Cairo 2010: After Kefaya
The Focus Portfolio in APS 9 introduces the next generation of Egyptian writers.
You are stuck in traffic in downtown Cairo. Zahma—a blockage. The cars are packed in impossibly thick and there is only the slightest of forward movement. Pedestrians squeeze their way through hairline fractures between the metal, which adds to the congestion. A ride that could have taken fifteen minutes takes two hours. Time loses its sense of forward momentum; one becomes philosophical. This is a common occurrence.
Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world, the largest city in Africa, and indeed one of the most densely populated cities on the globe, Cairo seems to oscillate between the possible and the impossible at once. Everything and everyone is here, it seems; potential emanates from one of the world’s crossroads. And yet, covered in a thick palimpsest of dust and grime, coughing from within a haze of smog and pollution, and saddled with the same president since 1981, Cairo seems at times stuck. “Kefaya! Enough!” proclaimed a reform movement in 2004 and 2005, raising the opposition’s hopes that their common voice might finally resonate. Kefaya drew crowds and global media, and it mobilized hope… until Hosni Mubarak won a fifth term, claiming almost all of the vote, and then pressured or arrested his opposition.
It is tempting to derive larger lessons from Cairene zahma. There is something about breaking rules that is inherent to Cairo—you drive the wrong way down a one way street or race through red lights, you push ahead in line, you don’t fast during Ramadan, you write things you shouldn’t on your blog or publish something that can land you in jail. Living within zahma, both traffic blockages and political ones, can make you patient, or exasperated, or depressed. Or you may risk the short cut, the perils be damned.
At the center of downtown Cairo, maybe one hundred meters from Tahrir Square, on the second floor of a dingy office building on Qasr al-Nil Avenue, there is a space to breathe. The offices of Dar Merit, a small independent publishing house founded in 1998, informal and rough around the edges, pry an opening in the zahma and perhaps a foothold from which to escape it.
During the past decade, a generation of young writers who are breaking lots of rules—of what writing in Arabic is supposed to look like, of what young Egyptians can express about the world around them and how they might do so, and of what a new cohort of men and women might say about life in a city layered with centuries, even millennia, of intertwined cultural forms—has marked a significant shift in contemporary Egyptian literature.
Merit has been at the center of this scene, and its founder and publisher, Mohammed Hashem, its impresario. An unpretentious uncle figure, modest patron, cheerleader, and jovial fellow traveler to a loose circle of young renegade writers, Hashem—who himself was active in Kefaya—has been celebrated as a publisher for pushing the limits of what can be said and who will stand up for it in public. (In 2006, the Association of American Publishers awarded him the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award for his “commitment to freedom of expression in an environment where such a commitment is hazardous.”)
In the front room, which is open to the public, two walls of Merit’s books are displayed for sale, though it is rare that anyone comes in to shop. There are a small number of sociological and political essays on display, but for the most part Merit’s list is dominated by literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and the occasional volume of ‘ammiyya (Egyptian Arabic dialect) poetry.
It’s tempting to call the smoky back room a literary salon, except that there are no organized discussions as you might find elsewhere in Cairo. Instead, a hodgepodge of personalities drop by—everyone seems to have published a book or two or a weekly column or a page in a newspaper—to slump in the thread worn couches and smoke and joke and talk for a while at the end of the day. Ever the host, Hashem provides the lentils and the Turkish coffee, or whatever his writers and guests may require. Mostly he provides the space—physical and on the page—to keep the conversation going. When asked, Hashem credits Kefaya with the inspiration for his commitment to cross all the red lines: “A commitment to the truth equals the dissemination of all ideas without restriction. Freedom is supposed to know no bounds,” Hashem told a reporter in 2006.
For most American readers, the phrase “Egyptian literature” likely brings to mind one of two writers: Naguib Mahfouz, the prolific master of Arabic prose, and, as of a couple of years ago, Alaa Al Aswany. Mahfouz, the 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, is the better known of course, especially for his Cairo trilogy from the 1950s, with its epic sweep and intertwined sense of the city’s urban space and historical and psychological change. Aswany burst onto the American scene in 2006 (the same year that Mahfouz passed away) with his first novel The Yacoubian Building. Originally published in Arabic in 2002 by Merit, Aswany’s melodramatic tale of intertwined lives in contemporary Cairo quickly became the best selling Arabic language novel in the world, followed and further propelled by a successful Egyptian film and a tv miniseries. Aswany, in his fifties and a founding member of Kefaya, has played the role of literary author as political and social commentator—in both the Egyptian and international press—with energy and aplomb. But for American audiences, it seems more simply that he has served as an alternative to Mahfouz.
The work of the young authors collected here, however, is quite different from either Mahfouz or Al Aswany. This is as true formally as it is socially or politically. The authors in this portfolio have read and cherished their masters—Egyptian ones and foreigners alike. Their influences are multiple, their sense of form unpredicted or unanticipated.
