Friday, February 25, 2011

Hoping for Ma'at


A story can start from the oddest things: a magic lamp, a conversation overheard, a shadow moving on a wall."
- Ahdat Soueif, The Map of Love
Back to the British Museum last night for a public "conversation" with a pair of contemporary novelists, the Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif (The Map of Love) and the Sudanese-British Jamal Mahjoub (Travelling with Djinns). Their books explore travel and identity and liminal spaces, and are said to contain echoes of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, described by the Director of the British Museum, in his introduction, as "the oldest surviving travel literature".

Ahdaf Soueif had some interesting comments about how, after the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the idea of Ma'at (truth, justice, fairness) was revived and "re-articulated" in Egypt. This produced a passionate statement of the need for social justice in an early Middle Kingdom text known as the Eloquent Peasant, which has come down to us intact because it was copied and re-copied over many centuries. Ma'at was personified as a goddess wearing the feather against which the heart of the deceased is weighed in athe Hall of Truth; if the heart, burdened by guilt and darkness, drags down its side of the scale, the soul is consigned to a hybrid monster known as the Devourer.

Out of the wreckage of an ancient Egyptain regime came the luminous description of the Negative Confession, in which the deceased person, in the presence of 42 assessor gods, must swear that he has not committed a long list of crimes or infractions, not only of the order of "I have not killed" but extending to "I have not caused tears" and "I have not obstructed water when it should flow". While it's clear from the surviving texts that plenty of Egyptians approaching the afterlife hoped to get around some of these provisions by loopholes, deals and magical spells, a vision of a last judgment "based on behavior, not belief" (as Ahdaf noted) has a modern and very progressive ring.

Naturally much of the discussion last night focused on the current state of affairs in Egypt and the less-publicized coming partition of Sudan. The novelists, correctly, did not purport to be social prophets. Ahdaf Soueif, who has been journaling her days and nights with the protesters in Tahrir Square, said of the Mubarak regime, "They've been messing with the soul of the country" and held out the hope of a coming order - informed by openness, diversity and the characteritic Egyptian sense of humor - where Ma'at will reign.


Wanda Burch said...

The Negative Confession reminds me of a story I read and have shared of a man and woman who are pulling themselves together after having survived an airline crash. The woman looks at her husband, who has risen to his feet, declaring to some invisible being all the things he never did wrong, adding in some of the good things he did. She sees him as a good and honest man and is furious that he is defending himself in this ridiculous fashion. She reaches for him, and he, in fact, is laying beside her feet, dead. She has witnessed his delivery of a defense of the actions of his life before someone serving as gate-keeper for the Other side.

Coincidental to a nation turning to hope for diversity and openness, I just this morning read a condemnation of heavy-handed tactics being used in New South Wales to take over private land. The comparison was made to the reign of terrorism of Cheops and his successor Chephren. Cheops closed all the temples, then, excluding his subjects from the practice of their religion, compelled them without exception to labour as slaves for his own advantage. Some were forced to drag blocks of stone from the quarries in the Arabian hills to the Nile, where they were ferried across and taken by others, who hauled them to the Libyan hills. The work went on in three-monthly shifts, a hundred thousand men in a shift. It took ten years of this oppressive slave-labour to build the track along which the blocks were hauled. Herodotus, in The Histories, wrote:

"The Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mention the names of Cheops and Chephren [his successor], so great is their hatred of them; They call the pyramids after Philitis, a shepherd who at that time fed his flocks in the neighbourhood."

Can you imagine the twist Cheops and Chephren placed on their Negative Confession when they were forced to confront their life actions?

Unknown said...

Hello Robert,
I have been working on a response to some behaviors that make me feel sad when I watch and hear them, from my Christian church going friends. I read from Mathew last night and even though I don't like the goat - sheep analogy, I like what the son of man says about what you do to the least of my brothers, so you do to me. Rings of Ma'at and "a vision of a last judgment "based on behavior, not belief". I'm also searching for a verse about if you are going to reach the Romans you become one. About how you can not become one if your intent is to change them to your ways. To me reaching out is about holding a sense of connectedness, lighting a unity candle sort of thing. I see how ancient wisdoms from Egypt are truly treasures to weave with for me.

Wishing you vitality and peace in your travels Robert.