Land of Hypocrisy by Yusuf al-Sibai was published in 1949, the year after the Nakba. It is a bare-faced allegory which the writer dedicates ironically to “the best of those who deserve dedications” that is, himself, with the explanation that he values himself and does not want to be the first character identified in the land of hypocrisy.
إلى خير من استحق الإهداء .. إلى أحب الناس إلى نفسي وأقربهم إلى قلبي .. إلى يوسف السباعي ، لو قلت غير هذا لكنتُ شيخ المنافقين من
أرض النفاق .. يوسف السباعي
For the one who deserves this dedication, to the person I love most, the closest to my heart, and if I said otherwise I would be the sheik of hypocrites in the land of hypocrisy…for Yusuf Sibai.
He explains this further in the preface by saying that he has identified in his story what it means to live in a land of hypocrisy, acknowledging that he has not been able to say everything he wanted to say, for censorship reasons as he hints at when he questions us: “do you understand?” Although of course, al-Sibai was culture minister, and how far censorship is internalised is a question which might be asked.
The story itself begins with the sign of a trader advertising his wares – أخلاق
I’m not sure how to translate أخلاق – something like manners, ethics, morality, decency. In any case, the wares are sacks of courage and kindness and manliness and bravery.
The narrator banters with this madman who is trying to sell manners, going from believing him to be crazy, to thinking he is a murderer selling poisons for nefarious reasons, to being intrigued and curious about what the wares he sells actually do.
When the narrator asks him why he doesn’t use his own wares to become a great person, instead of drinking a cup of patience to deal with his customers everyday as he does, the trader angrily tells him that he tried that, and people considered him a madman because he did things like take off his clothes in the street and give them to beggars. The trader informs him that people don’t want his wares, that they are crazy instead for the sacks of deceit and especially of hypocrisy, until at the end they poured hypocrisy in the river so everyone can get some. But the narrator, now the trader is not pushing his wares but warning him off, decides to be contrary and takes a ten day dose of courage.
After drinking courage (not that kind) he rescues a servant from a beating and decides there is no connection between wearing a fez and being a respectable gentleman, and goes on a tirade against blindly following stupid customs. Although again reading such statements as “the wealthy need to know what it is to live on four pounds a month” is a little difficult when the author is a minister of culture.
The third chapter deals with the contemporary issue of Palestine and berating the “nation of Arabs, nation of speeches.” By this point the character has had many hair-raising adventures which leaves him accused of madness so he asks himself what courage has given him, and discovering it has left him worse off. He decides it is because he has not applied his courage wisely, to the correct causes. And of course, his mind turns to Palestine.
He talks to a friend who tells him the Palestinians don’t have a real military power, but a mockery of one. He asks about weapons, and the friend answers, “they’re with the Jews,” he asks “and the Arabs?” the friend answers, “they have sticks,” and he asks “and their planes?” the friend answers “promises in the air.” So he think to himself, what is the point in joining an unarmed army? What use can he be there? He has to bring the arms and the plans to them, rather than go there alone and unarmed. But of course, when he says he has a mission that will “shake the east” he is accused of being a criminal Zionist and attacked for wanting to plan assassinations against Arab leaders.
Which reminds me of Ahmad Matar in his Salahuddin poem: Leave Salahuddin in his sleep and respect his repose/Because if was truly to rise among you, you would kill him.
There’s more along these lines, such as the discovery that the General Secretary of the Arab League has bodyguards becuase he fears assassination by Zionists, and the narrator mocks, why should the Zionists assassinate him, when no harm could possibly come to them from him and his Arab League?
The next chapter offers more hopeless cynicism, in particular the message that our forefathers were no better than us and this is not nostalgia for the past. The chapter after that, called the Great Game, speak of the curse of the rulers and the ruled, and the pretense of elections and parliament and parties.
Finally, after many more adventures all in a day he goes back begging for a dose of cowardice. Since the trader has long since run out of bad qualities in this land of hypocrisy, they come to an agreement that he should have a dose of generosity at which point he goes back to the city and gives a dog water only it turns out the dog has rabies – and so on and so forth. Everything good he does turns against him.
Finally, he gets the idea to return to the trader and pour in a sack of pure character in the river to replace the bad stuff that had been poured in earlier. The novel draws to a close with a Friday khutba without hypocrisy which ends in the arrest of the imam.
After watching and waiting for the expected change, at the very end, the trader of wares stands on a soapbox offering words of wisdom on the golden rule. Except for that moralising ending, much of the text reminds me of the last section of Gulliver’s Travels, not in quality so much as in the uncomfortable litany of disgust with humanity.
With this hopeless cynicism in society, the reviews on Good Reads all note that it is like reading a novel written about the contemporary world – little has changed since 1949.