By Ramadan A. Kader
“Something must have happened and prevented the sheikh from completing the prostration. At that point, real astonishment prevailed as a lot of possibilities moved through the bent heads that could not dare to rise.
Possibilities, similar and conflicting, moved back and forth. Has he fallen ill, dropped dead or passed out? Did some devil tempt him to take a piece of hash before the prayer and it now heavily weighs on him?”
In his short story “Did You Have to Turn on the Light, Li-Li”, the mastery of Egyptian writer Youssef Idris (1927-1991) peaks. In the story, part of his famed collection “A House of Flesh” that was published in 1971, Idris tells an imaginary tale about a crowd in a Cairo quarter, once notorious for drug trafficking, who went to the local mosque to perform the two-prostration dawn prayer.
Many of them had not gone to mosque for long years. Shortly before the end of the second prostration, the young imam – for a hitherto-unknown reason – fails to complete the prayer. As a result, the perplexed worshippers keep their heads bowed in the ground, fearing that any interruption on their part would invalidate the prayer.
On the surface, the incident sounds hilarious. Idris, noted for breaking taboos in his literary output, presents the incident in an engaging and fast-paced fashion.
“Ten low rows filled the small mosque. The people prostrated in piety, although in discomfort. Most of them did not pray for long, a matter that made their joints and muscles too stiff to cope with the postures of the prayer. They repeated ‘praise be to God’ three times, but when they did not hear the imam saying ‘God is the Greatest’ as a sign that the bowing on the ground is over, many of them suspected that they had miscalculated. They started again. But, the awaited declaration “God is the Greatest” did
Soon after giving an insight into the befuddled worshippers’ surmises about the cause of their predicament, Idris switches from the third-person commentary to direct narration by the lead character, Sheikh Abdul Aal. Soon the reader becomes aware that the collective quandary is related to a raging conflict inside Abdul Aal, a devoted cleric appointed as an imam at a state-run mosque.
The writer adroitly whips up interest in the narration by occasionally quoting the protagonist asking: “Did you have to turn on the light, Li-Li?”
Li-Li is a gorgeous local woman, who puts the 25-year-old theologian to a tough test. The half-Egyptian-half-British woman’s initial attempt to seduce the imam fizzles out.
The conflict inside Sheikh Abdul Aal soon starts when the sweet-voiced man ascends the mosque minaret to call to the dawn prayer.
He happens to see the woman inside a lit room across the narrow street clad in a nightie while reclining in her bed. A gaze inside the room arouses the chaste cleric’s desire and makes him realise his vulnerability. In a succinct monologue, the preacher grapples with his sudden fall to temptation.
“For the first time in my life, I suddenly see so much of a woman’s body. I came to find myself in the middle stairway escaping, descending and gasping for breath. From sheer terror, I turned to extreme rage. I’m in a trap. I’m the one who came to expel the devil from here, have ambitions dwindled to avoid the devil, his dens and disguises? I find myself this dawn quite in the trap. I’m the one who wanted to vanquish it, is now running away for fear he would defeat me?”
The preacher, who originally came to the quarter to lead the obstinate flock to God’s path, increasingly feels vulnerable. He vows to overcome the devil’s temptation and implore God to support him:
“Oh God. I know I have loved You as pure as the serene water alone. As though You have created me only. I know that I should have been put to a test. I know if I succeeded, I would know that at last I’m worth accepting. I’ll make it a hard test. I won’t escape. I’ll double temptation. I’ll have gazes again. I’ll commit the lesser guilt so that my triumph over the bigger guilt will be paramount. I did gaze. It is Lil-Li in her flesh. It is the devil incarnate. Her temptation is complete.”
Overwhelmed by temptation-laden gazes, the young sheikh turns to his voice in his existential battle. He makes an evocative, desperate plea to God to save him:
“Oh God, does it please You that we fall? Does it please You that we sin? Does it please You that the devil overpowers us and prevails? Help me, my Lord. I’m in a pit. Who will save me except You?”
The cleric’s plea awakens the quarter’s dwellers from their sleep and motivates them to flock to the mosque, feeling they are close to God than ever before. The protagonist believes victory over the devil is in sight. He leads the congregation in the prayer. His putative triumph paradoxically proves false, though.
