Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1427, (24 - 30 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The street reader

photo: Hatem Moushir

Yesterday marked the opening of the 50th Cairo International Book Fair (23 January-5 February). To celebrate its Golden Jubilee, the Book Fair relocated from its Nasr City fairgrounds, an accessible space with easy Metro connections, to the remote if reportedly posh Egypt International Exhibition Centre in New Cairo. The move also involved excluding one of the fair’s thriving staples: the Sur Al-Azbakiya (or Azbakiya [Gardens] Wall) display of second-hand books, which has been limited to 30 booksellers instead of the usual estimated 108 and now requires participants to pay a higher fee. The Azbakiya Wall is where used book sellers have plied their trade for decades, but in recent years the book fair was where they made a significant profit every year. To make up for their loss of revenue, the booksellers decided to launch their own parallel book fair in situ, as it were, offering greater choice at lower prices over a whole month (15 January-15 February). This is where Al-Ahram Weekly has sourced its book blurbs this week, opting for out-of-print highlights instead of new publications.

Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting

A few steps past the Attaba Metro station, the crammed book displays came into view — almost instantly a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting could be seen. As I grabbed hold of it, two other customers lurked, asking the man in charge whether he had another copy and me whether I was sure I wanted it. The Codex Urbinas, as it is also known, is a collection of theoretical writings on painting gleaned from the master’s notebooks and published in French and Italian in 1651. It is the work of a copyist and a publisher as well as editor Francesco Melzi, who spliced various texts and fragments into a coherent whole, and artist Nicholas Poussin, who made the accompanying drawings to illustrate anatomical and lighting principles. Leonardo’s treatise remains an essential reference book and instruction manual, and one can only be thankful that it is available in such clear and accurate Arabic. A noted translator from the Italian since his long residency in Italy in the 1980s, when he resorted to translation to make a living (eventually turning to the work of important Italian poets and writing by artists such as Paul Klee), the leading painter Adel Al-Siwi provided this excellent Arabic version of the complete text under the title Nadharyet Al-Tasweer (or “The Theory of Painting”) in 1991. The LE20 version I found is the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) Reading for All Festival edition, published in 1999. A large-format 540 page paperback, it is in good condition.

Awael Zeyarat Al-Dahsha: Hawamesh Al-Takween

A much smaller if appealingly long and narrow GEBO paperback that immediately caught my eye was the late poet Mohamed Afifi Matar’s 180-page autobiography, Awael Zeyarat Al-Dahsha: Hawamesh Al-Takween (Astonishment’s Early Visits: Margins of Formation). A beautifully lyrical — and moving — recollection of his childhood in a small Menoufia village, it touches on the character of his mother Sayeda Ahmed Abu-Ammar, his grandfather’s house, fear of cholera and of djinn. An anecdotal, scene-based book, it also deals with the surrounding traditions, school and friendship as well as political and intellectual formative influences. A graduate of the philosophy department of Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts, Matar (1935-2010) was a noted pillar of the free verse movement in Egypt and an important 1960s figure. He produced criticism, translation and children’s books as well as poems, and raised controversy when he objected to the 1991 Gulf War and (due to his Arab nationalist sentiments) seemed to support Saddam Hussein.

Doaa Al-Karawan

With a cover showing a painting by the great Egyptian artist Gazbia Sirry, a 2001 GEBO edition of the “Dean of Arabic Literature” Taha Hussein’s best-known novel, Doaa Al-Karawan (The Nightingale’s Prayer, 1934) was my next discovery. The book is set in the Upper Egyptian countryside and tells the story of Amna, a young woman who witnesses the death of her older sister Hanadi at the hands of a merciless uncle who had abandoned both girls, forcing them leave their small village and depriving them of financial support. Hanadi found employment at the house of an engineer landowner’s son with whom she fell in love, leading to the honour killing in question. Amna replaces her sister at the same house with a view to avenging her death, but ends up falling in love with the engineer, who genuinely reciprocates her feelings. Discovered by her uncle, Amna nonetheless survives the shot he fires at her when her lover steps into the line of fire and dies in her stead… In 1959 director Henry Barakat made the beautifully written text was into a film nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival the next year. Featuring Hussein’s own voice at the end, it stars Faten Hamama and Ahmed Mazhar. Hussein (1889-1973), who was blinded at the age of three, is arguably the most central figure in modern Arabic letters. Born in Minya, Upper Egypt, he rebelled against his Azharite education, married a Frenchwoman,  Suzanne Bresseau, and introduced the principles of Cartesian doubt into Arabic literary scholarship. Much of his scholarly work focused on the blind Abbasid poet Abul-Alaa Al-Maari, but he made prolific and often controversial contributions in numerous fields.

