A flourishing literary scene and a revolution in the way books are published have awakened the world to Egyptian writing. Helena Frith Powell goes to Cairo to meet Hamdy el Gazzar, one of the many young Arab authors riding on the crest of the wave. Walk into the Kotob Khan bookshop in the New Maadi district of Cairo and you could almost be in New York or London. The bookshop has a cafe, wood-panelled walls, a stone floor and elegant mahogany shelves. It is as welcoming as a sitting room, but with a few thousand more books than you would expect to find in your average home. The other thing that sets it apart from other bookshops in Cairo is the choice of books for sale. As well as literature in Arabic on a range of subjects, there is everything from the latest Ken Follett to whole sections on philosophy, self-help, travel, parenting and yoga to name a few.
One of the many mahogany bookshelves is dedicated to Arabic translated fiction. There is one whole shelf of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Other writers in this section include Alaa al Aswany, author of the bestselling Arab novel of all time, The Yacoubian Building, and Ahdaf Soueif, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 for his novel, The Map Of Love. Also lurking among the shelves, literally, is Hamdy el Gazzar, who won the Sawiris Foundation Prize for Egyptian Literature in 2006 for his debut novel Black Magic.
He is in the bookshop for an event hosted by the Beirut39 group, an initiative organised by the Hay Festival that celebrates Beirut as the World Capital of Books 2009 and promotes writing by a new generation of authors from the Arab world. El Gazzar is appearing at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair this year and is seen as one of the leading young Arab writers in Cairo's increasingly exciting literary scene.
At 39, el Gazzar just qualifies for the Beirut39 group, made up of 39 writers aged 39 and under, but he has been writing since he was 12 years old. "I was brought up in Badrasheen close to Memphis, the old capital of Egypt," he says when we go outside so he can smoke a cigarette. "My family didn't like books very much and they just wanted to watch TV all the time." He is of medium height with dark hair and an open, friendly face. "In the market there was an old man who sold papers and magazines and some books, too, which were rubbish. But through those books I discovered Taha Hussein and Naguib Mafouz and I started to read and I loved it, and that was my gate to writing."
His first story was about money, a coin of 25 piastres. He doesn't remember much about it, but recalls his second one with more clarity. "One day I went to the baker to buy some bread. There I saw a very beautiful young girl but she was wearing clothes made out of sacking. She shocked me because she was so very beautiful and yet so poor. So I wrote a story about her. I never saw her again." He carried on writing plays and short stories in his early twenties, but it took another 15 years for Black Magic to come along. "I have three manuscripts for novels but I don't want to publish them because they don't satisfy me. Black Magic is the first novel I feel satisfied with. I am not ashamed of it."
He says one of the most challenging things to do as a writer is to be satisfied with what you have done. "I am afraid of writing. I have read a lot of great writers like Marquez and Hesse and these people upset me because they are so good. What can I add to that? Even in the Arabic language we have great writers like Hakem or Mafouz and their works upset me too, because I don't want to be just a number between them, I want to add to this tradition with my own style and my own voice. It takes a long time to convince yourself that you can do that, to have the confidence to actually do it."
El Gazzaar is at the heart of a booming literary scene in Cairo which, according to Humphrey Davies, who has translated such international bestsellers as The Yacoubian Building and Gate Of The Sun by Elias Khoury, is seeing more books being translated into other languages than at any point in the past. "There is a lot more international interest," he says. "This is probably down to a confluence of factors starting with 9/11 and going on to world communications and bestsellers like The Yacoubian Building which opened people's eyes and put the region on the map for a lot of people who would never have considered reading an Egyptian novel before. At the moment the scene seems to be doing really well in terms of the creativity around and the number of quality writers."
