Sitting in his living room puts the downtown Cairo building into perspective, as if time had stood still but had kept busy by maintaining the spirit of the ancient building. As the minutes tip-toe by, the renowned Egyptian cultural figure and novelist Khaled al-Khamisi explains that “it's as if I had been born in 1930."
Al-Khamisi is a novelist famous for his first novel Taxi, which was a bestseller, sold over 75,000 copies in Arabic, was reprinted seven times in one year, was translated into many languages, and was even turned into a play a few years ago. However, it took al-Khamisi some 15 years to realise that his true passion in life was writing.
"Of all the activities I have done in my life, I have never loved anything as much as writing," he says.
Born in 1962 to Egyptian actress Fatin al-Choubashi and left-wing poet Abdel-Rahman al-Khamisi, who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1979, Khaled al-Khamisi grew up in a rich cultural milieu. After the tragic death of his mother when he was only five years old, he moved in to live with his grandparents whose impact was immense on the young boy.
"My grandfather was born in 1899 and my grandmother in 1910, so I grew up as if I had been born in 1930. My grandfather used to refer to boats as wabour al-bahr (an old Arabic term) and trains as wabour, and so I was raised against a cultural background that belonged to the 1930s and 40s,” he recalls.
The open door
But being in a left-wing cultural atmosphere did not ease the drastic transformation that Egypt witnessed during the 1970s, when late president Anwar al-Sadat introduced his free-market Open Door Policy and the socio-economic conditions of the country changed.
"I was born in 1962, one year after former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s nationalisations. I attended college in 1980, and one year later there was al-Sadat’s wave of arrests of almost all the country’s political figures. A month later al-Sadat was assassinated, and former president Hosni Mubarak started to rule when I was in my second year of college," al-Khamisi remembers.
“As a result of al-Sadat’s political and economic reforms from 1972 onwards most of our family and friends fled the country. And there I was living with my grandparents in a world apart from the political and economic scene of the day. I felt a great sense of non-belonging as a result, whether economic or political.”
Feeling out of place haunted al-Khamisi for years, but it triggered a great sense of adventure and a passion for endless searches. After gaining his degree in Political Science from Cairo University in 1984, al-Khamisi travelled to Paris to do a Masters and PhD at the Sorbonne. But before submitting his PhD thesis in international politics he realised he did not want to pursue an academic career and so came back to Cairo in 1990.
He had already written his first film script entitled "Turquoise" starring the actress Yousra and actor Ashraf Abdel-Baqi. However, the Egyptian cinema industry that year was hit hard and film production was down from 70 films to seven. The film was never shot.
"What was I going to do in a society that was totally different from what I was thinking about at the time,” he asks. That question was central to al-Khamisi’s relationship to Egyptian society. His estrangement helped him raise questions rather than answer them. This attitude in itself broke the mould of many Egyptian cultural figures who are expected to have most of the answers. Pursuing his passion within the cultural realm, al-Khamisi then tried out many paths over the years.
He founded a publishing house in the early 1990s called Nosos (scripts) that published books by literary figures such as Louis Awad and Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. Al-Khamisi also published one of Egypt's first feminist magazines, Hagar. He was the first to publish an environmental magazine in Egypt, even if there was not enough funding to maintain this after 1995. Al-Khamisi then became a francophone cinema consultant and co-founded APIMED, the International Association of Independent Producers of the Mediterranean.
Zaza wa Gargir
"I also co-founded a utopian project in the shape of public libraries in underprivileged districts, and this went on for two years. I produced the first 3D graphic fiction series in the Arab world entitled Al-Mohema Ard 21 (Mission Earth 21),” he adds, remarking that he also produced one of the few Egyptian animation series for kids. Called Zaza wa Gargir, this was awarded the Best Children’s Series Prize by the Cairo Festival for Arab Media in 2007.
Later, al-Khamisi was faced with another barrier, when the government did not support his idea to produce a television series to document key Arab figures from the 20th century, among them the composer Said Darwish and politician Saad Zaghloul. The series, entitled "Farewell 20th Century," was never filmed because the government did not see any monetary profit in it.
Taxi fifteen years later
These 15 years of self and social exploration fed into al-Khamisi's first work of fiction, Taxi. The book summed up Egyptian society through the eyes of Cairo taxi-drivers, whose wit and sense of humour brought the social history of Egypt into the light of day. Taxi was an instant bestseller and was soon followed by more literary works such as Noah's Ark (2011) and another unpublished novel.
Doum cultural foundation
In 2013, al-Khamisi set up Doum. This is a non-profit foundation cultural foundation that aims to support critical thinking through creating cultural materials that can reach the largest to break away from the cultural centralisation of the country in Cairo and Alexandria. It works in five main areas – publishing, performance, music, cinema, and the visual arts. On the 8th of January, Doum culture hosts “Self Exploration”, a visual art exhibition by Assuit Artist Emad Abu Grain. This is a unique experience of exploring such rich cultural heritage of the upper Egyptian governoarate through the eyes of the artist. I used to watch Abu Grain give free painting classes to children of Assuit every Friday,”noted El-Khamisi explaining how he was impressed to see this young artist support younger artists as well.
"I've always asked myself why are people focused on political development without seeing the importance of culture and knowledge? Why aren’t there more institutions working on the audience and on intellectual grounds,” he asks.
"The problem with Egyptian society is that its concept of an intellectual is a person who has all the answers. This is nonsense. A person is not a hard disc.
The idea is to fight isolation
Doum organised several cultural activities in the shape of art exhibitions, story-telling festival held in Qena in Upper Egypt that brought together folk story-tellers from all over Egypt and an annual literary festival in Mansoura in the Delta “The idea is to fight isolation.”
As chairman of the board of the Greater Cairo Public Library since 2014, al-Khamisi's interest today in raising question marks and putting facts into a more comprehensive cultural context has been evident in all the activities he promotes.