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Alaa al-Deeb’s literary and professional identity was formed by his long association with two major schools in modern Egyptian culture. These were, first of all, the journalistic school of Rose el-Youssef, and secondly, the ‘sixties generation’ in Egyptian literature, as embodied by the independent and avant-garde magazine Gallery 68. The Rose el-Youssef of which I speak here is not the company during its initial, liberal phase, which began with its founding by the pioneering dramatist Fatima ‘Rose’ Youssef, and the support of writers like Abbas al-Aqqad and Mohamed El Tabei. Nor do I mean the company’s most recent phase, which began in the nineties under the management of Adil Hammouda, who oversaw its transformation into scandalmongering and yellow journalism. I refer, rather, to its middle phase in the fifties and sixties, when it was managed by Ihsan Abdel Quddous, the daring journalist and most famous author of best-seller novels during that era.
Abdel Quddous took over management of the company and its magazine from his pioneering mother, and assembled a crack team of talented writers and artists, most of whom were active leftists. During this era, the foundation brought in figures like the poet Fuad Haddad, the physician and author Salah Hafez, the graphic designer Hasan Fuad, and the illustrator Zuhdi al-Adawi. While Abdel Quddous is generally classified as a ‘liberal’, he revealed his socialist sympathies in his decision to assemble this team made up of individuals imprisoned under consecutive regimes. This second phase of Rose el-Youssef produced a new magazine in 1956 called Sabah El Kheir (Good Morning), with the flashy slogan: ‘For Youthful Hearts and Liberated Minds!’ The magazine was committed to developing a fresh new kind of journalism for a generation that felt newly empowered after the departure of feudalism and colonialism. It was perhaps even more committed to showcasing new kinds of illustration, caricature and editorial cartoons. It owed its success to the efforts of some truly great talents, such as the poet and cartoonist Salah Jahin, the exceptional journalist Ahmad Bahaa al-Din, and the novelist Fathi Ghanem.
Sabah El Kheir had some daring ideas. It once sent the author Abdallah al-Tukhi on a journey along the Nile, all the way from Cairo to its source in Uganda, to write weekly reports that were accompanied by illustrations (not photographs!). It sent the novelist Sabri Moussa to the eastern desert to write his masterpiece Fasad al-Amkina (1973; Seeds of Corruption, trans. Mona Mikhail, Interlink, 2002). It would also dispatch a young author named Alaa al-Deeb to write an investigation, complete with photographs, about a bizarre homicide case in Upper Egypt.
In 1987, having just finished high school, and still emerging from a troubled adolescence, I tried my hand as a novice at story writing. For inspiration, I turned to literature to find that which might fill the desolate void of the eighties. My uncle, who was the financial director of Rose el-Youssef, took me to the company’s headquarters to meet its writers and show them my own attempts at story writing. In a room on the fifth floor, where the offices of Sabah El Kheir were located, I met the very same three I mentioned above: al-Tukhi, Moussa, and al-Deeb! I had been following their work in the magazine, and had read some books of theirs that I managed to obtain. Among these was al-Deeb’s Lemon Blossom, which I had read a few years previously in serialized form, accompanied by the illustrations of Ihab Shakir.
I read to them some of my first writings. Sabri Moussa encouraged me with some kind words, and al-Tukhi smiled without passing judgment. Alaa, for his part, asked me to come over to his home some time when I had something new to write about. I was surprised to discover that the writer whose book reviews I followed every week, and whose little novel I had become infatuated with, lived only a five-minute walk from my family’s home in Maadi. Moreover, he was none other than the father of Sara Alaa, a school friend of mine since childhood, and I hadn’t made the connection. I was about seventeen at the time, and he was in his late forties – about my age now.
One Friday morning, I gathered up some of the latest drafts of my stories and headed over to the house of Alaa al-Deeb. The house was on Street 73, and ours was on Street 68. In Maadi’s numbered street system, there is no “Street 69,” which meant we were only four blocks apart. Street 73 branches off from Street 9, the longest and most famous street in the suburb, and comes to an abrupt end at the wall of a German nunnery, which is totally hidden by the trees and the arrangement of the neighbouring houses. Coming out of the Maadi metro station, you’ll take a left down Street 9. Street 73 will be up ahead on the right; turning in, you’ll find the wall of the nunnery facing you, and the ‘Rève de nuit’ villa on your right. The latter is rather different from the mansions of the Louza or Mosseri families – wealthy estates that once predominated in the southern part of Maadi. With a small garden, the house possesses a humbler elegance that reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of the Egyptian middle class in the 1940s. It was built by Alaa’s father, Hubballah al-Deeb, who was director of landscaping for Cairo Governorate, back when Cairo Governorate had something called a ‘directorship of landscaping’.
