Reading trends - Of times past: From summer to autumn

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 5 Sep 2021

Interest in unravelling the layers of Egypt’s history during the 20th century was highly reflected in a wide range of titles that appeared this summer

Books

Revisiting the past can easily be qualified as the leading theme of the new titles that several publishing houses put out this summer, first at the Cairo International Book Fair that started end of June and lasted until mid-July and then the Alexandria Book Fair held mid-August.

Memoires, selections of exchanged letters, and historical studies were all on offer for the visitors of the two subsequent book fairs, taking the reader way beyond the appealing, albeit not always highly informative, theme of nostalgia that has carved a successful niche during the past few decades.

One good example is Dar El-Shorouk’s successful Egypt’s Jews – The Way They Lived and the Reasons They Left ("Yahoud Misr: Kayfa Ashou wa Lemaza Kharagou") by Mohamed Abul-Ghar. A prominent medical and political figure, Abul-Ghar has contributed several titles of thorough research on the intriguing and multi-layered history of the Jews of Egypt.

The rich and thorough volume came out a few months ago in 450 pages and 11 chapters after the death of one of the most distinguished and popular figures of the Egyptian Jewish community, Albert Arié, who passed away in April at the age of 91.

Arié, a lifetime partner of Abul-Ghar in leftist politics in Egypt, is one of several Egyptian Jews interviewed in the book to offer the personal testimonies of some of the last Jews who stayed in Egypt after the exodus that began in the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s.

The personal testimonies are certainly among the fortes of this volume. The detailed accounts, accurate dates, and previously unshared information of and on the community all put the book in a very comfortable place to be in the league of Jacques Hassoun’s 1984 Les juifs du nil ("Jews of the Nile").

Like Hassoun’s reference-title, Abul-Ghar’s volume offers an image of a highly integrated community that for the most part led a life liberated from discrimination and fear since the late 19th century.

In the first segment of the book, Abul-Ghar quotes Abba Eban, who spent a few years of his youth in Egypt before heading to Israel to be one of its most prominent foreign ministers, saying that during his stay in Cairo he always enjoyed attending cultural events where he was once introduced to none other than Taha Hussein, the dean of Arab Literature, and Tawfik El-Hakim, another notable literary figure of the first half of the 20th century in the country.

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Eban was certainly far from being part of the anti-Zionist movement to which someone like Arié subscribed. Quite to the contrary, like some other Jews, including some famous traders and artists, Eban was one of those who used their stay in Egypt to help create the state of Israel in 1948.  Such alliances, however, did not hinder him from landing almost wherever he wished in the Egyptian society in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

That said, Abul-Ghar’s book keeps accounts in perspective. The author talks about the association that some Jews have with the Zionist movement and the association of other Jews with the national liberation movement in Egypt, suggesting that some Egyptian Jews had even joined the Orabi Revolution towards the end of the 19th century.

The book shares the account of Chehata Haroun, the leading figure of Egypt’s communist movement in the 1950s whose passion for Egypt led him to live in it until his death. Haroun's daughter Magda is the head of a very small Jewish community, of perhaps less than 10 people, in Cairo.

Haroun, Abul-Ghar writes, sent a letter to Gamal Abdel-Nasser following the military defeat of 1967 to underline the need for a role for progressive Jews to explain the case of Egypt to the world in the face of aggressive Israeli narratives. Prior to his death, Abul-Ghar adds, Harroun made it clear that he would not allow for an Israeli rabbi to conduct his funeral and burial ceremony.

Most of all, Abul-Ghar’s latest title sheds light on the often overlooked fact that because they never actually lived in a Ghetto, Egyptian Jews were just as diverse as the rich society they lived in. Those who lived in the Jews Alley, in the older quarter of Cairo, were never actually in contact with those who lived downtown, in Maadi, or Garden City, for example.

In his brief introduction the author offers a fresh take on one of the most curious accounts of Egypt’s modern history that seems to be coming to a somber end with the looming demise of the less than 30 Jews who are currently living across the country, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, with the youngest being in the mid-60s.

Times of the Ottomans – before and after

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Jews in the Ottoman Emprie – Pages of History ("El-Yahoud fil-Imbratoriya El-Othmaniya – Safahat min El-Tarikh) is another book that offers a wider context to Abul-Ghar’s title. A 2021 publication of the National Centre for Translation (NCT), the text is the Arabic translation that Anwar Mohamed Ibrahim put of a volume that originally came out in Russian by Irma Lvovna Fadeyeva.

The volume is heavily dependent on archived material that tells the story of the Jews who lived for subsequent centuries across the Ottoman Empire. It is, however, mostly out of 19th century archival documents, including some personal collections of Jewish families who had lived at the width of the empire that collapsed at the early years of the 20th century, that the author provided this volume that takes the reader way beyond the stereotyping of this community during that era.

