by Yusuf Idris
THE LITERARY WORK
A short story set in an Egyptian metropolitan police station at night, sometime between 1945 and 1952; published in Arabic (as Jumhuriyat Farahat) in 1956, in English in 1967.
While manning the desk at a police station, a lowly older officer, Sergeant Farahat, describes a film scenario to an unnamed gentleman. Farahat is constantly interrupted in the telling of his story, which envisions an ideal future for the Egyptian people, by his interactions with complainants and arrested citizens.
Born in 1927 in Al-Bayrum, a village in Egypt’s Nile Delta, Yusuf Idris moved to Cairo in 1945 to study medicine. As a student he joined the nationalist movement against British occupation, his involvement more than once leading to his arrest and jailing on political charges. When he graduated in 1951, Idris took up an internship at Qasr al-Aini hospital in downtown Cairo, and later worked in one of the most impoverished and crowded areas of the city, al-Darb al-Ahmar. He opened a clinic and served as a medical inspector, his exposure to the poor helping him portray a wide range of human experience in his literary works. Idris gained renown as a journalist, novelist, playwright, and the premier short-story writer in Arabic, leaving medicine in 1967 to devote himself to writing and to the promotion of literature in Egyptian culture. His sympathy for the average Egyptian greatly affected his writing: “I have always been moved by the character of the ordinary, simple Egyptian. He is the subject of all my stories because I admire his view of life, his heroism, timidity, and courage. I take this simple Egyptian as the model for my work, and starting from there I write whatever I like” (Idris in Kupershoek, p. 76). Idris’s first collection of short stories, Arkhas Layali (1954, The Cheapest Nights) drew the admiration of critics. Its high quality resulted in the introduction to his second collection, Jumhuriyat Farahat (1956, Farahat’s Republic), being written by the “Dean of Arabic Letters,” Taha Husayn (see An Egyptian Childhood , also covered in African Literature and Its Times).By 1957 Idris had also composed several plays, the second of which, “Farahat’s Republic,” he adapted from his short story. Written during a pivotal period of twentieth-century Egyptian history, the short story and play articulate national aspirations for political and economic independence and prosperity.
Ottoman rule to the burning of Cairo—an overview
During the era in which “Farahat’s Republic” takes place, Egypt was in the midst of a profound transformation. For nearly 70 years, from the late 1800s to the 1950s, Egypt was subject to British occupation. The British had furthermore insinuated themselves in Egypt closely on the heels of three centuries (1516-1805) of foreign domination by the Ottoman Empire. In 1805 Muhammad ’Ali, a commander-in-chief for the Ottoman Army, was appointed governor of Egypt, which led to the founding of an independent dynasty that would rule Egypt until its overthrow in 1952. After the opening in 1869 of the Suez Canal, which linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, the strategic value of Egypt soared in the eyes of European powers, particularly in the eyes of the British. The Canal Company, comprised primarily of British and French interests, held concessions from Egypt to operate the canal for 99 years, after which control was to revert to the Egyptian government. Egypt’s Ottoman ruler, the khedive, had borrowed the funds to build the canal from European sources. Mismanagement of the funds by the khedive and a downturn in the cotton market led European nations (France and Great Britain) to intervene in Egypt’s affairs in 1876 to guarantee repayment of loans. This contributed to growing resentment among Egyptians against outsiders and to a drive for true independence. The result in 1881 was an uprising, led by Ahmed ʿUbrai, to free Egypt from Ottoman rule. In response British forces bombed Egypt and sent in troops the following year (1882), ostensibly to restore power to the khedive. Great Britain took on an official role of “advisor” to the Egyptian Crown.
The Egyptians mounted repeated attempts to rid their country of British occupation, but it was not until 1936 that an agreement was signed restricting British military occupation to the Canal Zone. Between the two world wars, Egypt’s government tried to regain some control of the economy through protective tariffs, agricultural credits, and the increasing Egyptianization of the insurance and banking industries. Worldwide depression struck in the 1930s. As elsewhere, there was an economic downturn in Egypt, which led to growing political discontent, the rise of several new political parties, conflict over the constitution, and increasing disapproval of governmental appointments by the Crown.
