Egyptian intellectuals slammed calls to ban the Arabian Nights tale hundreds of years after its emergence in the literary scene under the pretext of immorality and warned of the 'bedouinization' of Egyptian culture.
A recent republication of the centuries-old classic triggered controversy as a group of Egyptian lawyers called to ban the new version on the basis of depiction of sexuality and use of offensive language.
"I was shocked at the offensive phrases it contains," said Ayman Abdul-Hakim, member of Lawyers without Shackles, the non-governmental group that filed a complaint with Egypt's Prosecutor General calling for the withdrawal of the new edition from the market and for banning the book altogether.
According to Abdul-Hakim, the book, which was re-published by the state-run General Organization of Culture Palaces (GOCP), is "a waste of public money."
Meanwhile, the GOCP Supreme Publication Committee decided to print another edition after the first one was sold out and said in a statement that Arabian Nights is an invaluable cultural heritage that cannot be confiscated.
The decision marks an extremely powerful blow to all forces of darkness that conspire against freedom of expression and the prosperity of art in Egypt, said Ahmed Megahed, GOCP Chairman.
"The fact that the first edition was sold out shortly after it was issued shows that Egyptians are avid readers and that they will not be influenced by a bunch of people who take advantage of Islam in order to suppress freedom," he said.
Magahed added that the latest edition is based on an older version that was already revised by al-Azhar, the world's leading institution of Sunni Islam, and that there is nothing immoral or offensive about it.
A call to dismiss the complaint
Several Egyptian writers condemned the call to ban the book in a literary conference held Tuesday at the Cairo-based Writers' Union and called upon the Prosecutor General to dismiss the complaint.
The conference, entitled The Arabian Night and Levels of Reception, featured a group of Egypt's prominent intellectuals who all agreed that the ban of Arabian Nights is not an issue that only concerns writers, but rather one that concerns the entire nation and its legitimate right to preserve its cultural heritage.
"I am stunned at the conspiracies directed against this book which comes third after the Bible and William Shakespeare's plays in terms of the number of languages to which it was translated," said children literature writer Abdul-Tawab Yusuf.
Professor of Sociology Mohamed Hafez Diab sees the fuss about the Arabian Nights as part of the phenomenon of the 'bedouinization' of Egyptian culture which has been taking place over a period of 30 years during which Egyptians of all echelons have been flocking to Gulf nations for work.
In his research "Sex and heritage: The case of Arabian Nights," Diab said that the extreme caution with which Arabs deal with sex is part of a culture of suppression that makes of sex a restricted area and its approach a sort of immorality.
Diab cited several literary works that tackled sexuality and whose writers were neither delinquents nor marginalized rebels.
"On the contrary, they were respectable people in the judiciary and jurisprudence fields in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries."
Arabian Nights, Diab added, should not be viewed as a work about sexuality as many tend to categorize it. It is, on the contrary, a work that tackles power relations.
"For example, the sexual relationship between the slave and the princess reveals how the marginalized are objectified and how in a repressive society the bodies of the members of royalty become a dream for the frustrated working class."
Through the relationship he has with his mistress, Diab explains, the slave finds a means to conquer to the ruling class that oppresses him and his people.
Diab described the complaint filed with the Prosecutor General as a manifestation of the deterioration of the culture of literature in a society that takes advantage of religion.
"The text has nothing against Islam. We are facing a group of imposters who claim they are defending Islam and are trying to make apostates of others."
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)