From our special section, edited and translated by Chihab El Khachab, on Edwar al-Kharrat and his library:
By Mohamed Shoair
Originally published on Medinaportal.com, 12 August 2019.
“Come right away.” A telegraphic message sent to Edwar al-Kharrat by a friend, the playwright Alfred Farag, changed his whole life. Al-Kharrat came down from Alexandria to join him as a translator at the Romanian embassy in Cairo. He had been unemployed and lived with a friend in Dokki (Giza) for years before he could afford to rent his own apartment, which cost a whole nine pounds. He would finally gather his books and papers, scattered between his family’s home and his joint apartment, and marry after a long love story.
“45 Ahmed Heshmat Street – Zamalek” became al-Kharrat’s address from 1958 onwards. It became a destination for Egyptian and Arab intellectuals, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that there is not a single Egyptian artist who did not know this address in the calm aristocratic neighbourhood of Zamalek. Al-Kharrat’s apartment was a station through which all writers from younger generations have passed without exception. They entered in fruitful discussions; they may have borrowed books from the shelves covering his office’s walls. Yet this was not the whole library. The living room was a big library. The inner room was a library. The books even extended to a part of the bedroom.
When you would ask al-Kharrat about a certain book, he would leave his office and come back with the book you asked about. You could not ask al-Kharrat about an Egyptian writer, dead or alive, without him going to a small room – perhaps the balcony that he closed to carve out more space for his library one day – and take out some of his or her works with care and sensitivity, or works that even its author may have completely forgotten. Many friends would lose the first manuscript of their books for one reason or another, only to find them in al-Kharrat’s house. Other manuscripts were discovered when he wrote literary criticism about them, with a citation to works that their authors had forgotten and that, to their surprise, he had kept. Al-Kharrat has a file for every writer.
In one of my visits some years ago, I asked him about the Egyptian novelist Abdel Hakim Qasem, as I was gathering his correspondence. Al-Kharrat carefully took out the file dedicated to the author of Ayam al-Insan al-Sab‘a [The Seven Days of Man]. It contained the letters that they had exchanged, as well as postcards, manuscripts, and literary criticism. I asked him where he found the time to order this enormous archive and keep it with extreme patience and perseverance. He did it all alone, without anyone’s assistance; an effort that even entire institutions could not make. He smiled and did not answer.
The apartment is on the second floor. This time, al-Kharrat did not welcome us. We were in the company of his older son, the psychoanalyst Ihab al-Kharrat, who dreamt of eventually turning the apartment into a cultural centre. We walked around the apartment’s rooms to look at the library. Edwar al-Kharrat had kept all the manuscripts of his short stories, novels, and literary criticism in his office. He arranged them attentively. We looked through the drafts and sketches of every work on its own, as well as its sources – whether these were the press clippings that he had used as writing inspiration, or the paintings he had contemplated, or the books he had reviewed. Everything was documented in such detail that every stage in the work’s conception was apparent, all the way until it was printed. Some files even contained all that was written about a work in the press, in literary criticism, in interviews, or in personal accounts.
While we walked around the apartment, Ihab remembered some of their common memories. I let him talk without interruption:
He would start his day with classical music and read in the afternoon until 2:00 am on the next day…. His two favourite writers were Abdel Qader al-Mazni and Yehia Haqqi. He saw their adventures as linguistic ones, and he thought that they did not receive their fair share of credit…. He would read in English and in French, and when I would ask him about the meaning of a specific word, he would ask me to search in dictionaries. When I could not find it, he would tell me its meaning. He would know all the words that were not in the dictionaries…. He would not give advice or lecture or scold in his way of raising us, but I have no doubt about the moral influence that he exerted on us in his daily life and his choices: respecting knowledge, respecting people, challenging class differences, working towards justice, sanctifying freedom.
Al-Kharrat kept another box in his bedroom. Neither son knew anything about it until after their parents’ passing. The box contained the love letters exchanged between al-Kharrat and his wife at the time of their romance and engagement, which were all in French.
