Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hosny is no anti-semite - nor is he the right man for UNESCO

This is Farouk Hosni (71), Egypt's minister of Culture since 1987 and a candidate for the post of secretary-general of UNESCO, the UN-organization for Education and Culture. His personal website - from which the picture has been taken - tells us that he is in Paris as from 3 September to attend the election procedure, which is expected to last till the end of the month.
Hosni is one of the nine candidates. Not long ago he seemed to be the one who was going to win. But that changed after it was discovered that, one year ago, he remarked in the Egyptian parliament that he was against having Israeli books in Egyptian libraries and would personally burn them if he found that in fact there were some. He was instantly diagnosed as being anti-Semitic and Israel started a campaign against his candidature. Later on the Israeli's backed down, but some of it's strongest supporters continued the struggle, in print or in person, like Bernard Henri Levy, Claude Lanzman and Eli Wiesel who will also be at be at the UNESCO meetings.
Hosni himself tried to defuse the tension in the meantime. Suddenly he discovered that Cairo had an ancient synagogue that urgently needed restoration. Also he remembered that one year ago he ordered to translate some Hebrew books - a project that coincidentally also started this summer.
Synagogue of Rambam (Maimonides) in ancient Cairo. Restoration works started this summer.

Personally I think it is ridiculous to call Hosni an anti-semite. For what I know he is much too much of a cosmopolitan, too much man of the artistic world (he's a painter). Of course it was a stupid remark, but it is good to remember that most of the Egyptian intelligentsia (and Hosni is no exception) is strongly against any normalisation with Israel as long as there is no Palestinian state and therefor does not give a damn about Hebrew books, or Hebrew culture for that matter. Campaigning against the Egyptian minister for this reason is simply wrong, in that case anyone Egyptian would be unfit for the post.

But this does not mean that Hosni is the right man for UNESCO. Far from it. Also in Egypt itself there is opposition, because of his spineless faithfulness towards the Mubarak-coterie, his lack of cultural vision and his strange talent for giving thoughtless statements that time and again raise controversies. A number of Egyptian artists and public persons rose in protest against his candidacy and wrote an open letter in which they recalled how the minister, as a young artist living in Paris, used to spy on his fellow Egyptians for the Sadat-regime.
That is one reason. Another is what I witnessed myself. In the spring of 1988 - I had just started my work as a Middle East correspondent in Cairo and Hosni started his job as a minister only a year before - there was, out of the blue, some panic in the world of Egyptology and tourism: the world famous Sphinx in Giza appeared to be falling apart. The story went the world over, with pictures of slabs that had fallen off and of minister Hosni who announced that he personally had taken matters in hand and had ordered an investigation by the Getty Museum over the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority.
The reality of what had happened was somewhat different. Some months earlier Cairo had suffered some really very heavy rains. As a consequence some parts of the Sphinx came down. The head of the Antiquities Authority, one Ahmed Qadri, did not panic however. A restoration of the Sphinx was already some time under way, and so he ordered the slabs to be taken to a storehouse, to be reinstalled in due time, when the restoration process had reached the affected places.
But one day at nine o'clock in the morning, when Ahmed Qadri came to work, he was informed that the slabs had been ordered to be replaced under the Sphinx on orders of minister Hosni, who himself, in the presence of lots of camera's and a small army of reporters was giving a press conference about the extremely bad shape the Sphinx was in, and about his plans to save the Sphinx from the incompetence of the Antiquities Authority. This was, of course, the end of mr Qadri's career (and of his life, the man poor man died shortly afterwards of a heart attack). Unfortunately for him the truth emerged only in one or two Egyptian opposition papers and the Volkskrant of the Netherlands (the staff of which, by the way, was not too happy that the story they got was different from everyone else's).
Why did Hosni act like this? One reason may have been that he and Ahmed Qadri had been quarrelling in the press about removing a giant statue of Ramses II in front of the railway station in Cairo. Qadri was against, out of fear that the statue might not survive, Hosni was in favour. Another reason might have been that Hosni wanted the publicity. And he may have also wanted to strip the Antiquities department, that used to behave as a quite autonomous entity, of some of it's autonomy. He got what what he wanted. Qadri was suceeded by his assistant, the flamboyant Zahi Hawass, who, after 20 years is still at the helm and has alsways been a loyal servant of his ministerial boss.

Another matter is, how restoration activities in Cairo are being executed. Hosni will, if elected, be responsible for the conservation of many of the world's cultural heritage. It's questionable if he will meet the standards in that respect. A walk through Cairo's antique Muslim district, along Muizz liDin Allah Street for example, goes along many centuries old Islamic monuments, of which many - with the aid of various countries - have been restored under the supervision of this minister. I am not an expert in this matter, but I suspect that in the 13th or 14th century concrete was not really used as building material. Yet, under Hosni's supervision, it has been used in the Reconstruction of parts like stairs in some cases.

An then there is the affair around Son'allah Ibrahim, one of Egypt's best writers, an eternal rebel and a very humorous an nice man. Sonallah got in 2003 the new, prestigious literary Mahfouz-prize (100.000 Egyptian pounds, or 15.000 euro) for his oeuvre, but stirred an uproar by refusing it. In which was supposed to be his word of thanks he called the prize a honor which he was not going to accept, because the government was unworthy, collaborating with Israel and not representative of the Egyptian people. The government was embarrassed, many intellectuals applauded. This year, in June, Sonallah was invited at a literary festival in Toulouse (France), where Egyptian literature was rewarded with a special place. Apart from Sonallah were invited actor Omar Sharif (who was going to recite some pages by Mahfouz), Kamal Ghitany (who for personal reasons had to decline) and .. minister Hosni. But, as Son'allah's colleague Ala'a al-Aswani revealed in the newspaper As Shorouq, Hosni refused. Only if the invitation for Son'allah would be revoked, he was prepared to come.

Last, but not least: to be in the government of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt for 21 years hardly fits the job description of a director-general of UNESCO, whose job it is to promote culture and freedom of speech. The Mubarak-government is far from democratic, it is repressive (with thousands of people in prison on arbitrary grounds) and it censors books, films, and theater. Apart from that there is hardly any real freedom of the press, as is described here on the site of Reporters sans frontières. And who after all was - 21 years - in charge of the censors? And of the press....?

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