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.

Al Sorat Farm

When I was doing research online on Adam Henein, the Egyptian sculptor who has a workshop and museum in Giza, I came across the blog of a Canadian woman who owns a farm south of Cairo, near the village of Abu Sir. I emailed her asking if we could visit the farm, and the next weekend we spent a Saturday at her place out in the country.

Maryanne Gabanni moved to Egypt with her Canadian/Egyptian husband and their two children in the 1980s. After her husband passed away, Gabanni bought the farm where she now lives. She employs local men to help her manage the farm, which has goats, horses, donkeys, a friendly water buffalo, and lots of fresh produce. It’s an amazing place, and it really feels like you’re out in the middle of nowhere even though it’s less than an hour’s drive south of downtown Cairo—we even took an Uber to get there.

One of the awesome things that Maryanne Gabbani does is organize weekly veterinary clinics in the surrounding villages. She brings in her team and some of her friends to offer treatment to animals, diagnose medical problems, give donkeys mosquito nets, provide shots and worming medicine, conduct some basic farrying, and more. I encourage you to check out her work on the Facebook page of her Rural Wellness Initiative. To my mind she’s a local hero.

We had a wonderful time on the farm, petting animals, playing with her numerous dogs, riding horses, and talking to Maryanne and her friends, who are passionate about animals and about Egypt. We even had a late, Egyptian-style lunch there, and it was definitely one of the best meals we’ve ever had in Egypt: fresh, tasty, local produce, beautifully prepared.

Maryanne Gabbani has it all figured out: she is living her best life out on that farm in the Egyptian countryside. Long may she enjoy it!

Adam Henein

It was a Zamalek gallery and carpet shop owner who first put us on the track of an Egyptian sculptor called Adam Henein. We stopped by the gallery shop in question and the owner invited us to sit down with him and have some tea and chocolates. He was a sweet, cultured man; he talked to us about a bunch of contemporary Egyptian artists.

“But Henein is incredible,” he said. “You have to visit his museum in Giza. It’s where his house and his workshop is, and now there’s a museum with his work. He sold a large boat sculpture in Qatar a few years ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars and he used the money to build this museum. He’s very old, in his 90s, now he just sits in his garden, contemplating his life and his work. You have to visit this museum.”

And so we went to the Adam Henein Museum, which in fact is just down the road from the Wissa Wassef Centre, a place we’d been to before. This stretch of road, next to a trash-filled canal and behind a fresh slab of concrete and red-brick apartment blocks, is apparently turning into Giza’s artistic hub!

We fell in love with Henein’s work from our first moments inside his museum. The first thing we realized is that he’s an artist in the true sense, comfortable in almost every medium. Although his sculptures (in bronze, wood, stone, and clay) dominate the museum, also shown are his paintings, charcoal drawings, drawings on papyrus, and even weaving.

But it’s Henein’s sculptures that I find especially moving, because they almost always reinterpret motifs from ancient Egyptian statuary—birds, standing or seated figures, crowns, obelisks—although Henein gives them contemporary twist with pure forms and neat lines. His human figures, with their straight backs, blank faces, softened features, and long robes unfurling like sails, are extremely moving.

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Outside there’s also a beautiful, grassy courtyard, dominated by a large granite boat, which recalls the gigantic wooden solar barge found buried near the pyramid of Khufu. Many of Henein’s works, especially animals such as donkeys and cats, huddle around it.

We came to this museum a few times, but the first time we visited we got to see the artist himself, who was being interviewed in the garden for a documentary. G. introduced herself and was lucky enough to shake his hand. He’s a monument of Egyptian art, and he deserves to be better known.

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My Favourite Restaurant in Egypt

You rarely see Egyptians eat. They have small breakfasts on the go, traditionally a ful medames (stewed beans) or falafel with some bread. Their biggest meal tends to be late in the afternoon, where they have salads, dips, bread, pickles, and some kind of saucy meat or vegetables. They’ll eat whatever is left over for dinner.

Egypt is not really a renowned culinary destination, but for truly exceptional meals the best is to stick with local food. I’ve read in a few places that the best place to eat in Egypt is in someone’s home, and short of that, the best meals I’ve had in Egypt are in a restaurant called Toutankhamon, on the west bank of Luxor in Upper Egypt.

It was an Egyptologist friend of ours who recommended this restaurant, and at first we were a bit put off by the touristy name and the décor: you eat on an empty terrace on the roof of the building. The only atmosphere is provided by the whirling fans overhead. At least there’s a nice view of the Nile.

Things get better when the owner comes to take your order: he’s exceptionally kind and welcoming. There’s no menu: you choose from whatever his wife made that day. This is an unfussy family business. The fresh lemon juice is delicious and not too sweet, exactly what you need after a hot dusty trundle down the Valley of the Kings.

Then the food arrives: salad, dips, fresh bread. Always a couple of vegetable dishes, such as spinach with chickpeas, or potatoes with tomato sauce, or ratatouille. G., who doesn’t eat meat, is always happy. The main is usually some kind of stewed meat, expertly spiced. I’ve tried duck à l’orange, a beef and vegetable stew, curried chicken with bananas and coconut, meatballs in tomato sauce. Everything is outstanding. It’s a joy to dip your bread in the flavoursome sauces and even the rice, served in a large earthenware dish and speckled with vermicelli, is tastier than expected. Desert—usually a piece of fruit or a bit of pastry—and coffee or tea are included.

