Something Important Has Been Lost: The Diaries of Waguih Ghali

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 1: 1964-66. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2016.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 2: 1966-68. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2017.

On December 26th 1968, the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, author of one acclaimed novel titled Beer in the Snooker Club, committed suicide in the flat of his editor and friend, Diana Athill. For the previous four years, Ghali had been keeping a diary, whose last entry he addressed to her: “I am leaving you my Diary, luv—well edited, it would be a good piece of literature.”

Almost twenty years later, in 1986, Athill published After a Funeral, which recounted her friendship with Ghali, whom she called Didi in her book. After a Funeral follows the push and pull in their relationship, and the inexorable decline in Ghali’s mental health. Ghali lived in Athill’s flat, but his visa didn’t allow him to work, so he didn’t have a regular income and couldn’t pay her rent. His efforts to make money by writing were stifled by his depression. Whatever money he managed to make he spent on gambling and alcohol.

The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif published a scathing review of After a Funeral in the London Review of Books when it came out. She revealed Didi’s true identity and celebrated Ghali’s novel, which was then out of print. As for Athill’s book, Soueif ends her review by dryly stating: “He would have probably liked it better if she had edited his diaries.”

Readers would have to wait thirty more years before that happened, partly because the diaries were lost. The notebooks were misplaced when Athill moved to a retirement home in 2010, and Ghali scholars who wanted to access them for their research thought them lost forever. But it turned out that Deborah Starr, a professor at Cornell, had photocopied all 700 or so pages of the diaries ten years before on a research trip to London. The photocopies were digitized and are now part of a Ghali archive on the Cornell University website, along with some manuscripts and a stash of letters from, to, or about Ghali, including one from Philip Roth, who wrote Athill in 1963 to put her and Ghali in touch with Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop at Iowa (Roth, who was obviously a fan, even agreed to pay for Ghali’s transportation fees with a “long term loan of $100”).

It was the Egyptian academic May Hawas who finally edited Ghali’s diaries, which were published in two volumes by the American University in Cairo Press in 2016 and 2017.

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In the first volume, which covers the period from 1964 to 1966, Ghali is working for a British military base in Rheydt, West Germany. He attempts to write a novel, short stories, and a play, and he visits London for a brief interlude (“London…London…LONDON. My town, my city, the only place on earth to which I belong, my spiritual abode, my love, the great love of my love. No sooner have I been there, than I have started to worry about leaving it…”). Ghali dislikes Germany and his job with the army, and spends much of his time dreaming of moving away.

Volume 2 picks up with Ghali finally living in London, in Diana Athill’s flat. It follows Ghali’s tortuous descent into poorer mental health, as well his fraying relationship with Athill. A trip to Yugoslavia, which Athill also recounts in After a Funeral, is a turning point in their relationship. In one of the most interesting sections of this second volume, Ghali goes on a reporting trip to Israel following the Six-Day War, which made Ghali feel “disgusted, more humiliated and insulted,” specifically by Nasser’s declaration that Egypt lost because Israel had the support of Britain and the United States. Ghali writes pieces for the Times, and gives a few lectures upon his return to London. During one of these lectures, in May 1968, someone calling himself “a representative of the Egyptian government” rises and declares that Ghali “is not Egyptian. He has defected to Israel.” For the rest of the year, Ghali feels progressively worse, until he overdoses on sleeping pills on Boxing Day.

Both volumes of the Diaries are united by recurring themes: drinking, gambling, difficulties with writing, and sex. Ghali appears to have been popular with women, although they were a source of anguish as well as pleasure, depending on the woman and depending on the moment in their relationship. At the start of a new affair, he remarks: “It is this business of love again, you see. There must be some insufficiency in me to provoke in me those terrible yearnings for someone I cannot possess. I repeat cannot possess, because I never yearn for someone whom I know would love me back.” When a woman is interested in him, he begins to despise her. When she dismisses him, he becomes obsessed. Although he recognizes the pattern himself, he is unable to escape it. The reader gets dragged along.

