“I was born into a house with no books,” Selmi writes in the most recent issue of Banipal. He says he read he scarcely anything before he was 14.
Early stories he remembers are those of Kamel al-Kilani (the Egyptian pioneer of modern children’s literature) but Selmi attributes his love of stories less to his early consumption of the written word and more to oral stories shared “beneath the olive tree known as ‘The Dog.'”
“In the beginning, they would not allow youngesters to approach the place, particularly because the men occasionally told risque stories and discussed topics they considered unsuitable for the minds of young people like us.”
Many of the stories told by a particularly skilled storyteller, Selmi relates, were from the Thousand and One Nights. Apparently “these folk epics…were in wide circulation at the time.”
Selmi is “not sure” how this early orality influenced his narrative craft, but I will put in here that Selmi has a particular gift for dialogue, for staging characters’ speech.
As International Prize for Arabic Fiction judge Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla put in this March: “What I liked a lot in this book [Selmi’s The Women of al-Bassatin] is the dialogues. Probably the dialogues of this book are the best of all the novels….”
Selmi goes on to say that the first writer he “read” was Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti (here, a debate between al-Manfaluti and the Dean of Arabic Letters, Taha Hussein); Selmi admired al-Manfaluti’s “strong, yet simple language.”
Another writer “I have always loved and who has influenced me for a long time is Tayeb Salih.” Selmi read Seasons of Migration to the North in secondary school — “I do not know how that publication reached the library of a small secondary school in a rural town like Haffuz. It’s almost a miracle.” — so chapeau to whichever hands moved the book there.
“I was truly lucky to come upon an Arab novel of such superior quality,” Selmi writes. “Was censorship less severe in those bygone years? Were customs procedures less cumbersome than at present, allowing books to move between Arab countries rather more easily?”
Selmi, of course, is not alone in being influenced by Salih’s beautiful language.
Seasons fostered and fed Selmi’s desire to write. And then, when Selmi moved to Tunis, he came across Naguib Mahfouz, whose works he found in a bookstore. “No one guided me to Naguib Mahfouz; indeed, I had never heard his name before and discovered him by chance.” His first forays into Mahfouz’s world were Midaq Alley, The Mirage, and The Beginning and the End.
He also discovered Yusuf al-Siba’i during this period (al-Sibai’s al-Saghamat made the “top 100” books list of the 20th century from the Arab Writers Union), and Ihsan Abd al-Quddus (he made the list for his novel There Is a Man in Our House). And “I also read stories by Taha Husayn but I never left the world of Naguib Mahfouz.”
Selmi finds that Mahfouz’s importance is that he was “an innovative modern writer” and that this:
“innovative modernity is displayed in his language, which now seems to many critics and Arab writers to be classical, dry, and reportorial. He was able to carve from the language of Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti, Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafi’i and Taha Husayn — the language that prevailed in his era — a novelist’s language, in other words, a language that describes reality.”
Selmi ends the essay by describing the effect of A Hundred Years of Solitude on him. He initially shoplifted the novel during his university days — “Like all the books imported from France, its price was exorbitant, but it didn’t hesitate for a minute. I took the novel from the shelf, hid it beneath my shirt and left.”
Really, a very lovely short essay on Selmi’s literary influences, trans. William Hutchins. Banipal 44.
Also: Selmi’s The Scents of Marie-Claire has been translated into English, but the translation is…a bit wanting. Insha’allah someone will to a better job with The Women of al-Bassatin.