Enemy of the State: A Tribute to Jamal Khashoggi

Sitting on the balcony at the Izmir Palace Hotel in Turkey, gazing at the silvery vista, the sky is beginning to lift after a storm. Blackbirds, seagulls, and pigeons swoop down and bicker over a crust of bread. Peaceful and quiet, fishermen cast out their lines. The occasional passerby strolls down the path, walking a dog.  I feel happy to have escaped the news. But at the same time, I think of the recent brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and wonder if there are any developments in the case. The nature of the murder is a reminder of the courage needed to speak and write freely, especially under an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, murders of journalists and writers have become commonplace under Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia.  They are also reminiscent of the murders of writers and intellectuals under Joseph Stalin. I think of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sent to the gulag in Siberia for writing a sardonic poem about Stalin’s “ten thick worms for fingers.” His wife, Nadezhda, preserved much of his work by memorizing his poems—even writing them on paper was too dangerous.

Two novelists who write extensively about surveillance, interrogation, and the power of the authoritarian state are the prominent Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera. In Ibrahim’s novel The Committee, the narrator is accused of being disloyal to the state and appears before an interrogation committee to clear his name. In his briefcase, he brings “testimonials” that will vouch for his honesty; however, the committee forces him to strip naked and are not interested in denials or testimonials. The goal is humiliation and intimidation, not justice, or any kind of rendering of the truth. The evidence he carries in his briefcase is useless because the verdict is preordained: he is “an enemy of the state.”

In The Committee, the state has a file on the narrator but its contents are mysterious—and the charges against him are also a riddle. He is followed home by a committee member who monitors his every movement and even watches him defecate.  A commentary on the atmosphere during the Nasser era in Egypt, it is suggested that everything in the flat is being recorded.  Seeing the video of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and of two henchman joking after the killing, one realizes how sophisticated today’s surveillance methods have become since the 1960s and 1970s. And if we consider the fact that the Turkish government has an audio recording of Khashoggi’s execution within the Saudi Consulate—which President Trump famously refuses to listen to—one might also reflect upon the pernicious nature of paranoia of autocratic governments.

Milan Kundera, like Sonallah Ibrahim, also explores paranoia and surveillance. In his novella Lost Letters from his collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, even the most innocent and personal of documents—love letters—threaten to the state. The heroine in Lost Letters, a waitress named Tamina, is desperate to reclaim love letters from her late husband, which she left in her mother-in-law’s flat in Bohemia. Since he was an opposition figure, the love letters are of particular interest to the secret police. Tamina’s brother attempts to reclaim the letters from the flat in Bohemia, but someone has already rifled through the notebooks and papers. Nothing is private in the authoritarian state, even love letters in a forgotten desk.

For Jamal Khashoggi, the most innocuous and benign of documents—the state’s certification that one can marry a national from another country—turned out to be a trap. It is now early March—three months since I was looking off the balcony of the Izmir Palace Hotel at the bay. I wondered what would happen in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. A few weeks ago, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings reported that the “brutal and premeditated killing was planned and perpetuated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia.”  The view out my window in Cairo is not the Izmir Bay, but a pink palace, a villa, home of a music institute—the occasional rare melody from a talented saxophonist floats up to the fourth floor. Too often it is discord: the repetition of the same note on a piano, the people below quarreling over a parking place, or the blaring of car horns. Pen International and Reporters Without Borders campaign tirelessly for writers and reporters who have been imprisoned or whose voices have been muffled by the state. Whatever the price—and the price is often times, dear: exile, alienation, penury, and even death—writers, intellectuals, and journalists are not destined to be slaves or flatterers of any state, democratic or authoritarian.

