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A God In Spite of His Nose

‘Paradise is a person. Come into this world.’

— Charles Olson

 

In the darkness of the temple, footsteps are approaching. The crashing of iron and stone breaks the reverent silence of the night. A group of monks, convened in a cloud of incense, are terrified. It’s the Prime Minister, creeping through the corridors and smashing idols—replicas of his very own face—with an axe. The politician, Zahmu, has just discovered the fact of his own apotheosis. Fearfully, and adoringly, the monks confront their God.

 

ABBOT: How merciful Thou art! How great is Thy glory! [He lowers his head and covers his face with the palm of his hand.] My eyes have not the strength to gaze upon the splendour of Thy light.

 

ZAHMU: What is he talking about? A light? My light? It’s all so dark that I can hardly see my hand.

 

The Prime Minister must be unable to see the light emanating from Himself, the monks reason. Fulfilling age-old prophesies, the hour of in which God would take His human vessel has begun, whether Zahmu likes it or not. ‘Anything is possible,’ the incredulous politician protests, ‘except that I should be a god in spite of myself—without previous notice, even! Why, if I was a vacant room, the landlord’s consent would have to be obtained before I was occupied!’ His deification, Zahmu insists, must be a plot engineered by his rivals to disgrace him—to exile him from politics to the lofty heights of religion. For the apostles, however, everything that Zahmu says or does can be explained away as further proof of His divinity. ‘Do reconsider the decision,’ Zahmu begs. ‘Perhaps it is the Leader of the Opposition who is intended to be the god.’ But the monks cannot be shaken from their devotion. When Zahmu attempts an escape from the temple, he finds himself surrounded on all sides by throngs of his worshippers —including his own secretary, and the administrators in his cabinet. He stands perplexed, despairing of His unusual predicament:

 

ZAHMU: What have I done that I should be robbed of my humanity? … Let me be human! I am not a god! [He paces back and forth, shouting] I am a man… I am a man… I am a man…

 

*

 

The one-act play A God in Spite of His Nose first incarnated, quietly, in an Arabic book of short stories published in Cairo in 1962.1  It appeared at the moment when Egypt was gripped with a state-enforced passion for its President, Gamal Abdel Nasser. As if one were in love, one saw—or imagined one did—the face of the handsome lieutenant everywhere. His hawkish nose, joined in union with his reassuring moustache, graced shop windows, living rooms and dusty office walls. Leaving his body, his voice came down from the heavens on the Voice of the Arabs radio station, broadcast twenty two hours a day. At the cinema, state-sponsored films depicted Nasser as a man so virtuous, so noble, that one could not hope to emulate him—only to worship him. Some of those closest to him claimed that the man himself was naturally quite lacking in charisma, but it did not matter; a formidable propaganda machinery was in place, and Nasser, in an early life, had learned to act in the theatre.

In a school production of Julius Caesar, the teenage Gamal had his dictatorial start playing the title role.2 Sitting in the audience was the future Prime Minister Naguib al-Hilali, doomed to be unseated by Nasser’s military coup in the summer of 1952. Taking the stage as the Roman commander—’the hero of popular liberation’ as the show’s playbill (questionably) declared—proved fitting work experience for the young Nasser. Two decades later, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood fired eight bullets at him while he was delivering a speech in Alexandria. Nasser, unscathed, famously proclaimed to his panicked audience, ‘My blood is from you and my blood is for you, and I will live until I die struggling for your cause and working for your sake, for your freedom and your dignity.’ The crowd was electrified. ‘If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, I will not die— for all of you are Gamal Abdel Nasser.’ It was rhetoric ripe for satire:

 

THIRD MONK: Your function tomorrow will be that of a god… The poor shall take refuge in you; you shall live with the weak and hear the complaint of the nameless, the downtrodden, the banished…

ZAHMU: But this is precisely my party’s programme. This is what I have been doing ever since I entered politics.

If all were Nasser and Nasser was all, excluded from this Oneness was anyone who dared to disagree. In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, religious movements and opposition parties were banned in the name of secularism and stability, and critics of the regime met with imprisonment. By the time Nasser’s revolution celebrated its tenth anniversary, political critique had learned to thrive under enigmatic guises. The theatre—a pulpit of Nasserist propaganda—was also the hallowed hall of dissent. Playwrights took flights of fantasy to ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire, alien planets, or, like A God, to unnamed, vague places, to find the words to speak of life under Nasser. But despite the masks their fictions wore, everyone continued to see the President’s face at every turn. Theatre critics found it impossible to resist reading Nasser’s distinct features into any sultan or heartless lover, swindling merchant or mythical being that charged across the stage. Knowing it was written at such a moment, it is difficult, too, to resist seeing Zahmu as an avatar of Nasser. The play reads as a clever satire of the uses and abuses of religion in politics: a reductio ad absurdum, perhaps, of Nasser’s charismatic authority. It seems to warn us of what might happen were we to follow his rhetoric—or that of any politician—to its most logical end. For even the most splendidly manipulative campaign to capture and control the hearts of the people can never escape this danger—of being taken at its very own word.

