Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 May 1999
Issue No. 429
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Books Monthly supplement

Food for thought
A word from the Editor-in-Chief Hosny Guindy

Time for forgiveness?
Mona Anis revels in a 1960s memoir vividly chronicling the underground life of Egypt's angry young writers

A sun which leaves no shadows
Mokhtarat (Selections), Ghaleb Halasa, Al-Ahram (Kitab fi Garida), February 1999

Mothering the populace
The Pure and the Powerful, Studies in Contemporary Muslim Society, Nadia Abu Zahra, London: Garnet Publishing,1997. pp.308

Lights, camera, chit-chat
Cairo: From Edge to Edge, essay by Sonallah Ibrahim and photographs by Jean Pierre Ribière, Cairo: AUC Press, 1998. pp21+ 70 photographs

The art of conversation
Tawfiq El-Hakim Yatathakar (Tawfiq El-Hakim Reminisces), ed Gamal El-Ghitani. Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture, 1998. pp183

Not quite another country
Alnesaeyat, Malak Hefny Nassef. Cairo: The Women and Memory Forum publications, 1998. pp246

Journey of a giraffe
Zarafa, Michael Allin, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1998. pp215

Village life from within
Denys Johnson-Davies offers insight into Mohamed El-Bisatie's work, and translates an extract from his new novel, appearing this Saturday in the Al-Hilal series
And the Train Comes

Short Reviews:

*Al-Kotob: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints)

*Soheir El-Qalamawi, Nabila Ibrahim

*Sifr Amal Donqol (The Book of Amal Donqol), ed Abla El-Reweini

*Mithl Saif Lan Yatakarar Kathiran: Mahkiyat (Like a Summer that will Not Often Repeat Itself: Anecdotes)

*Al-Sayida allati wa'l-Rajul alathi lam... (The Lady who and the Manwho did not ...), Sabri Moussa

*Buka'iya illa Hafiz Al-Shirazi (Elegy to Hafiz Al-Shirazi), Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati

*Deen Al-Harafeesh fi Misr Al-Mahrousa (The Religion of the Harafeesh in Egypt the Protected), Ali Fahmi

*Al-Ibna Faten (Daughter Faten), Naim Sabri

*Siwa Door: Poems 1993-1997, Tom Lamont

*Tujar Al-Tawabil fi Misr fi'l-Asr Al-Mamluki ah (Spice Merchants in Egypt in the Mameluke Period), Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Ashqar

*Ragul Tayeb Yukalim Nafsah (A kind man who talks to himself), Girgis Shukri

*Nizwa: A quarterly literary Journal

*Al-Tifl Al-Manbuz (Testaments Betrayed), Milan Kundera

*Arba' Masrahiyat 'Iraqiya (Four Iraqi Plays)



Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Time for forgiveness?

By Mona Anis

Attiyat El-Abnoudi is both an acclaimed documentary film director and the former wife of the celebrated poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi. And it is in the confluence of these two personae that the value of this book lies -- a book that, given the razzamatazz surrounding its appearance, is guaranteed a place among the year's bestsellers.

It is more than a decade now since Abdel-Rahman walked out on Attiyat. Her decision, almost ten years later, to publish part of her personal diary written during the early days of their marriage caused something of a sensation: Abdel-Rahman responded angrily, and the newspaper serialisation came to a sudden halt.

Now the full text of the memoir, along with a 20-page introduction and a 5-page conclusion by the author contextualising the period during which the memoir was written, is available in book form, and once more it is the talk of the town. But why would Attiyat want to publish this memoir -- chronicling the love story of two young artists struggling to make it up to the top -- given the hostility that has long existed between the protagonists? Attiyat herself concedes a certain psychological motivation behind the book: "Returning to my old papers... I found myself reaching for a time of forgiveness [bold in Attiyat's original]... The publication of this memoir has afforded me the experienced of self-revelation, something of which I have been in need for a long time."

While Attiyat's memoir successfully avoids the pettiness and rancour that mars so much end-of-the affair writing what comes as a surprise is the maudlin tone that accompanies the hindsight: "I did not ask him why he did not phone or run to me across Tahrir Square to Qasr El-Nil Bridge... and why we did not pause for a while to gaze at the river under Cairo lights." Thankfully, such passages are rare.

