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Tuesday, 22 June 2021

New releases in Egypt's book scene: 2021 first quarter

Soha Hesham , Sunday 14 Mar 2021

Mohamed Shoeir, Al-Bedayat wal Nehayat: Aawam Naguib Mahfouz (The Beginnings and the Endings: Years of Naguib Mahfouz), Al-Shorouk Publishing House, 2021, pp215

Al-Bedayat wal Nehayat
Al-Bedayat wal Nehayat

This is another biographical non-fiction book by the journalist and literary critic Mohamed Shoeir, who brilliantly choses to open his book with the date Naguib Mahfouz was born: 11 December 1911. For a whole chapter, he takes peaks and offers glimpses into this day, surveying what was happening on the cultural front. He reviews the plays in the theatres like Shohadaa Al-Gharam (Love Martyrs’) by Al-Sheikh Salama Hegazi, performed alongside shows by the versatile Lebanese artist George Abyad with his troupe on another stage. He also reviews what was playing in cinemas and what was being written in newspapers, specifically what was published  that day be it specific articles or advertisements for whiskey and cognac.

In another chapter, “Searching for the Lost Notebook”, Shoeir recounts how Mahfouz explained in a long interview published in Al-Kateb magazine that in his very early years, inspired by the older writer and keen on imitating him, he wrote his memoirs and called them Al-Aawam (The Years), after Taha Hussein’s Al-Ayam (The Days). That was in 1929, shortly after the release of Al-Ayam by Hussein. But the manuscript was lost after the death of Mahfouz’s mother following a family gathering at their home. It was presumed to be a family theft. What actually happened was that the manuscript went to America, then moved to London, finally settling in an Arab country where,  after several trials and tribulations and intense email efforts, it was retrieved – to published here for the first time.

The manuscript is the first and probably the last to illustrate the childhood of Mahfouz and, as Shoeir says that the “child is the father of the man”, it explains a lot about Mahfouz, the man and the celebrated author, through his words as an adolescent by a process of literary reverse engineering of some kind.

The book exclusively publishes the full manuscript in which Mahfouz reflects on his university admission and assessment exams as as well as his first meeting with the renowned Taha Hussein with whom he discusse his aspirations to study philosophy.

Shoeir continues with an analysis of how the memoirs of Taha Hussein Al-Ayam (The Days) had come to be considered a founding manuscript which many authors and politicians would come to take as a reference point for writing their own memoirs, which many people had taken to doing after the 1919 revolution as a mode of self expression and historical documentation, the practise becoming something of a fashion among the educated middle-class. Statesmen and politicians like Saad Zaghloul, Mustafa Al-Nahhas, Ahmed Orabi, Ismail Sedky and others all wrote memoirs, and most modelled them on Al-Ayam one way or another.

Many kept diaries, whether or not with a view to transforming it into a memoir (in Arabic the word for “memoir” and “diary” is the same). Demonstrating just how common the practise was, the great writer Tawfiq Al-Hakim wrote a novel, Al-Rebat Al-Moqadas (The Sacred Bond, 1945), about a husband who, reading his wife’s diaries, is convinced that she is unfaithful, until she manages to convince him that she was actually writing fiction – which she was.

According to Shoeir the uniqueness of Al-Aawam (The Years) lies in its being the only piece of writing by Mahfouz intended as an autobiography, which holds within it a sense of confession, in spite of being written at an early stage of his life. It wasn’t necessarily a reflection on life as such but rather an exercise in writing.

In Mahfouz’s memoirs, the father figure wasn’t significantly present and he couldn’t recall him away from how he used to fear him, but the mother on the contrary provided a comfort zone and safe place. She was the heroine of the memoirs. The memoirs end with a transportation vehicle in front of the family’s Gamalia house, marking the move to another house in Abbasiya.

Mohamed Shoeir is an acclaimed Egyptian journalist and critic, perhaps the only literary biographer in Egypt. He was born in Qena in 1974, studied English literature and worked as the managing editor of the literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab. Other than the present volume, he has published three books: Ketabat Nobet Al-Herassa (Drafts of a Security Shift), Rasael Abdel-Hakim Qassim (Letters of Abdel-Hakim Qassim), and Awlad Haretna: Siryet Al-Rewaya Al-Moharama (Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel, 2018). He received the Sawiris Cultural Award in literary criticism in 2019.

Ibrahim Farghali, Qareat Al-Qittar (The Train Reader), The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, 2021, pp255

Qareat Al-Qittar
Qareat Al-Qittar

In his new novel the author Ibrahim Farghali continues to practice his chosen form of metafiction. At the start of the book, his initially nondescript protagonist is in a rush to catch the train, though it is unclear where he is going. When he is finally on board and the train starts to move, he suddenly realizes that the train has no other passengers whatsoever. The man, what is more, has lost his memory completely. He starts to inspect the train carefully to find only a woman lying on a couch in one of the the sleeper cars, and she asks him not to pass by her room because she will be naked. The train will not stop, it seems, nor will the woman stop reading. He finally finds out she is reading a book, and as it turns out that book contains the story of his life – which is his only way of knowing who he is.

Ibrahim Farghali is an Egyptian novelist who was born on 19 September 1967 in Al-Mansoura, Egypt. He spent his early years between Oman and the United Arab Emirates, earning a BA in business administration from Mansoura University in 1992. He started his career as a journalist in Rose Al-Youssef weekly magazine, then he moved to Muscat where worked in Nizwa magazine. He came back to Cairo and worked as a cultural editor in Al-Ahram newspaper in 1997. He is currently an editor at Al-Arabi monthly magazine in Kuwait.

