5 By and About Edwar El Kharrat, 1929-2015

In memory of Edwar El Kharrat (1926-2015):

3“By the Water’s Edge,” from Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965, ed. Mahmoud Manzalaoui.

It was quite hopeless. Each time he reached the old wooden doorway and stepped into the house, coming down the narrow winding lanes from the direction of the sea, he was struck in the face by the overpowering smell of the dark and narrow staircase. I t was a composite smell, a smell of life itself, made up of people’s cooking and their sleep, of their children and of the dirt which had accumulated around their lives over the years; a smell that never vanished, but hovered in the air in clouds, clung to the wooden banisters which had acquired a dark polish from the constant touch of greasy hands; a smell that lingered close to the stone wall which had lost its plaster and had gained instead countless children’s drawings, and ribald inscriptions which, fortunately, could hardly be deciphered in the dimness of the staircase. As he went up the stairs slowly, he could hear the wheezing of primus stoves from behind closed doors and the voices of exhausted housewives scolding their constantly noisy children, screaming and striking, and heaping curses upon evil days.

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1Excerpt from the novel Rama and the Dragontranslated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden:

Water drops fall from the long, rusty wound in the stone of the centuries-old statue. The murmuring water flows cheerfully, without quivering, under the light poured from a strong, high-pitched, firmly radiant lamp. The iron surrounding the fountain is low, circular, presenting an island in a street gushing with two streams of shiny cars—one in each direction—hurrying with their noisy, exploding, fluctuating emissions.

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4“Durrell and Alexandria,” from Banipal 6

The background to both my books published in English, City of Saffron and Girls of Alexandria, is Alexandria, the city I grew up in. To a certain extent, every writer, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, is bound to be autobiographical. Both of these two novels I wrote before Lawrence Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet and when I read his work I was very angry. He was so absolutely out of touch with the Alexandria that I knew – he was biased, he saw a different Alexandria altogether. I hesitate to use a word such as ‘untrue’, but its scope, in a literary sense, its images of excitement, of prettiness, have nothing to do with Alexandria. Durrell didn’t live in any contact with the people of Alexandria, only with the ‘foreignised’ upper class, in their own way an imagined and fabricated part of society.

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Doris Lessing in The Independent

“More Proust than Durrell, and I think worthy of the comparison.”

2Samia Mehrez in Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice

“Just as Mahfouz is considered the father of realism in modern Arabic fiction so is al-Kharrat regarded as the father of the ‘new sensibility’ in modern Arab letters. Indeed in his acceptance speech [of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature] al-Kharrat made sure to foreground the centrality of the ‘new sensibility’ in modern Arab literature:

I consider this prize [the Naguib Mahfouz Award], which I hold in great esteem and for which I have the utmost respect, a certificate of merit for the new sensibility in Arabic writing … one which invents its own laws … seeks new knowledge, and, through questioning, acquires its own aesthetic values…. Such, I believe, is the case with Rama wa l-tinnin [Rama and the Dragon].

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