Al-Sayeda Allati wal Rajol Alladhi Lam

Another GEBO find was the late Sabry Moussa’s 1999 collection of short stories Al-Sayeda Allati wal Rajol Alladhi Lam (The Lady Who and the Man Who Not), republished in 1999. Showcasing Moussa’s trademark combination of readability and insight, and employing his trademark lyrical style, these 14 stories run the gamut of topics and tones. In one, a former thief shelters a fugitive mother who leaves her village when her 14-year-old daughter gets pregnant, killing the girl an thereby winning the mother’s favour. A journalist and screenwriter as well as a novelist, Moussa — who died only last year in relative obscurity — was born in Domiat in 1932. He worked at Al-Goumhouriya newspaper and Rose Al-Youssef magazine, receiving many awards. He wrote travel books and pioneers the science fiction genre in Egypt. He is unjustly forgotten for the most part, although his 1965 landmark novel Fasad Al-Amkina (translated by Mona Mikhail as Seeds of Corruption) prompted a resurgence of interest in recent years.


Published in 1993 by Madbouly El-Saghir, the Mohandessin bookshop founded by a nephew of the senior bookseller with the celebrated bookshop on Talaat Harb Square, Al-Bahr (The Sea) is one of a handful of travel books by Saleh Morsi (1929-1996), the greatest writer of spy novels in Arabic. Morsi is the man behind the phenomenally popular television series Rafaat Al-Haggan (1987-1991), directed by Yehia Al-Alamy and starring the late, brilliant Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz as an incredibly successful Egyptian spy who managed to infiltrate Israeli society. Like John le Carre, Morsi worked for the intelligence service for some time; in Rafaat Al-Haggan as in Al-Alamy’s earlier Dumou Fi Uyoun Wakiha (Tears in Insolent Eyes), starring Adel Imam, he used intelligence records as material for his fiction. The present, 256-page volume is the third edition of Morsi’s meditation on the sea, featuring the permission he grants Madbouly Al-Saghir (“Little Madbouly”) in his own handwriting on the first page. Having been a navy officer, Morsi returns to the sea as a civilian and describes seafaring in precise detail, by turns chilling and delightful.

Al-Ketab Al-Mamnou: Asrar Thawret 1919

The first volume of this historical book by Mustafa Amin (1914-1997) was nowhere to be found in Azbakiya, but that didn’t stop me from obtaining the second. A pioneering journalist who was jailed for criticising King Farouk as early as 1939, Amin studied at the American University in Cairo and at Georgetown University in Washington DC. This is one of his most important books, and it is published by the Akhbar Al-Youm institution, which Amin cofounded with his twin brother Ali in 1944, before the 1952 Revolution which, led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, eventually made it state property. Nasser also persecuted the Amins along with other liberals who were imprisoned in the 1950s. Titled Al-Ketab Al-Mamnou: Asrar Thawret 1919 (The Banned Book: The Secrets of the 1919 Revolution), it is a 475-page account of the latter part of the saga surrounding this pivotal event in modern Egyptian history. Amin’s knowledge of the unknown side of the 1919 revolution is astonishing, but it is his insight into the hidden war between the secret body of the revolution (including its leader Saad Zaghloul, a great uncle at whose house Amin had grown up) and British intelligence that makes this book remarkable. The book was banned under Nasser in 1963, and Amin was arrested again as an American spy in 1965. He was placed in solitary confinement for nine years until his release in 1974 under president Anwar Al-Sadat.

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