Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2003
Issue No. 669
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A matter of acceptance

Khairi Shalabi, recipient of the 2003 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, speaks to Youssef Rakha about his life and work

Khairi Shalabi "After my novel Saleh Heisa I produced Saharig Al-Lo'lo' (Pearl Cauldrons), a major work for me; so you are right to say that Wikalat Atiya (Atiya's Caravansary) is by no means my latest work. But there is nothing in the regulations governing the award to restrict it to this or that author's latest work. It often happens that in the middle of a long novel -- in this case Saharig Al-Lo'lo' -- I stop working for one reason or another, only to realise that another, shorter work is eager to emerge. So I free myself entirely for the birth of that emergency work, which tends to be unexpectedly mature, fully formed, so that no difficulties are encountered in its relatively speedy completion. Saleh Heisa was one such work; so was Al-Watad (Tent Pole), Lahs Al-Atab (Threshold Licking) and many others. After Saleh Heisa, I went back to Saharig Al-Lo'lo', which I completed very slowly, paying the greatest possible attention to every detail -- so much so that I ended up producing 15 drafts. One later version ran to nearly 3,000 pages, which were reduced to several hundred pages in the end.

"That is always the case, yes. Sometimes I've redrafted a piece of writing over 40 times. And the work usually gets shorter by the time I am finished, because I write very freely, letting myself go. I have a flood of life experiences -- things that I've been through myself, that I witnessed or that I read -- which I think makes my writing flow in this expansive way; such experiences remain, after all, the stock on which I draw for my writing.

"I started writing when I was 15, in my home village in Kafr Al-Sheikh. I composed epics, imitations of the folk epics with which I was familiar, for by that age I had read all the major folk epics. They still form an important part of my literary constitution, those epics -- and the folk experience in general, especially Upper Egyptian music. The tunes, they enrapture me. Even the greatest singers do not move me as much as an Upper Egyptian singing -- those rough, earthy, simple melodies that seem to hold the key to your very identity -- your national and ethnic identity. The song is almost like an ID card, it establishes and at some level justifies your existence. They are magnificent songs that have no equivalent in any other culture. And you couldn't begin to imagine how much I love to spend time contemplating the Upper Egyptian itinerant workers, the builders who hang around sidewalks with their tools -- their strength, their vitality -- and remembering that without the gargantuan effort that they make there would be no buildings for us to live in, no walls to keep us warm. I like to watch them loading sacks of cement onto each others' shoulders while they sing those visceral, age-old songs that help them bear the heavy burden of their work. It is folklore that held my back straight, kept my spine upright, allowed me to endure and to understand the Egyptian character.

"But to get back to the question of awards and translations: I've been lucky enough to have plenty of both. I received the State Incentive Award in 1980, the state's Arts and Science Medal and numerous awards from the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces. I also received an award for the televised serial drama of Al-Watad, which I scripted, the Book Fair Award for Saharig Al-Lo'lo' and the Writers Union distinction award. It is also said that I am a candidate for the 2004 State Merit Award. Likewise I believe I am probably the most translated Arab author of my generation. It started with an early novel, Al- Awbash (The Despicable), which was initially translated into Russian but eventually even into Hebrew and Urdu. Al-Sanyoura (Beautiful Lady) was translated into English. The French translation of Wikalat Atiya is due to appear shortly. Mughamarat Al-Amir fi Bar Misr (The Prince's Adventures in the Land of Egypt) has appeared in Chinese, Mawt Aba'a (Death of a Gown) and Manamat Amm Ahmed El-Sammak (The Chronicles of Ahmed El-Sammak) in Japanese. Batn Baqara (A Cow's Stomach) was translated to Italian and Far'an Minal Sabbar (Two Branches of Cactus) was published in English in America.

"Many of my short stories have also been translated. The fact may not be widely known. I don't pay enough attention to public relations or to the media. I am not very good at publicising my work, and I tend to shy away from news items about a new translation of one of my works. I prefer to devote myself to writing. Since I started doing it full-time, at least -- I started writing professionally in 1967, and published my first book in 1970 -- I've paid attention to absolutely nothing else. And it takes up all my time. Besides, my work in the press resulted in my seeing many a writer or artist humbling themselves in return for the publication of a news item, a picture or interview. And I promised myself I would never do that. So I stayed in the shadows for a long time -- until enough works were out there to drag me into media appearances against my will.

