Reading historical events narrated by historians does not mean that we read the whole truth. This is simply because the history books are full of imaginary events that historians may have to fabricate to fill the gaps in history that only primary sources can fill.
Therefore, the truest historical facts are what we read through autobiographical books, especially those related to people who contributed to creating and making this history.
For this reason, the biography of the eminent Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy, which is currently being displayed at the Cairo International Book Fair, is considered one of the most important books dealing with contemporary Egyptian history despite being a personal memoir.
Salmawy is not only a renowned writer and journalist in the Arab world, but he also enjoys international fame, as many of his literary works have been translated into many languages, such as English, French, Italian, and Urdu.
Also, many of his plays were presented in American and European theatres, such as ‘Salome’, which dealt with the Palestinian issue, and ‘Al-Janzeer’ (‘The Chain’), which addressed the phenomenon of terrorism since its inception.
In addition to his distinguished productions in the world of literature and journalism, Salmawy contributed through his various leadership positions to enriching Egyptian cultural life. His work for several years in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture resulted in the establishment of the Modern Opera House and the inauguration of the International Festival of Experimental Theatre. The years of his tireless work as president of the Egyptian Writers Union also resulted in choosing the union to be the only body in the Middle East to nominate writers for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Salmawy also participated in writing the Egyptian constitution in 2014 after the Egyptian people overthrew the terrorist and fanatical rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, where he added an important chapter to the current constitution under the title ‘Cultural Ingredients’, which focuses on the cultural aspect of society and soft powers in general, an aspect that has been neglected by all previous constitutions in the history of Egypt since the era of Khedive Ismail in 1879, as Salmawy confirms in his book.
The second part of Salmawy’s biography bears the Arabic title ‘Al-Asef and Al-Rayhan’ (‘Husks and Scented Plants’). Through this creative metaphorical title inspired by the Noble Quran, the writer shows us how fleeting events in his life were mixed with significant events that contributed greatly to the making of the current history of Egypt culturally and politically as well.
This part of Salmawy’s biography deals with the period from 1981 to 2014, which witnessed the assassination of president Anwar Al-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak’s assumption of power, the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, and the adoption of the 2014 constitution.
Undoubtedly, reading history from a personal perspective gives a more profound dimension to historical events and also gives satisfactory explanations for matters that have remained ambiguous for long periods. Indeed, this biography gives a clear answer about how the brotherhood and other fanatical and terrorist groups rose in the Egyptian political scene and captured the minds of simple people despite being a banned group on the official level for their litany of crimes of terrorism that targeted great symbols in this society, including international Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz.
The lax policies that promote half-solutions, compromises, and political deals are the reason for creating fertile ground for the growth and spread of these groups. This is how Salmawy’s biography answers this ambiguous question simply and with a deep understanding of Egyptian political reality at that period.
Salmawy says: “The ambiguous policy of President Mubarak’s regime towards religious extremism — which led to the spread of the phenomenon of terrorism in an unprecedented way — was a policy inherited from the era of Al-Sadat. On the one hand, Al-Sadat’s government fought political Islam — whether it was extremist or otherwise — and prohibited Islamists from interfering in politics, and on the other hand, it left the field completely open to religious advocacy activity for the same groups, not only in mosques and zawiyas (small places of worship), but also in various official media outlets, until preachers became TV stars with fans and followers. The thing that created a suitable ground for religious extremism was the governments fighting against it.”
The book also reveals the role played by the Obama administration and the US in supporting this terrorist group to reach the rule of Egypt through the visit of John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate at the time, to the office of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo to urge them to run in the presidential elections, and American funding obtained by the Brotherhood as well as the efforts of former ambassador Anne Patterson to support and encourage the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The book also reveals the project of settling Palestinians in Sinai, which the US supported and backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in its implementation, which was revealed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a private meeting between him and Salmawy during the rule of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Salmawy’s biography is more than just personal memoirs. Indeed, it is a key historical reference for very critical periods in the history of Egypt. It is worth translating into many languages for the world to read and grasp modern Egyptian history from the perspective of an honest patriotic writer who struggled desperately to rid Egypt of this obscurantist thought and is considered one of Egypt’s cultural symbols.
Marwa Al-Shinawy: Assistant Prof. at International American University for Specialised Studies (IAUS)