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.

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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The Village of Potters

One thing we quickly realized after we moved to Cairo was that we couldn’t stay for more than a few weeks in the city without going mad or developing serious lung problems. We needed to get out and see some country.

One of our first outings—for my birthday, in fact—was to the region of Fayum, which is located a couple of hours by car south-west of Cairo, in an area bordering a large salt-water lake called Lake Qarun. In Roman times, the Fayum area was a bustling region with many settlements. Many of the famous Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits were found in this region, which is why they are often known as the Fayum mummy portraits.

Today, there is a small village to the south of Lake Qarun called Tunis, which has beautiful views of the lake. In the 1970s, a Swiss woman called Evelyne Porret moved to Fayum and established a pottery workshop in the village. She taught many local children, some of which eventually opened their own pottery studios, and now the village is dotted with a dozen or so of these studios where visitors can wander in, chat with the artisans, and purchase the wares on display.

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G. and I were charmed by the beautiful small hotel we stayed at, owned by another Swiss couple, and by the calm atmosphere in the village. Many walls of the houses in the village are painted with tasteful murals, which adds to the artistic feel of the place, which has become a haven for artists, artisans, and traditional crafts.

The pottery workshops are great, and the artisans aren’t pushy at all about selling—we got the feeling that they make most of their money from large orders for weddings, so they don’t really seem to mind whether walk-ins buy anything or not. We found their beautiful, hand-made products hard to resist, and came away with many bowls and cups of various sizes.

We returned to Cairo refreshed, with ears full of birdsong and eyes enchanted by unobstructed views of palm trees and water.

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Canada Dry

Doing tourist things in Egypt with my parents the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more chances to study the strange social behaviours that arise from the tourist industry. From the humble camel tout (“good price”) to the more elaborate story (“I work at the hotel restaurant, I saw you yesterday…”), many people who live off tourism will say anything to provide you with wares or services you usually don’t need in exchange for some of your money. Taxis, calèches (horse-drawn carriages), and boat rides abound especially in Luxor, where walking along the corniche becomes something of a joke that we then repeated amongst ourselves to lighten the mood.

“Hey, mister! Madame! Where you going? Where you from? Taxi? Good price! Calèche? Need a boat? Five pound. Market this way, market this way.” Some will stop once you say no thank you, many will persist, making you feel even less like saying yes. The pestering is constant, but it’s all part of the tourist game.

Of course, one of the strategies these sellers employ is to try and start a conversation with you. The easiest way is to ask you where you’re from. Ignoring the question is a bit too impolite for our Western sensibilities, answering the truth will inevitably open up some kind of opportunity for further questions or conversation. Sometimes I lie and say Bhutan, which inevitably gets quizzical looks. Apparently not many Bhutanese make it to Upper Egypt.

Whenever we say we’re Canadian, we inevitably get the same response: “Canada? Canada Dry!” It was funny the first time, it got old really fast.

But in fact this ubiquitous response leads to more questions. Do other nationalities get their special response, or are we the only one? Also, how did camel tour sellers and site porters and taxi drivers all come to say the same thing from Giza to Aswan? Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ginger ale sold anywhere in Egypt. So what gives? How do they even know about this brand? Who started this thing and how did it spread?

Looking a bit online, it seems that many fellow Canadians got a similar response: “Canada Dry, Never Die!” It sounds like Canady Dry used to run some kind of successful marketing campaign in Egypt that caught on and worked too well.

Friday Morning Quiet

Since Egypt is a Muslim country, the weekend here is on Friday and Saturday in order to accommodate for the most important prayer of the week, on Friday at midday. As many Egyptians prepare for this prayer, or maybe cool off after staying up late Thursday night, most shops and restaurants are closed on Friday morning and the streets are almost deserted.

Cairo is known to be a chaotic city, and like anything else there are two sides to this reality. On the one hand, it makes for a lively urban atmosphere: there are always people around, it’s easy to find a taxi at any time, shops are open late, and you usually feel safe walking around at night because the streets are busy. On the other hand, traffic is pretty bad, streets are smelly and loud, sidewalks are like obstacle courses, the honking is incessant, and there’s always people, people, people, everywhere, walking, sitting around waiting for something to happen, standing, talking… It can be a little exhausting.

So, as you can imagine, Friday morning is a special time when the pulse of the city slows considerably. I love Friday mornings because there’s absolutely no guilt about staying at home—you can’t get much done outside the house anyway. It’s a great time to catch up on work, reading, cleaning, or just play a game. My gym is open on Fridays, but I’d rather wait until after midday prayer, when the city comes to life again, to go out.