But the telling of the sometimes-endearing, sometimes-melodramatic love story of the young Attiyat and Abdel-Rahman is not, in the end, the most interesting aspect of this book -- something the documentary film-maker in Attiyat El-Abnoudi is likely to have appreciated well. And whatever the squabbles about the motives behind both the writing and publication of this memoir -- is it an act of forgiveness, or something else entirely? -- this book comprises a feast for any serious student of contemporary Egyptian literature and highlights the ambivalent relationship between the Nasserist regime and intellectuals of the period.

Though it spans only 140 days, "Days without Him" succeeds in painting a moving portrait of Egypt on the eve of the June 1967 defeat. The diary opens on 23 October 1966, two weeks after Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi's arrest, along with 20 other writers and intellectuals, charged with 'attempting to overthrow the regime'. It closes on 12 March 1967, a day before the release of El-Abnoudi and his colleagues, secured partly as a result of an international campaign that culminated in Jean-Paul Sartre's bringing up the topic of their arrest with Nasser during his visit to Egypt at the time.

In the less than five month period of the memoir we hear of the arrest of two other groups -- peasants from Kafr El-Sheikh and student members of the regime's Youth Organisation -- again charged with attempting to overthrow the regime. And what Attiyat's introduction to the memoir makes abundantly clear is that there is little in the background of these three groups to distinguish them -- vis-a-vis their position as beneficiaries of the revolution.

Necessary signposts to her own social background are offered: the daughter of a seamstress and piece-worker from the small village town of Sinbellawein, it was the 1952 revolution that instilled in Attiyat the ambition to go to Cairo and attend university.

"University was now free," she writes, "and I told my mother that the dream of becoming a journalist or a lawyer cost only LE 15 in university fees and some clothes (two skirts, two blouses and a jumper). She said the money could be taken care of through an LE 2O cooperative loan raised with the help of the neighbours. Accommodation would be free -- it was decided that I should stay with my brother, a salesman at Omar Effendi, and his wife."

Thus Attiyat arrived in Cairo in 1956 and joined Cairo University's Faculty of Law, beginning her upwardly mobile journey. When she did not succeed at the Faculty of Law she embarked on building a career in the performing arts, first working as a puppeteer at the recently formed puppet theatre, then doing some radio acting before, in 1965 (the time she met Abnoudi) becoming a stage manager at the National Theatre.

Attiyat's arrival in Cairo is the story of the great majority of the children of poor peasants who flocked to the city in search of education and proper job opportunities. And with only a few exceptions, it is a story shared by the writers arrested with Abdel-Rahman on 9 October 1966. The harsh treatment they received during their short imprisonment -- all 20 were released without trial or even a proper legal hearing the following March -- left an indelible mark on their writing, informing a sensibility that was to find expression in a large number of texts. Al-Zini Barakat, Gamal El-Ghitani's acclaimed novel, is but the most obvious example of work shaped by this five month experience of Al-Qalaa prison, an experience that can, arguably, be traced in works by the poets Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi and Sayid Hegab, in the fiction of Gamal El-Ghitani, Ghalib Halasa and Yehia El-Tahir Abdallah, and in the journalism and criticism of Sabry Hafiz, Salah Eissa and Sayed Khamis-- all of whom were experiencing the regime's iron fist for the first time.

That most of the names cited above became later ardent defenders of Nasser and the social achievments of1952 revolution is a topic beyond the scope of this review -- though it illustrates an important aspect of the period, highlighting the ambivalent relationship between a major section of the Egyptian intelligentsia, especially those who grew up under Nasser's rule, and the regime. It is an ambivalence expressed by Ahmed Fouad Negm (imprisoned for criticising Nasser after 1967 and released only after Nasser's death) who wrote, commemorating the anniversary of Nasser's death: "And if he once made our hearts ache, now all the wounds are healed."

By warmly and spontaneously describing her day to day life during the period -- a description that takes in friends, colleagues, the wives of those who were sent to prison, the ministers, journalists, singers, state security officers, waiters she encountered -- Attiyat Al-Abnoudi has whetted our appetite for a more comprehensive study of the literary life in Egypt during the period that saw the unravelling of the dreams, battles and frustrations of the generation of the 60s. Though quite whether such a study, and future memoirs, will be conceived as acts of forgiveness, remains to be seen.

Attiyat El-Abnoudi, Ayyam Lam Takun Ma'ahu (Days without him), Cairo: Al-Foursan for Publication, 1999. pp267

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