A tribute to Egypt’s revolutionary novelist, Edwar El-Kharrat

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Tuesday 8 Dec 2015

El-Kharrat is considered one of the founders of the modern Arabic novel and short story as well as a pioneer of Arabic literature. He was also a prominent critic and translator

Edwar El-Kharrat
The late Edwar El-Kharrat

The great novelist Edwar El-Kharrat passed away last Tuesday, 1 December, leaving behind a diverse collection of more than sixty works ranging from short stories, novels, and autobiographies to literary and fine arts criticism and translations. He played a key role in renovating the Arabic novel and the short story and raised the banner of rebellion and revolution on previous templates. El-Kharrat supported new generations and introduced them to the literary life of the sixties up until the nineties.

Edwar El-Kharrat was born in Alexandria on 16 March 1926 to a poor Coptic family who moved to the north of the country from Upper Egypt. After his father's death in 1943, Edwar was obliged to work as an accounting clerk in the occupying British Army ordnance camps in Alexandria and later became a translator for a local newspaper while attending classes at the Faculty of Law.

During this period, Alexandria was one of the world's most open cities, vibrant with political and intellectual currents. The city witnessed the formation of different revolutionary leftist youth groups, including an underground Marxist Trotskyite group focused on workers and students, which El-Kharrat joined. He also formed a small political group that was influenced by Surrealism. It included Alfred Farag, Ahmed Morsi, Mustapha Badawi, and others who later became writers, artists, critics, and professors in the universities around the world.

In 1948, martial law was declared in Egypt due to the war in Palestine and the non-elected government, which was imposed by the king, seized the opportunity to arrest revolutionary youth groups who spoke out against the king and the government. Because of his involvement with various political youth groups, the 22-year-old El-Kharrat spent nearly two years in the Abu-Qir and El-Tur prisons from 1948 until 1950.

After being released and earning his law degree, El-Kharrat worked as a translator in the Romanian embassy in Cairo and later joined the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation since its foundation following the victory of national liberation movements and the formation of the worldwide Non-Alignment Movement. For over more than a quarter of a century, El-Kharrat, who occupied a distinguished position in the organisation and the affiliated Writers' Association, traveled around the globe, giving lectures about the organisation’s activities.

His first short story collection, High Walls, was published in 1959 when he was thirty-three years old, while the second collection entitled Pride Hours was printed thirteen years later. Despite the rave reviews with which critics led by Dr. Mohamed Mandour received his first collection, El-Kharrat stopped writing for eight years before writing his first novel Rama and the Dragon.

At the same time, he wrote tens of studies, essays, and critical follow-ups and played a significant role in ushering in the sixties’ generation. He helped publish the first independent cultural magazine for this generation, Gallery 68. He played the same role in upcoming generations with unprecedented vigor and efficiency.

His creative output can be divided into three stages, despite the long silences that punctuate each work. The first stage started with High Walls (1959), Pride Hours (1972), and Suffocations of Passion and the Morning (1983). In the second stage he wrote one of the most important experimental avant-garde Arabic novels, entitled Rama and the Dragon, which was followed by The Other Time. Both novels comprise variations on the same theme, events, characters, and time period.

The third stage of El-Kharrat’s work witnessed an unprecedented prolificacy, as he produced one or two books per year. This stage's output included O, Alexandria's Girls, Fleeting Longings Creatures, Breakthroughs of Fancy and Doom, Fire of the Imaginations, and My Alexandria as well as his critical works and translations.

El-Kharrat's works enjoyed critical interest and some of them were translated to seven European languages. He received many awards, decorations, Arab and international honours, including the Nile Prize for Literature, the Al-Owais Award For Fiction, the Cavafis Award Greek Studies and others.

El-Kharrat stopped publishing books eight years before his passing due to a severe struggle with illness that imposed upon him involuntary isolation and total withdrawal from writing and public appearances. Despite this, his creative output, his rebellious nature, and penchant for experimentation remains.

Farewell, Edwar El-Kharrat.

Short link: