Remembering Youssef Idris
Last week's conference on Egyptian short-story writer and playwright Youssef Idris revealed that his work remains a source of lively controversy nearly 20 years after his death, reports Rania Khallaf
The work of the Egyptian writer Youssef Idris (1927-1991) was the subject of a three-day conference held last week by the Higher Council for Culture in Cairo, at which writers and critics representing different generations participated. The tone of the papers, and the controversies that they gave rise to, indicated that nearly 20 years after his death Idris's work remains as alive and controversial as ever.
Born on 19 May, 1927, in the Nile delta province of Sharqiyya, Idris studied medicine at Cairo University and graduated in 1951. He started writing short stories even before his graduation, and in the late 1940s he published his masterpiece Arkhas Layaly, "The Cheapest Nights," a collection of short stories that earned him immediate critical and public acclaim.
Following the appearance of this early volume, Idris published many further collections of short stories, as well as plays, including Farahat's Republic in 1957 and his masterpiece Al-Farafeer ("Small Fry") in 1966. He also became involved in politics and was jailed four times for his political activities, the first time under the monarchy before the 1952 Revolution. From the early 1970s onwards, Idris was a regular contributor to Al-Ahram, his articles being essential reading for many people until his death in 1991.
Last week's Cairo conference discussed various aspects of Idris's work and his position on the cultural map of Egypt, taking into consideration the contributions of preceding and subsequent generations. However, there was little consensus about Idris's overall stature, with those present both praising and criticising his work in more or less equal measure.
For the novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, for example, Idris failed as an artist to the extent that he allowed his journalistic and political activities to devour his creative spirit, making him perhaps unnecessarily involved in political controversy. In 1972, for example, Idris stepped up his campaign against former president Anwar Sadat, with, according to Abdel-Meguid, negative consequences for his writing.
"When writers produce creative work, the pain they feel in composition is later rewarded by the joy felt by readers. But writing articles only makes the creative writer suffer, and there is no corresponding reward for readers," Abdel-Meguid said.
However, he also said that so great had Idris's influence been on his own writing that he had had to stop writing for a year or so to find his own voice. "One day, I had a dream about Youssef Idris, in which he recited a story as if dictating it to me. When I awoke, I remembered the whole story, but did not write it down and later it disappeared completely from my mind." This dream, Abdel-Meguid said, seemed to indicate something about his own relationship to Idris.
Other writers at the conference also had things to say regarding Idris's influence.
For Abulma'aty Abulnaga, for example, there was the sheer brilliance of Idris's work, "which takes us from the part to the whole and from the familiar to the unfamiliar." For Abdel-Aal El-Hamamsy, on the other hand, the main feature of Idris's personality as a writer was "anxiety".
"Idris's writing reflects an anxious soul searching for new spaces to explore in human psychology. He had great success with Arkhas Layaly, but this did not set his writing in a mould, and he used the skills he had developed to discover new aspects of life," El-Hamamsy said.
In his contribution to the conference, the writer Fouad Qandeel recounted his meetings with Idris, attributing some of the most promising developments in Arabic literature in the 1960s to Idris's unique use of language.
This was not so much because of Idris's frequent use of the Egyptian colloquial, Qandeel explained, but rather it was because Idris "used classical Arabic in a way that enabled him to express different feelings and points of view. One could see him as a kind of archaeologist, excavating different levels through his use of language."
Novelist Youssef Abu Raya in his contribution said that in addition to the influence that Idris's writing had had on his work there was also a shared geographical proximity, with Abu Raya having been born just a few kms from Idris's home village in the Delta. However, instead of discussing the role of the Egyptian countryside in Idris's writing, Abu Raya talked about Idris as a political activist.
"I first met Idris when I was a student at the Faculty of Mass Communication in Cairo and he had agreed to talk to the students. I went to his office at Al-Ahram to accompany him to the Faculty and found him depressed and irritated, complaining about the paper's management interfering in his articles, for example, and 'deleting paragraphs criticising the class polarisation resulting from Sadat's Open Door policy'."
A round table at the conference was dedicated to Youssef Idris's position among the writers of his generation, which included figures like Youssef El-Sharony, Badr El-Deeb (1926- 2005), Abbas Ahmed (1927-1978), Fathy Ghanem (1923-1999).
At the round table, Youssef El-Sharony said that "while most of his generation adopted a symbolic or surrealistic approach, Idris always employed social realism," a point of view seconded by the novelist Khairy Shalaby, who argued that Idris's work was an expression of the political and historical circumstances of the period in which he wrote.
However, Shalaby also stressed that the short story was a genre that had had a long history before Idris's contributions to it. "We cannot deny Ibrahim El-Mazini's role in liberating the language of the short story from classical formulas, or the role played by Yehia Haqqi and Mahmoud Taymour in awakening the genre," Shalaby said, adding that the genre had developed in Egypt thanks to the wider development of the press.
Early translators like Omar Abdel-Aziz had also played an important role in translating European fiction into Arabic and developing a more supple Arabic in which to do so.
Idris had read Abdel-Aziz's translations when he was young, Shalaby said, and when he started writing he modelled his language on them, targeting a similar readership. "For this reason, a split developed between Idris and the rest of his generation: other writers tended to be more aware of aesthetic form, but with Idris social awareness was everything."
For Qandeel, the whole question of the development of the short story and Idris's place within it "should be looked at from a wider angle. There are other writers who published their work in the 1940s that were completely ignored by critics," even though their work was in some ways just as innovative. Amin Youssef Ghorab's Hutaf El-Gamaheer (Cry of the Masses), a collection of short stories published in 1945, showed unprecedented interest in female psychology, for example, Qandeel said.
For the novelist Youssef Al-Qaeed, also at the round table, the term "literary generation" should be called into question. "In Egypt we speak about the 60s, 70s and 90s generations, and so on. But it cannot be the case that every ten years or so a new literary generation is born. Naguib Mahfouz, for example, published many of his novels in the 60s, but we do not think of him as a member of the 60s generation."
However, other members of the round table had rather more concrete concerns.
Amina Zedan, for example, a young novelist, used her contribution to point to the barriers preventing new readers from becoming acquainted with Idris's work.
"It is shameful that the Egyptian and Arab book market does not produce new editions of Idris's work. I would like to reread his books in new editions, but I cannot find any in the bookstores," she said.