Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

In words and images, Al-Ahram Weekly celebrates 100 years of Egyptian literature

EL-MANFALOUTIOf things discovered in the deep

Sketches by George Bahgory
written by Youssef Rakha

MUSTAFA LUTFI EL-MANFALOUTI (1876-1924) is best known for his sentimentality. Due to the tear-jerking topics he chose to write about, and the fact that his parents were divorced early on in his life, commentators have often suggested that he led a life of suffering. Yet evidence suggests that for the most part he was perfectly content, a pragmatic best-selling author who knew how to manipulate not only his words but his readers and publishers, achieving a rare popularity through which he propagated the then novel literary style favouring direct, expressive, emotionally potent statement and elegant, high-sounding construction over the dry and knowledgeable classicism of the early pioneers of the modern literary renaissance. Born in Manfalout in Upper Egypt, he studied at Al-Azhar, where he met the teacher and reformer Mohamed Abduh (El-Manfalouti was imprisoned for six months when he denigrated Khedive Abbas in a poem during a disagreement between Abduh and the khedive), later assisting Ali Youssef with the newspaper he was editing, Al-Mu'ayyid, and eventually forging links with Saad Zaghlul, with whom he worked from 1909 to 1921, when he finally lost his job for defending the oppositional statesman. El-Manfalouti's achievement is most aptly demonstrated in his book, Al-Nazarat (Views, three volumes, 1910-1920), a collection of articles on literature, Arab and Islamic culture and social criticism, as well as several attempts at narrative which are believed to be the direct precursors of the contemporary short story. There is also a collection of poetry and several renderings of romantic works from the West which El-Manfalouti did not actually translate but rewrote from the Arabic, altering and adjusting liberally, and to which he gave his own titles. An example of these is Fi Sabil Al-Taj (For the Sake of the Crown). El-Manfalouti is an essential frame of reference in modern Arabic literature, since he is seen as the clearest embodiment of romantic sentimentality.


EL_RAF MUSTAFA SADEQ EL-RAF'I (1880-1937), on the other hand, could be seen to embody a diametrically opposite frame of reference for the history of 20th-century Arabic literature, and it is even more fitting that his memory should be evoked at the end of the century --the 100 years that witnessed the gradual movement of Arabic literature from classicism to modernism --since he fully embodies the mores and values of the old school; in his work the virtues of traditional Arabic rhetoric are preserved in particularly puritanical, self-conscious form. Though he started off as a poet (his first collection, likened by El-Manfalouti to the work of Abu Tammam, appeared in 1902), he is best known for the prose works to which he devoted the second half of his life, and in which he tackled a wide range of literary, cultural and social issues. Like his more popular contemporary, he also tried his hand here at a number of rudimentary narratives. Perhaps to reconcile his poetic gift with a desire for concrete and precise statements of fact, he pioneered the medium of poetic prose, producing such books as Hadith Al-Qamar (Conversations with the Moon, 1911) and Al-Masakin (The Poor, 1917). He expounded his views on the Arabic canon in Tarikh Adab Al-Arab (The History of the Literatures of the Arabs) and I'jaz Al-Qur'an (The Miracle of the Qur'an). But his most famous book is a collection of articles dealing with various topics and written at various points in his life, Wahi Al-Qalam (The Inspiration of the Pen, 1936). As the guardian of traditional values, he wrote Taht Rayat Al-Qur'an (Under the Banner of the Qur'an) in an enraged attempt to refute Taha Hussein's landmark On Pre-Islamic Poetry. In this way he remains an important measure against which to check the moral, intellectual and cultural innovations undertaken in and after his time, and the quaintly impressive paragon of a lost age.


Taha HusseinTAHA HUSSEIN (1898-1973) was more than one figure. The multiplicity of his roles meant that he contributed differently to different domains. He was writer, educator, literary theorist, linguist, cultural critic; he was also a literary editor and a government official; and in all these capacities he displayed what can only be described as a vigourous independence of spirit. Born in a perfectly anonymous village in Minya, as a child training to be an Azharite he began to feel different when he became blind due to an accident early in his life. In 1902 he moved to Cairo, where his many brushes with conservative and traditional sheikhs eventually took him to the secular university in 1908, where he was the first student ever to earn a Ph.D. in 1914. For the next decade or so, he divided his time between the Sorbonne and Cairo, advancing his knowledge in a wide range of fields within the general framework of the humanities and, in a number of extraordinary papers, applying the methodology of modern criticism to the Arabic canon. His identification with and commentary on the blind Abbassid poet Abul-Alaa Al-Ma'arri, which began around this time, trained generations of independent readers as well as university students in the complex art of poetic interpretation. By his own admission, Al-Ma'arri was "the captive of two prisons," explained Hussein: that of darkness and that of the house (the poet never went out); but the prison in which he experienced the greatest suffering was, ultimately, that of the body.

