Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 June 1999
Issue No. 433
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

Two Moroccan writers set out from Fez and arrived in Paris. But they took two different paths, and speak two different languages

Le Maroc explained
L'Auberge des pauvres, (The Inn of the Poor), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Auberge des pauvres, 1999. pp294

A summer to be reckoned with
Mithl Seif lan Yatakarar: Mahkiyyat (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated: Narratives), Mohamed Berrada, Casablanca: Dar Al-Fenac, 1999. pp235

Better than more
Al-Tanwir Al-Za'if (False Enlightenment), Galal Amin, Cairo: Iqraa' series, Dar Al-Maaref, February 1999. pp151

The canary sings to himself
Dhalik Al-Janib Al-Akhar (That Other Side), Hassan Soliman, Cairo: General Organisation for Culture Palaces, Aswat Adabiya Series, May 1999. pp195

How very high society
The Egyptian Upper Class Between Revolutions: 1919-1952, Magda Baraka, St Antony's Middle East Monographs Series, Ithaca Press, 1998. pp328

A movable feast
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 Vols.), Vol.1 , edited by Carl F. Petry, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp645

Terms of conversion
Islam in Britain: 1558-1685, Nabil Matar, Cambridge University Press. 1998. pp297

The movement of the waters
As he approaches his eighth decade, José Sarney can look back on a varied and distinguished career. He is best known outside his native Brazil as the first president to lead the country following the overthrow of the military junta in 1985. A lawyer by training, his true vocation however is literature. Unlike those politicians who turn to writing late in life as a distraction or a recreation, Sarney has been making stories since his earliest years. With his novel, O Dono do Mar (The Master of the Sea), his fame as an artist seems set to spread beyond Latin America. A best-seller in the original Portuguese, the work has now been translated into Arabic. Injy El-Kashef spoke to the author while he was in Cairo to launch the book, which she reviews here

God is here, and the devil with him
Sayed Al-Bihar (O Dono do Mar, The Master of the Sea), José Sarney, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999, pp323

At a glance:

* Manamat Am Ahmed Assamak (Am Ahmed the Fisherman's Dreams), Khairi Shalabi

* Al-Yahoud fi Misr Al-Mamloukiya (Jews in Mameluke Egypt), Mahasin Mohamed El-Waqqad

* Shahadati lil-Agyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said

* Hatha Al-Sabbah Al-Gamil (This Beautiful Morning), Mohamed Abul-Ma'ati Abul-Naga

* Khajal Al-Yaquot (The Shyness of Rubies), Amal Moussa

Al-Hilal, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, June 1999

* Complete Poetry, Mohamed Al-Qeissi, Beirut: Arab Institution for Studies and Publishing, 1999.

* Sourat Al-Yahoud fi Al-Adab Al-Injelizi (The Image of Jews in English Literature), Ramsis Awad

* Mawsouat Al-Ghina' Al-Masri fi Al-Qarn Al-'ishrin (Encyclopedia of Egyptian Song in the 20th Century), Mohamed Qabil

* Al-Kutub: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), Cairo: Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publications, Issue no. 5, June 1999




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

A summer to be reckoned with

Reviewed by Mahmoud El-Wardani

Mohamed Berrada *
One afternoon in August 1955, a 17-year-old boy arrived at the Bab Al-Hadid station. As he stepped off the train, anxiety mingled with happiness. He was arriving in Cairo for the first time. Years later, this boy would grow up to become one of the most important writers and critics not only of his homeland, Morocco, but of the entire Arab world.

In his autobiographical novel, Mithl Seif lan Yatakarar: Mahkiyyat (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated: Narratives), Mohamed Berrada reworks in fictional form his memories of Egypt over a period that stretches from 1955 to 1998. Over those years, he saw Cairo shaped and reshaped, as the city rose victorious, then fell defeated -- only to rise again, like the phoenix that continually returns to life.

The subtitle Mahkiyyat deliberately invokes the genre of the folk tale, and each of the book's narratives contains not one, but a multitude of such tales. Berrada uses a fictional persona, or mask, through which to relate what we can assume are principally his own experiences. But this device hardly constitutes an act of concealment, as the protagonist's name, Hammad, so close to that of the author himself, indicates.

More importantly, the novel casts the protagonist as an explorer of the city which helped form him. Thus we follow him as he discovers in the flesh those figures with whom he has already fallen in love through "secondary sources", whether they be songs (Umm Kulthoum, Farid El-Atrash, Abdel-Wahab), films or books (Taha Hussein, Tawfiq El-Hakim, Ahmed Lotfi El-Sayed).

It is impossible for Berrada to conceal his passion for Cairo and its people. Every page of the book bespeaks this passion. He loves the city in all its moods: in its silence and subjugation, in its noise and crowds, and in those elements of continuity which crystallised before him on his very first encounter.

