Edwar al-Kharrat: Without Maps

From our special section, edited and translated by Chihab El Khachab, on Edwar al-Kharrat and his library:

By Montasser al-Kaffash

Photo courtesy al-Kharrat estate.

My first encounter with Edwar al-Kharrat was in 1986, the year I graduated from the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University. I, along with a group of short story writers, contributed to publishing a stapled magazine called Qessa, which was released only once. The main dossier was about “the poem-story,” the term that Edwar al-Kharrat had coined about the latest texts of Yahya al-Taher Abdallah. We published two interviews to present two different viewpoints on the term, one with Edwar al-Kharrat and another with Sayyed al-Bahrawi. The reason behind the selection of the poem-story was our desire to focus on the kind of short story that liberates itself from traditional form, that does not rely mainly on events. It was also our admiration for Yahya al-Taher’s works, especially his collection Al-Raqsa al-Mubaha [The Acceptable Dance]. We thought that the interview would be quick and concise, but the great writerlet himself gowith great passion – as was his habit, we later learned. He brought out Yahya al-Taher’s complete works to quote excerpts from his short stories, and he presented a critical reading of some, as if he were being interviewed by an established magazine, not one that had not yet come into existence, and whose publishers he was meeting for the first time. Later, this interview constituted most of the chapter dedicated to Yahya al-Taher in his book, Al-Kitaba ‘abr al-Naw‘iyya [Transgeneric Writing].

Edwar never let go of this enthusiasm for all the texts that pleased him. He would often write studies on creative writers using whatever unpublished manuscripts he had of their work, as he did with the book Al-Qissa fil-Sab‘iniyyat [The Short Story in the Seventies], and his study on the poem-story in the magazine Fosoul.

Edwar al-Kharrat is among the few writers in modern Arabic literature who conjugated creative and critical writing. Like his friend Badr al-Deeb, he always believed that the creative writer must be able to highlight his critical opinions; to show the artistic values towards which he is inclined, as well as the distinctions and differences between his texts and the texts of other currents or generations. The critical descriptions he proposed for his own and other writers’ works – such as “story sequence,” “novelistic collage,” “novelistic caprices” – aimed at attracting attention to the ever-renewing possibilities for narrative, to his unrestricted approach to what is already known, to the need for an adventurous and pathbreaking critical discourse in renewing the short story and the novel. For this reason, he was always careful to follow changes in Arabic creative writing and to highlight them through distinctive terms such as “the new sensibility,” “the poem-story,” and “transgenericity”.

Edwar did not just stop at the easy, common, well-established classifications based on literary generations. He went on a more difficult path to try and uncover Arabic writing currents through these terms; to show what distinguished each current, and which creative writers could be included within it from different generations, who may have things that simultaneously unite and separate them. This is clear in his book Transgeneric Writing, for instance, and its famous introduction on Egyptian literary currents initially published by the magazine Al-Karmel. Despite what these terms elicited in terms of disagreement, they may have lacked the dialogue to interact with and develop them in search of visions to enrich the critical process. This is what the arena of criticism needs now, as the study of creative currents has become scarcer, in contrast with the “discovery” of a literary generation every ten years.

This critical countenance is consonant with the journey of Edwar’s creative texts, because his texts were always nomadizing through the possibilities of a literary genre in which narrative is enmeshed with poetry, in which the boundaries separating literary genres are reconsidered, moving away from the common, ingrained ways in which short stories and novels are constructed. And despite the impressive linguistic innovation in Edwar’s texts, stopping at this property, and being satisfied with it alone, would be reductive of his creativity. This innovation is enmeshed in – and emerges from – his special way of narrating stories through interpenetrating times while dealing with reality on multiple levels – events, dreams, myths – without betting on just one of these dimensions. Here, the narrator comes to be in dialogue with the reader, making him a partner in constructing the story, and trying to make him see life in a different way.

Sometimes, the narrator exposes the criticisms that this genre faces through the narrative and its opposing viewpoint, as we find at the end of his novel Al-Ghagariyya wa Youssef al-Makhzangi [The Gypsy and Youssef al-Makhzangi], where Edwar mentions the opinions of some critics who argued that he repeated himself. While he preferred to say that he was writing one text, this does not mean that he wrote the same text in all his works, or that he exploited what he discovered in previous works. Rather, he uncovered the constant nomadism in texts. If his texts had one thing in common, it would be their lack of a desire for stability, alternating between one station and the next in the journey, uncovering this nomad’s different faces.

Edwar’s last public appearance was organized by the publishing house Al Tanweer to celebrate the signing of a contract to publish his complete works. It was attended by a wide audience from different generations. Their words revealed his unique position in Arabic literature. Edwar remained silent, contenting himself with circumspect comments that showed his attentiveness to what was being said. When I mentioned that Edwar al-Kharrat’s journey was a constant nomadism without guarantees, he added: “Without maps.”

Montasser al-Kaffash has published four collections of short stories and three novels. In 2002, he won the Egyptian State Incentive Award for Creative Writing for his collectionShakhs Ghair Maqsood [An Unintended Person]. He is a two-time recipient of the Sawiris Cultural Award, first in 2009 for his novel A Matter of Time, and again in 2014 for his collection of short stories At Eye Level. His novel To See Now was translated into Italian in 2012, and many of his stories have been translated into European languages.

The complete special section

The Edwar al-Kharrat Memorial Library, by Chihab El Khachab

Edwar al-Kharrat’s Library: A Hall of Magic and Wonders, by Mohamed Shoair, tr. Chihab El Khachab

Without Maps, by Montasser al-Kaffash, tr. Chihab El Khachab

Edwar al-Kharrat: On Books and Writing, by May Telmissany, tr. Chihab El Khachab

The Arabic Novel’s Contribution to Global Storytelling Styles: ‘Rama and the Dragon’, by Ferial Ghazoul, tr. Chihab El Khachab

Edwar al-Kharrat… the Storytelling Eye, by Gamal Alkassas

Chapter 3 of Rama and the Dragon, by Edwar al-Kharrat, tr. Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden

This special section is also available for download as e-pub or PDF.

Select works by Edwar al-Kharrat in English translation

Rama and the Dragon, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden

City of Saffrontranslated by Frances Liardet

Girls of Alexandria, translated by Frances Liardet

Stones of Bobellotranslated by Paul Starkey