The Literary Imagination
Negation vs. Affirmation
There is indeed a notable trend toward the reading of non-fiction…I believe that there is a major expansion in both the publication and the reading of such books, owing to the notable success that some of them have enjoyed. Despite this, the fear that non-fiction will remain a prisoner of the nostalgia-memoirs-impressions bracket and at a distance from serious research work remains.
Karam Yusuf, publisher and director of al-Kotob Khan bookstores.
“Literary Non-fiction”—a broad term covering a wide variety of literary genres, beginning with biographies, translations, and essays and by no means ending with travel writing and the uncategorizable (a category constituting an essential part of what is meant by the term)—is defined negatively, with the prefix “non-“—a strange term, one that reminds us that the source of fictional narrative lies in make-believe and that what the writer writes is, unless she or he explicitly says otherwise, pure imagination.
The last few years, however, have witnessed the appearance of writings that are open about their “factuality,” meaning that, from the factual or informational perspective, they are “non-fictional” or at least that the author believes them to be so. The same years have also witnessed the appearance of writing that crosses the boundaries between genres, not in the sense of being halfway between the novel and the short story, or between the short story and poetry, but of being halfway between fiction and non-fiction. The new works that have given rise to this dialectic are many. For example, we find works that have the word “novel” written on them but that are entirely, or almost entirely, autobiographical—factual in their events, stories that “really happened” from the factual point of view while the “make-believe” element is confined, or almost entirely confined, to the language in which those events are conveyed.
Where, though, does fact begin and fiction end? The novels of ʿAdil Asʿad al-Miri may be a good starting point in the search for an answer.
Fact or Fiction?
Al-Miri has written a number of works indisputably belonging to this genre of literature, among them Shariʿ al-Haram wa-firaq musiqa al-shabab fi al-sabʿinat (Pyramids Road and the Youth Music Groups of the Seventies; Afaq, 2015) and his latest book Muhawalat li-stikshaf Misr (Attempts At Understanding Egypt; General Egyptian Book Organization, 2020). His most famous novels, however, such as Kull ahdhiyati dayyiqa (All My Shoes Are Tight; Merit, 2010), Lam aʿud akul al-marun jilaseeh (I Don’t Eat Maron Glacé Any More; Merit, 2012), Tasakkuʿ (To Stand and Stare); Afaq, 2015), and Khuyut aqmishat al-dhat (Threads from the Shirts of the Self; Epiidi, 2019) also belong, in one way or another, to “literary non-fiction” in that their facts are taken from the life of the author, as he himself, without equivocation, states.
At more than one meeting, I asked al-Miri why he places the word “novel” on the covers of his books, though they in fact represent a line connecting the dots of autobiography and personal memory. He surprised me by saying that he regards the word as a term that brings together every genre and type of free-flowing, subjective writing and believes that every narrative form that has served to embrace his multitudinous experiences and life lessons falls under the rubric of “the novel.”
Al-Mawluda (The Newborn; al-Karma, 2019), by Nadia Kamil, winner of the Sawiris Best Novel Prize, is told entirely in the words of the writer’s mother, who recounts her family’s story in the colloquial dialect. The work gave rise to controversy, with some even opposing the granting of the prize to the book, on the grounds that it is not a novel but a work of literary non-fiction. The writer herself has acknowledged that it belongs to the category of the “documentary novel.” Does the “documentary novel” belong, then, to the world of fiction or to the opposed, non-fictional, world?
“Subjective experience” and “the search for the self” are among the best known of narrative themes, whether the vehicles used for their expression are classified as novels, autobiographies, or memoires. Lines between the three are sometimes razor-thin, allowing them to slip from genre to genre. Al-Miri’s novels and his other, unclassified (at least on the book’s cover) works are not the only ones in which the author asks himself personal and existential questions by reviewing his private, non-fictional, memories. Yasir ʿAbd al-Latif’s book Fi al-Iqama wa-tirhal (On Staying and Leaving; al-Kotob Khan, 2014) may be one such attempt, especially after his celebrated novel Qanun al-wiratha (The Law of Inheritance; Merit, 2002) which was likewise inspired by the author’s memories of his youth.
