Edwar El-Kharrat (1926-2015)‎ ‎“Waves without end”‎

Hala Halim
Tuesday 8 Dec 2015

Hala Halim remembers the eminent Egyptian modernist writer

I marked the passing of Edwar El-Kharrat on the 1st of December with a rereading of Turabuha Za‘faran (City of Saffron), his 1986 novel through which I first became acquainted with his work. Different lines spoke to me with a new immediacy in this reading:

“I gaze at the sea, at its enigmatic horizon, and I know that there is nothing beyond it, nothing whatsoever, an expanse without end of unknown waves without end: it is as if I see the very shore of death--that I shall cross, never to return and never to arrive.”

An eminent Egyptian modernist writer: in the case of El-Kharrat, the designation means many things. It means a sizeable corpus in several genres, including fiction (novels, novellas and short stories), poetry, literary and art criticism, and translation. It means experimentally reworking the codes of literary genres, and relatedly producing critical texts reflecting on and upholding literary modernity in Egypt. It means participating in such groundbreaking projects as the independent collectively-edited journal Gallery ’68 and opening spaces--not least the study stacked with books in his home in Zamalek that served as a literary salon of sorts--for select new writers. And it means, among other things, a patriotism that eschewed chauvinism and was inflected with the internationalism of an early involvement in radical politics.

Born in Alexandria to an Upper Egyptian father and a mother from the Delta, El-Kharrat grew up in a series of working class and lower middleclass neighbourhoods to the south of the city. Gheit El-Enab (The Vineyard), in particular, would leave a marked imprint on his City of Saffron and its 1990 sequel Ya Banat Iskindiriyya (Girls of Alexandria). His father died in the early 1940s while El-Kharrat was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Law, and auditing the Faculty of Arts classes, at Alexandria (then Farouk I) University, a particularly vibrant institution at the time. El-Kharrat supported the family by working in the British Navy Depot while serving as secretary-general of an underground Trotskyite cell.

His activism would cost him two years in prison starting May 15, 1948--a date frequently underscored in his fiction, particularly the 2002 novelTariq al-Nisr (The Way of the Eagle) which centres on that leftist milieus of the time and his prison experience. After his release, El-Kharrat would work at the National Insurance Company in Alexandria, where he was introduced to a colleague who was to become his wife. A self-financed “sabbatical” in 1955, spent at the atelier of a friend, the poet and artist Ahmad Morsi, allowed El-Kharrat to complete his first collection of short stories, Hitan Aliya (High Walls), though this was not to be published before 1959.

Having moved to Cairo in the mid-’50s to work as press officer at the Romanian Embassy, he began his longest professional association in 1959, with the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation and the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, from which he retired in 1983. The gap in his literary output that began in 1959 had been broken with the publication of his collection of short stories Sa‘at al-Kibriya’ (Hours of Pride) in 1972, to be followed by his masterpiece Rama wal-Tinnin (Rama and the Dragon) in 1980 (preceded by a limited edition in 1979). But with early retirement, El-Kharrat entered a quite prolific phase, publishing at least one book every other year, sometimes two books in a given year.

He steadily acquired laurels in the form of various Egyptian awards and prizes reserved for writers considered a prominent part of the national patrimony, as well as translations of his texts into many languages. To Frances Liardet, the very gifted translator of his two Alexandrian novels into English, goes much credit for his quite positive reception in the Anglophone world. In the 1990s when I worked as editor on Al- Ahram Weekly’s Culture pages, and as part of my effort to secure coverage for things Alexandrian, I interviewed El-Kharrat, and solicited and translated his work. I lost touch with him sometime after moving to California to pursue doctoral studies, but, a month or so after I obtained my PhD in 2004, we met at a roundtable on “Alexandrianism in the 21st Century,” at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I was delighted when El-Kharrat asked me for a copy of my presentation, and gave him my dissertation, which contained a chapter about his work.

In the thirty years or so since I began reading El-Kharrat in Alexandria, a whole personal cosmogony delineated in his literary texts unfolded. His “writerly” narratives (to borrow a term from Roland Barthes) are non-linear, densely allusive, and thoroughly demanding on the linguistic level since a gamut of registers may be deployed within a given passage, ranging from the Qur’anic to Egyptian colloquial complete with regionalisms. Apart from Mikhail—who is and is not El-Kharrat and who serves as the protagonist of several of the novels—as well as Rama (the central figure in a trilogy that includes the 1985 al-Zaman al-Akhar [The Other time] and the 1996 Yaqin al-‘Atash [Certainty of Thirst]), characters alluded to in one text germinate in another.

