Youssef Rakha: The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt


By Youssef Rakha

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.

Not that Mahfouz is particularly guilty of any of this, but ideas that Egyptian writers have about themselves are enough to destroy any real-life text, even though they—the ideas—tend to be entirely fictitious: the need to represent the nation (more often an Arab or Islamic than an Egyptian nation), the privilege of speaking for and/or to the people, the ability to weave an ideological narrative into some account of history… Obsessive themes that go with these ideas feature the (post) colonial conspiracy to bring down the homeland, the Palestinian cause, the glory of the peasantry, and the wickedness of governments. And, aside from an unhealthy aversion to artifice, when these themes and the ideas that inform them are combined with the stylistic zeitgeist that has prevailed since the sixties—the preference for poetic flourish over narrative force, excessive attention to language at the expense of content, laziness posing as economy of means, structural and factual lack of rigor—they deprive the Arabic novel of a readership at home (compared, for example, to books of religious and sex advice, political analysis, or scandalous memoir).

All this enters my mind when I read Mahfouz saying “coming from the third world… the peace of mind.” But, instead of the actual third world and the difficulties it might present for a serious novelist—who to write for, where to publish, and by what standard to measure success—I think of a literary third world invented and maintained by Egyptian writers alone: a universe of mediocrity that feeds on its own irrelevance, a democracy of the unremarkable. And this is a realm I categorically refuse to belong to, however much I might draw on Arabic writing of the recent or the distant past, combining it with other sources in the framework of the contemporary novel. There is a pompous and patriotic village barely marked on the space-time map of human civilization, but while I have everything to do with Egypt and with the literary genre in which I work, I have nothing at all to do with that village. My conviction is that, rather than an Egyptian novelist, I am a novelist who is Egyptian. It’s a difference that matters, too, for instead of the voice of any people or the conscience of any nation, I see myself as someone who—like others around the planet, unlike many in Egypt—tries to make sense of the world through a well-known epistemological exercise called the novel; and it shouldn’t matter much which part of the world I know enough to write about.

This exercise, I would argue, had always been multicultural when, with the help of translators and the publishing industry, it “went global” along lines parallel if not altogether very comparable to the phenomena of the media, social networking and pop. Amitav Ghosh, Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, Umberto Eco, Victor Pelevin and the late Roberto Bolaño: each writes in a different language, each uses for subject matter the reality of a different part of the world, but I can read (and in theory be read by) all seven, thanks less to globalization as such, I would argue, than to the nature of the work they engage in and the languages that, through other languages, they share. The novel may be a very different kind of creature in each case but it remains part of an ongoing conversation that, though first heard in the Iberian peninsula, whence it began to spread all across Europe—from the American colonies to the hinterlands of Russia—eventually ended up becoming, like the automobile, the suit and tie, or this notebook computer, a contemporary object. Far from any other exclusive or defining identity, the novel’s nationality is contemporary.

I should not have to point out that, even in the world’s richest and most stable countries—what is more—serious novelists often have difficulty finding the financial peace of mind to do their work. If the idea of the actual third world not producing novelists is posited by a literary third world in Egypt that refuses to take part in the novel as a global epistemological exercise on the pretext that it has its own inferior identity, then it must be that there is a different grain of truth in what Mahfouz is saying; otherwise it wouldn’t bother me. And I think that grain of truth is the possibility that being from the third world does present the novelist with an ontological problem over and above the technical difficulties of publication, translation and, especially, readership: problems that exist equally—perhaps to a significantly lesser extent, but still—in places where the names of the best-known Arab novelists were unknown in 1988 and where it apparently makes sense to wonder in amazement how it came to be that human beings with a 1,500-year-old literary tradition who live in the contemporary world should ever have the nerve to consider writing novels.

I think of the word “village,” with which I described a literary community of which I don’t want to be part, and I think I did so because I feel the one necessary condition for the novel is an urban consciousness. It seems to me the only thing that sets the novel apart from creation myths, folk tales, or prose poems is awareness of the city—any form of conurbation where it is possible to be lost, a large and crowded place with a history, with roads, crime, commerce, and ports of call, but also, in a sense, a place of contemporary consciousness: a privacy- and anonymity-respecting space of architectural and peripatetic excess, of (post) modern ethics and ennui—and, even when it has a provincial setting and characters unaware of urban modes of behavior, even when its writer lives and works in the countryside, the novel is still a book that emerges out of such a place. It is a response to the existence of the city, an answer to the question of what it means to be a human being in the city’s shadow, and its success depends on the novelist’s understanding of how city-ness, which I suppose is my way of saying “modernity,” changes people over time.

It therefore makes sense that Mahfouz’s remark should remind me that the one thing I share with him, the city of Cairo—though in many ways an incontrovertible metropolis—often lacks the contemporary consciousness with which cities are supposed to seal their vastness and hence some of the space in which they produce and consume novels. More often than not Cairo comes across as a giant village lacking the modicum of order and urbanity that makes cities what they are, and so producing novels from and about Cairo requires a certain stretch of the imagination or at least a personal restructuring of immediate history: memories of times in the past or in the future when Cairo could seem more like a city; eclectic aspects of the capital that, recombined, yield a modern city image; accounts of life in small and more or less isolated urban communities (so made by virtue of class, culture or simply rebelliousness) that live within the otherwise provincial oceans of humanity that make up this mega-small town…

It may be that the Cairo literary community has a point, then, however ideology-ridden is its way of making it. The nightmare of history that James Joyce spoke of trying to awake from is particularly terrifying where modernity went wrong in essential as well as merely interesting ways. A large part of Cairo’s reality is premodern; and the nightmare is indeed one of lack and deprivation in the sense that the novelist cannot take that reality as it is. The true novelist, I mean—not the prose poet or the memoir writer posing as a novelist—cannot write novels of Cairo, or perhaps what I’m saying is that Cairo is not city enough to produce novels; because I don’t mean that I have to tell lies about my place of residence, although of course it is factual lies that make up the truth of fiction. I mean that I am forced to look away from the all-too-provincial center of city life and seek my Cairo in the mental, moral, ethical and geographic peripheries. If ever you visit Egypt, therefore, make sure you look for me there, where you are sure to find me at rest with my novels.

Kenyon Review Blog, August 30, 2013