Thursday, February 08, 2018

50 years on from Waguih Ghali's suicide his taboo-busting diaries make debut in print


The diaries of Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali are published  half a century after his suicide 
by
Susannah Tarbush, London
[an Arabic translation of this article was published in Al-Hayat newspaper on 8 February 2018] 

Fifty years after the suicide of the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali in London, the first-ever publication of his diaries is helping to boost the revival of interest in the writer and his ground-breaking novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

The diaries are published in two volumes by the American University in Cairo Press under the title The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties. They are edited by Egyptian scholar and writer May Hawas, assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

The diaries are astonishingly frank, chronicling in explicit detail Ghalis manic depression, his chaotic love life and many sexual adventures, his drinking and gambling, his interactions with a huge number of friends and acquaintances, the pain of exile, memories of Alexandria where he was born, and his pride in being Egyptian and a Copt.  His gifts as a novelist are evident in the way he writes scenes and character sketches, with a sharp ear for dialogue and frequent humorous touches.

The diaries have met with great success, Hawas told Al-Hayat. Readers are touchingly empathetic to Ghalis psychological struggles, curious about his sexual exploits, and drawn to the historical events that he mentions in passing. Weve received plaudits from old fans and new fans, novelists and scholars, but also filmmakers and translators keen to work on the diaries.

May Hawas

In her illuminating introduction to the published diaries Hawas says they mark a watershed “in the genre of the Arab (or Anglo-Arab) memoir in their openness about the taboos of family conflict, psychological trauma, alcoholic dependency and sexual dissipation.”

Asked whether she hesitated over including certain sensitive material in the edited diaries, Hawas replies: I hesitated over every paragraph but not for particularly moral reasons. We were very lucky with Ghali. He makes it clear in his diary that he wants it to be published. He writes this repeatedly and wills it in his suicide note. Were lucky, too, that hes an unreliable narrator.

She adds: So Im an editor, not the inquisition. I didnt hesitate over what to include as much as I hesitated over what to exclude. Its a long text, non-fictional, sometimes repetitive, and at times, incredibly depressing. Then again, thats what posthumous diaries are like. Changing them would have really meant I was rewriting the material into another genre. I didnt think I had the authority for that. That worried me. How he chose to spend his time, didnt.

Writing his diary was important for Ghali and he seems to have used it as a form of therapy. In his first-ever entry, on 24 May 1964, he wrote: Going mad, as I seem to be going, perhaps itd be better to keep my Diary [] if only for a streak of sanity.

The entries in the first volume of the published diaries were written while Ghali was living in the town of  Rheydt, in West Germany when he was working in the offices of the British Army of the Rhine. He had become a political exile in around 1954; before moving to Germany in 1960  he had lived first in Paris as a medical student in 1953-54 and then in London where he attended Chelsea Polytechnic in 1955-58 - before moving to Sweden.

Ghalis debut novel Beer in the Snooker Club had been published by London publisher Andr√© Deutsch,in 1964, and then in the US by Knopf. It had received generally excellent reviews in leading publications. But Ghali struggled to write his second novel, entitled Ashl.  While in Germany he wrote some pieces for the Guardian newspaper, and a play. But writing in his diaries was his main literary outlet. He often wrote in his diaries about the many books he read, and his feelings of inferiority in comparison to writers he admired.


One of the main characters in Beer in the Snooker Club is a Jewish woman named Edna, lover of the novels narrator Ram. While living in Germany Ghali was reminded of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, and deplored the racism he encountered.

During the time he lived in London his circle of friends included a number of Jews and Israelis. The climax of the diaries is the controversial visit he made as a journalist to Israel and occupied east Jerusalem and West Bank from July to September 1967, after the June war. He was commissioned to write articles for the Observer and Times newspapers. He claimed to have been the first Egyptian to visit Israel for fifteen years or so.  In May 1968 an Egyptian official in London declared publicly that Ghali was not an Egyptian but a defector to Israel, which hurt him deeply.

Ghalis diaries show that during his visit to Israel he met a wide spectrum of people, including Israeli officials, Israelis of different political hues, and Palestinians. He became increasingly disillusioned by Israel. He wrote in Jerusalem on 7 August 1967: “… I am angry and feel that the Jordanian and Arab Palestinians are just being pushed about; and the whole Israeli propaganda stinks with hypocrisy and lies. I prefer to wear an Arab headdress and walk about in the old town alone, and not have one of the conquerors with me.

In the essay An Egyptian in Israel written for the BBC, and republished in the 1968 book Good Talk: An Anthology from BBC Radio, he wrote: As a result of this visit, my attitude towards Israel changed dramatically. I am still very much in favour of an understanding between the Arabs and Israel. But whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.

After his visit to Israel Ghali writes in his diaries of getting to know and socialise with a group of left-wing dissident Israelis in London including Akiva Orr, a most lovable Communist Israeli. The group included the journalist, artist and writer Shimon Tzabar, who with help from Ghali and others launched a satirical magazine called Israel Imperial News. In its first issue, which can be read online, there are articles by Waguih Ghali and the Iraqi writer and journalist Khalid Kishtainy. 

But Ghalis wide network of friends and contacts, and a new love relationship with a medical student, could not save him from his whirlpool of depression. On 26 December 1968 he swallowed a massive overdose of sleeping pills intending to kill himself. He was at the time alone in the London flat of his literary editor, friend, mentor and briefly -  lover Diana Athill. He had been living in her flat since moving to London from Germany in May 1966.

