Mohamed Heggi :
Songs of innocence and experience
A sociable quiescence
photo: Youssef Rakha
In his early poems about nature and love Pablo Neruda discovers the world as if he were the first human being. Things address the young and isolated forest dweller as if they had never existed before he sees them. It is their virginal beauty that gives him a sense of purpose; and no matter how far he is to go, or how familiar the same things are to become, that primal intimacy with childhood surroundings will continue to inform his work till the end of his life. In much the same way, as a small child, Mohamed Heggi discovered the plastic arts. "I contend that I represent the longest lived artistic career in the Arab world," the garrulous 63-year-old points out, "because I started at the age of two or three. It was a matter of necessity..." Heggi's father was a fellah and modest landowner. "He was literate and forward-looking, and his dress reflected the dichotomy of being a fellah and effendi at the same time: he wore a tarboush and jacket on top of his galabeya." One of his more interesting gestures was to buy a piece of land containing the whitewashed, Mediterranean-style house of a Greek expatriate about to leave the country. Located on the outskirts of Mansoura, the fenced-in compound incorporated a flower garden, a fruit and vegetable garden, a stable and various pens. This was Heggi's first home. "It must have been a peculiar juxtaposition," he recalls, laughing. "This largely European setup was occupied by a family of fellahin, who naturally brought in their own very different tastes and conventions."
The eldest brother, Heggi was as yet an only child, alone in this "vast colony" from the time he woke up to the time he went to sleep. His father would leave to attend to his business in the morning, his mother was forever preoccupied with the housework.
"So I would toddle off to one location after another," he explains, "taking in every small detail of the world, my world. I was allowed to wander as I liked within the compound, but naturally I was not to go any further. Before too long, as you might expect, I got extremely bored."
On discovering that a world existed outside the compound Heggi would clash with the ghafir at the gate who had the strictest instructions not to let him out. "Once, twice, many times I would go; every time I would be sent back crying -- completely devastated." Eventually the ghafir took pity on the child. "It is strange that he should have thought of this, he must have had the idea of bringing me a piece of what lay beyond the gate in order to appease me. Anyway, he went off to the canal for a minute and came back with a pile of mud which he quickly made into a small statue of a horse." And it was at this moment that, grateful and entranced, Heggi found his calling.
Mud was in abundance, and mud sculpture would preoccupy Heggi for the next two years of his life. "Playing in mud was a reprehensible activity, a terrible shame. But no matter how hard they tried to stop me they couldn't. I would be dragged back into the house just before dark, my clothes soiled, my heart broken at this delightful activity having come to an end."
One day his father determined to put an end to the mud syndrome once and for all. Selecting an appropriate birch he went off to fetch and punish Heggi, only to find him surrounded by "the entire compound, in miniature, cast in mud", deeply absorbed in his work. It was a fateful moment, the earliest shift of consciousness on the part of Heggi's family.
"He was so deeply moved he couldn't bring himself to hit me. My mother spent the evening crying..."
On the suggestion of a friend Heggi's father brought in a sheikh to teach the now four-year-old Arabic and the Qur'an. Rather than blocking the path of art, however, this led to the discovery of chalk and colour, then pens, paper and drawing.
"Drawing -- initially on the walls -- did not have the same association as mud; no one was entirely against it as such. And I began to find the materials I needed in the surrounding environment. The remains of coal stoves would provide me with black, for example, while tender leaves yielded green... My brother Ahmed had arrived, but he was a baby and I couldn't do anything with him. So I was busy as ever."
At the age of nine Heggi had still not gone to school, and "a violent dispute" between mother and father highlighted their respective visions for his future. While the father wanted him to take over his work, the mother envisioned a future modelled on her brother's life. A poet, he was educated, cultured, urbanised.
"She was absolutely determined and in the end she won out. She persuaded him that we should move back to the village, Sandoub [also near Mansoura], so that I could go to school while still living at home. I took the exam and joined the second primary class; you could do that back then."
The move to Ahmed Maher (Al-Zarqa) School proved traumatic, though.
"So far I had lived in an isolated environment in which nobody ever presented a threat. I had never even seen children of my age. My world was quiet, pleasant, pastoral. So it was like being transported overnight from no- society to the worst kind of filthy, dog-eat-dog urban society," Heggi repeats emphatically. "I had no idea how to interact with people, how to respond to bullying or get my own back."
The worst was his talent at draughtsmanship. Once fellow students found out about his facility they would steal his notebook and put their names on it.
"That first year I failed art and had to repeat the year. My other grades were naturally not very good, and my father was somewhat disturbed. Again, on the suggestion of a relation, I was moved to Al- Mansoura Al-Amiriya School. I had acquired ways of dealing with people and the general environment was better. I came out top of my class because my course work was well presented and I was the only student to get 20 out of 20 in art. Nobody else had had as much practice."
This basic dilemma of difficulty in dealing with people (or their absence) and eventual redemption through art informed Heggi's life from then on. A large, affable man with Lion-King hair, a late-night coffee-drinking habit and a wildly expressive conversational slant, he still spends most of his time in a small studio inside his 12th-floor Doqqi apartment, where he lives with his wife and one grown- up son (another son works with NASA, while a son from a previous marriage lives elsewhere in Cairo).
"I have a fully-equipped studio, but most of the time I am too lazy to go there," Heggi explains. "Look, I always worked with newspapers and magazines, and then the Arab League. But I never let a job take over. It's very important, the most important thing, to spend time alone -- drawing. My entire personal life consists of being by myself, doing art."
To counter his instinct for isolation Heggi opted for the position of head of his apartment building's owners' association. "It's not fun to be always devoted to the big issues, to be forever immersed in the sublime. The need to interact with society is reflected in activities like overseeing plumbing repairs, or talking to a neighbour about planned renovations."
The aforementioned dilemma aside, two principal factors contributed to Heggi's formation: his family's abrupt fall from grace; and the concept of art journalism. At secondary school he had been told repeatedly that he should enroll at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Cairo University.
"You can't begin to imagine what it is like growing up to be an artist in an environment that didn't even have a concept of art. In the provinces you never saw art except in newspapers and magazines. It was therefore a great discovery to realise that there existed such a place as the Faculty of Fine Arts, and that I could go there."
Now that his mind was made up speculation at the bourse and several business blunders had ruined his family's fortunes.
"The worst thing that can happen to you in rural Egypt is to have been well-off and to be suddenly poor," he says. Heggi has instructed me to excise any evidence of pride in this profile -- except for his pride in his parents who, against all odds and in the face of consternation and jibes from neighbours and relations, willingly sent him to study what he liked most. "Everyone thought it was completely crazy," he recalls, "this business of art. If people were so needy and they had a son they should get him employed -- or at least send him to a faculty that could guarantee a lucrative future. Yet they didn't, and didn't feel there was anything strange about it either. That's remarkable."
On returning to Sandoub during his first summer holidays Heggi was so distressed by the condition in which he found his family he determined to abandon his studies and work. "The house was like a human being drained of blood, unable to function. I kept this secret till it was time to go back to university, but when I told my father he retorted, 'Somebody complained to you!' He made me pack my bags and pushed me to the train station, telling me it was none of my business."
In Cairo, nonetheless, he worked -- as a wall painter, a peddler, a photography studio assistant -- "till the introduction of free, state-subsidised education by the post-1952 regime", which put an end to all this. "The tuition fees were enormous relative to my family's means. To someone of my father's circumstances the expense may well have seemed pointless, too, since it was a career he could not have conceived of. But he never budged."
To talk of Heggi's professional life is to enter into a complex and expansive chronicle. Suffice to say that his years at university provided him with the intellectual scaffolding within which to make sense of his experience and his role.
"I was fortunate enough to encounter the socialist movement," he says. "I began to discover the issues of our society which I had apprehended and suffered without really understanding my connection with -- my role as an artist and a human being with certain political convictions. And I began to look for a framework in which to put these ideas into practice."
