Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.

Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press
Dh90

In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”

It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.

What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.

In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.

“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).

Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.

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El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.

It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.

The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.

From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.

Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”

The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.

The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.

Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.

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Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.

Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.

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