Watani talks to Fatima Naoot
“As Egypt takes a new step towards democracy, I would like to carry the torch of enlightenment in our society, the torch of my predecessors such as Averroes, Ibn Arabi, Jibran Khalil Jibran, Ghandi, Martin Luther King and the many others who left a mark in our world and to whom I am most loyal,” says writer and poet Fatima Naoot.
Naoot is a household name in Egypt. Young and beautiful, she is renowned for her outspokenness and the progressive, enlightened stance she takes on events. She describes herself as a child, a dreamer constantly in search for beauty in all its forms; she hopes to see Egypt in the way she so deserves to be, at the pinnacle of beauty and civilisation. In her interview with Watani, Naoot talks about her view of the current period and discusses many of the thorny issues in Post-Arab Spring Egypt. Naoot is a fearless figure who has always attacked fundamentalism and fought for enlightenment and acceptance of the other.
Running for parliament at this stage is of great significance. What role do you intend to play?
I never thought of running for parliament because I always considered that writers and poets who were concerned about the political and social situation in a developing country like Egypt could play a role that surpassed that of lawmaking. I always valued my intellectual independence that sees all citizens equal in rights and duties regardless of religious, ethnic or political affiliations. A writer’s intellect and worth goes beyond the ideology of a party or a group; that’s why I never thought of joining a political party or assuming a political position. But after the revolutions of 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013 I had to review my stance—though not my opinion—to adopt one that is more realistic and down to earth. When you are a free bird, you are creative but not necessarily useful to your society. However, at this particular time I want to play a constructive role in society, leading it towards enlightenment by carrying the torch of our enlightened ancestors who have shaped the history of mankind. I am loyal to great minds of the past and feel that it is my duty to keep their great ideas alive. But to be able to fulfil this role, I must get closer to the average citizens on the street and have a better understanding of them and their needs. And this is how I was pushed towards parliament. I am running for parliament because this is what the people are asking me to do. Whenever I walk through the streets of Cairo, ordinary people in the street ask me to run for parliament because they are afraid that some groups on the political scene are promoting dark, sectarian ideas. People are clinging to public figures who have the courage to stand against sectarianism; they are counting on them to make their voices heard in the upcoming parliament. I am personally not desperately seeking a seat in parliament, and if I don’t win in the upcoming elections I will not be upset because I would have responded to the calls of the people but at the same time I will regain the precious time I dedicate to my literary calling.
What are the most important intellectual battles that currently engage you?
The issues I am working on are known and published and familiar to anyone who reads my writings. I am concerned with the idea of beauty. Beauty encompasses all the values of justice, equality, respecting women, respecting nature, and also respecting animals. There are many components that make up the idea of beauty. A look at the civilised world reveals that all creatures are respected. Children come first; close on their heels come the elderly, women, animals and men. Children are given the highest priority because they are the investment in the future; seniors are respected for the services they have given to society and the time has come for them to be honoured and cared for. Women come next because they are worthy of respect; civilisations are usually measured by the extent to which they respect women. Animals are respected and protected because they are creatures weaker than humans, and men come at the end of the list because they are by nature the strongest. It is sad that this system of beauty does not exist in modern-day Egypt, even though she is the cradle of civilisation. What I care about most are the issues of justice, equality, beauty, respect for humanity and respect for nature.
Could the upcoming parliament be considered the most critical of all Egypt’s parliaments?
Yes, even though it will definitely not be the strongest. The strongest and most important will be the one that will follow the upcoming parliament, because it will assume the role of rebuilding Egypt. The upcoming parliament is the most critical because, given the wide authorities the Constitution gives parliament, it will determine who will have the power to run Egypt in the future. If Islamist parties manage to win a majority, they will have the right to form a government, amend the Constitution and law, choose the Prime Minister, and approve or reject a PM chosen by the President, etc. In one word, they will get hold of State institutions and can work towards destroying whatever was achieved by the Egyptians who overthrew longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, then again overthrew the Muslim Brothers in 2013. I consider myself an ordinary moderate Egyptian, and ordinary Egyptians like me can constitute a stumbling block in the face of the Islamists who exploit people in the name of religion. We are facing two threats: a Salafi audacity which lacks enlightenment and civilisation and which can push the entire society towards a dark abyss, and the Mubarak allies who were once the main reason behind the corruption of political life.
