‘Wanas Al-Kotob’ (‘The Companionship of Books’), Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour, Ibiid Publishing, 2021, pp350
Last week, journalist and writer Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour celebrated his most recent title, ‘Wanas Al-Kotob’ (‘The Companionship of Books’) that was put out by Ibiid Publishing.
Essentially, this 350-page volume is a very generous selection of book reviews. It is generous in terms of the number of titles that Abdel-Shakour decided to introduce to his reader. It is also generous in terms of the diversity of the selection.
Abdel-Shakour divided his book into five sections that go through Egyptian novels, Arab novels, short stories, poetry, and foreign literature and memoires.
The division is safe and sound, but within that division there is perhaps what could be called some subdivisions that might have been all unintentional.
Several of the titles that Abdel-Shakour included in his recent volume relate profoundly to the issue of generations and their moral bonds: the generation who survived the defeat of the 1967 war and the one that lived through the rise and fall of the January 2011 Revolution.
There is Sahar El-Mougy’s ‘Misk Al-Tal’ (‘The Hill’s Musk’), which has two previously coerced literature female characters, Amina of Naguib Mahfouz and Catherine Eranshaw of Emily Bronte, trying to help Mariam to get out of her hopelessness and onto her feet, practically on the eve of the January Revolution.
There is also Nael El-Toukhy’s ‘Al-Khoroug Min Al-Balaa’ (‘Coming Out of the Sink’) that has Horaya living the defeated dreams of the January Revolution.
There is Youssef Rakha’s ‘Paolo’ that has a defeated revolutionary activist turning into an agent for the security service, and there is Alaa El-Dib’s masterpiece ‘Ayam Wardiya’ (‘Rosey Days’) on the defeat of the 1967.
As Abdel-Shakour reminds his reader often, each of these titles is telling the story of an entire generation and not just of one particular character. These novels, he adds, are a contribution to the attempts of defeated generations to mend their broken souls and move on — under whichever new guise of integrity or pragmatism they would wish to embrace.
In this sense, these novels link to the last section of Abdel-Shakour’s books that he dedicates to memoires where the story of one person is a reflection on an entire generation.
Suliman Fayyad’s ‘Ayyam Megawr’ (‘The Days of a Student at Al-Azhar’), Abdel-Shakour noted, is perhaps the story of so many young men who came from their villages in Upper Egypt or the Delta to Cairo in the 1940s to study at Al-Azhar on a very tight budget. Then there is always the moment of parallel fascination/recognition where the young man in question is faced with the unprecedented allure of city life and the unexpected knowledge of religion.
Similarly, Abdel-Sahkour wrote about the art memoires of Ezz El-Din Naguib: ‘Portraihat Al-Zenzana’ (‘Portraits of the Cell’), where the artist’s drawings document the faces and sentiments he encountered during his imprisonment for political activism in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then there is the documentation of one’s dreams and nightmares or one’s sorrow and fear of life that Abdel-Shakour wrote about in his review of Adel Assad El-Merry’s ‘Khoyout Aqmashat Elzat’ (‘Threads of the Textile of One’s Self’) and of Eman Merssal’s ‘Fi Eithr Enayat Al-Zayyat’ (‘On the Trace of Enayat Al-Zayyat’).
These books, he argued, are not just a thorough reflection on frustrations and agonies of particular individuals. They are rather a reflection on the limitations that were forced on people at certain times within certain contexts.
Meanwhile, Abdel-Sahkour’s book is mostly, in and by itself, a review of the thoughts of writers of these two particular generations: those who lived the dream of 1952 and had to later overcome the bitterness of the defeat of 1967, and those who walked the long path of hope and dismay and then again hope and dismay in the years between the 1973 crossing and the 2011 Revolution and beyond.
On history, as it was lived and relived, or rather read and re-read, Abdel-Shakour has several reviews to share with his readers, along with the agonies of the people of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Bosnia and beyond.
Coming almost weeks before the June 30th inauguration of the Cairo International Book Fair, ‘Wanas Al-Kotob’ is certainly giving the reader endless ideas on some really long lists of possible book-shopping.
Otherwise, the book serves its purpose well, which is to take its reader on a long walk with several stops across the titles that they might never have the time to read.