Walima lil-Irhab al-Deeni (A Banquet for Religious Terrorism); Helmy al-Namnam; Dar al-Hurriya; Cairo 2000
WATANI International 11 April 2010
In all the history of literature, one has never heard of a novel that changed a social or a religious principle. Hundreds of novels that broke down the political codes of the Soviet Union were published, but when the regime finally fell it was not because of a literary work but because the ideology and system that backed it was full of flaws and its downfall was predestined.
Back in 2000, Egypt was on boiling point for a month and a half, a result of violent demonstrations by the students of the Islamic al-Azhar University against the book Walima li-Aashab al-Bahr (A Banquet for Seaweed), written by Syrian author Haydar Haydar, and deemed derogatory of Islam. The book was consequently banned. The ban drove the Egyptian liberal writer Helmy al-Namnam to write Walima lil-Irhab al-Deeni (A Banquet for Religious Terrorism) in defence of the first novel against public allegations of promoting atheism and apostasy. The book is still as fresh today as it was printed some 10 years ago, reminding that the current literary climate is still replete with threatening fundamentalism.
In his study, Namnam attempted to refute all the negative allegations that served to mobilise public opinion against Haydar’s novel. He saw A Banquet for Seaweed rather a victory for Islamic principles based on justice and liberty. Any supposed insult to Islam—and critics insist there were none—in the novel came on the tongue of the protagonist who was an atheist.
Two weeks after A Banquet for Seaweed was published in November 1999, copies were collected and dumped in storerooms. Four months later, it was rumoured by al-Azhar that the book was blasphemous. This led to an unusual level of public protest, reflecting the domination of religious thought over the Egyptian public, which has been invariably revenged upon the secular intellectuals who played an important role in fighting terrorism in the 1990s.
Harassing the liberals
Namnam writes that the confiscation of Haydar’s book made liberals feel they were being harassed and rejected, accused of deriding Islam and hence their blood could be readily shed. No wonder Farag Fouda was assassinated, Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck, Makram Mohamed Ahmed was shot, and others categorised by Islamists as crossing the limits of Islam were declared apostate who deserved to be killed.
The repercussions of Haydar’s book were bleak, and all the parties lost the battle. The image of intellectuals was mutilated; the activities of the political party which held the banner of defaming Haydar and his novel were frozen by the authorities since they were accused of inciting riots, and its newspaper was closed. The government appeared confused and unable to take in the crisis. The most devastating loss was Egypt’s because its enlighenment movement was placed in jeopardy.
Namnam thinks that the style of writing and the content of old Arabic and Islamic books were more liberal compared with today’s publications. A bone of contention in A Banquet for Seaweed was the character of Fulla bu-Ennam, who was regarded as an adulteress. However, if one reads the al-Aghani (The Songs) by the 10th century Persian poet Abul-Faraj al-Isfahani who wrote in Arabic, hundreds of bondwomen are depicted as sleeping with their masters, and no one ever heard of the book being denounced in any Arab country. In his book Kitab al-Milal wal-Nihal (The Book of Sects and Creeds), the Persian 12th century writer al-Shahrastani exposes all the religions practices of his day that were opposed to Islam. He was never categorised as an apostate.
A Banquet for Religious Terrorism warns against extremist thought and those seeking hegemony over people’s minds by claiming that censoring works of art would lead to better social ethics. Extremists invariably wage war against intellectuals and women. Intellectuals are considered dangerous because they question deep-rooted paradigms, while women are dangerous because they might demand their rights, defying the male dominated matrix that subdues them. The fights will last as long as there are those who claim religious taboos are essential for social peace.