Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa (Writings of the security shift): the Letters of Abdelhakim Qassim, ed. Mohammad Shoair, Cairo: Merit, 2010
Abdelhakim Qassim (1935-1994) is among the least talked about Egyptian writers belonging to the so called Generation of the Sixties – and not only because he is dead. By now Qassim is as established as he can be; his long-term influence on the literary imagination is undeniable. But unlike, for example, the poet Amal Donqol (1940-1983) or the short story writer Yahya El-Taher Abdalla (1938-1981), both of whom died during his lifetime, Qassim is hardly ever celebrated. Along with other Sixties writers, Dar Al Shurouk has bought the rights to his oeuvre, but to this day it remains out of print. The only exception is his first novel, Ayyam al-inssan ass-sab’ah (The seven days of man, 1969); and it is this book that his name tends to invoke, obscuring the bulk of what he considered his true achievement.
Set in and around the village where he was born some three weeks before his official date of birth, near Tanta, Ayyam al-inssan is an ode to provincial life and its spiritual core – centred on a seven-day mini-pilgrimage to the shrine of the local saint for the moulid or anniversary festival – and it has cast Qassim more or less exclusively in the role of writer of the provinces. This role, he would variably engage with and reject throughout his life; what is clear is that he did not think of Ayyam al-inssan as his greatest accomplishment.
Later writing is different in subject matter and structure if not so much in language, a rich, occasionally laboured language in which the author invents as well as searching for the right words, drawing on vernacular diction in oblique and intensely personal ways. Some of it is set in Berlin, where he spent the period 1974-1985; much of it was written there. It includes four novels besides Ayyam al-inssan, five books of short stories, four novellas and a play as well as much else not intended for publication. All of it remains virtually unknown.
Such neglect could have to do with the rift created by what Mohammad Shoair, the editor of the present book and Qassim’s as yet potential biographer, describes as Qassim’s “return to his village to defend social traditions and artistic values he had often attacked”. At this point in his life, profoundly disillusioned with the West and increasingly nationalistic in outlook, Qassim censured even his closest writer-friends (those, as Shoair notes, whose work his never-completed PhD was to be about); pointlessly but perhaps understandably he began to seek self-realisation beyond the literary sphere. Two years after his return from Germany he ran for parliamentary elections, representing the left-wing Tagammu’ Party; it was a forgone conclusion that he would lose. Immediately afterwards, he contracted a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of his body and for the last four years of his life was able to write only by dictating to his wife.
It was a time, I imagine, of profound alienation and bitterness; Shoair dwells on the effects of immigration on Qassim’s connection with his homeland in order to explain why he suddenly turned against everyone and everything. And the neglect that his work has suffered is due, if not to its aftermath, then to his sojourn in Berlin, during which he maintained only spotty contact with literary centres in Cairo. As a law student at Alexandria University – his course was interrupted by five years in the Wahat Detention Camp, where he was sent on charges of communism – Qassim, a renegade Muslim Brother and a temperamental Marxist, had managed to establish himself in intellectual circles. He travelled to Berlin initially to attend a literary conference, invited by Nagui Naguib, one of the earliest champions of his writing and the correspondent to whom the first two letters in the book – the only two written from Egypt – are addressed. It is unclear how long Qassim initially intended to stay, but it seems he saw the invitation as an opportunity for starting afresh; apparently on a whim, he simply went on living in Germany. The Berlin sojourn, a difficult one by all accounts, served as an occasion or a pretext for writing letters to family and friends. In one such, to the novelist (and once Al-Ahram Weekly critic) Mahmoud El-Wardani, Qassim dwells on the reason behind his departure, the one theme his letters keep coming back to:
“In my youth I was unable to accomplish anything new. I grew up, earned a degree and started working. I became someone with a home and a job to go to every morning, a wife and a daughter and then a son. Gradually society started to rid me of all that set me apart, driving me to crush the old Abdelhakim and construct, under my skin, another Abdelhakim who is diligent at his work and attentive to his home and careful about his clothing.
