Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1162, (29 August - 4 September 2013)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1162, (29 August - 4 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time: Excellence under duress

A story of human achievement against the odds is hauntingly told in Fayez Farah’s book Uzama Qaharu Al-Yaas, or Great People Defying Despair (Maktabat Al-Thaqafah, 1991).
It is the story of writer and painter Sobhi Aziz Al-Gayar. Born on 27 February 1927 to a limestone merchant in Masr Al-Qadima, Cairo, Al-Gayar had an uneventful childhood. An excellent student, he was cared for by a loving father who encouraged him to read, and a doting mother who told him children’s tales, such as the fables of Al-Shater Hassan (Hassan the Adventurer), Sitt Al-Hosn Wal Gamal (The Loveliest of All Women) and Sekket Al-Salama (The Safe Road).
From a young age, Al-Gayar was a gifted painter. At school, he won the Geography Prize for drawing maps and faces of various ethnic groups. Then a neighbour who studied art coached him for a while. Eventually, he started to read books about art appreciation. Later on, he took a correspondence course in art with a London-based institute.
When Al-Gayar was 10, he had a story published in Al-Baakuka, a humour magazine. Around this time, he enrolled in the scouts’ team in his school and began to excel in athletics. In high school, Al-Gayar continued to excel in his studies, receiving top grades and numerous accolades from the teachers.
Then calamity struck.
On 23 September 1941, he was playing football with some friends. After the match, while walking home with his brother, he felt a stabbing pain in the heel of his right foot. Two months later, he experienced similar pain in his spine. Doctors said he had rheumatism and gave him a variety of medication, none of which worked.
By late 1943, he was completely bed-ridden, and yet decided to study for the high-school finishing exam, which he passed.
“Destiny not only turned me into nearly a statue of stone,” he later wrote. “Its cruelty had no boundaries. I was just 15 when my health was taken away. I was full of strength and vitality, when everything was taken away. I was deprived of the learning that I craved, of the work I was hoping to get, of the income which I now needed even more than before because of my medical condition. I was deprived of love, for which I felt the need so intensely. I couldn’t get married and have children like other people, although I craved family life so much. I looked around me and saw not one ray of hope that may lead my steps in life.”
But he didn’t give up.
In 1946, Al-Gayar read an advertisement by the magazine Al-Mesbah, which wanted an illustrator. He wrote to the editor, offering to work for free. The magazine published three of his cartoons, which filled him with joy. He started to publish his work in other magazines, such as Beladi, Akhbar Al-Donya and Al-Baakuka.
In 1948, he found someone to lean on. Neamat Hamed Eissa, his nurse, took care of him for the next 39 years, helping him to regain a sense of independence. He began focussing on his career.
In 1951, he joined the staff of Al-Baakuka, which meant that he finally had some financial security. He also started drawing illustrations for the Rewayat Al-Osbou’ (Weekly Stories), and eventually became its managing and art editor.
When Rewayat Al-Osbou folded, in 1954, Al-Gayar published his own magazine, Qessati (My Story) which published fiction for young writers, including some who became famous later on, including Ahmed Bahgat, Mohamed Al-Khodari, Sabri Moussa, Mohamed Tabarak, and Abdel-Aal Al-Hamamsi.
In 1959, Al-Gayar travelled to London for treatment at the expense of the Egyptian government. There, he was diagnosed as suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the axial skeleton which often leads to spinal fusion. During his five-month stay in London, doctors did their best to help him, but apart from changing his knee joint, he couldn’t do much.
Another bout of despair followed.
Then he resumed his work, writing short stories and essays for Akher Saa (Last Hour), and making some charcoal drawings.
Back in Cairo, the Ministry of Culture gave him a two-year fellowship to write his memoirs, with a stipend of LE60 per month. Some of his fiction was produced for the radio, and he was fast becoming a celebrity.
In 1958, Al-Gayar won the first Book Club Award. In 1970, he won the State Award for Literary Biography for his book Rob’ Qarn Minal Quyud, or Quarter of a Century in Shackles.
In Rob’ Qarn Minal Quyud, Al-Gayar tells his personal struggle as a victim of ankylosing spondylitis, speaking of how he had to make every moment count, and how his life was a constant fight against depression and despair.
Al-Gayar passed away on 25 February 1987, aged 60.

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