These writers are a generation that came of age with (sometimes after) the massive arrival of the Internet and digital technologies in Cairo, and in the wake of the shift in global discourse about big words like democracy, Islam, and war. And while many of the topics they address in their work seem much smaller—a sexual liaison, street children stealing fruit, women calling on each other for tea, two boys playing a video game—these are not writers unconcerned with the social or the political. Rather, their work is conceived differently in relation to the big questions. Perhaps it is the enormity of Cairo, expanding at asymptotic rates via apparently uncontrollable urbanization, or the response to its social and political zahma; or perhaps they echo others in their generation internationally who have become cynical about what art and writing can do and seek something different. But the big pronouncements here are more muted or ironic…and sometimes they are even refused.
Over the course of the past several months, I have visited Merit’s offices frequently, usually late in the evening when things start to pick up. One such evening this past March seems paradigmatic, but there were others—watching the finals of the Confederations Cup in June when Brazil came from behind to beat the U.S., to the joy of those in attendance. Or in late August during Ramadan when, after Iftar, the regulars drifted in.
On that evening in March, I sat in the back room of the Merit offices with Ahmed Alaidy, a thirty- four year old novelist and poet who broke open the Egyptian novel with his cyberpunk Being Abbas el Abd. In that frenetic first novel, Alaidy brought emoticons into his Arabic prose, along with a flood of references to pop culture and the empty fullness of life in digital Cairo. Alaidy has written comics and screenplays and counts among his mentors (or “partners in crime,” as he puts it) the American Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), the British comic geniusAlan Moore (Watchmen), and the Egyptian literary titan Sonallah Ibrahim. Alaidy’s conversation circulates rapidly between the latest movies, American comics and world literature, and then about the imagination and art without embarrassment.
Sitting with us were two young women (twenty and twenty-four), one just graduated from Cairo University, the other finishing her exams, who keep the website and the Facebook pages current with photos from book signings and announcements of literary events. Mohammed Hashem, exhausted from yet another all-nighter, sat at his cluttered desk behind an aging PC, pecking at the keyboard, while the interns threw jokes and double entendres around, teasing their boss, teasing Alaidy, filling the air with more laughter.
The electronic doorbell chirped every few minutes. In drifted Khalid Kassab, the wildly popular editor of Darbet Shams (Sunstroke), a two page cultural insert in Dustour (one of Cairo’s more prominent oppositional dailies). As we sat chatting, text messages came in constantly from his readers: “Life without Darbet Shams is like Cairo without ruz b-libn (rice pudding),” says one. “Please come back!” Kassab had just announced that after upwards of four years writing for the paper, culminating in the insert, he was moving on to new ventures. But his readers can’t let him go. Kassab’s columns—spiritual, funny, colloquial, dark and hopeful all at once—were a phenomenon, and Darbet Shams was somehow more than the sum of its parts. While it lasted, it was a space for young writers to make a name for themselves; to write freely about topics that had seemed off limits; to negotiate their own relationship to Cairo and the world around them. The phenomenon had such a recognizable identity that its writers—and its dedicated readers—became known as Darbetshamsawis, i.e., Sunstrokers.
Ten minutes later, Omar Taher wandered in, sullen and pensive. Taher is just as young as the others but slightly chubby and balding, with a more serious demeanor to match. He looks the part of the mentor that Alaidy has cast him in. Alaidy raves about Taher’s manifesto that opens his book Shaklaha bazet (Looks like it’s falling apart): “It’s possible that this book will not represent anything of importance to you, but it will mean a lot to you if you are one of the children of the generation.” Alaidy assures me that I can’t imagine how much those four pages meant to him.
If Kassab was the literary force behind Darbet Shams, Taher may be the intellectual —or poetic—heart of this generation. His manifesto, reminiscent of a catalog by Allen Ginsberg, defines his generation via a series of cultural and historical events that marked and formed their collective experience. The references are both highly local and global, both mediated through the “shock of multimedia” and the seismic change of the “communication revolution.” And so hilarious public service announcements and toothpaste commercials that only Cairenes would appreciate take their place next to global media events such as Princess Diana and Operation Desert Storm.
And, like Kassab and Alaidy, and echoed in the work of most of the other writers of this cohort, Taher writes in a vibrant and charged language that moves freely between formal Arabic and colloquial, everday Egyptian. (This is yet another way he and his peers are finding and energizing the new generation of Egyptian readers who have emerged with the impressive
expansion of literacy in the past decade or two.)