In the course of the prayer, the vision of Lil-Li haunts him. And he succumbs. He leaves the worshippers prostrating on the ground and slips away unnoticed from the mosque. He heads to the temptress, who ironically rebuffs him.
The story is among a few in the Arabic literature in which the devil emerges victorious.After reading the 18-page story, the answer to its title is “Yes”. By turning on the light of her room, the seductress has made the clergyman see himself in its true colours and
tested his faith.
Nicknamed Anton Chekov of the Arabic short story, Idris is skillful in unlocking the human psyche and frailties. His narrative as well as his personae are hewn from real life and its paradoxes, making them palpable and deserve sympathy.
CAIRO, June 26, 2018 (MENA) - The UNESCO Cairo office on Tuesday launched a project for enhancing national capabilities for safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage in Egypt for sustainable development.
The project will last for 24 months with the support of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority (ADTCA) of the United Arab Emirates, according to a statement issued by the United Nations Information office in Cairo.
The initiative is aimed at assisting Egypt to protect its intangible cultural heritage in co-operation with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.
Within the framework of the 24-month project, UNESCO office hosted last week a workshop on developing policies in the field of intangible cultural heritage safeguarding which was particularly organised to address policy-makers and senior officials whose work is related to intangible heritage in Egypt.
CAIRO, June 25, 2018 (MENA) - Egypt's Culture Minister Enas Abdel-Dayem said that cultural events play key role in bringing various peoples together, terming them as “bridge for communication” between societies and individuals.
The culture minister made the remarks while inaugurating the Egyptian-Italian cultural activities taking place at the medieval Palazzo dei Papi, in the Italian city of Viterbo, according to a statement released by the ministry on Monday.
The minister asserted that strong and unique relations are binding Egypt and Italy, mainly in cultural and artistic domains, citing the great Italian cultural contribution to the artistic performances being given at Cairo Opera House as evidence.
The coming phase will witness further joint cultural activities, a move that stems from the great importance that Italian people attach to the Egyptian civilization and culture, Abdel-Dayem said.
For his part, the president of the Benedetti Cultural Foundation that is organizing the event, expressed appreciation for Abdel-Dayem and her ministry for accepting the invitation and calls by the Italians to intensify activities which reflect the Egyptian bright intellectual and artistic side.
He pointed out to the huge numbers of Italian and tourist audience who have flocked to the the medieval Palazzo dei Papi premises to attend the launching ceremony.
CAIRO, June 21, 2018 (MENA) - Egypt will have a holding company for investment in the fields of culture and the film industry upon a decision issued by Culture Minister Enas Abdel-Dayem.
The decision comes in light of the state's keeness to support culture and the film industry, the Ministry of Culture said in a press release on Wednesday.
"It comes also in view of efforts exerted to promote the artistic and professional levels; to revive the film industry ; to restructure the system of preserving the country's cultural legacy; and to enrich the work of the cultural and cinema community," added the statement.
The decision has been welcomed in the cultural and cinematic communities as it will promote the cultural movement at large in Egypt as part of the country's 2030 vision for sustainable development.
CAIRO, May 17, 2018 (MENA) - The Arab League underlined the importance of cultural diversity in enriching different civilisations and building bridges of communication among individuals with different cultural backgrounds.
Holding an intercultural dialogue is the best way to know the other, spread values of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect and enhance international peace and security, the Arab League said in a statement on the occasion of the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development which falls on May 21.
The pan-Arab body underlined the importance of this occasion in promoting awareness related to cultural diversity and acceptance of the other.
CAIRO, May 17, 2018 (MENA) - Egyptian Ambassador to Burundi Abir Bassioni has praised Egypt's win of the best picture award at Burundi Film and Audio Arts Festival FESTICAB.
Egyptian film Shad Agza' (Pulling parts) produced by Hassan al Minyawi won the prize and a certificate of merit for using state-of-the-art technology.
The Egyptian movie was competing with 69 others including nine from Burundi.
FESTICAB is the major film festival in Burundi which promotes the diversity of the African cinema. Egypt has taken part in the festival for the first time this year although FESTICAB was launched ten years ago.