By Sherine Sobhy
Holding his cigarette, lost in thought, Bahaa Taher looks more like Don Quixote, whose patience and hope help him cure his own melancholy over the country. Despite his age, his vivid soul is still shinning. “I live life with an old man’s heart,” as he says. However, you quickly realise this is not true, with his witty jokes and his vivid laugh.
Taher hates to fight small battles that risk his neutrality. Despite his 20-year stay outside Egypt, his writings on the West did not receive a widespread readership there. He considered it an ordinary experience, so he described what he saw with honesty and neutrality. When we asked him what the difference between them was, and he said: democracy.
When you look at the 80 years of your life, what do you see?
I wished they were 40 years. I do not regret anything I have done, what I could have done with my life has already been done. Of course, we all make mistakes, but I do not have any great regrets.
As an 80-year-old man, do you live life as a child or as an old man?
Sadly, I live life with an old man’s heart. A wise man is the one who acknowledges his age within himself and does not try to surpass his capabilities.
Have you lost childhood’s curiosity and youth’s passion?
No, definitely. A writer never loses curiosity or passion. If he loses both, he loses what most defines him as a writer.
What about what you have lived and seen yet never wrote about?
I wish I wrote more about Upper Egypt, not just “Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery” and “East of the Palms”. However, there are some good writers from Upper Egypt, and I enjoy their writings and they are better than I am in writing about Upper Egypt.
You do not consider yourself from Upper Egypt?
I do belong to Upper Egypt’s heart and soul. When I worked in the palace of culture it was in Upper Egypt.
Why don’t you write about it again?
What I experienced, I wrote in “Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery” and “East of the Palms”. The modern Upper Egypt now is far from my experience.
Did your intellectual and literary beliefs change?
Of course they changed.
In what sense did they change?
I believe that each person’s judgment and character become wiser.
Do you think we are yet to be independent?
This is a tough question. I did not say we are dependent. National independency is fully achieved when we no longer need anyone to depend on, and this is yet to happen.
The July 1952 revolution went on for 60 years without achieving democracy, so when is it time?
I am a Nasserist.
But you agree that democracy is yet to take place?
Yes, I do. This is one of the gravest mistakes in the July 1952 revolution. The revolution achieved many goals, but the main goal, which would have guaranteed all other achievements, was not fulfilled.
What about the gravest mistakes of the 25 January Revolution?
I think it is still early to judge.
Why did intellects retreat in the year the Muslim Brotherhood ruled the country?
I did what I could at the time of the sit-in at the Ministry of Culture, and many others did too. However, you cannot judge a long battle by a few months or years.
At that time, you participated in the sit-in against the minister of culture and former president Mohammed Morsi too – is culture safe now?
I am an old man who does not follow up with cultural activities enough and I cannot judge.
Do you think the Ministry of Culture has a role?
Of course it has. The ministry’s role is important but I am in no position to judge its performance.
What about the intellects’ role?
Truthfully, the intellects’ role is not clear at all. It is either their fault or the authority’s, which is not giving them any chance to take a role.
Are they supposed to wait for the authority to give them the chance? Isn’t the relation between the authority and the intellect always in conflict?
It is true, which is why it is either their fault as a result of laziness to take a role, or an oppression by the authority.
Abdel Nasser did not support the intellects’ role and this was one of the reasons for the revolution failure, so does Al-Sisi support them?
I do hope so.
Is it not clear until now?
I hope he supports them. We have strange ideas on the intellects and we work with them in conferences and meeting, but this is not their role. Their job is to criticise and be listened to. And they don’t do this.
Isn’t it true that they do not criticise in the first place to be listened to?
This is funny, because you already answered the question yourself.
The main character in “Sunset Oasis” was part intellect, part traitor, and part rebel. Is this the case with intellects nowadays?
Some intellects are indeed like him.
What about the others?
Others have good intentions but circumstances stand in the way.
You were one of Al-Sisi’s supporters, so what do you think of his policies after ruling?
I believe I was right. I think Al-Sisi’s reputation defends him. It is enough to compare him to other presidents in the region – we do not witness any internal dissents or issues that threaten with civil war outbreak like the rest of the neighbouring countries. All of this is the results of Al-Sisi’s policy.
Is it right to compare him to other presidents as a way of judgment?
It is one way to judge, because the current situation in the region is also taking place in Egypt.
But maybe the nature of the Egyptian people does not allow for such things to happen like the rest of the countries?
What I mean is that a country’s regional location affects the nature of issues in the country, and this becomes a way of comparison.
What did Al-Sisi resolve and failed to resolve?
