Hosam Aboul-Ela teaches in the department of English and the program in World Cultures and Literatures at the University of Houston. He has lived most of his life in two exotic foreign countries—Egypt and Texas. He is the English translator of the novels Voices by Soleiman Fayyad and Distant Train by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. He is also the author of a critical/theoretical text entitled Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition. He is spending the spring of 2008 in Cairo, Egypt as a CASA III/Fulbright fellow.—Editors
Somewhere in his nonfiction, Updike once referred to his trip from the front door to the mailbox as his daily engagement with the world. I realized immediately upon my second night back in Cairo after a nearly four-year absence that I was in a very different world.
I was having dinner at a friend's house when my friend switched over to al-Jazira, the informative, Qatar-based news channel with a very undeserved reputation in the US for spreading Islamic fundamentalism. It was late, and the station was repeating a documentary they'd produced about the assassination in the late 1970s of the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Yusuf al-Sib'ai. Al-Sib'ai was a prominent writer and a scenarist before joining Anwar Sadat's cabinet. He was killed in Cyprus by a team of Palestinian radicals in protest of the Camp David agreement that Egypt signed with Israel in 1978. The details of the tragic event showed the complicated interplay between regional differences, popular sentiments, and official government positions throughout the Arab world at the time. Such history not only gives the lie to the American idea of the Arabic speaking countries as homogeneous, it also resonates with the current troubles roiling various hotspots in the region.
I was a bit surprised to see a familiar face in the second half of the show. Edwar Al-Kharrat, an eminent figure in the contemporary Egyptian novel and former aid to al-Sib'ai, appeared several times, giving eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding the assassination and the hijacking that came on its heels. I knew him as the author of challenging, experimental novels that invoked folklore and myth, that played with narrative and language, and that challenged younger novelists in Arabic to keep it new (apologies to Pound). I knew him also to speak several languages, write poetry, paint, and draw. Not much that I know of in Al-Kharrat's writing is overtly engaged with politics in the way contemporary Arabic literature often will be, so it was even more striking to see him on al-Jazira, describing his personal experiences with events that shaped the region.
The experience inspired me to seek him out at his home in a block of flats in the Zamalek neighborhood near downtown Cairo. He showed me into a library with dim light that couldn't hide the piles of art and books surrounding us. We talked briefly about his recent output, his thoughts regarding the artist in the world, and the reception of Arabic literature in the West. I learned that another of his many novels has been translated into English. So, the too short list now includes the novels Stones of Babble and Rama and the Dragon, published by American University in Cairo Press and City of Saffron and Girls of Alexandria published by Quartet in England. Talking to him about the small drip of Arabic literature that makes it into English was discouraging, especially when I thought about an American reader trying to interpret what he does. So many things about Edwar al-Kharrat, including his interest in myth, his Christian background, and his Alexandrian roots, make him distinct from the typical Egyptian writer of today. Even that imaginary typical writer is a mystery though to the American reader.
Al-Kharrat is also polyglot and a voracious reader of world literature, not unusual in itself among Egyptian writers, but perhaps unusual to such an extent. This characteristic was made plain by the stacks of foreign books that surrounded him the day we visited. In fact, there just over his shoulder were several volumes of Updike.