Shalaby is longlisted this year for his novel Istasia, named for its titular Coptic widow.
One of the more veteran longlistees, Shalaby was born in Kafr al-Sheikh, Egypt, in 1938. He published his first novel in the 1950s and has since written more than seventy books, including novels, critical studies, histories, and short stories.
Three of Shalaby’s novels have been translated into English: The Lodging House (for which he won the Mahfouz prize), The Hashish Waiter, and The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets.
Shalaby also has a blog, although it’s been a while since he updated it.
According to Banipal, Shalaby sees himself as writing the literature of “the Egyptian street” and feels a duty to give new life to people from the cities and villages through his characters.
He has told Al Ahram Weekly: “My complete non-reliance on Western literature is my chief contribution to contemporary Arabic literature.”
Shalaby also told the paper that he considers Yehia Haqqi his literary father, Youssef Idris his older brother and Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi, Saad Mekkawi, Naguib Mahfouz, and Ihsan Abdel-Quddous his relatives. But he added that “if I am stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, the Thousand and One Nights will be quite enough.”
Istasia is a Coptic widow living in the Egyptian Delta, who becomes a local legend when she dedicates her life to revenging the death her son through prayer. Assistance comes in the unlikely form of the son of the village’s leading Muslim family, notorious for their ruthlessness and cruelty, a lawyer who decides to investigate the case and bring Istasia’s son’s unknown murderers to justice. The moral of the story is that not every Muslim is good or Christian evil and that, no matter the religion, God will answer the prayers of anyone who has been wronged.
I find Shalaby a little uneven, although he does have one of the committees (seeming) favorite topics in his sights: religious tolerance.
Notes and Reviews
The Lodging House (1999 / English: 2006)
The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (1991 / English: 2010)
Previously profiled: Egyptian Miral al-Tahawy, longlisted for her Brooklyn Heights, Bensalam Himmich, longlisted for My Tormentor, and Fawaz Haddad, longlisted for God’s Soldiers. See the full longlist here.