Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous: A literary legacy reintroduced

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 3 Feb 2022

More than 30 years after his death, novelist Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous is getting a new recognition, with re-prints, translations and more drama adaptations of his works.

Ehsan AbdelKouddous

For the Cairo International Book Fair this week, Al-Dar Al-Massriyah Al-Lubnaniyah is putting out a reprint of Lan Aish Figelbab Abi (“I Shall Not Live in my Father’s Skin”), one of the most popular titles of Egypt’s prominent 20th century novelist Ehsan AbdelKouddous.

According to Nora Rashad, publishing manager at Al-Dar Al-Massriyah Al-Lubnaniyah, this is the 31st title of Abdel-Koddous that this publisher has put out since they attained the copyrights from the family in 2015.

Since his death in January 1990 and until 2015, Abdel-Koddous (or Oustaz Ehsan as he was widely called in the quarters of his twin professions, journalism and literature) had not been subject to a great deal of attention from readers.

“It was very unfortunate that for years after his death. Ehssan Abdel-Kouddous did not got the due attention that he deserves as a writer whose work addresses many political and socio-economic issues, in implicit and explicit ways,” Rashad said.

During the years between 1990 and 2015 when Al-Dar Al-Massriyah Al-Lubnaniyah embarked on a full re-print scheme, most of his 65 published titles – both novels, novelettes and short stories – were available in bookstores as they were put out by two successive publishing houses. However, their distribution was inefficient and the quality of the production was unimpressive for the family and literary community.

Worse, at times, the original text of the literary manuscripts were tampered with by publishers who opted to appease a growing reactionary mood that imposed its norms on the cultural scene in many ways.

“When we signed the contract with [the family] to re-print the works of Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous we got the original manuscripts that Mrs Loula Abdel-Kouddous [his spouse] used to keep with every single literary work he put out before sending it to the prints,” Rashad said.

Publishing the original and untampered texts was not the only thing that got Al-Massriyah Al-Lubnaniya to execute a remarkably successful re-launch of Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous “to the great interest of a reading audience that was not even born when he passed away,” according to Rashad.

“Putting out an attractive cover that suits the modern taste of the new millennial generation was essential too,” she argued. “A good quality copy was in order to match the value of the literary works,” she added.

In less than ten years, Al-Massriyah Al-Lubnaniya has so far re-printed almost half of the titles that Abdel-Kouddous wrote. It also made these and more titles of his available to readers who opt for the soft-copy format. In addition, there was also a successful re-launch of the dramatic adaptations, in addition to plans for a cinematic adaptation.

Four years ago, the TV soap-opera La Toutfei AlShams (“Do Not Eclipse the Sun”) received an incredible deal of attention. “Just after, we had an incredible demand for this voluminous title,” Rashad said.

With close 1,500 pages in two volumes, La Toutfei AlShams seemed too costly to put out in print. “The cost of printing has been increasing and this has certainly had its impact on the prices of books; we thought that it made more sense to provide it in the soft copy format,” Rashad said. After all, she added, the new generation prefers reading the soft copy.

However, Rashad said that some of the bigger titles of Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous did well in the market when offered in the print edition. These included two other masterpieces: Fi baytouna Ragol (“A Man in Our House”) and La Anam (“I Do Not Sleep”).

Like La Toutfei AlShams, these two were adapted to silver screen in the heydays of Egyptian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.

A great deal of the Abdel-Kouddous literary production has inspired successful cinema and drama productions throughout the decades. He is arguably one of the novelist whose literary work has inspired a good deal of cinema production. However, according to Rashad, “it was actually surprising that the titles that were not turned into movies attracted the younger generation more; the older generation liked to revisit the titles that they saw in cinema adaptation.”

And towards the end of last year, the first English translation of Abdel-Kouddous novels came out. Hoope, an imprint of the American University in Cairo Press published La Anam in English.

In an introduction to the book, Jonathan Smolin, the translator, wrote that for him it was “shocking” that despite being one of the most prolific novelists of Egypt and of the Arab world, Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous was largely unknown outside the Arab world for the lack of translation.

According to Smolin’s introduction, it was inexplicable how this novelist who managed to offer millions of Egyptians and Arabs an easy and captivating read never got translated.

It was in October 1955 that Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous started serialising La Anam in Rose El-Youssef, a weekly magazine that his mother has established a few decades earlier. In October 1957, it was adapted to silver screen with the successful movie staring Faten Hamama, playing the lead character Nadia Loutfy.

The name of the lead character in this novel then was used by the new and upcoming actress Paula Mohamed Shafik.

According to Rashad, La Anam is one of the most successful titles in the re-print operation.

The essence of La Anam is about an endless fight between fairness and evil. At a deeper level, the novel was seen to carry a profound political connotation about the political choices of the Free Officers who took over the country in the 1952 Revolution, but who failed to deliver democracy promised.

“Ehssan was intensely political,” Smolin said in a webinar hosted by the AUC upon the launch of the English translation in December 2021.

It was not unusual for Ehssan Abdel-Kouddous, he added, to load his literary work with criticism of the 1952 government that had actually sent him to jail for having dared to contest their choices.

However, this criticism of the undemocratic path of the 1952 Revolution was never designed to favour the ousted monarchy. After all, Ehssan Abdel-Kouddous had sided with the 1952 Revolution. His novel Fi Baytoun Ragol, which carries direct criticism of the monarchy and political and security corruption in its years, remains to be one of his literary works most sympathetic to the 1952 Revolution. The film adapted from the book, starring Omar Sharif, is played almost every year to mark the anniversary of the July 1952 Revolution.

According to Sharif Abdel-Kouddous, an independent journalist who writes in English for American and Egyptian websites, the story of Fi Baytouna Ragol is inspired by a true story to which his own grandfather was party.

Speaking in the webinar, Sharif said that it was one evening, in 1944, a few years before the 1952 Revolution when Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous was at the peak of his journalism career he received a call from a friend inviting him to go over and meet a political prisoner, Hussein Tawfik, who managed to escape after having been arrested for the political assassination of Amin Osman, a minister of finance with a close association with the British occupation.

While the entire security apparatus was looking for Tawfi, Sharif said, Ehssan Abdel-Kouddous offered Tawfik a hiding spot his Kasr El-Einy apartment. “For several days he slept at my grandfather’s bed and it was when my grandmother thought that the cook saw Hussein Tawfik that they called their revolutionary friends and Hussein Tawfik was taken to another hiding place,” he added.

“I had read a lot of the works of Ehsan Abdel-Kouddous in my school and university years, but when we started working on the re-print scheme, I re-read these works again and it was then that I got to see their quite layered message,” Rashad said.

This complexity, she added, is perhaps one reason that his literary titles keep their appeal. “I think that there is a big audience for his works, not just in the Arab world but elsewhere too and I am sure that the translation of La Anam is a beginning,” she said.

Speaking in the webinar, Smolin said that he had already started working on translating Anf Wathalth Ouyoune (“A Nose and Three Eyes), a big 1960s novel that was adapted to cinema in the early 1970s.

La Anam in its both Arabic and English editions are available to the interested audience of the Cairo Book Fair along with other titles from Abdel-Kouddous that had been reprinted since 2015.

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