“One’s choices are a piece of one’s mind.” This expression does not apply to al-Kharrat in any way. One of his characteristics is multiplicity, verging on extreme abundance, not just in the library and what he reads, but in the experiences that he has had in life. We must face this variety and multiplicity with great bewilderment, starting with his name. Are we seeing Edwar, which is the name chosen by his family, or Youssef, the pseudonym chosen by his colleagues when he joined a leftist organization in his youth, or Mikhail, the name that he chose as his novelistic mask and used in a lot of his novels? Edwar the novelist? The poet? The critic? The visual artist? Edwar the lover of Russian literature? Or the lover of fashion and design magazines? The lover of the Arabian Nights? Or the lover of the crime novel, which he saw “not as an easy thing, nor passéart as some believe, but an art relying on professionalism, detail, intelligence, knowledge, and awareness”? Are we facing one person or several?
It took several visits because it is difficult to gain a complete sense of what the library holds. Books, for al-Kharrat, are like love, “a light, an essential good in life” as Mikhail soliloquized in Rama and the Dragon. The library is bigger than one thinks. He did not get rid of a single book dedicated to him. He kept the thin and the thick. He did not triage his library as many do on occasion. The books vary between those that he bought himself and those that he received as a gift. There are usually several copies of the same book: in some cases, there are tens of copies of a single book, by him and by others, which he gifts to his visitors, especially the works of long-time friends like Ahmad Morsi and Badr al-Deeb. The dedicated books also vary between poetry, novels, criticism, and visual art from different generations and nationalities.
From the start, al-Kharrat dedicated himself to art and art alone. He began reading at an early age, but it was no ordinary reading. He was “voracious,” by his own account: “The kind of voracity that cannot be satisfied, a constant thirst that is not satiated by reading. This appetite started very young, when I started reading, I believe. We had a big underbed storage box filled with magazines such as Al-Sarkhaand Rose al-Youssef, and I would be happy just looking at cartoons. At this early age, I read Kalila and Dimna, and Al-Adab al-Kabirand Al-Adab al-Saghir, and a book printed in Beirut entitled Mukhtarat min al-Adab al-Arabi al-Qadim[Excerpts from Old Arabic Literature], and the book Al-Adab wal-Din ‘inda Qudama’ al-Misriyyin [Literature and Religion among the Ancient Egyptians], and others.”
He also read the Bible in its entirety at the age of ten, and its impact was profound: “I still remember with great clarity the Bible’s deeply moving effect on me, to the point of shedding tears of grief when Christ was martyred, to the point of being terrified and having nightmares about the Book of Revelation. I remember very clearly that my first experience with sex, love, and sensual appetite came after reading the Song of Songs in the Old Testament.”
Al-Kharrat started translating at this time, and his childhood translations are still in his personal papers. His first translation was from “Hansel and Gretel” by the Grimm Brothers. He was eleven at the time, and he signed as Edwar Kolta. This is the name he also used as an editor of the magazine Al-Manar [The Lighthouse], which appeared annually at the Abbassia High School in Mehrem Bek where he studied. He wrote there from 1938 to 1940. Most of his articles were about the history, arts, and literatures of Alexandria, not to mention a piece about the horrors of war and its nefarious consequences. Al-Kharrat’s life was a “life of books” at this time, to the point where his comrades in school amusingly called him Ibn al-Muqaffa‘.
