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The Dystopian Delusion

Anam Sufi fuses her penchant for literature with politics, addressing classic dystopian literature, and explaining how it foreshadowed where Egypt stands today. It turns out that life does imitate art, after all...

Having studied English literature as an undergrad student, I was often met with cocked brows and muffled scoffs from those who consider the field to be one that is only good for producing teachers who might fill a niche in the education system. This reaction usually stems from the veil of doubt and disbelief that people associate with fiction. However, what I wish to accomplish through this article, is to debunk such misplaced evaluations, stressing on the fact that fiction is born of reality. Literature has the ability to remove ‘reality’ from its subjective and diluted framework that originates from individual bias, drawing attention to the raw blueprint of life’s veracity. Saying this, I have accumulated some of the literary world’s classic dystopian novels and pitched them against the social and political mores that adorn Egypt’s current state of affairs. In doing so, here’s hoping you might see the stark, alarming, and harrowing actuality that so many have mistakenly thought to only exist in the realm of the fantastic.

Politically:

1984, by George Orwell, brilliant as it is, has been hackneyed in terms of its use in representing the youth’s desire to rage against the machine. For the sake of spicing thing things up a little, I won’t be stressing too strongly on the relativity between the dystopian characteristics within the novel and what we can witness in Egypt today. However, one of the most notorious components that the novel addresses is that of censorship and the abuse of man’s privacy. The theme is by no means a new one, and by no means is it something Egyptians can claim to be unacquainted with. Egypt is unfortunately a country that lives vicariously through its ancient and past successes, failing miserably at facing the fact that its present state of affairs is nothing to be proud of. The people ousted ex-President Hosni Mubarak, excited by the prospect of an end to censorship, an end to dictatorship, and the promise of the sun rising once more from the East. However, what ensued was anything by the fulfillment of this vision. Today, Egypt’s modern narrative is marred by neo-censorship tactics. Following round two of “topple the existing president,” targeting the rule of Mohamed Morsi, and after a slew of high profile resignations from the channel, Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr was systematically shut down, and forced to raze its ground operations in Cairo. Just months before Morsi was ousted, Hani Shukrallah, former editor of Al-Ahram English Online, was fired twice from his post. The suspension of satirical comedian, Bassem Youssef, notably and conspicuously "guilty of defaming the military," indicated the vulnerability of all opposing viewpoints in terms of censorship. And let’s not forget the most recent spate of arrests and derogation campaigns against the Raba'a four-finger symbol, including but not limited to, the world of sports, of schoolchildren, and passive protestors. In light of such occurrences, the era of Orwellian Newspeak has become a cloud that wholly eclipses the rays of a brighter and freer Egypt.

“Big Brother is Watching You.”  George Orwell, 1984

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, sheds light on a dome society that has reconstructed itself in the image of technology and a system that actively generates a segregated caste structure, where everyone serves a pedantic and inescapable role in the society. Alpha Males and Females are kept separate from the docile deltas, and each member or group in the system is condition to appreciate obedience and the world order. What’s especially relevant to Egypt, is the way in which Huxley’s dystopian society actively strives to eradicate all forms of culture, religion, and historic narratives of the past. Sound familiar? It should, and here is why: Egypt, poles apart in terms of its struggle to identify itself on the scale of secularism and religious foundations, is like the man who is so determined to prove his right-handedness that he is willing to amputate his left arm. Identities are dynamic. National identity is a variegation of colours that paint the past into the present, and in trying to strip the land of one these colours, the image changes entirely.

“We can destroy what we have written, but we cannot unwrite it.” –Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

The harsh rebuke of anything associated with Islam, to further the coveted banner of liberalism, is bullshit. This is a matter that is especially highlighted through the actions of Alia Al-Mahdi, the feminist activist, who on numerous occasions has utilised nudity and assumed arsenal of blasphemy to make criticisms of Islamic legislation. While I don’t challenge her right to an opinion, I will say that I believe she weakens her stance tremendously, in using her opposition as the salient issue when trying to highlight her message of feminism. In the storm of debates that ensues after each of her stunts, everyone tends to view the issue in terms of religion and liberalism. But no one brings up the issue of cultural sensitivity. Look around you. It is arrogant and idiotic to consider an Egyptian culture that is divorced from its Islamic heritage. Accordingly, I urge people to consider the implications of their statements, their actions. Indeed, to each his own, everyone deserves to exercise their freedom of expression as they see fit, but even in the much lauded Western powers of the world, this right comes with limitations; those limitations being that our expression shall not impede and overstep the rights of others. In light of this, we can let the nudity slide. But what of blasphemous parodies that target the call to prayer? Frankly, I find this a weak attempt at attention seeking, and a slap in the face of feminist desires. After all, is the argument for women equality so weak that it requires the defamation of Islam?