Those who do venture out on Friday mornings are rewarded with an uncanny experience. The streets are quiet, there’s almost nobody about on the sidewalks—even most bawabs aren’t sitting around in front of their buildings. Cars are few and far between, and there are moments, sometimes very long moments that can last for minutes, during which you can’t hear any honking! When I went out earlier today, I actually heard bird song from the trees. Bliss.

As exhausting as the chaos can get, at least it makes you appreciate peace and quiet when they do come.

Ride-Sharing in Cairo

Since we arrived in Cairo a few months ago, we’ve relied heavily on Uber to help us get around town safely and easily. Ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Careem, its Dubai-based competitor in the Middle East and Asia, have been a boon to locals and expats alike in Cairo: there’s no exchange of money, the price is agreed-upon in advance through the app, and cars are often cleaner and safer than the local white taxis, which are infamous for their colourful drivers and arguments about the fare.

Naturally, the popularity of ride-sharing apps has resulted in taxi drivers getting more and more frustrated with the loss of business. Incessant honking and chaotic traffic is a part of any walk across Cairo’s streets, so it took us a while to realize that the white taxis were actually honking at us almost every time they passed us, presumably to get our attention in case we needed a ride.

On March 20, Egyptian media reported that the country’s Administrative Court had officially banned Uber and Careem in Egypt and ordered them to shut down their apps. The companies are being sued by a group of local taxi drivers who argue that drivers who rely on ride-sharing apps are breaking the law because they drive for commercial purposes without the correct license. Uber and Careem appealed the ruling, but the situation on the ground in Cairo was ambiguous over the next few days. The apps were still functioning and drivers were available, but once when we rode to the airport our driver asked us to say we were his friends if the guards at the checkpoint asked (they didn’t).

Riding with Uber isn’t always as straightforward here at it is in other countries, even on the best of days. We’ve found that drivers often don’t like to meet passengers at the meeting point—they’ll stay parked where they are and wait for you to walk over to them. Also, it’s happened to us several times that drivers either can’t or won’t follow the GPS instructions to get to the destination, so I’ve had to pull up the map on my own phone and give them instructions myself.

As for the court decision from March 20, it appears to be part of a broader issue between the Egyptian government and ride-sharing apps. In June 2017, an article by Declan Walsh in The New York Times revealed that the Egyptian government had requested that Uber and Careem provide them with access to all their data. Naturally, many rights activities were alarmed—and with data privacy very much in the news these days, companies like Uber have to be extremely careful about how they handle user data. Careem and Uber refused to hand over their data to the Egyptian government at the time, but the government is currently pursing a legislative route to access the data through other means.

Peter Hessler’s Cat

Journalist Peter Hessler spent five years living in Cairo with his wife and twin daughters, from 2011 to 2016. He’s been writing excellent pieces in the New Yorker about his experiences in Cairo, for example one about his neighbourhood garbage collector (the piece ends up being about the broader social, political, and cultural implications of the garbage business in Egypt, as well as men-women relations in the country), and another about Chinese expats who sell kinky underwear in Egypt. I highly recommend his writing, which, as the best non-fiction often does, starts by describing something small and then expands to encompass larger questions.

Last week, the New Yorker published a new piece by Hessler, which is, among other things, about the cat he got while he lived in Zamalek in order to keep rodents at bay (he lived on the ground floor and, rather frighteningly, his baby daughters were getting bitten by mysterious rodents). The cat in question is a traditional Egyptian breed called Mau, and he called his Morsi, after the Egyptian president who’d just been elected at the time. Before the year was out, the president had been deposed, but the cat remained. Hilarious adventures ensue when the cat runs away and the expat has to run around the neighbourhood calling after him.

Hessler mentions that the apartment building he lived in had distinctive railings of wrought iron made to look like spider webs. G. and I both took a short walk in Zamalek after our Arabic lessons the other day, looking to see if we could spot it. G.’s hunch led us down a street we’d never walked on before, and we came face to face with the building we were looking for at the end of it. There’s now some construction on the street right in front of the building, which probably wasn’t there when Hessler lived here.

It’s always nice to see a place in real life after you’ve read about it, and we had a good time imagining some of the scenes from the piece and trying to figure out which unit Hessler and his family probably lived in. Although that elevator shaft will probably give us nightmares for weeks to come (I won’t give it away, so you’ll just have to read Hessler’s article yourself if you want to know).

Hessler has a book on the way titled The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, and I look forward to reading it when it comes out next year!