What do you think of the ideas propagated by the religious currents which undermine Egyptian women?
It is said that one day the plague hit a certain area and people asked the sheikhs for advice. The sheikhs claimed that the plague spread when women left their houses; the result was that women were banned from leaving the house for fear of spreading the disease. The accumulation of such incidents created inside the women themselves the feeling that they were unwanted and that they must only be the followers of men. But I also blame women, not only for accepting this discrimination but also for being complicit in it by behaving as second class citizens. To advance women, it is not enough to draft laws that grant them equality to men; the State must also work to cultivate the feminine intellect by developing their minds and thinking. We need women who believe in themselves and understand that they are equal to men. Women’s animosity towards themselves must first be destroyed for them to achieve self-acceptance.
Many of the new Islamic preachers, who are very popular on satellite channels, propagate regressive ideas that poison people’s minds. What in your opinion can the venerable Islamic institution of al-Azhar do to counter this and introduce religious reform?
We need an intellectual revolution that will reshape the mentality of the Arab mind. The entire society must participate in reforming the religious address. We need an intellectual revolution originating from a strong popular base; the failed education system is the main reason for the corruption of the intellect and the shallowness of ideas. We also need strong law enforcement because when people know they will not be punished for a crime they feel at ease with wrongdoing. This is especially the case when the wrongdoing is based on allegedly religious teachings. Law enforcement is feeble when tradition, steeped in religion, is stronger and more relevant than the law; this resulted from the invasion of backward ideas.
Al-Azhar [an Islamic university besides being an authority on Sunni Islam] launched a recent effort to revise the curriculum it has been teaching for many generations and to purge it of many ideas that conflicted with the principles of a civil society as governed by law. After 30 June 2013, intellectuals started to dig into these books and came out with many ultra-conservative ideas that are totally unfit for our modern society. The move came in response to the call by President Sisi to reform the Islamic religious address in order for it to be more reasonable and more in line with our modern times. So far, al-Azhar has responded positively and we are counting on it to correct many of the misconceptions in our society.
The campaign ‘No to Religious Parties’ was launched as the parliamentary elections were about to start. In your opinion, is it better to ban these parties or let the ballot box have the last word?
The political parties law in Egypt stipulates that any party founded on a religious basis is illegitimate. To get round it, Islamist parties resort to including a few Coptic members to rebut any allegation of being ‘religious’ parties. The law must be guarded against such tricks. We are against religious parties because they promote sectarianism and division. The State must make every effort for the values of citizenship to prevail. No society can ever advance if it is plagued with sectarianism. In developed countries, which Islamists call the ‘countries of the infidels’, it is frowned on for anyone to ask about the other’s religion. Therefore my answer is yes, of course I am all the way against religious parties.
Can ‘political money’ influence the results of the parliamentary elections?
Unfortunately some candidates spend millions to win a seat in parliament, claiming that their main concern is to help the poor while in reality they are only seeking their personal interest. These people do not make good MPs. As for me, I thank God that I don’t possess that much money to spend on the elections; as I said previously, I am running these elections at the request of many Egyptians.
What should be the characteristics of a person who engages in public service?
This person must be a free citizen, not convicted in sectarian or corruption cases. He or she must believe in a civil State that upholds the law, in citizenship rights, in the respect of women, and the respect of the other. This person must also reject sectarianism and discrimination.
The piano is your election symbol. What do you think music and art can do for the people of Egypt?
