Last Updated: Fri Jan 20, 2012 09:09 am (KSA) 06:09 am (GMT)

Letter from Cairo: Do you speak Baradei?

Sonia Farid

Now the whole square had one language and one speech.

And they said, “Let us build ourselves a nation, and a democracy that puts every tyrant to shame; let us bring ourselves dignity lest our humanity becomes lost till the end of time.”

But the forces of darkness came down to see the spirit of the children of the square and they said, “Indeed those people are united and they all speak one language, and this is where the trouble lies. Now, nothing can stand between them and their dream.”

“Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so that none of them would understand what the other is saying.”

So, instead of speaking in one single voice, each started shouting at the others and the others followed suit until the entire square was turned into a cacophony of jumbled sounds and deafening echoes.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the Egyptian Babel saw the light and how we all ended up talking to ourselves and even stopping to hear what we had just said. Apologies to Genesis are due of course!

Yet, one little difference makes the plight of Biblical Babylonians much milder than that of Tahrir Egyptians. In the first case, tower builders realized that each of them is the sole speaker of that strange new tongue and therefore they all had no option but to disperse across and create nations that would speak the same language. A bit later, each nation became inhabited with citizens that spoke the language of its founder and nobody felt lonely anymore. In the second case, speakers of the new languages did not have to leave at all not only because in no time language groups were created and communications remained possible even if with a more limited number of people, but also because each language now sees itself as the most superior and is therefore engaged in a survival war that aims at declaring the square a mono-lingual zone.

Some languages are approaching official status while others would be lucky if they get minority recognition, yet neither the rising popularity of former is indicative of how rich they are nor the recession of the latter is a sign of the limited vocabulary of which it is comprised. It is simply about the hurdles placed in the way of any refined language as it attempts to gain access to the majority, partly because of how detrimental its propagation is for every barbarian terminology and partly because of how challenging it might seem to those who are not in the habit of hearing, let alone using, such sophisticated idiom.

Mohamed al-Baradei is the doyen of the most endangered species of languages not only because very few are able to understand it, but also because very many are keen to install the kind of subtitles that relegate it to the position of its rival tongues. He is, in fact, this rare language with all the values that make up its nouns and the magnanimity that inform its verbs.

Anyone who listens carefully and objectively to the statement in which he announced his decision not to run for president would detect the characteristics that distinguish the Baradei language, as subtle as it is, from others, as loud as they are. It is very hard to miss this single component that dominates his discourse and which he himself mentions as the reason for his withdrawal from what he rightly sees as poorly-directed charade: dialogue with the conscience.

It goes without saying that any language must involve some kind of dialogue, but with who and about what are the crux of the matter. His is not the dialogue that curries favor with the Higher Council for the Armed Forces through turning a blind eye to their crimes against Egyptians in return for some begged-for power, that terrorizes the despondent with God’s retaliation and lures the poor with half a kilo of meat, that forges alliances with the devil as long as he exercises some influence, or that thrives on demagogic speeches and fawning applause. His is rather a dialogue in which he makes sure that, as he said, he can look into the mirror and feel self-respect and in which a set of uncompromising ethics take precedence over the most tempting of ambitions and the most desired of offices.

Baradei gave up the chance to win a position that I think none deserves as much as he does if only by virtue of being the main impetus of the revolution, let alone his integrity, courage, and patriotism, all of which made him risk his safety, reputation, and peace of mind to see real change. “But nothing whatsoever has changed,” he said as he attempted in a couple of words to justify his decision and to slap on the face whoever thought the revolution is over. The transitional period has been run in the worst way possible, official media remains the mouthpiece of a deceitful regime, the judiciary has not achieved any independence, arbitrary arrests and in-detention torture have not stopped, and the real revolutionaries are pushed to the margins while the power-hungry are hijacking the revolution.

He seemed to be asking us or let’s say those amongst us who are still impartial enough to see things for what they really are, “Would any man of honor be willing to take part in such an absurd semblance of democracy?” The logical answer is obvious for any sane person including those who saw Baradei as one of the few sources of light at the end of the tunnel and I am one of those. For the speakers of the same language, his decision might have been disappointing, yet is definitely consistent with the rules of a discourse of dignity where concessions are only permissible as long as they do not jeopardize the moral infrastructure. Those same speakers were, like him, aware that the presidency or any other official position is crippling rather than empowering in the current circumstances where apparently how much authority you get is contingent upon how skilful you are in towing the line and bending over backwards and knowing who wears the pants in the country.

In order for him and his conscience to remain engaged in this soul-searching dialogue and in order for all Baradei native speakers to stay true to the dictates of their language, they all reached the conclusion that steering away from anything official is till now the best way to be able to retain one’s autonomy and honor and to have the freedom any struggle for democracy requires.

The Baradei language is by no means elitist as many who are unable to fathom it claim as they look for an excuse for neither understanding it nor even attempting to listen to it let alone learn about its rules. It is only as far-fetched as any altruistic action in the midst of a ruthless fight for as many morsels of the cake as one can get and it too human to be grasped by those who value parliament seats more than they do flesh and blood.

Latin may have become extinct, but it remains the language of some of the world’s earliest masterpieces, the major source of universal scientific terminology, and the epitome of hard-earned knowledge and a sophisticated intellect and nothing can change that. It will go through short phases of renaissance and long eras of demise, yet it will forever stay the topmost aspiration for every scholar and the proof of mastery for every clergyman and the peak of learning for every layman.

The most highly-educated speak Latin and the most truly-patriotic speak Baradei. True, both are difficult to master and hard to maintain, yet both are undoubtedly the fruit of some sincere desire to reach an understanding of a more elevated order that more or less makes you feel complete, secure, and fulfilled.

(Sonia Farid teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at:

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