Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

The phenomenal Kharrat

Reviewed by Ferial J Ghazoul

Edwar El-Kharrat
Edwar El-Kharrat: Mughamir hatta al-nihaya [Adventurer till the End], Cairo: Arab Civilization Centre, 2000. pp.279.
Edwar El-Kharrat, the Egyptian novelist, short-story writer, critic, translator, radio announcer, militant, deputy secretary general of African- Asian organizations -- and more recently poet as well -- is a man for all seasons and for all generations. The book assembling testimonials, studies, poems and letters written in his honour and celebrating his seventieth birthday (born spring 1926), and appropriately entitled "Adventurer till the End" with its almost three hundred pages and fifty contributors attests to the extraordinary status of this rebel icon. The contributors are a varied lot: creative writers, artists, critics, academics, philosophers, translators, psychoanalysts and literary journalists from Arab countries (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen), plus a few from Europe. Their variety would hardly allow them to agree on anything let alone on anyone, yet Kharrat seems to have united them, receiving genuine appreciation from all of them -- though some cared for Kharrat the critic and not the creative writer (Maher Shafiq Farid) and others preferred his novels over his criticism (Ahmed Abdel-Mu'ti Higazi). Kharrat functions like a radiating prism from which one can enjoy one's own preferred colour or shade.

Edwar El-Kharrat was born and brought up in Alexandria with intermittent visits to Akhmim in Upper Egypt, where his father came from. He pursued his studies in the highly stimulating ambiance of intellectual and political Alexandria of the 1930s and 1940s. Some of his classmates, now renowned professors such as Mohamed Mustafa Badawi (Oxford University), Sami Ali (University of Paris) and Fathallah Khalif (University of Qatar) wrote touchingly of the younger Kharrat in the book. Kharrat studied Law at the University of Alexandria, and worked at a very young age to support his family, after the death of his father. In his youthful days he joined a Trotskyite organisation and was imprisoned for two years at the end of the forties. He worked as a newspaper editor and a translator and when detained improved his French to the point of being able later on to translate masterpieces of French literature. For readers who are interested in reading about the first two decades of Kharrat's life, a superb translation of his autobiographical novel Turabha za'faran by Frances Liardet entitled City of Saffron has been available since 1989. As for those who are interested in Alexandria as a metropolitan site in modern literature as written up by such famous writers as Naguib Mahfouz, Lawrence Durrell, Constantine Cavafy and Giuseppe Ungaretti, they may add yet another -- Kharrat's Ya banat Iskandariya, now also available in an English translation, Girls of Alexandria, 1993.

In his creative works Kharrat represents Egypt from within. He displaces the exotisation and folklorisation of the Orient by rendering intimately and passionately the contours and the contradictions of his country. Yet his art is not that of a traditional realist. He explores the sensuality of surfaces and the underlying depths. Above all, he writes in a captivating prose and disconcerting structures where different tenses coexist and where memory penetrates everyday reality. The memory is both individual, that of the characters, and collective, that of the heritage. His beautiful Arabic partakes of the majesty of the classical period and the innovation of the avant-garde. He is a master in combining polarities though the moral thrust of his works is never ambiguous. Like mystics, he can figure out and aesthetically present the points of intersection between the spiritual and the corporeal. No doubt his Coptic upbringing with its particular brand of Christian worldview, insisting on both the human and the divine aspect of Christ made him reject the "either/or" dichotomies. In the opening of Adventurer till the End, Kharrat enumerates the intellectual roots of his works, from Freud to Marx, and he does not forget to give credit to the oral tradition in his upbringing. He insists that it is not a question of faith in a religious dogma, as he is a secular person, but the fascination by the underlying thought in Coptic metaphysics, which he identifies very closely with that of Islamic Sufis.

Although this book is meant to honour a distinguished man of encyclopedic knowledge and unrelenting devotion to literature and the arts, it is most revealing to read in it how this task was met by the mixed group of contributors. Adli Rizqallah, a prominent Egyptian painter closely related to Kharrat's aesthetics and said by Kharrat to be doing visually what he himself is doing verbally, calls his counterpart a "pyramid" and in fact prepared an exhibit for this special occasion under the heading "The Pyramid at Seventy," Kharrat has written texts of poetic nature inspired by the painting of Rizqallah (as well as analysis and creative reading of his tableaux); Rizqallah has also illustrated covers of Kharrat's works. It was appropriate then to have a study of the Kharrat-Rizqallah intertwining by Walid El-Khachab in this book, though the presence of a few examples of the paintings and the illustrations discussed would have been helpful for the reader. There are also a number of poems by Ahmed Mursi, Helmi Salem, and Hassan Tulub inspired by, and dedicated to, Kharrat. These occasional poems also attest to the critical interest and encouragement of Kharrat to what has been called "the poets of the seventies."