It was El-Kharrat who coined the term “al-kitaba ‘abr al-naw‘iyya” (transgeneric writing) and his fictional corpus draws on and creatively reworks the codes of more than one genre, not least poetry—apart from certain passages doing double duty between his literary and critical texts. The figures and topoi that unfolded included the vine (in both its classical and biblical associations), the sea, the stairway, the bird (particularly the seagull), the baptism, the Archangel Michael, the dragon, the temple or archaeological vestiges. The quotidian and the personal are elevated to the mythical while mythological figures—Pharaonic, Babylonian, Greek, Christian, Islamic, particularly a series of goddesses variously standing in for the beloved, the city, the homeland or all of these—take place side by side. Tropes from Coptic hymns, Sufism and folk religious practices intermingle as part of what I have elsewhere discussed under the rubric of “syncretism. ”The Kharratian text is omnivorous in the texts it dialogues with, such as the maqamat, Shakespeare, The Thousand and One Nights, The English Romantic poets, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and the Egyptian Surrealists, among many others.

The encounter with Surrealism that was to constitute a significant component of the modernism in al-Kharrat’s project, including his critical interventions, occurred through different routes. If El-Kharrat has referred to his Alexandrian intellectual contemporaries in the 1940s as the “Alexandria School,” somewhat loosely, since despite his statements there seems to have been no shared aesthetic features, he and two of his cohort—writers Ahmad Morsi (b. 1930) and Mounir Ramzi (1925-1945)—did share resonances of Surrealism that he himself has noted. It was in various and diffuse ways that Surrealism reached them (I draw here on a presentation I gave on the subject at the “Egyptian Surrealists in Global Perspective” conference held at the American University in Cairo just a few days before El-Kharrat’s passing).

While Europe was suffering the ravages of war and its aftermath, the latest European artistic trends, including Surrealism, found a hospitable environment in the Alexandria of the 1940s, as Morsi explained to me. And the three writers were precisely a generation younger than the Surrealists of Cairo associated with the “Art and Freedom” and related groups. Contrary to received critical wisdom, there were contacts between the Cairene groups and Alexandrian artists; furthermore, the resonances of Surrealism in the three writers’ texts serve to undermine a largely Francophone narrative about Egyptian Surrealism (see the Francophone poet and leading light of Egyptian Surrealism Georges Henein [1914-1973], some of whose poems El-Kharrat translated into Arabic).

For El-Kharrat, the manifestations of Surrealism in Egypt, far from being derivative, are indigenous. “An Egyptian Surrealism in literature” and “an Egyptian Surrealism in the visual arts,” is how he put it emphatically in one of his critical texts on the subject, allusions to and cameos of Egyptian Surrealists, such as the Francophone novelist Albert Cossery (1913-2008) whom he co-translated and later met, being interspersed in his creative writing.

My sense is that for El-Kharrat, the attractions of Surrealism would have been simultaneously political and aesthetic. He recounts in different texts a meeting with Surrealist painter and art critic Ramses Younan (1913-1966) in 1946, at the height of his own Trotskyite activism, at which the discussion revolved around Marxism. Surrealism also worked with his endeavour to promote “the new sensibility” under which sign he espoused broadly experimental trends that, as he expounded, he saw as straining against the dominance of realism, specifically socialist realism, which had been in the foreground since the publication in 1955 of Abdel-Azim Anis and Mahmoud Amin El-Alim’s benchmark book on the subject, Fi al-Thaqafa al-Misriyya (On Egyptian Culture).

The dominance of realism, in any case, goes some way towards accounting for the gap in his creative output. When I was researching Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings, the trilingual journal issued by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, of which El-Kharrat had served as editor, I was struck by how few and far between his contributions were. While the journal instantiates the potential for comparative work between the literatures of the Global South, the meagerness of his contributions may have something to do with its socialist realist tenor.

Survived by his wife, Georgette, two sons, Ihab and Ayman, and four grandchildren, it is fitting that El-Kharrat’s final resting place should be in Alexandria.

The paragraph that follows the passage from City of Saffron I quoted above reads:

“Many waters cannot drown my passion, nor the torrents submerge it. You are a boulder in the heart of the flood, slopes hewn soft and verdant with lily of the valley and elderflower, saffron earth fertile and alive, and above a black dove flutters with wings ever outstretched—it flutters in my heart forever.”

The writer is associate professor of Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University


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