Dive deep into Ibrahim Aslan's world

Sayed Mahmoud, Wednesday 11 Jan 2012

The renown Egyptian novelist, who passed away last week, left his mark on Egyptian literature, from his personality as well as his writing

Ibrahim Aslan

The sudden departure of famous Egyptian writer Ibrahim Aslan has taken a while to sink in, yet it's not fully registered yet for his family; his two sons Hesham and Shady as well as his wife, whom he termed Um Hesham (Hesham’s mother), in many of his writings.

This small family has a heavy legacy to deal with - a legacy that does not involve any financial issues, as the late writer has neither bank accounts nor real estate, but rather a few papers that summarise his entire literary experience.

The legacy in question here is mainly concerned with the drafts of his unpublished works, which he had never committed to publishing. He used to doubt every word, describing his cautious approach as “an art of omitting.”

People close to Aslan knew that he had already finished writing two main texts, Tamareen Ala Al-Ibtessam (Smiling Exercises) and Mashahed Hawl Sour Qadeem (Scenes From Around an Old Fence). These came as second phase to his last published short story collection, Hogreteen Wa Salla (Two Rooms and a Hall), a collection that meditated on the nature of life in an old couple’s house after their children had married and they had become lonely.

Aslan, author of Wardeyet Leil (Nightshift), wrote a weekly column at Al-Ahram daily newspaper for eight years, none of which were censored except for one written last January about Mohammed Boazizi, the man who ignited the revolution in Tunisia when he set fire to himself.

Aslan never took advantage of this censorship, which could have turned him into a hero, and simply published the column in Al-Hayat newspaper, which is printed in London. He never took advantage of his refusal of an invitation to meet the then-president, Hosni Mubarak, shortly before he stepped down; Aslan had claimed that he was sick, when in fact he spent all night in a café in downtown Cairo with his friends, mocking the idea of meeting a dictator.

 The writer was involved these last years in many protests and movements. The night he met Mohamed ElBaradei, the potential presidential candidate, he said: “he’s a rational man; we would be lucky if he agreed to become our president.”

Through his weekly column, Aslan managed to re-establish the art of the literature article, an art that had been neglected, in his view, since the death of Yahia Haqqy, the late Egyptian author and the man whom Aslan considered to be the “summit” of writing.

Aslan weaved his last writings from his articles in Al-Ahram, including Kholwat Al- Ghalban (The Poor’s Sanctum) and Shaimen Haza Al-Qabeel (Something of the Sort), as well the books he didn’t manage to publish during his life.

In these writings, Aslan freed himself from forms and kept only his unique, elegant style, thus succeeding in reaching different levels of society, especially those of humbler backgrounds. His long residence in Imbaba, the working-class Cairene neighbourhood, inspired the character Sheikh Hosny in his iconic novel Malek Al-Hazeen (The Heron), later turned into a very successful movie.

Believing that writing is the art of omitting, he used to say, “I don’t want to write what the reader already knows; it’s always better to omit everything he would expect.”

The lesson that writing was the art of omitting was taught from his preferred writer Ernest Hemingway, but the real source for his linguistic economy was Yahia Haqqy's literature, from whom he learnt to constantly search for sources for inspiration outside of literature, leading Aslan to learn about cinema and visual arts among other things.

The Early Days

Aslan started self-education early on; he had never received formal schooling due to his family’s circumstances, and had to work in a public service organisation, where he met friends who discovered and encouraged his talent.

 Mario Vargas LIosa would have termed this phase “switching the talent from a literary tendency to a profession.” During this phase of the 1960s, Aslan completed his first stories, compiled in Youssef wa al Redaa (Youssef and the Robe), and Bohayrat Al Masaa (The Night Lake). Glimpses of his experience at the post office can be traced in his short novella,  Wardeyet Leel (Nightshift), and Kholwat Al- Ghalban (The Poor’s Sanctum).

Later, he worked in communication services including telephone and telegraph, and found himself in an organisation where talk required money; not a single word passed for free. At the end of the shift they did a compilation of the number of words throughout the day.

At the telegraph counter, Aslan received customers who were sending telegraphs outside the country; they were different in every way, yet as soon as they reach the counter, all of them, including the illiterate, become eloquent enough to come up with the shortest possible message. Each word sent was very costly, and they wished to send as much information as possible in as few words as possible.

Aslan referred to this entire experience in writing later on at Al-Ahram. For nearly 15 years, Aslan worked the nightshift at the organisation, overlooking Ramsis Street and Galaa Street from the fourth floor. "I knew those who stayed awake like me from the lit windows of the distant buildings. I established relationships with some of them, and learnt through the years that a dark window belongs to someone on holiday."

During the foundational years, Aslan later wrote, he was reading the great authors, skipping anyone below. He read Dostoyevsky, Durant and others. In this warm environment, Aslan found someone to save his talent, rescuing it from the dungeons of bureaucracy. He is probably the only author recommended by Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote a special letter for the “sabbatical leave department” of the Ministry of Culture, to ensure he got time off to devote to literature. Mahfouz included in his letter that Aslan was "a gifted artist. His writings testify to a unique talent and a great future."

Interestingly enough, this leave is what drove him to write novels, as he explained. "Mahfouz had an interest in the short stories I published, until he noticed my absence from the Friday gathering [the weekly gathering of Mahfouz and his friends] and discovered that it was due to my work on the night shift, and so he rushed to write the recommendation to give me the leave.

“I was granted leave for one year. News appeared in the newspapers that Ibrahim Aslan was on leave to write a novel. I corrected the news, insisting that I was a short storY writer, then I realised that such leave is only granted for writing a novel, a play or long research. So I figured, okay, since I got the leave, there's no problem now. I'll write a novel. But since I wasn't a novelist, I decided to just call it a book. And this is what I took into consideration: a book that doesn't belong to the usual novel styles."

From humans to places; Imbaba, and especially the Kitkat area within that district, occupy a significant spot in Aslan's writing. "I cannot write without feeling the geography of the place," he noted.

In his book, Something of the Sort, which tells of his departure to Moqattam nearly five years ago, he wrote that: "I'm being torn from Imbaba the way dry but living bark is taken off a tree and planted in another."

Aslan's old apartment in Imbaba is still there; he left his library intact as an excuse to keep returning to the place whenever he wished. It's certain that Aslan has indeed honoured the area of Imbaba through his books such as Malik Al Hazeen (The Heron), Asafeer Al Neel (Nile Birds) and Hekayat Fadlallah Osman (Stories of Fadlallah Osman), registering its details forever. Then came the brilliant movie, Kitkat, inspired by The Heron, and directed by Daoud Abdel-Sayed, giving this whole history a visual identity that holds strong against time, and adding to the book the dimension Aslan always looked for, for though Aslan was a writer, his memory was visual.

In a recent interview, Aslan commented that: "My struggle with writing is that I strive against the act of writing. I don’t want you to feel that you're reading, but to make you see, hear and smell...I try to turn the scene into a visual scene, and this is the secret of Aslan that cannot be revealed."

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