2021 Yearender: Inheritance issues

Sayed Mahmoud , Monday 27 Dec 2021

Over a year Egyptian literature has focused on the past, often bidding the reader a look back in anger


It can be safely said that the one widespread trend over the last year has been to reassess the past whether by deconstructing past figures’ biographies or tracing their sustained presence. Intellectual conflicts too focused on the legacy of the near past’s greatest symbol, Naguib Mahfouz, the copyright to whose works left Dar Al-Shorouk to Diwan, which will begin releasing them as of next May. The decision was made by Mahfouz’s daughter, although the figure she received from Diwan has not been made public.

More relevant to the work itself was the emergence of discussions and debates about errors in currently available editions of Mahfouz’s work. According to the deputy editor of Akhbar Al-Adab the critic Mohamed Shoair, there are also missing paragraphs which were cut by Mahfouz’s old publisher when he was eager to sell the works in Gulf countries that might take issue with those paragraphs – long before Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in 1988. Shoair, who has studied Mahfouz’s manuscripts and editions closely, says Al-Shorouk reproduced those old editions complete with omissions and errors in some cases.

At the same time Al-Shorouk issued a new, luxury edition of the complete works designed by Ahmed Al-Labbad, which has been making the rounds of book fairs and bookshops. According to sources within Al- Shorouk, it had been planned long before their negotiations with Mahfouz’s daughter failed and was scheduled for release at this time. Many social media commentators feel that Al-Shorouk brought out this new edition in order intentionally to cut short Diwan’s ability to make a quick profit, however. Diwan, for its part, has promised readers completely revised and error-free editions currently being produced by specialist committees.

But Mahfouz was not the year’s only blast from the past. The literary archive was a rather strong competitor. At roughly the same time, writers drew on that archive to produce new narratives different from widespread ones that managed to draw in large readerships.

Iman Mersal’s In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayat – about the writer who committed suicide early on in life – is perhaps the most prominent of these. But there is also Shoair’s Beginnings and Ends: Naguib Mahfouz’s Early Years, which publishes an unknown autobiography by the Nobel laureate inspired by Taha Hussein’s Al-Ayyam. The present writer published The Unknown Text, about the circumstances surrounding the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish moving to Cairo following his stint in Moscow in 1971. Mohsen Al-Balasi published a book about the rebel intellectual Kamel Al-Telmesani that revives interest in Egyptian surrealism. And Beshri Mohamed wrote a new biography of Youssef Edriss.

But it was the literary scholar Samia Mehrez’s study of her grandfather the romantic poet Ibrahim Nagui, Ibrahim Nagui: A Much Belated Intimate Visit, that generated much interest towards the end of the year. Mehrez manages to interweave her subjective personal narrative with an objective account of the poet’s achievement in and outside his diwan. Likewise the Cairo-based Emirati poet Maysoun Saqr’s Riche: An Eye on the Place, a comprehensive biography of the downtown Cafe Riche, known for its central role in intellectual and political history. The book draws on both written and oral material, and presents the cafe in the context of Cairo’s development and self-identification as a modern space.

Mohamed Naim’s Tarikh Al-Jarbaa wal-Usamiya (The History of Scumbaggery and the Self-made Path) is another oblique look at Egyptian history, parsing modernity as of the start of the 19th century through two widespread concepts: that of the noble quest at self-improvement, relying on virtue – the self-made path; and that of the opportunistic approach to power relations to facilitate upward mobility, which spread regrettable social and psychological tendencies and promoted incompetence and cynicism – scumbaggery. Focusing on the connection between the two concepts and how they played out against each other, the author also demonstrates how each has left its mark on society.

In terms of fiction, Mohamed Baraka’s novel Hanat Al-Sett (The Lady’s Tavern) reimagines the great diva Umm Kalthoum’s life in a way that takes away her veneer of sanctity and presents her in a wholly new light. The celebrated journalist Ibrahim Eissa’s new novel, Rassasa fil Rass (A Bullet in the Head), too, resumes his project of rewriting Egyptian history in a fictional framework. Like Kull Al-Shuhour Yuliu (All Months Are July), which deals with the Free Officers and the July 1952 Revolution, the new book documents the assassination of the moderate Sheikh Mohamed Al-Dhahabi by Shoukri Mustafa’s extremist organisation in 1977.

Outside the arena of literature, another battle over mahraganat music – this time in the Popular Culture division of the Culture Ministry – demonstrated that fraught connection with the past, and the difference between those who are eager to reinstate past norms at any cost and those who have a dialectical relationship with what went before.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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