Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt - Writing - Revolution

written by my colleague Hosam Aboul-Ela in the blog wordswithoutborders 


Imagining more Autumns for North Africa’s Patriarchs: The Dictator Novel in Egypt

By Hosam Aboul-Ela

In the mid 1970s, at a time when Latin American countries chafed under brutal dictatorships, an amazing literary phenomenon swept through the region. Three powerful novels were published within months of each other by three of the greatest authors of the region hailing from its varied corners. Inspired by Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Miguel Angél Asturias’s 1946 classic, El Señor Presidente, and working in open collusion with one another, Cuban Alejo Carpentier published El Recurso del método(1974, translated as Reasons of State), followed in rapid succession by Colombian Gabriel García Márquez’s El Otoño del patriarca (1975, The Autumn of the Patriarch), and Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos’s Yo, el supremo (also 1975, I, the Supreme). These three novels not only solidified the dictator novel as a serious literary genre, but could fairly be said to have shaken the very social consensus that allowed the dictatorial system to persevere in Latin American society.

In the Arab world in general—and in Egypt in particular, the relationship between the novel and its dictators has evolved differently, developing over decades as the social/political system has grown ever increasingly intertwined with corrupt, centralized authority, and literary trends have waxed and waned. But a discussion of the relationship between Arab novel and Arab dictator must inevitably begin—as so many discussions of modern Arab fiction do—with Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. The current Egyptian regime traces its beginnings back to another uprising sixty years ago led by Egypt's Free Officers, one which caused a six- year stoppage in the output of the famously prolific Mahfouz, who seems to have been disillusioned by Gamal Abel Nasser's consolidation of his power shortly after the King's departure in 1952. Mahfouz's hiatus from writing was finally broken in the late 1950s, first with his Cairo Trilogy, widely regarded as his masterpiece, then with the novel that must be considered the foundation of dictator fiction in the region, Awlad Haratna, rendered as Children of Gebalawi by Philip Stewart in 1981, and then re-translated by the incomparable Peter Theroux as Children of Our Alley in 1999. With its network of gangs of thugs deployed by a central authority to terrorize the populace, no other work of fiction strikes a more haunting note today. In the novel's notorious ending, the decrepit god, who has allowed the system to run amok, dies. Generations of clerical scholars have misinterpreted this figure to be God, but if the real reference meant by this centralized authority was murky in the fifties, Mahfouz's regular return to the theme of dictatorial authority in his fiction in the 1980s, as Mubarak took over for Anwar El-Sadat, should have made it all too clear that the god in Children of Our Alley was really the Arab dictator...

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