ʿAbd al-Latif— poet, novelist, and short-story writer—has said, “Works of this sort, which may be expanded to include translations, autobiographies, travel literature, essays, and all the various kinds of historical writing, specific and general, have been central to Arabic literature throughout its history. Looking at modern Arabic literature, we find that the greater part of the production of the big names that have established themselves since the early twentieth century has fallen under this rubric. The art of story-telling, on the other hand, began with a shame-faced air and only gained full legitimacy after World War II. As everyone knows, Muhammad Husayn Haykal Basha signed the first edition of his novel Zaynab “by an Egyptian peasant,” and al-ʿAqqad wrote his only novel Sarah as though he had to apologize for it. Even Yahya Haqqi and Tawfiq al-Hakim produced mainly non-fictional works (al-Hakim’s plays excepted), to say nothing of the older generation of writers such as Taha Hussein, al-Mazini, al-Rifaʿi, Salama Musa, and others.”
ʿAbd al-Latif believes that the telling of stories only appeared “as an independent literary specialization of merit” with Naguib Mahfouz’s generation and was only fully realized in the person of that great writer himself “with his passion for that art above all others, his application, and his exceptional accomplishment.” He adds that the return of literary non-fiction in recent times reflects “the problematic with which the Arabic novel has recently shackled itself by insisting on presenting itself as readymade goods with no added value in an extremely weak market.”
Bitter and Sweet
This brings us to another genre of “literary non-fiction” in the form of Al-Dunya ajmal min al-janna (Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise), published by Dar al-Nahar in 2002 and then, in an expanded version, by Merit in 2009. In it, the author discusses the question of his “ideological transformation” from membership of the Salafist movement to renunciation of their beliefs. Samih Farag, in his Jannat al-Ikhwan: rihlat khuruj min al-jamaʿa (The Paradise of the Brotherhood: a journey away from “the Group”; al-Tanwir, 2013) follows the same course of personal and ideological stock-taking. The excessively numerous “January narratives” that filled the bookstores for a while with volumes fat and thin and related “memories of the revolution” may also belong to this genre.
Ahmad Naji’s Hirz Mukamkim (Rotten Evidence; Safsafa, 2020) takes as its point of departure a similar crucial event from the past, though not one from childhood or early youth but rather from the years of maturity, recording one of the harshest of human experiences, imprisonment. Naji, who rejects the categorization of his work as “prison literature,” recounts the circumstances of the prison and the stories of its inmates, who are not, on this occasion, comrades from the political struggle but criminals. We also view the experience of final illness in the poet Usama al-Dinasuri’s Kalbi al-harim . . . kalbi al-habib (My Doddery Dog, My Darling Dog), published early on, in 2007, by Merit, as belonging to the genre of the novel.
Contrasting with the harsh experiences mentioned above, we have the “nostalgia” books, in which “sweet memories” are selected and the virtues of a long-gone past presented. In such cases, given the absence of questions concerning the self, existence, and violent, dramatic transformation, the word “novel” is usually missing from the cover. The most notable examples of this genre are the various writings of the poet and journalist ʿUmar Tahir, with their clear yearning for and invocation of widely-recognized personal and cultural markers, which have been enthusiastically received by young people and much reprinted. Some of these works have been published by Dar Atlas Publishing which refers to them, as does the author, as “albums.” They include Shaklaha bazat (It Seems It’s Gone Pear-shaped; 2005), Kabtan Misr (Captain Egypt; 2008), Ibn ʿAbd al-Hamid al-Tarzi (ʿAbd al-Hamid the Tailor’s Son; 2008), and Rasf Misr (The Construction of Egypt; 2010) as well as books that, though not favored with a special classification, have been favored with wide popularity and are presented in a more developed and tightly constructed format, such as Sanayiʿiyyat Misr: shahid min hayat baʿd bunat Misr fi al-ʿasr al-hadith (Egypt’s Craftsmen: a Witness to the Life of Some of the Egypt’s Builders in the Modern Age; al-Karma, 2016) and Idhaʿat al-aghani: sira shakhsiyya lil-ghinaʾ (The Song Program: a Personal History of Song; al-Karma, 2015).
