual creative motion [i.e. the creation of new metaphors] that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm. […] By creating a new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave [and the ways we express ourselves] – la mestiza creates a new consciousness.

The challenge with which this new post-1967 national consciousness is faced is thus to redefine the way it understands itself as fragmented, by understanding itself as hybrid instead; by “a massive uprooting of [inherited] dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness” whence national consciousness emerges (Anzaldúa 379); by defying “History with a capital H” as it is likewise inherited, History as “a pretended order of things, the interpretation or even transformation of documents given and frozen into monuments” (Minh-ha 84). In so doing, this consciousness actively criticizes and questions “the old patterns [that] still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion,” for, indeed, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house;” and takes responsibility, too, for its own past passivity and corruption in resigning to lofty ideals that only mimicked colonial theories – both born out of imaginary realities that ignored Egyptian reality(ies) – because “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships” (Lorde 380).

Therefore, the Postmodernist Short-stories we have herein discussed are, in their own self-defined skepticism, the ideal platform on which to explore, frame, and conduct this struggle through a series of innovative metaphors, figures, and narratives. In a similar way, Nietzsche posited in 1873:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power. (Nietzsche 47)

Thus, the Egyptian national consciousness in these Short-stories is, in effect, probing these unchallenged truths and army of metaphors, and suggesting new ones – in female form, in a revised fellah form. In light of the mestiza consciousness, thus, “Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings” (Anzaldúa 380). Therefore, this national consciousness is itself the re-birth of the Egyptian nation “in an upsurging wave of warmth from her resilient flesh” (1 Johnson-Davies 15), so that, while many of these narratives may seem rather dismal, it becomes evident that it is only in this apparent pessimism that hope is discovered, “it is in looking to the nightmare that the dream is found” (Moraga 34); indeed, it is only in looking to these tragic stories that the dream of the Egyptian nation is found. 


Gemma was born in Barcelona, Spain, but had the fortune of traveling and living around the world thanks to her adventurous and hard-working mother. Four years ago she decided to move to California on her own and pursue Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. In her second year, Gemma fell utterly and completely in love with Arabic, after which she went on to study Middle Eastern Studies as well. This past year, as a graduating senior, Gemma had the unique opportunity to fuse her two academic interests: she devoted her senior thesis to the study of contemporary Egyptian literature. Gemma submitted the final product here in the hope that it will convey at least a glimpse of what this thesis — and what Egyptian literature in general — has meant to her.

[1] “a maqama is a short narrative written in elaborate language, but it has many subgenres which may sometimes be rather far from each other; in fact it might even be called a group of adjacent genres. The most common maqama is the so-called picaresque maqama, a comic story featuring a ragged hero whose eloquence is phenomenal. Not all maqamas fall within this category; there are also maqamas which use the same basic structure but give all emphasis to the show of eloquence, letting it overshadow the picaresque and comic elements. The maqama frame was even used to list Islamic heresies; the hero’s eloquence – or erudition – is displayed by his ability to extemporize such a list.” (Jaakko Hameen-Anttila, “Maqama: a history of a genre,” page 11)

[2] Said quotes Marx as an introduction to his theory of “Orientalism,” which begins: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

[3] Yusuf Idris, “Yusuf Idris yuqaddim katiba jadida,” Al-Shumu’, 3 (May 1986), pp. 86-87. Translation by Dalya Cohen-Mor.

[4] This theme is more specifically addressed in another of Salwa Bakr’s narratives, “The Beginning.”

[5] Bertolt Brecht: mechanisms of alienation. See page 31.

[6] The Green One.

[7] The Qu’ran describes djin (djinn, jinn) as made of smokeless flame or “the fire of a scorching wind.” They can be good or evil, like humans, but have the ability to change shape and occupy a parallel world to that of men.

[8] In 2009, Muslims constituted approximately 90% of the Egyptian population, close to 79 million people, making them 5% of the world’s total Muslim population.

[9] In Luces de Bohemia, the personage Max Estrella says: “Las imágenes más bellas en un espejo cóncavo son absurdas.” He then explains that he will define his aesthetic by this idea with the objective of reproducing the tragedy of life in art via the grotesque, which he terms esperpento. (Valle-Inclán)

[10] Lorenz derives the original quotation from: Nasser, Gamal Abdel. Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution. Washington: Public Affairs Press 1955.

10 thoughts on “National Identity in the Egyptian Post-modernist Story, by Gemma Juan-Simo

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