Let the ancient temptress beware, censors with sharp pens beckon.
Arab writers and poets through the centuries have spiced their tales with explicit language and carnal desire. Even during the height of the Islamic Empire, when Sharia law dictated virtue across the Middle East, storytellers revealed a fondness for the unholy.
But nowadays fundamentalist Muslims are campaigning to “purify” one of the great works of Arabic literature, the “One Thousand and One Nights.”
“The book contains profanities that cannot be acceptable in Egyptian society,” said lawyer Ayman Abdel-Hakim, venting his disgust at one of the “Nights” poems in which a woman challenges Muslim men to fulfill her insatiable sexual urges. “We understand that this kind of literature is acceptable in the West, but here we have a different culture and different religion.”
Hakeem is a member of Lawyers Without Shackles, a group determined to delete salacious passages from contemporary literature and cherished classics. Its campaign against the masterpiece, also known in English as “The Arabian Nights,” is part of a religious conservatism that has been growing in Egypt since the mid-1990s. The lawyers don’t expect to win many cases — Egypt’s government is vigilant against hints of extremism — but say they are duty-bound to use lawsuits to protect society from anti-Islamic tendencies.
Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers Union, counters that it is cultural sacrilege to fiddle with an epic that was generations in the making and grew to include “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” and other tales from across the Middle East, Persia and South Asia. Such stories, told by the witty Scheherazade to delay her execution, have inspired countless novelists, not to mention Disney animators.
“The Islamist movement’s real target is to get back at intellectuals,” Salmawy said. “The Taliban ruined the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, and these people here are trying to destroy an equally important monument of our heritage.”
Some attempts at censorship are reminiscent of the death threats Islamic radicals made against Salman Rushdie for his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses.” Salmawy said he himself received threats from extremists over his play “The Chain,” which criticized religion-inspired terrorism.
Such tactics are common in Saudi Arabia, where last year a scholar issued death fatwas against racy-TV programmers. But they are unsettling in Egypt, traditionally more tolerant.
Egypt’s prosecutor general, Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud, recently dismissed a complaint brought to him by Lawyers Without Shackles against a publishing house affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. The group sought to ban a new edition of “The Arabian Nights” or excise “obscene” passages so as not to incite “vice and sin” among readers. The prosecutor held that the tales have been published in Egypt for centuries without any danger to public morality.
“A previous court verdict in 1986 allowed the publishing of another edition of the ‘Nights’ that was based on the same original writings we used for the 2010 edition,” said Suzanne Abdel-Aal, one of the editors of the recent release.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said attempts to silence or censor writers through lawsuits, many of them religion-based, have been rising. The group said 1,500 civil and criminal complaints were filed in Egypt against authors, scholars and journalists in 2007 and ’08. Most are dismissed or end in favor of the writer.
In 2009, writer and feminist Nawal Saadawi won a lawsuit that sought to revoke her Egyptian citizenship over her play “God Resigns at the Summit Meeting.” The work centers on prophets interrogating God over his “unjust rulings” in all three “heavenly faiths.” Critics denounced it as heresy.
“Extremists and their media tools are against any form of creativity and cases like these are a backlash against creative people and opposition authors,” Saadawi said. Her frequent criticism of President Hosni Mubarak’s government, she said, served to tangle her case in the courts much longer than suits involving less politically active writers.
“The ‘Arabian Nights’ case was hastened through the court and thrown out two months after it was filed. That’s because it was against a state-run [agency], whereas someone like me had to scuffle in court for years before winning,” she said. “I wasn’t intimidated, but I know many writers who’ve grown afraid to express their real opinions because of cases like these.”
Attempts at censorship through the prism of religion have spread to works dealing with Christianity.
Youssef Ziedan is facing a criminal complaint filed with the state by a group of Coptic lawyers accusing him of “defaming Christianity” in his 2009 “Arabic Booker Prize"-winning novel, “Azazeel,” or “Beelzebub.” The story is set in 5th century Egypt and Syria and deals with the early history of Christianity and sects that challenged the divine nature of Jesus. Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, and if convicted, Ziedan could face up to five years in prison.
Some intellectuals have a more cynical view of the lawsuits. Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said that often lawyers are seeking notoriety through false righteousness.
“Many of those lawyers are not even religious,” Eid said, “but the furor accompanying these cases put them in the media limelight, which eventually secures them more clients and higher fees.”
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo Bureau.