Among the best-selling recent titles dealing with “the good old days” is Kunt sabiyyan fi l-sabʿiniyyat: sira thaqafiyya wa-jtimaʿiyya (I Was a Boy in the Seventies: a Cultural and Social History; al-Karma, 2015) and its second part Kunt shabban fi l-thamaniniyyat (I Was a Boy in the Eighties; al-Karma, 2020), by Mahmud ʿAbd al-Shakur.
ʿAbd Al-Shakur says, “Reading reactions to the two parts, I found that many people had noticed the multiplicity of styles within the book and noted the multiple points of view and the difficulty of categorizing it, even though, in general terms, it is a book of personal memories. Many parts, however, do resemble the narrative style of a novel and borrow some of its techniques, while others are closer to a critical study or a social survey or historical documentation. There are bits written through the eyes of a child and others with the awareness of a critic.”
He goes on to say, “I did not choose this form deliberately. All I wanted to do was write with complete freedom, in a form capable of encompassing the flood of memories that assailed me. That way the text came out freely. That way I drifted along with it and paid no attention to the categorization thing.”
The Self and the Other
Even seasoned novelists such as Ibrahim ʿAbd al-Magid and Huggag Addul experimented with forms very different from the straightforward novel and chose to write “literary non-fiction.” An example, from the first, is Al-Ayyam al-hulwa faqat (Only the Good Times; Bayt al-Yasamin, 2020) in which the author recounts in his own words his happy memories of a number of writers and artists; and from the second, Khalli balak min Zuzu (Watch Out For Zuzu; Badaʾil, 2020), in which the author tells in his own words of his passion, from early youth, for the actress Suʿad Husni.
In such works, the Self may be reflected in the Other, in that the writer seeks to discover his or herself through others’ stories. Some are designated “portraits,” such as those of the late Mikkawi Saʿid, the best known of which is Muqtanayat wust al-balad: kitab ʿan al-shakhsiyyat wal-amakin (Downtown Collection: a Book About Characters and Places; Dar al-Shuruq, 2010), which he described “one of those books I can’t make up my mind about: I can’t place it in any of the narrative genres. It could be a novel or a history or anything else. This in itself does not concern me. All that concerns me is the writing.”
Also belonging to this group are the works of Ibrahim Daʾud, including Tabʿan ahbab: jawla fi hadaʾiq al-sadiqin (Friends, Of Course: A Tour Through the Gardens of Those Who Speak True; Palaces of Culture Organization, 2019), in which the author paints portraits of a number of the celebrities of arts and culture who have influenced him, and Al-Jaww al-ʿAmm (The General Atmosphere; Merit, 2011), in which the author accompanies us on a tour of persons whom he has met in the course of his life who are extraordinary in their ordinariness.
Novelist Hamdi Abu Gulayyil, following his Al-Qahira shawariʿ wa-hikayat (Cairo: Streets and Stories; General Book Organization, 2008) and Al-Qahira jawamiʿ wa-hikayat (Cairo: Mosques and Stories; General Book Organization, 2013), produced a slim volume on his relationship with the late poet Usama al-Dinasuri titled al-Ayyam al-ʿazima al-balhaʾ (The Great Dumb Days; Merit, 2017).
There is also the Other who does not necessarily reflect the Self but provides it with answers to certain questions. In his work of literary non-fiction Sura maʿa Anwar Wajdi (A Picture with Anwar Wagdi; Afaq, 2020), Ahmad ʿAbd al-Munʿim Ramadan has chosen the famous star to paint a picture of the golden age of cinema, and perhaps of Egypt generally, at a now vanished moment in history.
This brings to mind Talal Faysal, who carefully selected two artistic personalities not long deceased to write about in two semi-fictional, semi-non-fictional works, the first Surur (al-Kotob Khan, 2013), on the poet Nagib Surur, the second Baligh (Dar al-Shuruq, 2016), on the composer Baligh Hamdi.
There is also writing on certain subjects. Three years ago, poet Iman Mirsal wrote Kayfa taltaʾim: ʿan al-umuma wa-ashbahiha (How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts; Kayfa Ta…, 2017) as a way to discuss motherhood, and the poet ʿAmr ʿIzzat published Ghurfa 304: Kayfa khtabaʾt min abi 25 ʿaman (Room 304: How I Hid From My Father For 25 Years; Dar al-Shuruq, 2019) in which he interrogates his relationship with his father.