A Eulogy for Two Unsung Heroes of Egyptian Literature: Yahya Haqqi and Sabri Moussa

One of the pleasures of reading critic and fiction writer Yahya Haqqi’s essays in Arabic is that I am always astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience, the nimbleness of his mind and his eloquence. In the collection Crying, Then Smiling, he has a number of eulogies, one of which is for his uncle, Mahmoud Taher Haqqi, who wrote the first Egyptian novel, The Maidens of Denshawi, about the tragedy of Denshawi in 1906 where British soldiers carelessly killed a villager while they were shooting pigeons—the incident ended tragically when villagers were rounded up and executed by the British. Haqqi points out that it was the first novel to focus on fellaheen, peasants, and their problems and opened the way for Mohamed Hussein Haykal’s novel, Zeyneb (1913). Haqqi wrote that his heart trembled when he read The Maidens of Denshawi—which is what good stories should bring about. Haqqi deserves a eulogy, much like the ones he so generously wrote for others, about his place in Egyptian literary heritage. This seems appropriate in light of the recent celebration of the classic black and white film Al-Bostagy, or The Postman, directed by Husayn Kamal (1968), featuring Shukry Sarhan, based on Haqqi’s novella. But one cannot write about this poignant film without mentioning Sabri Moussa, the talented novelist who translated the spirit of Yahya Haqqi’s novella into a suspenseful screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for Yahya Haqqi’s Om Hashem’s Lamp.) Sabri Moussa, who died recently, January 2018, deserves a eulogy as well for his film scripts, short fiction, and novels—the unusual sci-fi tale The Man Arrived from the Spinach Field, the mythic fable Seeds of Corruption, and Half-Meter Incident.

Interior monologues so crucial to building a psychological portrait of a character in fiction have to be handled differently in film, another genre. Much of Yahya Haqqi’s novella The Postman relies upon the interior monologues of the male hero, the postman, Abbas, and the thoughts of Gameela, the young girl who has fallen in love with a young man named Khaleel who promises to marry her. The isolation of the postman is shown through the scenes where he is sitting alone in the dusty, decrepit house he is renting—steaming open the letters while alone drinking cheap booze and reading about the romance of Gameela and Khaleel, or even riding his donkey to deliver the mail. An educated Cairene, he cannot relate to the people in the village and feels he has been banished to Mars. Moussa also added certain scenes to the screenplay that were not present in the novel to augment dramatic tension linked to sexuality in a village in upper Egypt in the ’40s. For instance, the servant girl who is raped by Gameela’s father is taken away by her relatives and will certainly be killed. Abbas invites a Romani woman to his house and she is almost murdered by a mob. Both of these scenes foreshadow the murder of the young girl Gameela when her father discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the novel, Abbas hears the church bell toll for someone who has died, but Haqqi, the author, does not state explicitly that it is Gameela who has died—that is left ambiguous. However, in the screenplay, Moussa added a scene of the father carrying his daughter’s corpse through the village after he has killed her. The addition of this extra scene is reminiscent of King Lear carrying his daughter Cordelia in his arms: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” However, this is the antithesis of the scene in King Lear since Gameela’s father intended to kill her to save the family’s honor—the price is still dear. The mother trails behind, wailing.

The Egyptian classic The Postman reminds me of the 1954 film thriller Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. James Stewart plays a photographer with a broken leg who cannot move—he sits at his apartment window in New York City, watching his neighbors. At first, it is entertainment. The game becomes dangerous when the killer realizes he is being watched—and stalks the photographer and his lovely girlfriend. The lonely postman who resides in a village town in upper Egypt alleviates his boredom by reading the letters of the villagers and then stumbles upon the letters of two young lovers and their secrets. The photographer also stumbles upon a deadly secret: His neighbor has killed his wife, cut up her body, and crammed it into a trunk.  Abbas in The Postman realizes that Gameela, the unmarried young girl, has committed herself too wholeheartedly to a feckless, immature lover. Pregnant, she is in danger of being killed for dishonoring the family, yet Abbas is helpless to save her. Both men are isolated bachelors who entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors. Despite the fact that one story is set in America in the ’50s, the other in an Egyptian village in the ’40s, they both focus on the universal themes of solitude, voyeurism, and disorientation. We may think we know our neighbors, but often are surprised.

Unfortunately, the novels of many exceptional writers are not known to a wide audience unless their works are adapted to film. At the same time, the revival of The Postman on its Golden Jubilee recently in Cairo can inspire viewers to return to his written word.