“It was driving me to another terrifying thing: success. And success is only one thing once all values have been mired in the mud. Success is to be well-off, to have contacts with the powers that be, to have an important position, to have an image that is seen and a voice that is heard. Society was warning me: If I did not do this it would turn me into a deformed cripple to be crushed without mercy.” Successful acquaintances would meet up with him, discuss petty issues of concern. “And I would see the terrifying emptiness in which they lived. I read their work and saw their absolute debility. I recognised their torment and their inability to turn back, and I also recognised by own inability to go on and write what I wanted to… There had to be a new beginning in a new land…”
Shoair, who might as well have written a partial if not a complete biography of Qassim, began to collect Qassim’s letters in 2004: “It started with a small press file on… Yahya El-Taher Abdalla… The critic friend Mohammad Badawi suggested that I should likewise put together a file on Abdelhakim Qassim.” Shoair contacted Abdelmoneim Qassim, the writer’s brother and one of his principal correspondents. He obtained copies not only of Qassim’s letters to Abdelmoneim and others but also of never-published poems, the incomplete doctoral thesis, abandoned novel projects and the Berlin diaries. “I found that the letters could form a text parallel to and revealing of his works, his cultural constitution and choices. And I started contacting his friends to ask if they might have letters from him.”
The title Kitabat nawbat al-hirassa is a reference to Qassim’s longest lasting job in Berlin, as a night watchman at the Charlottenborg Palace, when he would frequently pass the time by writing letters. The book contains letters to 11 correspondents including some of the most active writers of the period: besides Wardani, the short story writer Said El-Kafrawi, the poet Mohammad Saleh (Qassim’s brother-in-law, who passed away last year), the critic Sami Khashabah, and (another universally acclaimed writer of the provinces who by then had stopped writing) Mohammad Roumaish. It excludes letters to Qassim’s wife, deemed by his daughter “too private” for publication, letters “hidden” by their owners and letters that have been lost. Shoair gives his introduction the title Writing Without Makeup, and it is this spirit of abandon, the intensely personal tone in which Qassim discusses all manner of subjects from the procedural to the philosophical, often on the same page, that gives the book its immediate appeal. One amazing fact is that, whenever he begins to write in dialect – as people often do in personal correspondence – Qassim always seemingly involuntarily reverts back to standard Arabic. Before you have had a chance to catch your breath the language has already taken on that heavy, fluid eloquence that characterises all his writing.
He writes while on the job, while drunk, while briefly ill or in the grip of melancholy. The text, which Shoair is careful to reproduce accurately, preserving grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies of punctuation (footnotes would have made for a smoother read), affords fascinating insights not only into the life of which it was part – Qassim’s propensity for mythologising even the simplest events: the way he remembers his journeys on foot from one village to another to see friends back in the Nile Delta, for example, or his tirades against the so called Zionist entity and Sadat – but also into the rhetorical techniques that went into his more polished compositions. Still, there is a sense in which these letters can be read as chapters in an epistolary novel, albeit an unsettlingly postmodern one, about estrangement and homeland but also about the shifting and often tragic fortunes of Egyptian intellectuals during the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely Qassim seems to say very little about his immediate surroundings in Berlin. Often he will recount what he has been doing or where he is going next, his often difficult financial situation can be discerned in various ways, but Berlin itself – the place he occupies while writing – remains something of a mystery, repeatedly mentioned but only very occasionally dwelled on. In one 1974 passage to Saleh Qassim, with typical quasi-epic emotion, speaks of his awareness of the city with Whitmanesque frenzy: “Berlin seeps into my heart from peculiar pores… Berlin, softly! In my heart is Cairo still. Will you come to me in words whose meanings I do not understand on the lips, in cigarette smoke puffs, in a few sadnesses that I know. For I, Berlin, lived a long life before I came here… Berlin, I am your loving young one. I throw my leg away from the bar seat. When she smiles to me I dissolve. I feel the taste of glittering saliva on her teeth. I tap the rim of my glass out of shyness. I wish it never filled and you will ever fill it. But it is only a moment that barely is before it is gone…”
Apart from its historical value, of all its virtues, the most remarkable thing about this book is that it contains a wealth of apparently passing remarks that will prove of value not only to the student of contemporary Arabic literature but to the literary theorist and the writer concerned with the nature of the creative process and what it means to write. “Dreaming of writing is more beautiful than writing itself,” Qassim writes to Wardani in 1982. “Dreaming of writing is me in all my barbarity, my limitlessness and power.” And it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these letters, Qassim did not so much write as dream of writing.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha