Syrian author Heidar Heidar's novel about Iraqi communist exiles in Algeria has provoked the ire of Islamists who have denounced A Banquet for Seaweed as “offensive to Islam“.
Since the 1960s, the Arab secular experience has been dying a slow and painful death. From the early experiments with liberalism in the 1930s, to the later dabblings in nationalism, pan-Arabism, socialism and, to some extent, various variants of communism. Although most Arab regimes are nominally secular, their policies have been dictated increasingly by Islamic factions and interest groups. For a multitude of reasons, the secular experience across the Arab World was doomed to failure, even in its main bastions, Syria and Egypt.
In its heyday in the early to mid-60s pan-Arabism and socialism were an almost irresistible force that enjoyed a broad base of mass appeal and support. The same period marked the birth or strengthening of many of the highly politicised Islamic movements we see today. Certain Arab regimes that saw their very existence threatened by the sweeping force of pan-Arabism, especially Saudi Arabia, funded and trained Islamic movements and then promoted itself as the natural protector and bastion of Islam, to counter-weigh the alluring voice of pan-Arab unity radiating out of Cairo and Damascus.
They were aided in this scheme by the US and, to a lesser degree, Britain and France, who also perceived the spreading tide of Pan-Arabism with growing concern for the very same reason: that it enjoyed popular and mass support. They needed to keep friendly elites at the helm of power as they could be more easily relied upon to deliver the goods. The irony is that, three or so decades down the line, the scheme has backfired and the Islamic movements have gained a life of their own and have developed their own agendas and, now, the very same powers who played a big part in their rise to prominence are desperately trying to contain them.
The final nail in the coffin of the pan-Arab/socialist experiment came with the humiliating defeat, in 1967, of Egypt and Syria at the hands of Israel. It engendered a harsh self-criticism uncommon in the Arab World. People were asking many pertinent questions about what went wrong: ones immediately related to the defeat, others more fundamental.
The romance of the fifties and sixties had died and a new age of cynicism and pragmatism dawned. Egypt embraced an open door economic policy that turned the country into a consumer society with no clear ideology that produced little of what it consumed.
In the early seventies, the Islamists were tolerated and left to their own devices because they aided in the dismantling of the last remnants of the pan-Arab and socialist dreams. They were eventually found to be getting too big for their boots and had to be contained.
The Islamists were never fully contained and, today, with no plausible secular intellectual body to counteract their influence, society is growing gradually more conservative and reactionary in its outlook. In Syria, the pan-Arab dream was quietly buried and it only lives on as a slogan in the party's manifesto – today's Baath party is a shadow of its former self, where, lacking the legitimate base of popular support it once enjoyed, it has had to become more and more autocratic in its rule.
Heidar Heidar's novel, Walima lih Aa'shab El-Bahr (A Banquet for Seaweed), comes in the shadow of the turbulence that came in the wake of the 1967 defeat. It is a fictional account of the demise of the exiled Iraqi communists living in Algeria, who had fled there to escape the bloodbaths instigated against them by the Iraqi regime. On another, more fundamental, level it is a rather harsh criticism of the inherent corruption, elitism and oppressiveness of post-independence Arab regimes. The novel was first published in the early 1980s to great literary acclaim. However, when a low-priced edition was printed by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, it sparked off Islamist outrage due to certain passages that were interpreted as offensive to Islam, spoken by characters who had become disillusioned with the political and social situation in the Arab World.
The star of the story is Mahdi Jawad, an Iraqi communist who fled to Algeria following the massacre of his comrades in southern Iraq. In Algeria, he meets his former colleague in the Iraqi Communist Party, Mehyar El-Baheli. Both Mahdi and Mehyar are Shiites, as were many of Iraq's communists, who joined the party as a rebellion against their harsh oppression by the regime. Mehyar dreamt that, through the communist party, he would achieve social justice.
In the early sixties the communists were perceived as a serious threat and Abdel-Salam Aref ordered their neutralisation. The remnants of the party fled to southern Iraq, where they rebanded. In 1969, they began a failed armed struggle against the regime. They were massacred at the orders of Ahmed Hassan Bakr, who was probably controlled by his second in command, the young and ruthless Saddam Hussein. A fortunate few, including the fictional stars of the novel, survived and took flight from the country.
Mahdi, defeated, disillusioned and cynical, took up work as an Arabic teacher. Mehyar found work as a philosophy teacher. Trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life, he attempted to reconcile Marxism with Islam. They met two Algerian women, Asia and Fula. Mahdi fell in love with Asia and Mehyar got to know Fula, who ran the pension where he lives.
Forceful, individualistic Fula, an ex-freedom fighter who fought alongside the men refused to be cast aside and become just a regular housewife (her views are some of those found most offensive by the novels detractors). Mehyar shares her disappointment in the return, following Algeria's war of independence from France, to a status quo similar to that which existed before, and the million poor Algerians who sacrificed their lives for a vanished dream.
