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“In the face of fear, I chose to be honest”

Ekhlas Atallah

03 Aug 2014 12:03 pm

Egypt recently lost a great writer and activist, Fathiya al-Assaal (1933 – 2014), a woman of significance “Art and culture are a soft power; I want them to turn into a fierce power. Intellectuals and artists must be active as much as they are creative; they must be politically active, not just culturally active. Cultural action is linked to the street; the Ministry of Culture must open up to the public… We must stand united for our demands.” So said writer and activist Fathiya al-Assaal at the sit-in held by intellectuals in June 2013 in front of the Culture Ministry in Cairo to protest against decisions implemented by the Islamist minister Alaa’ Abdel-Aziz. This was right before the revolution on 30 June 2013 when 33 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding an end to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) rule. The military stepped in and, on 3 July, the Islamists were overthrown. Assaal had been among hundreds of intellectuals who were protesting against the Islamist regime’s negative impact on cultural life in Egypt. Moment of truth Fathiya al-Assaal (20 February 1933 – 15 June 2014) was a board member of the Writers’ Union of Egypt and Secretary-General of the Progressive Women’s Union. From 1983 until her death, Assaal was head of the Egyptian Women Writers’ Association, an association that aimed to encourage talented young female writers, help them improve their writing skills and introduce them to the literary world. She was a scriptwriter too, writing no fewer that 57 television scripts including Lahzet Sidq (A Moment of Truth), which won the best Egyptian series award in 1975, as well as several theatrical plays. Assaal’s life was marked by traumatic childhood experiences such as her circumcision (female genital mutilation), witnessing her father’s infidelity to her mother, and being deprived of an education. But every cloud has a silver lining, and out of Assaal’s bitter experience there emerged a woman who was strong-willed and unafraid. She rebelled, sought self-education, and went out to be an outspoken writer whose views roiled the authorities. This landed her in prison three times. Assaal was especially candid when writing about women. She was a fighter, true to herself, and never diverged from the road she chose. She saw in writing a means of purifying the soul by turning a psychological burden into a lifetime experience. She endowed her female protagonists with a strength that enabled them to defy the impossible. They all wanted to attain power and freedom; it was a reflection of her personal victory over the difficulties she faced early on in life. She always stressed the strength of ordinary women and the amazing willpower that resides in each and every one of them. Embrace of a lifetime One of Assaal’s most renowned works is the TV series Hiya wal-Mustaheel (She and the Impossible), thought to be a true account of her experience of education and marriage, and what she had to endure because of her lack of knowledge and important skills she never had the chance to learn in her early years. Assaal confessed that she hesitated many times to write her autobiography which, she said, entailed speaking about the humiliation of her childhood and adolescence, and the ignorance so deep-rooted in the community. One day, however, her daughter accused her of ambivalence: how was it possible that she claimed to be emancipated yet was reluctant to relate her personal experience? So Assaal worked up the courage to faithfully write her autobiography, Hudn al-Umr (The Embrace Of A Lifetime), which was published by the General Egyptian Book Authority. “For many years I planned to write my autobiography in the third person and use pseudonyms,” she wrote. “I was scared, but in the end I realised that I couldn’t write using false names. In the face of fear, I chose to be honest.” Although she wrote about the smallest details of her life, she repeatedly revised and rewrote the work, extra cautious not to offend or humiliate anyone. Critic Sherine Aboul-Naga says that Assaal’s honesty comes through from the very first paragraphs of Hudn al-Umr. Free from the chains of ignorance In her autobiography, Assaal tells about her childhood and adolescence and the constraints imposed on her in the name of custom or religion just because she was a girl. Her father forced her to leave school at the age of ten, even before she had had the rudiments of an education. Walking in the footsteps of their father, her brother Hosni played the role of censor. He punished her for standing in front of the window and taking part in a protest against the British occupation of Egypt. Assaal’s willpower was obvious even in those early years. After her father took her out of school, she decided to teach herself and started writing stories; ironically, she did this under the watchful and encouraging eye of her father. If anything, it indicates the father had nothing against educating his daughter but was, like many others during that time, anxious to marry her off well; it was believed then that years of schooling reduced a girl’s chance of getting married. Dropping out of school was a turning point in Assaal’s life. She began to rebel against authority and adopted opposition as a way of life. Still very young, she found refuge in the left-wing movement that was sweeping the world at that time. It was while demonstrating with female activists that she met her mentor and future husband, the writer and leftist activist Abdallah al-Toukhi, who encouraged and guided her through self-education and told her never to give up. In time, she freed herself from the chains of ignorance. Creative by nature, she expressed herself through writing; it was her way of liberating herself from the constraints imposed on her. Culture and literature led her to the