`The Prophet' falls foul of Egyptian thought police

Robert Fisk
Tuesday 27 July 1999 23:02 BST

WHAT IS it about the Egyptians? They have censored 94 books from the American University Bookshop in Cairo - from Children of the Alley by Egypt's own Nobel literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. But now they have done the impossible and banned one of the most inspirational works to come from any modern poet in the Arab world: Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.

Gibran, a Lebanese Maronite who emigrated to America and died in New York in 1931, has been compared to William Blake, not only for his mystical poetry but for his allegorical drawings and paintings. The Prophet is a 20,000- word exploration of religion and philosophy, a combination of Christianity and the Sufi Islam. It is about hope and inspiration, and the prophet of the title - if he can be identified - is Christ rather than Mohamed, although Islamic teaching frames part of the poem.

But it's now on the Egyptian censor's list. And the Lebanese, some of whom appear to worship Gibran as much as admire him - his sarcophagus is chained to the stone floor of the hermit's cave in which he is buried in northern Lebanon lest enthusiasts steal his bones - are enraged. There have been sit-ins by The Group of Friends of Kahlil Gibran outside the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and a demand from Imad Chamoun, a professor of Islamic studies here, that the Beirut government should respond to Egypt's censorship by banning all Egyptian books and films from Lebanon. "The diktat of obscurantists" is how Mr Chamoun described the Egyptian Ministry of Information.

Inquiries to the American University in Cairo suggest that the banning of The Prophet is even more silly than it would at first appear. Egyptian censors have been allowed to review 500 books at the bookshop of the university - an interesting reflection on the relationship between the Cairo government and an institution that is chartered in Washington DC - and decided to ban The Prophet not for its words but for its illustrations, all of them Blakean sketches of human forms and, in the case of the frontispiece, a sketch of a man, eyes slightly dipped, a broad forehead and a small moustache.

It may be a symbol of Christ or of the unity of human and divine spirit. The Egyptian censorship board had no doubt, however: it was a portrait of Mohamed himself, the prophet whose image must never be drawn or painted in Islam.

Mr Mark Linz, the press director at the American University in Cairo, condemned what he called a "bureaucratic onslaught". It was easy, he said, "for the controllers to be out of control". The Egyptian minister for higher education, Mufid Shihab, disagrees. Egypt allows free thinking, he claims, "but rejects violations of its values and traditions".

Another book on the banned list is French scholar Maxime Rodinson's Mohamed - censored because the Egyptians claimed it was trying to prove the Koran was the literary effort of the Prophet Mohamed rather than the word of God.

Some pretty stupid things have been done in the name of religion - crusades, executions, suppression of free speech and free thought - but Egypt now seems to qualify as a special case. Gibran, who wrote The Prophet in English in 1921 - it is said to be the most widely read book of the 20th century - once said that he "kept Jesus in one half of his bosom and Mohamed in the other".

He proposed an opera house in Beirut with two domes symbolising the reconciliation of Christianity and Islam. It would be difficult to think of an artist who has done more to bring two of the Middle East's great religions together. And it's a wonder those chains around his sarcophagus are not breaking as the old man tries to get out.

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