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Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher: Glimpses in autobiography

Biography in Exile focuses on Taher's self-imposed exile in Europe after the late President Anwar Sadat launched a repressive campaign against the Left in 1971

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 8 Mar 2017
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Al-Sira fi Al-Manfa (Biography in Exile) by Bahaa Taher, Bardia Publishing and Masr El-Arabia Publishing, Cairo, 2017. 137 pp.

Typically novelists who decide to write their memoirs don't opt to dictate them. This unusual approach is the one taken by Bahaa Taher with his latest book, titled Biography in Exile. This offering has drawn the broad outlines of what may be a more comprehensive autobiography.

Biography in Exile was dictated to a young man named Adham Al-Aboudy, who is from Luxor, Taher’s birthplace. According to the introduction penned by Taher, Al-Aboudy isn’t simply a close friend but is rather akin to a son. Al-Aboudy has indicated that the memoir is drawn from a "long recording which lasted for hours and hours." He adds: "My only role was to transcribe the recording to paper. He narrated to me an eloquent literary text, though he did so using an oral tradition."

The author is one of the most prominent members of Egypt's 1960s literary generation. He has written novels, short story collections and translations, and has received a number of prestigious awards, including the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (known as the "Arabic Booker"). His stature over the course of his career has brought his works to the attention of international publishers. Many have been translated, often into several languages.

Perhaps the most defining experience of the author's life was his self-imposed exile in Europe after the late President Anwar Sadat launched a repressive campaign against the Left in 1971. The focus of this campaign was on the media, and Taher was fired from his work as Deputy Head of the Cultural Programme, for many years an influential radio programme. Taher was also prevented from writing and publishing. Due to his newly inhospitable conditions, Taher decided to emigrate. He subsequently became a translator at the United Nations European HQ in Switzerland. He was estranged from his homeland for more than quarter of a century.

Biography in Exile focuses on this period, during which the real and figurative significance of Taher's alienation occupied a central place. During his period in exile he first became acquainted with a colleague named Stifka, a Russian translator he would fall in love with and marry. Despite the marriage, when Taher ultimately returned to Cairo from exile he did so alone. Taher indicates that Stifka preferred to continue in her work, so they arranged instead to live together between Cairo and Geneva. Stifka worked for another ten years at UNESCO HQ. Upon retirement she settled with Taher in Cairo.    

Throughout the nineteen short chapters, Taher spoke to Al-Aboudy in conversation. This atypical style of dictation meant that the work did not cohere as memoirs typically do, using a more traditional narrative structure or time sequence. There is deliberate silence concerning certain aspects of Bahaa’s personal life, such as his former marriage and two daughters. He is also silent on certain aspects of his public life, such as the Culture Ministry intellectuals’ sit-in which hastened the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. He further forgoes extensive detail of his creative experiences. Taher passes over these matters with quick hints and little more.

As for the writer’s childhood, Taher elaborately evokes it for the first time. His father, who studied in Al-Azhar and graduated from the Faculty of Dar Al-Uloom, Cairo University, was appointed a teacher and due to this spent long years moving from one place to another until he settled in Giza. This is the place in which Taher spent his childhood and youth. The writer’s mother was keen to pay short visits to Luxor annually. If the relationship between Bahaa’s family and his birthplace was marred by distance and almost severed, the writer was eager to catch any opportunity to revive his relationship with Al-Karnak, his family’s birthplace.

Several years ago Taher donated a small piece of land on which a cultural palace was built and inaugurated with the author in attendance. He has expressed his immense joy at this event in words that combine sorrow and childish innocence. Taher appears to consider this event one of the most important in his life.

It is noteworthy that Biography in Exile brings a light touch to the incidents of the January Revolution. Taher joined the uprising immediately after it broke out and witnessed firsthand the subsequent unfolding of events. His lack of commentary is astonishing. Even more astonishing is that he makes no mention of the intellectuals’ sit-in that lasted for a whole month, and at which he was one of the primary participants.

Finally, the reader will notice that there is a mystic sense that permeates the lines of Biography in Exile. This has given the work a special unity, as if it is a slightly extended memory of years in which he has lived through and novels and short stories he was dedicated to.

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