Magueed Tobia: A very private man
Whatever secrets he has he keeps
Profile by Samir Sobhi
Magueed Tobia has made a secret of his working habits. No one knows how and when he writes. But then this author of many successful short stories and novels makes a secret of a lot of things. For a long time he has made a point of telling people he is a recluse. They believe him and leave him alone. He lives in a small street in Heliopolis where everyone knows everyone and yet he manages to keep himself to himself, to protect his privacy. He has never been married and he rarely travels, not even to see his relatives in Minya, his birthplace.
Ironically, for such a private man a great deal has been written about Tobia's life. Many of his books have been translated and a number of studies have been published about his work. Yet Tobia remains modest about his achievements. He feels no need to impress. He is sufficiently secure, has enough sense of self, to play up neither his work nor his life.
Tobia's literary talents first became apparent at high school, when he began writing pieces for the school radio. After high school Tobia's father, a grain merchant and miller, sent him to Cairo to study. He enrolled at the Teachers' College and specialised in mathematics. His father provided him with an allowance of ten pounds which, 40 years ago, was a small fortune. With such a sum, he remembers, he could "buy books and go to the cinema and the theatre".
His first published work was Photo-Stock Reaches the Moon, a short story about a rocket sent into outer space. Tobia took the piece to the magazine Al-Magallah and gave it to the novelist Yehia Haqqi, then the editor in chief. Haqqi ran the short story in the following issue.
A year later Soheir El-Qalamawi, the new head of Dar Al- Kateb Al-Arabi, sent the critic Fouad Dawwara to look for Tobia, who at the time had no telephone or permanent address. Contact was made and El-Qalamawi commissioned Tobia to write a collection of short stories.
Tobia was teaching at Menuf High School when he wrote his first screenplay. One of his colleagues, an English teacher named Raafat El-Mihi, was interested in cinema. Tobia and El-Mihi, who went on to become a scriptwriter and filmmaker, quickly formed a friendship.
The year was 1961. Naguib Mahfouz, already an established novelist, was then head of the Cinema Foundation. Mahfouz organised a competition for the best new screenplay and received hundreds of entries. Tobia submitted a play called Al-Matamir (Grain Silos), which took first prize. Yet he was completely unknown, a fact that disturbed the competition jury so much that they contemplated annulling the results.
Mahfouz was at his literary Friday gathering, held between 5 and 8pm at the Café Riche when Tobia approached him.
"Is it true you will annul the competition?"
Mahfouz looked up.
"And may I ask who are you?"
"I am the nobody, the miserable person who won it," Tobia replied. Mahfouz laughed and then continued: "Here is what I told the members of the jury. I said, you have taken your fees and now you want to deprive the winner of his prize."
Tobia received the prize money and his play was turned into a film featuring Shukri Sarhan, Abdallah Gheith and Mahmoud Yassin. It was released under the title A Story from Our Village, which Tobia loathed.
Tobia has published several short story collections, including Al-Ayyam Al-Taliya (Days to Come), Khams Garaed Lam Tuqraa (Five Unread Newspapers), Al-Walif (Soulmate), Al-Hadithah Allati Garat (The Incident that Happened), and Walaken Lemadha? (But Why?). He has also produced longer fiction, including the novels Dawaer Adam Al-Imkan (Circles of the Impossible), Al-Haoulaa (The Others), and Abnaa Al-Samt (Sons of Silence). The latter, a novel about the 1973 War, was subsequently made into a film.
Tobia's home fits him like a glove. A first floor apartment with an office furnished with bookshelves, comfortable chairs, a television and radio set. There is one bedroom, one airy balcony and little else. Tobia's needs, which are few, are thus catered for.
His novels are available in English and French translations. Their author has often been hailed as a landmark in 20th century Arabic literature. Yet the acclaim seems to have had little impact on him. He is not impressed by fame. What matters to him is the process of writing, the journey that creating fiction is. When you ask him about himself he is reluctant to talk, almost shy.
"Ask my contemporaries," he replies.
Taghreebat Bani Hathout (The Exile of Hathout's tribe), a drama set in late Mameluke times, is perhaps the most epic of Tobia's works. It involves the extraction of exorbitant taxes by a corrupt minister and a vicious Mameluke chieftain. A tax collector uses heavy handed tactics to extort the required sums from a village near Minya. The villagers kill him in revenge and a vendetta unravels. From this simple framework Tobia spins a saga of shifting fortunes.
The 1960s -- and it is to the so-called Sixties generation Tobia belongs, his contemporaries including such august names as Gamal El-Ghitani and Sonallah Ibrahim -- was the decade of rebellion. Following the 1967 defeat young writers broke with tradition, adopting an experimental stand towards both form and content. It was a time in which hundreds of young writers crowded Cairo's coffeehouses, discussing and agitating. Yet out of that hotbed of activity only a handful have continued to write. Many gave up along the way, either because of financial problems or out of sheer despair. Tobia was among the few who persisted.
He recalls that one problem was publishing. But then, having found a publisher, the problems continued. Critics tended to ignore the young. They disliked the ambiguity that characterised their writing, and they had little stomach for the pessimism expressed therein.
"Our stories," Tobia recalls, "were tinted with sadness, for we felt that something was wrong and that a disaster was on the way."
"I am mentioning this," Tobia continues, "for the benefit of young writers. I do not want them to experience our bitterness."
It is the role of the state, Tobia insists, to encourage talent and protect the talented. It is the role of the state to provide publishing opportunities for the young, to encourage them to write and experiment.
"The young need a chance to publish their work, even in magazines," he argues. "They need to become part of the world literary scene."
Tobia's style is enigmatic, peppered with magic and, perhaps in deference to his days as a teacher of mathematics, with numerology. In his novel Reem Tasbugh Shaaraha (Reem Dyes Her Hair) he sums up the history of the heroine's family thus: "Reem's father was the marrying type. He married three women before Reem's mother, sired ten children, three of whom died and six lived, and Reem was the youngest."
But who was Reem?
Tobia says that she is a real character, a well known Arab woman, a famous beauty. Reem is also the Arabic word for gazelle.
Reem asks her father why he has married so many times. He tries to evade the question but she is persistent. Finally he admits that he likes the freshness of new experiences and the pleasure of a young mate. Like vegetables, women are more delicious when they are young, he says. "But a woman is not a cucumber," says Reem, "a woman is a human being with feelings just like you. Do you still think that men are better than women?"
"This is the will of God. Even among animals, this is the case. The lion is more beautiful and stronger than the lioness," replies the father. The novel then goes on to dissect the traditional prejudices surrounding marriage and gender.
Tobia was born in Minya, birthplace of Khufu and the adopted home of the world's first monotheist, Akhenaton, and his beautiful wife Nefertiti. And he is proud of his name. Tobia was the rain god of ancient Egypt, the god who filled the river with water and kept the country alive.
I once joined Tobia on a trip to Al-Wadi Al-Gedid and Tariq Al-Arbaain. A few months later we were in a meeting with President Mubarak, a gathering with writers the president holds annually on Writers' Day in January. Tobia began telling the president about our trip and the president took out a notebook, wrote something, and promised to visit the same areas in June. Sometime afterwards the Toshka project was announced. When, later, we went to view progress on the project I asked Tobia what he thought.
"A big and important project for a big and rich country," he replied.
photo: Randa Shaath