They lamented the rise of the military and an affluent bourgeoisie, and how religion was being used by the country's dictators to oppress the Algerian people. However, Mehyar admired Algeria's war of independence and perceived it as the model of an Islamic revolution. Using that as his starting point, he analysed what went wrong and tried to forge a new Islamic ideology. Mahdi, on the other hand, became increasingly despairing and, when he and Mehyar were banished by an Algerian government that could not cope with their politics, he committed suicide and offered his body as a banquet for seaweed.
Excerpt from A Banquet for Seaweed
Chapter three (translated by Khaled Diab)
Chapter three begins with a three-way conversation between Mahdi, Mehyar and Fula. They are discussing the outcomes of the Algerian revolution.
That sudden assault that disintegrates a nation with its fire to later emerge from the flames in a new guise. Towns, villages, forests and people were burnt. The land and all that was upon it was left black and charred. But still they managed to rise out of the ashes.
In its ferocity, it would burst open the springs of selfless love, labour and sacrifice. It removed the monarch and transformed matter into radiation, mending the parts which were broken. All that was luminous and human would travel, like a beam of light, across the rivers of blood and under the shimmering whips of torture.
When they were trapped in the straits of danger and death, they burst forth like a hurricane. Now, what has happened after the victory?
Mehyar El-Baheli says, “Their mettle hardened when confronted by a threatening situation. They were in danger of extinction. Positively, the instinct for life rose to forestall the instinct for death. They stood as equals in the face of danger.”
Mahdi Jawad replies, “It was a group war. There was no discrimination or selection. Class warfare is what killed people's mettle. The evil returned with the return of the monarchy following the victory. That's how it would appear.”
Mahyar explains, “It is perhaps an ancient hereditary split which has returned to tear them apart once again. They fought and became martyrs so that they would be free in their towns and villages; their streets and squares; their coffeehouses; their schools and homes. Observe how they hunt each other as if they were hunting their oppressor. This blind deviance – why did it happen?”
Fulla Buennab tells them that Algerians are simple and kind people – they love and hate to the same degree. The poor and the freedom fighters only reaped disdain and hunger from the war; that is why they are spiteful.
“War did not destroy all the forts and strongholds of the old non-secular order. They have gone back to their old ways. A reversal has taken place. A return to the closed circle. Look at them. See how they've reverted to walking round their old temples – the temples of our ancestors who have died out. In the light of this anthropological cycle, we can understand the specialness of Marxism!” exhorts Mehyar in anthropological fervour.
The three continue their walk along the sea promenade. Fulla asks Mehyar for a cigarette. He is shocked by the request because he sees it as unbecoming for a woman to smoke in public. She, however, gets her way. Passersby are outraged by this exhibition. She snaps angrily, “They (men) are allowed to do anything, while we, women, are only allowed to spread our legs.”
She curses out loud at the onlookers. Mahdi is duly impressed. Mehyar is disapproving of this vulgarity. They tire of walking and go to a café. Their conversation loses focus. They talk for an hour and a half. Mehyar gets the lion's share of the conversation, expressing his shocked disbelief over the lost dream of a revolutionary and democratic utopia that was forestalled by the military and devoured by them, the bourgeoisie and bureaucrats.
In a celebratory flourish, he finishes his lecture with, “Ideological law is superior to economic law. When the beginnings are faulty so are the outcomes. Deep awareness of history is absent. They destroy history and hurl us back a million years into the past. In the space and atom age with its explosion of the intellect, they govern us with the laws of Bedouin gods and the teachings of the Quran. Shit!”
Mahdi Jawad contemplated the blurred sea through the window, following the circling flight of the gulls as they approach the fishermen and their shadows pass and fade over the rocks. To banish the sound of the big words released by the mind of El-Baheli from his head, he loosens the reins on his imagination. Cloathed in the feathers of a seagull, he flies, with Asya El-Akhdar, over all the oceans and islands of the world – far, far away. As far away as he could get from all the detestable Arab planets that have been spoilt by evil smells, bloodbaths and politics. Under the cover of ensuing nightfall, Fulla Buennab's eyes were glimmering as she smoked and listened. She was astounded by Mehyar's secret ability to speak words with such tragic tones that resonated through the walls of her conscience. Words that bounced back echoes of the glories of the first revolution in the mountains, where she would listen to the words of Si El-Zeberi as he related his vision of the Algeria of the future that would radiate like radium and glitter like diamonds.
N.B.: The above extract was taken from pages 125-130. The section in italics is a summary and not the author's original words. The quote of Mehyar's that ends with shit is one of the disputed passages in the novel. According to the Heidar Heidar, Mehyar, who is trying to reconcile Islam with Marxism, spoke it as an outraged commentary at the manipulativeness and backwardness of Arab regimes.
About the author
Syrian born Heidar Heidar started his writing career in the mid-1960s. In the mid-1970s he moved to Algeria where he worked for four years. After that, he went on to Beirut to work with the PLO and fought alongside them during the siege of Beirut in 1982. He now lives in his home village, Hesn El-Bahr. In his works, Heydar has concentrated his criticism on Arab dictatorships. Heydar is seen to have succeeded by critics where other Arab authors have failed, in that he can embed political criticism in the thread of an engaging story, thereby avoiding the trap of making his novels sound like political manifestos.Body
This article appeared in the June 2000 issue of Egypt's Insight magazine.