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.