Book Review – love hurts, life is short and poetry never ends

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 29 Dec 2020

A rich and totally captivating volume of reflections from a poignant poet and witty writer who lived in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century, Kamel El-Chennawie

Memoirs of Kamel El-Shennawi
Memoirs of Kamel El-Shennawi

Youmiat Kamel El-Chennawie– (The dairies of Kamel El-Chennawie) Dar Al-Karma Books, 548 pp

This year’s publication of Dar Al-Karma Books Youmiat Kamel El-Chennawie is certainly no small volume. It is actually close to 600 pages. However, it is definitely a delightful read, a perceptive analysis of matters of the mind, the heart and the soul as well as a detailed portrait of Cairo’s intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century.

For those who knew and loved El-Chennawie’s emotional songs, including La Takzebi (Don’t lie to me) and Enta Qalbi (You are my heart), this book or at least a part of it, is the story behind this heart-felt description of pain and love. It is also an incitement for one to venture into El-Chennawie’s poetry.

For those who are familiar with El-Chennawie as a poet but were not aware of his very interesting career as a journalist who wrote for top papers and magazines of the early decades of the 20th century, including Al Ahram and Rose El Youssef, and who co-edited magazines and weekly papers with no other the Amin Brothers, the book is a perfect and thorough introduction into this side of El-Chennawie – as it is a perfect overview of the way journalism was back in those decades.

On politics, the book reveals El-Chennawie’s diverse political associations that got him to eventually run for parliament and to be elected MP in 1945. Then there is the account of El-Chennawie’s complex relationship with the 1952 revolution that started with a great deal of faith, took a negative turn when he nearly faced jail in 1954 for his quest for democracy, and then picked up back again as he received a high literary award from Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

As for those who never knew of El-Chennawie at all, or any of the big names of poetry, art and journalism of Egypt’s 20th century, the book is exactly what they might wish for to learn about those ‘golden years’ of art, journalism and politics.

El-Chennawi was born in 1910 in a rich and religious family who mostly lived in Cairo. He passed away in 1965 after having rubbed shoulders with the biggest names in Egypt’s intellectual and political quarters and after having gone through many unfulfilled love stories that almost always left him with heart-ache and nothing more.

The book is effectively a selection of columns – some shorter than the others – that El-Chennawie published in Egyptian press between the years 1946 and 1965.

Rehab Khaled, who wrote the introduction to the book, divided the sequel into three segments: the first is a selection of the columns that were published between the years 1946 and 1948; the second covers the years between 1953 and 1959; while the third stretches from 1960 to 1965. Those are three different segments of Egypt’s history that El-Chennawie lived always with a great deal of passion.

In her introduction, Khaled sets the reader out to understand the complexities and many swings that El-Chennawie had in his 55 years in life. He is born with a big body and a soft heart. He was brought up to study religious laws but ended up dropping out of university. He was an introvert whose company is so much fun. He changed political parties, newspapers and nightclubs all the way through.

As it is perfectly becoming of a poet-journalist-politician, El-Chennawie’s book is rich on anecdotes: a chat with a group of artists in the lobby of a prominent downtown Alexandria hotel, a walk in the streets and alleys of the Cairo neighbourhood he grew up in and an encounter or a debate from this or that newsroom.

The columns included in the book approach some really profound issues: the inevitability of death, the meaning of life and the significance of posterity. This, however, is done in the smoothest style possible. It is certainly a book with no rough edges at all.

The simplicity, eloquence and the diversity of the issues are so charming that one ends up consuming the entire book in one day. The book is certainly big but because it is all about a series of columns, it allows the impatient reader the liberty to take it in small and not necessarily consecutive segments.

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