Edwar al-Kharrat and the Modernist Revolution in the Egyptian Novel

By Amal Amireh

Egypt’s cultural circles have recently celebrated one of the most important writers in the Arab world, Edwar al-Kharrat, who turned 70 earlier this year. This celebration coincided with the publication of al-Kharrat’s latest book, entitled “Muhajamat al-Mustaheel” (Attacking the Impossible), and with his winning the prize of Sultan Al-Oweiss.

Al-Kharrat was born in 1926 in Alexandria to a Coptic Christian family.  At age 17 he became the household’s sole breadwinner following the death of his father, who was the owner of a small business. Despite his heavy responsibilities, al-Kharrat successfully completed a degree in law from Alexandria University in 1946. Two years later he was thrown in jail for belonging to a left-wing political group. He was released in 1950. 

Al-Kharrat’s art is shaped by diverse cultural influences, which include his Christian Coptic heritage, the Arabic culture of Egypt and the Western literary tradition. The first book he ever read was a collection of Christian hymns. At age 10 he read “A Thousand and One Nights”, a book that still fascinates him.  He absorbed the rich Arabic literary tradition, in both its popular and classic strains. “Deep and basic” is how al-Kharrat describes the Arabic heritage’s influence on him. This heritage, he emphasizes, “is something alive, potent, and very contemporary.” Knowledge of English and French allowed al-Kharrat to familiarize himself with Western classics, especially the works of the romantic poets (he translated the poetry of Keats and Shelley into Arabic), and the classic Russian novelists, particularly Dostoevsky. The combination of these diverse influences, as they are refined through the crucible of al-Kharrat’s creative genius and his extraordinary command of the Arabic language, has yielded some of the most important literary works in modern Arabic literature.

Al-Kharrat began his literary career as a writer of short stories. His first collection, “Hitan’aliya” (High Walls), was published in 1958. In this book he was, in the words of the Egyptian critic Sabri Hafez, “swimming against the current.” He departed from the prevailing tendencies in art as embodied by the then dominant school of realism. In these stories al-Kharrat introduced a new literary language that subverts the traditional language of realism by juxtaposing it to a poetic language rich with symbols, metaphors and myth. He continued to defy the reader’s expectations in his subsequent collections of short stories, “Sa’at al-Kibriya’” (Moments of Pride) and “Ikhtinaqat al-’ishq wal-sabah” (Suffocations of Passion and the Morning), which appeared in 1972 and 1979, respectively.

Al-Kharrat became a prominent figure among the group of Egyptian writers known in literary circles as the “Sixties Generation,” which includes such figures as Son’allah Ibrahim, Baha Tahir, Ibrahim Aslan, Yehya Al Tahir Abdallah, Mohammad Yousif Al Qu’eid and Jamal Al Gitani. In different ways, these writers continued the modernist project that al-Kharrat started, writing technically innovative novels that were subversive both in a literary and a political sense.

As the oldest among these writers, al-Kharrat played the role of mentor and supporter for a whole generation of young novelists and poets, who always sought his advice and encouragement and who benefited greatly from both his experiments in fiction and from his criticism. He was the founder and editor of the important literary and cultural journal “Galiri 68” (Gallery 68), the name of which symbolized a rejection of a corrupt past embodied by the crushing Arab defeat of 1967. Many of these writers’ work first came to light on the pages of this influential journal. 

Twenty years after publishing his first book, al-Kharrat turned his attention to the novel, writing the highly acclaimed and daringly experimental “Rama wal-Tannin” (Rama and the Dragon) in 1979. In this challenging book (by no means an easy read), the reader follows the love story between Mikhael, a Christian, and the extraordinary woman Rama, a Muslim, as their relationship is filtered through Mikhael’s consciousness. Hailed by critics as a breakthrough for the Arab novel, “Rama and the Dragon” deals with modernist issues, like subjective perception and alienation. In the book, al-Kharrat draws attention to the creative process itself and to the complex use of language.

These issues will continue to preoccupy him in his other novels, such as “Al-Zaman al-Akhar” (The Other Time, 1985), “Turabuha Za’faran” (City of Saffron) and “Banat Iskendereya” (Girls of Alexandria).  These last two semi-autobiographical novels were translated into English in 1989 and 1993, respectively.  Al-Kharrat’s highly experimental novels made him in the eyes of many critics a pioneer of the Egyptian modern novel and earned him comparisons with Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

Among the major concerns of al-Kharrat’s art is our loneliness and estrangement from society and from those around us.  The walls that separate us, even from those to whom we are most intimately connected, make each person “an island unto himself,” in al-Kharrat’s words.  Some of these walls, the writer believes, are imposed by the social system. But others result from what he calls “the inevitability of human consciousness and uniqueness and aloneness of this consciousness.” Al-Kharrat also believes that man feels at the same time “an irresistible desire and a burning urge towards communication; towards breaking down these walls; towards communion – even more, infusion – with himself, between man and woman, between himself and his companions, comrades, and peers in society, and finally between man and the universe.” Along with these two themes, al-Kharrat’s works probe the relationship between the transient and the everlasting, the relative and the absolute, the human and the divine.

While al-Kharrat’s prison experience makes its way into his fiction, he refuses to see the artist as a promoter of one particular cause. Rather, to him “art has a comprehensive, epistemological value that partakes in the human experience in all its complexity.” This complex human experience, he emphasizes, cannot be captured through naive and simplistic modes of representation dominant in the 1940s and the 1950s, when language supposedly “reflect[ed]” reality. A more complex kind of literary language is needed, one that seeks to create and construct experience. This language produces a “problematic text,” one that is ambiguous and therefore open to many interpretations. The multiplicity of meanings of this modernist text allows, al-Kharrat maintains, for “a constant questioning with no pretense to ready answers, a leap into the dark by neither a complacent nor a complaisant literary enterprise.”

This enterprise is best described in al-Kharrat’s own words: “Why do I write then? I write because I don’t know why I write. Does the impulse come from some powerful force? I know that I use it as a weapon to bring about change, change both in the self and others…for something better, more beautiful perhaps… something warmer to ward off the bitter chill of barbarity and loneliness… something soothing in the oppressive heat of violence and suffocation… I write because I want there to be something in what I write—in everything I write—which will make even a single reader lift his head proudly and feel with me that in the end the world is not a desolate, meaningless landscape… I write because the world’s a riddle, a woman is a riddle and so is my fellow man.  All creation is a riddle…that is what I want to write about, and that is why I write.”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 2, no. 9, July 1996).
Copyright (c) 1996 by Al Jadid


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