It’s surprising how little current events or politics make it into the Diaries considering the momentous events that took place while Ghali was keeping them. For instance, he never mentions anything about Martin Luther King, or the events of May 68. Politics do crop up, inevitably, around the Israel trip. Ghali recounts that, at one of the lectures he gives at the Israel Student’s Union in London after his trip to Israel, he tells the audience that “the Israelis were feeling themselves superior to the Arabs… racially so, and this was a surprise to me, as well as making peace with their neighbours impossible.” Members of the audience stand to give “anti-Arab tirades.” Ghali is “astonished to see that most, or nearly all of them, were rather ignorant, bigoted and…reactionary. All those who spoke supported America’s policy in Vietnam, didn’t care two hoots about black South Africans.”

Ghali appears to have been strongly attuned to racism, and he was equally alarmed by some of the casual racism he witnessed in post-war Germany, which he saw as shocking remnants of Nazism, sometimes hiding in plain sight. His incisive, albeit sometimes overly critical, portrait of 1960s small-town Western Germany is one of the most interesting aspects of the first volume of his Diaries.

There is a scene in Beer in the Snooker Club, in which the main character, Ram, comes to blows with his patronizing cousin Mounir, who has just returned from studying in America: “He didn’t know there was any racial discrimination in America. He had never heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, he did not know what ‘un-American activities’ was. No, he did not believe there were poor Puerto Ricans or poor anyone else in America. Who was Paul Robeson? Red Indians without full citizenship? What was I talking about? I must be mad. All he knew was that he had spent three years in America, had picked up their pet phrases and had been given a degree.”

Thinking about the letter Roth wrote about Ghali in 1963, about the $100 he offered, one could imagine an alternate version of Ghali’s life in which he goes to America and joins the Civil Rights movement.

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Hawas, in her introduction to Ghali’s Diaries, writes that, for Ghali, “In some way, the diaries replace the novel as another creative genre, like the short story or novel or poem, simply another way, in his words, that a writer could ‘create something.’” For a writer struggling to write, keeping a diary can be a low-pressure short cut, a way of producing something, of seeing blank pages fill. Ghali himself becomes aware of how important his diary is as he is writing it; he often goes back and re-reads older entries commenting on his past mental state. At one point, he remarks, “The strange thing about this Diary is that I find it so imperative to write everything I did or that has happened to me—as though if I didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen, or, rather still (because, after all, there are things I wish didn’t happen) if I didn’t write it down something important has been lost.”

Although the Diaries have been expertly edited by May Hawas, with an excellent introduction, interesting interviews, and useful notes, I’m not sure they are as good a piece of literature as Ghali hoped they would be. While fans or scholars of Ghali will enjoy learning more about him as a person, they can also be a tedious read as they were most often written by Ghali at his worst. “Going mad, as I seem to be going,” he writes in his very first entry, dated May 24th, 1964, “perhaps it’d be better to keep my Diary […] if only for a streak of sanity.” Later on, he notes that the diaries “emanated through a death-wish.” One night where he feels particularly serene, he recognizes that “[t]hese Diaries have always been full of miseries and moans.”

Still, there are glimpses of the writer who was able to create the masterpiece of social critique, humour, and empathy that is Beer in the Snooker Club: incisive observations, glimmers of levity, poetic turns. In one bravura entry dated November 3rd, 1967—in fact, just after the comment about “miseries and moans”—Ghali reminisces with great tenderness about a woman he once loved, in Paris, when he was a medical student: “Then she came to Paris, Madam Piquot gave me a room again at 33 Rue des écoles. How lovely it was. What bliss. We just wanted each other. She was shy, always, and I was timid. We would sleep in the afternoon, and that also made her shy. The shutters close with a faint light. And she would say, ‘Toutou, turn around, just go somewhere.’ Do you know, I only saw her naked once.”

In passages like this one, we (or perhaps the rhetorical “you” Ghali employs in that last line) see what may have been the inspiration behind some of love scenes in Beer in the Snooker Club, or else the seeds of a second novel that never was.

