Edwar al-Kharrat (1926-2015) was an Egyptian novelist, writer, and critic, and great lover of books. He would have been 95 today. In his honor, we revisit this special section:
By Chihab El Khachab
My childhood in Cairo was spent in mazes of books covering floors, walls, and desks – piles upon piles, shelves upon shelves – overflowing with dust that slowly trickled down on a five-year-old reader of Mickey magazines. I did not have much interest in the big books then, the ones that my parents read, but I knew that they were important enough to recognize, organize, categorize. I had a classifying mission in each labyrinth, and I came to know libraries through their twists and turns before I could even understand what books meant. This is how I initially encountered Edwar al-Kharrat’s library.
The writers, poets, artists, and academics who visited Edwar’s library can attest to its particularly labyrinthine state: a paradigmatic case of the intellectual’s chaotic order. When I visited the library years after last seeing Edwar, years after he passed away, it was thanks to Mohamed Shoair – a friend, author, and literary journalist at the weekly Akhbar al-Adab. Shoair was entrusted by Edwar’s son, Dr Ihab al-Kharrat, to safeguard and organize the manuscripts, papers, and books left in the library.
This proved to be a tall task, and Shoair enlisted my help in November 2018. Shoair and I have been excavating the library with different goals in mind: I am working on a social history of the Ministry of Culture in Egypt and was searching for additional sources in Edwar’s library, while Shoair was interested in Edwar al-Kharrat’s involvement in wider literary currents in Egypt’s history, notably Egyptian surrealism.
Setting aside the books that were donated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Greater Cairo Library, there remained a great deal of Edwar’s life’s works inside the apartment. He left a substantial collection of personal manuscripts, including annotated versions of his novels and critical essays. There are illuminating marginalia as well, most notably a translation of Hansel and Gretel from his teenage years, some linguistic exercises consigned to notebooks, and his complete correspondence.
Excavating these works was an easy task in some ways, since Edwar himself took extreme care in archiving his library. Yet it was a slow process thattook months of weekly or bimonthly visits to his Zamalek apartment. Shoair and I gradually dug out manuscripts, correspondence, and prints, uncovering different aspects of Edwar’s life and thought in the process. This proved to be a challenging physical exercise, as we absorbed hefty amounts of dust and carried pounds upon pounds of paper to extricate the sum of Edwar al-Kharrat’s works amid the remnants of his library. A sobering reminder that the life of the mind cannot survive without careful preservation and curation.
At the 2019 Cairo International Book Fair, Dr Ihab al-Kharrat announced that he would dedicate a special library to the memory of his father, the Edwar al-Kharrat Memorial Library. This library would contain his personal papers and his life’s works, after Shoair and I excavated them. The Library is now open to all students and researchers who hope to work on Edwar al-Kharrat or, through his collection, on Egypt’s literary scene, if not Egypt in the postcolonial period tout court.
On this occasion, and by way of (re)introducing Edwar al-Kharrat to English-speaking readers, I have brought together a collection of writings on his life and works. The collection highlights different engagements with Edwar’s work, ranging from personal testimonies to critical appraisals. Mohamed Shoair shares an elegant and detailed description of the content and organization of Edwar al-Kharrat’s library. May Telmissany and Montasser al-Kaffash write personal testimonies about Edwar’s impact on the generation of young Egyptian writers of which they were a part in the 1990s. Ferial Ghazoul has a critical essay on Edwar al-Kharrat’s most famous novel, Rama and the Dragon, of which a sample chapter is included with this dossier. Gamal Alkassas’s obituary for Edwar concludes on a poetic note, highlighting the writer’s main intellectual contributions.
Special thanks must be given to all the authors involved in this dossier, who agreed to send their work in Arabic. All translations into English are mine, in collaboration with the authors. I would also like to thank the American University in Cairo Press for agreeing to reproduce Chapter 3 from Rama and the Dragon, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden, as well as the General Organization of Cultural Palaces’ editorial director, Girgis Shukri, for permission to republish Ferial Ghazoul’s critical essay in English.
Chihab El Khachab is a writer and academic with an interest in Egyptian cinema, media, and popular culture. His academic work has appeared in the Arab Studies Journal, Middle East Critique, and Arab Media & Society. He is also a regular contributor to the literary website Boring Books. His new book, titled The Egyptian Film Industry: Labor, Technology, Mediation, is forthcoming with the American University in Cairo Press. He is currently working on a social history of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.
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
Select works by Edwar al-Kharrat in English translation
Rama and the Dragon, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden
City of Saffron, translated by Frances Liardet
Girls of Alexandria, translated by Frances Liardet
Stones of Bobello, translated by Paul Starkey
For more information on the Edwar al-Kharrat Memorial Library, its collections, and how to access them, please contact Chihab El Khachab at: email@example.com