Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

I confess I have lived

Screenwriter Azza Shalabi tells Soha Hesham about her experience with the late artist Injy Aflatoun

Al-Ahram Weekly

The republication by Dar Al-Thaqafah Al-Jadidah this month of The Diaries of Inji Aflatoun: From Childhood to Prison, which Azza Shalabi helped put together before the artist’s death in 1989, is an opportunity to review one of Egypt’s more remarkable left-wing lives.

Born in 1924 to a “semi-feudal and bourgeois” family in Cairo, Aflatoun got her family name from her grandfather’s propensity to ask questions (her landowning entomologist father’s name was Hassan Mohamed Al-Kashef).  Her mother was a French-trained dress designer and it was through her service in the Egyptian Red Crescent Society Women’s Committee that Aflatoun had her first experience of activism. In the 1940s-50s she was to become, as well as a pioneer painter, a prominent feminist and a leading figure in nationalist and Marxist politics.

First published posthumoulsy in 1990, and later reissued by Dar Souad Al-Sabah in 1993, the book opens with the separation of Aflatoun’s parents, recounting how her mother supported her and her sister Paulie against the odds, eventually breaking into the world of fashion with the help of the great nationalist economist Talaat Harb and his Misr Bank. Her shop, Salha, was to become a landmark in Cairo. Aflatoun’s rebellious tendencies were first evident at the Sacré-Cœur School, where she was caught reading a book and thereby breaking the rules. She later discovered Marxism at the Lycée Français du Caire. But it was her father who encouraged her painting, providing her with an art teacher, Kamel Al-Tilmisani, who at the same time introduced her to the struggles of the fellahin.

The process of putting together a testimony started in 1985. Shalabi recalls how she was called on to help transform Aflatoun’s cassette recordings into text: “I didn’t know her that well at the time. She gave me two or three tapes to work on. Her Arabic wasn’t that strong since she had spoken French since the age of 17 or so.”

She had made effort enough. The book recounts how, in 1948, the Dean of Arabic Literature agreed to preface her book Eighty Million Women With Us, which she completed in Arabic. She had married into the working class, and learning Arabic was part of her ideology. At one point, in flight of the authorities, she hid with a family she had not previously known in the lower middle class neighbourhood of Shoubra, where she dressed as a peasant woman and wore kohl.

Shalabi was struck by the sparse aesthetic of her house-studio, reflecting her own character. During a pause in the conversation, she remembers, Aflatoun would adjust a painting on the wall.

“Gradually as I started working on the tapes I was introduced to the woman through her recorded voice. When I finished a part I would go and visit her, and so after a while a friendship developed. She liked my work, and she could see that I was interested and dedicated to the mission. I could tell I was dealing with an exceptional figure. I was intrigued by the very simple way in which she described even horrific situations.”

On completing the tapes she had been given, Shalabi was rewrite the prison period. She happily took on the task.

“I rephrased the part entitled ‘A World I Didn’t Know’. The idea of an aristocratic girl surrounded by well-known figures all her life, even those in the left, and then suffering the harshness of prison: everyone doubted she could endure the experience. Her words demonstrated not only the burden of the experience itself but her capacity for surviving it. It seemed every period of her life was filled with challenges.”

Shalabi recalls how, when a memorial of Aflatoun was held at the Tagammu’ Party, she was asked to give a speech about the artist. “I couldn’t think of anything except a line from Pablo Neruda: ‘I confess I have lived’. I felt that this sentence described her well, she was a person who said what she did and did what she said,” Shalabi says.

By the end of the prison section, which Aflatoun was happy with, the artist had been hospitalised. “She liked my work on this part. She was an honest person who observed in silence. She realised how much effort I put into the work.” Shortly after she fell ill, however, Aflatoun died. “She left us with the enormous mission of completing and publishing the book. It was her close friend Said Khayyal who took on the responsibility; he finished off the missing parts of her diaries.” With Khayyal (who did the final edit) and Wedad Metri, another close friend of Aflatoun’s, Shalabi finally completed the project.

Of the saga she retains numerous stories: the irony of Aflatoun’s prosector husband finding her in his office among the accused (they had been married in secret, and though he refused to acknowledge her then he later invited his boss to their wedding); how she kept a cat in prison, whom she called Matalib (Demands), reflecting a common theme of her sojourn; when she realised she would be released in a year’s time and was in hurry to finish off all she had to do inside, having ingratiated herself with the art-loving head warden so that he would let her paint her fellow inmates, smuggling painting materials inside and finished works (occasionally wrapped around the torsos of guards) out...

“She had the difficulty of being seen as an aristocratic woman,” Shalabi concludes, “but she proved her ability not only to endure six years as a prisoner but also to use that time to develop her work dramatically as a painter.”

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