Al-Kharrat started out by writing poetry. He produced his first complete poetry book, titled Al-Hubb wal-Tariq wal-Sahra’[Love, the Road, and the Desert]. However, according to his description of the poems in unpublished confessions, they were just “youthful attempts” and “spontaneous exercises in linguistic expression”. His father was a follower of the Wafd Party at this time, and he wanted his son to become a political leader like Makram Ebeid Pasha. Yet al-Kharrat was passionate about literature. Despite joining law school, he would spend his days at the Faculty of Arts, listening to the lectures of professors in philosophy, history, and French and English literature. At the college and municipal libraries in Alexandria, he discovered Salama Moussa. “His works enchanted me, and I learned the meaning of socialism from him”. He also read George Bernard Shaw and Nietzsche there, in particular Felix Faris’ translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
At that time, al-Kharrat’s discovery of Albert Cossery had a great influence on him, when he read his novel The House of Certain Deathin French. It was an audacious novel, as he described it: “The first novel to be written about people living in popular neighbourhoods, in a frank, audacious style, realistic and human, with genuine sympathy and perceptiveness. Then I read his short story collection Men God Forgot.” This book “put real people in Egypt into literature and put them in the same orbit as global humanistic literature.”
Al-Kharrat became attached to the Marxist left through these readings, but his political practice was not of the sort to have an activist’s impact. He was closer to cultural work, as he formulated statements and publications, while contributing to the editing of a poorly printed magazine called Al-Kifah al-Thawri [The Revolutionary Struggle]. He was also interested in the surrealist movement, being influenced by Trotsky’s friendship with many of the prominent members of the movement after fleeing to Mexico. Wartime conditions in 1948 came with martial law, and al-Kharrat found himself imprisoned for over two years.
The moment of imprisonment did not come as a surprise to al-Kharrat. He was completely expecting it. When the police officers came to arrest him, he had cleared his library and his house of all the organization’s paperwork and all papers that could constitute evidence against him. He did not prepare a prison bag, but he asked the officer to bring a book of English poetry with him. He said goodbye to his mother and glanced back at the three pictures he had put on the wall behind his desk: Dostoevsky, Trotsky, and Albert Cossery.
Al-Kharrat kept his prison correspondence in his library: more than forty letters sent to his mother, where he talked about his conditions. In each letter, he asked nothing of his family except to send him books, no more. He writes in one letter: “Books are very important and I ask you to pay special attention to them, notably: a Waterman ink bottle for the fountain pen, half a box of pencils, half a box of notebooks (100 pages), a collection of books from the library, and you can seek help from one of my friends to choose them, and especially the following books or others depending on the circumstances: Dostoevsky (Memoirs from the House of the Dead, Letters from the Underworld), Gorky (Dead Souls), Turgenev.” He writes titles in English. His interest in Russian literature seems evident in these letters, especially Dostoevsky who “has left the imprints of jealousy on me, to the point of genuine hallucination” as he writes. Al-Kharrat kept some books from this life stage in his library. The prison stamp is still evident on their pages.
Despite the cruelty of the prison experience, al-Kharrat considered himself on a “promenade,” as he said in one letter to his mother. He may have wanted to reassure her. But after he was set and knew that he would stay a long time, he started improving his French, relying on the Belot dictionary that he kept after coming out of prison. He also began learning German and Russian, since he dreamt of reading writers in their original tongues, not through an intermediary language. He translated a play by Gorky from English, The Lower Depths, and a book about The Philosophy of Mathematics from French, in collaboration with a friend in prison. Al-Kharrat used his time in prison to read regularly. Aside from literature, he read the lexicon Mokhtar al-Sihah several times. The experience proved to be a great leap in his relationship to language.
In his library, we found dozens of notebooks that seemed like exercises in language. On the first page of these notebooks, he wrote what looks like his perennial slogan: “There is no good art without good craftsmanship.” It is enough to go through the pages of the notebooks: he writes on colours, on the hours of the day and night, on the different degrees of weeping, on true colloquial language, on winds and thunder and clouds and rain, on the types of trees and plants, on the degrees of happiness, on love and compassion and desire, on the stages of life, on diversion and euphemism. So many topics expose the richness of the language; the differences between an expression and another. Al-Kharrat saw the Arabic language as one of scandalous and unbecoming richness: its musical range is diverse, there is not a single dead term, it intensely teems with life. If you put it in a contemporary context, it becomes contemporary; in an old context, it becomes old.
