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Monday, 14 October 2019

Book Review: The Tent’s Door ... What happened to Egyptian journalists in the 1990s

It all started with an invitation to interview Libya's strongman, Muammar Gaddafi

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Friday 1 Feb 2019
Mahmoud El-Wardani
Mahmoud El-Wardani and the cover of his book The Tent's Door
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Bab El-Kheima (The Tent's Door), by: Mahmoud El-Wardani (Cairo: Dar Al Ain), 2018. 226 pp

A thought kept reoccurring while reading Mahmoud El-Wardani latest novel, “The Tent’s Door,” that this is not a novel, but rather a documentation of what happened to a whole of generation of leftist journalists from the 1990s through the first decade of the new millennium.

The story starts with an invitation to interview Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. The late leader had published a novel, entitled “The Village, the Village … the Land, the Land and the Astronaut’s suicide.” The title, as ridiculous as it was, puts any literary critic before a dilemma. Can one make an interview with the leader of a country about his novel and deal with him as a writer while he is in power? Asking tough questions about the message and style of a novel written by one known for his odd behaviour and unpredictable reactions; is it doable? 

The main character — a very capable journalist, Gamal Elsawy, who has been imprisoned for his political activities — refuses at first and then eventually accepts, especially that the trip meant spending a few days with a great poet and communist leader Abdel Rahman Sabaawy, a reincarnation of the great Ahmed Fouad Negm. The informed reader can tell from the scenes of welcoming the great poet in Libya, his obvious influence, in addition to the non-stop hash smoking, that Negm is the inspiration for Sabaawy’s character.

The narrator speaks about the characters and events in the third person while using flashbacks to introduce Gamal’s background, the work cycle in the newsroom, all the way to final print. This part of the novel shows how much of a great writer, editor and journalist El-Wardani is. The politics of running a news organisation is exposed in the novel: how the editor-in-chief uses the office boy as a stool pigeon, which give him powers over the journalists; the manipulation of journalists by the chief editor, who waste their time on assignments that he never publishes unless for personal benefit — corruption on the one hand, while destroying the talent of the staff in order to remain on top, on the other.

Here, the ploys used in the Mubarak era come to mind — the echoes are obvious. Yet El-Wardani's writing style remains neutral. While El-Wardani could have said more, and certainly in harsher tones, having both the experience and the information, the reader finds instead a sensitive hand, resisting the temptation to exact full blown revenge, and thereby exposing in greater nuance and impact what happened to an entire generation of writers.

El-Wardani brings further sensitivity into the novel via a communist activist who wrote a book about the student movement entitled “The Stillborn,” where she spilled the beans on the underground leftist movements in the 1970s and 1980s before she committed suicide in 1997. El-Wardani goes briefly into the book’s details, between the techniques of the secret underground to their capture and torture by the security apparatus, to the dissolution of the same movements, as if they were never there — a story of romantic revolutionaries whose lives were otherwise omitted from history. The novelist invites readers to be curious about these organisations.

The women in El-Wardani's novel are marginal to a great extent, but still romance finds its way in to El-Wardani’s world through an intense love relationship between Gamal and Dalal, a beautiful young secretary that appears in his life briefly, only to later disappear. Despite looking for her, Gamal is not able to find her before his trip to Libya. While unsatisfying to the reader, who surely wants to know more, El-Wardani leaves the episode there, for reasons undisclosed.

Finally, what is special about this novel? Skilful writers always combine substance and style. Good novels are page turners. El-Wardani in this novel is able to achieve both goals. In substance, providing an overview of an era the new generation of journalists did not see firsthand (how the print media was run, and the practices that led to them losing credibility by the end of Mubarak’s rule), and in style, keeping the reader on edge about an interview with a leader-cum-novelist who appeared to meld together the ominous and the absurd.

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