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A Matter of Censorship


CAIRO — He was a tax inspector who dreamed of being a poet, a minor soldier in a formidable deployment of bureaucrats, who by day oversaw the investigations division of the Ministry of Tax Authorities and by night penned love stories and novels of intrigue.

His books bore such titles as "The Man Inside a Triangle," and he published most of them himself. Sometimes, one or two copies would sell from a sidewalk display downtown.

Late last year, a mid-level assistant in the Tax Ministry picked up a copy of Alaa Hamed's most recent literary endeavor, and, alarmed at what she saw, quickly dispatched a copy to the public prosecutor.

"Until this day," Hamed had written, "it has not been made clear to humanity that God answers man's prayers, or that He has sent food to the hungry, or that He has sent a million pounds of gold to a poor man. . . . Why has the sending of prophets and messengers stopped suddenly? Why doesn't God send a roast lamb like he did to Abraham? Why are there no more miracles?"

Suddenly, Hamed and his book that no one had heard of, "A Distance in a Man's Mind," were being disputed in cafes all over Cairo. Last month, a columnist in Egypt's leading daily newspaper, Al-Ahram, labeled Hamed "Egypt's Salman Rushdie" and called his book "a clear attempt to cast doubt on the holy books."

The public prosecutor, in a published reply to the newspaper, agreed: "His book constitutes a serious threat to the fundamental beliefs of the society and, in particular, those connected with the person of God most Almighty and the heavenly religions, . . . representing . . . an incitement to atheism and apostasy."

Four days later, Hamed, 51, was arrested, the first writer in nearly 60 years to face imprisonment in Egypt for blasphemy. The owner of one of Cairo's most famous bookshops, Mohamed Madbouli Mohamed, was detained for four days and ordered to pay $1,890 for selling the book. The print shop that printed it was assessed a similar levy.

The case has divided the intellectual and artistic community--most of whom deplore Hamed's arrest, but many of whom wince privately at the idea that an unknown tax inspector would be testing uncharted waters of censorship in Egypt. It also has underscored the expanding influence of the Islamic fundamentalism movement in a country that disbanded its official censorship board nearly 15 years ago, and which with a teeming population of readers and cheap printing costs, has for years presided as the intellectual and publishing capital of the Arab World.

Now, intellectuals and human rights activists say Al-Azhar University, the renowned center of Islamic scholarship, has begun imposing a less apparent form of censorship than the outright government censorship common in the early era of the late President Anwar Sadat, and the result has been a rash of effective book bannings.

In the absence of official restrictions on what may and may not be published, the law permits private citizens to file complaints about books offensive to Islam, the state religion. A committee of sheiks at Al-Azhar University often makes the final determination, and writers, booksellers and publishers face stiff fines or even jail terms for overstepping the Koranic line. (There are no similar criminal penalties for political attacks.)

Al-Azhar has been flexing its muscles with increasing vigor in the past two years, turning thumbs down on books much milder than what was seen here in the '60s and '70s, and moving, critics believe, further and further afield of books about Islam and the Koran, the university's officially mandated purview.

"There is a danger that Al-Azhar is trying to extend its authority into areas in which it has no legitimate authority," said Negad al Boraei, a lawyer for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights who is defending Hamed. "They want to frighten people into censoring themselves. In the current atmosphere of pressure and ideological terrorism, no one can say what will happen."

Still banned in Egypt under earlier regulations is the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's book, "Children of Gebelawi," an allegory about the search for faith and eternal truth in a poor sector of Cairo. It concludes with a vision of man sifting through a rubbish dump for clues about his salvation.

Artistic organizations began lobbying for Arabic republication of the book, one of Mahfouz's most famous, after the author won the Nobel Prize in 1988. One Cairo daily newspaper even began serializing it last year--before being abruptly halted by the government.

An Al-Azhar professor faces the likely loss of his job for his recent translation of the Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, "Who Killed Palomino Molero?" which reviewers complained contained several explicit sexual passages.

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