‘Book of Sleep’: Intensive Reflections from Haytham El-Wardany

Haytham El-Wardany is the unique and compelling author of How to Disappearamong other works. Here, novelist Mahmoud Hosny explores El-Wardany’s newest, genre-fluid book:

By Mahmoud Hosny

In his most recent work, Book of Sleep (Al-Karma Books, 2017), the Egyptian writer Haytham El-Wardany (b. 1972) explores multiple dimensions around the act of sleeping. He does this through both linguistic and literary research, allowing us to grow closer to his ideas on the subject in El-Wardany’s unique way.

The author moves easily between the sociological and psychological worlds with his transparent writing style, enlivened by the soul of Sufism, which appears in different places throughout the book. He analyzes sleeping through a huge background of reading, including many philosophers and intellectuals such as Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Walter Benjamin. Yet he never states a decisive answer to his questions about human sleep.

El-Wardany refuses those depictions of sleeping as a passive act. Also, interestingly, he observes the moment of getting to sleep and builds his ideas on it, away from the usual talk about the dreams. In small, intensive, and titled paragraphs (mostly one page for each), he explores how it’s hard to capture sleeping as a concept with all of its complexity.

There’s something plainly cinematic in El-Wardany writing, which we see in his movements between the details of specific scenes. This facet already existed in El-Wardany’s short stories, but, this time, he’s used it to create coherence in an experimental genre of his own making.

Sleeping and waking with Walter Benjamin

From the first pages, we become increasingly curious to know how El-Wardany patiently balances between the deep content of the ideas in the book while also showing his voice and perspective about the effect of sleep in our life: in society, politics, and identity. Sleeping, in El-Wardany’s view, is a cave where we can escape from the tiring workdays and allow ourselves to be isolated from the world for a few hours.

Walter Benjamin appears when El-Wardany poses his questions about sleep and wakefulness as contradictions, and the dilemma of dream-interpretation as the process of taking reality apart and reconstructing in the subconscious.

By moving forward in the book, we see hope as a theme that takes a central position, as an atom around which the other ideas are built, because sleeping renews our ability to bear the rest of the day. But just when we are convinced of the importance of sleep and the “hope” that’s renewed during it, we find El-Wardany asks another question: What can humans do with this daily waste of time? What can they do with all of these sleeping hours? Reduce them? Just forget them when they wake up? Leave themselves to it? Or what can they do?

By this dialectic method, the reader gives up their convictions on the theme of hope. Just so, throughout the book, you will find yourself moving from theme to theme as if El-Wardany’s goal is to arrest your attention all the time not with sleep, but with reading!

Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian author and critic. His novel  خرائط يونس is available now, although there will also be launch events at the Beirut Book Fair in December.