Cairo editor resists all diktats
Heba Younes / Egypt
Heba Younes / Egypt
Evicted from his own premises, Mohamed Hashem didn’t go very far. In downtown Cairo, this enthusiastic librarian, founder of the independent publishing house Merit in 1998, settled in a small apartment a few steps away from the Qasr El Nil street from where he was expelled in 2015. It is in that very year that security forces barged into the compound of his bookshop and arrested one of his employees for working without a licence and illegal publication of books. Then 57 years old, Mohamed Hashem is questioned by the police and sees his premises seized for tax irregularities.
Writing without inhibition
Known for his taste for literary and artistic subversion, Mohamed Hashem continues against all odds his fight for a literature stripped of all the taboos of contemporary Egypt. “Politics, religion, sex, I do not keep myself from any subject as long as literary quality is ensured”, remarks Mohamed Hashem as he straightens the old grey hat that covers his head almost permanently. A gaunt face, a somewhat anguished gaze below the folds of age and unrest, a smile that nonetheless almost never leaves him when he converses with his guests, Mohamed Hashem mocks the very idea of censorship.
Mohamed Hashem, founder of Merit, in his office.
From his perspective, this practice “will always remain a nonsense for literature, a field that by nature feeds on limitless human imagination”. “You can achieve a lot of things with weapons and threats, but let us try and prevent people from dreaming, he sadly chuckles. As long as this force exists that characterizes the very nature of man, no power will be able to prevent literature from transgression. Egypt is, unfortunately, going through a stage in which absolutely everything is controlled, in all forms of activity and particularly in the intellectual realm. But the ones responsible also have a lot of imagination if they think that such a situation can persist.”
A gathering place opened to all
It is now a few streets away that Mohamed Hashem welcomes a handful of curious readers, and more or less close friends. The name of his publishing house which donned the building’s front was taken down so as not to make waves and ensure some privacy. In Merit, young liberals wearing sneakers show each other the latest news published across social networks as old socialists, established in the political and intellectual life of Cairo, keenly debate inside the host’s office.
Downtown youths frequently meet at the Merit bookstore.
Along with the After Eight, a popular club that closed its doors in winter 2016, Merit quickly became a gathering point for the revolutionaries of Qasr el Nil street which directly leads to Tahir square. “We found youths who were still riled up coming back from a protest, elders who came to catch their breath, all kind of people were welcomed with the same respect and the same gentleness that define Mohamed Hashem. It was a permanent surprise”, remembers Ehab Abdel Hamid, at the time a journalist, writer and translator. “I built a relationship of work and mainly friendship with Mohamed Hashem and Merit since 2005, it is as if his person and this place were one”, he confides with a look of esteem mingled with an obvious affection.
This literate young man from a family of physicians is a regular at the Grillon, a chic and cosy restaurant, located in the same Qasr el Nil street from which Merit was evicted by force of arms in 2015. “Merit isn’t merely a publishing house, it is a network for both artists and thinkers that pushes, better than anybody else in Egypt, freedom of creation in all its manifestations, deems Ehab while sipping his Stella, a legendary brand of Egyptian beer. As writers, we can face the risk of political censorship, the constraint of religious rhetoric but also the diktats of the business world that invests in literature. Merit defies these hurdles and wholeheartedly published books doomed to fail commercially but that might contribute to creation and the literary history of the country.”
The young budding dancer “Jimmy” delivers a performance for an exhibition dedicated to resistance and paying tribute to a former activist artist classmate, dead under mysterious circumstances.
A free and unrestricted artistic space
Merit not only promotes publications that encourage independence, it supports all forms of creation provided that artistic beauty meets public speech. While cultural spaces are becoming scarce in Cairo, particularly in a neighborhood under close police surveillance and tantalizing appetite of estate investors, Merit opens its doors for free to young thinkers and budding artists. As is the case for Amir Abdelghani, an art student of the University of Helwan, in the suburbs of Cairo. Large round specs and T-shirt smeared with colours, every year Amir organizes with his classmates a tribute exhibition to one of their own, Hisham Rizk, a young graffiti artist and political activist aged 19, found dead in 2014 after being missing for a week. Authorities ruled it a death by drowning in the Nile without any further investigation.
Young art students preparing an exhibition dedicated to a former artist classmate and activist, dead in unknown circumstances.
For the third edition this year, the topic was not picked by chance: Resistance. “Hisham was a resistance fighter, remarks Amir Abdelghany as an explanation. At home as in society, he literally resisted all the rules imposed on him. And he did not do it in just any way. Resistance for him had even more sense and relevance when it is conveyed through art”. For Amir Abdelghany as for his classmates, showing their works in Merit has become a commonplace, a yearly reflex.
“We had sent applications to various places before coming here, explains one of the classmates of Amir Abdeghany who prefers to remain anonymous. Financial matters were an issue but it is mostly on the political side that we were met with difficulties. Most cultural centres do not want to risk opening their gates to young unknown artists without any prior authorisation from the administration. And, of course, everybody knows that there is almost no way that authorities could see this exhibition from a positive perspective.”
Guests are rushing to the small space of Merit to contemplate the works of the young art students.
Despite the notorious hostility of the police towards him, the founder of Merit refuses to back down, with an undisturbed and unwavering determination. “This place would have no purpose if not that of an unconstrained and free space for youths, firmly outlines Mohamed Hashem as he prepares his tea in the somewhat makeshift kitchen of Merit. I am not asking for a cent, I do not impose terms nor limits. Where would these youths turn if this space did not exist? Where else would their talent be brought to light?” Usually quite stolid, as a fine lover of tobacco, whisky and other pleasures, Mohamed Hashem voices his commitment with the zeal of an obstinate youth, from a working-class family, who had to carve out his fame from Cairo, thus becoming one of the inexorable characters of the cultural and intellectual capital of the Arabic world.
English translation Claire Marine Selles
Editing Sidney Cavaricci-WhiteTweet