The salon's shadow
reviews one of the more interesting activities to have graced the literary scene during 2004
Located under the 15 May Bridge, El-Sawy Cultural Centre (otherwise known, evocatively, as Al-Saqia, "the Waterwheel") is perhaps the hippest such venue to have emerged in the last two years. Already it is well known as the site of performances, exhibitions and informal gatherings of the culturally oriented young, a well-organised space distinctly different from, and more exciting than, old-guard gathering spots like the Cairo Atelier, for example. The arts aside, however, Al-Saqia also supports literature -- a fact that may not be as well known to the vast majority of its frequenters. Yet "A place for writing", the forum that has been taking place there since April 2004, is a valuable and innovative contribution to literary life. Echoing the literary salons of the early and mid- 20th century -- Taha Hussein, the dean of Arabic literature, for one, used to hold his literary gatherings on the same day of the week -- the forum takes place on Wednesday evenings.
Organised by and for younger writers, the event consists of readings and discussion, and is open to poets, novelists and non-fiction writers -- anyone who has something to contribute, more or less -- while respecting no censorial boundaries. According to its founders, at least, there are no taboos in "A place for writing", no hierarchical or power-wielding structures. And in this open, stimulating atmosphere, every week, an average of 10 literary works are discussed by 15-50 participants. "The idea behind the forum is to provide talented, younger and lesser known authors with some degree of exposure," writer Mohamed El-Dessouqi, one of the principal founders of "A place for writing", explains. "This includes unpublished writers as well as those who are published but have not, for one reason or another, been in the limelight." Together with the writer Mohamed Hammad, the multitalented artist Ahmed Khaled, novelist Salah Azab, Walid Khairi and television producer Mohamed Ismail, El-Dessouqi, frustrated with the literary status quo and the sense of isolation felt by both readers and writers, had felt the need for stimulation and interaction; and they conceived of the forum in response.
"A place for writing" is all-inclusive, explains Hammad. It has neither a political-ideological nor a literary-artistic agenda. And it operates, he emphasises, in a taboo-free atmosphere. "This is why we never felt the need to draft a statement or manifesto," he says. More importantly, he elaborates, the forum has acted as a window onto a new and largely unknown literary arena, one that is "amazingly in touch with reality". In the 1990s, he goes on, writing was somewhat too personal, illuminating at best an individual's alienation. The writing showcased in the forum, by contrast, helps encourage a constructively critical take on the world, and not only in matters literary. "Literary criticism tends to be too harsh in this society," he goes on. "And it's especially harsh on accessible work. But there is a growing wave of new and exciting writing that is very readable and we feel it's our duty to promote it in the face of the floods of audiovisual media, which offer a quicker route to recognition and fame. This is a place to encourage people to share what they've written, to assess and improve its readability, rather than locking it up in a drawer." The forum, he adds, is also part of a more general attempt to promote engagement with the arts, to build and maintain "a scene".
Reviving an old habit, the habit of reading and writing, is the aim of "A place for writing". But what of literary authorities and the establishment? Are their views taken into account at all? Once a month, the founders explain, a prominent author is invited to the forum; the celebrated novelist Bahaa Taher, for example, contributed to one session, voicing his opinion of the extracts he listened to before reading out part of his most recent novel, Nuqtat Al-Nour (Light Point). Substantiating the endeavour is a planned newsletter containing a selection of the readings, to be circulated widely. The idea is not only to give the young authors recognition and legitimacy but to promote new images of the successful writer, "transcending", in the words of Hammad, "the grumpy coffee shop icon". The point of the forum is to make writing available, accessible, immediate.
And according to audience members, indeed, the forum seems to have made its point. Safinaz Gamal, for one university student, is particularly enthusiastic about it. "But," she qualifies her approval, "I think the forum could be better organised in some respects. I think there should be some form of classification of the literary works being presented, making it clear where they stand in relation to other works." Yet it is precisely this lack of classification, according to the young theatre director Basem Sharaf, that makes "A place for writing" special. "What is unique about this place is that it provides a space for being creative, the freedom to experiment with no prior judgement, no rules," he explains. "And it is this that reflects a generation in the making. We are all young and we all have something in common. What appeals to us about this place is that it's open and free. What makes it different is that there hasn't been much experimentation in the literary world ever since the Sixties, and elsewhere experiments are still frowned on..."
Others agree. Ayman Mahmoud, a young poet and university student, values the opportunity "A place for writing" offers in the way of interaction with the audience. Shadi Ahmed, a software developer, has found it "interesting and exciting" since he found out about it on the Internet. "I do not write much but I read a lot," he says, "and what I like about this forum is that it exposes you to new ideas, encouraging reading and writing." The two-hour time limit makes for a focussed, intense experience, Ahmed believes, "unlike the experience of coffee shops, where the conversation just goes on and on. Besides," he adds thoughtfully, "coffee shops attract the same kind of person, whereas here you encounter all manner of people -- urban, provincial, students, professionals -- who have gathered not to show off or to be in their milieu but simply because they sincerely enjoy reading and writing."
Others who had felt alienated from the literary world found in "A place for writing" the stimulus necessary for being part of it. Indeed many readers have become writers following their participation in the forum. "I started to attend during the second week," Mohamed Hussein, a journalist, recounts. "And I was immediately hooked. The best thing about it is the fact that it's simple, uncomplicated. It makes no difference whether you have a literary work to your name. It's more like a focus group. Direct contact with potential readers gave me an idea of what is expected of me, and for the first time I felt I had the confidence to do my own creative writing."
Yet the process is not without professional supervision. The founders point out that the presence of a critic in the midst of the forum helps direct the proceedings. "The presence of a literary critic facilitates interaction and progress," Ismail says, "and this is one of the best decisions we've made: to include a critic in most sessions." And the testimony of critic Yousri Abdallah, one of the forum's regular participants, would seem to corroborate this line of thinking: "It's an attempt to clear our cultural conscience, in a way, to rid ourselves of the stagnation in which we live. It comes close to breaking away from the notion of a cultural elite, providing an alternative to the ever present cliques, like a tapestry woven out of the widest range of threads available; the last word will always be the one that has not yet been uttered. The role of the critic is to bring out the aesthetic beauty of a work of art, without falling into the trap of excessive theorising..."
For, open as it remains, the function of a "A place for writing" remains, in part, to distinguish between good and bad, while at the same time eschewing justificatory criticism ( al-naqd al-tabriri ) which aims to promote one kind of writing at the expense of another, according to a preconceived agenda. In praising the work of young authors like Walid Khairi, Salem El-Shahbani and Rami Yehya, Mohammed Hammad, and many others, Abdallah, by contrast, responds intuitively, immediately, without recourse to a ready-made manual. "I remember I could tell from the very first session: here is something new, different, something that stands on its own strength. And I saluted those who light up our night with their texts -- a handful of talented people that I'm betting on."