In all the thirty years that I knew Mr. Alaa, starting with the moment I met him at Sabah El Kheir, it was only twice that I saw him outside that house, or indeed outside Maadi. I could hardly believe it when a mutual friend told me how, one summer, he’d met Mr. Alaa on the balcony of the Hotel Crillon in Alexandria. Another time, I saw pictures of him and Youssef Fakhouri on a winter vacation in Aswan. He’d apparently taken a third trip, in the autumn, to Mersa Matruh. Otherwise, he would always be there, in his room, an eternal citizen of Maadi. Burying himself in reading each week in order to write his column, he was the most genuine recluse I ever met. And because he was the author of the most famous book review column in Egyptian journalism, authors and publishers would send him dozens of books every week. The books filled his shelves and tables and piled up in towers on the old wood floor of his room, obliging him to give some away every few months and keep only what was precious or necessary.
In his office overlooking the garden, there would be a tall glass of tea with a couple of mint leaves in it, half-full, on the table in the soft light filtered through the trees. There would be music coming from behind the desk – most likely Bach, or perhaps Umm Kulthum. Maybe just a recording of the Qur’an recited by Sheikh Mustafa Ismail. He once pointed out to me how, in Bergman’s film The Silence, the music makes a dramatic entrance: an elderly man dressed in black appears in the hotel corridor, and says to the mother and her little boy: “Johann Sebastian Bach!” As the music plays, through the window we see Nazi tanks patrolling the streets. In this very room, Alaa al-Deeb told me, his older brother Badr al-Deeb would meet with friends in the 1940s. Still a university student at the time, Badr would gather there with those who would form his first literary posse (did he say Youssef al-Sharuni and Fathi Ghanem?).
From his brother Badr, Alaa received inspiration, and his first lesson: writing is not merely a profession or a trade, it’s how you prove you exist. To write, not to simply make up! One only writes with blood, as Alaa used to say. The same lesson was learned from Fathi Ghanem, too. Ghanem did not write Zaynab and the Throne merely to present a panorama of the journalistic field during the Nasser era, as an unobservant critic might say. He wrote the novel specifically to portray the character Youssef, the intellectual with sharp internal contradictions, who floated on the surface of events as a neutral observer, while at the same time complicit in the ‘game of thrones’. Likewise, Badr al-Deeb didn’t write The Papers of Zumurruda Ayyoub just to fashion a Coptic icon out of stained glass. His purpose, rather, was to put himself on trial, together with his entire generation, as part of a fierce existential coming-to-terms. Badr was thirteen years older than Alaa. His friend Fathi Ghanem was the one who set up the younger of two, the talented young man, to work in the Rose el-Youssef Foundation.
In the same room that Badr al-Deeb would meet with his literary group in the forties, Alaa would later meet with Ibrahim Mansour and Ghalib Halasa in the late fifties to exchange different kinds of books and different kinds of ideas. Badr and his companions had been interested in modern English poetry, surrealism, existentialism, and French and German literature and philosophy. This was due to the influence of their professors in the Faculty of Letters, such as Abd al-Rahman Badawi and Youssef Mourad, as well as their keen interest in the Art and Freedom Group, which was the Egyptian branch of the international surrealist movement. In contrast, the new generation in the room in Maadi became interested in American literature: Henry Miller, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Capote, and even Salinger, whom Halasa translated himself. Mansour and Halasa would go on to assume positions in the ‘leadership’ of the sixties literary movement, as it was manifested in the magazine Gallery 68. Although they were active Marxists, their views on literature were very open-minded and contemporary, in stark contrast to the dominant mode among leftist critics at the time, who practised a strict commitment to the tenets of socialist realism.
But Halasa was, in the end, a transient spirit, and Cairo was just one of his many stops. All Alaa had left was Ibrahim Mansour, his Maadi compatriot. Of their first meeting, Ibrahim would recall that he came across a kid just a few years younger than himself, standing at the Maadi train station reading The Egyptian Gazette. “My day’s first catch!” he said to himself. Ibrahim, who had been politicized since the day he was born, succeeded in recruiting this ‘kid’ to the Marxist organization of which he was a member. But Alaa found himself unable to put up with the secrecy and stealth, and soon withdrew from the organization. In profession and politics, Alaa was not to follow Ibrahim and Ghalib’s model of perpetual rebellion. In this sense he would remain closer to Badr. Yet he also managed to distance himself from the dense literary style and elitism of his brother by taking up the most refined form of journalistic writing, and by finding inspiration in the trends of the sixties’ generation. One day much later, Alaa would point to a copy of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Younger hanging on the wall above his favourite chair, and say: “I want to write a novel as clear as this painting. A poster-novel! Cities bursting forth from the Middle Ages, forming connections and creating new types of human beings. All of this in a single painting like this!”
