The Westcar Papyrus
I’ve linked to Qunfuzcreation several times recently. Here is a recent discussion of Egyptian novels. I am not quoting Robin Yassin-Kassab in this post unless I say so.
Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the preeminent figure, published his Cairo Trilogy in Arabic in the mid-’50s. It tells the history of a patrician family from 1917 until the Nasserite revolution. I outlined Egyptian history from 1805 to 1970 in 1,000 words here. Mahfouz was prolific. His style developed, as qunfuz says, “from heroic through realist to magical realist or romantic symbolist”.
Mahfouz wrote several novels about ancient Egypt. Raymond Stock, who is writing Mahfouz’s biography, says in an interview at archaeology.org which was given, or published on the site, on January 28 2003:
“These are ‘Abath al-aqdar (literally, The Mockery of the Fates, 1939), Radubis (Rhadopis, 1943), and Kifah Tibah (Thebes at War, 1944). I was chosen to translate the first one, ‘Abath al-aqdar, which we will issue under the title that Mahfouz originally gave it, Khufu’s Wisdom (Hikmat Khufu) – this story was drawn from Hordedef’s Tale in the Papyrus Westcar. The second novel, Rhadopis, which blends the story of the famous Thracian courtesan described by Herodotus and Strabo with that of the tragically short reign of Merenre’ II and his queen Nitocris, is being translated by Anthony Calderbank. The third, Thebes at War, about the liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos during the 17th Dynasty, is being translated by Humphrey Davies. All of these will appear next September , 64 years to the month since the publication of ‘Abath al-aqdar, Mahfouz’s premier novel.”
These editions were first published by the American University in Cairo Press.
The Westcar Papyrus, after the early-nineteenth century British collector Henry Westcar, the first Egyptian novel, is a fragmentary ancient Egyptian text containing a cycle of five tales about marvels performed by priests told at the court of Khufu by various of his sons. Khufu or Cheops was a Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom and Fourth Dynasty who lived in the 26th century BC. The stories appear to have originated in the Middle Kingdom at some time in the Twelfth Dynasty, twentieth and nineteenth centuries BC. The papyrus consists of twelve rolls written in the Hyskos, or Second Intermediate, period between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom, Fifteenth Dynasty and possibly Sixteenth, in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC.
These three early novels were intended to be the beginning of a vast Waverley-like cycle covering all of Egyptian history, but instead of proceeding with it, Mahfouz turned his attention to the present. He returned to ancient history in 1985 with Al-A’ish fi al-Haqiqah, published in English in 1998 in a translation, by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo, with the beautiful title Akhenaton: Dweller in Truth.
Raymond Stock had already translated five short Pharaonic stories by Mahfouz, published in 2002 as Voices from the Other World, Ancient Egyptian Tales. “I first met Naguib Mahfouz on March 4, 1990, my first full day as acquisitions editor at the American University in Cairo Press, when he made his weekly visit to our office to collect his mail.” Soon afterwards, Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York commissioned him to write Mahfouz’s biography. It has not yet been published.
Stock became a sort of Boswell or Craft to Mahfouz. The picture below, taken on October 23 1994, shows Mahfouz in the Police Authority Hospital next to his home in Agouza, Cairo, after being stabbed in the neck and nearly killed by an Islamist militant for something allegedly blasphemous he had written in Awlad Haretna, or Children of Gebelawi or Children of the Alley, published in Arabic in 1959. The blade damaged the nerve that controlled his right arm and hand. He wrote in longhand, not by typing. After years of physiotherapy, he resumed writing new material in 1999.
The American University in Cairo was founded in the turbulent year 1919. Like the American University of Beirut, it is a private university. In September of this year, it will move from its old premises in downtown Cairo to a new campus outside the city, though I believe it will retain part of the old premises for special uses. Many people are sorry about this latest desertion of the pre-1914 downtown – which is part of a worldwide flight from city centres, intermittently corrected by sellers of expensive residential real estate.
The best-selling novel in the Arab world for a long time after its publication in 2002 was ‘Imārat Ya’qūbīān (inconsistent use of diacritics, I know), by Alaa El-Aswany. It looked at the lives of the contemporary inhabitants of an apartment building in old (early twentieth-century) downtown Cairo. The building had seen better days, but all kinds of characters lived in it. On the roof was a small shanty-town, a colony of the poor. Yassin-Kassab: “Mahfouz’s microcosmic alleyway has been replaced by a residential building.” Here is an article in The Guardian about novels built around the varied inhabitants of a single building, starting with Zola’s Pot-Bouille in his Rougon-Macquart series. I hadn’t heard of most of them. I imagine that El-Aswany would acknowledge a debt generally to Zola.
