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Without the possibility of experimenting with form,
I think modern writing has no meaning
Egyptian novelist Edwar Al-Kharrat published his first and highly acclaimed collection of short stories, Hitan Aliya (High Walls), in 1959, but then stopped writing during the years that followed when many of his contemporaries were in prison, and instead immersed himself in translating literature and writing criticism.
Twenty years later his first novel Ramah wal Tinneen (Ramah and the Dragon) was published. Now considered a classic, it is, according to the author “untranslatable”. It brings together the different worlds of poetry, legend, philosophy and history in the tales of Ramah and the dragon, where the tales stand alone yet interlocked with each other through the middle-aged protagonists Mikhail, a Copt, and his lover, Ramah, a Muslim woman.
In 1989 his fourth novel City of Saffron was published in English, followed by its sequel Girls of Alexandria in 1993. The Stones of Bobello, a volume of memoirs, will be published by Quartet in April 2000.
Al-Kharrat read from his works at the London Festival of Literature, The Word, where I met him and he talked about his work.
I was born into a Christian family, and although you might think we were a minority, it was not in the sense people might understand it today, because Egyptian Copts have never looked upon themselves as a minority, as indeed they are not. Minorities are in a certain sense outsiders, but the Copts themselves are the original inhabitants of Egypt, although of course they have a different sub-culture which affects their lives – church-goings, the symbol of the old orthodox traditions. The Coptic Church has a long history of resistance; from Roman times the Egyptian Church was always naturally independent, going against the existing authorities. Coptic Christianity is very closely linked to the old religions, the Pharonic Osiris, to the old Egyptian civilization. And so a Coptic boy would be more affected by this history than a Muslim boy.
Although I always had a vocation to be a writer, I don’t think I ever made a decision to be one. I remember my first short story and first poem – when I was 10 years old. Why did I write them? It was the year that Italy invaded Ethiopia – I read the newspapers, and a wrote a national piece about the young soldiers, the aeroplanes coming. When I read it to my mother and sisters, they wept. So, inside me there was a real desire to reformulate, to reshape things. I have lived through so many different situations. But is it only a matter of living in different periods of history, and living out the inner moments of one’s existence, from being deeply religious to doubting, to being an atheist, a marxist, an agnostic, whatever?
I trained as a lawyer, graduating from Alexandria University, and after working in a shipping office with British officials, I got a job with the National Bank of Egypt, and I was there, thankfully, for less than a year, when I was arrested and imprisoned for two years for my left-wing politics. I say thankfully as there was an agreement that if you were employed for more than one year you had to return to the Bank’s employment after release from prison. I was indeed lucky not to go back there. I moved to Cairo eventually, and worked at the Romanian Embassy for a short time – I didn’t at all like the bureaucracy there. Then I worked for the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Association and the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, starting as a translator and working up to become Assistant Secretary-General in both organisations. They were important cultural and political organisations helping liberation movements during the ‘60s, something that was very necessary in that time of the ‘Wind of Change’.
When I write I have no idea about any readers. I consider problems, questions. That does not mean that I neglect, disregard, or despise my readers. One would like, don’t you think, to be read by everybody. But it never occurs to me that what I write is going to be read or not. What is relevant for me is the material and the language. Writers who look for a certain readership milieu are commercial and not serious. When I write I don’t have a schedule, I didn’t have a programme. I may remain for days without writing, and, in fact, I stayed for years at one point without writing. But all the time I am writing up here, inside my head. When it comes it comes at any time, I don’t know when. It just comes and then I have to write.
The literary movement of the sixties was a period of time when there were expectations, hopes, open vistas, but these came to an end after the defeat of 1967 – and all the illusions of a good future ahead disappeared. Only realism appeared to be left, and because of this young writers who thought that change was going to come were marginalised. Their writing was not the main current in literature; on the contrary, it was well overshadowed because it was in fact too close to reality, too pessimistic. Even before 1967 there had been a foreboding of what was to come. The sixties’ movement was not mainstream. I had had my first book of short stories published in 1959, which was met with critical acclaim but then almost forgotten except by a few. And I thought that was that, and didn’t realise that the book was making its own way. Writers started coming to me and asking if they could join me. The movement didn’t have a particular platform, except in the sense that these young writers were not with the mainstream of social realism . . . but they were not conservative either. Most of them belonged to the left.
The open platform helped writers explore and experiment, and as such represented the main shift in Egyptian, and probably Arab literature, from the old traditional sensibilities to the new sensibility of the modernist movement where nothing was fixed. The old method of narration, the logical, reasonable outlook, the philosophy of interpreting that reality – all that was no longer acceptable; there was a new mode of the absurd, a dream-like world where the usual concepts were disregarded and imagination could run riot.