In my own reading of the different pieces I found the most interesting insights were those linking Kharrat's poetics with his philosophical and ideological disposition. Sami Ali suggests Kharrat's obsession with alliteration -- which is almost his stylistic signature, often repeating the resonance of one consonant in an entire sentence or in a paragraph and occasionally in an entire page -- to mysticism. This distinctive prose technique of Kharrat does create the sensation of one in the many by creating a certain sound unity in the multiplicity of words, somehow blurring the monadic isolation of the single word. Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, another Alexandrian novelist, but of a younger generation than Kharrat, views the commitment of Kharrat to continuous innovation and non-stop creativity as corresponding to Trotsky's notion of permanent revolution. In fact, it is difficult to find a writer as prolific as Kharrat, author of almost a hundred books which include creative works, translations and studies, all listed in the detailed bibliography in this book.

Kharrat has always maintained that his critical writing is that of an amateur, not a professional. It is amateurish in the etymological sense of the word: it has to do with the Latin root amator meaning lover. He writes out of love and affection, introducing and recommending new writing. His long-time friend, Badr El-Deeb -- himself a great writer and an impressive critic -- sees Kharrat's critical activity as an attempt to encourage the new talents and to follow on the upcoming generation rather than a discernment of what is creative, as he says in his piece in Adventurer till the End. For him only what deserves to be reread, as Kharrat's works do over and over, is worth exploring critically. Kharrat on the other hand, seems interested in creating a current, if not constructing a literary school. The contributions of younger writers in this book attest to their gratitude to his acknowledgment of their presence and genuine interest in what they write. The poet Ahmed El-Shahawi and the short-story writer Somaya Ramadan, among others, do so in their testimonies. In our world today, when one has hardly time to keep up with the best of literature, to spend time reading beginners and first works is clearly the sign of dedication to bridging generational gaps, flouting status as well as keeping in touch with the emerging literary voices. Just the same, some of Kharrat's catchy terms have caught on: new sensibility, materialism and transgenre writing.

Edwar El-Kharrat
photo: Randa Shaath
The 1996 four-day celebratory symposium of the 70 years of Kharrat by the Supreme Council of Culture, which was later published in this book, is not the first tribute to this remarkable man. He had received earlier the State Prize in 1973, the French-Arab Friendship Award in 1991 and the prestigious Sultan Al Owais Foundation prize in 1996. Since then he has received the Cavafy Award, 1998, Naguib Mahfouz Prize 1999, and most recently the State Merit Award, 2000.

The Naguib Mahfouz prize is annually awarded by AUC Press to an Arabic novel of excellence selected by a committee of judges for translation and for receiving the Mahfouz silver medal. The chosen novel of Kharrat Rama wa al-tanin (Rama and the Dragon), was first published in 1980 in Beirut and then went through two other printings. It is Kharrat's first novel, after writing two collections of stories, and an acclaimed one which announced by its power and novelty a new trend of fiction writing in Arabic. Many of the contributors to this celebratory book on Kharrat, pointed out their first encounter with this novel and its profound effect on them.

The novel is about present-day Egypt with its multi-layered diversity, and it is also about the depths of human experience and the struggle between polarities. Kharrat presents with his spell-binding virtuosity the contrast between the two protagonists: Rama -- the symbol of multiplicity and creativity -- and Mikhail -- the symbol of unity and constancy. Their attraction to each other is that of a man and a woman, of a Copt and a Muslim, of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Their passionate and unrequited love story is depicted in the most exquisite language verging on poetry. Its imagery, exuding spirituality and sensuality, partake of the most beautiful Sufi and sacred texts.

The novel itself is constructed in fourteen chapters, each having an autonomy of its own, and yet the whole -- linked by succession and juxtaposition -- presents the narrative plot using the cinematic technique of montage. While weaving an intimate story of passion, Kharrat also depicts the fabric of Egyptian society with its varied customs and traditions, national and religious celebrations, with its revolutionary hopes and frustrating realities. Anchored as this novel is in Egyptian soil, it embraces the Arab cause as well as social justice. The issue of Palestine, which marks the history of Egypt since the forties, preoccupies both Rama and Mikhail.

The local roots of this great novel, extending deep in Egyptian ethos and history, do not make of it, however, a regional novel, for Egypt is presented as a microcosm of the world. The dreams and hopes, the fears and defeats of the protagonists correspond, through a delicate grid of intertextual references and contrapuntal echoing, to human dreams and anxieties everywhere. Fragmentation and unity on the level of the structure of the novel and on the level of its mythic paradigm, Osiris and Isis, have relevance to the world at large in this day and age. Not only does Kharrat use mythical motifs to interpret the world, he rereads myths to find layers of new significance in them.

Edwar El-Kharrat in his writing and in his quest for knowledge represents a model of third millennium renaissance man: open to all disciplines and civilisations with solid roots in his own community and culture.

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