Youssef Rakha quizzes out novelist Ibrahim Farghali on his greatest masterpiece to date
Finally, a true event in contemporary Arabic literature: Last month at the Diwan Bookshop, in Zamalek, Ibrahim Farghali (b. 1967) signed copies of his latest novel, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi (Sons of Al-Gabalawi), published by Dar Al-Ain this June, while he was on holiday from his job as a magazine editor in Kuwait. It may seem ironic to call this intimate gathering an event, particularly judged against the much greater media attention paid to much lesser books in the last ten years. Yet from a history-of-literature point of view, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi is probably the closest we have come to a fulfilment of the prophecy that a home-grown magic realist movement would emerge in the new millennium.
The many disparate and as yet shy strands of magic realism linking Farghali’s books with such writers as Mustafa Zikri – it was thought – would eventually cohere into a more readership-oriented, ambitious and articulate body of novels.
Such books would combine the realism and social commitment of the Sixties narrative tradition with the individualism and physicality of the Nineties (the latter thus far accommodated mainly by the prose poem). It would give substance to the notion of an “age of the novel”, espoused by critic Gabir Asfour at millennium’s end, and express a range of recent influences from Gabriel-Garcia Marquez and Jorge-Luis Borges to Umberto Eco to Jose Saramago – all of whom demonstrated how elements of the fantastical could be deployed to intensify reality and/or infuse the public realm with private experience.
Abnaa Al-Gabalwi – and, yes, the title is a translation back into Arabic of the title of the first English translation of Naguib Mahfouz’s Awlad Haretna (1959), also known as Sons of Our Alley – seems to be that rare thing: a self-consciously self-conscious full-length Arabic novel, designed as much as anything to define the language’s most talked about genre and, crucially, conceived on as grand a scale as can be expected.
“Of course Saramago, for me, is the literary model,” Farghali says. “To write a long, big, subtly conveyed text through which to say everything. And with the highest degree of artistic excellency possible, to create a large idea that accommodates numerous smaller ideas, juxtaposes styles and discordant voices. My ambition is a text that could be read and enjoyed and reread and still enjoyed by an ordinary reader as well as a member of the literary elite. It’s an ambition like Dostoevsky’s and Saramago’s, and I hope I don’t sound vain when I say this. I think I had been practising since Ibtisamat Al-Qiddissin,” his 2006 novel, translated by Andy Smart and Nadia Fouad-Smart as The Smiles of the Saints, “to produce a text of this level.”
As a literary critic, Farghali has been the quickest to dismiss such middle-brow, best-selling “phenomena” as Alaa El-Aswany’s The Yaqoubian Building; and his principal argument against such books is that they pander to a growing but limited – and limiting – worldwide market, that “they are not novels at all, but illusions”.
Yet Farghali’s own ambition extends to sales figures too: a fact more evident perhaps in this book than in previous ones. “Aside from theorising or stating the obvious, aside from the conditions of narrative and imagination and construction and the depth of the characters, I think a text to which the term ‘novel’ is applicable must also be an ‘art object’, meaning that it must make sublime, competent and beautiful use of the language, it must use the language in its own specific way. To be called a novel, the text must absorb the narrative methods that have been employed throughout history, it must know its place in the history of narrative. It has to be contemporary, experimental and deep, and work towards abiding by the conditions of the modern as a general context that is influenced in turn by economic, social and historical factors. Only then,” Farghali says, “is a narrative text worthy of being called a novel.”
Irrespective of his 1989 Nobel prize – an unprecedented achievement in the Arab world, and one that somewhat overshadowed his already established career – the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) remains an inescapable reference point. His incredibly large body of work acted to define the Arabic novel (the youngest in the language, not having emerged until the turn of the 20th century, and Mahfouz’s preferred genre throughout his life); and in so doing the sheer magnitude of his achievement also seemingly killed it – in time for the so called death of the novel worldwide.
Trying out the widest range of models – Balzak, Dickens, Tolstoy, the historical novel format, the French existentialist novel, the grassroots folk epic – Mahfouz seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the genre. If not, he at least showed up its aesthetic and (more relevantly for the Arab scene) political limitations. He was criticised for being “petty bourgeois”, for standing in the way of social and economic transformation, in effect for importing the one genre that sided with things as they were, not as they should be.
Yet even if a contemporary novelist were to make a point of never reading any Mahfouz, that novelist’s work would still be judged both positively and negatively against Mahfouz’s corpus. Ironically, of course, of the many fiction writers who began their careers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Farghali is probably the most like Mahfouz. His comparatively prolific output – six books of fiction in less than a decade, with the first, Bittijah Al-Maaqi (Towards the irises), appearing in 1997 – recalls Mahfouz’s steady, one might even say plodding, approach to writing. It is driven at least as much by patient daily toil as bouts of inspiration and epiphanies.