At other times he is funny and irreverent—and much of the humour arises from what has occurred in intervening years. Of the man of letters Ian Hamilton, who later married Ghali’s own defender Ahdaf Soueif, he writes: “Not unpleasant, but a nincompoop. How did he ever become editor?” Reading V.S. Naipaul in December 1964, Ghali remarks: “He will, hélas, never be a great writer (not popular, either, complimentary nowadays).—Too engrossed with himself, his feelings, his thoughts which should only be a concern to himself and not expect others to feel.” Ironic, of course, considering the content of the Diaries and his later wish to see them published.

The Diaries may not often show Ghali at his best, both as a writer and as a person, but if they are part of a Ghali renaissance that will lead to new conversations about him and bring more readers to Beer in the Snooker Club, then they will have done something admirable. It was also the editor’s hope that the Diaries would give young writers, especially Egyptian and Anglo-Arab writers, permission to explore, to develop their voice, to write about the places they live in, wherever that may be.

Ghali’s novel is currently in print in English on both sides of the Atlantic, which hasn’t always been the case, and a new French edition was published last year under the title Les Cigarettes égyptiennes (which is better than its original title, Les jeunes pachas, which Ghali mocked as being “pompous”). Beer in the Snooker Club, set in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of the 1950s, is more relevant than ever, with Egypt re-assessing itself in the aftermath of another revolution that, to some degree, has brought it right back to where it started. Ghali’s characters—zealous, exuberant, disillusioned—have aged well.

Near the end of Beer in the Snooker Club, Ram tells Didi, the rich girl he wants to marry, “‘I want to live with you in a beautiful house with lots of books bound in leather. To take you out to the poshest places. To go for drives in the desert in our car. To caress you and make love to you every night. To buy you the most beautiful clothes, jewels, perfumes in existence…’ and I involuntarily laughed – this tic of mine of suddenly laughing – ‘with your own money of course. Because you are very rich.’”

In Cairo, there is one last traditional bookbinder, whose shop is tucked away behind Al-Azhar mosque. I dropped off my copy of Beer in the Snooker Club there one April day in 2018 and it came back to me a few weeks later, bound in smooth, dark red leather. The author and title are engraved on the spine in neat gold letters. The slim paperback has been turned into a luxurious object; it looks damn fine on a bookshelf. I think Ghali would’ve liked that.

August in Paris

I was browsing The Atlantic website the other day and came across this article by Rachel Donadio celebrating the month of August as a wonderful time to be in Paris. “Of all the cities I’ve lived in,” she writes, “August is best in Paris.” Donadio celebrates the quiet streets, the lost tourists, and the niche radio and television stories about feminism, Blaise Pascal, or the decline of French Socialist Party. Melancholy, Donadio reflects on the month that has just ended: “Traffic thins; shops close, sometimes for the entire month; restaurants shut; there are seats to be found on the metro; and in the evening, stragglers (not everyone can afford to go away) emerge from their stuffy, un-air-conditioned apartments and gather along the banks of the Seine.”

She is, in my opinion, completely wrong to celebrate August in Paris. Having just come through my first summer in the city as a Greek hero might make it through the land of the dead, I can assuredly declare that August is in fact the worst time of year to be in Paris.

Donadio makes light of shops closing, including her bakery, but in fact this should be a serious concern. In the 10e arrondissement, our existence—revolving as it does around food—started to seem grim at the end of July. First to go was our cheese shop. As the weeks went by the tables and shelves in the shop had progressively emptied out. On the last day they were open, as I bought scraps of whatever was left, I asked the cheese monger what we were going to do while they were closed. “Eat less calories,” he said. It was a joke but he wasn’t smiling. He was just eager to go on holiday.

Next to go was the Italian deli, then the covered market where we get fish and vegetables. The famous boulangerie at the end of our street shut down for a month—an entire MONTH—in August. Every day I texted G. as I walked to the metro to tell her how many dejected tourists were standing on the sidewalk, scratching their heads and trying to decipher the scrawled note in the window. Then the boulangerie with the good baguette closed. Then the new bakery with the seedy bread and the donuts, which had literally opened two weeks before, also closed for two weeks. Even the bakery with the lovely seasonal cakes and pastries, which is a little further off near the Marais and which I sometimes walk to on Sundays, went on vacation. They didn’t even bother putting a note up on their door.

