Waleed Almusharaf sat down to read Adel Kamel’s satiric 1942 novel in 2015. He immediately started to translate it:
When did you first read Malim al-Akbar? Was it after Dar al-Karma reissued the novel (with its introduction) or had you read about it before that? What was your journey from first reading it, to deciding you wanted to translate it, to signing on with Hoopoe?
I sat down to read it and at one point I thought “Oh. There’s a lot of the past 4 years in here.” The more I read the more I realized that we could go back from 2011 to 2008, to 2003, and all the way back to the 40s and further and we would still have those basic seeds there: Cairo, it’s humor, the seriousness and helplessness of its activists, the sincerity and pretentiousness of its artists, the miscommunication between its classes, the crowds, the harshness, the orientalism. . .everything. Even the relationship between expats, Egyptians, and real estate downtown shows up in there. I started translating it before I was done reading the novel. A lot of the sheer pleasure of reading the novel in Arabic came through the work of translating it, actually. The humor translates so well into English, it made me appreciate the storytelling in Arabic in new ways.
Did you (or Hoopoe) ever consider translating the introduction?
WA: No. Hoopoe may have, but when I offered they said no. I was relieved. I don’t really like the introduction. [But] I think it’s a wonderful example of the sheer literary liveliness of Kamel’s mind (the way he has a conversation consoling his main character is a wonderful literary act!).
What do you think a non-Egyptian reader should know (if anything) before they open up this 1942 cult classic?
WA: Nothing! I generally picked up this terrible habit from a friend of mine who is a genius: I try not to read the introduction until I am done with the book. With this novel, I think it’s a wonderfully written conversation with the characters and with Kamel’s Egypt, and I think that part of that is that all you need is to open it and open yourself and go from there.
What do you think is signature about his style, that you were trying to capture in your English prose?
WA: He’s funny, he’s philosophical in a way that is always wonderfully down to earth and adds to the humor. His characters are despicable and lovable with no contradiction. Sometimes just despicable. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the pure joy of dramatic scenes. Dramatic as in the theatre. He also has this quality of layering nuanced and complex, even tragic things into a deceptively simple story, or even sentence.
If you were going to put Malim al-Akbar into a constellation of Egyptian or world novels — either this novel’s friends or frenemies; novels with which it’s conversing with/against — which books would they be?
WA: Let me stick (mostly) to the Arab novel here. The experience of translating this was closest to translating one or two stories of Tayeb Saleh. There is a way in which both of them just slot into English. And this despite the fact that they are profoundly Arab writers both in terms of story and use of the language. Kamel is satirical first, and then tragic while Saleh is tragic first, but touched by the absurd. Both have a sensitive, personal and therefore nuanced feeling about Arab identity dealing with change tied to the West. With Kamel it’s less of a direct theme, and more like it pervades his whole worldview.
Here he reminds me strongly of Kundera. There is a self-consciously hybrid things about Kamel, that he simply owns in a wonderful way. The discussion of philosophy which reminds me a bit of Unbearable Lightness of Being. (It’s remarkable when you think timelines, how some passages from Kamel seem to prefigure the way we think of orientalism now).
This is also interesting in that while interviewing Hamdi Abu Golayyel years ago about his novel, he cited Kundera as one of the main influences on his generation. He also contrasted this influence with Mahfouz, who he saw as an epic and super literary, serious writer (in a way he admired). I see his point here very much.
I think newer writers like Nael el-Toukhy instinctively have that Kamel touch. There is something about Kamel that reminds me a bit of one of my own favorites, Muhammad Mustagab. The tongue-in-cheek humor that sometimes spills over into almost-vulgarity. I could go on (Emile Habibi’s Pessoptimist) but I don’t want to bore you.
One thing I think that needs to be mentioned is the connection to writers about Egypt who wrote in other languages. I haven’t quite figured it out, but Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club jumps at me in connection from at least two different angles.
Al Jazeera: Egyptian classic rediscovered in English
Hoopoe Fiction: Read an excerpt from the first chapter of The Magnificent Conman