In its sociocultural context, the capacity Hussein developed for lucid Cartesian rationality was revolutionary. Upon his return from France, he was the first to write a modern critique of the dating and authorship of pre-Islamic poetry. In 1926, following the publication of Fil-Shi'r Al-Jahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry), the book in which he argued that the bulk of pre-Islamic poetry was actually written after Islam and attributed to pre-Islamic poets partly to substantiate Qur'anic myth, Hussein was brought to court for his supposedly blasphemous views but later triumphantly acquitted. He was also a pioneer of literary journalism and, significantly, of autobiography. Al-Ayyam (1929-'30), translated into English in 1932 and 1943 respectively as An Egyptian Childhood and The Stream of Days, was compulsory reading for many generations of Egyptian schoolchildren and to this day, in both the Arab world and the West, remains by far his most famous book. Yet it was the forcefulness with which he sought to effect a healthy connection between Arab and European culture that earned him a unique place among the intellectuals of "enlightenment". In his 1938 book, Mustaqbal Al-Thaqafa fi Misr (translated into English in 1954 as The Future of Culture in Egypt), Hussein advocated the view that Egyptian culture is essentially part of the broader cultural heritage of the Mediterranean and that its future depends on increasing assimilation; hence the necessity of contact with Europe. "Knowledge is like water and air" was his motto as a popular professor and the controversial dean of Cairo University's prestigious Faculty of Arts; when he was minister of education in the Wafd Party's last government before the overthrow of the monarchy (1950-1952), it was to such causes as state education and abolishing tuition fees that he devoted his efforts.

Hussein died only a few months after the October War, having survived two world wars and the upheavals of both the monarchy and the Nasserite era. He left behind some 40 books of fiction and non-fiction but, seminal as they may be, ultimately they form no more than a fraction of his overall contribution, which is so immensely pervasive it becomes impossible to pinpoint, so that the beloved blind old man --whose voice became familiar to millions through the brief voice-over he contributed to the finale of filmmaker Barakat's successful adaptation of his novel Do'aa Al-Karawan (Nightingale) --is, at one and the same time, everyone and no one. During his last years Hussein had kept a lower profile, concerned himself more and more with the conditions of the poor and the disinherited and published a further volume of memoirs, Mudhakkirat, in 1967. Hussein departed in darkness, as he had first arrived in Cairo; but the light he gave the world will shine for centuries to come.


HAQQI YEHIA HAQQI (1905-1992) made his name in the 1940s, a fact that partly explains why he bridges the gap between pre- and post-1950s writing in Egypt. He combines the stately, slow-paced classicism to be encountered in the work of writers like Taha Hussein and Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad with a direct thematic interest in the conditions of the poor, a scrupulous attention to language and style, and a strictly modernist concern with form --all qualities that only fully emerged with the appearance on the scene of Youssef Idris and, later, the group of writers frequently referred to as "the generation of the 1960s". Yet Haqqi is respected and canonised principally for being a sophisticated craftsman of the language and its literature. His economical, beautifully constructed sentences --while touching on the rhetorical potential of traditional Arabic composition --raise the art of narration to heights of precision and conciseness seldom to be encountered in the literature of the time. His was a level-headed, slightly restrained emotion, and the fact that his approach favours tight construction over sloppy expressiveness has led many to note that his words operate like the intricate patterns to be found in precious metalwork. A disinherited aristocrat of Turkish and Albanian descent, he wrote 28 novels, short story and essay collections, of which Qandil Umm Hashim (Umm Hashim's Lamp) and Dimaa wa Tin (Blood and Mud) are perhaps the most famous; these testify to his abiding connection with the Egyptian people, particularly the peasantry, and his complete identification with the Arab-Islamic civilisation, in whose intellectual framework he chose to function.

Haqqi grew up just after the turn of the century, in a middle-class family residing in Sayeda Zeinab, a peculiarly Cairene district where households like Haqqi's and working-class families quietly, if not necessarily peacefully, coexisted. Upon graduation from Cairo University's Faculty of Law in 1925, he spent two years as an assistant attorney in Manfalout, Upper Egypt --an experience he deemed indispensable to him as a writer. Joining the diplomatic corps in 1929, he lived in Turkey during the time of Ataturk, learning the language of his forebears and eventually achieving a fluent command of it. He also served in Italy in Mussolini's time, occasionally crossing the borders into Germany and observing Hitler in full force --experiences that might explain his disenchantment with the West and the unusual force of his identification with Arab-Islamic culture, especially in his later years (his admiration for the products of Western civilisation, particularly classical music, notwithstanding). Resigning from his diplomatic post in 1959 to marry a French woman, from 1962-1970 he famously edited the new writers' magazine Al-Majalla, employing the methods of democracy even when he did not understand the work of the young writers he so whole-heartedly supported. Seventeen years before he died Haqqi decided to stop writing, composing only a characteristically terse and eloquent obituary note in which he wrote, simply, "Let he who reads my name among the dead recite the Fatha for me."


EL-HAKIM TAWFIQ EL-HAKIM (1898-1987) wrote in his late memoir Sijn Al-Omr (The Prison of Life): "My hope is greater than my effort, my effort greater than my talent, and my talent the prisoner of my character." . It was a rare moment of self-revelation from the multi-faceted figure most highly regarded as the man who made drama a respectable literary genre in the Arab world, but also well-respected as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. El-Hakim was a fascinating example of the upper-middle class intellectual torn between his pragmatic obligations to family and society and his inherent desire to break out of the patterns which they imposed upon him, wandering far and wide in the expanses of art and culture.

El-Hakim's long, successful and animated life progressed in the shadow of, if not quite within, the straight jacket of 20th-century Egyptian history. His political views were often denigrated as too faint-hearted or too compromising, and his frequent detachment from what was regarded as "the struggle" or "the cause" --his implicit insistence that life could not be risked and therefore required some degree of compromise with the powers that be, that simple pleasures were vital and that one's only obligation, and prerogative, is to free oneself enough to pursue sublime and non-pragmatic objectives --turned many against him, so much so that he was publicly disowned by the major intellectuals of the day towards the end of his life. Nonetheless he is still among the Arab world's most canonised authors, and remains not only a figure to be reckoned with but an essential pillar of modern Arab culture.

Born in Alexandria, El-Hakim studied law at Cairo University, progressing straight to Paris, where he spent four life-changing years, ostensibly to further his education and earn a doctorate. In Paris, he realised for the first time that the theatre, for which he had developed a passion in his student days, indulging his desire to act and forging semi-professional links with the popular troupes of the time, could be regarded not only as a respectable art, but a fruitful literary activity.

It was then that he wrote his famous colloquial Arabic play, Rusasa fil-Qalb (A Bullet in the Heart), a precise gem of Egyptianised Marivaudage. Upon his disappointing return (he did not earn a law degree in Paris), El-Hakim took a job with the Ministry of Justice, working as a public prosecutor in the Delta, an experience that gave rise to his delightful novel Yawmiyat Na'ib fil-Aryaf (The Maze of Justice, 1937). Determined to legitimise theatre in intellectual circles, he wrote Ahl Al-Kahf (The People of the Cave, 1933), a play with a Qur'anic theme, written in faultless classical Arabic, in which he pursued the wiles and guiles of humanity's endless struggle with the relentless passage of time. This is generally regarded as his most notable feat --to have finally brought drama into the Arabic canon --but, despite the excellence of Ahl Al-Kahf in itself, the event could equally be regarded as detrimental for his own play-writing career, since henceforward his plays, many of which were either not performed or not written for the stage, were often deeply philosophical, intelligent but slightly stilted affairs, profoundly stimulating in their own right but hardly suitable for live performance --a fact that renders his role ultimately object-defeating.

By then he had also written Asfour min Al-Sharq (Bird from the East), an autobiographically inspired story of unrequited love. Desperate with his situation, he devised a way to move to the Ministry of Education, where it was easier to pursue literary and theatrical activity and possible to live in Cairo. Eventually, he devoted himself entirely to literature, producing some 50 plays and about the same number of novels, collections of essays and short stories, memoirs and autobiographies. He remains a profound instance of moral and cultural compromise, the foremost protagonist on the hypothetical stage of his own mind.


MAHFOUZNAGUIB MAHFOUZ (1911­) is the "international" writer; he is the first Arab author ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988); he is also, by dint of the intense particularity of his work, the authoritative social historian of middle-class Cairo's turbulent century. Critic Farouk Abdel-Qader has recently contended that it was with Mahfouz's decision, one evening in 1938, to make writing novels the principal objective of his sustained literary endeavours, that the existence of the genre in Arabic literature first became viable. Mahfouz has been prolific, popular and stimulating, and the Nobel can only be seen as a belated western acknowledgement and the culmination of a whole series of more local triumphs. "It wasn't one of my dreams to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature," he told Ragaa El-Naqqash in a series of 1998 interviews, "and I never aspired to it, so much so that Arab writers who paid attention to it really puzzled me." As an Arab writer, he had already achieved the maximum degree of success possible. He did not dare rank himself among either the "giants of western literature" or those of Arabic literature; but his project of bringing the Arabic novel to maturity was all but complete.

