Edwar al-Kharrat: On Books and Writing

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

By May Telmissany

I may not have read a single literary work by Edwar al-Kharrat before meeting him in person in the early 1990s. I became aware of his critical writings before his literary work, particularly: Al-Hasasiyya al-Gadida [The New Sensibility], Al-Kitaba ‘abr al-Naw‘iyya [Transgeneric Writing], and Onshuda lil-Kathafa [An Ode to Condensation]. We met at cultural events at the Supreme Council of Culture, in its old location in Zamalek. We may have met in his house with Montasser al-Kaffash, Mostafa Zekri, Gamal Alkassas, and others. Memory betrays me. I remember that my reading of his writings on the visual artist Ahmad Morsi preceded my reading of his novel Rama and the Dragon, for instance. His allure, his manner of speaking, his wide smile, his sober language, and his deep voice were what attracted me to him most. He was a father despite himself. Some colleagues from my generation hated him for the very reasons that made me grow closer to him. I did not feel the daughter’s inferiority complex in Edwar al-Kharrat’s presence. He was a father without being overwhelming; he was democratic in imparting his attention and his ear, and I greatly appreciated that. The secret of our continued relationship was guaranteed by his first and only article about me. His reception of my writing, with sensitivity and an artist’s intuition, was where the secret was kept. I call this artistic connivance. I feel very fortunate for my proximity to Edwar al-Kharrat, and later to Sonallah Ibrahim, Bahaa Taher, Ibrahim Aslan, and Mohammad El-Bosatie – a proximity that gives a special taste to literary friendship, that situates life and writing in a more welcoming setting.

First station: Edwar al-Kharrat writes an article that I consider revelatory on my first book. The article called “Naht Motakarrer fi Kitaba Sinima’iyya” [Repeated Carving in Cinematic Writing] was published in 1996 by the magazine Noor, on the invitation of Hasna Mekdashi and Amina Rachid. Noor was a quarterly magazine dedicated to reviewing and presenting Arab women’s books, and it was among the most important windows on women’s writing in the 1990s. Edwar al-Kharrat was among the most important critics of the time, through his definition and celebration of what he called “the new sensibility”. He writes profusely about the title story, “Naht Motakarrer” [Repeated Carving], which is about a sensual relationship between a mother, her son, and her father. He sends me the printed article. I do not get a copy of the magazine until years later. He writes, among other things, “There is, in May Telmissany’s book – with what seems to be its care for the banal – a wholly unstated, implicit sadness running through the entire work. Yet I felt it clearly, and it is easily possible to induce it and reference it through more than one textual citation. I might call it the sadness of anti-romantic poetry. What touches upon the essence of romance is what goes against it, because it is here and standing. If it were not here, there would be nothing to oppose it or refute it.” I am happy to read the article and I thank him. He realizes that he has exposed the hidden corners of my soul, that he was able to grasp secrets, but also to see that I had a lifelong project in writing, perhaps before I could see it consciously and decisively.

Second station: After immigrating to Canada in 1998, and after the release of my second novel Heliopolis in 2000, the writer Hadya Said contacts me from London to offer that I write a joint novel with Edwar al-Kharrat. Based on what she says,I get that he chose me and that she welcomed the idea. The experiment is intriguing indeed, and a fugitive joy is followed by deep fear and anxiety about the comparison, making me hesitate a little yet accept immediately, like any silly woman avoiding her fears with a quick and apprehensive “yes”. A few hours later, Hadya sends me the first chapter of a novel handwritten by Edwar al-Kharrat from a home fax: it is called “The Artist and the Journalist”. God! A real bind! Edwar’s writing is completely different from mine, a sober kind of writing imbued with creative merits, difficult to emulate in any shape or form, especially if I wanted to keep my own voice, assuming that a collection of short stories and two novels have allowed me to lay the bases of a voice that is my own in writing…

