Breaking Taboos Is Not Enough
Ibrahim Farghali is one of six authors from the Arab world invited by Germany's Goethe Institute to work as city chronicler for a month. In his portrait, Frederik Richter talked with him about Hermann Hesse, Günther Grass and censorship in Farghali's home country Egypt
Ibrahim Farghali was just 24 years old when as a fledgling journalist he interviewed Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. His yearning for literature had become so overpowering that, just one year after completing his unloved course of studies in his small hometown of Mansoura, he moved to the big city of Cairo.Today, in addition to his job as critic for the state-owned daily paper Al-Ahram, Farghali is also a writer himself – and he needs every bit of his passion for literature to contend with the difficulties faced by a young author in an Arab country.
Farghali, now 37 years old, developed his literary leanings at an early age.Keeping the distance from literary circlesHe grew up in the gulf nations of Oman and Dubai, where his father had found work. Farghali had a hard time making friends with his classmates at school, so he immersed himself instead in the world of literature. He wrote his first poems at age 14.
Even today, he still keeps his distance from the circles of intellectuals and writers that regularly meet in the cafés of downtown Cairo to discuss current political and cultural affairs. It's all just a bunch of gossip, Farghali says. He claims that not one good idea for his books ever came out of his participation in such conversations.In his works to date, Ibrahim Farghali has explored a variety of themes. In the short-story collection "The Ghosts of Feelings" he attempts to explore the relationship between Egyptian men and women, who come from utterly disparate backgrounds. Again and again, he tells the same story, but from a different perspective. By doing so, Farghali is trying to demonstrate how limited our understanding of people really is.Since he had never been to Germany, Farghali knew Stuttgart only from photos and from reading up on the city's history on its homepage. That's all he wanted to know ahead of time, so he could keep an open mind and just let the city have its effect on him.But he nevertheless thinks it must be very difficult to be forced to write something every day. He wants to do things differently from his colleague José Olivier, who as official city chronicler of Cairo compiled his impressions of the city in the form of fleeting scraps of text. Cairo was hardly recognizable in these text fragments, in Farghali's view, which is why in Stuttgart he intends to use a mixture of journalistic and literary style."The Glass Bead Game" and contemporary EgyptDuring this stay in Germany, Ibrahim Farghali would definitely like to visit the house where Hermann Hesse lived. That author's style and timelessness were what impressed him most of all in German literature.
He has read "The Glass Bead Game" over and over again, a book that for him perfectly captures what it's like to be in Egypt today.By contrast, he finds that Günter Grass' style and historical themes are no longer of contemporary pertinence.German literature has not made many inroads into Egypt thus far. Because of the country's colonial history, primarily French and English literature has been translated into Arabic. With his visit to Germany, Farghali hopes to finally learn something about the youngest generation of German writers.
Farghali himself is part of this generation. But on the Arabic literary scene, which is shaped by strict hierarchies, new voices have a hard time being heard. Especially when, like Farghali, they abstain from running roughshod over Egyptian society's moral and religious taboos in order to attract attention to themselves.Farghali by contrast dwells in the realm of quiet tones – and does so without compromise. A state-run publisher demanded that he remove all sexual overtones from his manuscript for "The Ghosts of Feelings" before publishing it. But since that was out of the question for Farghali, he has no choice but to put up with the vagaries and lack of professionalism of the few remaining independent Egyptian literary publishers.Ibrahim Farghali has published two novels and two short-story collections so far, but has yet to earn even one Egyptian pound for them. It's also up to him to see that his books get distributed – and they are therefore hard to come by anywhere outside the few bookshops in downtown Cairo.
Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida
Of twins and troubles
- Ibtesamaat Al-Qiddiseen (The Saints' Smiles), Ibrahim Farghali, Cairo: Miret for Publication and Information, 2004. pp164 - Ain Al-Qott (Cat's Eye), Hassan Abdel-Mawgoud, Cairo: Miret for Publication and Information, 2004. pp106
Two new books from Cairo's most active independent publisher confirm the suspicion that, notwithstanding the compulsion to break out of the prevalent moulds of narrative composition, it is the influence of Latin American magic realism that conditions much of what is currently being written. In their last two novels, Ibtesamaat Al-Qiddiseen (Saints' Smiles) and Ain Al-Qott (Cat's Eye), respectively, both Ibrahim Farghali and Hassan Abdel-Mawgoud are practising a form of fantastical writing more like the work of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez -- say -- than anything they have previously written. It is true that, in both young writers' work, the tendency to imbue more or less realistic narrative with aspects of the incredible has always been present.