But to understand Taher—and the generation he is naming, summoning into being-one must understand him not (only) via the influence of popular culture but through what he follows in Egyptian literature. Indeed it is that fusion, or that confusion, of domestic and global, of local and cyber, that is both indicative of the writing of this generation—and perhaps difficult for an American audience to grasp. One must simplify perhaps to make the point. If we do so, we might say that the literary lions that ruled Cairo’s scene in the 1960s and 1970s—writers such as Mahfouz and Sonallah Ibrahim and Baha Taher and others, all of whom still stand for Egyptian literature—put social and political causes at the center of their literary projects, along with their great hope for the Egyptian nation and for a national literature and national consciousness. The sense of failure that followed in the wake of the succeeding decades did not halt the literary production of this generation, but put it in a different light for its successors. One begins to see a changed relationship in Egyptian writers toward the goals of the nation in the nineties. Egyptian commentators and scholars have characterized the so-called 1990s generation as writers who turned away from the social commitment of their predecessors and inwards, whether toward more avante-garde experimentation or a “bracketing of any social or political criticism,” as Richard Jacquemond has written recently.
But Taher’s and Alaidy’s generation, what I’m tentatively calling Cairo 2010, seems at once to be writing about the highly personal and the social and is distinct from the 1990s writers. Their experiences are different, as is the way they encounter and depict the Cairo of today, the globally inflected and locally congested space of the megalopolis. Mansoura Ez Eldin, an acclaimed novelist and the young book review editor of the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab, speaks eloquently of this newest cohort and its departure from the concerns of the previous generations of Egyptian novelists. Some of it has to do with what they were reading and the ways in which the younger writers took more seriously popular culture and foreign forms. “We took these genres (horror, detective, graphic novels) seriously, and created work more cosmopolitan and less concerned with the old themes (of Arab identity, Egyptian nationalism, etc.).” She is thinking of the work of Alaidy, Taher, and Muhammad Aladdin, when she makes this comment to me in the café at Diwan bookstore in Zamalek, but it might apply as well to her own newest work. In Beyond Paradise, a muted, gorgeous tale of a young woman coming to terms with the ghosts of her past, Ez Eldin moves between the personal and the political quietly—magically—as one moves between dreams and reality.
Perhaps this interplay between the individual and the social is put most efficiently by Omar Taher. “I see the world through my own eyes, myself, and through my intimate relationships with others,” he told a reporter for Al-Ahram in 2005. “I really don’t care about politics. I am only interested in watching politicians—the way they behave and the way they treat ordinary people. Today there are no political theories in which you could have any faith. So I don’t really see the point…”
Taher isn’t renouncing the social—the way he calls his generation into collective being would demonstrate otherwise. Rather, his cynical understanding of politics in Egypt—that blockage, that zahma—leads him to approach it from another angle. “I sighed when I’d had enough,” he writes in a recent ‘ammiyya poem. How does one move through a wall of traffic? And for Taher, as for many of the writers of Cairo 2010, a rich admixture of literary and popular culture, from at home and abroad, offers ways to reimagine just what it means to be a subject in today’s Cairo. What is left after one has confronted an authoritarian state in the streets and shouted Enough!?
Certainly in “The Parkour War,” a collaboration by Ahmed Alaidy and Magdy El Shafee, layers of social critique are hinted at in the bleak frames of a Cairene urban landscape, and then shifted abruptly into amediascape. In Alaidy and El Shafee’s fiction, working within the transnational codes of comics, the pop cultural form allows for ironic social critique on at least two levels. The first frames demonstrate the same unflinching portrayal of Cairene corruption that
landed El Shafee’s pathbreaking graphic novel Metro in the courtroom on charges of “infringement of public decency.” (El Shafee and his publisher are still on trial with the risk of prison time, forbidden to leave the country; Metro is still censored.) But then social commentary such as we might have expected from the older literary generation—though never looking like this!—cedes to a critique of the apathy and immobility of the youngest Cairenes, stuck behind Xboxes and flipping through tv channels—in the very language they would understand.
In the other contributions included in this portfolio, a variety of stances toward that interplay of individual desire and social collectivity are discovered. Whether in the mysteries of Muhammad Aladdin’s taboo-breaking tale of desire and sexuality in urban Cairo or in Mohamed Al- Fakhrany’s postmodern novel of street children fighting to survive outside the five-star hotels and luxury night club boats anchored on the Nile, or again in Ibrahim El Batout’s moving and politically chilling feature film Ain Shams, the authors and artists of the generation of the 2000s are especially agile in shifting registers, of seeing in the close up detail a more shattering meaning that reverberates through that densely packed city.
And as they do so, the bridges and gaps between reality and representation we find so richly explored here promise to bring us into a new space within the impossibly crowded city. Cairo, in all its complexity, with all its millions of unheard people—at once bleak, saturated from a thousand directions, and disruptive—is opened up for a moment by the authors after Kefaya.
Brian T. Edwards is an associate professor of English, comparative literature, and American studies at Northwestern University, where he also co-chairs the Middle East and North African Studies working group. He is the author of Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express (Duke University). He was named a 2005 Carnegie Scholar.