It is the hot summer of 1955. The boy has just arrived in Cairo to complete his studies in Arabic. He has come from French-occupied Morocco, where education, beyond the primary and preparatory levels, is conducted in the language of the occupier. He joins the Al-Husseiniya School in Abbasiya. Within a year of his having taken up residence, Gamal Abdel-Nasser announces the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

"Under the warm autumn sun of Cairo, Moroccan students were enlisting in a regiment of the home guard that was to patrol Dokki and Agouza. They were given guns, but no bullets. They were told that the bullets would soon follow. They were asked to keep their eyes on the sky, to be on the look-out for enemy planes, and to patrol the area delegated to them without fail. And that they would be watched closely by the corporal and his deputy who were assigned to inspect them. Each time Hammad tries to recall those moments, he is incapable of seeing himself clearly with the long gun on his thin shoulder. He was thin then, and his face had not yet shed the features of childhood."

Not only did Berrada participate in the defence of Cairo against the Tripartite Aggression (Suez War) in 1956, he also found time to pass his baccalaureate exam and make a field trip with his schoolmates to Luxor and Aswan, where he saw with his own eyes the outward signs of the inner continuity of Egyptian civilisation.

Those were days of nationalist fervour -- glorious times, when countries across the world were shaking off the yoke of colonial occupation, and national liberation struggles ushered in a new era. Hammad, for his part, began to study Arabic Literature at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts.

"The syllabuses were long and their contents far removed from all the things Hammad and his friend Barhoom had wanted to learn about literature and life... They realised then that they would only find what most mattered to them and fascinated them outside the confines of the Arabic department. They would find them, above all, in the college cafeteria, where a group of young writers and journalists met, along with the beautiful girls who studied sociology or French literature. There were leaders from all over the Arab world, engaging in discussions and arguments, and every once in a while literary and artistic seminars, to which famous figures of the period were invited, would be organised in the cafeteria. Hammad remembers that it was there he listened for the first time to Salah Abdel-Sabour reading his poem Sa'aqtoulak (I Shall Kill You) inspired by the Tripartite Aggression. And in that same cafeteria, he discovered the talent of Safinaz Kazim as he sang the songs of Fayrouz."

From victorious awakening to depression and defeat, Berrada lived with Cairo and its many different districts, with its intellectuals and its writers, and with the simple folk whom he came to know intimately: Umm Fathiya, the maid in the apartment rented by the Moroccan students; his female colleagues, and other Egyptian girls, neighbours or chance encounters. He knew the Umm Kulthoum Café in Tawfiqiya, the kushari joints and the fuul and tamia stands; he knew medieval Cairo, Al-Gamaliya and the City of the Dead beside Manshiyat Nasser. All these details slowly came together to form the intimate memories of the boy and make him into a passionate lover of his adopted city.

After his graduation, he went to France to write his PhD on the work and influence of one of his Egyptian mentors, the critic Mohammed Mandour. Yet he did not sever his relations with Cairo, and later he took it upon himself to build bridges between the cultures of the eastern and western parts of the Arab world. Throughout the seventies and eighties, he organised, prepared and chaired conferences, seminars and meetings which brought together Egyptian and Moroccan writers, especially in his capacity as president of the Moroccan Union of Writers. Of the gradual, almost invisible changes taking place in Cairo during those years, Berrada writes:

"And when Hammad recalls the period between the death of Abdel-Nasser and the assassination of Sadat, he does not know how to assimilate that time... Dozens of millionaires, most of them under fifty, the increasing polarisation between a poor majority and an obscenely wealthy minority. The political arrests of the figureheads of democratic politics, thought and literature, the rise of extremist religious groups and with them a language of violence... Could all of this have emerged at the same time?"

Berrada delves deep. His detailed knowledge of the streets of Cairo and their people combines with his intimacy with the city's intellectuals, critics and writers, to produce a portrait which is at once sensitive and suffused with love. His feelings for Egypt are uncontrived; it is the love of one who sees clearly both the positive and the negative aspects of his beloved. Over a period of forty years, everything changed. The earth was turned over to hide what had before been seen and uncover what had before been hidden. Just as Berrada's love for Egypt is strong, so his knowledge of the country is inclusive and precise. He is not content with what is on the surface, but has penetrated its invisible core.

* Born in Fez in 1938, Mohamed Berrada came to Egypt in 1955 to sit for his matriculation exams in Arabic, which he passed the following year. He graduated from the department of Arabic literature, Cairo University in 1960. On his return to Morocco he worked for the Moroccan Broadcasting Corporation, and became an active member of the Socialist Union for Popular Forces, which played a key role in the achievement of Moroccan independence. In 1965, he travelled to Paris to work for his doctorat d'Etat in literary theory at the Sorbonne, which he was awarded in 1973. Returning again to Morocco, he worked at Mohamed V University in Rabat. He was long active in the General Union of Moroccan Writers, which he chaired from 1976 to 1983.

Since the mid-1970s, Barada has played an important role in Moroccan letters, both as writer and as teacher. As one of the Moroccan writers to have chosen Arabic as their literary language, he has been instrumental in introducing much of French literary theory to an Arabic-speaking audience. He is the author of a collection of stories, Salkh Al-Gild (Skinning, 1979), as well as three novels, Lu'bat Al-Nissyan (The Game of Forgetfulness,1987), Al-Daw' Al-Harib (Fleeting Light, 1993) and Mithl Seif lan Yatakarrar: Mahkiyyat (A Summer Never to be Repeated, 1999). This year he received the Moroccan Order of Merit for Literature. He now resides in Paris with his wife, the Palestinian writer and activist, Leila Shahid-Barada.

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