In Memoriam: Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, the Man and the Mission

Beloved Egyptian author Ahmed Khalid Tawfik (1962-2018) died earlier this year. Four authors look back at his life and work:

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

Lost in the high street, where the dogs run

roaming suburban boys

Mother’s got her hairdo to be done

She says they’re too old for toys

Stood by the bus stop with a felt pen

in this suburban hell…

… I only wanted something else to do but hang around

 — The Pet Shop Boys, “Suburbia”

Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, the great Egyptian author who died an untimely death at the age of 55 in April of this year, was the cause célèbre at an October cultural salon organized by the Abd Al-Qadir Al-Hussieni Cultural Institute.

To my eternal shame, I came late to reading Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, so I will let my colleagues and friends – the speakers at the event – do all the talking. They were Muhammad Naguib Matter, the man charged with the sci-fi section of the Al-Hussieni Institute, and authors Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi and Rania Masoud.

A man after the fact

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik

Ahmed Al-Mahdi began by explaining that Ahmed Khalid Tawfik practically introduced the concept of dystopia to Arabic science fiction through his ironically named novel Utopia (2008). Arabic science fiction itself is a rather rare occurrence on the literary scene, let alone dystopian Arabic SF. Most depictions of the future in contemporary Arabic and Egyptian SF tended to be positive and glittery, such as Nabil Farouk’s Future File, where Egypt has its own scientific intelligence unit and has taken the place usually filled by the US when it comes to resisting alien invasions. There were also the novels of Dr. Hosam El-Zembly and Muhammad Naguib Matter, which has a Muslim world that is united and prosperous and scientifically advanced.

Even before Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s Utopia, there were precursors of his dystopian visions of the future in his Paranormal pocket series, young adult novellas directed to 9-13 year olds, where you have Salim and Salma, a young couple who travel to different parallel worlds. In one such world, we find that the Rosetta stone was never discovered and so the works of the ancient Egyptians remain undiscovered. Instead of Cleopatra cigarettes you have Apollo cigarettes, and instead of Ramses train station you have the Zeus. Greco-Roman history and culture predominates.

It goes to show how important Egypt was to history, even after its civilization came to an end. In other storylines, the Egyptians do not defeat the Tartar invasions, and the Mongols reach the Atlantic Ocean, and from there discover the new world and colonize it. They have their own Hollywood, broadcasting their distinctive brand of historical films to the world instead of cowboy Westerns!

There is also his novella The Land of Darkness, where a meteorite collides with Earth and fills the skies with ash, sinking the world into pitch blackness.

Pocket full of wonders

From the left: Ahmed al-Mahdi, Muhammad Naguib Matter, and Rania Masoud.

For the most part, young adult literature is not taken seriously in Egypt and other Arab-majority countries, particularly by critics. That’s what prompted Tawfik to write Utopia, a “proper” novel, and a dystopian one at that. The story takes place in 2023, and the rich have cordoned themselves off into a separate community called Utopia, guarded by American Marines. The region has become a graveyard after an alternative source of energy to oil was discovered.

In Egypt, there are two nations, the superrich and the poor. For the rich, every pleasure is available, and Tawfik relies extensively on shock therapy here. Outside of Utopia, there is no more energy. No fuel to power anything, such as vehicles or the subway lines. In this world, if you can find a dog to slaughter and eat, you’re a lucky man.

Alaa, however, is bored with the life of luxury, of having everything he wants, so he leaves his protective bubble to enjoy confrontations with danger. He disguises himself as a blue-collar worker, the kind who enter Utopia to carry out menial tasks, then leaves. The residents of Utopia consider the poor to be animals and have no moral reservations about hunting or sterilizing them. This is when we meet Jabir, the mirror of his society and the conscience of his people. He tells his people that they deserve their fate because they have agreed to live like dogs. And even though he recues Alaa from the poor when they gang up on him, Alaa betrays him in the end, raping his sister, then killing Jabir himself and taking his severed arm as a trophy for bragging rights back in Utopia.

This is what finally ignites a revolution, the only uplifting point about the whole novel, portending for a better future. This novel had a significant effect on Egyptian and Arabic literature. Not straightaway. But with the coming of the January 2011 revolution, and what took place afterwards, you began to get dystopian novels such as The Queue by Basma Abd Al-Aziz, where people spend the rest of their lives standing in a queue in front an official building, or Otared by Mohammad Rabie, which made it to the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. There is the novella 2063, by Moataz Hassanein, with a future where Egypt has become occupied by a NATO-like foreign alliance, thanks to the military junta’s failure to pay off Egypt’s debts. The military came to power after a popular revolution, and eventually nukes downtown Cairo when new riots break out over the foreign occupation.

Muhammad Naguib Matter added that Utopia was a warning call for what could happened if things are left unchecked, specifically the emergence of Cairo’s walled-in compounds, some of them surrounded by guards, splitting the rich from the poor. The psychological effects are as nasty as the physical barriers. Indeed, they’re almost colonial “settlements,” like the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. The novel warns the poor not to accept things as they are.