 

*

 

It is a surprise, then, to learn that the scribe of this one-act revelation was none other than Nasser’s chief propagandist and speechwriter, the ultra-nationalist politician Fathi Radwan. Born in 1911, Radwan had his first communion with the nation at age eight, when Egyptians across the country rose up together against the British occupation. At university, he acted in the requisite Julius Caesar (a few years before Nasser), and tried his hand at writing plays. In the thirties, Radwan was a founding father of Young Egypt, the fascist-inspired paramilitary youth movement that would agitate the country for the next decade. As the organisation’s Secretary General, he wrote litanies on Egyptian supremacy and self-determination, and called for the overthrow of the weak parliamentary monarchy. In the subtly titled article ‘Are We Propagandists of Dictatorship?’, Radwan declared, ‘If it is dictatorship which can fill youth with power, fill the nation with the military spirit, and fill the people with electricity, vigor and dynamism, then we will be dictators to the bone.’ In their uniform of green shirts, grey trousers and red fezzes, the militia conducted drills at the Pyramids and clashed with the police. Though it is unclear whether the young Caesar-in-training ever officially joined the movement, Nasser was influenced by their ideology, and spent a night in jail after getting carried away in one of their demonstrations.

Radwan, too, found himself in and out of prison until Nasser welcomed him into the new regime in 1952. Newly empowered, Radwan was quick to call for the creation of a ministry of propaganda, which he called ‘the most important instrument for action and change in the life of mankind.’ As the first Minister of so-called ‘National Guidance,’ and later as Minister of Culture, Fathi Radwan took on the business of crafting a god out of a man. Looking back, Nasser would later describe his rise to power in those years as inadvertent: it was all an epic drama in which he was chosen for the starring role. ‘I can say now,’ Nasser wrote in 1954, ‘we did not ourselves define the role given us to play; it was the history of our country which cast us in that role.’ It was Radwan who helped write the script. He concocted the rhetoric and public image of the regime, and created programmes in the arts—particularly the theatre—as a means to explain Nasser’s quasi-socialist reforms and pan-Arabist dreams to the people. He also wrote the President’s speeches, knowing telepathically, he claimed, what Nasser wished to say without him needing to dictate it. Years later, in a memoir, Radwan recalled with delight just how powerful these words could be. When Nasser read the announcement of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Radwan remembered, ‘The people were hit by a violent shake, not just in the square alone, but in every house in Egypt, in every house in the Arab world, in the streets, and alleys, in the cars driving at full speed, in every road and dirt-track with their radios. I watched the people all together, jumping into the air.3

 

Almost militantly prolific, Radwan authored over forty books—memoirs, essay collections, plays, historical texts—in fifty years. When asked, he would always maintain that his literary pursuits were utterly inseparable from his politics. His earliest works were hagiographies of great men: the Egyptian nationalist hero Mustafa Kamil, the Irish independence fighter Eamon de Valera, the Prophet Muhammad, an ambivalent take on Mussolini, a story about Satan and whether he would still have been evil had he fallen in love. Radwan’s very first book, in 1934, was on Gandhi, whom he hailed as the spiritual leader of both India and Egypt’s common struggle against the British. In its dedication, Radwan extolled his book as a ‘gift to the East’, an ‘incantation’ of nationalism, and, turning very Hindu, ‘the pure residue which is produced by the holy fires that engulfs us, dissipates our bodies, and purifies our souls’. Though the reverential Radwan was perhaps not aware of it at the time he was writing A God, it was Gandhi who first met with Zahmu’s fate.

