The Egyptian publishing industry has recently produced a number of books that revisit the past by blending fiction and its narrative techniques with historical facts. Many literary critics regard this as a positive trend.
Several books use this approach to explore the lives of cultural and political figures, and look at common perceptions in a new light.
Among them are books that illuminate the lives of writers, such as the poet Iman Mersal’s “In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat”, winner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s Literature Prize in 2021.
Another is the journalist Mohamed Shoair’s “Naguib Mahfouz’s Early Years … Beginnings and Ends,” which reveals an unknown autobiography that Mahfouz wrote in his youth, influenced by Taha Hussein’s novelistic autobiography “Al Ayam” (“The Days”).
Other biographical works in this style include the poet Mohsen Elbelasy’s “The Journey of Kamel El Telmisany”, which recently won the Sawiris Cultural Award’s 2022 prize for literary criticism, and “Ibrahim Nagy: An Intimate Visit That Was Long Overdue”, by Samia Mehrez. Mehrez, a professor of literature at the American University in Cairo, is a granddaughter of the renowned poet and drew on family documents to discuss Nagy’s personal life alongside his literary achievements.
“The Covid-19 pandemic, and the precautionary measures of isolation and distancing, increased the feeling of the harshness of reality and created a state of nostalgia for the past.”Hatem Hafez
Head of the criticism department at Egypt’s Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts
Exploring Real Events Through Fiction
In the fictional realm, Duha Asi’s “French Clouds” is a historical novel that explores what happened to the Egyptians who accompanied the French soldiers returning to France after the failure of the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt.
Another historical novel, “Ya’coub”, by the historian Mohamed Afifi, deals with the same moment in history. It revolves around the story of General Ya’coub, who tried to free Egypt from the Ottoman Empire by cooperating with the French in the 1798-1801 campaign.
New novels that re-examine more recent times include Mohamed Baraka’s “The Lady’s Pub”, which intertwines fiction and biography to present what Baraka considers a realistic, though controversial, portrait of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
The journalist Ibrahim Issa also contributed to this trend with “A Bullet in the Head”, a novel about the murder of Sheikh Muhammad Hussain al-Dhahabi, a former Egyptian minister of religious endowments who was kidnapped and killed by an extremists in 1977.
In “A Bullet in the Head”, Issa continues his project of relating Egypt’s history from a novelist’s imaginary perspective. Earlier books in this project include “All the Months of July” about the Free Officers Movement’s coup in July 1952, which overthrew the monarchy and set up the government that came to be led by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Escaping the Pressures of the Present
Hatem Hafez, head of the criticism department at Egypt’s Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, notes that many of these works are completely reliant on history but written by novelists who already have a broad audience.
“Some academics use their imagination to write a historical narrative, as Samia Mehrez did in her book on the poet Ibrahim Nagy and as the historian Mohamed Afifi did in his novel “Ya’coub”.
Hafez considers this trend “an attempt to escape the pressures of the present, where reality is burdened with global and local concerns”.
“The Covid-19 pandemic, and the precautionary measures of isolation and distancing, increased the feeling of the harshness of reality and created a state of nostalgia for the past,” Hafez said.
He added: “Literature does not need to produce alternative knowledge beyond the academic context. It is sufficient that it raises questions among readers about history.”
‘Too Big to Be Left to Historians Only’
Mahmoud Abdel Shakour, another literary critic, thinks the past year was a “golden year” for dealing with historical material through narrative fiction based on archives and documents. “Any writing about the past starts from the heart of the present,” he said, “but history is too big to be left to historians only.”
“This happened in Europe after the youth revolutions of 1968. The process usually comes from outside academia, through the press, documentary filmmakers, novelists, and then extends to society.”Mohamed Afifi
The author of “Ya’coub” and a professor of contemporary history at Cairo University
“Historical material is artistically attractive, and the artist deals with history with greater insight,” Abdel Shakour said. “Therefore, turning to history is a healthy phenomenon according to art standards, if not academic standards.”
Afifi, the author of “Ya’coub” and a professor of contemporary history at Cairo University, said the phenomenon of reconsidering the past accompanies major transformations in society. “This happened in Europe after the youth revolutions of 1968. The process usually comes from outside academia, through the press, documentary filmmakers, novelists, and then extends to society.”
The Arab region witnessed “severe transformations” after 2011, Afifi said. “It is natural that the events which happened drive towards building narratives that contradict official history.”
Afifi considers writing new historical narratives to be a “completely positive phenomenon”.
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“It is natural for this phenomenon to come from outside academic institutions, because these institutions are conservative in nature,” he said. “But there are also new generations of historians writing with full freedom, apart from methodological rules.”
Writing that attempts to combine fiction and historical narrative “allows us to pass on things that the historian cannot,” he added.
A Way of Understanding the Present
Samia Mehrez also spoke about her experience in writing about her grandfather in “Ibrahim Nagy: An Intimate Visit That Was Long Overdue.” She expressed her support for authors trying to revisit history through facts or personalities.
“Many of those engaged in research in the humanities complain about the difficulty of examining the current reality and obtaining statements and information because the present is thorny and mined,” Mehrez said. “Consequently, going back to the past became a safe way, perhaps, to understand what is going on now.”