Egypt’s issues cannot be resolved in an overnight. We have some aggravated issues, and I believe that we should slowly walk in the right direction. Al-Sisi does not rush things; he walks slowly and step by step.
What about the people who think that Al-Sisi’s success is only externally but he fails in internal policies?
I think this is a false judgement, because his external policies are a reflection to his internal policies. I believe his external policies are proof of his good internal policies. Suffice it to say that he ordered the release of Ethiopians a few days ago.
Did you believe in Amal Dunqul’s prophecy in his poem “Dream not of a happy world, for behind every dying Caesar, there is a new one”?
It could have been right in some cases, but I hope it is not true most of the time.
Why couldn’t the civil movement have a real popularity in the streets?
The reason is because the civil movement could not follow any group like the fascist groups. The civil movement is based on freedom.
Why hasn’t it achieved any goals in spite of its old age?
You have to read my book “Refaa Sons”. Half of the book discusses the renaissance of the civil state, and the other half discusses the deterioration of the civil state. On the other hand, I wrote “The Days of Hope and Confusion” on the revolution.
Does the civil movement stand between hope and confusion?
Yes, it does.
Is there hope that the civil movement would take the lead?
It is actually the only hope for salvation for Egypt. However, there appear to be so many obstacles that must be overcome.
What is it that’s left for the movement to lead?
Naturally, the civil movement is led by freedom of choice, unless in some rare cases. During the revolution, for example, there was a consensus by the people to follow it. However, other movements and doctrines took over. When there is consensus, the civil movement will have a much greater chance.
Why did the obedience movement convince people against the civil movement?
You talk about Egypt as if it’s a one-of-a-kind case. This happens all over the world.
What does the elite need to lead a real civil movement?
It needs agreement not consensus, but we are different nations not one. So, it is hard for two people to agree on one issue.
Why is that?
A coalition should have been formed but it does not exist.
Perhaps the reason for this is that they prefer their personal interest over public interest?
This also could be. The elite are not ready to sacrifice for the sake of the public interest. Each person looks at it from a party’s point of view.
Doesn’t this bring us back to your words that the personal sacrifice for the intellect is over?
No, actually, it is not over; it did not even exist in the first place. Everyone thinks about his own interest not the public.
Every age has its elite, so how would you describe the intelligentsia nowadays?
We are full of flaws, as intellects and elite.
How would you describe it?
Intelligentsia is still searching for a path to walk into.
Where do you stand from the situation in Egypt?
You are asking an old man about the situation in Egypt. Of course I am very disappointed.
What are your disappointments?
We had many bold dreams and very few came to life.
What came to life?
There is persistence in making these dreams come true, and not just now, since Urabi’s days. Although we stumbled and fell back, we still persist.
If the revolution was a novel you were writing, what would its events be?
I believe that we must not let our hope be defeated.
What are you currently writing?
I am now writing an idea that has been in my mind for so long: justice. The events take place in a law field.
Do you plan to write your diaries?
Many people asked me to write a diary of my own. I did indeed write a small diary in the introduction of “Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery”.
People always surround writers with a halo, so doesn’t a diary break this halo?
In Egypt, specifically, it is very risky to write a diary. If you remember Shokry Ayyad, when he wrote his diaries everyone attacked him. It is very hard in Egypt to talk bluntly about yourself.
Stories in the fifties were described as full of struggle, in the sixties as torn, affected by the surrounding environment, so how would you describe today’s stories?
Today’s stories do not follow one scheme. There is no one general tendency or doctrine; everyone writes different ideas.
Have you noticed anything special about the new generation of writers?
As for writers from Upper Egypt, for example, I am a big fan of Adham Al-Aboudi and Ashraf El-Khamisy. I am not a fan, however, of Café Riche [famous meeting point for intellectuals and artists in downtown Cairo] writers, who live in a closed circle of their own.
What do our writers need to be in Naguib Mahfouz’s level?
This is a very difficult question. It is not translation nor publishing that make a great writer; it is his works.
Doesn’t translation play a major role in a writer’s success outside his sphere?
It does under difficult conditions. It needs the translator to have good mother tongue skills and to understand of the foreign language, which is rare these days. He should be able to read between the lines.
What about the criticism movement nowadays? Is it in the same line with the literary movement?
One of the advantages of the sixties generation to which I belong was the presence of a great criticism movement. It started with the late Mohamed Mandour then Anwar El-Maadawi and Abdel Qader Qott. Criticism movement is a great companion to creativity, and its absence detracts from creativity. Now, we do not have a criticism movement; the last mindful literary critic was Farouk Abdel Qader, may he rest in peace.