“I read Mahfouz for the first time when I was 13 years old. I started with The Cairo Trilogy and decided to finish off his complete works – a feat I had actually accomplished by the time I was 17. He is probably the only writer whose every work I read, rereading many of his books over and over, especially The Trilogy and The Harafish,” Mahfouz’s 1977 epic, “and so he occupies a gigantic space in my consciousness. I started writing in his shadow. I wrote excellent ‘Mahfouzian’ short stories which I subsequently tore up in order to rid myself of his direct influence and discover my own specific voice, but I was never free of the marks he made on me. He taught me the importance of structure, and I followed in his footsteps as regards the geometry of the text, before I finally rebelled against him to create my own structure.”
Even though eschewing politics is typical of his entire generation, Farghali’s mode of (not) engaging with society and/or politics, or neutralising the unfolding of history, is less like the so called Nineties Generation’s than Mahfouz’s. While Zikri, for example, remains painstakingly solipsistic, aggressively rejecting any allusion to society as a whole, and religiously ridding his work of any non-literary purpose, Farghali – like Mahfouz – is keen to preserve geographic locations, time frames and character types; he observes society from afar, subtly registering the relevant dynamics, suggesting a world which, though magical, is never unfamiliar.
Farghali concedes that some of Mahfouz’s characters – Amina, the matriarch of The Trilogy, for example – annoyed and repelled him, “but I do not judge Mahfouz’s characters in this text of mine,” which includes very frequent extended quotations from the Nobel laureate, “but rather meet them as they are, and conduct dialogues with them”, literally pulling them out of a particular moment in a given novel. “
“I liked the idea of creating an illusory yet extremely realistic world,” Farghali explains, “like the one he created in The Harafish. None of the things the things this novel talks about – like the strongmen with their clubs, or the tekkes – ever really existed, but he records them as if they were reality. He creates an alternative reality, an artistic and philosophical reality.” This, then, is what Egypt’s latest offspring of Cervantes can take from Mahfouz:
“I learned to conduct my love life from his characters; the heroes of his novels inspired me intellectually and in terms of my actual behaviour; and he inspired me in terms of writing, his complete independence from cliques and political parties and cultural mafias – and ideology,” the greatest anathema of the Nineties. “He taught me that you are not a writer unless you have to be independent even of the cliches of your own generation.” Farghali certainly is. “Mahfouz had charisma, he had presence, he is the only Arab writer who had a novelistic project in any sustained sense. He was well known for his manner of talking, his jokes and disciples, and his films, long before Nobel was ever on the horizon.”
Imagine, then, what it would mean for such a novelist – any Arab novelist, really, but especially such a one as Farghali – if the world were to wake up one morning to discover that every last copy of every last book by Mahfouz in the Arabic original has simply, without a trace, vanished off the face of the earth. Mahfouz’s books disappear not only from bookshops and libraries but from private collections, from bookshelves and bedside tables, from every place where they could conceivably be found.
This, basically, is the premise of Abnaa Al-Gabalwi, which nonetheless incorporates numerous other frameworks, notably the appearance of flesh-and-blood reincarnations of some of Mahfouz’s characters both in and outside their original settings, the government’s efforts to do what it can to have the books back – some people apparently know the texts by heart, others attempt to reconstruct them with the help of their knowledge of Mahfouz’s work from translations – and the very complex, gradual intermingling of the fictional world and the world to which it supposedly refers. There are not only characters but narrators, character narrators, doubles, triples, even quadruples. Subplots take on lives of their own, and there are multiple scenarios with a range of possible resolutions.
The fictional acrobatics are of such intensity they frequently if no doubt intentionally disrupt what suspension of disbelief the reader has managed to maintain, but they also undermine the book’s popular appeal and seem to have no purpose beyond themselves.
“The fictional acrobatics are an end in themselves” Farghali insists, “not a means to something else. You could put it down to taste. I like complexity in a novel. More than one time frame, more than one character, more than one voice. My wish is to alter my voice till it becomes a multiplicity of voices in the manner of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pesão, although of course there is a huge difference and I am still a student compared to him. I managed that somewhat in previous works, I created parallel time frames, but in general I totally incline towards this kind of layering. I like The God of Small Things, for example, for that same reason.”
As in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night’s a traveller (which is made up of novel openings), by the time you have turned the last page, you have read not a novel as such but a range of possible novels. More than any one character or story-line, you retain a sense of what an Arabic novel is, or what Farghali thinks it might be. More importantly, perhaps, you appreciate the disappearance of Mahfouz’s work as a metaphor for the general social-political malaise the book selectively and somewhat fitfully depicts: corruption, purposelessness, physical and mental repression, and the existential loss not only of the private but of the public self all come to mind. Mahfouz’s books stand in for Egypt and all it means.
“I think I am simultaneously preoccupied, as usual, with two projects,” Farghali outlines his usual plan. “I am not sure which of them my demons will take me to. I haven’t been able to gauge the response to Abnaa Al-Gabalwi yet, but I certainly feel that, in writing it, I have realised one of my greatest ambitions.”