Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

In search of an attribution
WhatOs in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation

Sayyid Qutb: Othe right to revoltO
Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150

Interpretation and beyond
Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222

Questioning the body, questioning the mind
Nawal al-Saadawi, TaOam Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258

A political scientist among the historians
The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215

Ancient Egyptian windfall
* Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Isabella Brega, trans. C.T.M. Milan. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp135
* Egyptian Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Pharaonic Times. Lise Manniche with photographs by Werner Forman. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp160
* Ancient Egypt. David P. Silverman ed., The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp255

Intersection points
Al Jadid, vol. 5, no. 28, 1999, Los Angeles, Al Jadid

Sharing the self
Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, issue no. 12, December 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 493, December 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 11, December 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Mirrors, Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen, illustrated by Seif Wanli, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp186
* Ibdaa (Creativity), monthly magazine, issue no. 10, November 1999, Cairo: GEBO
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 36, November 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamia (OWorld CultureO), Kuwait: The National Council for Culture and Arts
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 171, November 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
* Qadaya Fikriya (Intellectual Issues), occasional book, issues no. 19 and 20, October 1999
* Al-OOsour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 2, 1999, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Nizwa, quarterly magazine, issue no. 20, October 1999, Oman: Omani Corporation for Press, Publishing and Advertising

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206

Sharing the self

In Chapter Zero of this 25-chapter novel, Shehata el-Iryan proposes to lead the perfectly abstract yet intimately concrete 'you' of the reader to "a small café that uses the crumbing walls of an old stone mosque, so we can drink tea and smoke and talk like friends." There is, he explains, "only an old house, with a mashrabeya, women who appear and disappear, three upper floors, a wooden ledge and a corner of painted stone.... But what I know," he interrupts himself, "will be more than what I have mentioned, and what you know will remain lacking"; hence the café.

In a few words, el-Iryan has determined his subject -- the mythic or sought-after house at the heart of Old Cairo -- expressed the depth of his need to communicate it, and established an emotional identification between the reader and the voice which is about to speak to him (throughout the text el-Iryan makes no explicit distinction between himself and his narrator). Instead of the 'I' and the 'you', or perhaps because of them, the author supplies a reassuring and inclusive 'we', one with which he can build a labyrinth to house his inert, minotaur-like self.

For it is certainly in issues like individual vs. collective consciousness, the status of the writer and the reader, and the position of the self vis-a-vis its broad historical context, that the first clues to el-Iryan's literary project can be found. The metaphor of the title itself images literature as informal one-to-one communion, in which the act of sharing while barely working nonetheless remains palpable and necessary.

And it is sharing, mingling, exchanging, intersecting that is dealt with in this string of terse, apparently disjointed texts, which share the particular family heritage of residents of Mit Rahina (originally an Ancient Egyptian village), the intricate personal histories of a group of inner-city tenants, actual or potential sexual experiences, marriage as an experiment in human contact, and the brief but elaborate narratives of others with unlikely sympathies. Yet it is also the pain of sharing, the overpowering presence of the self and the search for purpose in the hide-and-seek game one plays with others that is dealt with.

El-Iryan never strays too far from his existential predicament. When he evokes a 1940s map of Old Cairo that used to lead him through the maze of back streets and alleyways, identifying monuments (signalling collective memory), it is only because the map is hanging on his wall, and, as he indulges in his semi-crazy habit of running back and forth in the room (individual restlessness), he accidentally runs into it. Yet it is through the ordinariness of both the map and this running habit that el-Iryan manages to be a true and indispensable instance of the 'man-in-the-street'. It is as if the self eventually dissolves into its purposeful ordinariness, while remaining forever outside the predetermined categories of the collective claims available to it.

Despite two retrospective chapters that deal with childhood and interrupt the flow of the book (and seem to go on for too long), el-Iryan's separate texts manage to remain linked without ever quite fitting together. It is only in the more personal, contemplative passages that their unity -- an aspect of the writer's sensibility rather than a literary device -- becomes apparent. The closing paragraphs are worth mentioning not only because they are good examples of this, but also because they seem to unravel the book's overall design. El-Iryan, now a married man with a job, sees his wife out for good. Upstairs he is recording a song on television and running back and forth in the room, practicing his hobby of dancing to himself, and hearing the incredulous comments of the neighbour downstairs: "I had pressed the recorder at the beginning of the song, so I recorded his words as well, before I realised I should close the window. And for two weeks I listened to the song with the neighbour's remarks rising up in between verses. I was writing now, eating with appetite, and wanting to get it over with as soon as possible, while regaining, as I ran, my ability to be enraptured, to read, to love friends and self and world."

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

Remark by webmaster:
the novel has been simultaneously published on the WWW and can be accessed at


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