Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Cultural Renaissance in Egypt?

There is much talk within Cairo's cultural circles of an existing, or imminent, cultural renaissance in Egypt. The increase in the number of new bookstores and new publishers over the past few years gave the impression that Egypt is about to revive its long dead cultural life. A number of factors, however, suggest just the opposite.

To start with, much of the ongoing cultural activity is closer to “imitation” than it is to “creation.” Where creativity is scarce and exposure to the “other” abundant, plagiarism of others' theories and ideas becomes commonplace. Indeed, in Egypt, even the genres through which art and culture are expressed are borrowed from the outside, particularly the West. One cannot overlook the recent rise and spread of a number of artistic genres, which have been until recently alien to Egypt and the entire Arab world, such as standup comedians, TV sitcoms, and self-help books (that aspire to teach you almost everything in life). These genres share one common aspect: they were born and nurtured in the West. In contrast, indigenous forms of expression, such as religious chanting, traditional crafts making and storytelling of epic poems, are withering away.

Similarly, the vast majority of the shows produced by the nearly 500 Arab satellite channels, that broadcast around the clock, are just replicas of famous Western shows. It is extremely rare to find an Arab program that is centered on a creative idea, which is not plagiarized.

In a globalized world, the dominance of the West has been overwhelming. Even religious preaching has been affected by the mindset of the Western civilization. Patrick Haenni argues in L'Islam de Marche: L'Autre Revolution Conservatrice (Market Islam: The Other Conservative Revolution) that the concepts focused upon by the modern, televangelist preacher Amr Khaled are compatible with the tenets of globalization. Unlike preachers of earlier generations, who have reduced Islam to the notion of Jihad, the drive for syncretism between Islam and globalization has characterized the approach of Khaled and many other preachers. These preachers' brand of Islam, described by Haenni as “air-conditioned Islam,” is centered on concepts like self-improvement, personal salvation and economic success. No wonder then that the values of success, hard work, efficiency and self-development are among Khaled's favorite topics.

There can also be no cultural renaissance as long as levels of scientific and cultural production remain as low as they are today. In 2007, the total number of books published in the entire Arab world -- Egypt included -- stood at 27,000. That’s less than the annual production of many developing countries. The tradition of translation, one of the channels for passing on the knowledge of other cultures, has also faltered in the region. To cite just one example, Greece translates five times more works than all Arab states combined.

In addition, the quality of education in Egypt has been rapidly deteriorating for the past few decades. Today, no Egyptian university could be found in the list of the top 500 universities in the world. Graduates of Egyptian universities are not in demand, even in neighboring Arab states, which were until very recently the prime recruiter of the Egyptian work force.

An increase in the number of bookstores does not always indicate a cultural awakening. Indeed, it could point to the exact opposite, reflecting the dominance of consumerism, and the decline of cultural taste. The sales figures of blogs-turned-books are bigger than works written by prominent novelists. One can blame it on new marketing techniques, which have found in the book market a new field, mostly to sell works of shallow content and low linguistic quality. In other words, nothing fundamental has changed with regards to the quantity and quality of cultural production, except for a sly attempt at decanting old wine into a new bottle.

Certainly, a cultural awakening cannot go in tandem with the absence of creativity, low levels of production and a deterioration of standards of education. Indeed, the distinguished Syrian philosopher and poet Adonis argued that because of their negligible contribution to thought and science, Arabs have become extinct:
"If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world."

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 2, 2009.

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