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Tuesday, 07 July 2020

Book review: The Red Rooster's Head and other stories

Ahmed El-Khamisi continues to weave the threads of human emotion together exquisitely in his fourth collection of short stories

Reuters, Sunday 5 May 2013
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Ras al deek al ahmar (The Red Rooster's Head) by Ahmed El-Khamisi, Cairo: Al-Kotob Khan, 2012. 160pp.

In his new short stories collection, Egyptian writer Ahmed El-Khamisi nearly walks on a sword's edge, not allowing the protagonists of his stories to drag him into the innocence of romanticism nor letting them lose their life experience, able to weave brilliantly human emotions in beautiful language, despite the reality of the situations described.

The book includes 16 short stories, and is the fourth collection for El-Khamisi, following Canary that won the Sawiris Literary Award for 2011.

The largest of these stories, Flash, recites in 20 full pages the experience of a professor of physics at a university who faces a crisis after losing his wife, Rehab, and feels her spirit around him distracting him from anything and anyone. He wonders: "Why don't humans believe, like Rehab did, that spirits of those departing listen when they're spoken to? To what extent can the spirit stay and forever transform? Can the flash be a spirit ... is it Rehab reminding me ... knowing that her voice will reach me?" The sense of this flash increases until it materializes as a figure without a face, saying: "There must be a way for the spirit to cross the unknown distances to another spirit." The figure then shudders and fades away as the world of the husband crashes.

List for Forgetting, is a brief six-page story that summarises the contradictions and transparency of human feelings when a young boy decides to break up with his lover if she decides not to call before he reaches home. He lingers as he gets closer to give her a chance, but she never calls. In the house, he decides to write a list of all the memories between them so he can exclude them from his memory, and he starts telling his friend about their trip to the cinema once when he kissed her, reciting this as an instance that must be forgotten. A minute later an unexpected call comes and blows away the list and he rushes to meet her.

The Red Rooster's Head tells the story of a rooster that was beheaded and yet remembers his life with other roosters, praying for God to bring his head and body together again for one moment so he can escape by an open door. But the rooster attaching his hopes to the door realises too late that his body has started flying and has escaped through the window, gaining freedom the head never thought of. The depressed head listens to the floating wings, wondering: "This is I without me. How did that happen?"

In the introduction to the collection, entitled Writer and Writing, Egyptian writer Ibrahim Hamza tracks the story of Ahmed El-Khamisi from his first collection, Passion, published in 1965 and introduced by Mahmoud El-Saadany and Yussuf Idriss. "Usually, criticism sheds light on the creative work, but the reader of Ahmed El-Khamisi feels that the text enlightens the criticism," he concludes.

The back cover for the book includes a word for the Egyptian translator, Abu-Bakr Youssef, describing the work as a diamond of power and purity that drives tears and tenderness.

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