 

In 1921, on an early speaking tour in what is now Uttar Pradesh, the leader of the Indian National Congress was hailed as an avatar of Vishnu by hundreds of thousands of villagers. Stories began circulating of the Mahatma’s miracles: vanished cows and stolen wallets reappeared, smoke rose from wells, a field of wheat was transformed into sesame. A pandit who sought to defy Gandhi by eating seafood found every fish crawling with worms. Paraded across the region like a temple statue, Gandhi was met with floods of offerings from the ecstatic crowd. ‘Wherever he went,’ a biographer reported, ‘he had to endure the tyranny of love.’ In the minds of the villagers, the Mahatma’s utopian vision of Swaraj, or self-governance, had begun to take on the trappings of moksha, or the salvation of the soul. An apocryphal tale spread that Gandhi had made a bet with the British: if he could walk through fire without being burned, India would gain its independence. When the news spread that the Mahatma had taken hold of a calf’s tail and emerged from the flames unhurt, huge crowds were incited to riots across the region. Gandhi, in turn, could only protest: ‘I am not God.’ But his believers did not believe him. In February 1922, an angry mob of his worshippers set the Chauri Chaura police station on fire, and twenty-three policemen were killed. The veneration of the god of nonviolence had led to bloodshed: Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement, confessed to inciting violence in court, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

 

 

ABBOT [in a deep voice]: God’s will is inalterable.

 

ZAHMU [with resignation]: So I am doomed to see people day after day distorting my words, suppressing some of them, making money out of some others, using yet others as a weapon against their enemies or as a means of rewarding followers and enticing new supporters…

 

THIRD MONK: Is that why you shrink from becoming a representation of the Deity?

 

ZAHMU: Be fair—haven’t I good reason?

 

THIRD MONK: But you are a politician. You are used to having people malign you, tell lies about you, attribute false statements to you.

 

 

Trapped in his own holiness, Gandhi declared: ‘The word Mahatma stinks in my nose.’

 

*

 

In 1937, a mysterious article appeared in a Calcutta journal. It was authored by ‘Chanakya,’ the name of a wily minister, spiritual ancestor to Machiavelli, who built an empire in North India in the fourth century and authored the Arthaśastra, the Sanskrit manual on the art of political rule. The piece warned that Nehru, in his immense popularity and vertiginous rise, was quickly becoming a dictator: ‘Watch him again. There is a great procession and tens of thousands of persons surround his car and cheer him in an ecstasy of abandonment. He stands on the seat of the car, balancing himself rather well, straight and seemingly tall, like a god, serene and unmoved by the seething multitude.… What lies behind that mask of his, what desires, what will to power, what insatiate longings?… In normal times he would be just an efficient and successful executive, but in this revolutionary epoch, Caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar?’ The article urged its readers not to elect Nehru to a third term: ‘His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars.’

The unstoppable Nehru was once again re-elected as President of the Indian National Congress—no one listened to Chanakya. But years later, it was revealed that the man behind the guise of the old, duplicitous pundit had been none other than Jawaharlal himself. At the reins of the Congress, Nehru had tried to spread the commandments of democracy: a disdain for dictators, an abiding faith in the constitution. Yet his own lionisation was becoming an obstacle to him. Legends of his bravery were composed in his honour, distracting from his civic agendas. He fought off embarrassing nicknames like Bharat Bhushan (‘Jewel of India’) and Tyagamurti (‘O, Embodiment of Sacrifice.’) Someone even infused his aura into a line of cosmetic products with names like ‘Nehru Brilliantine.’ Disturbed and exhausted by the limelight, Nehru contemplated a retreat from politics. The pseudonymous article, which so outraged his devout followers, had dropped hints: ‘In spite of his brave talk, Jawaharlal is obviously tired and stale and he will progressively deteriorate if he continues as President. He cannot rest, for he who rides a tiger cannot dismount.’ Nehru remained saddled, and was elected as the first Prime Minister of the newly independent India in 1947. Rather than resign, Nehru made small concessions. He insisted on being greeted with a single flower rather than a garland. He refused to sit on a preposterously cushioned, gold-and-silver plated chair.

 

In 1958, the Tyagamurti’s fears were realised: reports began appearing in local newspapers that a cult for the adoration of the Prime Minister had been unearthed in a village in Sabarkantha, near Ahmedabad. Proclaiming him the latest incarnation of Vishnu, the sect had built idols of Nehru, and performed daily pujas to their god. A booklet had even been published of hymns, and was being issued to initiates in the order under an oath of secrecy. At a press conference in New Delhi, the dismayed Nehru was questioned about his apotheosis. The Times of India recorded, ‘Mr. Nehru started with a pensive “you see…. you see….”, then paused and coyly added, “Well, I won’t say it.” He, however, did go on to inquire why newspapers should give publicity to “this kind of nonsense.”’ The article continued, ‘A correspondent then asked him to explain the “melancholy touch” in his voice in Parliament of late. Mr. Nehru’s answer was that he was recovering from a bad throat.’