But while Ahmed Khalid Tawfik is on the side of the poor, he says that both sides are to blame for the way society has become, and adds that the poor in many ways imitate the rich.

At this point in the conversation Muhammad Naguib stopped talking about Utopia and switched back to Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s novellas, and the surprising contributions they made to Egyptian and Arabic literature.

Birthing the ugly hero

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik meets Dr. Refaat Ismail in heaven. By Sameh Sameer.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi noted that one of the major contributions of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s novellas was to break away, once and for all, from the squeaky clean image of the hero in Arabic writing. This is someone Arabs have inherited from their folklore, stories of daring heroes and knights on horseback, and continued into the modern period even in the pocketbook format. The classic example of this, explained Ahmed Al-Mahdi, was Nabil Farouk’s Ragul Al-Mustahil (The Impossible Man) spy series, starring the dashingly handsome, broad shouldered, almost indestructible character of Adham Sabri.

Not so with Ahmed Khalid Tawfik. One of his recurring heroes in the Paranormal series, for instance, was Rifaat Ismail. The man is quite literally described as being as old and thin as a broomstick, and suffering from heart trouble and breathing problems. The man is a walking pharmacy, with his medication always in his pockets. He’s the last person you would think of as a hero, but nonetheless the author was able to make his readers like the man and sympathize with him, even identify with him. Ahmed Khalid Tawfik said he even received letters from female fans asking if Rifaat Ismail was a real man or not!

Tawfik always wrote characters ‘close’ to him. It’s no coincidence that Rifaat Ismail was a medical doctor who had the same specialization as the author.

Wherever go goes, the hero is also besotted with bad luck. He doesn’t look for trouble but it’s always around the corner. When he goes to his village, he finds the problem of the Nadaha (like the Banshee in Celtic myth). When he visits his friend in Scotland, the Loch Ness monster shows up. Even Dr. Ismail’s friends and colleagues are there to get him into trouble, such as Dr. Lucifer, the devil himself. There’s also an English doctor who’s always heading to the toilet, full of health problems himself.

Another uncharacteristic hero is Abeer, a woman who is – as the author himself describes in the text – not terribly good looking. Nonetheless, she has a tremendous advantage, the power of her imagination. Her imagination is fed into a machine, the DG – Dreams Generator – which creates all the realities she’s invented. That includes bumping into characters from Dostoevsky or the works of Edger Allen Poe, or historical figures like Al-Mutannabi. This was a trick on the part of Tawfik, according to Ahmed Al-Mahdi: an effort to popularise these literary figures and get young people to read their works.

A third hero is Dr. Alaa Abd Al-Azim, also a medical doctor, but one who specialises in tropical diseases. Likewise, he isn’t terribly good looking and is very thin, and has to leave Egypt to find work, and ends up further south, treating people with malaria.

This was another smart move on the part of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, both scientifically and artistically. He was trying to popularize science and get lots of scientific and historical facts into popular usage among the young. You can find young people saying that we learned more about science and the world from reading his pocketbooks than from school!

But, more important still was the artistic mission behind his use of atypical heroes. He was saying, very bluntly, to the young that you can be like these people, perfectly normal people who nonetheless are heroes and do extraordinary things. Not because they have extraordinary powers or are exceptionally gifted, but because they have the power of imagination or the power of knowledge and scientific curiosity.

Ahmed Khalid Tawfik was a man who was able to get young people to read all over again, and his legacy endures.

When Rifaat Ismail died in the novellas, it caused a sensation on the internet. Fans on social media websites made a de facto protest march online, complaining that the man still had plenty of life in him and that the author should have kept him going for at least another 10 years. In response, fans of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik set up a facebook page for the character!

Who was Ahmed Khaled Tawfik?

Controversy still surrounds Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, explains Muhammad Naguib Matter, even after his death. For instance, how to categorize him? Was he really a sci-fi author? After all, many of his novellas were clearly in the fantasy and thriller genre.

That’s one point of controversy. The other is politics. Dr. Muhammad Naguib Matter insists that taking political stances is something authors should do outside of their writings.

Later in the talk, during the question-and-answer session, I asked about the politics behind Utopia, since the lecherous bad guy from the compound is named Alaa, like Alaa Mubarak, while the compound is ultimately guarded by US Marines. Could this be a reference to the Iraq War? It’s been said that the new wave of Arabic and Egyptian science fiction are the result of the Iraq War, even before the Arab Spring.

Naguib didn’t respond directly to this question, insisting again that politics had no explicit place in works of literature, and that things should be left open to interpretation, which may have been the author’s intention all along.

A third point of controversy is the age group for which Tawfik wrote. Many critics consigned him forever to the category of pulp and young-adult author. Tawfik himself replied to the critics, saying, If you’re in your twenties, then you should stop reading me!

He was happy to see himself as a young adult or even children’s author. That was his target audience. He wanted to cultivate readers, and that age group was the best for his purpose.

