Meet Mekkawi Said: The Cairene Fairy King of Antiheroes

Yesterday, Mekkawi Said’s To Be Loved by Jihan made the 2016-17 Sheikh Zayed Book Award longlist. Today, Ahmed Salah Eldein profiles the author and discusses his novel:

 By Ahmed Salah Eldein

Eldein and Said.
Eldein and Said.

Cairo: the never-dull ancient city that always has something to say, not only through its history and monuments, but also through the sagas of its people, the ever-evolving accounts of events taking place behind the scenes, on Cairo’s back streets. And, when in Cairo, you have to see the storytelling icon Mekkawi Said. He is a master of the antihero and has a pool of human secrets to reveal, all of which are Egyptian in flavor and human in essence.

There is something about Mekkawi Said: Although a resident of the bourgeois district of Garden City, he is not detached from the mainstream of Cairo. Unlike Flaubert, he is totally involved and in constant touch with life’s daily pulse. His place in a downtown cafe becomes lounge where people gather around and talk about different issues. You can meet the award-winning Egyptian novelist, short story writer, and essayist anytime, just drop by and approach this humble and down-to-earth writer as he sits in one of the corners of downtown’s al-Bustan Café. You are always welcome. The man of letters, who talks with everyone and gives a hand to whoever needs help, is in a continuous state of searching. He contemplates each detail that offers itself. He listens attentively and enlarges his pool of ideas. The man reads a lot, too: every day, piles of books are added to his “to read” list.

Still, you would never trace voices other than his own in his books. It’s a voice that is warm and unique, well versed in a variety of subjects. You want to know anything about the history or present of Cairo? This is your reference. He does not confine himself to Tagore’s definition of a writer: “one either lives or talks about life.” Said does both: he lives deeply and writes about life.

His latest novel, To Be Loved by Jihan, has been a sweeping success. In this novel, Said again tackles serious issues in pseudo-realistic manner. Reading the novel, you immediately sink into a state of déjà vu, as though you had experienced the same in your own life, or had seen the events happen to people you know. Herein lies the novel’s trick. The neutral and melancholic atmosphere removes the reader, by a degree, from the characters’ tensions and prevents us from taking sides. The reader is left to decide for themselves how to see the novel. Multiple interpretations are possible.

Structurally, the polyphonic To Be Loved by Jihan focuses on the personal dilemmas of its characters, with each voice telling its own story. These stories are interwoven to draw a larger portrait. It’s as if every character blogs their own details and hands the pen to the next. The novel’s focus and forward motion varies so that it that reflects the inner realities of characters and their circumstances.

Emad, for instance, is seen from within. Although his outlook and behavior feel typical of an Egyptian police officer, still he evokes sympathy as we learn the reasons he became the person he is. Tamim is a talented sculptor who has a dream of being great artist, but fails. The two Egyptian communists, Ahmed’s uncle and his neighbor, appear faintly in the novel, as apparitions of a dream that passed away. Nobody wins, as the novel is devoid of black-and-white morality and personal victories.

It’s Ahmed Eldawi who is at the center of To Be Loved by Jihan. As an antihero, Ahmed faces life negatively, neutrally, and coldly. He’s an architect who lost his faith in art and himself after the 1992 earthquake, which sparked a crisis on both personal and professional levels. This may explain the novel’s loose and fragile structure, parallel to the loose and fragile buildings destroyed by the quake. Indeed, Said seems to intentionally gather this band of defeated antihero characters as his novel’s building blocks, to convey the status quo of a country in crisis. The Egyptian revolution gathered the scattered pieces of the defeated human souls. It was like an endeavor towards healing, another earthquake: but this time human, intentional, and a cry for social justice, bread, and freedom.

None of the characters in the novel were involved in the events of the revolution except Ahmed, and his involvement was slight. Even after this man-made “earthquake,” the country remains autocratic and justice seems impossible, the middle class astray. Indeed, the Egyptian middle class almost disappears amid wild new realities, lost in their everyday problems and their own lives, a place where even love is farfetched. They seem to be a relic of a past when the middle class was a robust building block in society.

Said’s core women characters court controversy. There is Jihan, the ethically determined and arrogant coquette, and Reem, rebellious and emancipated. Ahmed loves Jihan with a kind of love that seems unfulfilled and impossible, while his relationship with Reem plays as an antidote to the pains and frustrations he experiences with Jihan. Jalila, his wife, exerts every effort to help Ahmed and make him happy, and she is eventually deserted. His mother is the strongest among them, an upper Egyptian woman who cares more about her brother than her son. She also has the upper hand in her relationship with her husband. Together with Caroline, Emad’s beloved, they create a slightly more positive image of women than do the rest.

The novel reminds me of the great antihero works of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment),  Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), and Tibor Fischer (The Thought Gang). Ahmed is in the same line as Raskolnikov and Gatsby.

Born in Cairo in 1955, Mekkawi Said studied at Cairo University, later working as a scriptwriter and publisher. He writes regular essays in different Egyptian and Arabic publications. His first collection of short stories appeared in 1981, and his best-known novels include Cairo Swan Song, shortlisted for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Downtown Belongings, and Ship Rats. His books have taken many other awards, including the Egyptian State Prize and the Sawiris, and his novel Cairo Swan Song has been translated into English by Adam Talib and published by the AUC Press.

Ahmed Salah Eldein (@Saladeino) is an Egyptian writer and translator born in Cairo on the 21st of November, 1973. While still a student, in 1992, he started his career as a translator. He published his first book Heirs of Tolstoy on Kosnitsky Bridge in 2015, where he drew a portrait of the contemporary literary scene in Russia in Arabic. His translation of Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (2016) gained instant success and became a bestseller. Ahmed writes in both Arabic and English and publishes regularly in a variety of magazines. He studied English language and literature at Ain Shams University and Russian language and literature at Ruden University in Moscow (Patrice Lumumba).