Egypt’s new wave fiction wins an audience by focusing on the personal, not the political

By Hamza Hendawi, AP
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New wave of fiction in Egypt bypasses politics

CAIRO — For decades, Arabic fiction was associated with the name of one man: Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature. Nearly four years after his death, his native Egypt is experiencing an unprecedented fiction explosion from a new generation.

Unlike their predecessors, the expanding group of young authors putting out a barrage of celebrated novels in recent years has grown bored with tackling big political issues. Instead, they explore the deeply personal, day-to-day life and hidden ills of society, writing candidly on taboo topics.

And they have turned to a more accessible language, peppered with Arabic pop culture and often infused with the writing styles of the Internet, building an audience among Egypt’s younger middle class. The fiction renaissance has fueled — and been fueled by — a spread of “Borders”-style bookstores, complete with cafes and reading areas, and of new prestigious Arab literary prizes.

“It is amazing that this kind of fiction has gained popularity when you consider the spread and influence of religious conservatism,” said one of the most prominent new authors, Hamdi Abu Golayyel.

“We are closer to everyday issues,” said Abu Golayyel, 42. “Our works have dropped dealing with the big issues and shaken off the burden of attempting to write prose for posterity.”

While many in the new wave of literature are not overtly political, their focus on personal alienation brings a more subtle call for change in a country that has been ruled by authoritarian governments for decades and where nearly half of the population of 80 million live in poverty or close to it.

It’s a contrast to earlier generations of Arab writers. The literary titan Mahfouz was best known for his sweeping depictions of Egyptian society and mores. Novelists from the 1970s-1990s often tackled issues of life under dictatorship and the direction of the Arab world after military defeats at the hands of Israel.

Abu Golayyel’s latest, “A Dog With No Tail,” is considered one of the most representative of the new wave. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of a poor Bedouin villager who lives as a migrant construction worker in Cairo. Told with humor, it follows the protagonist through some of the darkest sides of living in the big city — prostitution, drug abuse and a harsh class system.

“My friends and I were almost completely shut out, walking the streets of Cairo like we were citizens of another, faraway country we yearn to go back to,” he writes of the peripheral life of the city’s underclass.

A darker example is the 2010 novel “Farewell to Heaven” by Hamed Abdel-Samad, the tale of a childhood defined by the narrator’s repeated rape by older boys and the later discovery that the father he revered as a wise religious leader was no different than any other man in his village. He settles in liberal and more forgiving Europe, but it does little to ease his scars, and he eventually enters a psychiatric institution in Germany.

The new generation’s style is perhaps best typified in the 2003 “Being Abbas el Abd,” told in a fragmented form intertwined with pop culture references, often in a sort of “emoticon” Arabic used in writing mobile phone text messages.

Written by Ahmed al-Aidy, it tells the story of a video store clerk whose job brings him into daily contact with Western culture. Much of his daily life revolves around his mobile phone and the SMS messages he sends.

Poor and socially immobile, the narrator cries “glory be to my favorite bar of soap” — a reference to his habit of masturbating to deal with unfulfilled sexual desires.

“James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is considered among the best books of the last century. But reading it is more of a challenge than a pleasure,” said al-Aidy, 35, whose novel has been translated into English, Italian, Dutch and Turkish.

“In today’s world, books compete with a cinema ticket or a pack of cigarettes for entertainment. If you don’t capture the reader from the first page, he is gone forever,” he said.

More recently, Mazen al-Aqaad’s 2009 novel “Lost Anger” dives into the world of the Internet, an increasingly important social gathering point for young Egyptians.

The young narrator administers a chat room for men and women who share his desire for suicide because of their traumatic lives. The participants eventually organize a party to celebrate a young couple who decide to kill themselves. The couple changes their mind in the last-minute and the disappointed revelers become angry and beat them to death.

Egypt’s fiction boom has rendered obsolete a common saying that in the Arab world, books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Today, all three stages are done in one place — Egypt.

The number of copies sold remain modest, however. As few as 10,000 earn a book a best-seller tag.

The biggest seller has been the 2002 novel seen as kicking off the new wave — Alaa al-Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building.” It depicts an Egypt where the dreams of the poor are constantly shattered, while corruption, social injustices and religious extremism flourish.

Its success opened the floodgates for fiction, said Hind Wassef, a co-founder of Diwan, a chain of American-style bookshops complete with coffee, loyalty cards and special offers.

“It is a fiction market,” she said, “And we go out of our way to stock an excellent collection of fiction. It is what sells.”

Many of those involved in the new wave hope that it will have a social impact.

“While not political, the intellectual stimulation created by all this fiction will one day bring about reform and help contain the dangers of religious extremism and sectarianism,” said Mohammed Hashem, founder of Dar Merit, publisher of “Being Abbas al-Abd” and many of the more experimental new works.

“If I live another 10 years, I may finally see everything I have tried to do bear fruit,” said Hashem.

March 24, 2010: 3:23 pm

Language plays a very important role in the life of human beings. We use language from the moment we wake up in the morning till we go to bed at night.

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