Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, ‘Genius’

Today, Netflix is releasing the series Paranormal, based on the ما وراء الطبيعة books by beloved Egyptian novelist Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. We look back at the man  (1962-2018) and the impact his books had on young readers:

By Mohammed Said Hjiouij

Translated by M Lynx Qualey

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik

It is impossible to talk about Ahmed Khaled Tawfik without addressing the humane side of his persona. Perhaps a writer is nearest in the hearts of his readers, wherever they are in the world. AKT was near to everyone who needed him: accessible, easy to reach. This of course is well-known and doesn’t bear repeating. But just now I remembered an anecdote: I am naturally a loner and don’t easily reach out to others. There are three writers, whose works I’ve read, that I have sent postal letters (yes, with ink on paper, in an envelope with a postage stamp)! And the amusing part is that all three are named Ahmed: Ahmed Bouzfour, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, and Ahmed al-Khamisi. Did their shared names create a link, just as good old Rifaat Ismael said all short fat men were kind, cheerful, and funny? I also remembered: When later I started communicating with Adel Esmat, I found shared elements of kindness between him and AKT. Was kindness an essential element for the residents of Tanta? Probably. I have veered off topic, since wasn’t the topic supposed to be Ahmed Khaled Tawfik? Well, it’s not my fault. Such digressions—I learned them from him. What can you do?

“Genius” is the title of one of the books in the Fantasia series, and the one that follows has a similar title: “Another Genius.” Simply put: Ahmed Khaled Tawfik can also claim the title. But, of course, he was so humble that he would have fled had you said so in front of him. 

An exaggeration? Yes, it is. No, it’s not. Yes. No. Unfortunately, it was these sorts of exaggerations that created a negative environment for AKT. After his huge funeral, in which his readers massed, the cultural community in Egypt—and to some extent abroad—woke up in shock. Who was this Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, so beloved? Was he a great head of state? A pop singer? A cleric worshiped by his followers more than they worshiped their religion? No, he was a writer. Only a writer? Impossible! After this, they wanted to read him to discover his secret, and they announced sarcastically: What is this mediocre writing?

Never—it is not mediocre writing—but the trouble with AKT’s fanbase is that they want to lift it to be more than it is, such that they compare his work to Dostoevsky’s. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik never wanted such a thing. He chose to write for a specific age group, and he excelled at that—more than anyone before him, or of his era—and it won’t be easy for those who come after to outdo him. 

In this, there’s nothing new. But there is one important point rarely mentioned. That is: Ahmed Khaled was a genius at constantly reinventing his writing. Through his three series, he excelled in such a variety of literary styles and genres that his critics could hardly match him. 

When I was reading his books, especially the series “Paranormal” and “Safari,” I didn’t notice the extent to which he had mastered different literary styles. It was later, when I started reading English, that I discovered the man’s erudition and literary talents. He experimented with styles we’d hardly seen in Arabic literature, and even the ones we see quite often now—such as the use of multiple narrators—he excelled at.

I have no explanation for why AKT’s writing for adults was not as successful or distinctive as what was expected of him. Here we must set aside affection, as being a favorite writer does not put someone beyond the realm of criticism. When I read AKT’s first adult novel, Utopia, in the year it was published—and he honored me by signing it—I liked it a great deal. But when I tried to re-read it recently, I couldn’t get past the first few pages. And as for his later novels, I didn’t like any of them.

I don’t know the reason. I am sure that AKT possessed unlimited creativity, and that he would have been able to write a novel for adults at the level of world literature. But he didn’t. Something handcuffed him. Was he a captive of the love of his readers, such that he never felt free to set off far from his usual realms? I don’t know. 

The novel The Legend of Bloody Signs is a milestone in the Paranormal series. Before that, AKT had published a novel that I didn’t quite like, and so I had written in a comment that the ending was bad, as if the writer had gotten tired of writing and decided to end the book by force. The weakness, I wrote, was always at the end. A few days later, AKT wrote in a forum focused on the Egyptian pocket-novel series that he had torn up the manuscript of the Legend of Bloody Signs, saying that one of his readers had said that he didn’t know how to write endings. (I’m not sure if he was referring to me, or another reader who had made the same point.) He added that his readers had evolved, and thus it was stupid for him to continue writing in the same manner. Readers had become demanding, he said. So he tore up the manuscript and decided to start again. In my opinion, it was the best decision he could’ve made, as the resulting novel was a masterpiece.

How many writers do you know who tore up a manuscript and wrote it from scratch after realizing that their readers were developing, and that they too must develop? 

Mohammed Said Hjiouij is an award-winning Moroccan novelist, winner of the inaugural Ismail Fahd Ismail Prize. His most recent novel is the acclaimed أحجية إدمون عمران المالح, which appeared this fall.

Also read:

Emad El-Din Aysha: Birthing the Ugly Hero: Dr. Refaat Ismail

Ahmed Al-Mahdi: ‘Paranormal Will Always Have a Special Place in My Heart’