Hisham al-Khashin’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-longlisted Graphite shows women struggling against social conventions in Egypt. But do they get anywhere?
By Mohga Hassib
Graphite is the substance in the drawing pencil of the Hisham al-Khashin’s heroine, Nawal ‘Aref, as she sketches her journey in life. The novel opens with a letter from Nawal, a talented young artist, to her father, as she narrates her voyage to Paris to study history at the Sorbonne. The novel then goes back in time and recounts the events that led to the writing of that letter.
Nawal’s father is a progressive Egyptian man who raises his daughter after his wife’s death. In one of his letters to Nawal, he writes urging his daughter to focus on her education in Paris and come back strong “especially in a community that deems a woman a burden, and plans to eradicate her by her first cry of life in world and throw her in the arms of a stranger; in a way that they call it a wedding.”
Al-Khashsin opens the main action of the novel in 1928, a year that is witness to two major historical events. One is the first batch of female scholars to be sent by the Egyptian Ministry of Education on a scholarship to pursue their higher education in Europe. The other is the nascent stages the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Egypt. Al-Khashin constructs the lives of the historical characters Hassan al-Banna and Doria Shafiq and their impact on Egypt at the time.
All the characters in the novel are sketched without much description, much like Nawal’s sketches are colorless.
However, the writer is very careful not to add fictional qualities to the characters other than what history has described them. All the characters in the novel are sketched without much description, much like Nawal’s sketches are colorless. The reader is left to understand these characters only through their actions.
Nawal encounters the real Doria Shafiq on her scholarly trip to Paris, and the two become roommates. Doria is everything Nawal wishes to be: a woman with “a revolutionary spirit” who is very progressive and fights for what she wants. In the meantime, we see Nawal’s cousin and best friend Bahiga, the stereotype of the Egyptian woman who succumbs to its social expectations. Bahiga is married to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Helmi Effendi, only she does not know it.
Nawal is left caught in between the two frames of mind until the end of the novel — when she has to make a decision that will determine her future. Nawal is later wed off to her paternal cousin, Hamed, who is abusive and marries another woman in secrecy.
The novel allows the reader to reexamine the inception of modern movements in Egypt and relate this to contemporary events. The dichotomy between modernism and tradition can be traced throughout the novel, “regressive” thought versus a “progressive” life. These range from Nawal’s internal struggle to pursue her passions to her struggle with her grandmother and her surrounding social convictions. Nawal is tragically connected to all the characters, although that connection is not revealed until the end of the novel.
This sense of loss dominates throughout the novel: be it dreams, lives, businesses, or love.
The novel reflects the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Egypt during the 1920s: Armenians, Greeks, Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in harmony, that is, until the Muslim Brotherhood decide their way to fight back against the bombings in Palestine is by targeting the ordinary Jews residing in Egypt. The text also reflects the crash of the stock market globally and its impact on many lives. The writer jumps 10 years later and ends in year 1954 — when Doria Shafiq marches to parliament to fight for equality (an act that some historical texts fail to mention).
The reader witnesses the heroine’s life turn from hopes and dreams to dust and ashes. This sense of loss dominates throughout the novel: be it dreams, lives, businesses, or love. But the writer leaves its readers on a hopeful note where its heroine finally decides to add color to a sketch that was given to her by a former lover.
In the end, the book is not so different from El-Khashin’s earlier Very Egyptian Stories, only it’s not as engaging, since there’s not much dialogue and the narrator’s voice dominates the novel, leaving little room to emotionally connect with the reader.
Mohga Hassib did her graduate work at the English and Comparative Literature department of the American University in Cairo and taught academic writing at Misr International University. She has also been president and vice president of the AUC’s literature club.
An interview with Hisham al-Khashin: Writing Between Egyptian Feminism and the Muslim Brotherhood