Listen to Cheb Hasni, a Rai musician from Algeria, popular across North Africa, but as was usual for his time, more popular abroad than at home. He performed at concerts in US, France, Japan, Morocco and Tunisia. He was murdered for his music - fundamentalists disapproved of some of his controversial lyrics on taboo subjects like sex and alcohol. A tragic loss. He was just 26!
The den of thieves
From the minute we made the move public I heard nothing good about it.
“You’ll get terribly bored,” an expat neighbour said, “very few Indians there, and no desi daal, flour or spices available.” Another guy said that it was a “den of thieves.” The more I heard, the more my mind rebelled against this easy, dismissive scoffing.
To be honest, Cairo wasn’t a completely unknown entity, we had visited shortly after we came to Bahrain. Egypt had been checked off early, long before we reached Dubai, though at the time our entire attention was consumed by the Pharaonic side of things. Now I knew a bit more. Sure, there were tacky tourist-traps, like in all countries, but looking beyond that it was a deeply rich culture and country to explore – what was not to love? No amount of snidecracks or the lack of Indian spices was going to put me off, phooh!
But visiting a country on vacation and living there are two vastly different things. It’s not my intention to write about that here. Except to relate one incident that happened shortly after we arrived. My husband dropped his wallet on a Thursday afternoon, without any Egyptian IDs in it because his new visiting cards were still at the printers. We spent a horribly anxious weekend. Meanwhile, the gentleman who chanced upon it, rang up the Dubai numbers he found in there and was told we had left for good. Instead of giving up, he then proceeded to track down our current whereabouts on the slimmest lead possible, located and rang my husband at work sharp on Monday. The wallet was restored to him untouched. So much for the “den of thieves!”
Into Yacoubian and on to Chicago
‘Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads’ so goes the old Middle Eastern adage, and I came into Cairo expecting riches. While the bookshops in Dubai were better and broader than Bahrain, they catered largely for a non-Arab expat clientele. I expected Cairo to be different, a deeper and wider well into Arabs and Arabic. What turned out even more important from my POV, Cairo doesn’t just write, she also translates. There is a very active effort by the AUC Press in Cairo to translate Arabic literary works into English and make them available to a non-Arabic readership. Manna from heaven.
The first writer I encountered was Alaa al Aswany, in his second book - The Yacoubian Building, a novel told through a pastiche of the intertwined lives of characters connected to a once-plush building in Downtown Cairo. The Yacoubian Building was published in the early 2000’s and was a runaway best-seller, made subsequently into a film and a TV series. Set during the 1990 Gulf war it is a scathing commentary of a nation that has squandered its youth and its potential. Here was a very different elegance from Mahfouz, an eminently readable, eloquent page turner that was also a serious, introspective and – given the taboos on sexuality – a very courageous portrait of a declining society. I quickly found some of his other books – Chicago, Friendly Fire, but neither of these had the same weight or charisma as the Yacoubian.
Aswany also wrote about political issues in essays published in the Arabic and international press, some of which have been collected into books. Alaa al Aswany has been the recipient of multiple awards and also been translated world-wide. A political activist of note, his voice is reckoned to be one of the topmost among influential Arabs.
The map of the middle ground
Somewhere between YB and Chicago, I picked up my first Ahdaf Soueif, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground – a collection of essays written in English.
We saw ourselves as occupying a ground common to both Arab and Western culture, Russian culture was in there too, and Indian, and a lot of South America. The question of identity as something that needed to be defined and defended did not occupy us. We were not looking inward at ourselves but outward at the world. We knew who we were. Or thought we did… Looking back, I imagine our Sixties identity as a spacious meeting point, a common ground with avenues into the rich hinterland of many traditions.
It is from the excitement and the security of this territory that my first stories and my first articles were written.
This territory, this ground valued precisely for being a meeting point for many cultures and traditions – let’s call it ‘Mezzaterra’ – was not invented or discovered by my generation. But we were the first to be born into it, to inhabit it as of right. It was a territory imagined, created even, by Arab thinkers and reformers starting in the middle of the nineteenth century when Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt first sent students to the West and they came back inspired by the best of what they saw on offer. Generations of Arabs protected it through the dark times of colonialism…My parents’ generation are still around to tell how they held on to their admiration for the thought and discipline of the West, its literature and music, while working for an end to the West’s occupation of their lands…true appreciation and enjoyment of English literature is not possible unless you are free of British colonialism and can engage with the culture on an equal footing.
~ Mezzaterra, Ahdaf Soueif.
And because I grew up straddling two parallel worlds, learning to be my own middle ground, I was hooked from the start. I read her short fiction next – I Think of You and the hook went deeper. Her fiction felt delicate, evocative, fresh and fluid, but also very relatable. By the time I’d arrived at her Booker shortlisted novel The Map of Love, I had totally fallen under her spell.