I have been intrigued by the figure of the “fool” since I started studying Shakespeare in school. In fact, the idea was so absurd that I had never imagined this kind of job, if we may call it so, existed outside the realm of fiction and that for centuries, almost every European monarch appointed someone under a name that is commonly regarded as an insult and that this someone knew that he was labeled as such and was ok with it or at least took no obvious measures to change the situation.
I also found the relationship between the king and his fool quite disturbing to say the least, for the fool enjoyed a handful of privileges that might not be made available to anyone else in the court, including even the king’s own wife and children, yet he was always threatened with the immediate withdrawal of those very same privileges as well as with a bunch of severe penalties for making the best use of them in accordance with what at the time would be called his job description stipulated. In addition to being amongst the closest of the king’s entourage, which had certainly been quite an extraordinary advantage for the masses from which he originally came, the fool was granted particular rights which the king’s longest standing ministers and most trusted advisors could at time be stripped of since in many cases only he was given the liberty to openly criticize the king’s actions and bluntly point out his follies and this was by no means accompanied by any attempts on his part to mince his words or to evade the possible consequences of censoring the man no one in the entire monarchy dared defy.
As unrealistic as it might seem, the most autocratic of kings took in the fools’ harsh remarks and even acted upon them when it was necessary and this was where the rationale of this quite peculiar relationship revealed itself. The king needed a mirror that would show him his face as it really was and there could have never been a better candidate, for unlike courtiers, politicians, and members of the royal family, the fool was practically not after power, fortune, or glory and therefore spoke only the plain truth, one that was devoid of any ulterior motives or hidden agendas and that reflected a kind of reality those around the king might prefer hiding from him for some reason or another. The fool was also the perfect man for the job because, as his title demonstrated, he was looked upon as touched by some kind of insanity that made his outrageous behavior excusable and thus made the king’s leniency towards him not considered by his court as a sign of weakness. This same insanity was also thought to endow the fool with certain gifts of which normal people are deprived like insight and the ability to read minds or predict the future. A physical deformity would serve the fool well in this case, for it made him all the more different and reinforced the belief that he was not to be treated in accordance with rules common to other human beings and that he might even be possessed by some guiding spirit that made him utter words of wisdom which did not become a man who was simply mad or delirious.
However, there are always times when you smash that mirror into pieces the moment you realize how ugly your face is and how unready you are to accept this revelation for a fact. The fool was never utterly safe and all the privileges he might be envied for by all those unable to direct the slightest blame at the king could in a spilt of a second bring about his destruction. The king might present his fool as mentally deficient and might pretend that he did not take his words seriously, but deep down he knew how perfectly sane the fellow was and how dexterously he used — and at time overused or even abused — the license given to him to lash out at his master. Like any despot who would rather exterminate all his people than have any of them expose him for what he really was, the king’s tolerance could wear thin when the assault was too much to take even from a man generally considered out of his mind and the time might come when he struck back with corporal punishment, banishment, or even death.
Let me also tell you that with all the space the fool was given to criticize the king, he was not really at liberty to do so whenever he felt like it, for he had other tasks to perform like dancing, singing, and telling jokes and he was basically there to entertain the king, which becomes obvious in the clown-like costumes he was known to wear. This entertainment might at times take the form of personal advice or political commentary, but only when the king’s mood permitted it to be so. This means that if the king embarked on some reckless action that he knew very well would infuriate his people and court alike and might even be detrimental to the entire kingdom yet that he is adamant on doing, he might order the only person who would tell him to his face how stupid he was to mimic the mating call of the wild boar or to jump around the throne like a baby orangutan. And in no time, the sage turns into a pet.
History never ceases to repeat itself and only wise nations benefit from humanity’s past experiences and that is exactly what the current regime of Egypt is doing as it is apparently seeing the merits of bringing back to a country taking heavy toddler steps towards democracy a tradition that offers the ideal example of creating a semblance of freedom and programming its spokespeople to talk only when they are given permission and to shut up or let out any kind of gibberish when their talk becomes too critical to be tolerated and too true to be voiced.
For some odd reason, the arrest of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah took me back in time to the era of court fools as I suddenly realized that this is what the Higher Council for the Armed Forces is trying to create of those activists who mistakenly interpreted the freedom they have been given following the revolution to be limitless and who felt too safe to see detention, military trials, and charges of incitement coming their way.
Unfortunately, Abdel-Fattah was not a trained fool for he didn’t know when he should stop and was not aware of the consequences of pissing the king off. He was unable to make the distinction between criticizing the army for the way it runs the country or the lack of a clear time frame for the transition of power on one hand and accusing the army of murdering civilians and hijacking the revolution on the other hand. That was the line any professional fool would have never crossed and that was the time he would have identified as solely dedicated to dim-witted jokes and acrobatic stunts.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah is no such “fool” and neither are his fellow activists nor any of the Egyptian revolutionaries. None of those will dance around the king while he is dragging the kingdom to its doom for then they will be busy uprooting that throne he mistook to be eternal and making sure he realizes that it is only thanks to them he is sitting there, that pets are not always friendly, and that fools are always labeled as such only by those who most deserve this designation and spare no effort to earn it.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)