Al-Kharrat faced numerous catastrophes after coming out of prison. The family struggled through great financial strictures following his father’s death. Al-Kharrat was forced to work in the British arsenal alongside his studies. He then became a low-level bureaucrat at the Al-Ahli Bank. When he went into financial turmoil, he was forced to work as a translator: “I translated patents in mechanical engineering and chemistry for a company. It enriched my vocabulary.” Facing these crises, he launched rescue calls to his friends seeking employment, until Alfred Farag saved him from “being lost and a vagabond” as he said, by giving him the opportunity to work at the Romanian embassy. The second catastrophe, which left a deep imprint on him, was the discovery that his family got rid of a lot of his books. “When I entered prison, my family thought that the books in the library were one of the reasons for my imprisonment. Fearing being exposed to any problems or security threats, they got rid of the books.”
What seems like chaos inside al-Kharrat’s library is in fact order. The library’s arrangement follows al-Kharrat’s interests. At the apartment’s entrance, there is an entire corner for popular literature, which not only includes what colloquial Egyptian poets have written or whatever criticism was written about colloquial Egyptian, but also extends to books on magic and astrology such as Shams al-Ma‘arif al-Kubra and Tathkarit al-‘arifin. Inside his office, he put the books that he always used and grew accustomed to, specifically Russian literature in its Arabic and English translations; the works of Taha Hussein, Abbas al-Akkad and Yehia Haqqi; an entire archive for the Organization of Afro-Asiatic Solidarity, its publications, and its magazine Lotus; lexicons such as Lisan al-Araband others; numerous French and English dictionaries; books on theatre and criticism; a special corner for pan-Asian literature, another especially for Japanese literature, another for Iranian literature. Very briefly, all the world’s writers meet in al-Kharrat’s library in various languages: mainly English, French, and Arabic. In the other room, there are all the magazines that came out in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, including Gallery 68. Al-Kharrat and Ahmad Morsi created this magazine as a reaction – a kind of resistance – to the June 1967 defeat, to announce the appearance of a new current in Egyptian literature, far from the authority of official institutions, newspapers, and magazines.
Books in the Arabic tradition occupy an important place on the shelves. There are books on Sufism – Ibn Arabi, Hallaj, and al-Nafri – but al-Kharrat dedicates a whole shelf to theArabian Nights, just as Borges did in his own library. For him, the Arabian Nights is the book of magic and wonders: “It made me mature, from the dawn of adolescence. It enchanted me and became suffused with my dreams, my blood, my writing,” he once attested. Al-Kharrat’s first relation to the Nights was during his childhood, in the house of his elementary-school friend Gaber. Al-Kharrat used only one edition, the oldest one, where he left his observations in the margins. He took inspiration from it in Saffron City, which he considered an “Alexandrian Arabian Nights”.
The library is not just a collection of books: with the paper it contains, it is a revealing and significant archive of Egyptian culture. There are papers, manuscripts, correspondence, and press clippings. There are files on various personalities and topics; on the conferences that he attended in Egypt and abroad; on the papers that were presented. There are hundreds of letters exchanged with Arab writers and artists on the Arab cultural situation, some consisting of philosophical, artistic, and literary meditations with the poet and visual artist Ahmad Morsi, the writer Badr al-Deeb, and the academic Mohammed Mostafa Badawi. There are angry letters from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish after the magazine Al-Karmelpublished a special issue on Egyptian literature (1984). Participants opposed some of the adjustments made to their texts. Al-Kharrat, who edited the volume, writes back to Darwish that he can republish his text again in a subsequent issue. There are other letters from Hoda Barakat, Adonis, and Boutros al-Hallaq.