Davies, an elegant Englishman who has lived in Cairo on and off for 30 years, studied Arabic at Cambridge where he went to read English Literature. "I hated Cambridge with a passion and decided I had to do something radically different if I was going to survive. At this juncture I met a tall, dark woman at a party. Her name was Anya and she said, 'Young man, do Arabic,' so I did." Davies puts some of the boom in Cairo's literary scene down to the increase in prizes for Arabic fiction, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the Arab Booker, which awards the winner $60,000 (Dh220,000) and guarantees translation into English, essential for any readership outside the region.
Many say that the American University in Cairo Press has been almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the modern Arab novel to a wider audience. For example, at the time when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the AUC was the sole publisher in English of Naguib Mahfouz. Neil Hewison, associate director for editorial programmes at the AUC Press, says he hopes one day the distinction between Arab and non-Arab will diminish. "Books don't get out there in their own right, they are always under the rubric of Arabic literature," he says. "When are we going to get to the stage when books are just there to read simply because they are good books? I would like to see Arab writers being reviewed as just good books."
He says that Cairo has always been a literary hub, quoting the famous diktat that: "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads". The AUC publishes around 100 books a year in all categories but only between 12 and 15 novels a year. According to Youssef Rakha, an Egyptian writer and photographer and another member of the Beirut39 group, one of the main reasons there is such a literary boom at the moment is the fact that "government subsidised culture has been definitively discredited," he says, referring to the old system whereby all books were published by government-run publishers.
"They used to publish the major authors," he continues."Now they are published privately. I am not meaning to sound corporate but if you know the way government institutions work in Egypt you know that it was disastrous for culture." In addition he says that authors are now more willing to promote their books, which has made a big difference. "Until now they were very reluctant to promote themselves. "It was seen as cheapening. But now with the private sector coming into things that is definitely changing, which is good, because books only sell if you promote them."
Bahaa Abdelmegid, the author of two novellas called Saint Theresa and Sleeping With Strangers, thinks the rest of the Arab world should follow Cairo's lead. "The literary scene is really improving now we have freedom of publishing," he says. "I love this kind of democracy where everyone can publish what they want. "I wish this could be replicated in all Arab areas because there are many intelligent young Arab men and women who want to portray their society. If others follow Egypt's and Lebanon's lead then the publishing industry will flourish and books will be available everywhere like milk and tomatoes."
Rakha adds that writers are also getting more reader-orientated; something el Gazzar agrees with. "The readers are the main point. There is no writer without a reader. A book that isn't read is dead. I don't want my book to be dead: I want my books to live. I can write without prizes, without money, without many things, but I can't write without readers." Like most Egyptian writers el Gazzar works to supplement his income, he is a scriptwriter for Egypt's Culture Channel. He would like to focus on his writing more. "I think writing is enough of a profession for anybody. It is very hard and takes a lot of time and it deserves your full attention. I did a lot of things in my life but now I just want to write. It is the only thing that I think I am myself at. It is my existential expression of being alive. It's not a profession, not a hobby; it's not something I do to kill time. I write therefore I live."
Hamdy el Gazzar and Humphrey Davies will be in conversation on the Kitab Sofa at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Thursday, March 4 at 9pm.
Key figures in the Cairo literary scene recommend their three favourite Arabic contemporary novels. HAMDY EL GAZAAR - WRITER Being Abbas El Abd - Ahmed Alaidy Goodbye Heaven - Hamid Abd El-Samad Pause For Surprise - Mohamad Fakharani HUMPHREY DAVIES - TRANSLATOR Gate Of The Sun - Elias Khoury Black Magic - Hamdy el Gazaar The Yacoubian Building Alaa Al Aswany BAHAA ABDELMEGID - WRITER AND LECTURER Gate Of The Sun - Elias Khoury Cities Of Salt - Abdelrahman Munif Love In Exile - Bahaa Taher NEIL HEWISON - ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR FOR EDITORIAL PROGRAMMES AT THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO PRESS The Tiller Of Waters - Hoda Barakat Being Abbas El Abd - Ahmed Alaidy Miramar - Naguib Mahfouz