The people among whom Heggi grew up knew of art only in the form of magazine and newspaper reproductions; they loved it, commending his work as an art student by comparing it to them. The notion of putting his work in an art gallery for a handful of rich collectors to sample never attracted Heggi. Art journalism was the obvious choice.
As a student Heggi's housemates included artists Mahmoud Baqshish and Gouda Khalifa and director Sayed Said. Khalifa, a little older, introduced him to a wealth of reading material. Heggi immersed himself in poetry, philosophy and political thought.
"The university years were the years of awareness, self and society awareness. After Khalifa I was to meet a very important person, Kamal Arafat, a bibliography professor who taught me how to read, to adopt a holistic approach to literature. These years also coincided with the start of professional life."
Even before graduating in 1963, work had come Heggi's way. Refusing a much better paid job at Al- Ahram, he devoted himself to a local magazine, Al- Mansoura. Supported by the governor's secretary, Aqil Mazhar, a powerful official who went out of his way to promote culture and support writers and artists, the magazine maintained "a very refined standard" until, deemed a political hazard by Socialist Union Chairman Hussein El-Shafie, it was summarily closed down in 1964, leaving Heggi disillusioned and jobless.
In this period Heggi toured the entire governorate, documenting the villages of Daqahliya in sketches (which had to be copied before they could be reproduced) and facing a host of difficulties in the process -- from villagers pelting him with stones to the lack of food or accommodation. But the effort paid off. As a young free-lancer at Rose Al-Youssef, in the mid-1960s, he remembers being called to the office of Ahmed Bahaaeddin, one of the best known writers of the 1950s and 1960s, in Dar Al-Hilal. He thought he would be appointed, but the purpose of the encounter was simply to tell him, "I follow your work regularly. You are the legitimate heir of art journalism. Keep it up."
Six months later Bahaaeddin was to become Rose Al-Youssef's editor. "Within hours of his arrival I was appointed." It was not until 1980 that, frustrated with Camp David and life under Sadat, Heggi tendered his resignation at the magazine. Until 2000 he was responsible for arts and publications at the Arab League, spending 10 years in Tunis and another 10 in Cairo.
With the demise of art journalism Heggi resumed his insistence on "art to be disseminated" through books. Rusoum min Libya (Drawings from Libya), Shemal Yemin (Left Right), Rassam Yaqraa Al-Qur'an (An Artist Reads the Qur'an) are only a few of these.
"Before my generation, artists in newspapers performed a decorative role. We wanted to go beyond that, to document life and comment on people's immediate concerns through art that everyone could have access to. From 1975 on, though," Heggi adds, "I gave up this interest in people's concerns and started, gradually, to work with greater freedom." A rich and vibrant life was thus transformed into art. From the trenches of the War of Attrition, in which Heggi's brother Ahmed was to meet his death, to the Western and Eastern Deserts and Darb Al-Araba'in, from a four-year stay in Libya to repeated stints in Jordan, the art journalist tirelessly sought out adventure -- seeking knowledge in remote places.
In his late 50s Heggi's considerable technical ability gradually shifted inwards, with the artist concentrating increasingly on abstraction and dreams. "In the rural environment dreams play a very important role, people would go to sleep on top of their parents' graves, have a dream and then come to my father so that, as the head of the extended family, he would interpret it for them. After reading Freud I too began to draw my dreams. I discovered that they gave me a greater degree of freedom, and it was through dreams that I was liberated from the more restrictive aspects of social realism."
His latest, ongoing project is to illustrate Naguib Mahfouz's dreams, published in Nisf Al-Dunya, 91 of which have so far appeared. Yet of all the dreams that haunt him, and find their way into his work, visions of his childhood home -- that "vast colony" in which, barely cognizant, Heggi found his calling -- remain the most paramount, the most regenerative and moving.
Watching television for a few minutes while waiting for his wife to bring back the cat from a much needed breath of fresh air, the father of three successful men and the distinguished owner of a smart apartment near Mesaha Square, Heggi waits impatiently for the opportunity to flee back to his small, brightly lit studio. And one thinks again of the child eager to discover the world, devastated at the mere suggestion that something, anything might draw him away from the self-appointed business of recreating it.