But while it is also true that the imaginative dimension of such writing has tended to perform an intellectual function -- sexual depravity as a metaphor for loneliness, for example, or an impossible plot development acting to reflect the irrationality of day-to-day life -- only now, it seems, has the practice of observing the ordinary through surreal eyes burgeoned into structured, almost formulaic generic writing. Discussions of the influence of magic realism on contemporary Arabic writing often centre on how a literary style that emerged in a different culture is adapted to Egyptian reality. And perhaps this aspect of a many-sided issue provides an adequate cue for a reading of the present books.
Farghali's book opens with a description of Hanin's return from a French boarding school to Mansoura -- her and the narrator, Emad's, home city. Everything initially seems ordinary except for one small detail: the reader is soon to discover that Emad -- a friend of Hanin's father Rami and the frustrated lover of her aunt Nadia, Rami's twin brother, who now receives her -- just happens to be dead. As the 20-year-old Hanin meets her aunt, embarking on a journey of discovery in which she finds out more about her father, aunt and supposedly dead mother, more than she ever thought possible -- the story takes on the guise of a complex family drama in which Emad plays the dual role of past participant and present narrator. The mystery of Hanin's mother's whereabouts invests the action with a degree of suspense that helps sustain interest.
As the plot thickens Emad disappears, and it is Nadia and Rami who take over the narration as the book draws to an end. Nadia speaks of her indissoluble attachment to Rami, her twin brother, providing her own account of Emad's story and revealing Hanin's secret: that she is in love with a Jew who wants her to live with him in Israel. Rami divulges part of the detail of his life following the disappearance of his wife, revealing his anti-Israeli feelings. In the end, however, the narrative closes on the same ordinary note. Neither is the mystery revealed nor does the reader find out about the future course of the characters' lives.
Within the context of magic realism, Farghali, faithful to his roots in social realism, is at bottom commenting on current social issues like Egyptians working abroad, Muslim-Copt relations (Hanin's mother is Christian) and the Arab Israeli conflict. Abdel-Mawgoud, by contrast, seeks inspiration in Egyptian folk heritage, evidencing a complex love-hate relationship with his Upper Egyptian roots. The name of the hero of Ain Al- Qott, the narrator's twin brother, is Qott (Cat), and he was so named because he came into the world half a minute after his twin brother, due to the prevalent belief that the younger twin metamorphoses into a cat by night. The present Qott really does become a cat, however, and it is this more than any other fact that drives the narrative forward.
Other stories make up a deeply absorbing panorama of village life in which Abdel-Mawgoud's psychological insight comes to the fore: the guard Hannawi's conspiracy with the mayor to cast the barber Boutros and his wife out of the village; the affair Sanneya, the wife of the civil servant Salah, is having with the driver Abbas; Hennawi's involvement in doctoring the elections; the inferiority complex suffered by Ustaz Sabri, the geography teacher, who lives in the poorest district; and the revolution the latter leads, putting an end to the oppression suffered by the poorer villagers...
Through the complications resulting from Qott's nightly observations of village life -- secrets he tends to divulge by morning -- Abdel- Mawgoud manages to tell a number of interesting stories and put forward a complete picture of contemporary village life, while at the same time investing his narrative with a charming fairy-tale dimension and thus avoiding any vestige of melodrama in so doing. In this way the text incorporates the prevalent, and palpably unrealistic beliefs of the villagers into the process of understanding their life -- a form of magic realism that is even more obvious than the one practised by Farghali.
Taken together, the two novels testify not only to the younger generation of novelists' ability to weave strands of the impossible into a homegrown realistic tapestry, but to a growing awareness among the practitioners of literature of the need to invest what they have to say about society or the psyche with readability -- a need that the Latin American example caters to in as many ways as there are authors who use it.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha