Alaa El-Deeb passed away dreaming of composing poetry until his last ‎breath

Mahmoud Al-Wardani, Thursday 25 Feb 2016

The world lost a prodigious talent with the passing of Alaa El-Deeb, a master of words and a towering Egyptian influence on Arab literature

Alaa El-Deeb
Alaa El-Deeb

The late great writer Alaa El-Deeb, who passed away recently, spent ‎almost his last three months in the intensive care unit in Al-Maadi Military ‎Hospital, Cairo, engaged in a ferocious battle with an illness to which ‎he did not succumb easily. During this period, he was mostly in a coma, and ‎whenever he did awake he soon returned to it.‎

It is certain that Arab literature has suffered a devastating loss with the ‎passing of Alaa Al-Deeb, especially since he used to write — until his last days — the longest running literary column in Arab journalism, which started in the ‎1960s. This focused and brief column was titled "Book ‎Juice" and was published up until his death. 

From another perspective, El-Deeb played a number of roles in Arab literary ‎life. He was one of the sons of Sabah El-Kheir magazine, one of the ‎most important Arab journalistic experiences and the little sister of Rosa El-‎Youssef magazine — the first and foremost defender of freedom. Great writers ‎and artists helped to found Sabah El-Kheir, such as Hassan Fouad, ‎Salah Jaheen, then Fathi Ghanem, who along with others made it one of the most ‎prominent journalistic endeavours, in its openness and celebration of youthful ‎new experiences.‎

Alaa El-Deeb, who was born in Cairo in 1939, joined the magazine after ‎graduation from the Faculty of Law in 1960 and became one of its knights. His ‎first published work was a short story collection titled Cairo in 1964 (it ‎included the eponymous novella, which was published afterwards separately in ‎several editions). Then he published five short story collections that were ‎characterised with compactness, sobriety and avoidance of ‎sentimentality. If the number of the collections seems small, it bore a highly ‎artistic value. We can even say that El-Deeb strongly contributed in paving the ‎way for the works of the 60s generation — that generation that emerged ‎after the 1967 defeat.‎

El-Deeb was unique in his aesthetic achievement in the novella format, where ‎he published six novellas since 1964, which are, respectively, Cairo, Lemon ‎Flowers, Rosy Days, Children without Tears, A Moon over the Swamp, ‎Violet Eyes and Formation. Without any exaggeration, they are considered ‎one of the most influential series in Arab literature. About choosing this format of writing, ‎El-Deeb wrote in an introduction for one of the editions: ‎‎“I chose the novella because I wished to persuade the reader to hear all what I ‎want to say in one time, one sitting. I didn’t hesitate in the face of what it takes ‎concerning condensing language. I still dream that poetry meets me at the end ‎of my life.” He added: “The mere question about feasibility remains. The ‎feasibility of this attempt, which lasted all my lifetime, in the light of the human, ‎social and economic circumstances I’m living and all the Arabs are living ‎through. The personal and the universal have been mixed in my mind in an ‎inescapable way." 

He also added: “In the three first novels, two catastrophes ‎dominate the horizon, which all the world’s delights didn’t let me abandon ‎or let leave from me for one single moment: the major Arab ‎defeat in 1967 and the vanquishment of socialism, locally and abroad, and what ‎this has represented in destroying justice and human dignity. As for the ‎following three novels, they are dominated by the black gold — the oil, the ‎money of which entered our Egyptian lives in a critical time, doing what it did."

One of the most significant achievements of El-Deeb across six ‎decades was his weekly column in which he introduced tens of ‎writers, predicting promising careers for them and writing critiques of ‎their literary mark. The column moved with him from Sabah El-Kheir to Al-‎Kahira magazine, to stay eventually in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, for which ‎he kept writing until shortly before his death. El-Deeb didn’t republish ‎any of that work, so much remains to be complied, ready in having been edited and needing no introduction. ‎

Among El-Deeb's other contributions are his translations of a large number of literary ‎works of Hemingway, Beckett, Miller, and others.

These were the broad lines of El-Deeb’s journey that lasted ‎77 years.‎

Farewell, Alaa El-Deeb.

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