Alaa Khaled: The egoist changes his ways
Alaa Khaled -- poet, essayist and fiction writer -- is best known as the founding editor of Amkena, an occasional Alexandria-based literary journal that has, since first appearing in the mid-1990s, acquired a unique place in Arab cultural circles. A product of the 1970s, Khaled found himself increasingly stifled by the limitations of that decade's generation of writers and critics, who adopted the "Generation of the 1960s" as their principal reference point. He admired much earlier material and, especially, earlier modes of literary interaction -- such as the literary group, expressed in both the salon and the journal. Khaled was equally stifled by his sense of isolation -- "the ego as subject" having been his principal topic of interest since his late-starting writing career -- and Amkena not only brought him fulfilment he could not even envisage in an individual literary career, but it has since also sparked what just might be the start of a new literary renaissance as de-politicised and broad-ranging as the 19th century.
At Alexandria University's Faculty of Science, Alaa Khaled gradually emerged as a kind of literary guru. His rebellious perspective on the norms of middle-class existence earned him a special place among his peers -- so much so that they chipped in to buy him the complete works of Salah Abdel-Sabour as a graduation gift in 1982. He was as impressed with the poet as he had been with the seminal man of letters Tawfiq El-Hakim, an older, notably secular voice he had discovered, along with much literary renaissance material, in his father's library. As a chemical engineer who openly refused to ride the then rising fundamentalist tide, he was ostracised and alienated -- the management went so far as to unjustifiably transfer him to a distant outpost -- to the point of resigning his first -- and last -- regular job. He was 30 years old, the product of a sheltered upbringing with little experience of the world beyond family relations, the trial of army service and books. And he thought he would find out "what would remain of the self if you stripped it of every social support". The ensuing five years were a Rimbaudian season in hell in which, financially deprived and aimless, Khaled turned from an occasional to a committed writer. Happily, in so doing, he also rediscovered the need for human contact, and founding a literary journal was his way of not only making such contact but implementing his vision for culture -- a central aspect of his life and work, given the fact that, since his university years, he had thought of himself less as a writer than a holistic intellectual -- reader, talker, intellectual as opposed to political provocateur.
The egoism was no accident. Since his early days as a wandering poet -- a writer, he now stresses, whose work reflected the distinct characteristics of his home life -- Khaled has come a long way from the notion that creativity derives from exaggerated sense of self. Some such concept, however modified, had informed his first narrative, Khotout Al-Daaf (Weakness Lines), a lyrical evocation of Henry Miller in which a trip to Siwa, a set of complex feelings about his recently deceased father and the pains of thwarted love -- romances whose genesis and demise tended to take place within his mind alone -- made for an all but solipsistic view of the world. Since then he has come to see this tendency to inwardness as partly a result of asthma, a condition that has dogged him since primary school, forcing him to stay in bed for long intervals. "There's also something hereditary," he says, "why not: I've come to see myself as bearing the legacy of a whole family, a state of being that involves not only my individual memory but the memory of others as well -- my forebears. Seriously," the earnestness -- perhaps the most endearing register in which Khaled reveals himself -- had been completely absent prior to the emergence of Amkena. "This strangely sensitive man," he says of his father, "that hypersensitive state of being. Sometimes I'm convinced that it's where the egoism came from." An unusual state-school teacher (eventually headmaster) who travelled to Europe at an early age despite the modest means of his family, engaged in love affairs there -- Khaled discovered love letters from an Italian partner long after his father's death -- and read voraciously, maintaining traditional patriarchal authority even as the poet's sensibility betrayed him, and whose conventional middle-class convictions did not prevent him from reflecting all the cosmopolitanism of Alexandria during the first half of the 20th century, he did not look on Khaled with particular approval when he died; and though this was something Khaled initially blocked out, his death left a "gaping emptiness" in the writer's sense of existence that was to continually re-emerge.
For the first time, between a fish restaurant not far from his paternal grandmother's house in Bahari and the vast Tugariya coffee house in downtown Alexandria, the confessional quality in Khaled's writing takes on a confident, intensely vocal tone. Secrets include the fact that he was born in Damascus -- "a place of the imagination in which you will take refuge in times of need" -- where his father was posted during the union of the two countries. A year after he was born, the country's union with Syria was revoked and Egyptians had to flee the country -- "the essential family tale", which took on mythic proportions in his father's continual retellings of it and affected his mother rather more deeply. His two elder brothers -- born within a year of each other, and significantly older than Khaled -- are "curiously missing from this tale". Khaled speaks of a handful of tiny black-and-white photographic prints, deeply evocative scenes which, combined with intense familiarity with the narrative, formed a kind of fictional, even mythical memory of Syria. He grew up, he says, in a house divided -- ruled as much by his maternal grandmother as his parents and subject to developing contending camps -- his unavoidable fate, which was, he believes, the terminal undoing of his capacity to relate to his eldest brother. School was socially difficult, even though he proved a bright student -- and the difficulty intensified when the family moved to Sohag following his father being transferred there. Essential to the moment of confrontation following his resignation -- still a point of reference, though Khaled has taken to downplaying its significance in recent years -- was the notion of "baring oneself", a process that happened not so much in as through writing, which justified his existence in society at a time when he felt there could be no other justification for it. Even then, he insists, the ego always responded to a distinct set of social circumstances and sought the justice of a morally viable Other.
That Other -- whether a reader, a profoundly different human being or a manifestation of the spiritual or the divine -- was to remain the focus of an increasingly "inclusive ego". A love consummated in a socially legitimate way -- marriage -- and a small-scale, economically profitable project (an arts-and-crafts outlet near the family house in Roshdi, where Khaled now lives alone with his wife) brought about a level of serenity that made it possible to seek stimulation in the farthest reaches of the country, on one's own terms. They also made Khaled secure enough to acknowledge the longing, not only for social (and hence, in many ways, cultural) justification, but for a specific community in and with which to seek "warmth". A very specific kind of "qualitative energy" goes into the process of producing an occasional journal -- from seeking material to distribution -- and, though it takes away from resources previously at the disposal of an individual, and egoistic, literary career, it brings about infinitely more fulfilment. This sense of being for others through implementing a vision for literature. Of this vision "a revival of the essay as an acknowledged literary genre", "an exclusion of the self-referential imagination" (for which read poetry and fiction devoid of a readership) and "opening up a meaningful set of references, beyond the absurdity of making the 1960s the only reference point, just because something might have happened then" are important examples. And with Amkena selling almost enough to cover its costs even despite the lack of funding or institutionalisation, its success has proven resounding indeed.
In his own, largely interview-based work for the magazine, Khaled has pursued the notion of "the culture of place" -- a concept perhaps best expressed in the Arabic expression hikayat makan, as opposed to thaqafat makan -- the former giving a sense of the vernacular, narrative connotations of the mode of literary chronicling intended. Through such writing he has arguably achieved his egoistic aims as a writer even more effectively than in his early poetry, burdened as it was with the legacy of the 1970s; and writing for the magazine has freed his other work of many formal and psychological constraints. Does he regret the fact that he has less time for it? "Not in the least, not for a moment. There are times when people gather around a major idea or movement -- we do not live in such times. I'm far more fulfilled by the warmth of a community around me, not governed by self or political interests, and free of all the complications and compromises of institutional work." A kind of replacement for the lost paradise of the family, perhaps, but one in which there is neither attachment nor contention -- just dialogue. "It sounds too facile to say it -- I'm fulfilled."
photo: Youssef Rakha