Thursday, February 08, 2018

interview with May Hawas editor of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties

May Hawas

Susannah Tarbush interviews Egyptian scholar and writer May Hawas, editor of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties published by American University in Cairo (AUC) Press in two volumes, covering 1964-66 (published in 2016) and 1966-68 (2017).

What made you so keen to see Waguih Ghali’s diaries published, and to take on the project of transcribing and editing them?
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. I’ve described elsewhere how – tentatively – the diaries made it into print: (see The AUC Press Newsletter )

The handwriting in the diaries lodged in the Waguih Ghali archive at Cornell University is hard to decipher (at least I find it so!) Did you do all the transcription yourself, or was there a team of some kind, and roughly what proportion of the original handwritten diaries appear in the final published version?
I did the transcription myself, about 85 percent of which is now in the published version. How, practically? With a photocopy of the material, a computer, and more periods of sitting down than I would like to remember.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties 1964-66

In the West there is a growing appetite for knowing the intimate details of a writer’s life, in terms of diaries, memoirs, letters and so on. Is this also the case in Egypt and other Arab countries?
Is it a growing appetite? Everywhere, any time there are famous writers, there will be fans, editors, scholars, translators, and flies on the wall.

The diaries are remarkably frank, particularly when it comes to Ghali’s sex life. Did you sometimes hesitate over including certain passages, or names, in the published version?
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. We’re lucky, too, that he’s an unreliable narrator. Much of what he says, if we’re fussed about historical veracity, can be taken with a pinch of salt. I explain this in my introduction to the Diaries.

'I'm an editor, not the inquisition'

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

How have readers and critics reacted to the published diaries, and what did they find most surprising in them?
The Diaries have met with great success. Readers are touchingly empathetic to Ghali’s psychological struggles, curious about his sexual exploits, and drawn to the historical events that he mentions in passing. We’ve received plaudits from old fans and new fans, novelists and scholars, but also filmmakers and translators keen to work on the Diaries.

Have launch and other events for the diaries been held/planned?
We’ve had two events so far: one held at Oriental Hall, in the American University in Cairo in September 2017, through the kind invitation of the Centre for Translation Studies, and we were graciously invited to hold another event at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo in October 2017. And, not to put too fine a point on it, we are open to other invitations.

Are there plans for a translation of the diaries into Arabic? And perhaps German (especially the first volume) and other languages.
Let me leave the cat firmly in the bag on that one.

How far does the Waguih of The Diaries resemble the Ram of Beer in the Snooker Club?
Tricky question. How far does any author resemble his or her creation?

I find that among young Arab writers in Britain, there is quite an interest in Waguih Ghali – as if a new generation is discovering him. Do you find the same in Egypt, and maybe elsewhere, and does his single published novel Beer in the Snooker Club have a renewed relevance today?
Beer in the Snooker Club was previously famous primarily in departments of English and in small circles of Anglophone readers in Egypt. The novel’s reprint in the 1980s gave it new life alongside the growing interest in world literature in English, particularly from the Middle East. You are right of course about the interest by Arab writers connected to Britain. If Ahdaf Soueif was one of the earliest and most famous to champion the novel in the 1980s in the London Review of Books, Saleem Haddad was one of the first to review the Diaries last year (see review of Volume 1 in ).

In Egypt, in the 1990s, the novel found resonance with a younger generation of English-speaking Egyptians restless with the political status quo and more open to the lifestyle portrayed in the novel. Its translation into Arabic in the early 2000s gave it a whole new dimension of fame. There is much that resonates for Egyptians, but mostly – I think! – is its mixture of the political and non-political. Then, there’s the popularity of Ram himself. A charmer, a boozer, and a ladies’ man who reads and is viciously critical of the world, who walks the familiar streets of Cairo and narrates the familiar private homes of Egyptians.

'the personification of cool'

There’s also something particularly youthful about it. It’s a young person’s novel, mixing risible superficiality with deep moral outrage. Much has been made about how Ram belongs to nowhere – actually, Ram seems to be one of those rare people who has created for himself a system of values in which he is supremely comfortable. It’s everyone outside the system – the mainstream, the government, the public – that doesn’t belong. So in his self-sufficiency and romantic alienation, Ram is the personification of cool.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties 1966-68

As a Londoner, for me one of the pleasures of reading the diaries has been the connections it has with events, places, people in Britain. Have you received feedback in the diaries from anyone in the UK?
I share your pleasure in this. The Diaries, much like the novel, are a love story to London. Ghali calls it the place in which he feels most at home. This is the reason for the ‘swinging sixties’ in the title: except it’s an impoverished-upper-crust-Egyptian look at the swinging sixties.

I’ve heard from people around the world, actually, from the US, France, Germany, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, but also from the UK, especially from children of Ghali’s friends curious to see how their parents figure in the Diaries. Of course, knowing Ghali’s writing, the characterisation usually includes sex, alcohol, politics, books, some slagging off, and a lot of exaggeration.

Do you think the diaries would be of interest to psychologists, analysts and therapists – especially those with an interest in the relationship between creativity and mental distress?
Absolutely. The Diaries give an incredibly honest description of the feelings of both depression and euphoria, as well as of alcoholism, and the effects of all this on creativity. Some of the reader reviews have picked up on it already.

How did Waguih Ghali’s family and friends react to the publication of the diaries? The interview with his cousin Samir Basta in the second volume is a most valuable addition.

Thank you, yes, Samir was wonderfully supportive, as have been all of Ghali’s family and friends whom we talked to and who reached out to us.

The Waguih Ghali papers in Cornell University Library include two fragments of Ghali’s unfinished second novel Ashl and 51 letters, mostly from Ghali to his literary editor Diana Athill. Are there plans to transcribe and publish these?
You know, I sometimes think the definition of Tragedy should be “an unfinished novel”. One of the greatest storytellers of all time, Charles Dickens, has an unfinished novel. Who reads it? So I’ll take a leaf out of that example and stay away from the Ashl novel for now, and the same goes for his letters to Diana. If in the future a publisher thinks it would be a good idea to issue a complete volume of Waguih Ghali’s non-fictional writing, including his diaries, letters, articles and the Ashl novel, then I may be the first in line to take up transcribing again.

May Hawas is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo (AUC). She received her PhD in Literature from Leuven University. In addition to editing The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, May has published a number of articles, book chapters, and short stories. Her work has appeared in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, the Journal of World Literature, and Comparative Literature Studies, while her stories have been published in Mizna: Journal of Arab American Art; Yellow Medicine Review, and African Writing. She is editor of The Routledge Companion to World Literature and World History, due to be published in April.

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