Golden Age Is Past : Arabs--No Climate for Intellectuals

Times Staff Writer

In its Golden Age, the Middle East was the intellectual center of the world. The great Arab cities--Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Cordova, in Spain--nurtured the world's foremost poets, philosophers and scientists. There were no finer libraries and universities anywhere.

Baghdad honored its poets with statues. Arab astronomers, mathematicians and doctors found the answers a millennium ago to questions that Europeans had hardly begun to ask; the Arabs devised algebra, invented the universal astrolabe--a forerunner of the sextant--and discovered and named chemical substances such as alkalines.

They knew the world was round when the Europeans thought it was flat and held poetry festivals long before the Pilgrims set off for the New World.

For 700 years, the writings of Ibn Sina remained the basic text for Western medical students, and the 9th-Century "Philosopher of the Arabs," Al-Kindi, eloquently argued that the search for truth was the most exalted human endeavor.

Rich as Civilizations

Only one modern Arab writer and philosopher, Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon, ever acquired a wide following in the West, but Arab literature has been as rich as the civilizations themselves, and by the 1960s the intellectual character of the region was reflected in the saying common among intellectuals, "Our books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad."

Today, hardly anyone in Cairo reads anything but the newspapers, and Egypt, a country of 46 million people, does not have a single public library. According to John Rodenbeck, a professor of English literature at the American University in Cairo, "reading is typically regarded now as a specialized activity--justified if pursued for religious or practical purposes but essentially anti-social."

Beirut, once the freest, most stimulating city in the Arab world, has self-destructed. Baghdad is the capital of a police state that has been at war for nearly five years. Damascus has many rug merchants but few philosophers.

The Golden Age is past, and anyone looking for the seat of Arab intellectualism must start his search in London, Paris or the United States.

The brain drain and the lack of intellectual development are significant in explaining the Arabs' inability to cope with the pressures of modern times, for without creative energy, a people's vision is apt to grow narrow and introverted. And without the questioning voices of intellects, the message of Islamic fundamentalists can drift unimpeded through the societies of uneducated, illiterate masses.

Today, Arab philosophers no longer exist outside the mosque, and no more than a handful of poets even make a pretense of seriously practicing their art.

The extensive private libraries that graced so many Cairo mansions 40 years ago are gone, replaced by television sets and video recorders. In the lavishly furnished homes of wealthy Arabs, one often finds a dazzling array of electronic gimmickry but not a single book.

One sign of the times: An Egyptian court recently banned the unexpurgated edition of "Thousand and One Nights," declaring the the classic collection of Arab tales is obscene in its description of sexual acts. Among the stories in the books are "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "Aladdin and His Magic Lamp" and "Sinbad the Sailor." Critics denounced the decision as a victory for fundamentalists.

The most important Arab novelist, Naguib Nahfouz, 73, who like most writers here draws a salary from the Ministry of Culture, gets an advance of only about $2,000 for a new book. Other authors, established but less successful, get $500. A book that sells 10,000 copies in the Arab world (population: 167 million) is considered a blockbuster best-seller.

"Artists flourish in freedom, in an atmosphere where they can express ideas," said Ali Darwish, an Egyptian writer whose book of short stories will be published this year by Three Continents Press in Washington. "The question is, does freedom really exist in the Arab world? Is there really the political freedom to be creative, innovative?

"Most of the Arab thinkers today are only interpreters to the ruler or ruling party. You conform to the ruler or you get banished or punished. What you write must be liked by the government and OKd by the censors. So creativity withers, and talent dies out of fear."

In most of the major Arab cities, an intelligentsia still exists, and on almost every university campus and in every government ministry one meets exceptionally intelligent, scholarly people concerned with national issues. But one hears no lively public debate, no voices that can influence people and move them in new directions.

Scholars offer a variety of reasons for this. The intellectual decline, some say, started with the Ottoman Turks, who ruled much of the Middle East in the 17th Century and had little appreciation of anything Arab. It reached its nadir, almost everyone agrees, with the Nasser revolution of 1952, which destroyed Egypt's educated middle class and sent shock waves through the entire Arab world.

Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's newspapers and publishing houses fell under state control (editors are still appointed by the government). Agents went house to house taking samples of typescript to discourage the use of typewriters for anti-government propaganda. (Iraq still does not allow travelers to bring typewriters into the country).

Authors were forced to write of socialistic glory or to cloak their criticism in such heavy symbolism that their work became esoteric. Those who refused went to prison.

Columnist Abdel Meguid was imprisoned in the 1960s on a charge of "harboring ideas potentially damaging to state security." He insisted he had never written anything at all about the government and was then charged with having remained silent, the premise being that if he had been for the government, he would have written something good about it.

Nasser introduced mass education, and the school system responded by catering to the lowest common denominator. He nationalized the economy, and it deteriorated. By the mid-1970s, government workers, who had once formed the backbone of the middle class, had become the new poor, with no money for books or concerts.

And Cairo, the film and publishing capital of the Arab world, became a decaying backwater in comparison with what it had been.

The health of the film and publishing industries was further undercut by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which led to an immediate boycott of Egyptian products by all the Arab countries except Oman.

Within a year, exports of books had fallen by more than 80%, of newspapers and journals by 85%. No country stepped in to replace Egypt as an intellectual center; there was simply a void.

"Another important reason for the intellectual decline," said Ali Fakhro, Bahrain's minister of education, "is the oil revenues of the '70s. With all the money, tastes changed. The area became a consumer society at the expense of intellectual interests.

"Real intellectualism survives in freedom on one hand and a bit of deprivation on the other, but artists saw people becoming millionaires almost overnight, and they started wondering if it was worth writing a book when they could become a salesman or an executive and make big money. Now, I think, a lot of intellects are saying, 'My God, what have I done the last 10 years?' "

In Egypt, where about half of the Arab world's 6,000 books a year are printed, diminishing literary markets and the small budgets of publishing houses have made full-time writing a virtually obsolete profession. No one survives without a government stipend or an outside job. Even the most skillful novelists are forced to peddle short stories to daily newspapers, which have tried to fill the literary void by developing a new form of journalistic fiction.

But Al Ahram--once a respected Cairo daily newspaper that Arabs generally dismiss today for toeing the government line--pays only $25 a story. The big money is in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where newspapers have attracted the top Arab writers with rates of $200 an article.

Actually, these oil-producing countries have bought literary talent for political purposes. The articles must extol the virtues and wisdom of the royal families. They may not be critical of any country on the Persian Gulf. They may not question any aspect of Islam. They may not condemn the bloodshed in Iran, as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait do not want to be provocative. They may not denounce the policies of any Arab country except Egypt.

"Artistically and morally, I know I have sold out," an Egyptian writer said, "but I get $200 a month from Kuwait, in American dollars, and that's four times what I make in my government job. Even writers like to eat, you know."

The Saudis have bought an Arabic-language newspaper in London, called the Middle East, in order to propagate the merits of Saudi policy. Its daily circulation is 20,000 and its annual budget is $75 million.

"The new creed of the Arab world is that money and excellence are synonymous," an Egyptian professor said.

All this worries Arab scholars. Literary sycophancy, they say, retards national development by muffling voices that need to be heard. The flight of many intellectuals to Europe and the United States--tens of thousands have left the Arab world--will give an increasingly Western orientation to Arab thinking.

The small market for Arabic literature will force more and more authors to write in French and English and have a debilitating effect on the Arab culture.

"I would need a great deal of convincing before I wrote another book in Arabic," said Mustapha Benyakhlef, a university professor in Morocco, whose book on the theory of probability sold more copies in French in two years than it did in Arabic in 10. "There is a real danger here. Authors are losing their motivation. They might write a book or two, but after that, if people don't get to see their work, why bother?"

Oil-rich Arabs adjusting to sharp drop in revenue. Page 12.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Friday July 19, 1985 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction In a story about Arab intellectuals in Thursday's editions, The Times mispelled the name of Egyptian novellist Naguib Mahfouz.
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