Edwar al-Kharrat… the Storytelling Eye

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

By Gamal Alkassas

[originally published in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 13 December 2015]

He paved the way for pathbreaking writing and celebrated its symbols in the ambit of creativity.

Photo courtesy al-Kharrat Estate.

Edwar al-Kharrat carried nearly ninety years of love for writing and life on his shoulders. He left this world at the beginning of the month, dusting off the cape of senility and whatever dull heat is contained beneath its shadows, which no longer pushes the mind to return to imagination and thought, and no longer allows the soul a final chance to contemplate the heights of existence, if only to salute or thank or say goodbye to those you love.

I visited him with one of his close friends some years ago. Silence overtook his corrugated face. Words were missing or tumbling, as though they were rocks thrown from the top of a high mountain. I was unsurprised when he confused my name with my friend’s. He sometimes addressed me and my friend with another friend’s name. I sympathized with the writer of the novel Al-Zaman al-Akhar [The Other Time], while he gathered his straggling mind with difficulty. He touched upon a live scene through the fog of memory, as if it were open ahead of him, despite what befell him in terms of difficulties and obstacles, the worst being his experience in prison three times at the dawn of his youth because of his revolutionary political activism.

When we left him, his wife suggested that we visit him in the morning so he could attend in a clearer state of mind. Yet the scene kept harrying me with a burning hint of bitterness and sorrow. I could not visit him again, contenting myself with getting news of him through friends.

Many questions spun through my mind about time and death and writing. Although their rhythm is old, they suddenly jumped at me like a deaf surface filled with colours, lines, and circles; a surface where clarity and obscurity, black and white, presence and absence blend. Did we fail to recognize in Edwar al-Kharrat’s writings the meaning beyond, hidden, thrown behind things, in their cavities and cracks? Were we content with preliminary improvised interpretations on social concerns, political struggles, the extent of his realism, his freshness in these writings, with their breadth, their variety, their richness, their expansiveness and rebelliousness against all that is ready-made or pre-classified?

How can we not recognize the hidden pace and scaffoldings of time in the symbolism of Heitan ‘Aliya [High Walls], al-Kharrat’s first collection of short stories, which, since the publication of its first print run in 1959, set him firmly on the path towards transforming literature? Is this specific moment that my friend and I shared with him not a natural extension of these walls? Is it not the dragon, this fantastical beast hounding the dream of Rama and her lover Mikhail, who was al-Kharrat’s beloved protagonist in his famous novel Rama and the Dragon, and others? We cannot touch upon anything about time outside our own nature. All we can hope is that it will envelop us with love as we live with it; that we will get a spot of light not just to defeat obscurity, but also to ensure that we have what satisfactorily and comfortably belongs to us, what attests to our existence.

Al-Kharrat was aware of this hidden movement of time early on, which is inherent in nature and humanity and elements and things. He therefore consumed writing as though it were a race with death, which tacitly meant a race with time itself. He dealt with myth from this viewpoint, with all its Pharaonic, Greek, Coptic, Islamic, and other meanders and elements, until these mythical elements turned into an artistic component in his works, with its own special allure. They turned into a driving force behind the expansion and diversification of the streams of narration and storytelling. Myth is not just something extra-ordinary, going beyond the familiar: it is what lies above time and death at once. It may well constitute the temporality of writing itself.

This infatuation with myth; this constant desire to mix it with the realistic, the sensual, the poetic; this perceptive awareness of the problem of time and its sharp, sudden intercutting led al-Kharrat to become like an excavator of the language, understanding how to make its bifurcations, beats, and prickles fluctuate in the text; digging through its margins, its core, its layers, its oral and written tongues, only to be glued to the body and the soul, overflowing with various fermenting phenomena, reactions, feelings, and affections, on both an internal and an external level.

This excavation of the language expanded al-Kharrat’s novelistic and storytelling space. It gave him a storytelling eye, this dazzling capacity to contemplate, describe, and pierce what lies beyond things and events. The outstanding gripping description in his work not only plays a mediating role in documenting the elements and characteristics of life as well as its transformation into a narrative pillar, but it is also a form of play with time and history. In several of these works, including Saffron City,Rama and the Dragon, Yaqin al-‘Atash [The Certainty of Thirst], Al-Sikka al-Hadid [The Railway], you can smell the scent of the past in the spirit of the present, in several types of descriptions of spatial contents, environmental elements, and what they harbour in terms of social and religious customs, habits, and rituals, shimmering and reeking through the text; gaining new lives through it.

