Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Summer reading, à la française

Reviewed by David Tresilian


Ibrahim Aslan

Mohamed El-Bisatie

May Telmissany
Equipe de nuit (Wardiyyat Layl), Ibrahim Aslan, Translated by Amina Rachid and Arlette Tadié, Actes Sud: Arles, 2000. pp81
Derrière les arbres (Buyut wara al-ashgar), Mohamed El-Bisatie, Translated by Edwige Lambert, Actes Sud: Arles, 2000. pp125
Doniazade (Duniazad), May Telmissany, Translated by Mona Latif-Ghattas, Actes Sud: Arles, 2000. pp67

Of the three books under review here, two are by established male writers of the sixties generation, and one is by a female writer who, from a younger generation, is still on her way to establishing herself. Ibrahim Aslan's Wardiyyat layl [Night Shift, 1992], translated as Equipe de nuit by Amina Rachid and Arlette Tadié and published by the Arles-based French independent publisher Actes Sud, finely represents the characteristic voice and concerns of his generation, as, in a different way, does Mohamed El-Bisatie's Buyut wara al-ashgar [Houses behind the Trees, 1993], translated here by Edwige Lambert as Derrière les arbres and also published by Actes Sud. Both men write spare, understated prose, taking as their subject lives lived out within small, usually well-regulated communities with a view to suggesting the inter-relation of public and private events. May Telmissany in her Doniazade (1997), on the other hand, has opted, in the words of her French publisher, for "extending socio-political questioning through an intimate style of writing" that is, the blurb suggests, the natural form of expression of the new generation of Egyptian writers.

Aslan's short, elegant novella is fitted together out of a series of short scenes, from "Apprenticeship" to the final "Vision," each one of which is a careful study of a moment on the night shift at the Cairo Central Telegraph Office on a New Year's eve sometime in the 1960s. Precision seems to be the watchword here, the exact execution of bureaucratic rules conferring a sense of security on the employees and allowing the writer to suggest lives that are lived out, but which hardly flourish, within a secure, unchanging frame.

The yellow forms on which the customers' telegrams are written are carefully arranged at the backs of drawers; pencils are sharpened; there is much staring out of windows and much staring into space. There is quite a ritual surrounding the inevitable, endless cups of tea. But this is a world that offers few possibilities, even as one grows old and dies within it. Moments of passion, if they arrive, mostly belong to others, and they just as quickly depart. Suleiman, the Post Office clerk whose thoughts Aslan follows, witnesses events, but he does not participate in them; he sends telegrams on behalf of others to Moscow, London, or Paris, but he will never have the chance to visit such exotic places himself. Aslan's writing has been compared to Chekhov's, rendering as it does in its highly-charged way the frustrations and inevitable day-dreams of "quiet lives" crossed by roads not taken or possibilities that never arrived. And, as is the case in Chekhov, the sense of a larger public world is insistently sketched in, if only in the form of the telegrams that arrive for others, or of the bits of newspaper that wrap a hasty, between-the-shifts breakfast. But, as in Chekhov's provincial Russian drawing-rooms, so in Aslan's bureaucratic, postal warren -- everything remains the same.

Aslan was born in 1935 in the Delta town of Tanta. Himself the son of a Post Office employee, he went on to work for the Post Office in Cairo, before, partly as a result of his own considerable efforts as an autodidact, beginning to write the brief, spare fiction for which he has become well-known. Like other members of the "generation of the 1960s", of which he is a leading member, he has tried to build upon an inheritance that stressed the role of fiction as a vehicle for social understanding and for the representation of social change, or for the lack of it. However, as was the case elsewhere, and not least in France, the sixties was also a time of intense experiment, which saw the (usually short-lived) establishment of literary and aesthetic vanguard groups. Accordingly, Aslan and those of his generation took the inherited prestige of the novel form, a prestige that came not least from Mahfouz's linking of the novel to decolonisation and to post-1919 political and social change, and they transformed it. That prestige, and that tradition of realism, they made into a powerful tool of social criticism. They saw dull lives, which they meticulously rendered, the implied question being who, or what, was to blame for that sense of closed horizons. They introduced a new frankness into novelistic discourse, and Aslan himself suggested a new direction the novel could take in his inclusion in it of previously marginal, ordinary, everyday lives.