Al-Kharrat writes his diaries in agendas and does not leave out a single detail: Who called him? Who did he meet? He writes travel diaries and observations. Sometimes, we encounter obscure poetic phrases that he will later use in his novels. We find in his papers what look like unpublished confessions. We can read that he wrote a historical novel called Hesar Domyat[The Siege of Damietta] in 1959. He presented it to a competition to get the prize and solve his financial issues, but the novel did not get the prize, so he tore it apart or, more likely, he burned it (as he writes in 1966). Al-Kharrat did not really get rid of the novel, but he put it out in the mid-1980s under the title Adla‘ al-Sahara’[The Desert’s Shoulders]. We can draw a complete picture of the Arab cultural scene by threading together these details. This makes the library larger than a mere container of books.
There are hundreds of books dedicated to al-Kharrat in his library, both from earlier generations and later writers. Although Naguib Mahfouz’s work occupies an entire corner in al-Kharrat’s library, we can find only one book dedicated by Mahfouz to al-Kharrat: the short story collection Dunya Allah[God’s World] (1963). He wrote: “Cordially to his person and in admiration of his art.” The dedication came after al-Kharrat published his famous study, “‘Alam Naguib Mahfouz” [Naguib Mahfouz’s World] in the magazine Al-Magalla.
The Moroccan critic Abdelfattah Kilito wrote on his book Al-Gha’eb [The Absent One], pledging his “admiration and affection”. Kilito sent multiple letters to al-Kharrat. In one such letter, he writes: “I am certain that you will have your time with the Nobel prize.” Adonis writes: “My brother Edwar: the days I have spent in Cairo – in your illuminating company – were a long-living joy. I do not know how to express it, they are emanational days (ayyam yanabi‘)… I salute you with great affection for our friendship.” And with his sarcastic tone, Mohammed al-Bosati writes amicably: “You’re not the only one who has a crazy world, we also have one. Except in our own way. Not totally crazy. Half-crazy is enough, and God gives what he wills. With appreciation and cordiality.”
Many dedications can be taken as a measuring stick for the development of al-Kharrat’s relationships. This is what the dedications by the novelist Yahya al-Taher Abdallah show, for example. On his first work, he wrote: “To one who ignored me a lot, yet I still love and respect him very much… and he will always remain my inspiration to act.” Then he wrote to “the pioneer of the new short story” or “the calm river, and the clear morning”, and lastly, “the friend that I love very much”. Abdallah would not only dedicate his works to al-Kharrat, but also other works, such as the book Ughniyyat Ahmad Adawiyya [Ahmad Adawiyya’s Songs]. He wrote: “To the virtuous Edwar al-Kharrat, my companion in appreciating Ahmad Adawiyya.” Al-Kharrat bound the book in hardcover and put it in the arts and popular literature section of his library.
There are numerous brief yet revealing dedications, which summarize the views of their writers. Alaa al-Aswani sees him as a “great writer”; Adel Esmat sees him as an “ever-renewing creator”; Ibrahim Abdel Meguid sees him as a “wonderful teacher and human being.” Mostafa Zekri writes “to the respectable gentleman who could bear a lot of my boyishness, but I find solace in being the student, and you are the great father.” As for his lifelong friend, the well-known psychoanalyst Moustafa Safouan, he dedicates his translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit to him, saying: “Returning to past days, or perhaps future ones?” Montasser al-Kaffash writes: “Your beautiful text will always remain an amazing sun.” Yasser Abdel Latif dedicates his first poetry book, People and Stones (Al-Nas wal-Ahgar), saying “These are some trans-genericities… you might find some poetry in it.”
If writing was an “illumination” for al-Kharrat, visual art was another illumination. To use his own expression, “if he had not been a writer, he would have been a visual artist or a sculptor.” The book was his entry point into this world, especially in Coptic Orthodox Sunday schools that would distribute nicely drawn coloured pictures of scenes and events from the Holy Book, such as the fall of Adam, Noah’s flood, and Christ’s nativity. Al-Kharrat went from religious art to world-renowned paintings by Renaissance and neo-classical painters published by magazines like Al-Hilal, Al-Muqtataf, or Al-Magalla al-Gadida among others. He became adventurous in his last years by holding a number of collage exhibits. He also published numerous books of art criticism about friends such as Ahmad Morsi, Adli Rizkallah, Sami Ali, Ramses Younan, Hamed Abdalla, and Adam Henein, not to mention numerous other studies on African and Asian sculpture.