Mirsal, originally a poet, has recently published, to wide-ranging critical response, Fi athar ʿInayat al-Zayyat (In Pursuit of ʿInayat al-Zayyat; al-Kotob Khan, 2019) in which she recounts her journey in search of an Egyptian female writer who lived a hard life that ended with her suicide when in her twenties, in 1963.
Like Yasir ʿAbd al-Latif, Mirsal affirms the stable historical basis of Arabic “literary non-fiction.” She says, “Since the Golden Age, the history of Arabic literature has presented us with a variety of narratives of this kind. Al-ʿIqd al-farid (The Unique Necklace), al-Hayawan (The Book of Animals), al-Bukhalaʾ (The Book of Misers), Tawq al-hamama (The Collar of the Dove), Risalat al-ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness), Al-Tawabiʿ wal-zawabiʿ (Of Devils and Dust Storms)—all these belong to this genre, and to them one may add the biographies, journeys, and geographies. Even in Qur’anic commentary and works of jurisprudence one finds this kind of artistic/non-generic narrative, which plays its part in the generation of knowledge.”
Mirsal continues, “Arabic literature, like other literatures of the world, passes through phases of disconnection and connection with its former self. The nineteenth century witnessed a new wave of artistic narratives, of which the most famous examples are perhaps Takhlis al-ibriz (translated into English as An Imam in Paris) and Al-Saq ʿala l-saq (Leg Upon Leg). The first is not simply travel literature and the second is not simply autobiography. In both books, the writer has adopted a complex posture, and research, ideas, and personal experience combine to produce layers of artistic narrative. There is a desire to produce knowledge without worrying over its literary classification. The same is true of other major names, such as al-Manfaluti, al-Mazini, Yahya Haqqi, and even Salah ʿIsa, ʿAbd al-Munʿim Shumays, Hazim Saghiya, and others.”
Concerning her latest book, Mirsal has this to say: “It sometimes happens that the writer’s questions reveal a tone of voice, a structure, and a general mood that impose themselves on the work as a whole. The writer’s task is to develop his insight and grasp these threads, not impose them on their text. In this book, my desire not to speak in the name of ʿInayat forced me to pay attention to the contiguity of languages in her story—the language of the law, of psychology, of class, and so on. This brought me closer to her historical moment and its context.
“The absence of any personal archive for her made me wonder about what was missing, or had been removed, from the small amount of material that I did find. During this process, the book was taking shape and its genre as literature being invented. For example, at the beginning I had no idea that I would be present as a character in the book, but my narration of my search and its journey gave me a metaphor that continued to be productive in a number of scenes. As a result, the experience turned into something like a painting in which the painter’s hand can be seen as it paints.”
Diversity of Subjects
At a remove from subjects dealing directly with the Self or the Other are writings on various non-fictional topics such as soccer, which appears in Misr wa-kurat al-qadam: al-tarikh al-haqiqi . . . ayna wa-kayfa badaʾat al-hikaya (Egypt and Soccer: the True History . . . Where and How Did It All Begin?”; al-Dar al-Misriyya al-Lubnaniyya, 2018) by Yasir Ayyub; Hurub kurat al-qadam (The Soccer Wars; al-ʿAyn, 2010) by Yasir Sabit, and Kull shayʾ aw la sayʾ: ʿan al-kura wa-ahlam ghuraf al-malabis (All or Nothing: On Soccer and Changing Room Dreams; Awraq, 2020) by Muhammad al-Burmi.
And at a remove from soccer, we have Kitab al-nawm (The Book of Sleep; al-Karma, 2017) by Haytham al-Wardani, which concerns itself with the question of sleep and its existential relationships to humankind, and Ghidhaʾ lil-Qibti: durus min al-matbakh al-Qibti (Food for Copts: Lessons from the Coptic Kitchen; al-Kotob Khan, 2017) by Sharl al-Misri.
The Coptic question seems to have a clear presence in literary non-fiction, from the concerns of ʿAdil Asʿad al-Miri so clearly expressed in most of his writings as a Copt in a majority-Muslim society to Ghidhaʾ al-Qibti, which takes us on a tour of the Coptic kitchen, and Kunt tiflan Qibtiyyan fi al-Minya (I Was a Coptic Child in al-Minya; Magaz, 2020) by Mina ʿAdil Gayyid, whose title is the key to its contents in that the author returns to his childhood to recount what he saw of the life of an Egyptian Coptic family living in the province of al-Minya during the period from 1993 to 1999; the publisher categorizes the work as “one of those accurate ethnographic texts written by non-specialists in the science of cultural ethnography.”