This excavation did not come out of nothing: it was supported by the accumulation of a deep experience, the vicissitudes of life’s journey, a living knowledge of places. Al-Kharrat has lived in four places with a singular nature: he was born in Alexandria to a father from the city of Akhmim, in the province of Sohag in the south of Egypt, and a mother from the province of Beheira, to the west of the Delta. He lived and died in the city of Cairo. He travelled a lot, and he perambulated in most cities of the world, but the four places shaping the arches of his life and death remain the principal stations between which his works have been moving, in a productive and ever-renewing journey, where dreams and memories alternate between the principal and the peripheral, in search of a language, a meaning, and a value to creative human relationships beyond ruin and dereliction, beyond the gratuity of the commonplace and the repetitive. The climates of these cities have been impressed upon the traits of his characters and their struggles with themselves, with life, with existence.

Just as language has been attached to the folds of the soul and the body in al-Kharrat’s novels and short stories, they have been attached to place, which was not only a decorative background or a theatrical stage upon which characters perform their roles and strive to outdo one another in their ability to incarnate characters behind masks. Rather, place has become a protagonist and its maker at once. It is a geography enmeshed with the blood, flesh, and soil of characters, always governed by a living relationship of effect and affect, with its fertile extension in space and time.

Thus, place is always seen as a refuge for childhood, language, dreams, and history. This is what al-Kharrat clarifies with radiating conciseness in an interview about his sacred icon, Alexandria, in the novel Iskindiriyyati [My Alexandria]. He carved a new term inspired by the visual arts for this novel: “a novelistic collage”. Al-Kharrat adds: “I might not know another Arabophone writer who became as obsessed with the love of this place, this dream, this reality as I have. And no matter whether a writer such as Naguib Mahfouz is familiar with the alleyways of Gamaleyya, or a writer such as Abdel Rahman El Charkaoui, or other writers from the countryside, are familiar with their villages, the city was the whole world to them in the end, a background setting, or at best a subject or a scene for novelistic action.”

Al-Kharrat had a philosophical viewpoint that served as the touchstone of his worldview, which highlighted his vision of Egyptian reality in all its political, social, cultural, and civilizational intersections and extents. This viewpoint was that the stability of life lay in its capacity to change, in stitching the spread of weakness and strength together, not with the intention of achieving hegemony, but with a desire to look out for what is better, because things are not eternal and they erode to leave traces as the sole witnesses to them. This is perhaps what he expressed in his novel Yaqin al-‘Atash [The Certainty of Thirst], which begins with these words: “His sense of irretrievable loss was deep. He said: ‘Life went. The scent of old Folks suddenly came back to him, from the first years of the 1970s, a scent with a hint of fresh milk, gasoil, and La Femme perfume, which he knew as the aroma of fecundity from Rama, an aroma that would never come back again.’”

Al-Kharrat’s writings resemble him in their Egyptian Coptic Arabic spirit. They resemble us in the ambit of their stories, woven out of the ceiling of our dreams, our nightmares, and our desire for just and free nations. It exhorts us to be ourselves, just like when we love and lust, not as others desire us to be. Such writings reject closed and stereotypical binaries, and seek alternative solutions to them in the space of narrative, in the shadows of a constantly changing movement between two freedoms struggling for a single one: the freedom to love the body, the soul, the mind, the nation, Art, and so on; a freedom where the text breathes in air and fog with a sincere amicability, such that all the thick separations and knots of time dissolve into elements and things in writing, in overbearing insight, in thought and in imagination.

This concern cannot be separated from al-Kharrat’s varied critical writings, spanning visual arts, novels, short stories, translations, cinema, and theatre. He coined the most important term of literary modernism and the new sensibility in these writings: “transgeneric writing,” embracing the advent of a new avant-garde writing style in the ambit of the creative arts in Egypt and in the Arab world.

The writer of Hariq al-Akhyela [The Burning of Imaginations] intimately hung on to the will to live. His eyes were open to the future in all his writings. He was a rationalist who loved the spirit, a spiritualist who loved the mind. He was impetuous to the bone in his search for knowledge, new viewpoints and concepts, in which writing and self could entrench themselves, whether in their call for change and renewal in the register of life, or their call for passion and love in the register of the heart.

Gamal Alkassas was born in Kafr el-Sheikh in 1950. He graduated from Ain Shams University with a degree in philosophy. He contributed to the creation of Gama‘at Ida’a al-Shi‘riyya [Illumination Poetry Society] and its magazine, Ida’a 77. He has published ten poetry books and has received the International Cavafy Prize for Poetry from Greece. His poetry has been translated into French, English, and Greek. He also has critical writings on visual arts, poetry, the novel, and theatre. He is a member of the Egyptian Writers’ Union and the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists.

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