Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 -17 February 1999
Issue No. 416
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Back issues Current issue

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Playing cat and mouse

By Farouk Abdel-Qader

Fathi Ghanem There were many different people in Fathi Ghanem * (1924-1999), but the one whose reputation will probably best stand the test of time is the novelist.

Ghanem was a natural narrator who dedicated the best part of his energy to mastering the art of fiction. His first novel, The Mountain, appeared in 1958, while his last A Cat and a Mouse in the Train, appeared in 1995. The four decades that separated these two works saw him rise to fame as journalist, political columnist and a leading administrator in the Egyptian journalistic establishment. However, he never lost his passion for fiction, and the novel always represented a refuge to which he could resort in times both of grief and joy. It was through telling stories that he was best able to examine the existential issues which preoccupied him, whether posing fresh questions or settling accounts with the past.

A son of the urban middle classes, Fathi Ghanem was the Cairene par excellence. No wonder, then, that most of his novels contain detailed and vivid descriptions of the city's various quarters and the different social groups and communities that peopled them: from those at the top of the social ladder, be they politicians or millionaires, Egyptians or foreigners, to the marginalised workers and servants at the bottom. The centre stage, however, is occupied by members of the liberal professions. After resigning from his government post in the early fifties to became a full-time journalist and writer, Ghanem immersed himself in the rich and complex world of the professional writer, from which he selected many of the protagonists of his novels.

In describing the changing fate and fortune of people like himself and those whom he came to know through his work, he was able to map out the social and political transformations of Egyptian society from the 1920s to the present day. The narrative of The Man Who Lost His Shadow, the work on which Ghanem's reputation as a novelist principally rests, spans the period between 1923 and 1956. Through the lives of four characters, Ghanem examines the social and political upheavals Egypt witnessed between the formal independence of the British-declared monarchy and the fall of that regime in 1952, before briefly observing the rise of the new July regime up till the eve of the Suez War.

It was not until 1976, in Zeinab and the Throne, that Fathi Ghanem returned to pick up the story of Egypt, beginning in 1956 where he had left off in The Man Who Lost His Shadow, and seeing it through until the defeat of June 1967. In Zeinab, the characters are similar to those in the earlier book, but the focus now is on the new regime, from its first days of glory to the beginning of its final fall. Again, Ghanem uses the main political events of the period as so many signposts in his narrative: the secret organisation within the Arab Socialist Union, the rule of the intelligence services and the marginalisation of all those whose interests the July Revolution had been supposed to represent. In so many ways, Zeinab would seem to have been conceived as a sequel to The Man Who Lost His Shadow.

In The Story of Tou, published in book-form in 1987, after having been serialised in the weekly Rose Al-Youssef between June and August 1974, Fathi Ghanem focused his attention on political oppression and torture in the prisons of the July regime. The result is a powerful artistic refiguring of a real event, the torture that led to the death of the communist leader, Shohdi Attia. Of course, there is more to the novel than that: it is also an investigation into the nature of oppression and those who practice it in the name of the revolution. Ghanem explores this issue through his protagonist, the high-ranking police officer who is director of the prison where the torture takes place.

All of Ghanem's other novels are essentially political in their concerns. Their subjects range from terrorism, fundamentalism and violence, to power fetishism and the sacrifices that are offered on its altar. In addressing these often thorny issues, Ghanem succeeded in turning political questioning and outrage into real literary art. His was a rare combination of skill as a story-teller and privileged insight into the political life of his country during some of the most critical phases in its history. Both his art, and the great popularity it won for him, secure him a place as one of the most distinguished novelists of the Arab world.

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