I remember a Wednesday morning in mid-August when I walked around the neighbourhood, going from street to street, struggling to find a place where I could buy bread. I ended up at a small, subpar place near République, and we had to make do with their dry croissant and weightless loaf. Yes, even in Paris, there is such a thing as a subpar boulangerie.

August 15 is a holiday in France, and as it fell on a Thursday this year most of those who weren’t already on vacation took a day or two off to make a long weekend of it. In French they call it faire le pont—bridging. The city emptied out. At work, for the few of us who were around, almost all the lunch places were closed. Even the lunch delivery company was off that Friday.

And I haven’t mentioned anything about the heat (Parisian apartments don’t have ai conditioning)—but perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Sure, there are some things to appreciate about August in Paris. It’s true that the streets are quieter, and the metro isn’t as crowded. You grow to have a special fondness for the shops and restaurants that do stay open, like the boucherie near my workplace that took all of July off instead of August. The Tunisian man and his son who have a vegetable stall around the corner from our apartment stayed open through August, as did the Mexican taco place across the street and our favourite takeout restaurant, Petit Cambodge. Although our caviste did go away on holiday for two weeks in August, she found someone to work at the shop in her place. So at least we could drink well, even if we couldn’t always eat as well as usual. It makes you question your priorities.

And now la rentrée is in full swing; this period marks the end of our first year living in Paris. We moved into our apartment exactly a ago and started discovering the neighbourhood, trying out cafés and bakeries, walking along the canal to go to the Bastille market for the first time, testing out habits and routines that would last us through the winter. When we arrived in Paris at the very end of August 2018 to find a lively 10e arrondissement, I hadn’t suspected that the city was just coming back to life after a month-long sleep.

The end of our first year in Paris, yes, but also the beginning of our second. We’ve been eating a lot of cheese.

Diana Athill

Diana Athill died last week, aged 101. She had a career as a much celebrated and influential editor in London, and in later life she found fame as a memoirist thanks to a series of thoughtful, honest, beautifully-written books.

I wrote a piece about her a few years ago when her last book, Alive, Alive Oh!, a collection of essays, was published. Check it out over at The Millions.

Athill also has an Egyptian connection, which I will no doubt discuss here in more detail at a later date. Athill was the editor of the celebrated Egyptian author Waguih Ghali, who wrote a single, masterful novel, Beer at the Snooker Club, and committed suicide in Athill’s flat in 1969. Athill’s harrowing memoir, After a Funeral, which was originally published in 1986, recounts her relationship with Ghali.

Rue Saint-Martin: A Promenade

I’m not the first to say it: Paris is a walker’s city, or rather an ambler’s city. The streets urge you to go out for promenades, to make it from place to place on foot, to wander about. There are some risks, though. For one, everything seems closer that it is on the map. Then there’s the city’s famous street configuration, all branching stars and obliquely crossings. If you’re not careful, you can easily think you’re going in the right direction on a given street and end up far from where you were going.

One of my favourite walks in Paris is, thankfully, along a street that runs straight down–from the 10th to the 3rd arrondissement, from Gare de l’Est all the way down to the Seine, or just about. It’s a neat way to easily get from the neighbourhood we live in to the Marais, which has nice shops, bars, and restaurants–and heaps of atmosphere. I love walking down the length of the street because you feel the textures of the different neighbourhoods change as you walk through them.

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Your promenade begins on rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, which is lively and full of local colour just below the imposing façade of Gare de l’Est: fast-food joints, African restaurants, bric-à-brac stores, and Afro hair salons. Rue du Chateau d’Eau and its fancier shops, wine stores, cafés, and lovely market runs perpendicular. When you reach the imposing Porte Saint-Martin, which is really more of an arch than a gate, at the boulevard, the street because rue Saint-Martin, and already you know that you’re in a slightly posher neighbourhood, especially as you pass the imposing facade of the Musée des Arts et Métiers and the elegant Square Émile-Chautemps. On the same block are the intriguing offices of the French Prestidigitator’s Association, which unfortunately always looks closed.

