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.
Artists, Islamists and Politicians
Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.
Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.
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.”
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.
An Englishman’s life in translation
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.
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.