The 1940s saw more political turmoil with the establishment and dismissal of several governments, frequent crises in diplomatic relations with the British, and an increase in internal resentments expressed in leftist, communist, labor, and Islamic movements. Political discontent seethed on many fronts. There was mounting anti-European sentiment in Cairo, the city in which Idris’s “Farahat’s Republic” is set. Over the years the Egyptian government passed laws to reduce European domination of the economy. Businesses were required to use the Arabic language, to employ a set percentage of Egyptian (as opposed to European) workers, and to be controlled by an Egyptian director or partner. But such gradual Egyptianization was hardly enough to satisfy the populace. Demonstrations wracked the capital city, until finally the British started to loosen their reins. On July 14, 1946, they handed over control of the Citadel of Cairo to the Egyptians. Eight months later, on March 28, 1947, after 30 demonstrators were shot dead, the British military handed over control of the Kasr el Nil barracks and marched out of Cairo altogether. They retreated to the Suez Canal, their presence here still making them an occupying force, but for the first time in 64 years Cairo had taken charge of itself.
Public pressure continued, the goal being to eradicate the British from Egypt altogether. The next five years gave rise to demonstrations, strikes, and riots, which took place mostly on the streets of Cairo. Egypt was still a primarily agricultural country. Although manufacturing was gaining ground, industry accounted for only 8 percent of the national income in 1952 (Wheel-cock, p. 139). In Cairo the growing class of laborers—a vocal group—tended to view rich businesspeople and wealthy landowners as oppressors in collusion with foreign interests. King Faruq, who in 1936 had succeeded his father, King Fu’ad as Egypt’s monarch, was considered corrupt and partial to special interests in his appointments.
Meanwhile, post-World War II manipulations of the Middle East, including the partition of Palestine, and then the loss of Palestine to Israel in 1948, further aggravated the general discontent. The Egyptian army suffered major disadvantages in the Palestine War, coping with inadequate food, arms, and transportation, and with faulty ammunition. Afterward domestic unrest escalated, prompting one assassination after another, from General Selim Azki (while directing operations against student demonstrators), to Prime Minister Nokrashy Pasha, to Hasan alBanna’ (leader of the Moslem Brotherhood, which may have planned the first two assassinations). There was general unrest, too. In 1951 Egypt suffered 49 workers strikes and four peasant uprisings, all suppressed by force.
Matters climaxed on January 25-26, 1952, beginning with a violent standoff between the British military and Egyptian police in the town of Ismailiyya; in the process, 41 Egyptians but only 3 British died. The next day mobs in Cairo retaliated by torching British-and foreign-owned establishments, destroying some 700 structures and leaving 12,000 homeless. According to one historian, “Cairo looked like a ravaged war zone with gutted department stores, smouldering buildings and smashed shop fronts” (Sayyid-Marsot, p. 104). The date—January 26, 1952—went down in infamy as Black Saturday, and to the present it remains a mystery who did most of the burning, or whether it was an organized or random event. Afterward, King Faruq dismissed the government, which left a power vacuum that would not be satisfactorily filled in the coming months, despite several attempts by the king to forge a new coalition government.
In 1949 Gamal Abdul Nasser (also spelled Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir) and several of his fellow officers in the Egyptian Army formed a secret association called the Free Officers, which began distributing underground political pamphlets and contemplating action. On July 23, 1952, Nasser and the Free Officers engineered a military coup d’état, ascribing the orders to General Muhammad Naguib, a respected older officer who had been brought in on the plan for less than two weeks and who, in those orders, “was deliberately mistitled as commander of the armed forces” (Beattie, p. 66). A few days later King Faruq abdicated and went into exile. To provide transitional rule until a democratic government could be elected, the rebels formed the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and elected Nasser as its head.
