The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt


About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.

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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

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.”

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Tractatus Franco-Arabicus


Reading Sonallah Ibrahim’s last two books, Youssef Rakha suggests an early Wittgenstein-style formulation of the kind of literary problem Bonaparte’s Campaign to Egypt might present
1. An Arab novel can be written about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801).
1.1. At first sight, this is perfectly self-evident: a novel in Arabic (or by an Arab writer) can be written about anything at all. But an Egyptian novelist writing about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, responding to a particular colonial legacy from the position of the colonised.
1.1.1. Bonaparte’s failed bid to take Egypt and Syria was intended to safeguard French trade in the Middle East and obstruct the British route to India. What it achieved was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the 22-volume Description de l’Egypte, as well as bringing the first print press into the country.
1.2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, a response to both the left-wing idea that the campaign abused Egyptians and the right-wing idea that it propelled Egypt, a nominally Ottoman province ruled by feudal Mamelukes, into the modern age.

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Denys Johnson-Davies in Abu Dhabi

An Englishman’s life in translation
The Emirates as Denys Johnson-Davies might have seen them in the early 1950s. Courtesy Al Ittihad newspaper

Youssef Rakha enjoys a cup of coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies, one of Arab literature’s chief liaisons with the English language.

Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.

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Bidoun Review of Sons of Gebelawi

Abnaa al Gebelawi (Children of Gebelawi), By Ibrahim Farghali, Cairo: Al Ain, 2009

In Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gebelawi, all of the texts of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. This happens without explanation, reason, or ostensible cause: wherever they might be found – not only in libraries and bookshops but also on bookshelves and bedside bedside tables – novels by Mahfouz in their original Arabic are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities’ attempt to remedy the situation in the face of worldwide and (notably, if somewhat incredibly) popular uproar are juxtaposed with sightings of Mahfouz’s characters in a variety of locales, seldom having anything to do with the settings in which they actually appear in Mahfouz’s books.

With six – now seven – books to his name, Farghali (b. 1967) is among the most prolific novelists of his generation. In his devotion to the genre and his formal conservatism, he is perhaps the worthiest heir to Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Nobel prize winner most known for his mid-century tales of Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, Farghali is firmly steeped in a magical realist tradition. Running through much of his prose are echoes of Jose Saramago’s nightmarish humour or shades of Italo Calvino’s fascination with the fantastical nature of fiction. He is taken by twins, telepathy and teleporting, and his firmly middle-class characters – otherwise utterly ordinary – have been known to reappear after they have died.

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All about our mothers

Watching TV at home, Youssef Rakha considers an Egyptian holiday’s message to society’s child-bearing half.

“Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day, Mama,” the woman spewed forth, her face taking up far too much of my TV screen. “Thanks so much for breast-feeding me for so long.”

The woman was too emphatically ordinary to be convincing as a representative of the Egyptian middle-class, and she stood in the middle of a supermarket which, like most stores on Egyptian TV, was far more spacious and better stocked than anywhere average Egyptians shop. She held the hand of a child named something like Ruba. “Ruba is with me here, ya Mama,” she added excitedly. “She too says Happy Mother’s Day and thank you.”

All I could do from switching off the TV was remind myself – this is only the commercial break. As I listened, I somehow did not soften to the thought of rapturous tears trickling down Mama’s cheeks (though you could almost hear her sputtering: “Ruba and her mother are on TV!”). Instead, I wondered what to make of the slogan in this all-Egyptian Mother’s day-special Pril detergent ad: “The sweetest Pril, for the sweetest mother.”

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Mahfouz’s Cairo

It is early afternoon on the first day of Eid al Fitr, an unusually tranquil time in Cairo. While I drive past the British Council in Agouza, a middle-class residential neighbourhood outside the city proper; it feels pleasantly appropriate that the Corniche on the opposite side of the road, normally a crawling behemoth of traffic, should be lying so quietly in the Nile’s embrace.

Novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo is much greener and slower-paced than today’s Cairo: it was a place where people enjoyed walking and tram and bus rides. Until later in life, Mahfouz, who never drove, was well-known for walking around the city in the early morning; along the Corniche and by Orman Parks near Cairo University.

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