Egypt has been through a troubling few weeks, culminating in several tense days around a general strike last Sunday April 6. During this time, talk of politics and economics has pushed aside talk of literature and culture. The general atmosphere has me thinking about the nonliterary challenges facing writers in Egypt, the Arab World, and the postcolonial world in general.
The first writer I ever met here was a venerable, beret-wearing, intellectually wide-ranging sixty-something, whose novella I was interested in translating. He chose the meeting place based on the inexpensiveness of the beer and made an indelible impression when he told me that he had recently taken out a pad and pencil and calculated all his earnings from his thirty years of publishing acclaimed fiction. It came to 3,000 L.E., which at the time was just under $ 1,000. Money problems are a constant theme. When I came for the summer four years ago, I found one of the most prolific and decorated novelists of his generation had turned to writing screenplays for Egyptian soap operas because his wife's death had put him in a financial bind, and TV writing provided a quick payday and instant gratification. This time another prominent older writer told me on our first meeting that he had stopped writing his popular column for the most widely read independent daily and gone over to an under-subscribed public sector start-up with apparatchiks, for editors whom he did not respect, because the latter paid three times as much as the former per column. Another prominent novelist took a position as editorial director of a new writers' series, only to find himself being denounced by name from pulpits during Friday prayers because of a short passage in one of the novels in the series that involved treating a copy of the Quran disrespectfully.
Then there is the friend of mine who paid his bills by working as a doorman for Egypt's largest private sector contractors, a firm with extensive dealings with the government, and wrote critically acclaimed novels on the side. A member of an ethnic minority, he was awarded a novel of the year medal at the Cairo International Book Fair several years ago, and had his picture taken with the president. That picture saved his financial life when his employers saw it and suddenly became afraid of him, providing him with his own office and a pension.
One younger writer who is just making a name for himself told me he was recently approached by the most prominent translator of Arabic literature who expressed an interest in 'discovering' him, but complained that he wasn't writing the right kind of stories and he needed to start throwing in lots of Egyptian folklore. Another young writer was approached about having his first novel translated into Spanish, but was told not to expect any money at all. When it came time to sign the contract, he found the translator was making several hundred dollars off his work.
Most of the novelists and poets that I know of a certain age here, spent time in jail under either Nasser or Sadat, the two previous presidents. It amazes me that under these conditions, Egyptians write poetry, fiction, screenplays, and generally make art—some of it quite stunning in its quality and innovation. This time of trouble has me mulling once again over Egyptian writing and its refusal to give up.
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