Book Review: First novel written in colloquial Arabic republished

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 20 Aug 2012

New edition of ‘Kantara Who Disbelieved’ by Mustafa Musharafa, first published in 1966, bears witness to 1919 Revolution and was first novel written in colloquial Arabic

Kantara-First Edition

Kantara allazy kafar (Kantara Who Disbelieved) by Mustafa Musharafa, Cairo: Family Library – General Egyptian Book Organization, 2012. 203pp.

With the exception of Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, the Egyptian revolution of 1919 is nearly absent from literature and short stories. Kantara Who Disbelieved is the third book to put the revolution centre stage.

The first and only edition of Kantara was published in 1966, after Musharafa had spent nearly 40 years writing and editing it. It is now being republished again for the second time in its history.

It was written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and despite that, is utterly sweet and pure, similar only to the nearly forgotten book by Louis Awad, Memoires of a Scholarship Student, written in the 1940s and published in the 1960s.

The Family Library project deserves praise for choosing this rare piece of work for republishing, and for adding articles related to the text. One of the articles is by Yusuf Idris, who was the first to pay attention to the text and give it credit, another is by Mohamed Ouda who collected the papers for publishing, and another by Ibrahim Aslan.

The story behind this book is quite surprising, for its author is the brother of Ali Musharafa, the great Egyptian scientist. Upon its completion, the author took it to a publisher who refused it because it was written in colloquial Arabic. That led Mustafa to leave Egypt altogether, according to Mohamed Ouda.

Mustafa headed to England, maybe to learn the language of the elite, or maybe to try to erase the insult he felt after the book was rejected.

“He suffered polio, which forced him to sleep for years on his back... moving between cheap London hospitals, eventually to leave on crutches that he used forevermore,” Mohamed Ouda said.

Despite that, he insisted on learning the language, literature and history of England, and wrote poetry, stories and plays, even giving himself an English name, marrying a British woman and eventually teaching English literature at an English university.

Years later, the dean of the university gave him the papers to gain citizenship and become tenured as professor. He refused to complete the papers and returned to Egypt to start teaching at the university where he met Ouda, who was his student, and one of a number of disciples who followed his socialist thinking.

The novel itself bears the name of Kantara, one of its main characters, Sheikh Abdel-Salam Kantara, who stopped believing in the 1919 Revolution, then spent years outside Egypt before eventually returning to believe in the revolution.

All the characters in the novel belong to the lower social classes and suffer from ignorance and poverty: a learned Sheikh, a young girl given to the pasha in return for some money, a gypsy woman,  a street seller, and poor students. The events all take place during the revolution of 1919.

The colloquial Arabic used in the novel is far from base and is often poetic. The author uses a unique talent to show a new dimension of colloquial Arabic that belongs to the poor. He wrote like this despite being born into the aristocracy in Damietta, and having spent part of his life in England. He surprised everyone with his one small story that took up a very special place in Arabic literature.

Yusuf Idris considered it the best novel about the 1919 Revolution: “The writer draws strange pictures as if in a magical world, all through colloquial language, never letting one feel for an instant that it’s strange… as accurate and magnificent as an artist’s pen could create.”

Ibrahim Aslan said: “If it was known at the time and spread widely... the face of writing in Egypt would have been different.”

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