Book Review: A life with a sketchbook

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 24 Nov 2022

The late prominent Egyptian cartoonist Ahmed Toughan shares his testimony on major events in the history of the country and the world in the second half of the 20th century.

Ahmed Toghan


Ahmed Toughan – Sirat fanan sanaatehou alalam (Ahmed Toughan – a memoire of an artist inspired by pain) –Al-Dar Al-Masriah Al-Lebenaniyah, 2014, 436 pp

From Egypt's staunch support of Algeria's war of independence beginning 1 November 1954 to a series of close encounters with late president Anwar Sadat, Ahmed Toughan (1929-2014) shares his take on the country’s big political moments from the early years of the 1952 regime to the last day of Sadat’s regime.

Toughan's Sirat fanan sanaatehou alalam (Ahmed Toughan – a memoire of an artist inspired by pain) is a biography that might not have received adequate attention as it came out in August 2014 at a time when Egypt was undergoing a political upheaval and shortly before Toughan passed away in November of the same year. 

However, this close to 450-page volume is certainly an interesting read.

Toughan had witnessed the events of which he speaks first-hand and, therefore, his account is especially compelling.

In his book, he narrates his trip to Algeria where he sojourned with Algerian Moudjhadines in the mountains.

He also describes his trip to Yemen where he accompanied the Egyptian forces deployed there during the Yemen civil war in the early 1960s.

This war, he argues, salvaged the whole of Yemen from the throes of the Middle Ages and set it on its way towards 20th century modernity.

Toughan devotes a considerable section of the book where he shares accounts of Egypt’s allies in the 1950s and 1960s, including his trip to North Korea.

These and other accounts induce us to reminisce about times long gone.

A most compelling part of the book is dedicated to his encounters and conversations with Sadat, who Toughan describes as “a man of unmistakable shrewdness who was always one step ahead of everyone else” and as “a wise leader.”

Toughan’s accounts reveal the many facets of Sadat.

The two men first met prior to the 1952 Revolution over a simple dinner at a friend’s house.

Their friendship, which began with Sadat’s launch of Al-Goumhoria Daily (as the mouthpiece of the new regime and with no less than Taha Hussein as its first editor in chief) continued uninterrupted.

It lasted throughout Sadat’s presidency, including a meeting at the end of October War in which Sadat explained his decision to accept a ceasefire with Israel, only to be terminated with Sadat’s assassination in October 1981.

Toughan's aim in this part of the book seems to be to counterclaim the long held view, propagated by Sadat's critics, that it was his legendary predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser who had devised the plan for the October war and that Sadat made a huge mistake when agreeing to what they believed was an unfair ceasefire.

 This biography reveals that Toughan’s admiration for Sadat far outweighs his approval of Nasser’s policies in supporting the liberation movements in the Arab countries and other ‘Third World’ countries.

As a matter of fact, Toughan reveals a lot of resentment against Nasser during his recollection, shared in the book, of the details of 5 June 1967, especially when Nasser's regime falsely claimed military victory before acknowledging a shocking defeat that occurred in a war that lasted less than two days.  

Beyond the strong political imprint of this biography, Toughan’s book presents its readers with penetrating insights into the scenes of journalism, art and culture in Egypt during the decades from the late 1940s to the late 1990s.

He writes about other prominent cartoonists who were his contemporaries and of renown journalists.

In addition, he talks of the disintegration of journalism as a profession.

Moreover, we encounter in his book a generation of politicians who were born in the early decades of the 20th century and whose imprint on the contemporary history of Egypt is indelible.  

Throughout the book he succeeds in being personal, engaging and unassuming.

Toughan's  commitment to narrating stories as they really happened, with very little if any embellishments, is best demonstrated in his recollection of his own life which began in Upper Egypt, where he was born in December 1926, and that charted a coarse that had many significant milestones, many of which were accompanied by much pain and suffering.

Toughan’s book ends with an epilogue about Anwar Sadat – appearing originally in another book published by Toughan in 1957.

It was from this epilogue that both the writer and publisher of the more recent book chose the title “an artist inspired by pain”.

The prelude of the book is written by the prominent novelist Khairy Shalaby, who passed away in September 2011.

In this prelude, Shalaby describes Toughan's biography as “chapters of our contemporary history – that history that we don’t always get to see as it stands there hidden until prompted to the front.”

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