Hend Ja’far: Short Storycraft and Reading the Obituaries in Egypt

Hend Jaʿfar is a writer and academic from Ismailiyya who works in the manuscripts department at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Her story, “The Soul at Rest,” appeared in her first collection, which was published in 2015 and took a Sawiris Prize. A translation by Basma Ghalayini appeared in The Book of Cairo, ed. Raph Cormack:

When did you become interested in obituaries? 

Hend Ja’far: I don’t remember at what age, but I think it started in high school. I was keen to read the obituaries as a matter of routine and not out of any specific interest, which was true of the majority of Egyptian newspaper readers, particularly from the middle class. In the obituaries published in Al Ahram, you can easily recognize the mosaic of Egyptian high society, and the alliance of money and power. Only those with means could publish in Al Ahram, and money determined the size and placement of the obituary on the page. In the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, my mother was eager to buy newspapers on a regular basis, especially the Friday edition of Al Ahram, and there was often a small fight about who got to read it first. From an early age, I loved reading the last page of the newspaper, as it had arts news and a column by Anis Mansour. In high school I opened the door to other pages, the most important of which were the obituaries and the Friday advice-column page, edited by the late journalist Abdul Wahab al-Mutawa, which related real stories of social problems. On this page, I read amazing experiences, but the obituary pages were a different sort of experience, where names, design, and even religious beliefs are prominent in the wording of a Muslim obituary, a Christian obituary, and so on…

Anyhow, I think any Egyptian will tend to read the obituaries. We’re a people who are fond of funerals; it’s hereditary and we have no hand in it. 😀

There is an interesting contrast between the mother — who didn’t change after the father’s death from hepatitis, and still worked with strength and kindness — and the narrator, who is in deep, gloomy pain over the death of this stranger. Can the deaths of strangers, sometimes, affect us more than our relatives?

HJ: The father’s death after his suffering from hepatitis stemmed naturally from a certain environmental context, which left no room for grief of any kind. In the end, he provided him everything available to the best of his abilities; in our culture, death is better than suffering from a debilitating disease, and we consider it a relief for the dead. As to the death of the stranger, this brings its own grief, associated with the pangs of conscience, where the supposed criminal has died and the moral war is in vain. It’s as if the narrator’s poisoned words caused all this, and we can add to this the mystery and loyalty of the stranger, who is closer to the image of a romantic knight worthy of his sympathy.

Who are some of your favorite short-story writers? What do you think is interesting about the short story that other genres don’t capture?

HJ: I love Borges…I love him very much. My collection Elegy is dedicated to one of his stories; tigers were one of his favorite symbols. I don’t think there is a professional writer who can dare not to read Chekhov. But, when I think of the Egyptian short story, the first writer who comes to mind is Yusuf Idris; I was young when I read his collection The Cheapest Nights, which is a catalog of authentic Egyptian portraits. I’ve read it dozens of times; and I’ve read others, of course, but they don’t touch it.

As to your question about the merits of the short story, I think its advantage is that authors can benefit from going through a quick labor. Imagine if Gogol’s “The Overcoat” was a novel! Would it achieve the same effect if a novel were to talk about a man who achieved his goal after such trouble, and then that the goal itself contributes to his misery! It would not be as shocking and direct as we read in Gogol; the main moment would be lost among other ideas that the writer didn’t have to include in the context of a short story. I like the description of a short story as being shot with a gun that has a silencer; it has a huge impact, but it leaves behind no mess of any kind.

Does working in the manuscripts affect, at all, what you write about? What is happening lately at the Bibliotheca? Does the library support your writing?

HJ: My work at the library, cataloguing manuscripts, has nothing to do with what I wrote in this particular story. It’s possible it appears in other stories, such as “The Book of Days,” but generally I don’t think my work has a near or distant influence, although one’s life experiences cannot be wholly separated from one’s writing.

As for the library, it is a huge cultural institution with a variety of activities, and my work is limited to the catalogingof Arabic and Islamic manuscripts. It’s very interesting intellectual work; exploring old manuscripts is fun. But the library has nothing to do with what I write; some colleagues congratulated me on having won the Sawiris Award, which is the kind of support you can get in any government institution.

This collection was recognized by the Sawiris Prize. What do you think about the growing role of literary prizes? Are they beneficial? All of them? Are there ways they could be better?

HJ: Literary prizes are useful in Egypt for two reasons: promotional and material. You’ll find a bit of spotlight on you as the winner of such a prize, and it’s necessary for the writer to promote their work, particularly these days. The image of the solitary writer is no longer accurate in an age when everyone writes. In the end, our critical landscape suffers, and criticism has become a series of readers’ quick impressions. Thus, winning prizes makes critics care about what you write.

As for the material: writers in Egypt are materially suffering, and that’s a fact. Our work requires that we buy books for reference and research, and sometimes that we travel; the payback from publishing houses is very small, and prizes make up for this, at least a little.

Why did you want to publish with Merit? What do you think about the current publishing landscape in Egypt, and especially the situation for young and emerging writers? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

HJ: Merit is known for their enthusiasm for young writers and their adventurous nature, and this has been part of their project from the beginning, and the literary works they choose to publish are based on their quality. You need to be a good writer to publish with Merit, and this is a fact.

The current publishing scene in Egypt has been the same for years; there is a missing link between publishing houses and readers that leads readers to buy pirated books. What happens is that publishers suffer from the high prices of paper and ink, so they turn to increasing the prices of their books, and readers, in turn, turn to buying low-quality pirated books, which results in a loss for the publishing house and also, in the end, for the writer. It’s a vicious cycle, but if I were a publisher, I think I would bet on popular, low-cost, low-quality editions. That way, fraud would no longer be profitable for them. I think Dar al-Shorouk has done this with some of their editions, and it’s been successful.

I for example can’t pay 300 LE for a novel, even though I bought Ulysses for around 650 LE, but it’s more like acquiring a literary reference. But that this is the norm for all works only adds to the situation’s complexity.

What are you working on now?

HJ: There’s a new collection of stories I’d like to interest a publisher in. I’m also working on my Master’s thesis on Epicurean philosophy; unfortunately, this has been much-delayed.