Do Young Egyptian Novelists Hate Grammar?

Dr. Sabry Hafez

Dr. Sabry Hafez has an interesting piece in the July-August issue of the New Left Review (which I just noticed, courtesy of a link from PalFest) that examines “The New Egyptian Novel: Urban Transformation and Narrative Form.”

His focus is not really on grammar, but on his thesis about urban and narrative structures. Hafez (convincingly) links the rise of the self-conscious, fragmented Egyptian novella-novel to the disintegration of Cairo’s core. He perhaps over-determines the links a bit, but the overall argument is strong.

I should really talk about his core argument; still, I couldn’t help but focus on these snippets:

The Egyptian literary establishment has been virtually unanimous in condemning these works.


The young writers were accused of poor education, nihilism, loss of direction, lack of interest in public issues and obsessive concentration on the body; of stylistic poverty, weak grammar, inadequate narrative skills and sheer incomprehensibility.

This struck a particular chord because, in the introduction to the Beirut39 collection (the work of 39 award-winning writers under 40) judge and poet Abdo Wazen somewhat oddly claims: “These [Beirut39] writers believe that the new era, the information age, the computer and internet age does not leave them with enough time to decipher the mysteries of grammar and rhetoric.”

Really? None of them are attempting to re-invent language? It’s just that they’re…too busy checking their email?

And also recently, from journalist and poet Youssef Rakha: “More than other ‘Nineties’ prose poets working in standard Arabic, Ahmad Yamani was accused of hartalah, contemporaneous slang for prattle or drivel. … No one doubted his talent, but even the quasi-Beatniks of Cairo were not ready for the irreverent lack of polish in his first book, Shawari’ al-abyad wal-asswad (The Streets of Black and White, 1995)….”

Perhaps some young writers do write too quickly, and focus too little on crafting their works. Why not? You can probably say the same for young writers anywhere (or you can complain of an over-reliance on “MFA grammar”). But to claim that an Ahmad Yamani doesn’t sufficiently care about words, or “doesn’t have time,” well, it holds no water for me.

Hafez is, of course, a booster of young writers. A number of the writers he mentions in New Left have appeared on his cultural website, Al-Kalimah, and—when asked by the Guardian in 2008 which Arab writers he would like to see translated—he mostly spoke about the same young group.

In the New Left Review piece, he names a number (as being part of the 1990s generation). I don’t think any–at least the ones in this paragraph—are available in in English translation:

…include Samir Gharib ‘Ali, Mahmud Hamid, Wa’il Rajab, Ahmad Gharib, Muntasir al-Qaffash, Atif Sulayman, May al-Tilmisani, Yasser Shaaban [blog] , Mustafa Zikri and Nura Amin ….

Hafez sets the beginning of the new wave as 1995, linking it to the short story collection Khutut ‘al Dawa’ir [Lines on Circles]. He notes a shift to more colloquial and less “literary” Arabic and repeats the trope about a turning away from “big issues.” (I don’t buy this; I would prefer to call it a different approach to “big issues.”)

Dr. Hafez suggests that these 1990s writers do share a particular form and structure (and aren’t just driveling, mouth-breathing grammar-haters), and that “whatever their actual settings, these works share demonstrable formal homologies with the sprawling slums of Cairo itself.”

Hafez works his way through a number of novels, including Ahmad al-‘Ayidi’s Being Abbas al-‘Abd, trans. Humphrey Davies and Somaya Ramadan’s Leaves of Narcissus, trans. Marilyn Booth. He doesn’t mention Hamdi Abu Golayyel’s A Dog With No Tail (trans. Robin Moger), but Abu Golayyel’s novel-in-fragments certainly follows this pattern of a Cairo-style lack of central planning. Its anecdotes are connected through theme and repetition rather than a “logical” progression of plot. For all that, the book is compelling and enjoyable.

Hafez concludes:

Thirdly, these narratives do not pose epistemological questions–how to comprehend the world; how to determine one’s stance within it–nor posit any a priori points for departure, as the realist novel did. Instead, the new Arabic novel asks ontological questions: what is this narrative world? What are the modes of existence that the text creates?

(These seem like “big” enough issues to me.)

So, I ask: Do young Arab novelists (particularly those who live in un-planned Cairo) hate grammar, structure, big issues, logic and the public at large? Or are they addressing contemporary social problems in a contemporary way?

Or—well—do some young authors get unnecessarily sloppy with grammar and structure while others are reinventing them? And are these authors (unnecessarily) being thrown together in the same pot?

Unrelated aside: In re-reading the Guardian Q&A with various Arab (and some non-Arab) cultural figures about which books should be translated, I re-met Adania Shibli’s* answer to the question. You should experience it again, too:

I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.

In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.

*Adania Shibli is a young Arabic-language writer with a terrific sense of craft. If you haven’t yet read her, well! I don’t see why you’re dillying around on this blog instead of doing just that!