I begin thinking that the text will be published in the magazine Sayyidati, and that it will be targeted towards its wide readership. I decide to give more space to the voice of the female journalist in Edwar’s narrative, and to adopt it as if it were my own. I have no recollection at all about the novel’s content, I just remember that it was published serially over eight instalments, and that I expected a new chapter from Edwar through Hadya Said every week, so that I could begin writing the following chapter. The experiment was like an enjoyable dialogue between us, through multiple media such as handwriting and faxing, across borders from Cairo to Montreal via London, through hours of thinking and hesitating before starting to write a chapter as if I were writing a critique of Edwar’s chapter, responding to it and extending it. I do not remember meeting Edwar at that time. Perhaps I was not lucky enough to visit him on my trips back to Egypt. When we met, it seemed like we had forgotten the whole experiment. I lost the novel amid the chaos of moving houses, and I did not get the copies of the magazines in which the novel was published.

Intersecting, extended stations: On a trip back to Egypt, I talk about the burden of being far away, and the misery borne by my inability to write. I stop complaining and when Edwar asks me what’s new, I tell him about a novel that I wish to write in French, in my father-tongue, and about some of the atmospheres in the novel that I have not managed to finish or publish to this day. I still remember Edwar’s silence. Was it doubt? I will never know. I sit on a chair in front of the desk in Edwar’s office, packed with books and papers, while he sits behind the desk. I ask him why he did not write about Dunyazad, my first novel, and I sense a hint of blame or reproach in his tone. Had I forgotten to go to him with the manuscript when he’d expected it of me? Perhaps he was not the first to whom I gifted the book after its publication? I am ashamed of my lack of attention to detail, of my reliance on amicability to dispel awkwardness. But he says nothing, and I resist any interpretation that might ruin the deep bond between us. Another day in another context. Edwar never complains, but he gestures with subtle humour – and perhaps with a little sadness – towards an article in which a common friend attacked him with unwarranted violence. I find myself apologizing to Edwar al-Kharrat on behalf of our friend, on behalf of our generation. He supported us, and he saw some of his support as a fatherly interest in the entire generation. Edwar looks almost like a pontiff in his stuffy office. He points with his finger to a spot near the ceiling where Egypt’s venerable lizards roam. He repeats that geckos are a blessing. The gesture scares me: I turn around, but I see nothing. I shiver while Edwar smiles.

Third station: In 2019, Edwar’s library is being inventoried and triaged. I learn about Edwar’s death a few years earlier via Facebook. The first image that comes to mind is Edwar sitting behind the desk filled with books and papers. The first thought that crosses my mind is the library’s fate. Years after his death, I was at home in Ottawa when Chihab informs me what has befallen the library via Skype. Some books have been sent to libraries in Cairo and Alexandria; others have been sent to libraries in Upper Egypt; the manuscripts are in Edwar’s son’s office, Ihab. What remains is perhaps over three thousand books waiting for a place to shelter them. I imagine the possibility that my friendship with Edwar can extend even after death, through the books that were near him, made him happy, fired his imagination, accompanied him all his life or some of it.

A few months after this discussion, I say goodbye to Edwar’s house. The books lie on the floors everywhere; the whole apartment consists of isolated piles of books and papers, while the triage operation continues. I take one or two pictures with my mobile phone, and I become tearful while avoiding tears. My heart is beating violently with every step I take through the papers and boxes. Chihab had found my first short story collection, Naht Motakarrer, amid Edwar’s books. He kept it for me. There are comments with Edwar’s handwriting on every page, and inside the fold are articles published in Arabic periodicals about me. I have no idea how Edwar found them, but it is a testimony to his attention and care for detail. It has now become one of my personal treasures. As for the books in the library, they were transported next to my father’s library, where they will accompany me in the coming days. It will be an opportunity to continue the dialogue that we began in the 1990s about the love of books and the adventures of writing.

May Telmissany is an associate professor of Arabic studies at University of Ottawa, an internationally acclaimed Egyptian-Canadian novelist. Her three novels and three short stories collections published in Arabic and translated into several European languages include Dunyazad (Saqi Books, 2000) Héliopolis (Actes Sud, 2002), and A Cappella (Actes Sud, 2014). 

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