Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lucy Yacoub

Lucy Yacoub: Trapped in time

By Sahar El-Bahr

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Yacoub with Mahfouz, Idris, Abaza and El-Hakim

Lucy Yacoub was at the forefront of a group of writers described as the "middle, unlucky literary generation". Arriving in the wake of immortals like Taha Hussein, Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad, Tawfiq El-Hakim and Mahmoud Taymour and their direct offspring (Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and short story master Youssef Edris, for two), these writers were initially overshadowed, only to be overtaken by the Generation of the 1960s. Yet, however unlucky with publicity, Yacoub produced some 120 books; The Lakes of Doubt , Feminine Thoughts and Confessions of a Romantic Woman are among the best known. That is not to mention her work as a translator of the classics, the graduate of the country's early American schools: Jane Austen's Emma and Bram Stoker's Dracula , to mention but two. She has been frequently awarded as writer, translator and cultural figure.

Lucy Yacoub was already writing poetry at the tender age of seven, following such major literary magazines of the time as Al-Risala. A composition contest organised by the magazine Migallati -- all that was needed was to answer a simple question, "what is your wish for the new year?" -- propelled her into precocious self-recognition. Her wish was to work as a secretary for a blind philosopher, she wrote. She wanted to live close to him, taking down his comments and thoughts. She was in fact identifying one of her most lasting influences: Taha Hussein. And her subsequent search for a life partner sufficiently like him, or else her father, was fruitless, she says. Yet the romanticism in her writing came precisely out of the luxurious life she led, her father being among the country's wealthiest businessmen, the agent for a famous brand of electric appliances. Nor was such luxury reductively material, happily.

"My father was a cultured man as well," she reminisces. "And he provided for much of my early education in the art of literature. I was born in Alexandria, but brought up in Minya Al-Qamh in Al-Sharqiya Governorate. I lived with seven siblings in a villa overlooking a wonderful green landscape; it had its own huge garden with many kinds of flowers and birds. I grew up chasing the butterflies, caressing the flowers." It all paid off with her first collection of short stories, Uyoun Zalima (Unfair Eyes, 1970), which made her name in literary circles. The stories were emotionally open, explicit. They provided that rare thing: a woman's honest perspective on love, which, she explains, was nothing short of revolutionary by the social standards of the time. And that is why she dithered at the door of the publishers; yet Mohamed Zaki Abdel-Qader, the man whose advice she sought, recommended a head-on confrontation with society. The introduction he wrote to the collection summarised his perspective: "Our feelings are precious and it is unfair to hide them for fear of tradition, for shyness or because we expect society is ready to condemn a woman for explicitly conveying her thoughts and emotions." Not surprisingly, the book was dedicated to the two men she admired the most: her father and Taha Hussein.

Here as elsewhere she resorted to the confessional mode of romantic writing, a tradition she traces back to Rousseau, counting among the works that make it up Hussein's The Days, El-Aqqad's Me and the memoirs of Simon de Beauvoir. This, she believes, is the most sincere kind of writing. From Unfair Eyes on, she continued to practise it, proving both prolific and penetrating.

In the late 1970s Yacoub acquired several adjuncts: the virgin of literature, the nun of thought, the daughter of Sinai. Each had a story behind it. "In 1960," she recounts, referring to the last of her names, "I joined the staff of Sinai Manganese. This was one of the major national projects and I was in charge of the export and import department. I worked hard, with great enthusiasm and patriotism, for seven years. And it was all in preparation for when we would start. But before we could do so, following the tragic war of 1967, Israel seized the factory." She channelled her fury into a short-lived daily newspaper, The War, which she founded with Abdel-Moneim El-Sawy. She wrote on Sinai and the war: Memoirs of a Female Employee, The Virgin of Sinai, Back to Sinai, Adventure in the Manganese Mountain, The Most Glorious Day in History, A Journey to Sinai, We are Back, Sinai, A Journey to the Salaheddin Citadel in Sinai and Adventure in the Bottom of the Sea. Of all the dozens of awards she has received, she is most proud of the one she got from the Supreme Council of Arts for these efforts in 1974. After Sinai was liberated in the early 1980s, she was the only woman in the mass media covering the official ceremony of the handover. It was then, largely through the media, that the name Daughter of Sinai stuck with her.

Virgin and nun came from her refusal to be married, for several clear reasons: "it would be unfair to the man, for I was absorbed in writing 24 hours a day. Love for me was rather a matter of the imagination, best expressed on the page. And I adored my father so much I thought no man on earth would measure up to him." Yet it is a decision she does not regret, even now. Literature was enough compensation; and as Mother Lulu, she finds fulfilment with her family's many children. Living alone in a large flat in Shubra, she is surrounded by piles of books, many on pre-Islamic and world literature. They are, she says, her treasure; and it will not be preserved, she adds sadly, since the aforementioned children, with foreign mothers, do not read Arabic. Thus lives the virgin of literature, a true devotee if ever there was one. In this sense Yacoub has led a remarkably exemplary life.

What does she think of the new generation of writers? Yacoub initially refused to comment, claiming that her views would upset people. Gradually she reveals her true gripe with younger writers: they do not have the patience to read. They have plenty of ambition but no depth. Their practicality notwithstanding -- they must after all earn their bread -- the writers in question have feuded so often they rendered the literary climate too tense and unhealthy to be effective. It only goes to show, she concedes, that her writing is not popular among them, for they are too idealistic, too imaginative and romantic for their tastes. Yet her issue with younger writers is their lack of loyalty to their literary forebears. She, for one, showed loyalty to such mentors as Naguib Mahfouz, El-Aqqad, El-Hakim, Taymour, Hussein, Ihsan Abdel-Qodous, Youssef El-Sebbaai, Saleh Gaudat, Ibrahim El-Masry, Mahamed Zaki Abdel-Qader and Mai Zeyada, most of whom were friends. She studied their work, producing essays on it.

This brings up the predicament of her own books, many of which have been in publishers' line-ups for a decade or more: "it makes me feel like I wasted my life writing books that would never be published; they are like precious gifts to a young generation. I do not say this out of vanity but I'm entitled to publish my writings, if only by virtue of my experience." Indeed "the blackout" on her work makes her bitter, with state-supported publishers often subjecting her to "unendurable torture". But it is not money she is after: "all I want is for my books to be available. The essence of writing is giving. Besides, I live on my pension as a general manager at the Sinai Manganese Company." And it is young and young-oriented reading committees that are to blame. Yacoub is particularly eager to see to the publication of four books, all of which are non-fiction, three of which are tributes to mentors or contemporaries: Mohamed Zaki Abdel-Qader: Philosopher and Teacher ; Samir Sarhan: From Art to Life ; Figures Imprinted in the Memory of History ; and In Culture, Press and Freedom. More recently, however, feeling it was futile, she gave up the fight: "I fought a lot, but in vain. Besides, I am grieved because of the death of a few members of my family. The most painful one is the late death of my beloved brother, who used to live with me." Yacoub always refers to him as "my beloved".

All that aside, she maintains her routine; she is so absorbed that family and neighbours are only allowed to knock on the door or phone at preset times. She prefers to meet them by appointment at the Cultural Club in Garden City: "they waste my time and distract me. Thank God I still have the energy to write." And not once does she accept the notion of woman's writing. It is discriminatory, she insists. Besides, only women can adequately appropriate women's emotions: "when male writers depict women's feelings and emotions, I feel like they write about strange women, women I do not know." Yet when it comes to woman writers writing about men, Yacoub says, it is always the other way round, for some reason.

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