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Literary gems: ​On being Egyptian and Ihab Hassan’s Out of Egypt ​
 
 
A fresco of the Exodus from Dura Europos
 

For many, in the past five years being Egyptian has become more of a psychological syndrome than an identity. The social suffering, the fantastically Orwellian news, the difficulties of the most mundane interactions, the continuous clamping down on freedoms and critical thought, and the rise of xenophobic and fascistic public sentiments are all alienating. Those who believed in change have become cultural orphans, cut off from true feelings of belonging. Two possibilities are present: a complete rejection or a psychological and emotional opportunity — an opening.

The thoughts of Ihab Hassan (1925-2015), an Egyptian academic little known in Egypt, offer an important vantage point for engaging with identity, Egyptianess and the quest of the self. Hassan, who is credited with coining the term “postmodernism” and had a successful career dedicated to postmodernist thought, literary criticism and cultural studies, passed away a few months ago in the United States. In his memoir, Out of Egypt: Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography (1985), he portrays a one-way transatlantic escape from Egypt in 1946, after which he barely looked back.

When it came out, Out of Egypt attracted mixed reviews. It was criticized for implicitly accepting orientalist stereotypes and portraying too easy an integration process into American culture, which I believe is the case. It is a self study with a strong focus on Hassan’s unhappy years in Egypt (an experimental dialogue between him and an imaginary autobiographer is a case in point), and it stages itself as a deep reflection on why he had to flee. With eloquently constructed prose, he depicts his posh life here, with a father who worked as a governor, a modern mother, and family of pashas, landowners, and ministers. The underlying argument, however, is about the dawn of a new world.

Out of Egypt is a postmodern autobiography precisely because it deals with self-presentation in a way that is not wed to a culture or sense of belonging, and critically reorders the relations between wholes and parts, especially the question of which comes first, the self or the country. Hassan’s confused childhood, his inadequate Arabic due to an education in English and French, his disagreeable relatives, and his hard academic work lead to his resolution to escape and recreate his being. Out of Egypt voices Hassan’s unapologetic rejection of Egypt, and declares his disowning of his heritage. The question of whether his inner and physical journey was a “new birth or a false rebirth” starts off his quest for self-exploration on page one. 

The small book flows enjoyably, and at 128 pages one can read it in one or two sessions. It is written from an immigrant’s standpoint, and is interspersed with academic and critical thought, engaging with writers from Tolstoy to Ralph Emerson. It is especially valuable because of the quotations Hassan inserts, in addition to ideas about the act of writing an autobiography.

Out of Egypt is confidently devoid of the nostalgic, mournful and diasporic sentiments that are often ubiquitous in autobiographical writings by immigrants — like Edward Said’s renowned Out of Place (1999). There is neither a coming to terms with being eternally displaced nor a creation of the psychological and intellectual grounds on which to create a coherent self, as in Said’s memoir. Hassan presents an argument to write off or through a geographical and psychological past to move forward, thereby narrating an inner quest to flee the emotional exile and psychological imprisonment Egypt presented him with.

The talented Mr. Hassan we encounter in Out of Egypt is an individualistic, self-reliant social outsider focused on intellectual growth and loving of solitude. An adamant seeker of freedom for the sake of achieving autonomy, his future was dictated by hard work and exceptional intelligence. Despite being born to a well-to-do Cairene family and graduating with highest honors from Cairo University’s department of engineering, he could not foresee a future for himself in change-resistant, vibrancy-sapping Egypt.

“What then, had I really hoped to discover in America?” he writes. “It was not holiness: rather, scope, an openness of time, a more viable history. I also looked for some private space wherein to change, grow; for I had not liked what I foresaw of my life in Eternal Egypt.”

He started his exilic life by earning an MA in engineering, but soon afterwards decided to follow his heart instead, and studied for an MA and then PhD in literature. He then taught at Wesleyan University until 1970, when he moved to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee until his retirement. Visiting professorships took him east and west, and his research and thought won him numerous accolades and fellowships. Unlike Said, whose professional career was interwoven with his activism for Arab and Palestinian causes, Hassan was silent about Egyptian causes.

Whether or not you endorse all of Hassan’s choices, particularly his rejection of Egypt, the depth of his self-reflection invokes useful identity-related questions.

“Egypt has remained the same” Hassan writes. “After a revolution [1952], a presidential assassination, four wars and a triple population growth within half a century, what has really changed there apart from some streets and squares renamed? What profound political or cultural reforms?”

Regardless of the “tyranny of hope” exercised by staunch optimists who see despair as heretical or selling out, who in their sincere attempt to reinvigorate withering hopes overemphasize any change as the coming of a new dawn, “Eternal Egypt” is here to stay; neither going to hell in a handbasket nor experiencing a new dawn, at least in the near future. It will continue to hurt and alienate us. Now, in a sycophantic atmosphere of saying a religious “yes” to government authoritarianism as nationalistic bravado peaks, we need alternative perspectives on what it means to be Egyptian and how to deal with psychological or physical exile. In the past few years, many of the Egyptians who can have decided to leave, due to either lack of hope or fear of prosecution. Extrapolating from the parallels Hassan draws between the Exodus of the Israelites from Pharaonic Egypt and his own escape, we could decide to cease wandering in the wilderness of attempts to belong, as psychological salvation seems to lie in plain sight for many of us.

As cultural orphans, domestically or abroad, we have the mental freedom and the force — even if it comes from being pushed away — that’s needed to recreate our identity between different selves, worlds and loyalties. With exilic sentiments shared by so many of us born since the 1970s, this collective condition offers a better chance for a “new birth”, as Hassan calls it. It’s a chance to recreate ourselves without being individualistic, anchor ourselves without being tied to cultural and societal norms, be introspective without being self-opposed, and be caring without being patriarchal or despotic. It makes us well situated to question our spirituality, our gender, familial and social roles, even dietary and artistic preferences, and criticize the classist, nationalistic and historical biases that constitute uncritical parts of our makeup. According to Hassan’s process of self-knowledge, our new identity should focus on what we are not, but as well as being a site of resistance, it should be one of healing.

As he puts it, Hassan’s psychological and intellectual courage in confronting his pains and feelings was the reason behind his success: “Sensing, really believing, that I had nothing to lose, I found that I had accidentally won everything, almost everything,” he writes.

Acknowledging the complexity of the context surrounding people’s choices, there are others who found their selves and autonomy in moving in the opposite direction, engaging with the Egyptian condition head-on. Some have sacrificed their souls, like Sheikh Emad Effat, or freedom, like Alaa Abd El Fattah. Abd El Fattah, with all the inspiration he represents to many who believed in change — as expressed by Alia Mossallam  has also managed to dig his own personal archeology. We can benefit from this, especially when read side-by-side with Out of Egypt’s postmodern wisdom. Piercing us with his latest heavy piece from prison, Abd El Fattah expressed what’s painfully obvious for anyone aspiring to self-realization: “I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights; nothing, absolutely nothing.”

In Out of Egypt, Hassan provides a compelling argument for the importance of solitude and its relation to freedom. “Does freedom compel us into solitude?” he wonders. Solitude is the antidote needed to embrace psychological exile and enjoy contradictory and shifting personal histories, for Hassan’s model capitalizes on the “fierce solitude of the nomad, moving across timeless sand.” This can be achieved without too much emphasis on the “r” word.

ihab hassan dialogue.png

ihab hassan

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Tarek Ghanem