Bahaa Taher wins the "Arabic Booker"

Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher has won the "Arabic Booker" . Here's a 2002 profile of Taher, from the late lamented Cairo Times, after the jump.




(This is a pre-publication version of the article by Richard Woffenden. It has some differences from the published version, which is not available electronically, and may contain some uncorrected mistakes.)


Profile: Bahaa Taher

Since returning to Egypt in the 1990s when he retired, Bahaa Taher has stormed the cultural scene as though he never left. From championing writers like Alaa Al Aswani to getting involved in political debates or just by his presence on the cultural scene, Taher is one of the elder statesmen of Egyptian literature. He can often be seen sitting in one of the qahwas in Zamalek reading the paper. He may look very benign, but beware: this writer still has bite. The calm figure that sits reading can quite suddenly launch a broadside at the state of intellectual life in Egypt or the collapse of the social fabric in the country. Yet when he writes, he is calm and in control. His stories and novels convey the feeling that--as any good storyteller--Taher is steering the work with minute precision, taking his reader along a compelling journey.He started writing quite early but dismisses his early work--"Everyone has tried to write during the vacations, either poetry or so-called short stories."At university, Taher joined a literary association. It was 1952, revolutionary fervor was in the air, and his group was very active in politics. The group, which included people like Ragaa Al Naqash, Wahid Al Naqash, Kamel Ayoub and Muhammad Suleiman, leaned to the left and at first saw the Free Officers' seizure of power as a good thing. "It was initially welcomed, but then we became disappointed by its anti-democratic tendencies," remembers Taher. The group discussed literature from around the world, with different members introducing new writers. "Anyone who knew about something tried to let the others know," recalls Taher. The literary association was under suspicion by the police and there were always people attending to observe but nothing came of it. When it came to writing some authors tried to keep their politics out of their work but many, including himself, felt the two areas were inextricably linked. "I have always thought that you cannot separate politics from fiction," he says. "It is important to combine what is happening to ordinary people because what happens in the political field affects everyone. But I have never believed that a writer should be used as a political tool."It is a point that he took up in Love in Exile when Taher's protagonist wonders: "It occurred to me that in the past we knew the politicians thanks to the poets. We knew the rulers Seif Al Dawla and Kafur because of Mutanabbi, not vice versa. But today we want to know the poet through the politician. We kill out poets with silence and we kill them with forgetfulness. I wanted to ask Ibrahim, 'If it is true that poets are the nation's conscience, what is the fate of a nation that forgets its poets?'"This issue of the relationship between state and culture is one that was to become central to Taher's life. It affected him directly when he was prohibited from publishing under Anwar Sadat and indirectly as he perceived that his homeland was falling apart because of the government. He believes that many of his peers lost their way politically when they joined particular overtly political groups. "I have never been in favor of a writer being committed to certain causes to the extent that you forget what you believe in. Some of my colleagues, who were members of underground associations, they abolished the individual part of themselves and they just repeated what was good for the cause--little by little they lost their perspective." Taher survived this threat simply by being aware of the danger that it posed and believing that writing has to be of use to the people. The way he sees it, fiction must be fiction: "If I think that I have to speak about my problems then I should write a diary or poetry." Some of the group continued to write after university but it was a hard time for writers as it was very difficult to publish anything. Taher recalls that it was critic and director Sobhi Shafik--the wealthiest member of the group--who helped them publish a magazine called ++Al Marad (The Fairground). Although at the time the magazine provided a welcome breath of fresh air in the suffocating atmosphere of censorship, Taher doubts there are any copies now in existence of the two or three volumes that were published. But even censorship can have its silver lining. "During that time there was a lot of censorship and groups like ours were considered the opposition," he reflects. "But maybe it’s better in the long run as we didn't publish any naïve things." Taher considers the most important aspect to the group to be the literary discussions and typically for young people everywhere, they were "anti-everything." "We were against realism. While we adored Naguib Mahfouz and [Youssef] Idris, we did not want to write like them," he says, pointing out that at that time Mahfouz was only available in limited editions and Idris was not well known. The group made a point of not writing like these two figures, who were to become the giants of the Egyptian literary scene. Ironically, in 1964 Idris--unaware of the group's idiosyncratic commitment--wrote an introduction in the magazine ++Al Katib++ to Taher's first published short story called The Demonstration and described Taher as "a writer who imitates no one." Even after that first publication, making his work public was not easy for Taher. "I was very much afraid, and I am like that up until now. I don't publish easily what I write. I am afraid of my readers; afraid of disappointing them," he states. "I am very exact. I read it