A slow and lengthy walk through Cairo’s convoluted and intriguing corridors of literary life in Cairo, starting from the 1970s and onwards, would perhaps be the shortest way to describe the most recent non-fictional volume of renowned novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid.
El-Ayam El-Helwa Faqat – Maa El-Oudabaa reads exactly like the novelist speaks: a very smooth flow of short, albeit well-connected, sentences that keep the audience as informed as intrigued – more often smiling than not.
At the first glance the book might come across as a long and extended article on the making of some of the most celebrated names of the literary scene in Cairo during the past five decades. However, the book offers much more. In effect, it is a non-factional partial memoir of Abdel-Meguid’s introduction in the writing and publishing business, from the very early years when he left his hometown Alexandria – the celebrated jewel of his most enchanting trilogy – until the early months of 2020 before he submitted the book to the publisher.
In 230 pages, the author cares less to assume any moral grounds or to appease anyone. He is just telling his story that comes in bits and pieces through the corridors of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture and the maze of associate cultural agencies and through the roads and crossroads of writers and critics, with all their love-hate relations.
Naguib Mahfouz, Bahaa Taher, Naguib Sorour, Amal Donkol, Khairy Shalabi and whoever was a big name on Egypt’s literary scene during the past 50 years somehow makes an appearance, short or long, in Abdel-Meguid’s latest title – and it is always in relation to an encounter or many with the author himself.
Abdel-Meguid, as the title promises, is almost strictly sharing the good memories that brought joy and laughter into his life. He recalls his early days in Cairo where he shared rooms or apartments with friends, his long chats with authors around the well-frequented bars and bistros of choice for Cairo’s literary community, and of course a dip of his personal life.
The book, which could perhaps be described as a piece of social biography, is beautifully anecdotal. There are amazing chats from the encounters with writers and intellectuals that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for 30 years prior to the 2011 January Revolution, used to have every year in January upon the opening of the book fair. There is the day when Abdel-Meguid is rushed out of a Radio studio in Cairo, where he had come to record a reading of a recent piece of his writings, because the October 1973 War had just started and all the radio time is dedicated for war news coverage. And there are the endless anecdotes of his literary travels, where his identity as an Egyptian always brought in questions about Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Egypt’s most famous actors.
This said, Abdel-Meguid’s book is an eye-opener about the dynamics of publishing in Egypt, at the state-run and private houses, in the last half century. It is also a reminder of the ailments of politics in Egypt during the successive reigns of Nasser, Anwar El-Sadat and Mubarak.
While sharing this very generous flow of memories, Abdel-Meguid is also sharing glimpses of his favourite music, at least what he listened to while writing the book.
The limited selection of photos that come at the very end of the book, all in black and white, offers a visual shade to the history of an intense journey that Abdel-Meguid walked ever so lightly, or so he said.