Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2003
Issue No. 643
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Unlikely hermitage

Khilwet Al-Ghalban (The Poor Man's Hermitage), Ibrahim Aslan, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2003. pp135

With few exceptions, mostly reprints of work already published, this is the first book by a member of the so called Generation of the Sixties to appear under the rubric of a prestigious mainstream press like Dar Al- Shorouk. Tellingly, perhaps, it is non-fiction of a kind that can fit, however uncomfortably, with the tradition of comic writing championed by the likes of Ahmed Bahgat, a much older and unequivocally mainstream name. On the back cover of the paperback edition, the publishers acknowledge Ibrahim Aslan, the author, as "a short story writer of refinement" and "a novelist whose works have added to the canon of the Arabic novel". Yet they introduce, not the otherwise well- known poet of the contemporary novel and short story, but "Ibrahim... the prose writer", a creature, Dar Al- Shorouk claims, with whom the readership has never been familiar.

All the qualities with which they promote the prose in question are doubtless present: observational intelligence, poetic economy of means, the ability to see extraordinary shades in the most ordinary colours. What they do not point out is that these qualities derive directly from Aslan's fiction, and his many years of experience as a self-conscious innovator.

For once Aslan's forever subdued personal voice finds expression in the complexities of day-to-day existence, referring not to the by-far-restricted realm of his fictional Kitkat, the Imbaba neighbourhood where he grew up and still lives, but to a range of settings from the Cairo office of Al-Hayat newspaper, in Garden City, to the gatherings of French intelligentsia in Paris, where he met Jacque Hasoun, an Egyptian Jew who, many years before, had immigrated from a small Egyptian village named Khelwet Al-Ghalban. Aslan's feeling for that name notwithstanding -- and Khelwet Al-Ghalban is an undoubtedly evocative name -- one cue for interpreting the choice of title lies in the notion of writer as economically modest hermit, a notion that recurs, in a broad variety of contexts, throughout the book's chapters.

Indeed it is possible to read this book as an extended, multifaceted statement on the predicament of the writer, particularly the Arab writer. Many of the pieces focus on specific figures: Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad, Naguib Mahfouz, Yehia Haqqi, Youssef Idris, Abdel-Wahab Al- Bayati, Mohamed Hafez Ragab, Yehia El-Taher Abdalla. Others, of a more anecdotal nature, revolve around writerly antics and disputes. Others still convey the writer-intellectual's experience as an ordinary citizen.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is its capacity for inducing laughter. To an even greater extent than books like Malek Al-Hazin, Aslan's best known novel, it made the present writer repeatedly laugh out loud. The comedy is a result of Aslan's enchanting sense of humour, his awareness of irony, his ear for dialogue and his ability to penetrate directly to the ridiculous in even the most serious contexts.

One brilliantly executed piece describes Al-Hayat's response to the death of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. The editorial decision to solicit commentaries from world renowned literary figures was followed by a series of international phone calls that did not take time differences into account. A disgruntled Gabriel-Garcia Marquez, who has just been roused from sleep, turns out never to have heard of Qabbani; the ensuing exchange is hilarious. Jorge Amado is in the intensive care unit at hospital, his wife informs the editor; he is himself to die, she expects, within days.

In "With a Critic Friend", Aslan and an unidentified well-known critic share the secret knowledge that the latter, his public pontifications aside, never reads the books about which he talks. This causes them to break into fits of laughter whenever they see each other -- something that very nearly kills the convalescent critic when Aslan visits him at hospital after a surgery.

Laughter is merely one facet of the holistic world view Aslan presents in this book. His fascination with a French-Moroccan girl who introduces herself to him at a conference in France, his response to news of the death of Youssef Idris while on a bus in Lebanon, his memory of Abdel-Mo'ti El-Messiri, an "alternative writer" with whom Aslan's early encounter was a profound and moving disillusionment, along with numerous other literary stimuli, all tentatively outline the sense of helplessness and isolation captured in the title of the book -- themes that, to a greater extent than the all- important topics of love and death, inform Aslan's entire corpus.

With this book a Sixties writer who typically of his Generation has often refrained from revealing too much, finally tackles his most abiding concerns head on. He resorts to neither a well trodden setting nor a group of characters; and the heroic tones of an intellect always at pains to conceal its presence finally come through. The occasional meditation on world politics, the unexpected confession, the well thought-out opinion add to rather than take away from Aslan's by-now-familiar, superbly engaging world.

Yet that world thankfully remains intact. Indeed some pieces read like short stories from Aslan's first book, Buhayrat Al-Masaa, in which anonymous figures in more or less anonymous surroundings play out the dramas of futility, corruption and subversion of everyday life -- always subtly evoking rather than stating the meanings to which the author aspires. Here as elsewhere life emerges as a quiet, often colourful, sometimes incredible but always beautiful game in which to participate, helpless and isolated as we remain, laughing.

In "Family Blues", a fellow intellectual keeps pestering Aslan, urging him to believe what he says. Aslan is roped into visiting him at home, where he encounters his peculiar wife. A while later, they bump into each other again; and again the intellectual urges Aslan to believe him, telling him that his wife has become a man and pointing to a nearby location. Aslan cannot help his curiosity; and on reaching the location in question discovers that the man the intellectual pointed to really is the woman he had met, his wife. "So that when I tell you anything after that, you will believe me," the man tells Aslan sadly.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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