Birthing the Ugly Hero: Dr. Refaat Ismail

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:

This is an excerpt from coverage of a 2018 symposium on the novels of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik.

By Emad El-Din Aysha

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik meets Dr. Refaat Ismail in heaven.
By Sameh Sameer.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi noted that one of the major contributions of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s novellas was to break away, once and for all, from the squeaky clean image of the hero in Arabic writing. This is someone Arabs have inherited from their folklore, stories of daring heroes and knights on horseback, and continued into the modern period even in the pocketbook format. The classic example of this, explained Ahmed Al-Mahdi, was Nabil Farouk’s Ragul Al-Mustahil (The Impossible Man) spy series, starring the dashingly handsome, broad shouldered, almost indestructible character of Adham Sabri.

Not so with Ahmed Khalid Tawfik. One of his recurring heroes in the Paranormal series, for instance, was Rifaat Ismail. The man is quite literally described as being as old and thin as a broomstick, and suffering from heart trouble and breathing problems. The man is a walking pharmacy, with his medication always in his pockets. He’s the last person you would think of as a hero, but nonetheless the author was able to make his readers like the man and sympathize with him, even identify with him. Ahmed Khalid Tawfik said he even received letters from female fans asking if Rifaat Ismail was a real man or not!

Tawfik always wrote characters ‘close’ to him. It’s no coincidence that Rifaat Ismail was a medical doctor who had the same specialization as the author.

Wherever go goes, the hero is also besotted with bad luck. He doesn’t look for trouble but it’s always around the corner. When he goes to his village, he finds the problem of the Nadaha (like the Banshee in Celtic myth). When he visits his friend in Scotland, the Loch Ness monster shows up. Even Dr. Ismail’s friends and colleagues are there to get him into trouble, such as Dr. Lucifer, the devil himself. There’s also an English doctor who’s always heading to the toilet, full of health problems himself.

Another uncharacteristic hero is Abeer, a woman who is – as the author himself describes in the text – not terribly good looking. Nonetheless, she has a tremendous advantage, the power of her imagination. Her imagination is fed into a machine, the DG – Dreams Generator – which creates all the realities she’s invented. That includes bumping into characters from Dostoevsky or the works of Edger Allen Poe, or historical figures like Al-Mutannabi. This was a trick on the part of Tawfik, according to Ahmed Al-Mahdi: an effort to popularise these literary figures and get young people to read their works.

A third hero is Dr. Alaa Abd Al-Azim, also a medical doctor, but one who specialises in tropical diseases. Likewise, he isn’t terribly good looking and is very thin, and has to leave Egypt to find work, and ends up further south, treating people with malaria.

This was another smart move on the part of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, both scientifically and artistically. He was trying to popularize science and get lots of scientific and historical facts into popular usage among the young. You can find young people saying that we learned more about science and the world from reading his pocketbooks than from school!

But, more important still was the artistic mission behind his use of atypical heroes. He was saying, very bluntly, to the young that you can be like these people, perfectly normal people who nonetheless are heroes and do extraordinary things. Not because they have extraordinary powers or are exceptionally gifted, but because they have the power of imagination or the power of knowledge and scientific curiosity.

Ahmed Khalid Tawfik was a man who was able to get young people to read all over again, and his legacy endures.

When Rifaat Ismail died in the novellas, it caused a sensation on the internet. Fans on social media websites made a de facto protest march online, complaining that the man still had plenty of life in him and that the author should have kept him going for at least another 10 years. In response, fans of Ahmed Khalid Tawfik set up a facebook page for the character!

Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and translator and also an active member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction.

Also read:

Mohammed Said Hjiouij: Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, ‘Genius’ 

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

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