Q&A with professor Ezzedine Fishere
It is difficult to describe Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures professor Ezzedine Fishere’s career in just a few words. As an Egyptian diplomat, he served as a political advisor to several United Nations missions in the Middle East. He dedicated his life to politics in Egypt, working with government officials, presidential candidates and political groups before withdrawing from an active public role a few years ago. In addition, Fishere is an author of six novels, two of which were shortlisted for the “Arabic Booker” Prize, or the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which recognizes Arabic creative writing. Fishere arrived at Dartmouth this fall as a visiting professor from the American University in Cairo. At the College, he has taught courses about Arab culture, society and literature such as Arabic 81.03, “Images of the West in Arabic Novel” and Arabic 62.04, “Egyptian Culture, Society and Politics.”
What have you enjoyed the most about your life at Dartmouth so far?
EF: What I have enjoyed most here is the quality of the students. I think what sets good universities apart is not the quality of professors or programs, but the quality of students. In universities like Dartmouth, you come as an “A” student and discover that everyone else is almost or at least as good as you are. While this puts pressure on the students and their self-esteem, it pushes the entire learning process upward. Students have to stay alert, compete, be better and get the best out of themselves. This pushes everyone else in the class to do the same. It also keeps the professors on their toes, and they too have to stay on top of what they are doing. I find this very refreshing.
What made you withdraw from active public life?
EF: I was politically active before Egypt’s revolution in 2011 mainly through writing, organizing democratic gatherings and giving advice to youth and candidates. When the Muslim Brothers [a religious and political group] reached power, Egypt was still in a democratic transition. However, the Muslim Brothers derailed it, and Egypt was obviously taking up a different form of governance. Disagreeing with the government was now viewed not as diversity, but as dissent or subversion. Public participation in politics also went down dramatically. Because I had been speaking to the public, and the public was gone, I found myself in a position in which I was speaking to myself. In my view, there was no point in continuing this public engagement. However, I also took the time to work on my novel. Producing literature is my way of continued engagement in public life and a mode that I find more effective and longer-lasting.
To what extent are your books based on your views of Egypt’s political issues?
EF: In general, I think novels always reflect the author’s views. If the novel has a political dimension, it would reflect the author’s political views. Novels are also mirrors of the society. Sometimes the author doesn’t deliberately depict something in a certain way, but unconsciously does so because this author is part of the society at a particular time in a particular context. The expression of the author is reflective of the social conflict. I think the novels that I have written all have some political elements in common. The decay of the state institutions, of the public order and of the society and oppression are themes you’ll find repeatedly in many of the novels I have written. There’s always the conflict between this decay and repression on one hand and young men and women’s hope for freedom, love and sometimes for normal life on the other.
What inspired you to dedicate most of your life to diplomacy and politics?
EF: I wasn’t a 4-year-old that dreamed of becoming an ambassador. It just happened. I was interested in politics when I was 20, but there was no outlet for effective political participation at that time. So, I stumbled into diplomacy, which was kind of the second best. Politics has always been there. I’ve been preoccupied with politics since I was in high school. But again, in Egypt, if you have any public interest, you’re bound to be interested in politics. If you’re interested in charity, the condition of women, the sanitary system or anything that goes beyond yourself, you will be in direct contact with politics.
Was there a social issue that especially stimulated your interest in politics?
EF: Egypt is a country that doesn’t work. It’s a society in crisis. It’s a state that is failing. You can feel it in your daily life. One has to be completely insensitive not to notice it. It hits you from the moment you wake up to when you go to sleep. Your school and the transportation system don’t work. Ultimately, the society itself ceases to function properly.
What concerns do you have for the future?
EF: I have a lot of concerns for the future. I think the world is in a very difficult spot. Look at Egypt and its promise of democracy. Look at the Middle East, which is probably in one of its worst points in history. Look at the rise of fascism and populism worldwide. Look at the United States, which is the leader of not only the free world but for all practical purposes, the leader of the international system. It is what keeps the system functioning or what is supposed to keep the world functioning, but the U.S. is not providing the leadership anymore. It seems less and less willing to do so at a time when there is an interstate system. This isn’t a centralized system. It is anarchy, and in anarchy, you need major powers to make institutions work. When major powers defect on leadership, institutions stop working properly. When this happens, there could be dangerous consequences like wars. We are in a critical juncture worldwide where China is rising and is becoming more and more assertive. At the same time, the U.S. is not only receding, but it is also less willing to play the role of a leader with the rise of populism and fear in Western societies, which have translated to right and extreme right-wing, and bizarre characters coming to political hold. It’s a mess. At the same time, everything’s changing. The culture is changing. You have a new generation with a different culture that doesn’t have its space in the existing system. The lines of authority, the definition of authority and the attitude toward authority especially among the young are different and existing institutions seem incapable of coping with this.
What would be your message to the next generation?
EF: Whatever you do, don’t become cynical. Transitions are always difficult, and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. A new world and culture is going to emerge out of this mess. Try to stay safe during this harsh transition. Staying safe means not only physically safe but also mentally and morally safe. Stick to your ideals and don’t lose heart because of what you see happening around you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.