In the age of Isis, we should remember Nasr Abu Zeid. He was a hero of his time, who would, had he lived – now that the Salafist cult has been let loose in the Europe of his exile as well as the Egypt that was his home – have long ago been murdered. Before I telephoned him for the first time in Cairo, I wondered if he’d be still alive to talk to me by the time I reached his home.
Almost exactly 22 years ago, I rang the bell and it was his wife Ibtihal who opened the door in a tired way, weary beyond her 37 years, pointing to the sitting room where her husband was waiting to explain to me why they wouldn’t divorce each other. The price was already high. Islamists had called for his death. Others had accused Ibtihal of “fornication” because she refused to leave the husband she had been told to divorce by the Egyptian Appeals Court and was thus living out of wedlock.
But it was worse than that. The court ordered the couple to separate – for if they merely divorced, they would be able to remarry and Professor Nasr Abu Zeid couldn’t be allowed to do that because, officially, he had been branded an ‘apostate’. So ever since Judge Farouq Abdul-Ali – an Islamist appointee of the Justice Ministry – gave his verdict, cops from the Interior Ministry had been guarding the Abu Zeids from attack. Hence the cop at the front door, one branch of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian government defending an Egyptian couple from another branch of the Egyptian government, a circumstance that was as preposterous as it was obscene.
Every Egyptian – every Arab, indeed every Muslim in the Middle East – knew the deeply shaming saga of the Abu Zeids, although these people do not speak of it today. He was a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, she a lecturer in the history of Spanish art and French civilization, a French diplomat’s daughter who graduated from the Sorbonne, both now ordered by the state court to separate on the grounds that Nasr – in a university paper that won him his professorship – denied the reliability of the Quran as a literal text. The man behind the charges was one of Abu Zeid’s own academic colleagues, a third-rate television Muslim evangelist who claimed that Nasr had “set himself up as an opponent of all the tenets of religious discourse”.