Khairy Shalaby: Storyteller of the underworld remembered

Mary Mourad , Sunday 5 Feb 2012

Bahaa Taher and Salah Fadl celebrate their friend and special contributor to Arabic literature, the late Khairy Shalaby

Khairy Shalaby
Khairy Shalaby (Photo: Al-Ahram)

No one is better retelling stories about the late renowned writer Khairy Shalaby than Bahaa Taher, one of his best friends. In a session held in commemoration of the great novelist at the Cairo International Book Fair, writer and critic Salah Fadl along with Taher retraced memories and offered their analysis of Shalaby's contributions to Arab literature. Coming but days after the Port Said football massacre, Taher and Fadl wondered who should be mourned in this sad moment.

"Writers should never be mourned, for they live on and their life purpose continues through their writings, surviving long after they depart our world," Fadl said at the opening of the session, underlining that honouring past figures shouldn't only entail chatting about their characters, but should also be a critical view of their real lives with their writings at the centre.

According to Fadl, what was most unique about Shalaby was his ability to write equally well about the world of villages as the world of cities, in both cases bringing to the fore the most marginalised and least fortunate of their respective inhabitants. As it turned out, Shalaby had rented an apartment on the outskirts of Maadi, close to the cemeteries, where he was able to observe daily life, its miseries as well as its capacity to endure and continue onwards. Shalaby's own life was testimony to great challenges, all of which helped to develop his talents in distinct ways.

As a young villager, Shalaby encountered the tradition of storytelling, listening to some of its greatest exponents. From among many writers who had the same experience, Fadl described Shalaby as "the true heir to this authentic art." Such an art doesn't merely centre around telling a story, one most likely known well by the audience. It includes blending poetry, song and rich imagery to attract the audience and keep them until the very last word. Shalaby's life gave him an edge in all of these elements.

Since he wasn't able to continue his education for the teaching certificate, Shalaby had to head to a distant city, Alexandria, making a living selling things in the metro or on buses. To bring attention to his wares, Shalaby made little rhymes to sing the merits of the items on sale, bringing attention to the young seller who may otherwise not have been noticed, practicing poetry and a certain lightheartedness. Shalaby told Fadl that much later, in a Cairo public bus, he witnessed a young boy selling things and singing Shalaby's own rhymes, to his greatest surprise and delight.

Bahaa Taher picked up the thread of memories from this point, remembering with deep affection that Shalaby's son was named Bahaa after Taher, testiment to the deep link between the two friends. For Taher, Shalaby's contributions weren't only the stories, but his studies and investigations into memory, as well as his impressive portraits that represent a landmark in Arabic literature.

Starting with the investigations, Taher explained that Shalaby's hobby was spending hours at the Azbakeya Wall with sellers of used books, flickering through the enormous piles of books and papers, looking for gems that he eventually used for his various writings, including those on Taha Hussein and Mustafa Kamel.

Shalaby's stories, Taher explained, didn't only stop at fiction, but reached a level where reality was mingling with fiction to the extent that nobody knew the reality in his stories about friends, as he used to fill in the spaces with his rich imagination, even within his written portraits.

"We should also reward writers when they're alive, not only after they pass away," Taher said, telling of the injustice done to Shalaby who remained unknown for a very long time, though his writings are unequalled. As sensitive as Shalaby was, Taher recalls a time when they fell out because Taher wrote a dedication in one of his books to fellow writers but didn't include Shalaby's name, reflecting the deep sense of injustice that accompanied him.

Shalaby's sensitivity to society and the roots of the poor was the topic of a long discussion. Taher explained here that although Shalaby wasn't educated in philosophy or psychology, his works represent a world rich in social interactions, and that "many of his works are full of human psychology and social analysis beyond any scientist." Taher referred to Shalaby's portrait of women in Upper Egypt, traditionally shown as weak and oppressed, while in reality Upper Egypt is a matriarchal society where the mother is the one who determines what is to be done with money, farm land, and marriages, while regarded in the society as the keeper of memories and heritage. Indeed, Taher continued, "Scientists themselves referred to literature, such as Freud's reference to Oedipus and to Dostoyevsky's work."

On another note, Taher explained that despite Shalaby's own suffering and poverty, he never became a pessimist unable to see beauty or hope, but rather maintained a healthy outlook on life. As for his deep comfort in his favourite writing spot near the cemeteries, Taher regarded that as his link with his ancestors — an unexplainable feeling that their souls are all around and giving him inspiration.

Shalaby's only deficiency, from Fadl's standpoint, was his lack of knowledge of any other language, which not only limited his sphere of references to Arabic or translated material, but also separated him from the world of translators and foreign publishing, leaving only very few of his books in translation.

Yet Taher regarded this as a merit not a deficiency, as it prevented him from developing any undue fascination with the outside world while keeping him immersed in his characters and close to the ground. As for the limited translations of his work, Taher regarded this as a result of the deep authenticity in his work that doesn't meet the Orientalist view of literature — often the reason why semi-talented writers get translated while many of the best works never make it into another language.

"Did Shalaby have to live through all the experiences he retold, and live with his characters to draw them in such close and intricate details?" Fadl wondered, knowing that Shalaby himself lived among the poor despite his ability to live a much richer life.

Taher explained that Shalaby's imagination was always faster than reality and surpassed what he saw there manyfold. One example Taher gave was that some of his acquaintances would believe Shalaby's father was a rich man and that he lived a childhood of luxury from Shalaby's own stories to them, reaching out to a life he never lived but still portraying it convincingly.

Despite leaving behind some 70 written books, Taher expects that many more manuscripts were ready for publishing, including his autobiography which he started few years back but never published.

The night before he passed away, Taher recalled, Shalaby asked the late writer, Ibrahim Aslan, about something related to The Divine Comedy by Dante. Leaving the world the next day, Shalaby left us to wonder whether the question was a reflection of personal worries or a concern for society and nation as a whole.

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