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Past rue Réaumur, pay attention to the blackened façade of the Paroisse Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, a gothic church dating back to the 15th century, with its crumbling statues. A couple of blocks later is a nice third wave coffee shop called Partisan, and now you can be certain you’re in the 3rd: the buildings are nicer and well-kept, people are dressed in fancy clothes, and the shops are getting more expensive and niche–notice the Corsican épicerie and the Auvergne deli. Another couple of blocks down you’ll run into a shop specializing in rum, and just around the corner is its sister store, which sells hundreds of different kinds of gin.

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But keep going, you haven’t seen everything yet. If you’re hungry, the next block has lots of restaurants, including a delicious Chinese noodle place called 3 fois plus de piments, although you may have to get in line at peak hours. Once you do get in, you choose your heat level: 0 to 5 (1 is enough to make my eyebrows sweat). As you keep walking down, the street becomes mostly pedestrian and when the buildings open up, lo and behold, the Centre Pompidou is on your left. Take a moment to gaze at its stunning, divisive architecture. The rooftop restaurant, all metal and curvy structures, is a nice place for a drink and a rare vista over the city.

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From there, you have to pick what you want to do next. Turn right at the river and continue along the Seine all the way to the Louvre and the Tuileries, or else cross over to Île de la Cité and, from there, across again into the 5th arrondissements. Or turn right to delve into the Marais proper. Crooked, charming rue des Rosiers, with its jewish bakeries and extraordinary falafel shops, is only five minutes away…

Cités millénaires @ L’Institut du monde arabe

The other day we took the metro down to the Institut du monde arabe (IMA), which is located in a beautiful silve building in the 5e arrondissement, right along the Seine behind the Pierre and Marie Curie University, and not too far from the Jardins des Plantes and its fun Ménagerie (yes, we said hello to the red pandas and wallabies on the way).

The IMA is currently hosting an exhibit called Cités millénaires (Age-Old Cities), a collaboration with the French startup Iconem, whose representatives we met a few weeks ago at Unesco during the European Heritage Days. Iconem specializes in digitizing and creating 3D models of heritage sites and monuments that are either at risk of being destroyed, or else hard to access.

The exhibit at the IMA is in fact an immersive experience with gigantic projections and contextualizing videos, focused around four sites: Mosul, Aleppo, Leptis Magna (a Roman site in Lybia), and Palmyra. Although I found that the exhibition lacked a little bit of context and explanations  (I don’t mind going to the museum to read some panels) or even voiceovers, overall the giant projections with smoothly panning 3D models and atmospheric music were absolutely breathtaking. I even had some shivers, especially seeing the famous theatre and temples of Palmyra, which were the stage of so many horrors during its takeover by the so-called Islamic State. It was also amazing to witness the scale of the destruction in Aleppo and Mosul.

The exhibit ends with a short VR experience, created by video game studio Ubisoft, that allows you to experience the sights, sounds, and even smells of six specific monuments as if you were really there. We were told that the exhibit gets busy and the lineup for the VR can go up to an hour, but we went first thing in the morning (and bought our tickets in advance)–we were sometimes alone in the exhibition rooms, and we didn’t wait at all for the VR experience, which felt a little short but was really immersive. I especially enjoyed being inside the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, which soldiers of ISIL blew up in 2015.

Overall, we had a great time and really appreciated the work of Iconem has been doing to document these sites and monuments. Is it enough? No, of course not. But at least it’s something, and it allows researchers to study and record sites that might otherwise be lost before they were documented. The exhibit also does a pretty good job of addressing not only the loss of buildings and monuments, but also the human lives that have ended or been shattered. A text accompanying images of the Souk of Aleppo, for example, reminds us that beyond the material loss, what made the souk itself was the relationships between the stall owners and the shoppers who went there ever day.

I also enjoyed the very well stocked bookstore at the IMA, which has an impressive selection of books related to the Middle East–contemporary novels, books in translation and in Arabic, academic works, cookbooks… We walked away with a small phrasebook to refresh our Egyptian Arabic, and plans to come back very soon.

