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
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
A sun which leaves no shadows
illlustration: Anna Boghiguian
The almost 25 years during which Jordanian writer Ghaleb Halasa (1932-1989) lived in Egypt were among his most animated. Halasa arrived from Jordan in 1953 to study at the American University in Cairo, the city which he chose as his permanent residence until he was deported from it in 1976. His access to European languages and his first hand knowledge of Western culture enabled him to act, along with few others, as a mediator between the many writers who flocked to the capital during the late 1950s and early 1960s from the countryside in search of learning and recognition and major Western trends in philosophy and art. And the mark he left on this generation relies on what he made possible for others, in life as well as thought, as much as on his own literary production.
Halasa in some measures enacted Jean-Paul Sartre's traumatic discoveries of La Nausée: "The thing which was waiting has... pounced upon me, it is slipping into me, I am full of it... Existence, liberated, released, surges over me. I exist." Yet the disillusioned cynicism which permeates these intimately recounted narratives (two short stories and six extracts from novels) should not mislead the reader into thinking that their writer's concurrent life was anything short of spirited.
Writer Alaa El-Dib, one of the many left-leaning intellectuals (later known as the 1960s generation) described the Jordanian author's house during the 1960s: "There was always something in the process of being created: a short story being written, a poet stumbling over the lines of his poem, university students comparing notes. The country's real news were recounted here without fear. Small human circles, within a great circle even more human and vital. Intimate relationships, few demands. The future resolutely beckoning us. And the thought of disillusion a completely irrelevant and meaningless thing."
Perhaps in agreement with Albert Camus' disavowal of writing which embodied the empty acquiescence and easy optimism of the (realist) liar ("a literature of despair is a contradiction in terms"), Halasa explored the depths and breadths of what Sartre called "the sin of existing", while nonetheless maintaining the collective Arab dream of a firm sense of identity and social justice.
The deceptive simplicity of a story like Eid Milad (Birthday, 1969), this selection's most representative complete text, is best understood in the broader context of the attempt to reorient Egyptian (Arab) thinking towards Sartre's conflation of Marxism and existentialism. The tone is reminiscent of Camus -- personal, ironic, sometimes deadpan. ("A pleasant memory from yesterday made him happy. He knew that as soon as he remembered what it was, it would cease to make him happy immediately. But he could not stop his mind from roaming around it.") But the subject matter, though ostensibly devoid of sociopolitical implications, is specific to its time and place.
Eid Milad comprises two open-ended episodes, whose only obvious link is that they both occur on the nameless protagonist's birthday. In the first he lounges, half asleep, in the nondescript hall of his flat. Thoughts, presented without recourse to an elaborate stream-of-consciousness scheme, surge through his head. As is the case with Sartre's La Nausée, these are very simple thoughts, apparently untrammeled by any preconceived ideas.
Like Sartre's Roquentin, it is the most fleeting glimpse of a meaningful precept that Halasa is after. The insertion of an apparently irrelevant line of dialogue, for example, portrays the protagonist's emotional disillusionment directly, allowing Halasa to avoid the causal chains of realism: "She said, 'Of course we fell in love before we got married.' And I hadn't realised she was his wife."
With the arrival of the maid, the protagonist embarks on an absurd conversation which both reinforces his alienation (despair hampers his very attempt to communicate) and underlines his privileged position in the social hierarchy, exposing its inhumanity. "Has Churchill dropped by?... De Gaulle?... Not even Greta Garbo?..."
The maid's squabbles with the neighbours and bawab, meanwhile, confirm the insuperable distance between self and other (the intellectual and his maid). But, after the protagonist engages in his voyeuristic habit of watching the neighbours unobserved, they are eventually brought to a rare moment of serenity: "He was standing before the shutters when she called, 'Tea'..." Halasa's rendering of his existential situation is perfectly static.
In the second episode thoughts continue to figure, but Halasa attempts a dynamic, anecdotal approach. The protagonist has already "looked at the calendar and had that weary feeling that the date it carried was related to something he had forgotten." In downtown Cairo he is on the verge of remembering that thing, but again it eludes him. Not until he has embarked on the abortive process of picking up, and then getting rid of, a school girl more than 20 years his junior does he finally remember his birthday, as soon as he closes the door behind him: "That he was, at this very moment, entering his fortieth year seemed meaningless... He realised... that it was too late to postpone anything."
His repulsion at his own body is reminiscent of Roquentin's, but the abrupt ending owes more to the experimental lyricism of the 1960s: "His eyes hankered after the setting sun, while he rushed in the midst of death, which had struck everything. The street lights went on all at once. It was night."
Despite their diversity and depth, among these texts' foremost virtues is their intellectual consistency. Even the occasional lyrical flight ("The joy of the luminous sun, and the white sky blinded by light") underpins a familiar philosophical structure. The antihero who rejects received tenets of behaviour and stays true to his individuality suffers the alienation of being aware of his existence: he is in an utterly unjustified situation, which only his choices can alter. Yet it is this suffering, Halasa never tired of asserting, that points to the possibility of sociopolitical transformation.
What Halasa has in common with his contemporaries is not the existentialist project he championed, however, but the semi-autobiographical nature of his material. As writer Edward El-Kharrat observes, Halasa may be writing a third-person narrative, but it is his own presence as protagonist that gives shape to his fictional world. The distinctive flavour of his writing nonetheless derives from the ideas with which his autobiographical endeavours are imbued. Like Camus's Meursault, he is "in love with a sun which leaves no shadows". All that remains is an extraordinarily powerful light, which not only illuminates the 1960s' political and intellectual journeys, but also our own.
Reviewed byYoussef Rakha