Without the possibility of experimenting with form, I think modern writing has no meaning. I don’t think my writing can be labelled according to accepted genres. I began as a poet, and experienced all the phases – the traditional, pre-Islamic form, then the Apollo movement, and finally the prose poem. But for me poetry was not enough to say what I wanted to say. Even in my short stories I did not adhere to that genre as it existed then. I had very scanty dialogues, no plot or solution, I would plunge into the heart of the matter, or meditate over the the slightest thing. Short story writing is sometimes seen as akin to novel-writing and not considered as a special genre. But, in several of my novels, the chapters can be read as independent entities. Of course they are linked, but they could be separate, they are self-sufficient. I like story-telling, but I interweave it with so many other things that it is not straightforward story-telling in a traditional way, with an introduction leading into the story, etc, etc.
Arabic is very rich, very complicated, there are so many layers, and it is not simplistic. It has to try to capture events – and at all the different levels, and more. Arabic has this distinct character of having many varieties and layers which are still valid, from classical Arabic, to spoken Arabic and the different spoken Arabics – of Morocco, etc. All this makes for a very broad picture of a language, of different languages. In my writing, I try to blend all this, the outside and the inner world. Maybe my critics like an entertaining story with an end. Maybe some people do not like to be provoked, but I like to bring the reader to life, to wake him up. My writing is not to soothe people to sleep. Perhaps my legal training was helpful for my writing, but I wasn’t conscious of it then. I learned to assess exactly the value of a word: it must mean this or it could mean that. It’s simple, although I think that skill was already there, my studies just helped it on.
But, turning back to literature, while Mahfouz certainly laid the basis for the Egyptian novel, Egyptian literature – and literature from other Arab countries – has gone beyond that, far beyond it. I’m looking particularly at the spirit of modern adventure, of experimentation, the sense of daring, of not abiding by the rules, moving away from the traditional style of writing a novel. It reminds me of breaking down barriers. Even if sometimes young writers make mistakes, something is not well written, at least there’s a sense of adventure. That’s what I see today.As for Arab readers, we know their number is small, but we can’t look for an explanation for that in the new sort of writing. There are many social reasons for it, including lack of literacy, and of course just the cost of books, and also the overpowering influence of the media and television. However, in spite of this, some of my books have sold out.
About Egyptian writers and the censor, I have to say that in publishing there is no problem: books are published first, and then if the censor wants to do something . . . but I think there’s no real censorship. The censor is a separate institution, at Al-Azhar Islamic University. However, if you take the recent case of censorship of internationally-known literature at the American University in Cairo, that was due to parents of students who had become influenced by the Islamic movement. Enlightened thinkers in Egypt were outraged by this since they are for freedom of expression. This freedom is the very essence of university life. If there is none, what is there? But, don’t forget, there are always many misrepresentations of the facts. I know, for instance, that the books in question were not banned, they were simply moved from one year to another. And, you must understand that the American University in Cairo is not for young students. A friend told me that in fact only about two people were directly involved.
The institution of Al-Azhar, on the other hand, takes its legal course. If you do not deliberately attack religious heads and symbols, such as the President of the Republic, etc, then there’s no problem. And some older, well-known writers do win for themselves another inch each day, so there is scope and hope. Even as a young writer, if you don’t touch the taboo subjects, you can write what you want – on sex, alcohol, or politics. But it is still a problem. You should be allowed to say whatever you want to say, and afterwards people can judge whether it is good or bad writing – this is the only criterion that I consider valid. Well, even in the West there was a time when some writing was not possible.
The background to both my books published in English, City of Saffron and Girls of Alexandria, is Alexandria, the city I grew up in. To a certain extent, every writer, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, is bound to be autobiographical. Both of these two novels I wrote before Lawrence Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet and when I read his work I was very angry. He was so absolutely out of touch with the Alexandria that I knew – he was biased, he saw a different Alexandria altogether. I hesitate to use a word such as ‘untrue’, but its scope, in a literary sense, its images of excitement, of prettiness, have nothing to do with Alexandria. Durrell didn’t live in any contact with the people of Alexandria, only with the ‘foreignised’ upper class, in their own way an imagined and fabricated part of society.
It’s a shame that in the West people consider Alexandria is Durrell and Durrell is Alexandria. Some years ago, a Lawrence Durrell Conference took place in Alexandria and one of the organisers invited me to give the keynote speech. They were flabbergasted by what I said, and when I finished there were a few seconds of absolute silence before the hall exploded with applause. Of course, they all opposed what I’d said, but they recognised that I had something to say. A very heated discussion followed . . .