Universities Missing in Action in a New Egyptian Literary Wave
One Friday night in the spring at El Sawy Culturewheel center in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo, a small crowd gathered around Amira Hassan El Desoki, jostling for her attention.
The Culturewheel, a former garbage dump turned cultural hub, was holding its first writer’s festival. Some of the featured writers were still teenagers. A crowd of eager young people from across Egypt were waiting for authors like El Desoki to sign their books and speak about their work.
El Desoki belongs to a new generation of young authors who have emerged in the past two years, unleashed in part by the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. While Egypt’s literary scene has been growing for some time, these new voices are defying societal and linguistic norms, taking on topics that had been previously taboo.
“A lot of writers are publishing now who were afraid before,” says Tamer Abdel-Hamid, an Egyptian writer and filmmaker. “And the number of them is growing.”
Private publishers are fueling this growth, unlike in prior decades, when universities played a prominent role. Universities supported writers and intellectuals like Taha Hussein, a professor of history at Cairo University, founding rector of the Univesity of Alexandria, and a literary critic, in the 1930s and 1940s. But the place of universities in Egypt’s literary life has significantly diminished.
“The universities do not help authors to publish their work,” says El Desoki. “They just give the certificates.” Many believe universities are unlikely to ever become part of the new wave of publishing.
“Now universities now are not in a position to support these initiatives,” says Hussein Hammouda, associate professor at the Arabic and Islamic Civilization department at the American University in Cairo. In April at the American University in Cairo, Hammouda organized a female writers’ panel, part of a handful of literary events organized on campuses. In comparison to standing room-only El Sawy Culture Wheel event, less than a dozen of students showed up at the university’s New Cairo campus, which is far from downtown Cairo.
Yet outside the university walls, there is a burst of literary activity, publishing houses, book signings and literary salons. Ahmed Rahmy, general manager of Alef bookstore chain, who attended the El Sawy event, says the chain has seen at least a fourfold increase in sales since the revolution.
While non-fiction dominates the new publications, including memoirs of the revolution, there is also a greater range in subject matter: from liberal, secular graphic novels and short stories with taboo or sexually explicit content to Islamist literature.
“There is more competition, on all sides, from the liberals to the Islamists, who used to be… in jail,” Rahmy says, chuckling. “Now they have the space to speak and write, talk about their thoughts and experiences.”
“Before the revolution, there were a lot of heavy novels, short stories,” says Amany el-Taftawany, a Russian-Arabic translator and tour guide, who translates Russian short stories into Arabic in her spare time. “Now they use young people’s language, street slang. It’s light literature. They are using contemporary Arabic language.”
El Desoki’s first book, a collection of short stories titled Bass, Ya Yousef (Stop It, Yousef), was published a year after the revolution in January 2012 and grabbed attention of readers, writers and critics. It took second place in the Sawiris Foundation’s short story competition for emerging writers, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Egypt.
The title Bass Ya Yousef refers to a story about a young woman and her search for identity. Amira says she kept the main character deliberately unnamed and sexually ambiguous (the protagonist has sexual relations with men as well as women in the story), so that many people could identify with her. “It’s fresh, you hear the girl talking,” says Abdel-Hamid, the writer and filmmaker.
On the other end of the spectrum, the rise of Islamist literature is affecting literary development in ways not welcome by everyone.
After the revolution, new books have surfaced that try to bring back Egyptian society to conditions from three or four centuries ago,” laments Hammouda, of the American University in Cairo. “There is a new discourse in society on women as sort of concubines, and there is also a call to return to the social and political relationships dating back to the Middle Ages.”
That, in turn, is mobilizing more young authors to join the literary ranks and make their voices heard. Ain Schams University, in partnership with University of Manchester, held a series of workshops on “Egyptian women artists and writers, and cultures of resistance.”
American University in Cairo Press, the main university publisher in Egypt, focuses on current events, political analysis, and language textbooks. The press featured one work of fiction by an Egyptian author in its spring catalogue: an English translation of Status: Emo by 29-year-old writer Eslam Mosbah.