The goals of the RCC were articulated in the Six Principles of the Revolution: to bring about the end of 1) imperialism, 2) the inequitable land system, and 3) capitalist monopolies, and to establish 4) social justice, 5) a strong military, and 6) true democratic rule. After a series of political purges by the RCC, Naguib accepted the job of interim prime minister on September 8, 1952. One day later a sweeping land reform bill was promulgated, limiting landownership to 200 fedans per individual or 300 per family (a fedan being somewhat larger than an acre). This blow to the wealthy landowners made the fledgling regime wildly popular with the peasants. In June 1953, Egypt officially terminated its monarchy and declared itself a republic, with Naguib as
IDRIS AND NASSER
Idris’s own politics were socialist and nationalist. In 1951 after gaining admittance to the anti-British secret organization the Executive Committee for Armed Struggle, Idris helped collect funds and organize training camps for guerrilla fighters in the Canal Zone. Because of his political activities at the university, he was suspended from that institution and jailed twice—for two months in 1949 and three months in 1952. The early 1950s meanwhile saw him contributing to various journals and joining the authors’ bureau of the communist party, Haditu. In the post-revolutionary period Idris showed even greater interest in politics; he wrote multiple articles on government, culture, and daily events in Cairo. Idris faulted Nasser for negotiating an agreement with Britain that called for gradual rather than immediate withdrawal from the Suez Canal. After Nasser took charge, he began arresting opponents, starting with the leftists. Idris’s turn came in August 1954. Imprisoned for 13 months, he spent much of his jail time talking to communist prisoners, with whom he disagreed about the role of literature in the revolutionary struggle. Fiction, thought Idris, ought to be more than a tool of political events. Released from prison in the fall of 1955, he broke with Haditu, and when Nasser adopted a nationalist and socialist agenda more in line with Idris’s own, the author became one of the new regime’s fervent supporters.
president. Over the next year, a terrible power struggle ensued between Naguib and Nasser, amid the repression of political parties, military purges, press crackdowns, pro-democracy demonstrations, and waves of arrests. The fracas ultimately resulted in Naguib’s loss of power in March 1954, though he maintained the title of president. An October 26th assassination attempt on Nasser brought about the arrest of thousands of Muslim Brothers and eventually of Naguib himself on charges of conspiracy. Nasser, as prime minister and head of the RCC, was now in charge. In the midst of these events, the RCC had negotiated a new treaty with the British, which was signed on October 19, 1954; the treaty required the phased withdrawal of the British from the Canal Zone by June 1956, while giving them rights to base themselves in that zone in the event of international warfare.
The British completed their withdrawal from the Canal Zone several days ahead of schedule in June 1956, the same month that the Egyptians elected Nasser president and ratified, by an overwhelming majority, a new constitution. A few months earlier, negotiations transpired in Washington, D.C., for the financing of the future Aswan High Dam, central to Egypt’s economic plans for agricultural and industrial development. Nasser had to find some way to rescue his country, whose population was growing faster than its food supply, and reached for the dam (which would increase the farmable land area) as an answer. The Aswan Dam agreement made the United States, Great Britain, and the World Bank the lenders of the capital needed for the project. In September 1955, Nasser, badly in need of arms and unable to get them from the United States, had orchestrated a Czech arms agreement, which funneled Soviet-made weapons into Egypt. Perhaps in retaliation for Nasser’s flaunting of his independence from Western powers, the United States withdrew its support for the Aswan Dam a month after Nasser’s election, causing the collapse of the financial agreement. In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company on July 26th, 1956, effectively ending the concessions of the century before, which would otherwise have expired in 1968. He gave as his reason for the early nationalization the financing of the Aswan Dam without outside aid.
