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A Prophetic Portrait of Egypt

Review of “Taxi” by Khaled Alkhamissi

The accreditation on the front cover that this is ‘the novel that predicted the [Arab] uprising’ is an accurate one. Alkhamissi depicts an Egyptian society, disparate, but more or less unified in its frustration for Hosni Mubarak’s 25-year-long state monopoly before his downfall in 2011. It is a recording from the backseats of Cairo’s taxis of the whispers of a nascent revolution – the moment that Egypt’s cynicism began to turn much more visceral.

But the novel is prescient not only for revealing signs of the imminent democratic uprising (the ‘Arab Spring’) but also of the ‘Islamist Winter’ that would follow.

A number of the 58 fictitious monologues that comprise Alkhamissi’s novel suggest varyingly a resonant public sympathy in Egypt towards a greater role for Islam in governance, bolstered with Islamic/ Islamist prescriptions from a cross-section of Cairo’s Muslim cab drivers to a variety of problems.

“There would be no bribery or corruption” says one, “if everyone in the country sat and looked at the surface of the Nile and read the word of God.” “We’ve tried everything else” says another  – monarchy, socialism, military dictatorship, capitalism, and “it’s still no good”. “Why don’t we try the Brotherhood and maybe they will work out, who knows?”

Although Alkhamissi does not explicitly state his own position on these prescriptions, the picture he paints of Egypt – a richly diverse society with wide ranging identities, ideologies and interests – is such to suggest it would be much ill-disposed to the establishment of the Salafi-sympathasing Islamist theocracy that eventuated after the uprising. It is unlikely that many of the eventual harbingers of this theocracy, the Muslim Brotherhood, had read Alkhamissi’s rich ethnography before assuming office, but it is fair to suppose that even without doing so they would have had an understanding of Egypt’s complex socio-religious makeup – before ultimately deciding to trample on it.

Liberal secularist, Baha’ais and Coptic Christians feature in Alkhamissi’s tribute to Egypt’s people but were all absent in the making of Egypt’s future. Morsi and the Brotherhood decided instead to pack the committee charged with drafting the constitution with the ultra-conservative Salafis and patsy Islamist legislators.

Though Morsi and the Brotherhood – having won presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively –  had democratic (electoral) sanction, what they had done, ultimately, was turn Egypt’s popular revolution into a tyranny of the majority, invoking thinly veiled democratic justifications to impede real democratic consolidation – smothering a civil society that had only just found its voice from the dark days of Mubarak..

Unfortunately for Egypt, and the future of civilisation, the picture is much bleaker today. If Alkhamissi was to write a second edition of ‘Taxi’, he would now find his Cairo host to many new troubled faces – including an increasingly large population of Syrian and Iraqis heading in to flee the same jihadist battle cry that many young and disillusioned Egyptians now clamour to go and join.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima – The (Mostly) True Story of a Budding Buddhist Pyromaniac

The protagonist Mizoguchi – an ugly, troubled boy with a horrendous stammer – is a Zen Buddhist acolyte at the much-enamoured Golden Temple in Kyoto after the war. Growing up with such terrible afflictions, he comes to both love and hate the Golden Temple  – the perfect conception of Beauty and the source of his torment. Though a seemingly amoral character, Mizoguchi tries to rationalise the hatred he begins to feel for the Golden Temple, ultimately leading him to burn it down. He does this using Zen aphorisms – the Koan.

The following passage in the Rinsairokyu is used three times throughout the book and is repeated right before Mizoguchi does the terrible deed:

“When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet a disciple of Buddha, kill the disciple! When ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother! When ye meet your kin, kill your kin! Only thus will ye attain deliverance. Only thus will ye escape the trammels of material things and become free”.

He explains his abject hatred for the material world also when he talks of Tsukumogami-ki and opening “the eyes of men” to the spiritless nature of objects and material things. He implies that objectifying beauty in the Golden Temple only deceives the “hearts of men”, and in order to free men from their attachments to the material world, the Golden Temple must to be destroyed.

Contrary to the suggestion of Nancy Wilson Ross in the introduction, this is not simply the fault of “dogmatic teaching methods” or “modern conventions” in Zen Buddhism, because it is grounded in the doctrinal core of the “self-enlightenment” project and the contempt for the material world embodied within. I commend Mishima and Mizoguchi for shining a light and a fire on this apocalyptic nihilism and its Buddhist underpinnings.

Both Mishima and his translator, Ivan Morris, manage to pull off some brilliant description in the book. That said, I know not Morris, but Mishima is to blame for some of the drawn-out superfluous description in parts, particularly at the climax where Mishima dedicates nearly a whole page to the non-sequitur issue of a faulty alarm bell and the Deacon’s attempts to arrange for a competent repairman to fix it. It rather slowed everything down a little, I thought.