Certainly, the book is not just about the status of Jews vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire, but also, actually more, about the relations of Jews with other communities in the empire, including other minorities, their way of life, and their culture. It is a rich volume of 587 pages and 14 chapters.

The history of Jews in the region, including those of Egypt, and their role in politics, are present in other titles, even if not as a main theme, that were on offer this summer.

Of these is the title of Salah Eissa's Margins of El-Maqrizi ("Hawamish El-Maqrizi"), a 2019 book of over 300 pages that offers a wide selection of stories from the history of Egypt, mostly under the rules of the Mamelukes and the Ottomans – roughly from the 13th to the 19th centuries.

The book had originally come out in the mid-1970s, but the copy currently available in bookstores, which got a lot of attention at the book fairs of Cairo and Alexandria this summer, is the one of El-Karma Books.

Typical of Eissa’s easy-to-read history books, many of which are published by El-Karma Books, this volume observes no chronological order for its "tales"; they come sporadically – and they are only linked by the texture they offer on the norms of living and governance of this age.

The stories of oppressive rulers are always a favourite theme of Eissa’s. This book is no exception. It shows the inevitabilities of the damage tyrants bring about to their nations and of their deserved devastating ends.

The perplexing relationship between tyrants and clerics, of all religions, is yet another favourite theme of Eissa's and it is very much highlighted in this particular volume.

The way Egyptians manage their anger before they revolt against an oppressive ruler or an occupying power is perhaps one of the most fascinating stories of this book.

Moments in history

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The Men of Marj Dabiq ("Rigal Marg Dabiq") is the 2021 title of Salah Eissa that El-Karma Books published this year. In 220 pages and some 40 pages of references, this is one of the fairly smaller books the publishing house put out this summer, yet it was an instant success

As the title indicates, the book is focused on this 16th century military battle near the town of Dabiq in Syria, which was part of a longer war that the Ottomans fought to take Egypt and the Levant from the Mamelukes.

Unlike Margins of El-Maqrizi and Eissa's other books on history, The Men of Marj Dabiq is a set of sporadic tales of no chronological order. It is rather written as one story, recounted in the chronological sequence, focused on the cities ruled independently from the Caliphate during the period of the Ottoman Conquest.

Meanwhile, Cities and Caliphs: On the Genesis of Arab Muslim Urbanism ("Modon wa Kholafaa – Aan Nashaet wa Tatwor El-Omran El-Arabi El-Islami") was published this year by Dar El-Marya, in an Arabic translation of the original English that has come out this year to contest one of the most easily accepted accounts on the history of Islam in the Middle East which is that of “an Islamic city.”

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The underlying thesis that architectural historian Nezzar El-Sayyad is offering in this easy-to-read and highly informative volume of 263 pages is that while Arab Muslim conquerors introduced much of their ways of life into the cities they took over or those they built where cities already existed, in fact there is no such thing as "an Islamic city" -- not in the pure terms of urbanism.

The cities, El-Sayyad argues, were already there for the most part and they were simply taken over. In the case of Iraq, for example, he writes, Muslim Arabs built new cities. This, however, was not the case in Syria.

In all cases, the author argues, the caliphs, one way or the other, used their control or construction of new cities to consolidate their political power. According to El-Sayyad, Muawiyah, the first of the Umayyad caliphs, started his rule in Damascus by living in an old Byzantine palace before building his grand palace that in many ways resembled the Byzantine style of architecture. By that time, the caliph was becoming a strong ruler leading an empire rather than merely being the head of the Muslim Ummah.

In fact, El-Sayyad argues that the entire Islamic Caliphate was never a homogenous urban entity – not despite the connection of Islam. Many of the cities that Muslim Arab conquerors seized, the author notes, had already been there for some three centuries. However, the book acknowledges the inevitable architectural input, particularly that related to the religious establishment.

More on the times of Muslim Arabs during the Middle Ages came from Mohamed El-Manssi Kandil, a prominent author of Dar El-Shorouk.

This summer, two of Kandil’s books have taken centre stage: Arab News and Events ("Waqaai Arabia") which came out this year, and “A Moment in History” (Lahzet Tarikh) that first came out in 2014 from the same publishing house.

According to the introduction that Kandil wrote for Arab News and Events, it is always very important for history to be revisited because this is the best way to understand the present and forecast the future. Accounts of palace intrigue, the combat against oppression, confused societies where virtue could well be a façade for unfairness and coercion, and the fall and rise of rulers and cities are all there in a set of accounts that are almost liberated from any chronological order in these two volumes, each of about 500 pages.

