The Revolution: Report From Literary Egypt

Stephen Morison Jr.
From the March/April 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When he was twelve, he fell in love with the twin pillars of Egyptian literature: Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, and Yusuf Idris, a novelist, short story writer, and playwright. “I began to imitate them,” he says. He commingled the high language of his religious studies and the structure and plotting of books by the famous writers and, at eighteen, won a national contest sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. His collection was published, and he was sent on a ten-day trip to Rome. “Beginner’s luck,” he says with a soft smile.

Since graduating from a religious university with degrees in English and translation, his writing voice has evolved, he says. His subsequent stories and novels weave the colloquial Arabic of the streets with the formal language of the classroom and the mosque. “The colloquial language changes every day,” he says. “The street language can enrich the old language.” Now his influences include Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago, Juan José Millás, and Paul Auster. “I often feel like I have something in common with Paul Auster, more so than with my neighbor. We are all writers, one family scattered all over the world.”

He lives with his parents, which is typical among unwed adults in the Middle East; they are aging, and he looks after them. He writes in the early mornings, visiting cafés for privacy. “My father doesn’t understand what I do, really,” he says quietly, “but they tell the neighbors I’m writing stories like Naguib Mahfouz, whom they know from TV and movies.” 

One of his publishers invited him to the Frankfurt Book Fair where he had conversations with Western booksellers, writers, and critics. Too often, he felt like the Westerners he met wanted him to fulfill their preconceived notions of what an Egyptian writer should be. “They don’t want us to be experimental; they don’t want us to be a little bit crazy; this is for their writers.”

I ask him about the impact of the January 25th Revolution on writers in Egypt, and he criticizes publishers who have been releasing imperfect books about the Arab Spring, hoping the topic will appeal to customers even if the writing is poor; then he grows nostalgic. “We had some wonderful nights in Tahrir Square,” he says. “It was big. Like an explosion: Boom.” He makes a mushroom cloud with his hands. “We have not the right to lose hope.”

Things might grow more conservative in Egypt for a time, but Nebo, an avant-garde writer raised in an Islamic school, has a laissez-faire attitude about the prospect of increased censorship. He points out that he can always self-publish on the Internet. “For the first time, people speak about everyday problems frankly,” he says. “If the Egyptian people want to try the Islamic parties, let us try it. Maybe this will last for some years, but nothing lasts forever.”

It’s after three when I return to my hotel and fall into bed. Below my window on Talaat Harb Square, the shouting, fireworks, and horns of the nocturnal crowds continue; they intrude on my dreams until the call of the muezzin from the minarets announces the Fajr, the dawn prayer, then the streets grow quiet as the daytime abstinence begins.

I return to Egypt nine weeks later, in early October. President Morsi has wrestled power from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and his Muslim Brotherhood party is firming up control. On the ride from the airport, I sit in my taxi on the highway, frozen in traffic for an hour. Five thousand Ultras—soccer hooligans who fought against Mubarak supporters during the January 25th Revolution—are marching on the Presidential Palace and creating a massive traffic jam. Seventy-five Ultras were killed in riots at a football match last February, and the group wants justice. 

Eventually the traffic eases, and I drop my luggage at my pension on Talaat Harb and walk a block to meet Fatma El-Boudy, the owner of Al-Ain publishing house, at Café Riche, an airy, wood-paneled café that was the center of fashionable and literary Cairo for much of the twentieth century and now has returned to prominence due to its proximity to Tahrir Square. At the end of the dining area, a television beside the manager’s desk provides updates on the protests and warns that larger gatherings are scheduled for tomorrow in Tahrir. “During the January 25th Revolution, the people used to come here to eat, to have a beer, and then continue,” El-Boudy recalls. “The lucky ones had a chair.”

Sixty years ago, this area, running east from Tahrir, was the Champs-Élysées of Cairo’s belle epoque downtown, and Café Riche was its most popular meeting spot. Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian chanteuse, whose reputation in Egypt is difficult to imagine—try picturing Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Elvis, and Maria Callas all rolled into one person—was a regular at Café Riche. So was Naguib Mahfouz, who drank his daily two half-finjans of Turkish coffee at the café. King Farouk, the Egyptian monarch, met his second wife here, perhaps while Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser drank cardamom-scented coffee at a nearby table and plotted the coup that would end Farouk’s reign. Even the Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said frequented this neighborhood during his childhood and describes it in his memoir. 

“This is the heart of my job,” ElBoudy says, waving with her cigarette at the people around her. The mother of two grown daughters is wearing a ruffled white-and-black blouse, a dark blazer, and oversized black-and-white pearls; a bejeweled pin shaped like a thrush adorns her lapel; she chain- smokes Marlboros. “I’m very alert to what is going on in my country. As you can see, I know many people and many people know me. My publishing is not separate. It’s a flesh-and-blood thing.”

Seated at the table with us is a civil rights lawyer in a red tie with a bushy goatee; the Sudanese head of a Jordanian think tank in a blue jacket; an Egyptian specialist in religious movements wearing black-framed glasses and an open-necked shirt; and El-Boudy’s editor, a thirtysomething poet named Tamer Afeefy, who hands me a paperback copy of his collection. El-Boudy introduces me to a poet at a neighboring table and explains that there is a short song or poem at the beginning and end of Egyptian soap operas. “He writes those,” she says.

Al-Ain began in 2000 as a publishing house for books about popular science, explains El-Boudy, who has a PhD in biochemistry. Her early successes were a book about the human genome and a translation of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It wasn’t until 2005 that Al-Ain’s list expanded into literary fiction after El-Boudy befriended the late Tayeb Salih, the Sudanese novelist, and secured the Egyptian rights to A Season of Migration to the North. “It’s not enough to say he is a good writer,” she says. “He has created the most important novel in fifty years.”

I ask her if she is worried that the new administration will bring additional censorship. “I publish many books against the Muslim Brotherhood,” she says. Her science books can’t help but offend the creationist stance of Muslim conservatives, but she’s also published outright attacks on the religious group. “One book is called Secularism Is the Solution, instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s saying, ‘Islam is the solution,’” she says.

She explains, with help from the intellectuals around us, that the Muslim Brotherhood, once it has cemented its grip on the presidency, will turn its attention to the ministries that oversee human rights, journalism, and the media. Already El-Boudy has been surprised by how many of her fellow publishers are announcing their Islamic loyalties. “More and more are revealing their stripes. There are more and more Islamic publishers.”

El-Boudy publishes sixty titles a year with a standard first printing of a thousand copies; she distributes these to the approximately thirty branches of the three main booksellers in Egypt, as well as a few independent stores like Kotob Khan and her own bookstore located on Talaat Harb Square; she also sells to shops in Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and the Emirates. Once published, she submits her books to contests, hoping to win recognition and publicity for the titles and their authors.

Although she is not pleased with the current threat of censorship, she is undaunted. “I’ve got no social commitments,” she says. “My daughters are married; I can go where I want and do what I want to do. I’ve got no responsibilities. My mother died; I’m divorced. It gives me the freedom and time to create.”

The next day is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. On Tahrir Square, in the morning, I watch two thousand protesters, upset because the president is only appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to his government, set up a stage and put up banners. I wander back to the Café Riche and join the lawyer from El-Boudy’s evening table for a breakfast of falafel, bread, white cheese, and beans. A friend comes in with news, and the lawyer tells me that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have arrived in the square: They ripped down the anti-Morsi banners and tried to tear down the stage; there was fighting.