We have already been modern. On Utopia, by Ahmed Khaled Towfik
It's Utopia, where looking for a way to pass every minute of your life consumes you. This is not how we usually imagine Egypt. Although actually I have never been there; I only got the picture that is in the header when I was crossing the Red Sea on my way from an airport on Synai on my way to Aqaba. But at the same time, I feel Egypt is a very familiar reality. I have Egyptian friends, colleagues here in Leiden, and plenty of Egyptian books in my possession of course. They seem to exist in excess, just as this one of Ahmed Khaled Towfik, that I found, in an English translation by Chip Rossetti, on the shelf with free books to take away from the University library. It's an elegant hard cover edition enveloped in glossy paper, presented as a best seller. The original Arabic publication dates back to 2009, a prehistory, if referred to the pace of Middle Eastern history these days. It makes me think about even more remote book, a 2002 Polish novel by Dorota Masłowska, Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną. There are many similar points, teenage emptiness, drugs, promiscuity, radicalization. The same kind of recent affluence that does not exactly mean that people are rich to enjoy a comfortable life, and certainly not that their country is rich. They are hidden behind a fence, as if in a concentration camp. It makes me think again about even more remote book, In the Bluebeard's Castle, by George Steiner, collecting a series of lectures given as early as 1971. Even more remote than the Egyptian-Israeli war in 1973 that is nearly completely obliterated from the teenage hero's memory. At the same time, war and killing, abstract, movie-like, reduced to quintessential pathos and excitement, just like hate of the Russians in Masłowska's book, is the sole remedy against boredom. In those old times, Steiner read about in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir. It is the boredom that comes after the close of the modern revolution; the boredom that makes the circle of repeated revolutions; it already did in the 19th century, and more, even before Napoleon came to Egypt with his men for the first time. Before they were brought into the circle. The Egypt that exists in my mental horizon is quintessentially modern. It has its Nahda, its writers, its intellectuals, even its modernist architecture, its Cairo and its Alexandria, that of the Alexandrian Quartet. Even its singers and belly dancers taste like modern, and perhaps they are. Is it thus so very surprising to anticipate its post-revolutionary boredom, that Towfik situates not so very far from now, in 2023.