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”  George Orwell, 1984

What has unfortunately taken root in Egypt’s social and political operations is the trend of assuming some sort of moral high ground, whether it be religious or secular. The liberals censure the Islamists, the Military castigates the Muslim Brotherhood, the people reproach the military, and contradictory narratives ricochet off decrepit buildings, providing an off-key chorus to a conflicting national identity. This situation is largely emblematic of the central theme in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. When the protagonist, Alex De Large, wholly considered a menace to society, is arrested by the authorities and forcefully put through an experiment that changes his personality to one that is more in-tune with socially accepted mannerisms, a disturbing reality comes to the forefront; what is morally and fundamentally right? And if such a thing exists, then who is responsible to dispense such teachings? To cut a not-so-long story short, what the novel ultimately highlights is the abstract nature of righteousness. There can be no undiluted right and no undiluted wrong, simply because these characteristics are two sides of the same coin. Accordingly, the Egyptian populous needs to recognise that trying to impose their ideologies on others, whether it be through political or social channels, is on par with robbing other people of their freedom of choice.

“What's it going to be then, eh?”  Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange 

Socially:

To counter balance what might surely stir some sensitivities on what I said of Alia Al-Mahdi, perhaps a section on female inequality in Egypt might appease some readers. Women in Egypt are largely sidelined, informally considered second-class citizens by socially restrictive austerities. Against this backdrop, one can’t help but view the similarities between Egypt’s social reality and the dystopian society that is projected in Maragret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Due to threateningly low reproductive rates in the fictitious world, Handmaids are designated for elite couples who have trouble conceiving children of their own. The Handmaids, not even referred to by an individual name, take part in impersonal and wordless sex with the “Commander.” The protagonist, a Handmaid, has severely restricted freedom; unable to leave the house freely, nor allowed to even close her room door fully, she is commodified to serve but one role in life; reproduction. It may sound dramatic, but this is unfortunately the reality of many if not most women in Egypt. Is the phenomena to be traced back to the usual scapegoat of religion? I would argue, not entirely. It’s easy to blame ancient teachings, but that exonerates the individual perpetrator. After all, battery, sexual abuse, such actions are inherent in all parts of the world, yes, even the adulated West. But in Egypt, and the world over, what’s needed is a reversion back to the past, to a time when love and lust were subjects of poetry and passion, not mechanical and routine acts that are simply played out for the sake of custom and conformity.

“All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn't be that hard.”  Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale 

Another dystopian work of fiction that highlights a social standard in Egyptian society that deserves critique, may be found in William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s, Logan's Run. There are some inescapable similarities between the fictitious world in the novel, where every citizen, at the age of 21, willingly commits suicide, and the metaphorical pitfalls that Egyptian youths face today. The economic barriers and burgeoning unemployment has effectively stymied the progression of realistic prospects to raise standards of living. Accordingly, fresh grads are faced with bleak economic opportunities, granted minimal starting pays with ridiculous work-hours; effectively prolonging their individual progression to a life of luxury. Marriages are postponed, travels forgotten, and they find themselves in a quagmire of redundancy that leads to a life of compromise. Sure, it is not on par with having to commit suicide, but it is similar in terms of reducing the quality of life, arguably prohibiting personal growth and self-actualisation. 

“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” ― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Ultimately, what the Egyptian people need to recognise is that where we stand now is not a world of fiction and prose. Rather, consider the worlds of Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, Atwood, Nolan, and Johnson’s to have been a foreshadowing of the place we now call home. Elements from each of these dystopian societies have fused together to establish a social and political situation that was previously considered a fantastic unreality. But then emerges the question, what is one to do with the realisation that Egypt has transformed into a convoluted blend of literary horrors?

As it stands, the distressing fact of the matter is, we find ourselves at a catch 22. The origins of the phrase, ‘Catch 22’, come from the novel of the same name by American novelist, Joseph Heller. A satire and canon in anti-war literature it projects the phrase: “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” unto the protagonist, Yossarian, who finds himself limited to choose between two evils; to fight in an unjust war, or to risk defamation for his deflection. Egyptians now find themselves in an aggregate circumstance that epitomises such a dilemma. Will the masses remain content with the lesser of two evils? Unfortunately, the solution to our problems seems intrinsically linked and therefore denied, by the circumstances that define the nature of the problems themselves.

All in all, it is not a fact of fiction; We are living in a dystopian society.