“I’m going to kill myself tonight,” Ghali wrote in the final entry in his diary.  “The time has come. I am, of course, drunk. But then sober it would have been very very very difficult.”


We know from the book Athill wrote about Ghali, After a Funeral, published in 1986, that after swallowing the sleeping pills Ghali telephoned a friend and was rushed to hospital by ambulance. Friends were at his bedside as doctors tried to save his life, but he died on 5 January 1969. He was only in his late thirties (his year of birth is not known, but according to May Hawas it is thought to be 1929 or 1930).

In the final diary entry, Ghali made it clear that he wanted his diaries published. He wrote: “Diana sweetheart… I am leaving you my Diary, luv – well edited, it would be a good piece of literature.”

Half a century later, May Hawas certainly has edited the diaries very well. The handwriten diaries were in the form of six notebooks covering around 700 pages. A photocopy has been digitised for the Cornell University archive of “Waguih Ghali Unpublished Papers. The sprawling handwriting gives the impression of speed spontaneity, and is difficult to read. Hawas deciphered it and typed it up: she says she kept around 85 percent of the original handwritten diaries in the published version.

Asked why she was so keen to see the diaries published, and why she took on the project of editing them, Hawas says: “Waguih Ghali is something of a cult hero for Egyptians in their twenties and thirties (or who are in their twenties and thirties at heart), and an important forefigure for the Anglo-Arab novel. We felt it was important that we salvage his diaries for the public.

She has added valuable material, in the form of her highly informative introduction and two interviews conducted by Deborah Starr of Cornell University. The first interview is with Diana Athill. The second is with Samir Sanad Basta, the son of Ghali’s mother’s sister Ketty.

How did Ghali’s family and friends react to the project of publishing his diaries?  Hawas says “Samir was wonderfully supportive, as have been all of Ghalis family and friends whom we talked to and who reached out to us.

 The 12-page interview with Samir Basta contains many insights into Ghali’s personal history and his character. Some of Ghalis psychological distress may be attributable to his mothers rejection of him after his physician father died when he was young and she remarried. It was Samirs mother Ketty who brought him up. It could be that Ghali was always seeking a maternal love from other women, only to reject them once they had succumbed to him.


EXCERPTS from The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties , volumes 1 (1964-66) and 2 (1966-68)

Thursday 11th March 1965 [Rheydt, West Germany]
I hate the Germans. There is no getting away from it. Vulgar, loud, greedy. Nothing fine, delicate or sensitive in them. Enfin.  But at the same time, I have never, in my life, met such kindness and hospitality as I have here. This is, to me, a very difficult business altogether. I have been given asylum here, helped, fed, saved, and yet yet. But it is ungratefulness to dislike them and hate them. I wish I could just hate the hateful, and love the lovable but one cant, one has to reach a conclusion about the whole country [].

Wednesday 16th September 1965 [Rheydt]
Yesterday evening, lying in bed, I read some Chekhov again. An Anonymous Story. I even handle his books with reverence and love. He is the greatest of all men, is Chekhov. I have never heard any of his contemporaries say anything bad about him. But what is most remarkable is that Chekhov makes life worth living I dote on him so much that if I say Why was I ever born? I could answer, but to read Chekov
I wrote a bit for my novel yesterday, but after reading Chekhov, I knew what horrible trash it is

Saturday 16th October 1965 [Rheydt]
Woke up at 4 a.m. feeling suicidal, smoked two cigarettes, tried to sleep again nothing but nightmares and tossing [] I am feeling absolutely empty and dead inside. I shall never be a happy man-

Tuesday, 6th June 1967  [London]
Tragedies catastrophes. Native, international and personal. There has been war between the Arabs and Israel for forty-eight hours. The Egyptian army, which has been built at unbearable expense for ten years, has been wiped out in twenty-four hours of fighting. It is really pathetic. To save his face, Nasser says there was Anglo-American support of Israel. This is not true. He has led us and all the Arabs into a moral and physical disaster .

31st January 1968  [London]
For two weeks at the beginning of the month, I had been having a simultaneous active affair with Carmen, Susan and Ruth. Carmen would come here at lunchtime, then I would make love to Susan in the evening. Ruth would invite me for supper and next morning I would wake up straight for a date with Carmen. One by one they expressed terms of love, and each one in turn I gently, unabusively, unconsciously as far as they are concerned, I have discarded.

26th May 1968 [London]
Akiva Orr, Bill Hillier and myself were to give a talk about Israel and Palestine at the LSE or rather the School for Oriental and Islamic Culture. The hall was packed with Israelis, some Arabs and the rest English. Just as they closed the door and the chairman rose to introduce us, a chap from the back rose and said: Excuse me please. Before you start I would like to mention one important thing: on your posters you advertise Waguih Ghali as an Egyptian. I am a representative of the Egyptian government. Mr Ghali is not Egyptian. He has defected to Israel.

I was completely and utterly furious and yet the next few minutes were the only ones in which I was eloquent. I wiped the floor with the chap I was loudly applauded and the chap left. But afterwards while Aki spoke (he was giving the main talk) I sat in my chair drowned in an incomprehensible sorrow. It suddenly, after all those years, dawned up  on me that not only had I had no home since the ages of ten or so, but that I now also had no country.

Extracts published by kind permission of The American University in Cairo Press.










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