The influence of al-Kharrat’s attachment to visual art is visible in his short stories. “The narrative becomes smaller and the description becomes bigger in the Kharratian text”—to use the Tunisian critic Mohammed al-Khabou’s expression. In al-Kharrat’s words, “The language of painting is threaded with the language of the novel through colour, anatomy, surface distribution, proportions, and degrees of light and shadow, all of which are painting values par excellence.” There are dozens of original paintings spread throughout the house, including by Adli Rizkallah and Adam Henein. There are copies of international paintings, as well as collectibles from all over the world, especially from Africa and Asia. There are hundreds of books on visual art, most of which are of course in non-Arabic languages, but some are in languages that al-Kharrat himself did not speak. He must have been content with the paintings it contained, as art needs no words to be explained or expressed. We will find books on Magritte, Da Vinci, the Surrealist Movement, and world museums, not to mention Islamic art. A passion for painting made al-Kharrat pursue various compositional games. He would remove his own book covers, and sometimes the covers of others, to design other covers, destroying and creating at the same time.
In Edwar al-Kharrat’s personal papers, there is an unfinished novel project, which he titled ‘Aqidat al-Jasad [The Faith of the Body]. It is the fourth part of Rama and the Dragon, The Other Time, and The Certainty of Thirst. The novel, according to al-Kharrat’s plan, is composed of nine chapters, to which he pointed in one of his late interviews. Al-Kharrat left small clippings in his handwriting about each chapter and its meanings, or what he calls “the keywords of his artistic work.” He recorded them in scribbled handwriting, so that it would not escape him or get lost. Its pages seem closer to a forest or a labyrinth. We find press and magazine clippings on the Queen of Sheba, on Zenobia the Queen of Palmyra, Inanna the Sumerian, Isis, Semiramis, and other historical queens. Al-Kharrat indicated the sources that he would use in his novel in order: Voyage to the Orient, the story of Al-Hakim bi-Amrillah, and the clothes, ornaments, and legends of Egyptians. It was a novel about impossible love, about Rama once again. Al-Kharrat wrote, as an overture to the novel, “You find me, as I said at the beginning of this conversation, which went on for too long, impotent, perhaps striving towards an impossibility – or what comes close to an impossibility anyways. For I knew – with you – that impossibility is possible. It is in fact fated, glorious, dazzling in its brightness. O my great Love. Will you materialize? My love… Will I know once again the delight of your comforting affection, the taste of your balmy lips, your intimate taste, the taste of my only truth?”
Mohamed Shoair is a cultural critic, writer and journalist from Egypt; he is presently editor of the journal Akhbar al-Adab. Born in 1974, he earned a university diploma in English literature, and has since published articles, reviews in several Arabic-language journals and newspapers. Between 2015 and 2016, he was the editor of‘Alam al-Kitab. To cite a few of his books: Awlad Haratina: Sirat al-Riwaya al-Muharramah (Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel);Kitabat Nubat al-Hirasah: Rasa’el Abdel-Hakim Qasem; Muthakkarat al-Anisah Um Kalthum (The Memoirs of Um Kalthum); Edward Said: al-Mufakker al-Kawni (Edward Said: Universal Thinker); and his forthcoming book is titled: Makhtutat Naguib Mahfouz (The Manuscripts of Naguib Mahfouz). Of late, Mohamed Shoair has been publishing a series of articles on visiting the libraries of seminal writers, poets and playwrights in Egypt.
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
Select works by Edwar al-Kharrat in English translation
Rama and the Dragon, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden
City of Saffron, translated by Frances Liardet
Girls of Alexandria, translated by Frances Liardet
Stones of Bobello, translated by Paul Starkey