The Suez Crisis
Britain and France referred their dispute with Egypt over the legality of the nationalization of the Suez Canal to the United Nations Security Council. The U.N. proposed a six-point agreement, to which Egypt gave its consent in mid-October. However, when invading Israelis struck toward the Canal on October 29th, 1956, France and Britain immediately issued a joint ultimatum to Israel and Egypt, demanding they withdraw from the Canal Zone while Anglo-French forces temporarily occupied the Zone to secure unimpeded international traffic through the canal. Israel accepted, but Nasser rejected the ultimatum, so British and French forces entered the fray. Joint pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the majority of U.N. members led to a cease-fire on November 7, 1956. Egypt at this point agreed to the presence of U.N. emergency forces in the Canal Zone and Gaza Strip to guarantee the withdrawal of French, British, and Israeli forces. The British and French withdrawal was effected by the end of December 1956; Israeli withdrawal took until March 1957. The canal reopened in April 1957. Despite the military disadvantage under which Nasser had defied the three other combatants, he emerged with Egyptian sovereignty over a critical asset to his nation’s development. His victory over imperial forces made the Egyptian Revolution and Nasser role models for other Arab struggles for independence.
Status of Egyptian majority
Before World War II, the Egyptian Association for Social Studies had conducted a survey of the populace. The results indicated that poor Egyptian families (90 percent of the total population) lived five to six persons to a room and got hired to work for about 7.5 weeks a year (Aldridge, p. 227). As the years passed, rural-to-urban migration increased, and living conditions improved somewhat for city dwellers. But even in cities like Cairo and Alexandria there was widespread disparity among residents. By 1952 Cairo had become the center of great contrasts.
The beautiful new avenues and countless luxury apartment buildings built in Cairo could not solve the problem of a city composed primarily of slums. In a metropolis of over two million persons, well over one hundred thousand males were classified as unemployed; and a majority of the families existed on less than twenty dollars monthly.
(Wheelcock, p. 41)
How much did conditions change in the first revolutionary period, from 1952 to 1956? This was a transitional period, to be sure. In the beginning the Free Officers had no long-range plan. Their goal was simply to free Egypt from the shackles of the past. For the time being, the country was to remain a capitalist society. “Egyptians were still being encouraged to go on investing their money in profitable enterprises…. Until 1956… Cairo was still a capitalist city. There were still plenty of foreign cars and foreign goods from Europe, clothes still looked as if they had just arrived from London and Paris and Rome, and the usual cosmopolitan flavor in the city’s sybarite tastes in food and drink and entertainment were not greatly disturbed” (Aldridge, p. 253). But at the same time Cairo became the center of an array of groups devoted to reorganizing Egypt’s economy. And Nasser, advised by a team of economic experts, quickly learned that the country needed an overall plan, not only because the Aswan High Dam was a monumental scheme, but also because Egypt was in dire need of fuel, fertilizer, transportation, and other goods and services. It is in the context of these first few post-revolutionary years, an era full of promise and uncertainty, that Idris wrote his short story.
The story’s unnamed gentleman narrator has been detained by the police at night
Very few individuals were able to amass huge fortunes in Egypt during the 1940s. Egyptian cinema featured such individuals, becoming a type of Hollywood dream factory. For the most part, films concentrated either on the privileged and their concerns about love and traditional marriage customs or on the few lower-class Egyptians who managed to make a fortune. Films allowed for dreams of wild economic success, championing the man on the street. An example is Resolution (1933), whose protagonist, Muhammad, is the son of a barber. Muhammad is full of the resolution suggested by the title. He is determined to better himself: he will become university educated, set up shop as a merchant, and marry Fatima, the girl next door. In other words, the film concerns itself with the attempt of the Egyptian poor to modernize themselves into something beyond a traditionalist society. Farahat’s own film goes further; it concerns itself with transforming not just a class, but society as a whole. This is reflective of the era in which it was written: in 1933, Egypt was still a staunchly capitalist country; two decades later, it was beginning to reject capitalism altogether.
for interrogation the next morning in what we are led to understand is a political case. The narrator interacts with the night duty officer, Sergeant Farahat, who sits at the front desk of the sordid, stark, crowded station, processing complaints and the night’s prisoners. Striking up conversation with the well-dressed narrator, whom he does not know is a detainee, Farahat complains about being the real victim in all this, since he has to process the endless crime reports. While unsympathetically taking the report of a woman who was purportedly attacked in a movie theater, Sergeant Farahat drops the remark that he once made a film.