A translation by Humphrey T Davies, The Yacoubian Building, was published in Egypt in 2004, in a beautifully-produced edition from The American University in Cairo Press. It has since gained wider circulation.
The Yacoubian Building was important for Western readers. It gave them an insight into a society they otherwise knew only from tourism and news media. It overturned their assumptions about what an Arab novel might contain. And it gave them a chance to see a good Egyptian film. The film version was very well done and had an all-star cast (don’t watch its inept trailer on YouTube). It ran for weeks in London, which must have been the only time this has happened with a film in Arabic with subtitles.
The book doesn’t have the stature of a novel by Mahfouz, though on occasion it comes close. It is closer to a sort of television soap opera. Most Egyptians found aspects of its portrayal of Egyptian society slightly forced or dated. It gives an impression of a society bound by the chains of sycophancy from the bell-boy up to the chief of police and beyond to the minister. But Egypt is bound in this way. Some Egyptians went to see the film more than once simply to watch the reactions of their compatriots in the audience.
The film, especially, made some Egyptians think about the many realities their society was ignoring, including homosexuality. El-Aswany is an opponent of Hosni Mubarak – and yet in a country with no free press and one in which bloggers can be locked up, his novel sells. Perhaps this indicates a certain Egyptian respect for art. On the other hand, with the partial exceptions of Egypt and Lebanon and perhaps Syria, there are pitifully few bookshops in much of the middle east. There must be many countries where the novel is not allowed to be sold.
El-Aswany supports Kefaya, a coalition of popular groups opposed to the stooge Hosni Mubarak. Kefaya, which was notably active in 2004 and ’05, was particularly concerned with the question of the succession to Mubarak and the likelihood of an automatic transfer of power to his son Gamal (National Democratic Party). The result of Kefaya’s and American pressure was Egypt’s first multi-party presidential election, in September 2005. It meant very little, though it and the protest votes for the Muslim Brotherhood and others in the subsequent parliamentary elections did Gamal short-term harm. The mild opposition leader, Ayman Nour of the El Ghad party, was not allowed to participate in the presidential contest and is still in jail.
Stock says that very little Arabic literature has been translated into English. The same is true, at least for recent literature, the other way round. “Exceptions include the Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, Syrian-based writer Abdel-Rahman Munif, and a handful of others, such as Egyptian septuagenarian Edwar al-Kharrat, whose novel Rama and the Dragon (Rama wa-al-tinin) won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2000. There is a lot of very good, but apparently very little great, fiction floating untranslated around the Arab world, though we are always hopeful of new talent arising. One such person is Somaya Ramadan, a young Egyptian whose first novel, Leaves of Narcissus (Awraq narjis), won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2001; this book appeared (along with al-Kharrat’s Rama and the Dragon) in English at last December’s ceremony for the same award.
“As far as Arab writers adapting ancient Egyptian themes in fiction, most of this was done in the 1930s and 1940s, later yielding to an emphasis on Islamic-themed works. […] Among the pioneers was ‘Adil Kamel, whose novel about Akhenaten, King of Rays (Malik min shu’ah) was written in the late 1930s, though it appeared in the early 1940s. There were also Muhammad ‘Awad with his 1943 novel Sinuhi, and Abd al-Hamid Judah al-Sahhar [mentioned in my main attachment below] with his novel Ahmus, on the pharaoh who led the final drive against the Hyksos, ditto in 1943. Several plays have also appeared, such as Alfred Farag’s take on Akhenaten, Pharaoh’s Fall (Suqut fir’awn, 1955), and relatively more recently, Ahmad Suwaylim’s Akhenaten: A Play in Verse (Akhnatun: masrahiyah shi’riyah, 1981).”
Going back to Yassin-Kassab, he does not mention Taha Hussein (1889-1973). I have not read any of his novels, but I have read parts of his fine autobiography, published in Arabic in 1932, and in English in 1943 as The Days. He should surely be mentioned in any list. Taha Hussein was blind from early childhood. (Some Egyptians looked blind from their fondness for wearing very dark glasses! Mahfouz sometimes did this. So did Umm Khulthum.)
He talks about some other Egyptians:
“One star of the ‘Sixties Generation’ is Gamal al-Ghitani [he is mentioned in my main attachment below], whose historical novel ‘Zayni Barakat’ is particularly good. This is set in 1516 when Egypt’s Mamluk dynasty was crumbling before rising Ottoman power, but like all historical novels it has as much to say about the moment of its authorship. Many Western journalists are frustrated novelists; the oft-censored and once imprisoned Ghitani is a frustrated journalist. His fiction refers to the rise of a new Egyptian ruling class, to Israeli conquest and American hegemony, and the experience of living in a police state.
