He was a tax inspector who dreamed of being a poet, a minor soldier in a formidable deployment of bureaucrats, who by day oversaw the investigations division of the Ministry of Tax Authorities and by night penned love stories and novels of intrigue.
His books bore such titles as "The Man Inside a Triangle," and he published most of them himself. Sometimes, one or two copies would sell from a sidewalk display downtown.
Late last year, a mid-level assistant in the Tax Ministry picked up a copy of Alaa Hamed's most recent literary endeavor, and, alarmed at what she saw, quickly dispatched a copy to the public prosecutor.
"Until this day," Hamed had written, "it has not been made clear to humanity that God answers man's prayers, or that He has sent food to the hungry, or that He has sent a million pounds of gold to a poor man. . . . Why has the sending of prophets and messengers stopped suddenly? Why doesn't God send a roast lamb like he did to Abraham? Why are there no more miracles?"
Suddenly, Hamed and his book that no one had heard of, "A Distance in a Man's Mind," were being disputed in cafes all over Cairo. Last month, a columnist in Egypt's leading daily newspaper, Al-Ahram, labeled Hamed "Egypt's Salman Rushdie" and called his book "a clear attempt to cast doubt on the holy books."
The public prosecutor, in a published reply to the newspaper, agreed: "His book constitutes a serious threat to the fundamental beliefs of the society and, in particular, those connected with the person of God most Almighty and the heavenly religions, . . . representing . . . an incitement to atheism and apostasy."
Four days later, Hamed, 51, was arrested, the first writer in nearly 60 years to face imprisonment in Egypt for blasphemy. The owner of one of Cairo's most famous bookshops, Mohamed Madbouli Mohamed, was detained for four days and ordered to pay $1,890 for selling the book. The print shop that printed it was assessed a similar levy.
The case has divided the intellectual and artistic community--most of whom deplore Hamed's arrest, but many of whom wince privately at the idea that an unknown tax inspector would be testing uncharted waters of censorship in Egypt. It also has underscored the expanding influence of the Islamic fundamentalism movement in a country that disbanded its official censorship board nearly 15 years ago, and which with a teeming population of readers and cheap printing costs, has for years presided as the intellectual and publishing capital of the Arab World.
Now, intellectuals and human rights activists say Al-Azhar University, the renowned center of Islamic scholarship, has begun imposing a less apparent form of censorship than the outright government censorship common in the early era of the late President Anwar Sadat, and the result has been a rash of effective book bannings.
In the absence of official restrictions on what may and may not be published, the law permits private citizens to file complaints about books offensive to Islam, the state religion. A committee of sheiks at Al-Azhar University often makes the final determination, and writers, booksellers and publishers face stiff fines or even jail terms for overstepping the Koranic line. (There are no similar criminal penalties for political attacks.)
Al-Azhar has been flexing its muscles with increasing vigor in the past two years, turning thumbs down on books much milder than what was seen here in the '60s and '70s, and moving, critics believe, further and further afield of books about Islam and the Koran, the university's officially mandated purview.
"There is a danger that Al-Azhar is trying to extend its authority into areas in which it has no legitimate authority," said Negad al Boraei, a lawyer for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights who is defending Hamed. "They want to frighten people into censoring themselves. In the current atmosphere of pressure and ideological terrorism, no one can say what will happen."
Still banned in Egypt under earlier regulations is the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's book, "Children of Gebelawi," an allegory about the search for faith and eternal truth in a poor sector of Cairo. It concludes with a vision of man sifting through a rubbish dump for clues about his salvation.
Artistic organizations began lobbying for Arabic republication of the book, one of Mahfouz's most famous, after the author won the Nobel Prize in 1988. One Cairo daily newspaper even began serializing it last year--before being abruptly halted by the government.
An Al-Azhar professor faces the likely loss of his job for his recent translation of the Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, "Who Killed Palomino Molero?" which reviewers complained contained several explicit sexual passages.
Other targets in recent years have included Sheik Ali Abdel Razak's "Islam and the Origins of Government," in which the Islamic scholar attempts to show that the Koran does not contain a sufficient political basis to allow Muslims to build a state based on Koranic texts, and "An Introduction to the Science of Language," which attempts to show that the origins of Arabic can be traced not to divine inspiration via the Koran but to the Hindu-European language family.