When I began to visit him regularly in the late eighties and the early nineties, he had stopped going to work altogether, and would simply send in his weekly articles by fax. An employee from the company would come by at the end of each month to bring him his salary, since pay by bank transfer hadn’t yet been implemented in Egyptian government agencies. It was effectively an early retirement, and a voluntary one. Retirement and exile are the fate of the protagonists in Alaa al-Deeb’s last five novels. Abdel Khaliq al-Messiri, the protagonist of Lemon Blossom, exiled himself voluntarily to Suez. The novel portrays his weekend trip back to Cairo to see some of his friends and visit his elderly mother at their old house. In the event, the entirety of his painful past comes crashing down on him. The old house al-Deeb depicts in the novel is a near replica of his own house in Maadi, only he places it in Dokki on the other side of the river. Al-Deeb and his character inhabit the same house.
On his desk is a draft of his next article, along with small strips of paper on which he’s written down notes for his next novel. At the time, his novel Children without Tears had just been published, and he was busy at work on its second part, Moon over the Swamp. I was impressed by Children without Tears even more than I’d been with Lemon Blossom, especially the final scene. Rushing to board his flight back to his life of exile in an oil-rich Gulf country, Dr. Munir Fakkar drops his suitcase and spills its contents all over the ground, as though his life were unravelling before his eyes. But Lemon Blossom is a cunning novel, with a deceptively calm surface. I wouldn’t truly appreciate its effect until I read it again twenty years later. Only then would I perceive how Alaa’s simple and poetic style had flowed into my first narrative work, The Law of Inheritance.
In the mid-nineties, after one of his bouts of ill-health, I went out to walk and shop with him one morning in Maadi. We walked down Street 10, then took a left down Damascus Street until we reached Sawaris Square. We took a right onto Wahib Dos Street, then went back across Street 9. On Damascus Street, he stopped in front of a huge villa once owned by an Iranian family of carpet merchants. He pointed to a lofty eucalyptus tree, several dozen metres tall, with a white trunk and a spherical green head up above. He pointed at it and said: “I’ve known this sweetie since it was little!” On Street 9, he would stop by all the shop owners he’d known for decades, buying cigarettes from Ayyad, brandy from Aziz, cheese from al-Yamani, and bread from al-Sawi. If he didn’t need anything from one of the shops, he’d make some small symbolic purchase – a box of matches, for example – then come back the next day to get something more substantial. The very same Iranian eucalyptus tree would appear later in his novel Rosy Days. With this book, he would take the themes of isolation and retirement to their extremes, portraying a mental hospital as an oasis amidst a desolate world!
In Alaa’s oeuvre, guilt and sin are related to a loss of innocence, to disillusionment and deceit. Badr, by contrast, examined these themes within a context of political and moral complicity. If Alaa’s works seem to form one long diatribe against the Sadat era and its aftermath, the trauma of the 1967 defeat also loomed large. He would state this explicitly in his book Pause before the Decline. This is usually classified as an autobiographical work, but is perhaps better described as an exercise in self-criticism, a sharply critical review of his own personal history at a particular moment. At one point in the book, he says: “A dear young man, who hung on my every word, once asked me, ‘What did you do in ’67, and what did it do to you?’ Without hesitating, I said, ‘It killed me, and I’ve been dead ever since!’” It’s no wonder that the book would become tremendously popular among young people in Egypt after the defeat of the January 2011 Revolution. It would share an audience with The Stillborn, a similarly painful work written by the communist activist Arwa Saleh.
Alaa would always describe his personal crisis as that of a middle-class intellectual. This was because he had made the decision to stay out of trouble, in contrast to his lifelong friend Ibrahim Mansour, who had committed himself to the cause and ended up paying the price with prison and exile. Ibrahim represented the daring side of Alaa, whereas Alaa represented the artistic spirit that had departed from Ibrahim. It was from Ibrahim, too, that he became interested in translation, and the two had rigorously trained in it from the beginning of their youth. His contributions to the field were few but of genuine quality, such as his marvellous translation of the Hungarian author Sarkadi Imre’s novella A Woman at Thirty, and the short story Return to Brooklyn, which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read by Henry Miller. He made a number of political translations, and also took on the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.
I last met him in October 2015, four months before his death. I was back in Cairo for a month-long vacation. The ‘Ustaz’ was busy reading the works of John Coetzee, since he hadn’t read him at the height of his popularity back when Coetzee had won the Booker and then the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wasn’t one to follow the prevailing fad, however powerful the advertising – although Coetzee certainly deserved all the buzz. While he was evidently enjoying Coetzee’s books, on the inside he was beset by depression brought on by his physical weakness and his sense that his time was nearly up. “When you read this guy,” he said, “you feel that everything we’ve written is just a handful of sawdust!” I understood where his pain and desperation were coming from. Still, I didn’t want to contradict his assessment, lest he think I was just trying to flatter him. Instead, I said, “Is Badr al-Deeb just a handful of sawdust? What about The Papers of Zumurruda Ayyub?” Catching my trick, he smiled from behind the darkness and said: “You’re right!”
Translated by Ben Koerber
Published in Banipal 60 – Alaa al-Deeb: A writer apart (Autumn/Winter 2017)
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