Hatem Hafez, Kaqitta Taabour Al-Tariq (Like a Cat Crossing the Road), The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, 2021, pp263

Kaqitta Taabour Al-Tariq
Kaqitta Taabour Al-Tariq

This is a novel that obliquely reflects on the tragic destruction in Syria, though it is set between Basel, the Swiss city, and Paris, and in some other places in the background. The heroine of the novel is Alia, a Syrian woman who fled her country with her young daughter after the civil war broke out, and now works as a translator in one of the publishing houses in the French capital where she is emotionally involved with a Frenchman, Michel. At one point she realises she is translating a novel that somehow relates to all the places that have been destroyed and are no longer there except in her memory. Alia recalls her previous failed relationships with Walid, Ammar and Anton.  

Together with Alia, Michel is the narrator in the first part of the novel. In the second part, novel, other characters of different nationalities are engaged in the story. All have fled their countries for similar reasons to Alia’s: Olga, the old refugee from Belarus who fled her country years ago following the Chernobyl disaster; Sohaila, an Iraqi who is still suffering as the tragedy of her country unfolds; Neema, a Tunisian with multiple identities; and Ihab, an Egyptian who endeavours to hide his nationality and present himself as an Indian instead.

While all the characters are at a crossroads where they will make their passage in one direction or another with disturbed emotions and tortured consciousness of the cruelty of capitalism and the confusion of social relations.  

Hatem Hafez an Egyptian author and translator born in 1974. He is also a playwright and screenwriter. He has published short stories including the collection Baskaweet wi Assal Esweed (Biscuits and Molasses) as well as a novel and his work has been well received. He participated in the writing workshop of the TV series Estifa (2015). Later, he wrote another TV series, Al-Sharie El-Warana (The Backstreet, 2018). Hafez has won several dramatic prizes, including the Best Play at the Festival of Arabic Theatre in 1996 for the play The Final Act and the Fawzi Fahmy Prize for Drama from Cairo University in 2009.

Omar Taher, Baad Ma Yenamo Al-Eyal (After the Children Sleep), Al-Karma Publishing House, 2021, pp186

Baad Ma Yenamo Al-Eyal
Baad Ma Yenamo Al-Eyal

The newly released book by Omar Taher is a collection of short stories that revolve around nostalgia and food and the smells of the houses of ordinary characters, depicting ordinary lives lives in an intimate and delicate way. Taher doesn’t necessarily have an original story to tell, but he does describe love, loneliness, marriage, failure, success, friendship as well as sons and daughters, illuminating human relations and suffering.

The book presents 19 short stories with a cover – designed by Karim Adam – that illustrates the nostalgia that is vividly present in all of them It kicks off with the story of Salah and Salwa, a newly married couple who go on a strange adventure when the husband decided to cook in memory of his days as a bachelor while the wife is wondering about the clothes to wear at home what makes her both comfortable and  attractive to her husband, juggling too many thoughts about life and marriage and worrying about time ruining her marriage.

Another story tackles the predicament of a father and his son when the father decides to marry anew not long after the death of his wife. A third employs the trope of time travel in order to connect a woman from the 1980s to a man in 2020...

Born in Sohag in 1975, Taher was a vernacular poet and journalist before he started writing phenomenally popular humour including The Scenes of the Life of the Builders of Modern Egypt, Kohl wi Habahan (Eyeliner and Cardamom), The Impact of the Prophet: Short Stories from the Sirah, Starch and Glucose Company, Personal Tales to Kill Time: A Book of Transportation. He also wrote screenplays including Teer Enta (Fly Away). Taher won the Best Writer Award in 2015 in a Youth magazine poll and Best Book Award in 2015 for his book Broadcasting Radio Singles. He has written for  newspapers including Al-Masry Al-Yom.

Caroline Seymour-Jorn, Creating Spaces of Hope: Young Artists and the New Imagination in Egypt, AUC Press, 2021, pp230

Creating Spaces of Hope
Creating Spaces of Hope

As the writer mentions in her introduction, this book memorialises the 2011 revolution and discusses the many issues that have beset Egypt since the 18-day sit-in that led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak just over ten years ago: the constitutional changes, the Islamists insurgency in Sinai and other aspects of terrorism, and how both have had their impact on Egyptians including artists. Based on personal interviews with various artists of the new generation in Cairo, the book delves into the lives and dynamics of post-revolution art making in the country, with creative people from all kinds of backgrounds including graffiti artists, musicians, writers and others. The author deals with how they have coped with political change and how they have responded to it in their art as well.  

In fact the picture that emerges of how these artists engage and struggle with the social and political landscape is astounding, so is their resilience and ability to remain present sometimes against truly impossible odds. The book traces the stations and signs of the art scene in Egypt in such uncertain times and the many complex challenges facing the contemporary Egyptian art scene.   

Caroline Seymour-Jorn offers a profound analysis regarding creative production in the Arab world in general and how in the recent years, young artists have been examining issues like personal relationships and how they struggle with optimism and aspiration during hardships imposed by political and economic circumstances as well as how they create what she calls “spaces of hope” to bring about alternative perspectives.  

Caroline Seymour-Jorn is an associate professor of comparative literature and Arabic translation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of Cultural Criticism in Egyptian Women’s Writing: Anthropological and Literary Perspectives (2011).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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