Book review: Letters in Exile

Mahmoud El-Wardany, Monday 3 Jan 2011

The most important fact revealed by the publication of Abdel-Hakim Kassim’s letters is that they are not just small fragments on the margin of literary effort

Ketabat Nawbat Al-Herasa: Rasa’l Abdel-Hakim Kassim (Writings During a Guard Shift: The Letters of Abdel-Hakim Kassim) prepared and edited by Mohamed Shoair, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2010.

 It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of Kassim and his unique creations in novels and short stories without reading these letters, which shed a great deal of light to the extent that we should not consider his work without reading them.

What Shoair actually presents is a true addition to the marvel of Abddel-Hakim Kassim as an individual.

Kassim died twenty years ago, though only celebrated lately through an event held by the Supreme Council for Culture. However, the efforts by Shoair to collect the letters which Kassim sent to his friends were enormous.

The book brings together the letters sent to ten different writers with the letters to Abdel-Monim Kassim, his brother, and his letters to the late critic Nagy Naguib, who was in Germany in 1973 when Kassim was still in Egypt.

Kassim’s later letters from 1975 till 1985 were sent from Berlin in Germany, where he lived for 10 years to complete his PhD on Egyptian literature, which was never completed.  It is likely to still exist somewhere among his papers.

As well as the study with which Shoair starts the book, he has verified the letters and added footnotes with additional information and prepared two annexes with the biographies of Kassim and the owners of the letters. This much-appreciated effort adds one more piece to his writings, in addition to the historical and literary value.

Reading the letters in conjunction with Kassim’s work is essential, bearing in mind that the majority was written during his stay in Berlin, during which his literary works were written. These letters were to his brother, who was also his good friend and support, and to Mohamed Saleh, Mohamded Darish, Hosni Abdel-Fadeel, Botros Al-Hallak, Edward Kharrat, Samy Khashaba, Said El-Kafrawy and Mahmoud Abdel-Wahab, in addition to the present writer.

These, without exception, rarely ever include personal stories, secrets or even greetings. On the contrary, they are cries full of reflections, discoveries and research into many details of writing, whether his own or those of others. He reveals a great deal of the unwritten history and contradicts much of what was taken for granted. One such example is his letter to the late novelist Mohamed Darwish, dated March 1981, which he starts;

To my brother Mohamed, son of Hadj Sadek,”

and then later on;

“This is our case then: we believe in the father; securing our legacy against all currents. And we are also revolting against the father for it prohibits our growth… instantly I find myself questioning writing itself. The answer … is that writing for us, sons of the Arabic culture which is struggling for a place on earth … writing for us is a day and night toil … an unforgiving burden to explore our causes for ourselves,  first to understand it better .. and along this process, the dear reader will find an hour to spend with a book to view our painful struggle, to deepen our understanding of our world … just to get an idea.”

The letters are in fact separate pieces of literary writings themselves, reflecting important facets of Kassim’s stormy character, his loud voice at times full of sadness or joy. He screamed out when he learnt that his friend, Yahia Taher had passed away, citing “We never met without a quarrel,” lamenting his loss in every single letter to his friends. Similarly, he cried hard at the death of his friend’s baby, who was in the same hospital where the late poet Amal Donkol was being treated.

After the invasion of Beirut by the Israeli Defense Army to force the Palestinian resistance to leave, under the eyes of the silent Arab countries, he wrote in a letter dated June 1982;

“I feel that each time I add a dot or dash, a Palestinian Arab is dying, or a Syrian or Lebanese, by Israeli fire. This is not to say that I am sad, it’s rather a feeling that my whole life was a series of mistakes, and therefore in this decisive moment I still err, now knowing what is right from the beginning. The catastrophe is that I do not know, and face personal death.”

 Later on in the same letter;

“I realise now how I lived facing real suppression in my own nation, true humiliation, living resistance, corrupt revolution and disputed enthusiasm … it is the end of our generation … it has failed indefinitely and on all levels”

In his last letter to Mohamed Abdel Wahab in May 1985, he was gathering his belongings and ready to return to Cairo. He remembers the Bedouins who used to come to their village and how his father would receive them, realising the whole concept of detachment from any one place, wondering whether he himself was a Bedouin;

“I look at Cairo from where I am now, I miss her and love her like a knowing man, for it is our destiny, and we will remain like that until our long years are over.”

These are just few examples from the writings which Kassim shared with his friends, and are now extended to the reader, who can enjoy one last, unexpected piece of writing by a much-missed writer.

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