Having piqued the narrator’s interest, Farahat proceeds to relate his film’s scenario, while impatiently and gruffly processing several cases
LOCALISMS IN “FARAHAFS REPUBLIC”—A GLOSSARY
Afreet: A devil, demon, or imp.
From Manzala to Uneiba, from Arish to Mersa Matrouh: Place names that trace the extent of Egypt on north-south and east-west axes. Manzala is a major lake by Port Said on the Mediterranean and Red Seas; Uneiba is a town on the Nile River near the Sudan border; Arish is a Mediterranean coastal region near the Gaza Strip; Mersa Matrough is a Mediterranean coastal resort about halfway to the Libyan border from Alexandria.
Galabia: Traditional male garb—a long-sleeved, full-length gown.
Mitwalli Gate: A huge gate of medieval Islamic Cairo, in a modern-day neighborhood characterized by genteel poverty and strong social tradition.
Mycerinus: Egyptian king of the twenty-sixth century B.C.E., also known as Menkaure.
Nagib al-Rihani: Well-loved Egyptian movie actor of the 1930s and ’40s; he played comic roles of the poor, ingenuous, good-hearted man on whom fortune either smiled or frowned.
Ramdan: Islamic holy month of fasting from food, drink, and all pleasures from sunrise to sunset.
Ramses: Egyptian pharaoh of the thirteenth century B.C.E.
Shubra: Large, densely populated neighborhood of contemporary Cairo, famous for ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.
Upper Egyptian (Sa’idi): In Cairo, Upper (southern) Egyptians have been the butt of jokes about naiveté country bumpkins, and stubbornness. Their dialect of Arabic differs from that of Cairo.
with little or no consideration for the unfortunate individuals involved. The story Farahat relates is the marvelous good-luck tale of a poor Egyptian who refused any reward for returning a valuable diamond to its Indian owner. In an attempt to repay the Egyptian’s honesty, the Indian bought a winning lottery ticket, whose proceeds he then used to purchase a cargo ship. He loaded the ship with sumptuous goods, and sent it off as a gift to the honest Egyptian. The Egyptian sold the goods and reinvested his earnings by buying up a fleet of cargo ships, one by one (incidentally ridding the waters of Alexandria of all foreign-owned boats). He subsequently purchased factory after factory until he owned all the factories in Egypt. To motivate his laborers to high levels of production, he provided comfortable housing and other incentives that raised the standard of living for all. The economy was transformed and the desert reclaimed. Industry and technology appeared everywhere, while electricity, job opportunities, and education became available to all.
In the telling of his Utopian film scenario, the sergeant is constantly interrupted by the cases of unfortunate victims, by the night’s harvest of beggars and pickpockets, or by superior officers. He is unsympathetic to every complainant, as if he disbelieves the evidence of each case as it is presented to him. His reaction to the woman attacked at the theater is to cast aspersions on her morals and honesty. He scoffs at another woman screaming for help against a young man who had violently beaten his mother. He callously refuses to take a grocer’s complaint about a broken window because the storefront is on a lane in the district of another police station, though the building itself is within Farahat’s district. While he deals with the rabble and the paperwork on his desk, Farahat unburdens himself to the narrator, spinning his Utopian tale, a sharp contrast to the grim realities around him. Finally, just as he is about to reach the high point, Farahat discovers by chance that the narrator himself is a detainee, and refuses to complete the tale, returning to his duties with the same withering gaze he had doled out to the supposed riffraff with whom he has been dealing all evening.
From Farahat’s to Plato’s Republic
In Arabic, the title, “Farahat’s Republic,” Jumhuriyat Farahat, has the same metrical structure as Plato’s Republic (Jumhuriyat Aflatori).This allusion is reinforced by the contents of the story, which, like Plato’s fourth-century B.C.E. treatise, envisions an ideal society—significantly more just than the society being portrayed in Farahat’s police station. The play on philosophical discourse is certainly not coincidental; in 1953 Nasser released his Philosophy of the Revolution, in which he articulated his hopes for the revolution he had helped instigate in 1952, and to which Farahat’s dream relates. Some scholars say that Idris changed the name of the story and of the main character from the original “ʿAbd al-Baqi’s Republic”; if this rumored change indeed occurred, the original title was a morphological echo of Abd al-Nasir (Nasser), and the change was a move away from it. Nasser may resemble more the unnamed Egyptian in Farahat’s film scenario than Farahat himself.
