The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

(Very dark) "Tales from Dayrut"

Many years ago, our dear friend Robin Moger (a translator and Arabic professor today) came bounding out of his room in the Arabist household, waving a book and raving about an Egyptian writer he's just discovered and who he described as funny, dark, twisted and utterly original: Mohamed Mustagab. He made such a fuss over the guy that I never forgot the name.

Last year, AUC Press put out the first translation of Mustagab's work into English, by the (seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent) Humphrey Davies. "Tales from Dayrut" includes stories from the collection "Dayrut el-Sherif" (Dayrut was Mustagab's hometown) and "The Secret History of Nu'man Abd al-Hafiz"--it's hard to know if the works have included in their entirety or have been excerpted (I suspect so) because there is no introduction.

The late Mustagab, one of Egypt's great satirists, was born in Asyut in 1938 (he died in 2006). Mustagab was largely self-educated (he only had a high school degree). He moved to Cairo, found employment at the Academy of the Arabic Language, and published his first short story in 1969.

Mustagab's work is indeed original to the point of being queer; dark to the point of being terrifying; and often wickedly funny. Some of the stories have mythical, magical elements, perhaps inspired by the way events are explained or recounted in the place of Mustagab's childhood. In other stories, the author takes life in his small, rural, upper-Egyptian home-town and exposes a fantasmagorically dark underside. In "Bughayli Bridge," a village policeman decides he wants to actually solve a murder, and has the river dredged--which leads to dozens of bodies, all the murder victims of recent memory, being fished out in front of the assembled and increasingly hysterical village.

That story opens with this citation (from the back cover of the book), one of my favourites:

"From the beginning--and even long before the beginning--we have had to put our faith in the fact that fish dwell in water, bats in ruins, teachers in schools, peace of mind in death, foxes in fields, monks in monasteries, falsehood in books, seeds in cracks, poison in menstrual blood, and wisdom in the aftermath of events; and the best of you, good gentlemen, is the one who is spared either the wisdom or the events."