Street censorship

Imagine being a writer, or a reader, in Egypt.

More recently, the literary magazine Ibdaa (“Creativity”) had its license revoked over the publication, in 2007, of a poem by the renowned poet Helmy Salem, deemed blasphemous because it personified God with lines such as: “The Lord isn’t a policeman/who catches criminals by the scruff of their necks”…Before Ibdaa was shut down, Salem had already been forced to return a State Award for Achievement in the Arts, honoring his entire body of work. The court that rescinded the award found that “The sin that he committed … against God and against society, challenging its traditions and religious beliefs should fail the sum total of his work, rendering him ineligible for any state honor or prize.”

We need Nicholas Kristof about now, to tell us that yes Islam does crush women and hate gays and forbid people to leave and fuck up literature and art and thought but hey the calligraphy is pretty.

Salem was the victim of a hisba case — what has become the legal weapon of choice in the arsenal of would-be censors. These are cases — based on a principle in Islamic law — in which an individual may sue another on behalf of society, alleging some grave harm has been done it. Several Islamist lawyers specialize in hisba lawsuits and use them with alarming frequency against writers, intellectuals, and professors whose opinions they deem to have denigrated Islam. Egypt’s minority Christian Coptic population also has its self-appointed moral guardians, eager to take novelists to court. And while charges against a book, author, or publisher are being investigated, the book is usually confiscated from the market.

Can you imagine anything more nightmarish? A situation in which any ignorant benighted mindless godbothering fool can take you to court for writing something it doesn’t like, and win? There are a lot of ignorant benighted mindless fools out there, godbotherers and non-godbotherers. Imagine knowing they could shut you down any time they felt like it.

[A]ny one book or film may find itself the center of a public scandal, singled out on the basis of a few lines. The arbitrariness of censorship in Egypt makes publishers (especially the government-run ones) afraid to take risks and leads writers to second-guess themselves. “In Egypt we’re born and we live in a state of constant self-censorship,” the writer Khaled Al Khamissi, whose book Taxi has been an international hit, once told me.

That’s what I mean. Nightmare.

Update: On the other hand – a bit of good news for a change – the last comment on the article linked to a news flash: the prosecutor threw out the case.

Prosecutor Abdel Megid Mahmud threw out the case, saying the epic tales had been published for centuries without problems, and had been an inspiration to countless artists.


8 Responses to “Street censorship”