We’ve been to Toutankhamon four times now and have never been disappointed. We always leave happy and bloated. Definitely one of our Egyptian highlights, and a “must” for any trip to Luxor.

Cairo’s Weasels

Although Cairo’s “informal” system of trash collection works surprisingly well—it’s managed, for the most part, by groups of copts who collect the trash and haul it off to “trash city,” where it is sorted and reused when possible (for example, organic waste is fed to animals)—it’s still not uncommon, even in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, for the streets and sidewalks to be littered with refuse, including food.

Therefore, it’s a real surprise that Cairo isn’t overrun with rats. Of course, there is no shortage of cats lounging about Cairo’s streets, but Cairenes should be thankful for another small mammal that keeps the rat and mouse population in check: the Egyptian weasel.

This mysterious animal is very small, with round ears, a fusiform body, and a short furry tale. They’re nocturnal animals that are very fast and can fit through tiny openings. In fact, the Egyptian weasel is so shy and hard to spot that it took us several months before we saw our first one, a little patch of brown fur darting underneath cars near Costa Coffee. At first, we didn’t even know what we’d seen. A squirrel? A rat? It took a bit of online searching to find out about Cairo’s underground population of mustela subpalmata, as they are known scientifically.

Now that G. and I know about the weasels, we’ve been lucky enough to glimpse one every few weeks. They usually come out at night, when they can be seen as they cross the street, darting under cars and disappearing in cracks almost as soon as we spot them. It’s virtually impossible to get a picture of them. The other morning we were lucky enough to see one almost head on, in full daylight, as we came out of a Vodafone shop. It sped across the street right in front of us and slipped away between the gratings of a garage gate.

Bonus content: Listen to artist Far Flown Falcon’s song about a weasel, recorded in a street of Fatimid Cairo!

Wissa Wassef

A short drive away from the pyramids in Giza, behind a block of informal apartment buildings on the canal road that leads south to Abu Sir, Saqqarah, and Dahshur, there is a humble enclave of peace called the Wissa Wassef Art Centre.

Ramses Wissa Wassef was a 20th century Egyptian architect. In 1951, he founded an art centre here in order to teach children from the surrounding villages how to develop their intrinsic artistic skills in crafts such as pottery and weaving. The skills they learned would also give them a means to make some additional money by selling their creations at the centre.

Today, the second generation of these children, now middle-aged men and women, still weave beautiful artworks out of cotton or wool, entirely by hand. These tapestries, which can be very large, are veritable paintings made of fabric—usually done without any preliminary plans or drawings.

The centre has a large gallery space, where visitors can also purchase the works on display. If you’re lucky, as we were a few times, you can also visit the workshops and see the men and women at work. It’s a humbling experience that will inevitably make you want to purchase one of their pieces.

It’s worth visiting the Wissa Wassef Centre even if it’s just to marvel at the beautiful architecture, which is made of traditional adobe bricks and rammed earth: lightly ascending staircases, soft angles, rounded archways, and delicate domes. But it’s hard to leave without buying a woven work of art once you’ve seen the artists at work.

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Cairo: The City Victorious

But sometimes – in April especially – the wind changes ominously. Brewing up from east or west, it sweeps the desert blustering into the city. Stifling hot and teased with whirlwinds, the sandstorms counterpoint the river, serving to remind Cairo that even as the water of life flowers through its centre, death lurks at the edges of the valley. Cairenes need reminding. The city’s ceaseless urban racket casts an amnesiac spell. It is easy to forget how close the utter empty silence of the desert lies.

Eager to learn more about Cairo’s history and to keep my Mamlouks straight from my Fatimids, I’ve been reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press back in 1998.

It’s an interesting book, and I’m glad I picked it up, although I found it a bit dense and couldn’t read much more than 10-20 pages at a time. There’s a lot of stories and information here, with some chapters following a more thematic approach, and others running through the chronology of Cairo, from its origins in the pre-historic city of Om (today located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis) to the metropolis of 20+ million people it has now become. Rodenbeck is also lyrical at times, crafting the right phrase or finding the right metaphor to capture a smell, a sound, or a sight.

While I learned a lot reading Cairo: The City Victorious—it’s obvious that Rodenbeck adores the city and knows it very well—I think the book suffered a bit from a problem of personality. At times it read like a straight up “biography” of Cairo, encompassing large swathes of Egyptian history condensed into a few pages, while at others Rodenbeck couldn’t help but describe a few of his personal experiences in the city: meeting a workshop owner from a baladi neighbourhood, having dinner with a gossipy gin-sucking upper-class lady, encountering a Sufi mystic in a tent during a night festival. Yet Rodenbeck deals with scenes like these ones hastily. He offers the minimum of context before zooming back out into a broader social history of the city.

Max Rodenbeck is a correspondent for The Economist, and perhaps that’s why he appears to be so uncomfortable in the first-person mode. Yet the parts of the book where Rodenbeck swoops in on tangible moments gave me the strongest impressions. I would’ve loved for the author to make this book more personal, to offer more details about his own life and experiences in Cairo, while offering some of the historical material as background. Instead he seemed too intent on erasing himself from the story, unless when absolutely necessary.

This book was a bit of a missed opportunity for me, but it was still a very interesting read. And, yes, I can now tell apart the Fatimids apart from the Mamlouks.