The details of the physical layout of the police station are timelessly accurate: filthy, poorly lit, littered with seemingly discarded furnishings—a description valid for countless government offices in Cairo. This grounds the setting in the poverty of the state, as well as the poverty of individuals in the police station, conveyed by details such as the faded gray overdress, worn kerchief, and unkempt hair of the first woman complainant. The facts of poverty are underscored by Farahat’s account of little details of his police work: the unidentified body found on a rubbish heap, and “men who murder for a stick of sugar-cane, burn down a barn for a corncob” (Idris, “Farahat’s Republic,” p. 7). Between the horrors coming in off the street to his desk and the rigid appearance of efficiency he musters for his superior, the Assistant Superintendent, Farahat spills his frustrations and Utopian film scenario to the narrator.
This irony of the short story relates to the problems, policy issues, and developing ideology of post-revolutionary Egypt. In the film’s plot, the integrity of the Egyptian protagonist contrasts sharply with Farahat’s attitude that every complaint is a lie and with the joking attitude of the police (except in front of their commanding officers). The windfall of the lottery ticket contrasts with the depressed economic conditions in the police station and in the real world of Egypt. The reinvestment of the windfall in purchasing more goods and ships and ultimately factories in Egypt is related to the program of state-guided capitalism that the nascent regime wished to encourage. The lands purchased and developed by the fictional Egyptian for his industrial complexes are, in retrospect, a remarkable prediction of the outlying industrial cities that would later be built around Cairo under President Anwar al-Sadat. The emphasis on providing for the social needs and satisfactions of the labor force anticipates the shift to the discourse of scientific socialism that increasingly characterized Nasser’s regime after the Suez Crisis. In the story, socialist, anticapitalist discourse is wedded to ancient and modern Egyptian identity:
He didn’t make a profit at all from the workers’ sweat. The man who did work worth five piastres got five piastres, the one who did work for ten got ten. Forgive me for saying so, a worker will put his heart and soul into his job if he’s properly paid. We’re a people who’ve had an inheritance of hard work handed down to us from father to son ever since the time of the Pharaohs. Instead of making a metre of cloth he’d make two; instead of just one shoe he’d make a pair. That’s how it was—give and take, give me my right and take yours.
(“Farahat’s Republic,” p. 15)
In this Utopia, the need for the police practically disappears. The new workers are well dressed, and enjoy all kinds of wholesome pleasures. There is no strife or victimization. Everything is electric, an allusion perhaps to the hopes surrounding the planned Aswan High Dam (“Farahat’s Republic,” p. 17). The vision spins off in a dream of industrial, agricultural, and technological development for all of Egypt, eclectically weaving together snippets of various ideologies that were present in Egyptian society at the time (socialist, communist, labor, Muslim Brotherhood, democratic, and capitalist ideologies). These snippets are bound to one another in the dream of economic independence and social justice.
Although the story avoids any direct mention of the Suez Canal, the canal-related implications are quite clear: the ship coming from the rich Indian gentleman had to have arrived by means of the Canal. The miraculously rich Egyptian in Farahat’s vision expresses and achieves a common Egyptian aspiration to own or control canal trade.
The man was extremely fed up with all the European ships, but in the space of a year God was good to him and he expanded a lot. Bit by bit he began buying up all the ships of Alexandria so that there wasn’t a single one, English, Italian or what you will—all were flying the green flag.