Similarly, Muhammad Shoair’s Awlad haratina: sirat al-riwaya al-muharrama (The Children of the Alley: the Story of the Forbidden Novel; al-ʿAyn, 2018) met with a broad critical response to its presentation of the story of an era through the lens of writings on Naguib Mahfouz’s controversial novel.
Another possible contemporary pioneer of this genre is ʿIzzat al-Qamhawi, whose latest book Ghurfat al-musafirin (The Travelers’ Room; al-Dar al-Misriyya al-Lubnaniyya, 2020) the publisher describes as “not a novel, not the author’s autobiography, not a book on travel, not a book on philosophy or architecture, and not a book about reading, but all of these.” The book adds to ʿIzzat’s earlier works of literary non-fiction which began with al-Ayk fi l-mabahij wal-ahzan (“The Thicket”—On Joys and Sorrows; al-Hilal, 2002), which combines writings, experiences, and tales on the subject of the senses and was followed by Kitab al-Ghawaya (The Book of Seduction; al-ʿAyn, 2010), which takes the form of love letters between a male and a female writer.
Sales and Prizes
Books of this type also do well now in bookstores, sometimes reaching the bestseller lists. Mahmud Lutfi, founder of Tanmiya bookstore along with his brother Khalid says, “Non-fiction generally sells less well throughout the world than fiction and there used to be a widespread perception that very little literature of this type was read in Egypt. However, our experience at the bookstore proves that the reality is different. When we opened our store in 2011 and began offering publications unavailable in Egypt, we found there was large demand. The problem had lain basically in the unavailability of this category of book. Subsequently, interest in this type of book grew among publishers, and they rushed to issue biographical and epistolary works, which not infrequently sold better than novels. Even books on science began to be in demand. This drove us to put out, as publishers, a number of non-fiction books in translation, such as al-Mahjubat (Hidden Figures) by Margot Lee Shetterly, al-Khuruj lil-nahar: Kitab al-mawta (Emerging Into Daylight: the Book of the Dead), and Mutun al-ahram (The Pyramid Texts), both translated from the Ancient Egyptian.
Karam Yusuf, publisher and director of al-Kotob Khan bookstores, who has published a number of the most prominent works of this genre, says, “There is indeed a notable trend toward the reading of non-fiction. Aside from books written in Arabic, we have published translations of Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish, Pessoa’s prose works, Van Gogh’s letters, and more. I believe that there is a major expansion in both the publication and the reading of such books, owing to the notable success that some of them have enjoyed. Despite this, the fear that non-fiction will remain a prisoner of the nostalgia-memoirs-impressions bracket and at a distance from serious research work remains.”
The conspicuous movement toward literary non-fiction or, to be more precise, away from the restrictions imposed by the dominance of fiction (the novel, the short story) appears to be spontaneous. All the same, we may from time to time observe distinct currents. Successful writing that achieves high sales encourages people to set aside their fears about venturing into the same genre.
Some of the movement has been deliberate, as in the case of the series Kayfa ta… (How To…) founded by Maha Maʾmun and Alaʾ Yunus in 2012 and which describes itself as “a publishing project that builds on the popularity of guide books on how to deal with certain necessities of our time, be they skills, tools, ideas, insights, or emotions. These books combine the technical and the introspective, the instructional and the intuitive, the real and the imaginary.” It is notable that it was within this series that Iman Mersal began to write literary non-fiction, with Kayfa taʾtalim (How To Mend), as did Haitham al-Wardani, with Kayfa takhtafi (How To Disappear; 2012) and Mahmud ʿIzzat, with Kayfa tatadhakkar ahlamak (How To Remember Your Dreams; 2020).