Of letters and paintings

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Beyond the accounts of the Middle Ages or those of the early decades of the 20th century, there have been a few titles that either came out or received considerable attention during this summer’s book fairs. One of the best on offer is El-Karma Books' Dear Brother – Letters between Hussein and Galal Amin – Part I ("Akhi El-Aziz: Morassalat Hussein wa Galal Amin").

This is an extremely enchanting read of a set of letters that two Egyptian brothers, who ended up being among the most prominent intellectual figures of the second half of the 20th century in Egypt, Hussein and Galal Amin wrote to each other, mostly while one was in Egypt and the other in England, or in another Western city.

Like the segmented memoirs of both who ended up being a diplomat (Hussein) and a prominent university professor (Galal), their exchange of letters that came out of a family cachet through a relative, offer an incredibly entertaining, albeit informative, insight into the norms of that period, in the 1950s and 1960s, and the most pressing intellectual debates of the time.

These letters also shed light on the social norms and political developments in that era.

In their correspondence, the Amin brothers discuss their academic choices, their take on media performance both in Egypt and in England, comparing living styles in Cairo and London, including the differences between Egyptian and English cuisines, literary interests and more.

This volume is a remarkable addition to the three volumes of letters that El-Karma Books published over the past three years of The Letters of Mohamed Khan to Said El-Shimi, in the letters the prominent film director shared with his lifelong friend and famous cinematographer his passion for cinema and for life, his wish to learn and produce, his personal dreams and most inner fears in a sequel that started in the early 1960s and ended in the second half of the 1970s – allowing for a three-part book of over 1,500 pages.

It is certainly very interesting to look at the similarity between the letters that Khan and El-Shimi and those the two Amin brothers exchanged from the 1950s to the 1970s. With no direct association, the mail of the two friends as of the two brothers reflect the unmasked unease that Khan and the Amins felt about moving to London – no matter the intellectual and learning benefits. They hated the cold weather and the food, they loved the bookstores and cinema theatres and they yearned to their family houses and friendly surroundings in Cairo.

The Writings of a Guard on Duty: The Letters of Abdel-Hakim Kassem ("Kitabat Nawbet El-Hirassa") was published by Dar Merit in 2010 and is still garnering a lot of attention.

It is another good read of a set of letters of a man who lived his youth in Egypt during the 1960s – the time of big dreams and big defeats. Kassem is one of the most prominent names in Egypt’s leftist, or in fact communist, movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

He was born in the mid-1930s in the Delta, Lower Egypt, and had a rough life. Among his sufferings was the severe illness in the 1970s that forced him to be bed-ridden until his death in the 1990s.

Unlike the letters of the Amins and Khan, Kassem’s read like a sad poem that flows in a sequel of 350 pages to the letters he wrote during his stay in Germany. The letters show so much pain, even when he is discussing literary styles or publications.

Memoirs and paintings

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El-Karma Books published this year the second part of the memoirs of Mohamed Salmawy, an Egyptian writer and critic, under the title Plants Drying Out, Plants Flourishing ("El-Assef wal-Rihan"). The title is taken from a Quranic verse that shows the ability of the creator to give life, take it away, and give it back.

The first part of the memoirs, which was a remarkable success, came out in 2018 under the title A Day or a Little Under a Day ("Youman Aw Baad Youm"), also with a title inspired by a Quranic verse that reflects on the ups and downs of life.

The first part is dedicated to the years between 1945 and 1981 -- the first 36 years in Salmawy's life. He reflects on life and politics in Egypt through the prism of his own journey in the years post-World War II, through the 1952 Revolution, the military defeat of 1967 and the military victory of 1973 up to the assassination of Anwar El-Sadat.

The second part goes from 1981 to 2015, taking stock of Egypt’s political and cultural developments from Sadat's assassination until the end of Hosni Mubarak's rule in 2011, all through the January Revolution, and the subsequent years of political squabbling leading to the rise of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to power in the summer of 2014.

Like he did in the first part, Salmawy is sharing accounts of his own journey to reflect more on the changes that society and the country has gone through rather than recounting his own path.

And like he did in the first part as well, Salmawy shows that he knows very well what it takes to offer a highly readable piece of memoir: he is not indulging in self praise; he is real and candid; he crosses the lines -- as cynically and un-dramatically as possible.

Salmawy reveals his weaknesses, at least partially. He shows how he loved a mother who had deserved a large share of happiness. He shows a conservative side to an otherwise quite liberal and sophisticated writer – because he would still want his son and daughter to get married and to have their own families.

Ultimately, Salmawy’s memoirs, in two parts, of over 1,000 pages and 250 pictures, are perhaps among the best-selling books this summer.