(“Farahat’s Republic,” p. 14)
The generous Egyptian in Farahat’s tale builds his capitalist monopoly to the benefit of all Egyptians. It is ironic that the Egyptian capitalists and industrialists who were in a position to help Nasser achieve his vision for Egypt were also badly stung by some of his policies. For example, the Egyptian industrialist Muhammad Ahmad ’Abbud patriotically lent his fleet of ships for use in delivering the weaponry purchased through the Czechs in 1955. Once the arms were delivered, the ships were confiscated by Nasser’s
Under the monarchy in the period surrounding World War II, political detainees, dissidents, or suspected spies may have included foreigners, members of the intelligentsia, and even government ministers. Called “special prisoners,” such detainees were kept apart from the general prison population. They were fed special meals and received privileges that criminal prisoners did not enjoy. However, as Nasser’s regime turned into a military dictatorship, the fate of political prisoners worsened considerably. Leftist, communist, and Islamic extremists suffered arrest and detention without due process, particularly communists, some of whom would remain in detention for decades.
regime. In 1956 the government started a round of nationalizations and confiscations that frightened off both foreign and domestic investors, derailing the guided capitalism and the investment strategies that sow prosperity in Farahat’s imaginary republic.
Another parallel lies in the unrevealed ending of Farahat’s Utopian film plot. The fortunate and beneficent Egyptian who has transformed society becomes bored with running the world for everyone and decides to give it all up. He is about to announce his decision on the radio, which he had established (just as Voice of the Arabs radio programming was initiated shortly after the Revolution), when Farahat refuses to reveal the rest of the tale. We never hear if or when and why the benevolent Egyptian peasant-turned-patriarch would leave utopia-building to someone else. This perhaps reflects the political uncertainty that gripped Egypt at the time.
Indeed there were very long and complicated discussions in the RCC concerning the nature and length of the transitional period to stated goals of democracy. Nasser had convinced everyone of his desires for democracy in Egypt. In view of needed reforms and the desire for independence from foreign influence and economic development, his regime resorted to centralized authoritarian control as a means of achieving these ends quickly while preparing for more democratic institutions. But the length of the transitional period kept growing—from months to three years to six years to finally a designated 30-year authoritarian rule, after which Nasser said he would turn Egypt into a true democracy. This debate was at its height in the days preceding the Suez Crisis, and “Farahat’s Republic” seems to beg the question: when would Nasser step down or allow more democratic representation? The story deliberately leaves the question unanswered.
Once Farahat discovers that the narrator is among those brought in for interrogation on political charges, his camaraderie disappears, and he turns back to his duties with renewed fierceness. Yusuf Idris served time in jail under the British and Nasser’s regime; there is little doubt that the narrator of the short story represents Idris’s persona to a great extent. By ending in this fashion, the story questions the means by which authoritarian control achieves its ends, whether the power broker is the British or the new regime, which had begun to repress critics and competing ideologies.
Sources and literary context
The twentieth century has seen a tremendous blossoming of Arabic prose fiction, especially in Egypt. Some of the earliest novel-like experiments expressed outrage at the British presence in Egypt, such as Mahmud Tahir’s 1906 novelette, The Maiden of Dinshaway, a fictionalized account of actual events surrounding the death of a British officer in the Nile Delta village of Dinshaway.
Yusuf Idris’s fiction covers a wide range of human issues, and is perhaps better known in Arabic reading circles for its wrenching explorations of moral and social issues (as in his 1971 “House of Flesh”), but he never shied from political commentary. In 1955 critics in Egypt called for writers to commit their literature to social betterment. In a collection of essays called Fi-th-Thaqafa al-Misriyya (On Egyptian Culture), two critics, Muhammad Amin al-‘Alim and ʿAbd al-‘Azim Anims, complained that Egyptian prose and poetry still traveled in a very narrow social milieu, the middle class, whose problems were portrayed in a style grown stale. Calling their movement the “New School,” the critics argued that literature should bring about and emanate from social and political change. There were certain similarities between them and Idris, who himself is considered the founder of a new school of short stories in Egypt.