Perhaps the sole remaining obstacle to removing the brakes of fear from literary non-fiction is prizes. To this date, there is not one Arab prize dedicated to this type of literature and should one come into being, it will have to face the problem of definition; negative definitions will not suffice in this case. This difficulty is not however, insurmountable. Awlad haratina: sirat al-riwaya al-muharrama was long-listed for the Sheikh Zayed Prize in the “arts and critical studies” section and, as this article was being written, it was announced that Iman Mersal’s Fi athar ʿInayat al-Zayyat and ʿIzzat al-Qamhawi’s Ghurfat al-musafirin have been long-listed for the same prize, in the “literature” section. Al-Mawluda, mentioned above, shared the 2018 Sawiris Prize For the Novel, in the “established writers” section. The next few years may well see Arab prizes dedicated to this genre of literature.
Fi athar ʿInayat al-Zayyat (In Pursuit of ʿInayat al-Zayyat)Author: Iman Mersal
Publisher: al-Kotob Khan, 2019
A unique text and highly individual narrative combining journalistic investigation, study of literature, personal vision, and a humanistic posture that may be viewed and understood from more than one angle and perspective. The book is neither a critical study nor a straightforward biography but a pursuit, using narrative techniques similar to those of the detective novel and proceeding primarily through the comparison of evidence in an attempt to understand what lay behind the suicide of a young female writer who was not yet thirty years old and the publication, after her death, of her only novel. An engrossing journey, that begins with astonishment, which is followed by questioning, and then moves to the pursuit and its end.
Fi al-Iqama wal-tirhal (On Staying and Leaving)
Author: Yasir ʿAbd al-Latif
Publisher: al-Kotob Khan, 2014
Essays in the garb of short stories and real-life tales. The language is fluent, visual, and sometimes poetic. Its hero lives his daily life in Canada because of his work, inhabits Abdin by virtue of his early memories, resides in Bab al-Luq by virtue of his childhood, while al-Maadi inhabits him by virtue of his rebellious years. A tightly-woven mix of the evocation of memory and the free association of recollections, meditations, and introspection. Through narrative the writer transmits to the reader the smells, sounds, songs, and lost dreams of place, always in the presence of the contemplative self.
Ghurfat al-musafirin (The Travelers’ Room)
Author: ʿIzzat al-Qamhawi
Publisher: al-Dar al-Misriyya al-Lubnaniyya, 2020
A book that defies classification. Not travel literature in the traditional sense of the term but meditations on the idea of travel itself from a subjective viewpoint that is brought to bear on cities and islands, as well as ideas, signification, means, equipment, suitcases, and hotels, and also, with piercing intelligence, works of literature and novels in whose events travel and departure play a major role.
Khuyut aqmishat al-dhat (Threads from the Shirts of the Self)
Author: ʿAdil Asʿad al-Miri
Publisher: Epiidi Publications, 2019
A life’s journey compressed by the author into critical junctures. He wears no mask and is not afraid of calling a spade a spade. He begins with the tribe/family and his roots, through which he explores the upbringing that formed him, appearing a captive to a rigid family order that pushes him to study medicine. The world broadens a little with his leaving school, and does so more and more with the discovery of reading and books, and the cinema. He records some of his dreams. His fears and desires find freedom, as does the Self, burdened as it is with days and years of suffering.
Kunt Shabban fi al-Thamaniniyyat (I Was a Boy in the Eighties)
Author: Mahmud ʿAbd al-Shakur
Publisher: al-Karma, 2020
In this second part of his cultural and social autobiography, ʿAbd al-Shakur follows the same method as in the first, set in the seventies. Memory is the source and the outlet from which he selects and in which he finds inspiration, subsequently linking and analyzing, and finally presenting the quintessence. He begins with his entering university: four years at the Faculty of Mass Communication require separation from the family, self-dependence and produce a detailed discussion of the University City, crowded with memories, events, and persons. The author mixes the subjective with the objective, the personal with the public.
Ghidhaʾ lil-Qibti (Food for Copts)
Author: Sharl ʿAql
Publisher: al-Karma, 2018
In a voice not without a mockery, albeit sweetened with contemplation and observation, and with a delicious call to arms of the senses of smell and taste, the author passes in review the recipes and menus that Egypt’s Copts favor for their daily meals and religious occasions throughout the year. This singular topic represents a point of entry to a deep acquaintance with and revelatory cultural exploration of the culture of the Egyptian Christian community with all its aspects, ingredients, world views, and conceptions of the universe, life, and society.