Nor is the Islamic movement limiting its ire to new works. Four years ago, 3,000 copies of a new edition of the fabled "A Thousand and One Nights" were confiscated by an Egyptian court after a prosecutor argued that the ancient book represents "a threat to the Egyptian youth." The court took particular offense at Scheherazade's racy tale of three young women who seduce a poor porter. An appeals court several months later overturned the order, concluding the book was "a Middle Eastern classic, and not a sex book."
Well-known Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani did not fare as well. A father wrote to a Cairo newspaper a few months ago complaining that one of Qabbani's most famous love poems, included for years in a textbook for Egyptian students, contained "love words" to which he did not want his daughter exposed. The poem was ordered removed from the curriculum.
There is no official list of all the books banned in Egypt, nor is there any readily available list of books barred from entering the country. An office of the State Information Service regularly pores through all books and magazines entering the country and decides which can be sold, which must be shipped back to their publishers, and which can be distributed with offensive sections clipped or blacked out.
But an official at the office recently refused to produce a list of books that have been determined unfit to enter the country.
"There is no list," he said, swiping at an occasional fly as the hot spring breeze riffled through the stacks of American fashion magazines on his desk.
Why is there no list?
"There is no why," he replied.
Finally, he said: "All books can come into Egypt. Except sexy books, and books which attack the president. Attack the ministers, OK. Little attacks on the president, OK. But severe attacks, no."
Could he, perhaps, give an example of the kind of book prohibited from entering the country? Grumbling, the official reached over to the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a coffee-table-sized edition of "The Illustrated Manual of Sex Therapy."
"This," he declared, "is not allowed."
The Arab Women's Solidarity Committee has been trying for nearly a year to get a license to sell its monthly newsletter, which contains articles on feminist issues, on Cairo book stands. But the government has refused, allowing only direct mail distribution to committee members. It has also prohibited the group from selling advertisements in the magazine, a restriction that committee members say is slowly strangling it.
The committee president, Nawal Sadawi, a prominent feminist writer whose work was banned in the 1970s, testified on behalf of Hamed in a recent attempt to have him released from jail, where he has now languished for more than a month.
"The prosecutor said the author is an atheist, and he said this is a book that encouraged atheism," Sadawi recalled in an interview. "I said, 'This is fiction and imagination, and you should not control imagination by jail. . . . Thought should be fought by thought, and not by fearing and by violence.' "
Privately, some Egyptian writers grumble that Hamed went so far beyond the bounds of what is normally considered acceptable that he has made it difficult for serious writers who constantly nudge the boundaries in an effort to expand them.
Hamed's "A Distance in a Man's Mind" portrays figures like Moses, Mohammed and Adam as caricatures, and at one point depicts Noah playing with a toy boat in a tub of water. The "heavenly messengers," his protagonist concludes, "are the invention of men, and any person who believes in these spiritual bodies is a sick person which society should put into a sanitarium, where he can be cured."
A locally prominent Egyptian novelist said his publisher, in the wake of the Hamed affair, halted publication of his forthcoming novel and sent the manuscript to a member of the Al-Azhar committee. This, he said, was after the publisher insisted that he change the Coptic name of the central character because it would be inappropriate for a Copt to have an affair with a Muslim woman.
Hamed's work, the writer complained, "for anyone in Egypt who is writing is considered far beyond what is possible. You cannot attack religion, and you cannot attack prophets. . . . A lot of the intellectuals are saying it's too much, and it's dangerous because it can lead to more oppression of the written word."
But Hamed's daughter, Hala Alaa Eddin, said her father meant only to depict an imaginary vision, to raise questions about doubts for which he has usually found comfortable refuge in Islam.
"My father," she said, "is a religious man, and they consider his book dangerous for religion, but it's not. It's a philosophic book, you know. He wanted to make questions about the religion, about the existence of the prophets, of paradise. Make questions only. But he didn't answer those questions. And anyway, it's kind of the opinion of one person. One person is not dangerous for religion. Forty-five days in jail? For a book?"