In the film scenario in “Farahat’s Republic,” the poor-Egyptian-turned-rich-industrialist in some ways resembles an actual historical figure, the previously mentioned Muhammad Ahmad ’Abbud, who started building a huge business empire in Egypt in the mid-1920s. ’Abbud entered sector after sector of economic development until his family was forced to flee Egypt on the heels of confiscations and nationalizations in 1955 and 1963. But ’Abbud resembles the do-good Egyptian in the short story, with one remarkable exception. The story envisions an Egypt for Egyptians without foreign influence or control. ’Abbud, however, was viewed as a collaborator with the British and foreign-supported monarchy. If one identifies ’Abbud with the Egyptian industrialist, the short story can be read as a tale that addresses Egypt’s economic elite, who gained huge fortunes in the 1930s and ’40s, calling for the Egyptianization of their interests to the benefit of the nation.
The foremost literary figure and critic of the day, Taha Husayn, wrote an introduction to Farahat’s Republic, in which he both praised Idris and launched a critique of his work that would dog Idris for much of his career.
I read and find in [this book] enjoyment, power, acute sensitivity, refined taste, veracity of observation, and skillful rendering… with a profundity in accord with life’s details, and a harshly accurate documentation of momentous and prodigious events which occur in it without hesitation or constraint.
(Husayn in Idris, Jumhuriyat Farahat, p. 4; trans. C. Burt)
Husayn goes on to say that Idris seems to be a born story writer, with great abilities to portray not only individuals in brilliant cameos, but also the characteristics of social groups. Husayn
COLLOQUIAL VERSUS STANDARD LITERARY ARABIC
Idris was accused of writing in substandard Arabic, of violating the literary values that uphold classical Arabic as the standard for literary composition. The linguistic critique launched at his work reflects an important debate in twentieth-century Egyptian society over the use of dialectical Arabic in written, literary communication. In the contemporary Arab world there are two linguistic codes assigned to specific functions in society: colloquial Arabic and standard literary Arabic. Colloquial (or spoken) Arabic differs widely from country to country, even to the point of mutual unintelligibility. In Egypt itself, there are very significant dialectical variations. These colloquial Arabic dialects are primarily unwritten, while education and writing have historically been the almost exclusive provinces of standard literary Arabic, regarded as the modern continuation of the Arabic of the Qurʾan and classical Arabic literature.
With the blossoming of the Arab press in the late nineteenth century, the push toward mass education, and the growth of nationalism, language reform was debated in Egypt in order to make the written word more accessible and less stultified by archaic stylistic conventions and paralyzing grammatical rules. None of the reform schemes reached fruition. The historical advantage of Fusha, the language of the Qurʾan, and its unifying power as a cultural standard among Arabs made it unassailable on the level of official usage. The twentieth century, however, has witnessed a steady seeping of colloquial expression into literary media in Egypt. Over the years, with the exception of drama, where colloquial has won the floor, colloquial Arabic literature has been marginalized, labeled as folk poetry, and denied publication. The impulse to write in colloquial Arabic seems to survive, however, resurfacing with every generation.
dampens this praise, however, with withering criticism of Idris’s use of colloquial Arabic in dialogue and elsewhere, as opposed to the standard literary Arabic of the body of the story’s text: “How greatly our young writers err when they think depicting reality from life requires them to have people in books utter what is current on tongues in the streets and clubs” (Husayn in Idris, Jumhuriyat Farahat, pp. 6-7; trans. C. Burt). This critique was followed by others like it, although more recent Egyptian and foreign critics have celebrated this aspect of Idris’s style, applauding his works for documenting the variety and specificity of Egyptian characters, even on the level of the dialect that they speak.
Critics have observed that “Farahat’s Republic” is a prism through which one can refract history: “When we observe that the title of the story refers to the police station as a ’republic,’ it becomes clear that we are dealing with a portrayal of a microcosm of the larger reality of Egypt and perhaps a not entirely complimentary portrait of its leader” (Allen, p. 44). Some scholars view the story as the height of Idris’s optimism and hope for the future of the Revolution. Others feel that the juxtaposition of the Utopian film scenario and sordid police station makes even Farahat’s name (which means “joy” in Arabic) farcical (see Mikhail, pp. 42-43).
—Clarissa Burt and Joyce Moss
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