The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Sixties Generation in Egypt

Youssef Rakha is not a fan of Mohammed Al Bisatie's new book, جوع (translated as: "Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel"--is the subtitle really necessary?) and takes a hard look at the whole, famous Sixties Generation in Egypt (writers such as Gamal Al Ghitany, Sonallah Ibrahim and Ibrahim Aslan). Here's part of what he has to say: 
I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups[...] They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.

I haven't read Al Bisatie, but I've greatly enjoyed some of the work of Al Ghitany and Ibrahim (both of whose importance and influence in Egyptian literature is evident and deserved). As far as Aslan, his novel مالك الحزين ("The Heron")--while complex, and taking some time to figure out--is a gem, a book I really, truly love. Its characters are not stereotypes (on the contrary, they are true originals), and while its plot is anecdotal, it has wonderful dramatic moments and a trajectory that eventually becomes clear. And the novel's meandering form, the way it follows each character a little and then "hops" to the someone else, actually matches its content--the neighbourhood of KitKat, and the relations of its inhabitants--in a brilliant way. 

Anyway, read the article for Rakha's take on the Bisatie novel and on the difference between these older, leftist, engagé writers and the so-called Nineties Generation (the current crop of Egyptian novelists). He is a champion of the latter, although they have also been accused of the faults of stylistic self-indulgence and obscurity--and of alienating readers, the same charge made by Rakha above.

I'm not sure I buy this argument that writers are to blame for low readership (it seems a phenomenon in which it is very hard to gauge direct responsibility), nor do I see the point of pitting the Sixties and the Nineties generations so overtly against each other. But it's an interesting article, and it's nice to see Egyptian literary history discussed with such detail and feeling.