Khaled al-Khamisi: It’s about questions not answers

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 8 Jan 2020

As Novelist Khaled al-Khamisi launches the latest season of Doum Art, he shares his "outsider status" in Egyptian society has taken him in many unusual ‎directions

Novelist Khaled al-Khamisi
Novelist Khaled al-Khamisi

Sitting in his living room puts the downtown Cairo building into perspective, as if time had ‎stood still but had kept busy by maintaining the spirit of the ancient building. As the minutes ‎tip-toe by, the renowned Egyptian cultural figure and novelist Khaled al-Khamisi explains ‎that “it's as if I had been born in 1930."‎

Al-Khamisi is a novelist famous for his first novel Taxi, which was a bestseller, sold over ‎‎75,000 copies in Arabic, was reprinted seven times in one year, was translated into many ‎languages, and was even turned into a play a few years ago. However, it took al-Khamisi ‎some 15 years to realise that his true passion in life was writing. ‎
‎"Of all the activities I have done in my life, I have never loved anything as much as writing," ‎he says.‎

Born in 1962 to Egyptian actress Fatin al-Choubashi and left-wing poet Abdel-Rahman al-‎Khamisi, who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1979, Khaled al-Khamisi grew up in a ‎rich cultural milieu. After the tragic death of his mother when he was only five years old, he ‎moved in to live with his grandparents whose impact was immense on the young boy. ‎

‎"My grandfather was born in 1899 and my grandmother in 1910, so I grew up as if I had been ‎born in 1930. My grandfather used to refer to boats as wabour al-bahr (an old Arabic term) ‎and trains as wabour, and so I was raised against a cultural background that belonged to the ‎‎1930s and 40s,” he recalls.‎

The open door ‎

But being in a left-wing cultural atmosphere did not ease the drastic transformation that ‎Egypt witnessed during the 1970s, when late president Anwar al-Sadat introduced his free-‎market Open Door Policy and the socio-economic conditions of the country changed. ‎

‎"I was born in 1962, one year after former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s nationalisations. I ‎attended college in 1980, and one year later there was al-Sadat’s wave of arrests of almost all ‎the country’s political figures. A month later al-Sadat was assassinated, and former president ‎Hosni Mubarak started to rule when I was in my second year of college," al-Khamisi ‎remembers.‎

‎“As a result of al-Sadat’s political and economic reforms from 1972 onwards most of our ‎family and friends fled the country. And there I was living with my grandparents in a world ‎apart from the political and economic scene of the day. I felt a great sense of non-belonging ‎as a result, whether economic or political.”‎

Feeling out of place haunted al-Khamisi for years, but it triggered a great sense of adventure ‎and a passion for endless searches. After gaining his degree in Political Science from Cairo ‎University in 1984, al-Khamisi travelled to Paris to do a Masters and PhD at the Sorbonne. ‎But before submitting his PhD thesis in international politics he realised he did not want to ‎pursue an academic career and so came back to Cairo in 1990.‎

Raising questions ‎

He had already written his first film script entitled "Turquoise" starring the actress Yousra and ‎actor Ashraf Abdel-Baqi. However, the Egyptian cinema industry that year was hit hard and ‎film production was down from 70 films to seven. The film was never shot. ‎

‎"What was I going to do in a society that was totally different from what I was thinking ‎about at the time,” he asks. That question was central to al-Khamisi’s relationship to Egyptian ‎society. His estrangement helped him raise questions rather than answer them. This attitude in ‎itself broke the mould of many Egyptian cultural figures who are expected to have most of ‎the answers. Pursuing his passion within the cultural realm, al-Khamisi then tried out many ‎paths over the years. ‎

Francophone cinema ‎

He founded a publishing house in the early 1990s called Nosos (scripts) that published books ‎by literary figures such as Louis Awad and Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid. Al-Khamisi also ‎published one of Egypt's first feminist magazines, Hagar. He was the first to publish an ‎environmental magazine in Egypt, even if there was not enough funding to maintain this after ‎‎1995. Al-Khamisi then became a francophone cinema consultant and co-founded APIMED, ‎the International Association of Independent Producers of the Mediterranean.‎

Zaza wa Gargir ‎

‎"I also co-founded a utopian project in the shape of public libraries in underprivileged ‎districts, and this went on for two years. I produced the first 3D graphic fiction series in the ‎Arab world entitled Al-Mohema Ard 21 (Mission Earth 21),” he adds, remarking that he also ‎produced one of the few Egyptian animation series for kids. Called Zaza wa Gargir, this was ‎awarded the Best Children’s Series Prize by the Cairo Festival for Arab Media in 2007.‎

Later, al-Khamisi was faced with another barrier, when the government did not support his ‎idea to produce a television series to document key Arab figures from the 20th century, ‎among them the composer Said Darwish and politician Saad Zaghloul. The series, entitled ‎‎"Farewell 20th Century," was never filmed because the government did not see any monetary ‎profit in it. ‎

Taxi fifteen years later ‎

These 15 years of self and social exploration fed into al-Khamisi's first work of fiction, Taxi. ‎The book summed up Egyptian society through the eyes of Cairo taxi-drivers, whose wit and ‎sense of humour brought the social history of Egypt into the light of day. Taxi was an instant ‎bestseller and was soon followed by more literary works such as Noah's Ark (2011) and ‎another unpublished novel.‎

Doum cultural foundation
‎ ‎
In 2013, al-Khamisi set up Doum. This is a non-profit foundation cultural foundation that ‎aims to support critical thinking through creating cultural materials that can reach the largest ‎to break away from the cultural centralisation of the country in Cairo and Alexandria. It ‎works in five main areas – publishing, performance, music, cinema, and the visual arts. On the ‎‎8th of January, Doum culture hosts “Self Exploration”, a visual art exhibition by Assuit Artist ‎Emad Abu Grain. This is a unique experience of exploring such rich cultural heritage of the ‎upper Egyptian governoarate through the eyes of the artist. I used to watch Abu Grain give ‎free painting classes to children of Assuit every Friday,”noted El-Khamisi explaining how he ‎was impressed to see this young artist support younger artists as well.‎

‎"I've always asked myself why are people focused on political development without seeing ‎the importance of culture and knowledge? Why aren’t there more institutions working on the ‎audience and on intellectual grounds,” he asks.‎

‎"The problem with Egyptian society is that its concept of an intellectual is a person who has ‎all the answers. This is nonsense. A person is not a hard disc. ‎

The idea is to fight isolation

Doum organised several cultural activities in the shape of art exhibitions, story-telling festival ‎held in Qena in Upper Egypt that brought together folk story-tellers from all over Egypt and ‎an annual literary festival in Mansoura in the Delta “The idea is to fight isolation.” ‎

As chairman of the board of the Greater Cairo Public Library since 2014, al-Khamisi's interest ‎today in raising question marks and putting facts into a more comprehensive cultural context ‎has been evident in all the activities he promotes.‎


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