and re-read it till I am at least 50 percent satisfied. I will never be 100 percent satisfied."As time has passed, Taher has decided that his writing comes when it comes. He has no regularity in his writing life. He has tried forcing himself into a routine but found that all he did was "write silly things that I threw straight in the wastepaper basket."His first story--about football fans--received a strong positive critical response and was praised for its lack of rhetoric, the absence of introspection and complex characterization. The story of football fans was told in a very direct manner; as Taher puts it, it was "just reporting what is happening and that was very different from what was written at that time. "While the writing may have changed over the years, Taher has remained a favorite with critics such as Etidal Osman and Gaber Asfour. His critical popularity was converted to mass support when his novel ++Khalti Safiyya wa Al Dayr (Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery) was made into a TV serial. But he did not go through the traumatic experience that some authors do seeing their work adapted for the small screen."I try to separate myself from the things that are adapted--he [the director] may add, he may do whatever he wants. There is no emotional relationship with the work for me but I do go and see it," he explains. "Afterwards I make no comment whatsoever, except I might say it is very good. With ++Khalti Safiyya++ they asked me for my advice and I gave advice but they didn't take it." Generally, he is very positive about the effect of the TV series, recognizing that fiction has a very limited audience and that TV can bring his work to a much wider public--even if for most people, he is just the author of ++Khalti Safiyya++.When it comes to translations, however, Taher is much more demanding. "I am very meticulous. I revise every word of the English and French versions. If the translator accepts this, I think the result is always very good," he says. He adds that his style of writing is well suited to translation because of the lack of rhetoric and other linguistic stylization that is a feature of many other Arabic-language authors.While ++Khalti Safiyya is on several reading lists in the US, Taher is all too aware of the limited audience that the translations have. "Translated Arabic literature has no impact whatsoever. There is always a prejudice against writing from the Third World in general and Arab writers especially," he comments. "To get good distribution, you have to win a Nobel Prize or be killed by a terrorist. For example, Taslima Nasrin was persecuted by the fundamentalists and she was in the press and got distributed but she is a very bad writer."This problem exists not just abroad, but also in Egypt, he thinks. Although many young people attend discussions about his work, Taher sees a cultural crisis in the country. "If you are a student here, you don't know about the writers of your country except by chance," he sighs. "But when we were young it was part of the cultural way of life." He partly blames the writers for this. "I feel there is something wrong. Some writers are writing as if they are on Mars. They don't have their readers in mind--they are writing just to satisfy their aesthetic aspiration. It is all very sad as it helps widen the gap between intellectuals and the public."This gap is what Taher would like to see vanish. He sees that the loss of the ideals of social justice that were popular in the 1960s is a mistake and he strongly believes in the principles of the 1952 Revolution in Egypt, possibly more so now than he did at the time. "There were grave mistakes in the political leadership or even how they applied the ideas, but it is still valid," he insists. "Don't make the mistake of blaming the ideas for the faults of the implementers." He says that the biggest mistake was that the leadership wanted to do it all alone and there was a rejection of the intellectuals. "This meant there was no cultural aspect to it and therefore no long-term thinking." Taher argues that it is now time that the intellectuals get their credibility back--notably arguing that the media should play a role in getting these voices heard. "There is now no dogma at all--it is all political vacuum," he says of today's press. "There are so many papers and magazines now saying nothing but they flourish."His own experience of trying to establish a magazine seemed to confirm this to Taher. "If you try to set up a serious cultural magazine, you will fail," he warns. "We,--Shukri Ayad and I--tried to set up a magazine and for three years we presented our applications and in the end we went to the courts but we lost the case. They know what they are doing here. If you want to publish a magazine to say nothing you are most welcome, [but] if you want the contrary you had better stay at home. It is to their credit that they understand that culture is a real threat to them."It is perhaps that Taher was away in Geneva for such a long time that he was so depressed when he returned and found that the country he had left had been so profoundly changed. "It is my country and I love it. When I was living abroad for 20 years it was a temporary exile," he says. "When I returned I saw that the social fabric had disintegrated. I went to my village and saw how things had changed. The culture of the community that I wrote about in ++Khalti Safiyya++ doesn't exist anymore."Only if what Taher describes as the "head of the country" is restored--i.e. the intellectuals--does he believe that things will begin to improve. Although he describes himself as an old man and finds the fight tough, he cannot stop participating in the battle. "The infighting amongst the intellectuals is playing into the hands of the enemy and the enemies of the country. They have to fight as I have done," he states. "It is not easy to convince people that this is a real battle."