The Cités millénaires exhibit runs at the IMA in Paris until February 10, 2019.

 

 

Canal Life

Our neighbourhood in Paris runs along the Canal Saint-Martin, a stretch of water that runs off the Seine at Place de la Bastille and runs along a north-easterly path, joining the Canal Saint-Denis north of the Basin de la Villette to become the Canal de l’Ourcq. The canal’s greenish waters, flagstone quays, families of ducks, iron pedestrian bridges, and bubbling locks, provide an atmospheric backdrop to the life of neighbourhood, and is a sight many tourists never set eyes on.

The canal was originally built in the 19th century to supply water to parts of the city and for transport of grain and other goods to Paris. There are amazing old pictures of women washing clothes at purpose-built laundry stations along the canal at the turn of the century.  One of the canal’s most interesting features is that a large section of it runs underground along vaulted tunnels pierced by large skylights. Up above, on the ground level, there is a long stretch of park where people play pétanque or walk their dogs, one section of which, along Avenue Richard-Lenoir, is home to our favourite Sunday market.

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Women washing clothes along the canal.

Some tour companies offer boat rides up and down the canal, so you can glide along under the atmospheric vaults yourself, see the charming 10e arrondissement from a different point of view, and get splashed by the locks as they fill up rather dramatically (if you make your way up the canal from Port de l’Arsenal to the Bassin de la Villette–some of the tours go down the canal instead up). You’ll have to be patient, however, as the locks and swinging bridges make for a long and very slow cruise along the canal.

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Under the vault.

For most inhabitants, however, the canal is mostly a perfect place to relax with a picnic and some wine or beer. During the week, people who work nearby love to sit along the quay and enjoy some sunshine during their break for déjeuner, while far into the night the area is alive with groups of young people enjoying themselves in the open air.

Every few years, authorities drain the canal in order to clean out the rubbish that inevitably falls (or is thrown) into it and remains at the bottom: bicycles, cameras, bottles… Even cars, and–yes–guns. There’s a great article about it over at The Guardian.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt of Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, in which Amélie takes part in one of her favourite activities: standing on one of the lock gates and skipping stones on the canal.

 

 

Aux Puces

There is a place, just outside the périphérique ring road, not far from where Line 4 of the Métro ends at Porte de Clignancourt. It’s an uncanny place where you can find treasures and trash in equal measure. It’s a place so large you need more than one day to explore it all. It’s a place that will tire you out and leave you besotted and a little confused, but also charmed and delighted.

It’s called Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and it’s a must-go experience for anyone who’s seen the basic sights of Paris and is seeking an experience that’s a little different. To help give you a mental image, it’s there, in the Saint-Ouen Flea Market, that Owen Wilson’s character does some antique shopping in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.

G. and I went there a few weeks ago for the first time, and we were immediately struck by the sheer size of the place. This is, after all, the world’s largest and busiest antiques market in the world. The market is organized around Rue de Rosiers, with a number of stalls and smaller shops along passages off this street, plus larger covered markets such as Marché Dauphine and Marché Biron. There are small, messy brocante-style shops, niche stores specializing in everything from buttons to naval lamps, traditional antique dealers offering art, furniture, and smaller items from every epoch imaginable, as well as art merchants selling works that look like they should probably go in museum collections.

One thing we quickly realized while ambling along the rows and rows and rows of stalls is that you need to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re looking for–simply going around at random will soon drive you mad. On our first visit, we were able to find a nice copper bougeoir, a cheap, sleek, not-at-all-antique cocktail shaker, and a dressing mirror for G. However, our real goal had been crystal glasses. On our second round aux puces, were focused on these and, by chatting with different dealers, were able to come away with a pair of vintage champagne glasses as well as a pair of beautiful cut-crystal long drink glasses, all for a reasonable price which I’d rather not reveal.

The only regrettable thing with the market is that the surrounding area has attracted cheap clothes vendors as well as a number of “vendeurs à la sauvette” offering stolen or counterfeit brands.