Tawfik was not keen on the critics and didn’t read what they said about his novellas. He believed public opinion and his readership was a sufficient judge of the quality of his works. He didn’t even attend literary salons.

Ahmed Khalid Tawfik and Nabil Farouk were also proud to proclaim, to the critics, that they had single-handedly established Arabic police literature. Previous generations, in the 1940s and 50s, only ever read foreign police and detective stories, like Agatha Christie.

For his part, Ahmed Al-Mahdi insisted that the pocketbook genre, which he read during his school days, did rate as literature, especially the kind written by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. The imagery and simplicity, and at the same time richness of the language used was top rate, just the kind of thing to interest you in reading as a reward in its own right. And not so much his paranormal or SF stories, but his Safari series, which didn’t have any extraordinary powers at all. These books captivated Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s imagination because they introduced a world to which he didn’t have access. That was one of the most important points of the author’s legacy, bringing all these things to your doorstep. You felt you were living with them.

The love one has for such a writer isn’t the love of a fan, but the love of a child for a parent, Ahmed Al-Mahdi said.

He made you aware just how big and diverse the world is, how enjoyable reality can be. Looking back on it, Tawfik seemed to enjoy himself more in his novellas than his proper novels. They were less bleak and foreboding than his novels. He was also freer in his pulp fiction, because the critics weren’t breathing down his neck. That’s where he played around with structure and voice.

His proper novels were not always as enjoyable. They were very gory and sexually explicit, and such graphic imagery sometimes seemed out of place. Not just Utopia, but In the Tunnel with the Rats and also Like Icarus, a good book by all means, and hard sci-fi, but a novel that sadly didn’t get the attention it deserved. The hero in that novel reads a chronicle that tells him Egypt’s future, in its different stages. But, again, it was markedly negative, as if being an optimist meant being a child. With giant cockroaches hunting human beings to boot.

The vanishing middle ground

From the event.

It was at this stage that the third speaker, Rania Masoud, made her appearance. She explained that when talking about Tawfik, we had to talk not just about him but the kind of society he described in his stories. Namely a society where the middle class is on the verge of disappearing entirely.

Classism and racism is what Utopia is all about. The poor are seen as ‘others’, quite literally. The rich see the poor as their property, have the right to raid and rape them. The compound itself is located on the north coast, the holiday resort of modern day Egypt.

Alaa, interestingly enough, is someone who is very well-read, a cultured person who talks about philosophy, and yet he still thinks of himself as special, even over and above his fellow compound-dwellers.

Muhammad Naguib Matter interjected at this point, explaining that many have come to see Utopia as anticipating the January 25 revolution. This is not the case, he underlined, because the January revolution was not a revolution of the underclass. Instead, Utopia sounds the warning bell against a revolution of the poor, he said. If conditions continue to get worse, increasing the gulf between poor and rich, then such a revolution will be inevitable.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi chipped in, noting that Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was also a noted columnist and non-fiction writer, something that isn’t generally recognized. Novelist and newspaperman Ibrahim Essa convinced him to pen a near-weekly column. These columns were later published in book form.

Al-Mahdi was just as avid a reader of these articles as Tawfik’s novellas, as the man had a magical ability to say what people were thinking, and the young became fans of these nonfiction writings as well. Sadly, critics have neglected these writing entirely.

Rania Masoud, at the end of the event, said that we desperately need a more optimistic science fiction, SF that builds, not that destroys. We need SF that repairs mankind and builds the future, instead of prophesising doom and gloom and the end of the world.

Ammar Al-Masry, another young SF author in the audience, made an observation about the narrator of Utopia, and how well-read and cultured he was, yet how this was meaningless, because the Nazis put the old and infirm to death. It is how somebody reads, and how they interpret what they choose to read, that matters.

Rania Masoud answered by noting how capitalism and crass self-interest were the only drivers now, and that the animal kingdom was more “humane.” She reiterated the need for positive science fiction, especially for the kind of youthful audience that Ahmed Khalid Tawfik was targeting, the real investment for the future.

A personal word

Like I said above, I came late to Ahmed Khalid Tawfik. I came late to literature in Arabic, let alone young adult pocketbooks and sci-fi novellas. What I like about his smaller writings is how high quality they are. They operate at a whole different level from Dr. Nabil Farouk. He presented complex characters in a simple, threadbare form, and gave us tremendously fun stories told in picturesque and surprisingly vivid settings, and he was an expert storyteller, too.

I’d also wager that Ahmed Khalid Tawfik represents one of those endless transition points in the history of contemporary Arabic and Egyptian literature. Arabic literary style was too long shaped by poetry and the older storytelling techniques, denying you the ability to fully use character and setting. Many authors, in a haste to be modern, tried to directly mimic Western forms. Tawfik was more than modern, he was hypermodern, playing around with narrative like the storytellers of old while also importing new mechanisms that allow the writer to give characters depth and let them determine their own fates.

Editor’s note: Many of Tawfik’s novels and novellas are available (in Arabic) as e-books online.

Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and translator and also an active member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction.