I was recently invited to a soirée held by the Talaat Harb Cultural Centre to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Yehia Haqqi, the 20th century writer who is widely
I was recently invited to a soirée held by the Talaat Harb Cultural Centre to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Yehia Haqqi, the 20th century writer who is widely considered the “father of the modern Arabic novel”. It was natural to hear the men of literature and the critics who attended speak of the various aspects of Haqqi’s works and personality,
but what I enjoyed most were the memoirs recounted by many of them of their personal dealings with Haqqi. These worked to lend warmth and depth to the picture of a great man who was nonetheless a very private person whose personal life was a well-guarded secret. The open discussions were led by the cinema critic Mohamed Abdel-Fattah.
Keep it simple
The author and critic Mohamed al-Sayed reminded that Haqqi was a contemporary of the great Egyptian figures of enlightenment Tawfiq al-Hakim, Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and Mahmoud Taymour. In 1905 when Haqqi was born, Mr Sayed said, Egyptians were striving to gain independence from the British occupation. The period was a vibrant one on both the political and cultural levels.
Mr Sayed talked about Haqqi’s literary critical writings, and showed how his Fagr al-Qissa al-Misriya (The Dawn of the Egyptian Novel) was a valuable reference on the history of the novel in Egypt. In Unshoudat al-Bassata (The Song of Simplicity) Haqqi gently explained how to avoid the common pitfalls of fiction writing and advised to keep language simple. Haqqi’s book on the theatre, Sihraya (Soirée), is an example of this simplicity.
Haqqi’s wit and humour show in many of his works. He sometimes began the introductions tohis books with a joke just to break the ice. In his autobiography Khaleeha ala-Allah (Leave it to Allah), where he relates the events in his life in random order, he wrote: “The failing student is an ass, while the good student is a wild horse. I am a mule, somewhere in the middle between one and the other.”
Haqqi had a passion for both Eastern and Western music. In his Haya Maayi ilal-Conseir (Come with Me to the Concert) he depicted the West’s veneration of music. Mr Sayed remarked that many of Haqqi’s contemporary authors and intellectuals shared his passion for music.
In choosing titles for his novels Haqqi was inspired by the populous district in which he grew up, but there was always an inner struggle between the traditional culture and the new, which he constantly encountered on his various travels round the world. This was especially highlighted, Mr Sayed explained, in Haqqi’s masterpiece Qandil Umm-Hashim (Umm-Hashim’s Lantern). Umm Hashim is the name commonly given to Sayeda Zainab, one of the Prophet Mohamed’s daughters whose shrine in Cairo is believed to bestow blessings on all who visit it, and the lantern oil of which is believed to be endowed with miraculous powers. The novel tells of a young doctor brought up in the Sayeda Zeinab district, who obtains a
degree from a university in Paris, and comes back home to practice medicine. He is distressed at the insistence of his ‘uneducated’ neighbours and friends to treat maladies by the ‘blessed’ oil of the qandil (lantern). But when he finally persuades his young cousin, with whom he is in love, that surgery could be the cure to her malady, the surgery fails. Haqqi sensitively and masterfully depicts his young protagonist’s agony and frustration in trying to absorb the situation. The novel, however, ends on a hopeful note which reveals that both tradition and modern science may go hand-in-hand to give life a unique quality.
“In 40 years’ time”
“Haqqi had no qualms about calling me at any decent or indecent hour of the day just to recite a verse of poetry on which he came across and liked,” said Sami Farid, page designer of Al-Majalla in Haqqi’s day, remembering the great author whom he described as “a father and a friend”.
“An incident which I can never forget was when Haqqi gave me a story for the magazine entitled Kunnashet al-Dukkan (The Shop’s Record Book). I had never before heard the word ‘konnasha’, so I thought that it was a spelling mistake and changed it to ‘kunasset’, which literally means ‘garbage’, and printed the article as such. When Haqqi saw it, he did not go berserk as any other editor might rightly have done. Instead, he gently told me, ‘You disgraced me with your ‘shop’s garbage’! Don’t you know the word ‘konnasha’, son? It’s a Moroccan word which means ‘an information record book’!
“Haqqi used to encourage all young authors. When an author came to him once with a story entitled The Boiling Teapot Creatures, he liked it and told the author, ‘This story will only be understood by the public in 40 years.’ When a publisher refused to print it, Haqqi stepped in, contacted another publisher and persuaded him to publish it.”
Salah Maati followed by presenting Haqqi’s will, which was that he would meet with his friends after his death. Haqqi had asked Mr Maati to write down the names of the people he wanted present in the gathering to follow his death, citing among others Sami Farid, Ahmed Taymour and Naim Attiya.
Mr Sayed reminded of how Haqqi was behind the formation of the first ever Egyptian folk dance group. “In 1955, when Haqqi was head of the Arts Department [forerunner of the Ministry of Culture] and Naguib Mahfouz his office manager, the Chinese government decided to send a folk troupe to perform in Egypt and expected Egypt to send an Egyptian one in return. Since there was no official troupe at the time, Haqqi set up the first Egyptian folk dance troupe affiliated to the Arts Department,” Mr Sayed said. “Since that date, so many Egyptian
folk dance groups have been formed, and they took place in countless international events, many of them winning accolades and awards.”
Cinema critic Atef Fathi reminded that Haqqi’s The Postman, which was turned into a film, was chosen among the 10 most important films in Egyptian cinema. The Postman is the story of Abbas who leaves Cairo for a small village where he leads a lonely, dull life as the village postman. His loneliness leads him to make a hobby out of reading people’s letters. He is later accused of murder because of his failure to deliver a certain letter to the person to which it was addressed.
One of those attending the soirée was Haqqi’s daughter Noha, who was very moved by the affection shown to her father.
“Anyone who knew my father could never forget him,” she said. “No one chooses his parents, but I am grateful God chose to give me this father. I am so proud of him.”
Yehia Haqqi was a prominent novelist, short story writer and one of the pioneers of the 20th-century literary movement in Egypt. He was born in the Cairo district of Sayeda Zeinab into a middle-class literary family of Turkish descent. He studied law, and after graduating in 1925 worked as a lawyer in Alexandria before joining the diplomatic service in 1929. He served in Jeddah, Rome, Paris and Anqara, and was appointed ambassador to Libya in 1952.
Forced to work most of his life in State administrative posts to supplement his literary income, in 1942 he married for the first time and became the father of a daughter, Noha. After the war Haqqi was posted to Paris, where he met his second wife, a painter and sculptor. To be able to marry, however, Haqqi had to resign his diplomatic posting, since under the regulations no Egyptian diplomat was allowed to marry a foreigner. In 1953 he was appointed head of the Arts Department, which was established in the aftermath of the July 1952 Revolution and functioned as the Ministry of Culture. In 1958 he became the literary advisor to the Egyptian General Book Organisation, but in 1960 he had resigned his post to be the editor of Al-Magalla, the leading cultural monthly in Cairo at the time, a post which he kept until 1971 when that publication was banned.
In 1970 he was appointed member of the Supreme Council for Radio and Television. During his literary career he published four collections of short stories, one novel, a novella and many articles, some of which involved literary criticism, meditations and literary translation, as well as other short stories. In the 1960s Haqqi ceased to write fiction but continued to write articles that critics described as artistic sketches.
Haqqi was awarded the Recognition Award in 1967, and in 1968 he won first prize for his novel The Postman.
Haqqi was pivotal in the creation of the State arts institute, puppet theatre, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and folkloric arts troupe.
15 July 2012