Remembering Ustaz Khairy

As translator Adam Talib remarked yesterday, we can be happy that author Khairy Shalaby got to see the incipient changes in Egypt, “but it’s a shame that his wry voice won’t be there to accompany this new phase in Egyptian history.”

Shalaby, who died yesterday, was born in 1938 in the Nile Delta village of Shebas Amir . According to a profile of Shalaby in Al Ahram Weekly back in 2000:

The village’s sole means of mass entertainment was the narration of Sira Sha’biya (popular epics) and stories from The Thousand and One Nights. There were also lectures on Tafsir (the exegesis of sacred texts), Sunna (the Prophet’s practice) and Hadith (collections of the Prophet’s sayings). Every night, the men of the village gathered in the mandaras (reception parlours) of the various houses to listen to the storytellers and scholars; the size of each gathering was proportionate to the grandeur of the family that hosted it.

Shalaby was influenced by the popular epics and stories, and later criticized the Egyptian educational system’s imitation of European syllabi. He told Al Ahram, “if we dig deeper into our own heritage we will find other rules, closer to our way of thinking and more appropriate for our culture.” He added, of his own writing:

My complete non-reliance on Western literature is my chief contribution to contemporary Arabic literature.


My literature literally springs from the Egyptian street. … If farmers, carpenters, mechanics, drivers, painters, tailors, barbers, and waiters could write, what would they write? Each must have his own relationships with objects, places and people. … I tell the stories of those I lived with. I share that responsibility. But I, too, am a victim — of the lack of social unity, the loss of so many values, the chaos that envelopes us all in the end.

The profile concludes:

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. Nevertheless, he insists that “if I am stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, the Thousand and One Nights will be quite enough.”

Shalaby has been both the rare man who was both a literary novelist and a popular figure. Translator Michael Cooperson, in an interview with AUC Press, said:

Every time I told Egyptian friends that I was working on the translation of Shalaby’s novel, they said that he was one of their favorite writers and it was about time he received more attention. And it’s not just the intellectuals who say so. Several years ago, I visited him to interview him about the book. On the way, the taxi driver was having trouble finding the address, and asked me who I was going to see. When I told him, he said, “Why didn’t you say you were going to see Ustaz Khairy!” and found the place quickly by asking people in the street.

Khairy’s most well-known work is probably The Lodging House. After leaving his village, Shalaby went to Damanhour to study at the Teachers’ Institute.

Wikalat Atiya (translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab) begins from this semi-autobiographical moment:

I never thought I could be brought down so low that I would accept living in Wikalat Atiya. Nor did I imagine that I would become such a rotten bum that I would come to know a place in the city of Damanhour called Wikalat Atiya. It was a place someone like me would not dream of under any circumstances; my feet could not take me to such a far-off place, which the sons of the city themselves might not even know, even those who traveled through it from one end to the other, and who knew every rat hole in it, had I not—as it became clear to me—broken the world’s record for bumming and homelessness.

I am supposed to be a student at the Public Teachers’ Institute; I mean that’s what I was over two years ago. I was on the verge of becoming a teacher after a year, since my talent was obvious in pedagogical studies and in lesson planning, including the modern methodologies, thought I was plagued by a math teacher who was despicable and disgusting and a bastard. He was not happy that sons of detestable peasants from villages and hamlets, more like barefoot riffraff than anything else, could excel in education over the true sons of schools, originally from elite backgrounds and good, wealthy folks; and so he would screw with me in every exam, provoking me with dirty looks, writing me up every time I sat up in my seat or coughed or turned around to ask one of my classmates for a ruler or compass or an eraser, things that I don’t think I ever bought once throughout all my school days. This pissed him off, and it made him even more bitter that I never bought a book he required or a quad-lined notebook which, he urged, was necessary. So the son of a bitch saw fit to prevent anyone from helping me one bit; he even kicked out a classmate who snuck me a compass. When he cussed me out, I began to aim looks of suppressed hatred ta him, such that I enraged him terribly, and he took away my blank answer sheet, and then, like the swaggering, pompous ass he was, kicked me out. I froze as if nailed in place, shaking with fury; my eyes must have been like flaming arrows, since he bared his teeth and said, “Why are you looking at me like that, boy?”

Keep reading the excerpt of The Lodging House. And then get your own copy.


From Margaret Litvin: Khairy Shalaby R.I.P.

From Sayed Mahmoud at Ahram Online: Khairy Shalaby’s river of stories reaches the sea of departure

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