The disappearance yesterday of the bust of Taha Hussein (1889 – 1973), from the main town square in Minya, the capital town of his home province of Minya in Upper Egypt, aroused the wrath and aversion of non-Islamist Egyptians.
Hussein, the blind intellectual of modest origins who rose to be among the most prominent who spearheaded the Egyptian enlightenment movement in the 20th century, is held in high esteem by Egyptians not only for rising to an exceptional intellectual level, but also for breaking the social taboos of poverty and disability.
Minya honoured her son by having his bust placed on a pyramid-shaped pedestal in the most important and, according to Minya residents, most beautiful spot in town: flanked by the majestic Nile and the Minya governorate building. The spot is so loved by Minya townspeople that brides and grooms insist on having a wedding photo next to Hussein’s bust.
Statues as idols
The disappearance of the bust has Minya people, intellectuals, and rights activists, up in arms. Fingers point at radical Islamists who argue that statues are idols that ought to be demolished. Countless intellectual battles have erupted between them and the liberals on that head. Since the January 2011 Revolution and the rise of Islamism, however, these battles have escalated from the mere verbal clash of swords to the deliberate demolition of several statues in various spots in Egypt. Last year saw the destruction of a sculpture from the Aswan Symposium that had graced the entrance to the satellite town of Sheikh Zayed, west of Cairo. And only last week a statue of the legendary 20th century diva Umm Kulthoum in her home province of Mansoura East of the Nile Delta was covered by niqab, the Islamic full face veil.
The Facebook page of the Minya Literary Club posed a couple of telling questions. “Are we reading between the lines, or are we seeing the incident as just another event of lawbreaking, and giving it our back? Has the grave been dug today for writers and intellectuals? And will these do something to retrieve Hussein’s bust, or will our heads go the same way as his bust did?”
The literary circles in Minya are particularly incensed at the fact that the police has taken no action whatsoever vis-à-vis the bust disappearance.
The Ihmeeha (literally, Protect it) movement in Minya, a civic movement concerned with protecting heritage, issued a statement condemning the Hussein bust disappearance incident, and describing it as yet another attack against the figures of culture and art in Egypt. It reminded of the Umm Kulthoum incident of last week in Mansoura, saying that it ran in the same vein.
On the official level, the head of the local government in Minya, Ismail al-Fahham, said it was far-fetched that the bust would have been removed by radical Islamists, but was probably the work of some teenage outlaw street vendors. It has to be remembered that Minya’s governor, Mustafa Kamel Eissa, belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Fahham said that another bust has been ordered, and that the one which disappeared was made of gypsum and was worth no more than a mere EGP50. This remark in particular drew the ire of Minya townspeople and literary circles alike, who all demanded that the culprits should be found and brought to justice.
The media officer of the Gamaa Islamiya in Minya, Essam Khairy, hastened to deny that the Gamaa had anything to do with the disappearance of Hussein’s bust.
A leading figure of the Dustour political party in Minya, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, warned that, if the culprit is left to get away with his crime, we can never rest assured that our national heritage will remain intact. “Will there come a day,” Mr Abdel-Wahab asked aghast, “when the pharaonic tombs and monuments in Minya would disappear? If we take no decisive action now, we will have no-one to blame but ourselves.”
16 February 2013