Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
12 - 18 August 1999
Issue No. 442
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

Books for a burning month
Holiday reading and what the writers read

Translating Egypt
Hala Halim finds consummate translation skills and less compelling ethnography in Ahdaf Soueif's most recent counter-narrative

Extract from The Map of love
By Ahdaf Soueif

Metropolitan musings
A new French translation of a Gamal El-Ghitani novel appeared last month. David Tresilian, in Paris, interviews the translator and meanders through the novel Francophone readers

I know what you read this summer
All writers and artists intereviewed by Hala Halim

An elusive graveyard
Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal (The Smell of Orange), Mahmoud El-Wardani, Cairo: Maktabat Al-Osra (Family Library), GEBO, 1999. pp115

A century of fantasy
Awalim Borges Al-Khayaliya (Borges's Universe of Fantasy), translated and introduced by Khalil Kalfat, Cairo: Afaq Al-Tarjama (Translations) Series, Cultural Palaces Organisation, July 1999. pp140

Author and character
without disguise

Manamat 'Amm Ahmed Al-Sammak (The Dreams of 'Amm Ahmed the Fishmonger), Khairi Shalabi, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp285

What the winter said
Youssef Rakha discusses Salah Abdel-Sabour's Layla wal-Majnoun, now part of the Kitab fi Garida Series, a joint project of Al-Ahram and UNESCO, translating an extract from the play

Thus spoke the Ustaz

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


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

Author and character without disguise

Reviewed by Mahmoud El-wardani

Ghafir Cemeteries Looking for a place to write some years ago, the novelist Khairi Shalabi found a café on the edges of the Ghafir Cemeteries in the Qaitbey area of Cairo. This seemed suitable, and there he met 'Amm Ahmed the Fishmonger. The two became friends. It is a common enough story, except that 'Amm Ahmed subsequently inspired the novelist to write many of his best works of fiction.

Originally from Upper Egypt, 'Amm Ahmed has always earned his living from back-breaking jobs. He has been a security guard, a fishmonger who carries his wares on his head, some kind of highwayman, a waiter, a builder and a greengrocer, among other things. He has now settled in Qaitbey, where he worked inside the Qaitbey Market. He is a very talented raconteur, a real ibn al-balad, which is to say that he is a 'real Cairene' in the same way that a cockney is a real Londoner.

Shalabi, for his part, is a prolific writer. His dozens of novels -- of varying quality -- in addition to his journalistic and historical works, have all helped his popularity. Of Shalabi's many novels where 'Amm Ahmed's presence is felt, Wikalet 'Attiya (Attiya's Caravansarai), which describes a world of outsiders, petty criminals and drug dealers, is among the most important. But 'Amm Ahmed is even more prominent in Shalabi's famous trilogy, Awilna Walad; Thanina Al-Shayib; Thaluthna Al-Komi ('First the Jack; Then the King; Thirdly the Seven of Diamonds'), since while Wikalet Attiya takes place in the Delta town of Mansoura, the trilogy takes place in Upper Egypt, where 'Amm Ahmed, of course, was born.

With the publication of Manamat 'Amm Ahmed Al-Sammak we are finally presented with both 'Amm Ahmed and Shalabi, and this time without disguise. The novel is set in Qaitbey, and it incorporates 'Amm Ahmed's dreams, as told to Shalabi, which the author has now re-presented to us in printed form. These are not 'Freudian dreams' that call for psychoanalytic interpretation; instead, they are dreams laden with premonitions of the future. They thus belong to the traditional Arab discourse on dreams, as that is to be found in works on dream interpretation or in literary texts where dreams are a major component of the structure. This is the case for many of the stories in Alf Layla wa Layla (The Arabian Nights) for example, as well as in innumerable folk tales and sagas. Dreams here are not the expression of 'wish-fulfillments', as Freud famously took them to be, but constitute instead (or in addition) a 'parallel reality' for the marginalised and the oppressed.

The author has selected 25 of 'Amm Ahmed's dreams. Not only does 'Amm Ahmed narrate the dream, but he also gives us his own interpretation of it and explains how the interpretation ultimately corresponded with reality. Of the author's contribution (the other author), perhaps Shalabi's most striking achievement in this book is his language, and the way in which classical Arabic is mixed with the vernacular to give the writing an inimitable texture that testifies to 'Amm Ahmed's own particular brand of eloquence. Shalabi also provides an account of his relation with 'Amm Ahmed and how it has developed, for he writes himself into the narrative as an ustaz, who listens to 'Amm Ahmed's interpretations of his dreams and shares at least part of his surprise at the way these are later borne out in reality.

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