“The Marxist writer Sonallah Ibrahim, in a reaction against social realism and linear narrative, produces kafkaesque and often hilarious criticism of contemporary Egypt. Another frustrated social commentator, Ibrahim blurs borders between literature and reportage. In ‘Zaat’, for instance, chapters describing the sexual, workplace and bureaucratic battles of the eponymous heroine are intercut with headlines culled from the Egyptian press which tell their own story of galloping corruption, loss of national independence, social dislocation and hypocritical Islamism.”
Turning to contemporary fiction, he starts with El-Aswany and goes on:
“Most contemporary of all in its tone is Ahmad al-Aidy’s ‘Being Abbas el Abd’, which is an Egyptian ‘Fight Club’, amongst other things. It contains graphic weirdness and all manner of iconoclasm. Its humour and quickness of thought, and its up-to-the-minute Cairene cynicism, produce devastating lines […].
“I have some problems with the Humphrey Davies translation. When I read ‘Cut to the chase,’ or ‘Don’t act dumb with me! I mean like what’s with the women?’ I have to struggle to place myself back in Cairo. […]
“‘Being Abbas el Abd’ is fast-moving, globalised, irreverent, erotic, and alienated. As such it would surprise Martin Amis, who tells us that a monolithic Islamism has won everywhere in the Muslim world. It would confuse any of the commentators who complacently wrap up the ‘Arab mind’ in a trite image or two.
“The West is hearing a lot about the Arabs, but only within the straitened confines of its corporate media, which inevitably simplifies. ‘Making Sense Of It All,’ sloganises BBC World. Non-fiction written by outsiders can be good (on Egypt, ‘In an Antique Land’ by Amitav Ghosh is to be recommended), but the stuff in the best-seller lists (Bernard Lewis, VS Naipaul) usually has a narrow agenda. Novels provide context and complexity. They offer a more nuanced understanding and a sense of the human texture of a part of the world which is, naturally, every bit as diverse as any other.”
In a series of cabinet changes in Egypt in July 2004, a group of reforming ministers came into power (many of the old guard remaining). As far as I know, the reforming group are all still there. This was done despite the instincts of Mubarak, which are never to change anything. A series of free-market reforms was got under way. The opaque balance sheet of the old Nasserite state was audited and clarified. A series of privatisations began. It was an attempt at the same order of changes that, from different starting points, the UK began in 1979 under Thatcher, China in the ’80s under Deng Xiaoping, Russia in 1985 under Gorbachev, India in 1991, when the Congress Finance Minister was Manmohan Singh, the present Prime Minister, etc. And as in every other case, it is bringing prosperity and perhaps, even, better conditions for the poor, and sweeping away important things.
For the 2005 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in January, I organised a 100-page supplement to the WEF magazine Global Agenda (now defunct) on the first few months of this reform programme. It had some importance at the time as the most detailed portrait which had been done of the political and economic scene in Egypt at that precise moment, a turning-point. It was written by our correspondent in Cairo, Patrick Werr. Patrick lives in a building in the decayed early twentieth-century Cairo downtown behind Tahrir Square. The opening scene of The Yacoubian Building was shot only a few feet away from it. (UNESCO, which has not yet listed the area, had better start talking to Emaar soon, because it is only a matter of time before Gulf money and Gulf lifestyle-purveyors get their hands on it. Most of the Egyptian middle class would love Cairo to be like nothing other than Dubai. On the other hand, UNESCO is only a rearguard defence against Emaar et al, offering regulation in place of real life.)
For the endpiece, I thought that it would be interesting for Davos (but surely impossible) to interview Mahfouz, the Laureate himself. Mahfouz was still writing a column in Al Ahram, which also appeared in the English weekly edition and doubtless also in the French. It was incredible for me to think that in 2004 we could approach a man who had been publishing since 1932. Patrick approached Raymond Stock – and I attach the result below. This interview was done for us, and as far as I know did not appear anywhere else. It took place in December 2004 and early January 2005. It may have been the last interview Mahfouz gave. Mahfouz’s death in 2006 was a curiously muted affair in the Egyptian press.
The piece mentions Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Tawfk Al-Hakim and Sayyid Qutb and explains who they are. Stock even mentions Arnold Toynbee, and Mahfouz makes a very Toynbeean comparison between the period after Akhenaten and contemporary Egypt.
Stock and Mahfouz in 1994; and Mahfouz for Davos (I have used the former without permission, but of course not for profit and I hope within a context which indicates fair use)