world of politics. A prisoner’s wife While yet in her teens, Assaal married Toukhi, after which she became actively involved in public life. She joined HADETO, an acronym for Al-Haraka al-Dimocratiya lil-Taharrur al-Watani, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, an underground communist movement. But she left the movement because of what she saw as the way it stereotyped issues, especially women, and proceeded with her struggle away from the rigid classifications and regulations of political organisations. In 1953, Toukhi was imprisoned for being a member of the Communist Party. It was the first time in her life that Assaal had to face the world on her own. She became head of the Families’ Committee, the responsibility of which was to care for the detainees and their families, acting as a link between those inside and outside prison. Assaal’s only way to communicate with her husband was through a woman named Meallima Gamalaat Kenken, whose own husband was in prison on drug charges. ‘Meallima’ is a denotation commonly given to strong, boisterous, fearless women in underprivileged neighbourhoods, who take matters into their hands and impose their will on all around them. They are usually feared and obeyed. Gamalat was all that Assaal was not on the social level, but definitely shared her fearless nature. Gamalaat took Assaal under her wing, while her husband helped Toukhi inside the prison by facilitating the exchange of letters between them. Gamalat was all-important for Assaal, because she shattered the misconceptions commonly held about people belonging to the poorer social class. Assaal and Gamalaat were drawn close in a sincere friendship that threw to the wind all social differences and illustrated Assaal’s belief in the basic goodness of all human beings, an attitude she retained throughout her life. Political struggle Assaal continued her political struggle by demanding the abolition of martial law; she also addressed the then-president, Muhammad Naguib, asking the State to abide by the rules for the treatment of prisoners as stipulated by the Geneva Convention. She paid a heavy price for this action; she was thrown into solitary confinement for 14 days with her newborn son, Ihab. Although a communist at heart, Assaal criticised the party not for their political vision, but for the personal conflict between the members and those of other political organisations and parties. “During that time,” she recalled, “the arrests involved members of various parties and organisations with different political views. It was normal for them to argue inside prison, but what I saw as totally unacceptable was for the misunderstandings to spill over to their families outside.” Assaal was a follower of Marx and opposed Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s (c.1956 – 1970) autocratic rule; however, she always considered him the only national leader who was faithful to the Pan-Arab project and maintained Egypt’s Arab identity. Later, when Anwar al-Sadat became president in 1970 and restored the political parties which Nasser had abolished, Assaal joined the leftist Tagammu Party. She became a prominent leader in its Progressive Women’s Union, the Freedom of Expression and Knowledge Front—an organisation that she founded with writer and actress Isaad Yunis—and the Writers Union of Egypt. When Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, Assaal opposed the peace treaty; she was arrested for participating in demonstrations and for writing against political normalisation with Israel. In 1982, Assaal travelled to Beirut with other writers and artists to express their opposition of the siege of the city by the Israeli army, remaining there until the ceasefire resolution was passed. MB destroy Egypt’s culture Assaal believed in maintaining one’s cultural identity and opposed every attempt to tamper with it. After the MB took the reins of power in Egypt in June 2012, the Islamist Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz attempted to impose the MB’s radical ideology on the cultural scene in Egypt. Assaal, who was then 80 years old, joined other artists and intellectuals in their sit-in at the ministry, demanding not only the dismissal of Abdel-Aziz but also the end of MB rule. “The MB will be no more than a single drop in the ocean of history,” she said. “Their ideas are like insects that crawled out of a hole and must be destroyed.” Questioning her marriage The way in which so-called progressive men handled gender equality was a huge disappointment to Assaal. At first she saw these men as angels, but then realised that, “… their talk about politics was great, their talk about culture even better, but when it came to their opinion about women, it was pure rubbish.” She later admitted that not all men were alike, and that during her lifetime she had also met men of great integrity, not only towards women but towards life in general. One of the most difficult and controversial moves by Assaal was her request for a divorce from Abdallah al-Toukhi in 1982. For a long time she believed that it was the divergence of their opinions on the Egypt Israel peace treaty but after some soul-searching she realised that it was her way of rebelling against her husband’s guardianship in which she felt trapped. She could not understand how, after so many years, he longed for the ‘old Fathiya’, an indication for her that he could not fully accept her independence and emancipation. She believed that he was still hanging on to the old, inherited customs when a woman was under a man’s wing. Her freedom was precious, and throughout her entire lifetime she would ask herself: “Am I really free, or am I just pretending?” Three years after their divorce Assaal and Toukhi remarried. He died on 26 February 2001. They are survived by three sons and a daughter, actress Safaa’ al-Toukhi. WATANI International 3 August 2014

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