Youssef al-Sharouni was glowing as his fans, along with a number of renowned writers and critics, gathered around him a few weeks ago at the Supreme Council of Culture (SCC) to celebrate his 90th birthday. Their boisterous discourse turned to recollections of literary tours—and feuds—in more than half a century. Joining them was the ‘children’s friend’ Yacoub al-Sharouni, the writer’s younger brother and a pioneer of contemporary children’s literature in Egypt and the Arab World.
This was no mere birthday celebration, rather a celebration of intellect and creativity, prose and poetry. Youssef al-Sharouni, who wrote the famed poetry collection Al-Massaa’ al-Akheer (The Last Evening), was fêted by the young poet Mariam Tawfiq who recited a poem that carried Sharouni’s name for a title.
Sharouni has to his credit a long list of awards and medals. He won two State Incentive Awards, the Short Story prize in 1970 for his collection al-Zahaam (The Crowd) and another in 1979 in Literary and Critical Studies. In 2001 he was awarded the State Appreciation Award in Literature for lifetime achievement. He also received the Medal of Science and Arts, First Class in 1970; the Order of the Republic, Second Class, in 1979; and the al-Owais award from the UAE in 2007. His works have been translated into English, French, German and Spanish.
Sharouni’s dynamism took him to the four corners of the earth where he represented Egypt in literary forums and festivals. He has lectured on contemporary Arabic literature in several renowned establishments such as Oxford University, the International Institute of Arab and Muslim Word Studies in Madrid and the University of Berlin. He also taught Arabic at the universities of Lieden, Amsterdam and Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Following the success in 1954 of his first collection of short stories, al-Ushaq al-Khamsa (The Five Lovers), which was twice reprinted, there were other writings, among them Risala ila Imara’a (Letter to A Woman) in 1960, and al-Zahaam (The Crowd) in 1969. Many other works followed: al-Umm wal-Wahsh (The Mother and The Beast), Akher al-Anqoud (The Last Born), al-Karassi al-Musiqiya (Musical Chairs), Mutaradet Muntasaf al-Lail (Midnight Chase), al-Dahk hatta al-Bukaa’ (Laughing Till You Cry), Agdad wa Ahfad (Grandparents and Grandchildren), and a single novel al-Gharaq (Drowning) in 2006.
Sharouni also wrote about Omani literature, as well as commentaries on historical manuscripts such as Aga’eb al-Hind (Wonders of India) by Buzurg Ibn Shahriyar and Akhbar al-Seen wal-Hind (News of China and India) by Suleiman al-Tajir and Abu-Zayd Hassan Ibn-Yazid al-Sirafi.
Readers of Sharouni’s literature find it an encyclopaedia of good and evil, a panorama of human patterns, a harsh criticism of society and a premonition of events bound to occur. Some read his messages directly, but others only grasp them when it is too late.
Sharouni has never looked for personal success. He staunchly encouraged those who ‘trained’ under him, fostering their creativity. One of those who trained at his hands was once accused by the writer Youssef Idriss (1927 – 1991) of plagiarising the ideas of the Russian author Anton Chekov. A special committee was formed to re-read the trainee’s story, Tufula (Childhood). The committee redeemed it and it went on to win the second prize at the Story Club competition. This trainee is now the renowned scriptwriter Raouf Helmy.
Watani wished to celebrate Mr Sharouni’s 90th in its own way, and I was asked to interview the great man, a task which I approached with trepidation but which I actually enjoyed to the fullest.
• Is there a pivotal issue that preoccupies you, perhaps even forces itself upon your writings?
Yes there is, and it is the problem of illiteracy, whether in the literal or cultural sense. A society with a high illiteracy rate is without will and lacks freedom of choice; it becomes easy prey for whoever wishes to hold dominion over it. Illiteracy is one of the main causes of buying votes during elections because of voters’ lack of political awareness. Unemployment is another important problem resulting from illiteracy, because uneducated people usually have fewer job opportunities and, consequently, financial stability. Poverty then becomes the plague of the illiterate society.
• Which of the characters you have created are you most attached to?
It is the mother in The Mother and The Beast. In this story, the mother symbolises Egypt. In an act of absolute heroism she defends her small child and saves him from the beast who is trying to devour him. In a fierce fight, the beast injures the mother’s arm and severs three of her fingers. She climbs a tree on the banks of the Nile, takes off a branch, hits the beast in the eye, and finally snatches her child from him. In this story two snapshots coexist: the close snapshot is the battle and the farther one the myth.
• Do you think that the relationship between the writer and the critic is similar to the rivalry between two wives in a polygamous marriage?
I am myself a literary critic and have made many critical studies. Did you hear what the critics said about me at the symposium on 5 November at the SCC?
• Yes I did. All the literary elite praised your literary style and said your expression was absolutely brilliant. As a critic, they said you are fair and unbiased. You highlight the characteristics of the text without disdain for or offence to the writer. But even so, have you never clashed with a critic who offended you intentionally or unintentionally?
When I lived in Oman from 1970 to 1982, I wrote about the fiction heritage of Omani literature and said it was a treasure from which writers must draw. A young writer attacked me, but I considered this normal—especially since the cultural movement in Oman was in its cradle. The young man criticised me harshly, saying that, ‘every man knows his own business best’. I answered using reason, explaining why I saw that he was mistaken, in a series of articles published in the Omani press. I later compiled these articles in a special chapter entitled “Dialogues in an Omani Assembly”, and included it in the “Literary Skirmishes” section in my book Wamadat min al-Zakira (Glimmers of Memory).
• How do you measure the success of your books; through the opinion of the critics or the readers? Or through sales figures?
How can I possibly get wide feedback from the readers? Rarely does a person tell the truth when he faces you. Most of the time I rely on the opinion of the literary critics, and sales figures are a very good indication of success. Most of my books sold out and were reprinted. In fact, they still do. Letter to A Woman was recently reprinted although it is not one of my recent books.
Nonetheless, writers in Egypt do not make money from their work. All writers, and this includes award winners and the most brilliant, have to hold other jobs to ensure financial stability. I personally used to publish about one book a year. I now have a book under print: Al-Ga’iza (The Prize).
• After being so widely acknowledged as a great writer, has any of your books been taught in schools?
I have never considered this, but many graduate students at universities do research or studies on my books.
• Which of your books would you nominate to be taught at school?
I don’t want my writings to be part of any school curriculum or exams; I don’t want pupils or students to hate me! I prefer that my works be read for enjoyment only.
• The Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006) once said “I started where Youssef al-Sharouni concluded”. What did he mean by that?
He meant that I used to write in a modern style and not in the traditional style. This was unlike Youssef Idriss, who wrote during the same period but adopted the classical style, giving special attention to the chronological order of events and the plot. On the contrary, I used to focus on the internal struggles of the human being. For instance, in my short story Al-Ragul wal-Mazraa (The Man and the Farm), the protagonist attempts to fertilise both his wife and his land. The story starts with the birth of a long-awaited child and then the father, in flashback, recalls all his attempts to cure his wife’s infertility. He starts by resorting to magic and sorcery to no avail, and then decides to resort to science and modern medicine. Only then was his wife cured. This line of events goes in parallel with the idea of cultivating his land.
The short story Akher al-Anqud (The Last Born) tackles the opposite idea. Here the youngest child is the last in a long line of siblings; he is unwanted and his parents consider him a burden. In the closing scene his parents go to the child’s school to watch him act in a school play in which he utters only a single sentence: “Here I am, father; do you want me?”
• What do you think of flash fiction?
I have written flash fiction. Let me tell you one: “One day I was walking down the street carrying my small daughter on my shoulders. Then I stumbled and almost fell on the ground, so my daughter held on tightly to my head. I thought she had done this because she was afraid of falling, but she told me: ‘Don’t be afraid Daddy, I’m holding you tight.’” I believe that literature is just like food; some meals are light and others are copious.
• What happens if readers don’t ‘get’ the real message of a novel or short story?
This is where critics play an important role. Each writer has his own style, but he must take into consideration the changes in his society as well as in the world at large. For instance, I wrote a story about the changes that took place in the wake of WWII, the overcrowding in urban areas, the advances in communications, and the speed at which we were given good and bad news at the same time. My Nashret al-Akhbar (The News Bulletin) depicts a wedding celebration in the upper floor of a small building, while at the same time a memorial service is being held for a deceased person on the lower floor. Suddenly the building collapses and the bodies of the wedding guests rain down on those of the mourners. At the same instant, the voice of the news anchor is heard from a nearby radio announcing that man has landed on the moon.
• What was the first book to leave a lasting impression on you or unleash your hidden talent?
When I was a child I found John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in my father’s library, as well as Muqtatafat min al-Turath a-Shiiry wal-Nathry (Extracts Of Poetry And Prose Literature) by the Jesuit priest and orientalist Father Louis Cheikho, and al-Muqafa’a wa Husn al-Uqiba (The Reward) by Ahmed Ibn Yusuf Ibn al-Daya of the Tulunid dynasty (868 – 905).
• What is your most recent work?
I wrote a compilation of texts entitled Nass Bayn al-Sahw wal-Mahw (A Text Between Wakefulness And Forgetfulness) which includes poetry, prose and a narrative.
• Whom do you like among contemporary writers?
Safaa’ al-Naggar, Muhammad al-Qassabgy, Fouad Qandil, Youssef al-Qaeid, the Libyan author Hamed Ibrahim al-Faqih and Yassin Rifaiya from Syria.
At this point my interview with Youssef al-Sharouni came to an end. However I still had not asked my most important question: what impact did his wife of more than 50 years, Nargis, have on his life? I felt I needed another interview to talk about the woman who, ever since I first set eyes upon I could see the gentleness, kindness and strength that must have been key to Sharouni’s success. Yet before I could get down to arranging another meeting, I learnt about Nargis from an interview he had given Syrian writer Yassin Rifaiya and which he reproduced in his book Wamadat min al-Zakira. There Sharouni talks about two failed romances in his youth. “I later realised these failed romances were just ‘theatrical knocks’ before the curtain opened and Nargis came in to fill my life. She is the mother of my children and my first reader and critic. If the fruit of my first failed romance was The Last Evening and that of the second was Letter to A Woman, the fruit of my third romance has been a daughter, a son, grandchildren, 40 books, and above all a soul mate and life partner.”
9 January 2015