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The Changing Times of the Egyptian Novel

By Hosam Aboul-Ela

One of my main activities since arriving in Cairo has been to try to update myself on recent developments in the Egyptian novel. I have just finished a work that's received much attention in the local cultural pages since I arrived. It's entitled A Matter of Time and it opens with the idle chatter of a cabdriver talking to an uninterested passenger about his preference for the slow pace of Fridays (the Muslim Sabbath). In the next chapter, the accidental death of a love interest throws the main character's world into a tailspin. Throughout the short novel, a series of objects, like the main character's watch, or the last photographs of the accident victim, invoke the alternatingly haunting and comic arbitrariness of time in contemporary Cairo.

I read this text by forty-something rising star Montasser al-Qafash as a comment on contemporary literary history. An explosion of new fiction innovates even as it recalls earlier epochs in the modern Arabic novel. May Telimissany's Heliopolis, for example, recalls the family chronicle made famous in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz in his Cairo trilogy. Yet Telmissany starts where Mahfouz ends up, with the revolution of 1952. In her autobiographical novel, the promise of the revolution ends in a series of episodes that illustrate the eccentricity of Cairo in the 1990s, once the bold ideas of the 1950s have completely exhausted themselves.

Literary history also repeats itself in the return of magical realism to the contemporary Egyptian novel. The local precedents here are Yahya Taher Abdullah's folkloric fiction of the 1970s and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid's early novel Distant Train. (Both Distant Train and a volume of Abdullah's fiction recently became available in English translation). Latin American boom writers in Arabic translation have been so popular here that they too can be considered a local precedent. The new group of young novelists includes writers who reinvent magical realist techniques to express the same absurdities that Heliopolis and A Matter of Time emphasize through their realism. These writers include the medical doctor-turned-author Atef Suleiman, Adel Asmat—especially in his novel The Naked Man— and Merfet al-'Azuni in her book The Creeping Hills.

Hosni Hassan, the author of several novels and a critical biography of Edwar al-Kharrat, perhaps best represents his generation's tendency to combine the skills of the creative writer and critic. Hassan is in the process of single-handedly reinventing the genre of the literary biography while authoring his own novels on the side. In him, the critical turn draws attention to earlier Egyptian novelists at the same time as the new novel of ideas emerges. Hassan also demonstrates the odd coincidence that unites this new generation of novelists: most of the writers I've mentioned come from the rural and industrial western

Delta region. In fact, along with Asmat and translator/critic Hany Helmy, Hassan could be said to represent the Tanta literary revival in Egyptian letters, since all three grew up in Tanta, Egypt's fourth largest city and a place few Americans have ever heard of.

Collectively, these novels embody contemporary Egyptian society's tendency to play with time. The visitor feels time is moving backward and forward simultaneously here. Every time I stay for more than a few months, I'm impressed with how much talent exists in my generation and those coming after us. But too many of my talented friends too often seem like the superfluous man or woman in a Dostoevsky novel, living in a society that has a hard time keeping up with its youth. The novels say to me that in a place where time operated differently, the young talent filling the country would not be marginalized.

Shortly after I purchased my copy of A Matter of Time, the president of the republic turned 80, and a left-of-center, independent opposition newspaper ran a story entitled, "An Old Man Runs a Government of Old People Opposed by the Aged." From it, I learned the chief advisor to the president is 77 and most of his inner circle are in their 70s. Also, the opposition Nasserist Party's president is 82 and the leader of the 'banned' Muslim Brotherhood turns 80 this summer. This is the official face of Egyptian temporality. Don't let it fool you.

Published Jun 11, 2008   Copyright 2008 Hosam Aboul-Ela

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