A civil employee throughout his life, Mahfouz was born in Gamaliya, near the Mosque of Al-Hussein, and moved to Abbassiya with his family at the age of nine. A quiet observer of family life, he submitted his days to a strict routine which enabled him to take his job seriously, write and maintain friendships, actively participating in the regular café gatherings of intellectuals from a very early age. A public figure only insofar as he is an essentially gregarious being, Mahfouz has startlingly managed to avoid clashes with political or social powers, keeping a low profile and preferring to let his 70 or so novels and short story collections speak for him, in the tranquil, ironic way that literature everywhere employs to comment on history. The two main occasions on which clashes were forced on him were the publication of his novel Awlad Haretna (The Children of Gabalawi, 1959), which, by drawing on the lives of the Qur'anic prophets, was long banned by Al-Azhar; and an unprovoked attempt on his life in 1994 perpetrated by a young terrorist who in all likelihood had not read a single page of his work. Since then, Mahfouz has continued to write in his old age, recording both real and fictional memories and frequently evoking death.

Mahfouz's influence is widespread. Following a series of novels on Pharaonic themes, he astounded his readers with Al-Thulathiya (The Trilogy, 1956-7), a mammoth work whose three novels (Palace Walk; Palace of Desire; Sugar Street) follow the life journeys of a number of middle-class families from 1919 to 1952. It is to that period, directly before and after the publication of The Trilogy that famous novels with social themes like Zuqaq Al-Madaq (Madaq Alley) and Bidaya wa Nihaya (A Beginning and an End) --usually referred to collectively as Mahfouz's "realistic period" --belong. Later he adopted a more contemplative approach, referred to as his "intellectual period" --and in novels like Al-Liss wal-Kilab (The Thief and the Dogs) and Al-Simman wal-Kharif (Autumn Quail) added a philosophical dimension to the socio-historical commentary which he had learned to present in absorbing literary form. His long epic Al-Harafish (The Riff-Raff), which draws on Egyptian inner-city life at the turn of the century, constitutes perhaps the most successful example of the two approaches combined.


IDRIS YOUSSEF IDRIS (1927-1991) was, according to Naguib Mahfouz, a man "strange in the way he lived, strange in what he wrote". Educated in medicine, he practiced the profession for a few years before breaking into intellectual circles and publishing short stories in literary magazines. His stories immediately caught attention, not least because of their informal tone, drawing heavily on colloquial Arabic, and their concern with the disinherited and the dispossessed --everyday, working-class antiheroes who had not yet made an appearance in Egyptian fiction. Arkhas Layali (The Cheapest Nights, 1954), his first collection of short stories, was instantly hailed as the emblem of a new, irreverent and seethingly vital literature. "Youssef Idris was never silent concerning his artistic position," wrote the critic Ibrahim Fathi, "for he incessantly emphasised the idea that art is an expression of human beings in their specific environment, which is limited both spatially and temporally, or even an expression of the specific rather than the general. Art to him is a local human phenomenon, whose task is to express the humanity of the Egyptian character." Literature prior to Youssef Idris was "arrogant" in both language and thought. He finally made it possible to express real feelings in everyday language. And the genre at which he excelled --the short story --provided ample opportunity for him to develop his own idiosyncratic views on what traits the Egyptian character might possess. He invented the character of the farfour, a street-wise, lively and unpretentious being eager to make a contribution.

The farfour became the basis of Idris's involvement in theatre, which began with Malik Al-Qutn (The King of Cotton) in 1956. To Idris's mind, the play did not strike enough of an Egyptian chord, however, and it was not before Al-Farafir (the plural of farfour), written in 1964, that he began to invest much time in play-writing. In colloquial Arabic, and targeted specifically at Egyptian audiences, the play was preceded by a long article, Nahwa Masrah Misri (Towards an Egyptian Theatre), which amounts to a radical critique of all hitherto existing theatre and calls for a rejection of the prevalent western model in favour of the Egyptian potential for theatre. The Egyptian spirit, after all, emphasised humour, interaction, unexpected twists; and if theatre is to have an effective role, it must employ all these devices self-consciously in order to reach the large numbers of people for whom it is written. Idris's involvement in the theatre continued till the end of his life, even though he produced a consistent flow of short fiction, Beit min Lahm (House of Flesh, 1971) and Lughat Al-Ayay (The Language of Ayay, 1965) being among his most famous collections. Even though he belonged to a later generation, he is often counted, along with Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq El-Hakim, as one of three pillars of contemporary Arabic writing. By the end of his life, he had written some 12 short story collections, eight short novels, seven plays and 15 collections of articles on everything under the sun.


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