"I was very happy with the Naguib Mahfouz Medal. I have a profound respect for Naguib Mahfouz as a mentor and a major influence -- not so much on my writing as on my personality.

"I first made the acquaintance of Naguib Mahfouz in 1958, at the Trianon Café in Alexandria, where I worked as a street peddler around Raml Station. During my rounds I began to notice the face of a man, with a birthmark, sitting in the same spot by the window at the same hour on several consecutive days; it was the same face that I had seen in newspapers and on the covers of the books that I relished -- I had read and loved many of his works even then -- so I plucked up the courage to go up to him and asked if he was Naguib Mahfouz -- if I remember rightly, he was in the company of Ustaz Harvey the lawyer -- and I explained that I was one of his readers and admirers, telling him my name and what I did. He was extremely courteous, and invited me to sit down for a cup of coffee, but I was too shy and ended up going away almost immediately. It was the event of my life. And when I went to Cairo, only months afterwards, I went to see him, first, during the Friday seminar that he held at Casino Safeya Helmi in Midan Al-Opera. And from then on I became a regular attendee of that seminar, in Midan Al- Opera and elsewhere, until a little after middle age. A profound connection grew between us. I discovered that the person who writes such works must be extraordinary. I found out that the secret of his success was the breadth of his heart, which was open to the pains and problems of everyone. The secret of his endurance, on the other hand, is his tremendous capacity for joy; it is regenerative. He laughs so much -- and such pure laughter -- he manages to remove all the negative residue that accumulates in his breast almost as soon as it forms; only in this way can he continue to be so sincere in his work and faithful to his art.

"You would be right to conclude that it is the connection with Naguib Mahfouz that makes it such a happy occasion for me. I am of course equally pleased that the English translation will appear in an accessible edition geared towards the commercial bookshop rather than the university library. But it is principally a moral reward. The $1,000 prize money is not all that much in the first place and in fact I've given it away to many needy connections of mine as halawa. So it is neither the money nor, necessarily, the translation. It is rather a moral reward that the medal represents.

"As for the notion that one should reject an American University award, I think that is a pseudo-issue made up by those who don't have the courage to concern themselves with genuine political issues -- and God knows there are plenty of those in our lives -- but insist on trying to give the impression that they are part of the struggle or that they are politically active. It is naïve. Much of the current dawsha is due to Sonallah Ibrahim's refusal to accept the Novelists' Conference award, but that is a different story altogether. Sonallah has the right to refuse any award so long as he has his own reasons in accordance with his own convictions; it is pointless, then, to have an opinion on the matter. As his colleagues we should support his decision regardless of our own feelings on the matter. It would be meaningless to judge it as right or wrong. And as far as I'm concerned, personally speaking, had this award been offered to me I know I would have accepted it; the whys and hows are different for each writer.

"But there is no sense at all in calling for a boycott of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, for several reasons. First, the award is not the American University's own but rather Naguib Mahfouz's, because it is his translation rights that provide the funds; and its financial value does not constitute a great temptation for anyone to compromise anything. Secondly, there is no reason one should bring the American administration into the matter at all, because it has nothing to do with the American University, which is an Egyptian university subject to Egyptian law and the Egyptian ministry, whose staff and students are Egyptian -- the latter especially are very active as revolutionaries. Thirdly, if this award was in any way suspect I think Naguib Mahfouz himself would have withdrawn his name and funds. Fourthly, we are not against American intellectuals or the American people, but only the American administration. A true national struggle should be based on expanding relations and improving communication, forging alliances among peoples. A struggle that is based on boycotts and statements and making a great deal of empty, hollow noise on satellite channels will lead to nothing substantial.

"If there was a lot of money in it, I might have considered refusing the medal, because that could have implicated me in a possible compromise. As it is I don't see any reason on earth why I should not accept it."

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