The piano is a symbol of beauty and balance. It is an instrument which is played using the coordination of both hands. Music and art are a life necessity, not a commodity. Music refines the body and soul and along with the other fine arts helps humans reach new intellectual and artistic heights. Music has the power to soften the harshest souls and cure collapsing societies. I asked the director of the Cairo Opera House, Dr Ines Abdel-Dayem, who is also a renowned flautist and one of the icons of 30 June Revolution, to open the doors of the Opera House to the students of schools and universities for no fee or a nominal one to refine the minds of our young people and plant the values of beauty in our children.
You said Egypt needed a better education system. What do you suggest?
Education in Egypt is going from bad to worse. In fact, it is wrong even to say that we have an ‘education system’. You can’t say that we must improve the education system because we don’t have one in the first place. We need to blow up the entire system and rebuild it from scratch. Our school curriculum promotes racism and discrimination; it divides society into men and women, Christian and Muslim, rich and poor. It does not encourage social values such as inclusion or team work and the result is that everyone tries to destroy the other and accuse him or her of being infidel. We think that our personal success depends on the failure of others; the concept of win-win is non-existent. The people’s behaviour is poisoned by the wrong ideas they have been taught since their early childhood; the education system transforms pure, innocent children into human beings with disorders. Education is one of my main priorities because it requires a lot of time before any effort bears fruit, and because it is very costly to restructure the entire system starting with the curricula and schools to the teachers and the students themselves. The State is currently focused on two main problems: terrorism and the budget deficit; education and other problems come after these. I hope that all the problems will be solved in parallel and that businessmen will contribute towards solving the education problem. We need to recreate history and adopt Muhammad Ali’s approach when he sent Egyptians to study in France so they would return and transfer their experience to Egypt. I believe we must grant teachers scholarships in the West to qualify them and teach them the Western principles of education.
When will the young people take over and participate efficiently in the advancement of Egypt?
This will only happen when they replace the older generation in key positions in the State. Young people must be given the chance to participate actively in a society that lacks energy and enthusiasm. I am not saying that we dispose of the experience of the older generation; all I am demanding is that the State give the young a chance to be active players in their society. We must build a young State with fresh ideas; building a new society must rely on youth and innovation.
Is it time for Egyptian women to obtain their rights and resume the important political role they played in Egypt’s recent revolutions?
I am proud to say that 56 per cent of those who joined in the 2011 and 2013 revolutions were women. Women always give without asking for anything in return. I believe that up to now Egyptian women have not been granted their full rights, many women are forced to undergo outdated practices such as FGM, many are still uneducated, many are subjected to harassment on the streets. If we take a look at our ancient Egyptian civilisation we will see how Egyptian women were, from time immemorial, respected and appreciated.
Fatima Naoot is a dazzling example of an Egyptian woman. Where were you educated and who instilled in you the love of reading and culture?
As they say, one man’s loss is another man’s gain. My grandfather was a great intellectual and a well-read person; he spoke seven languages and was a lover of French literature. Unfortunately, he lost his eyesight so my grandmother used to hire university students to read to him. But none of them read correctly, which displeased my grandfather very much, so I undertook reading to him. He started to teach and cultivate my mind in my early years and I discovered that reading was a real joy because it is in itself an art form, just like music, poetry or dancing. I was also impacted by people like Mother Theresa who left the whole world to serve those in need; she served lepers whom no one would even approach. She used to say that these people were not the ill ones; the real illness was the lack of love in the community. When one feels unloved, physical illness invades the body. The other people who influenced my personality and cultivated my soul were the great men who left a mark on our world like Mahatma Ghandi who liberated his people. I really wish to follow in the footsteps of such great men.
You appear confident that you can win a seat in parliament even though you don’t have the necessary funds for campaigning.
Success is in the hands of God. May whoever can serve Egypt better win. As a writer and poet, my time is consumed by my work; my main aim in winning a seat in parliament is to become a stumbling block in the path of whoever wishes to destroy Egypt.
4 November 2015