 

THIRD MONK: You seem very eager to hang on to your political reputation. You think more highly of it than of having God’s spirit in you, His words on your tongue, His light in your eyes, His guidance emanating from your heart.

 

ZAHMU: Enough, enough! I am not equal to all these heavy burdens…

 

ABBOT: What is frightening you, then?

 

ZAHMU: Frankly, I have always felt some pity for the gods.

 

 

Nehru, feeling sorry for himself, went to the Chief Minister of Bombay, Y.B. Chavan, to protest that his administration, which he had always considered quite enlightened, should tolerate such an absurdity in the district. Yet there was little that Chavan could do. And he, like the ministers in Zahmu’s cabinet, was moved by the spirit. ‘In the glow of his presence,’ Chavan wrote of Nehru that same year, ‘something of the strength and tenderness, youth and maturity, defiance and humility of his being entered into me and lifted me high above the ordinary and humdrum plane of this earth.’

 

In the pages of India’s Times, amused columnists and outraged subscribers began to take sides on the new deity. One reader, adept in conspiracy theory, wrote that it was surely a propaganda campaign carried out by social workers with ties to Congress, to exploit the villagers’ gullibility and secure their positions in the next elections. He called for the vindication of Nehru, ‘perhaps the most secular-minded of all our leaders.’ ‘A nice psychological revenge on a declared agnostic,’ the Hindu extremist N.B. Khare gleefully declared. In a column titled ‘BASIC RIGHT,’ the politician Rafiq Zakaria argued that the Constitution guarantees freedom of worship: even if Chavan attempted to suppress the cult, he would be blocked by the High Court. Zakaria then wondered aloud as to why Nehru should be so annoyed at being venerated as God in the first place. ‘Almighty apart, there can be many divine manifestations on this earth. After all what is God but, as the Bible has proclaimed, “love”? And what is Mr. Nehru if not love?’

 

 

*

 

And this man

Is now become a god; and Cassius is

A wretched creature and must bend his body,

If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.

Julius Caesar, Act One

 

Reading the papers in the late 1950s, Fathi Radwan stumbled across the Nehru story, and was inspired to write the play. When asked about it, he would reply, ‘It is no more than an attempt at imagining the danger that threatens our freedom.’ (Radwan would also maintain that it had nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus.) The paradox that he—mastermind of Nasserist propaganda, champion of autocracy and state-controlled mass media—would write such a play, to such an end, is apparent.

We will be dictators to the bone—the young Radwan had proclaimed. Yet under Nasser, the ideologue was tamed into a bureaucrat. In later years, Radwan spoke of how he had resented the way the President pressured him to stay chained to his ministry desk. Though friends, the two statesmen periodically battled: once, when Radwan attempted to fire an employee particularly beloved by Nasser, the President refused to speak to him, or even hear mention of his name, for months. After Nasser’s death, Radwan published an ambiguous memoir, 72 Months with Abdel Nasser. A luminous invocation of Nasser’s genius, the book also shines light, almost accidentally, on the Caesar’s more sinister side. ‘I did not want to turn him, or those around him, into gods or prophets,’ Radwan wrote in the opening to the book, a riddle of conflicting anecdotes. In an early chapter, Radwan states that never, in all his years with Nasser, did the President ever oust anyone for saying things that displeased or contradicted him. But a few pages later, Radwan writes, ‘I did not doubt the President’s affection for me, nor his high regard for me… But this was all under the condition that I would not contradict his basic political line, nor get into arguments with those whom he loved and trusted.’ Elsewhere, the politician remembers lunching with Nasser one afternoon at his house: ‘We had finished work and were recalling memories of our life before the revolution. I said, “I was detained in prison with Hassan al-Banna [the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] for a reason I could not work out. And then I was released for no reason at all.” Nasser replied, “Why is this so surprising? We do the same thing, imprisoning and releasing people for no reason.’’’ Radwan qualifies the revealing story with what is almost an apology: ‘Nasser was a human being, with all that is human—the good and the bad, the strong and the weak.’