On offer at the book fairs and book stores this summer was a book Salmawy wrote to recall another journey - that of one of the most prominent novelists of the 20th century, Naguib Mahfouz.

In the presence of Naguib Mahfouz ("Fi Hadret Naguib Mahfouz") came out on the last day of 2011 to mark five years on the departure of Mahfouz who passed away on 31 August 2006 after having produced some of the best gems of modern Arabic literature.

A publication of El-Dar El-Masriya El-Lebnaniah, this 400-page volume adds to a wider frame of several other books by prominent writers who knew Mahfouz well, including What Naguib Mahfouz Recalls ("Naguib Mahfouz Yatazakar") and Ragaai El-Nakkash’s Pages of the Memoires of Naguib Mahfouz ("Safahat min Mozakerat Naguib Mahfouz").

These books share conversations that Mahfouz had had with the authors or with other authors and intellectuals in or out of Egypt in an attempt to reflect on the life and thoughts of the prominent writer.

On Mahfouz's 15th death anniversary, on 30 August, these three books were gaining a lot of attention this summer, at the book fairs and book stores equally.

Two other volumes on Mahfouz that have been in demand are Mohamed Shoeir’s The Years of Naguib Mahfouz – Beginnings and Endings ("Awam Naguib Mahfouz – El-Bedayat wal-Nehayat") that Dar El-Shorouk put out this year and The Children of Our Alley – A Biography of a Forbidden Novel ("Awlad Haretena – Sirat El-Rewaya El-Mohharama") that Dar El-Ein published in 2018.

Offering a context for the journey of Mahfouz and his most controversial novel is probably the best way to describe these two books. The books are around 250 and 350 pages, respectively.

In his most recent volume, Shoeir is showing us the Cairo that Mahfouz was born in back in 1911. He reflects on the impact of the urban and political realities of the city on the formation of Mahfouz and his choices in life, especially his inevitable fondness of modernity that never fell into a bitter fight with traditions except when traditions aimed to block ideas.

In his previous volume, Shoeir exhibits a tense political moment that the nation endured during the late 1950s, when Mahfouz was writing his novel and publishing it in September 1959. The political bras de fer in and out of the ruling regime, Shoeir argued, was highly inspiring for the writing of The Children of Our Alley that stirred a heated controversy and prompted the furry of men of religion as that of some leading figures of the Gamal Abdel-Nasser regime when it was first published.

To put things further in context, Shoeir reminds us that while The Children of Our Alley was coming under attack, Abdel-Hakim Amer, Nasser’s second man, was protesting against Tawfik El-Hakim’s Anxiety Bank (Bank El-Qalaq) while Nasser had dropped a line to Ihsan Abdel-Koddous, another prominent novelist of the time, to ask him to stop writing his stories about the pretentiousness of a hollow segment of society.

The interest in deciphering the past was also demonstrated this summer with the growing attention to books that tell the story of art in Egypt during the 20th century.

Of these titles there were two books that seemed to gain considerable attention especially at the Cairo International Book Fair. The first is Plastic Arts in the Arab Republic of Egypt ("El-Fonoun El-Tshkiliya fi Gomohriet Misr El-Arabiya"), a 2006 publication of the National Centre for Translation.

The second is Fine Arts in Alexandria ("Al-Fonoun El-Gamila fil-Iskandariya), a 2019 publication by the General Organisaiton of Cultural Palaces.

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The account of plastic arts in Egypt is an Arabic translation that Ashraf El-Sabbagh put out to the original Russian text of Anatoli Bogdanov. It offers what could amount to a sequel of "short stories" of the early painters and sculptors of Egypt, including Mahmoud Said, Youssef Kamel, Mohamed Naguie, and Mahmoud Moukhtar whose works, of the post-World War II years, show the incredible talent of artists who pursued a path away from the established social norms of the time.

Then there is another set of "profiles" of artists whose names were best associated with the years of the 1952 Revolution, as they documented the nation-building and battles for liberation of those years, including Salah Taher whose 1960 painting (The High Dam) remains one of the best artworks ever on this grand project, and Mohamed Ewis, whose 1957 painting (Extending the Railways) is another documentation of another endeavour of the Nasser era.

The second title, authored by painter Essmat Dawestashy, goes beyond the late 1960s mark of the first title. In this sense, it offers a concise but good summary of the history of many painters and sculptors who are either of Alexandrian origin or who have lived and/or learned in Alexandria – which really counts for a good number of modern and contemporary figures of plastic arts in Egypt.

Obviously, these two volumes, which are not at all expensive, offer a wealth of photos of the grand works of these leading names.

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