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Saturday, 29 November 2008

My Swift Thoughts on Egyptian Literature as Replayed from the Guardian Books Blog

November 29, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

*I wanted to replay my comments from the Guardian Books Blog over here, before I lost these lines for all time.

In the chunky hardback, Chicago, Alaa Al-Aswany, one of Egypt's modern writers wrote an expansive story on the Egyptian diaspora in America...the regrets, lamentations and failed political ambitions of history professors and students, housed in an academic setting in Chicago. He adopted strong-willed characters to competently trace storylines back to the heart of the Egyptian people's disgruntlement over their country'srepressed democracy, for which they would blame their President and be suitably lambasted by secret agents. The educational novel stayed a black comedy.

But while informative, I felt that Aswany drawn from an early bestselling success of The Yacoubian Building, wrote with amusing deliberation for the West. In this sense, he proved the excellent puppet-master, manouvering an assortment of characters back and forth with meticulous ease and armed with a scientific structure, aimed to entertain and please. With several political challenges set in his book - Jew measured against Arab - White against Black - liberal American households pitted against Cairo's gossipy neighbourhoods, the effect signalled a superficial political correctness, laced with neat ready formulas for a final resigned acceptance.

I say this because there is a marked difference with younger Egyptian writers writing for the West against several translated versions of the past, where the raw essence to Arabic fiction would be held as one of brooding instrospection and significantly philosophical. A sharp irony or wry humour is likely to pepper darker remembrances from the ravages of wars and stories of exile, and often used as a key weapon for any character's attempt at survival in painful circumstances.

I find many Arab writers in the Middle-Eastern world overall, guarded in their approach to literature. They write for themselves or their people. In this way, their novels serve as friendly diaries...there is no impression of a set agenda yearning for commercial success. They triumph as raconteurs.

Naguib Mahfouz is easily known but there are others who have lasted the course. Among these the distinguished scholar Taha Hussein who promoted women's liberation through his stories, Egypt's father of the short story, Mahmoud Tehmour (1894-1974) eg. Tales from Egyptian Life and the playwright, Tawfik al Hakim famed for verse dramas.

Yahya Hakki( 1905-92) was especially popular for his humorous short stories. He wrote several little tales for the peasantry in Upper Egypt because he considered those residents 'his beloved.' Hakki was labelled as one of the first writers of 20th century Egypt to lighten a mood through prose. His folklore although pure comedy reflected deep insight. In Story in the Form of a Petition, a man caught in wartime is measured for his wealth through his brand of cigarettes and lighters as he graduates to more expensive tastes.

In The Lamp of Umm Hashim, Ismail returns to Cairo after being trained in England as a doctor and immediately experiences a clash of cultures. For example, architecture of the East and West are critically compared afterwards and is fasting at Ramadan really necessary? Then there is the constant yearning for the Scottish countryside and a renewed longing for a fresh European escape.

Yahya Hakki who was a lawyer and worked in the diplomatic service, was also one of Egypt's first wave of new writers to to have drawn on two diverse cultures through his plots.

All these stories are readily available in English, thanks to perhaps one of the Middle-East 's pioneers of modern Arabic translations,Denys Johnson-Davis, who would in earlier years, use his own funds to help bring Arabic fiction to Western audiences.

One of the most famous publishers bringing Arab stories - including literature from Egypt to the West today has to be The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt.

Recently, Haus Publishing in London set up a new venture in Arabia Books, a wonderful innovative enterprise that now distributes translated literature once obscure from the Palestinian Territories, Tripoli or Beirut to the UK and Commonwealth countries.

On 11-11-08, Haus Publishing opened a book showroomwhich stocks a vast amount of translated Arabic fiction. (2 minute walk from Sloane Square Tube Station, London)

Egyptian novelist Baha Taher won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2008 - Booker - for Sunset Oasis.

Also, the famous Cafe Riche where Mahfouz met with writers in Cairo, has just reopened.


I forgot to add with regards to what I had written above, that Naquib Mahfouz was an early admirer of Yahya Hakiki's critical writings and of his short stories and for a time chose to work under him. Later, they were to remain close friends.

In fact, it was Mahfouz who wrote the introduction for Yahya Hakiki's collected Letters to his Daughter or which in Arabic meant Rasa'il Yahya Haqqi ila ibnatihi,.

If English novelists must be at all named as a yardstick for comparison to writers of Middle-Eastern literature than Hakiki's own translator Denys, Johnson-Davis has compared him to Kipling simply for their similarities in demonstrating that the East and West could and would never meet in a harmonious blend.

The difference seen between Mahfouz's writings and that of Hakiki's is that the latter loved expounding on colloqial language while Mahfouz had turned his back on the very idea though when his characters replayed themselves on screen, they would inherit once more, their natural voices.

It is also Yahya Hakiki who is acknowledged in Egypt today - as he had been by his fellow writers - as having laid the foundations for an Arabic literary renaissance in Egypt midway through the last century. Taha Hussein, a great man of letters, Yusuf Idris, Mahmoud Teymour and Tawfik al-Hakim all participated in the renaissance.

The writers I mention have all won literary or human rights awards. The prolific novelist and playwright, Yusuf Idris, had been nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature several times.

Many Arab writers stick to good old-fashioned storytelling as a whole and don't deter from this fact, which reinforces what I said earlier, at the end of the fourth paragraph: They triumph as raconteurs.


2 Middle-Eastern countries intent on producing new literature and translating old ones at a fast pace, currently include Beirut, Lebanon and Tehran, Iran.

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