 

By the late sixties, cracks had begun to appear in the temple to the President. On the eve of the Six-Day War, Nasser had led the Egyptian people to believe that the nation’s army, well-prepared for the conflict, would unquestionably triumph over Israel. Yet in a single night, the Israelis felled the entire Egyptian Air Force before it had even left the ground. In as many days as it had taken God to create the world, Nasser’s Arab coalition had suffered huge land losses to Israel, and Egypt’s very sense of itself had collapsed. In the wake of the humiliation, writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim blamed the hot air of Nasserist evangelism for leading the unsuspecting nation into defeat. As al-Hakim recalled, ‘Whatever the fact, those glowing images of the accomplishments of the revolution made out of us instruments of the broad propaganda apparatus, with its drums, its horns, its odes, its songs and its films. We saw ourselves as a major industrial state, a leader of the world in industrial reform, and the strongest striking force in the Middle East. The face of the idolized leader, which filled the television screen and loomed at us from the podia…related these tales to us for long hours. No one argued, checked, verified or commented. We could not help but believe, and burn our hands with applause.’ When it came down to the battle, Nasser’s pageantry of power was no more solid than a stage set.

 

ZAHMU: And still you consider me a god?

 

SECOND MONK [getting bolder]: There must be some mistake. [Daylight begins to show.]

 

FIRST MONK: This is the dawn of a new day.

 

ZAHMU: And in the light of day, surely ideas will change.

 

 

In Radwan’s one-act play, Zahmu’s endless objections to his own divinity nearly drive the monks into a crisis of belief. But by the end, having concluded that Zahmu’s blasphemies must be the last gasps of human vanity escaping the sacred vessel, the monks remain, as ever, in adoration of Him. Just so, Radwan, beating the drums and blowing the horns, remained a believer. It is quite possible it never even occurred to him that the play might be read as an allegory for a deity closer to home. Despite his quarrels with the President, and the abject failures of the Six Days, he never recanted his faith in the man, nor stopped to question the machinery he had set in motion. The nation was his religion—and Radwan loved too much. Like the unwitting gods that fascinated him, he seems a satirist in spite of his nose.

 

 

*

 

‘I need only to become a god,’ rues Zahmu, ‘to be banished from the realm of politics in my country.’ We know his fear to be misplaced. Can that transcendent condition—the separation of politics and religion—ever really exist? ‘If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate,’ said Gandhi to a missionary in 1946. Nehru, Nasser, and even the Mahatma saw themselves as great ‘secularising’ forces. But their power to move people, to bring about these reforms, was not always secular—whether they liked it or not. After the setback of 1967, Nasser never regained his inviolable stature, and dropped dead of a heart attack three years later. Radwan passed away in 1988, and was buried next to one of his nationalist saints, Mustafa Kamil. Gandhi attained his soul’s swaraj in 1948, and was eulogised by a haggard Nehru, who announced, ‘The light has gone out.’ The Prime Minister himself died in 1964. Despite his best intentions, Nehru’s funeral pyre became a shrine laden with sandalwood, marigolds and rose petals, attended by a million mourners. Only Zahmu remains immortal.

Deification, in all its contradictions, was necessary for these moments of nation building to succeed. Religious rhetoric in politics is more than just a metaphor occasionally taken too far. The nations these leaders helped to imagine and to bind together needed also to be sanctified—by them. We might see any nationalist project as an apotheosis, produced by three categories of actors. First, there is the compelling, lauded individual, candidate for the heavens. Second, the would-be god’s devotees, who in their piety and their numbers are essential for their hero’s recognition. Third, there are those with the power to narrate, record, and shape the story. But of this trinity, the deity is the least important. Godhood is a low point. The almighty one is the storyteller.

 

 

 

 


 

[1] Quotations from the play Ilah raghm anfih are from Pierre Cachia’s translation, published in 1974 in the Journal of Arabic Literature Vol 5 pp. 108-126. Cachia translates the title as ‘A God In Spite of Himself’. The phrase ‘in spite of his nose’ is a colloquial Arabic expression. The author of the play might have been reading Molière—his satire Le Médecin malgré lui was the first piece of theatre to be published in an Arabic magazine, in the 1870s. It was translated by Jalal as al-Tabib Raghm Anfihi as ‘A Doctor In Spite of His Nose’.

 

[2] See Margaret Litvin’s chapter on ‘Nasser’s Dramatic Imagination,’ in Hamlet’s Arab Journey (Princeton University Press: 2011) pp.35-52.

 

[3] Fathi Radwan, 72 Shahran ma’a ’Abd al-Nasir (Cairo, 1985). I am indebted to Hussein Omar for his translation of the memoir, quoted throughout the essay, as well as his translation of an interview with the playwright from 1964.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is writing a book about people who have been involuntarily turned into gods. Her essays have appeared in the London Review of BooksThe New York Times and Harper's, among other publications. She is also a contributing editor at Bidoun.