Mohamed El-Bisatie's Derrière les arbres focuses on another tightly-knit community, this time that of a small Delta village, and it again suggests the social tensions and frustrations that lie just beneath the bland surface of things. The story of a crime of honour in a rural milieu, El-Bisatie's narrative is, like Aslan's, meticulous, understated, moving slowly, if at all, despite the passions this particular crime arouses. Something, however, is happening between the lines, and it is here that the novel's challenge lies.

Speaking to El-Bisatie about this aspect of his fiction in Cairo some years ago, he explained his programme very much in terms of that of his generation. Aslan, he said, was "interested in the dehumanization of the individual by circumstances.... I have concentrated on the slow rhythm of life in the villages, where life is always the same, and if things happen at all, they happen beneath the surface. You don't shout these things out loud." Both, however, were motivated by "the sense of disillusion and frustration, and the sense that nothing happened, or is happening," he said. Both wanted to "give the reader a role to play, to introduce a measure of doubt as to what's going on and why." Both wanted to force on the reader an active, questioning stance, as a contribution towards his or her cognitive sharpening. In El-Bisatie's case, this involved the careful "manufacture of an atmosphere to deploy details. I am like a painter who sets up a frame, and then manipulates characters within it in small, almost unnoticed movements."

Both El-Bisatie and Aslan are established figures, whose works have been much discussed. As is by now well-known, the latter has been named in the current case surrounding the Egyptian Ministry of Culture's decision to republish A Banquet for Seaweed by the Syrian writer Haydar Haydar. May Telmissany is younger (born 1965), and she has adopted a style of writing that self-consciously stages the author in the first person in diary form, the meticulous examination of often opaque third-person lives having been replaced in her short Doniazade by the intimacy of the female "I."

In the Thousand and One Nights, Doniazade is the sister of Scheherazade, the young woman who escapes death at the hands of the Sultan by the marvelous nature of the tales she tells. Doniazade, however, does die, and her voice is thus silenced, even as her sister's achieves immortality in written form. Telmissany has seized upon the shadowy, intriguing figure of the mute, forgotten Doniazade, giving her name to her narrator's own dead daughter. It is a question, she suggests, of how the dead generations are to be remembered by the living, those dead generations that did not achieve fame or immortality, but who died anonymously and were erased from the record.

Writing has a role to play in the work of remembrance, since writing lends permanence and form to what might otherwise be forgotten. There seems to be a monumental and a psychological aspect here. Monumental in the sense that a written record, like a Pharaonic monument, endures; psychological in the sense that writing out a narrative can simultaneously free one from it. The neurotic, wrote Freud, is he who is haunted by memories and is unable to grasp their full shape or significance. Thus, at the end of her book, Telmissany announces "the end of writing," since writing, for her, was always intended to liberate one from the past by satisfactorily filling in its true character. One could say that, as for the recovered neurotic, the past no longer has the power to hurt, since one has settled accounts with it; or one could say that, whereas previously the past had irritated like a persistent itch, which, the more one scratched it, the worse it got (another kind of "haunting"), having transformed it into written form, there is no longer any temptation to scratch it. "I write: Doniazade" says Telmissany, "calling upon the letters that make up her name to give me the ability to forget."

Together, the three novels give an intriguing sample of the variety and the theoretical sophistication of the current literary scene. All three are quite evidently programme-statements for their respective authors' styles. Actes Sud, in co-operation with the Fondation européenne de la culture and the Centre français de culture et de coopération, is to be congratulated for having made the books available in French translation for a non-Arabic speaking audience. It seems a shame that no English-language publisher will make a similar gesture in arranging their translation into English.

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