“A chance encounter on Facebook leads you to Emmie and her underground world of strange fashion, drinking, dancing, sex, and drugs,” promises the book’s description. The press’s catalog also includes the first Omani novel to be translated into English and a number of classics, including Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Café and The Dreams.
Nigel Fletcher-Jones, director of the Press, said by e-mail that its mission is to “accurately reflect in English what is going on in the Middle East” to a wide international audience.
The American University in Cairo holds an annual Naguib Mahfouz prize for the best Arabic novel, which is translated and published by AUC Press. “I would very much like to see a similar prize which supports young first-time Arabic writers,” says Fletcher-Jones. “But we have not been able to set this up yet.”
Hamdy El Sakkout, who has published an encyclopedia of modern Arabic literature in 2007, says Egypt’s political upheaval threw off his plans for revised edition. While American University in Cairo sponsored his research, it was private publishing house Dar El Shorouk that published the book in Arabic five years ago. Dar El Shorouk has published many of the most famous authors including Naguib Mahfouz and Gamal Al Ghitani. “I can’t follow what is going on with young people anymore,” says El Sakkout.
But many writers and professors themselves lament the lack of literary and creative freedom at public universities, included the lack of creative writing courses at public universities, with a few exceptions. “There is no such thing in Egypt,” says El Desoki, who graduated from Ain Schams University. “It’s not viewed as something important.”
In the absence of university support, social media has been helping to transform how Egypt’s emerging literature is shared. Many avid bloggers became published authors, and now more writers rely on Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs to promote published works and share excerpts and translations.
Ghada Abdel Aal, a pharmacist, started an anonymous blog “I Want to Get Married” before 2011 about the pressures of finding a partner in Egypt. An instant sensation, it was turned into a book and spun off into a popular television series.
“These types of events do help,” she says, referring to the writer’s festival where she signed autographs and posed for photos. “I had a reading club on Facebook and we used to meet every couple of weeks but since the revolution we have not met because there are so many [literary] events.”
For a slightly older generation of writers, Egypt’s literary revolution began years ago. Alaa Al-Aswany published the landmark Yacoubian Building in 2002, which depicted the lives of the building’s tenants in downtown Cairo – a metaphor for Egypt’s social and cultural transformation since the 1952 revolution.
For that literary generation, the growing volume of new authors is sometimes a source of skepticism. “We have dozens of these [memoirs or first-person accounts] after the revolution, but how many real writers will emerge,” asks Tamer Abdel-Hamid, 36. He published his novel in December 2012 called “Residence Permits for Muslims” about an Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia, based on his own experience.
But the notions of what constitutes literature are shifting. And for some new authors who take on taboo subjects, Alaa Al-Aswany and other one-time giants are no longer literary icons.
Tarek Mustafa, a 27-year-old author of The Side Street of Midan [Tahrir Square, الشوارع الجانبية للميدان], says he is interested in the voices of the powerless. His first book was published by the Arab Spring publishing house [[دار الربيع العربي للنشر والتوزيع].
“History is always written by men,” Moustafa says of his motivations when we meet at El Horreya coffee shop in downtown Cairo. “I wanted to understand how the revolution affected people who are feminists, people who are outcasts for one reason or another. If we don’t show initiative, we will be forgotten.”
It’s daring work in a society where marginalized segments of the population still struggle to have their voices heard and where homosexuality is stigmatized.
Mustafa says there are still few literary breakthroughs, for example in the way homosexuality is represented. He and other young writers are critical of some of the previously unchallenged literary lions and the way they portrayed their characters.
“Many years ago Alaa Al-Aswany had an explicitly homosexual character in his book [Yacoubian Building], but how was the character represented? It [was] as bad as it could get,” he says. “Mr. Aswany considered that the gay character [Hatem] was gay because he was raped by a black servant when he was young.”
Even so, the writers, like most Egyptians, are still deeply influenced by the political upheavals and still trying to make sense of them. Mustafa and other young writers of a new generation don’t look to academic publishers or mainstream publishers to have their work reach a wider audience or get published in English. For them, real changes in literature and Egypt will take more time and will need to involve larger segments of the population. “The society is still the same society,” he says. “What I am sure about is that I am going against the flow.”