Should Arab novels carry political agendas?

“Drafting the novel into the service of a cause, any cause, is incompatible with the greatness of this art form.” - Egyptian novelist Hamdi Abu Golayyel

Sunday 22/12/2019
Egyptian novelist Hamdi Abu Golayyel. (Al Arab)
Writing without pride or shame. Egyptian novelist Hamdi Abu Golayyel. (Al Arab)

The late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz wondered: “Isn’t truth stranger than fiction?” Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim wrote that he no longer could distinguish the boundaries between the world of truth and the world of fiction, as many current events were fantasy decades ago.

US writer Sidney Harris went even further when he said: “The reason that truth is stranger than fiction is that fiction has to have a rational thread running through it in order to be believable, whereas reality may be totally irrational.”

This is why Egyptian novelist Hamdi Abu Golayyel suggested that people should write about their lives to present the world with stories worthy of immortality because people expect reality, not fiction. This is also why he said the Arab world is eager for new literary pioneers to express their own experiences, pouring out their own nectar, sharing their “egos” with the world, without preconception or moralisation.

Abu Golayyel represents a unique experience in Arab literature, an experience inspired by the spirit of the desert and which presents Arab Bedouin life in an atypical manner. His work makes the reader cling to his or her Arab heritage and refuse to abandon it to modernity or Salafism.

Abu Golayyel, speaking to The Arab Weekly, said that Arab novelists should replace political issues with personal experiences because “stripping one’s self is the best defence against the prevailing waves of extremism and intolerance.”

He stressed that the novel is not the expression of a lofty meaning or morality or of politics or a cause. Some novelists intentionally place political ideas in their novels and this constitutes a crime against the novel. “Drafting the novel into the service of a cause, any cause, is incompatible with the greatness of this art form,” Abu Golayyel said.

He said the Arabic novel, since the time of Mahfouz, has been politically exploited. Human characters and even animals are used to express the writers’ political ideas.

He said those who wish to promote a political idea or programme should create a party, publish a pamphlet, write an editorial, make a tirade, organise a demonstration or go on strike but they should stay away from the novel.

In his own work, Abu Golayyel focuses on drawing a portrait of the Bedouin society and conveying the charm of its characters, atmosphere and customs. He did that in his novels and short stories “Retired Thieves,” “Folding the Tents,” “The Rise and Fall of Saad Sheen.”

In his latest novel, specifically, not only does Abu Golayyel portray scenes from the life of a character called Saad Sheen, a Bedouin from the eastern desert of Libya and the western desert of Egypt who migrates to the Sabha, Libya, after the announcement by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that citizenship will be granted to the Saad Sheen Bedouins of Egypt, he also uses the authentic dialect of the Bedouins and songs from their folklore.

Abu Golayyel said he did not intentionally target the desert or the Bedouins but he was seeking to write about his own experience as an Arab nomad who had migrated to Cairo.

His premise is that reality is stronger, richer and more fascinating than fiction because human experience is much deeper than novelists’ imagination. He emphasised the one novelist who can be said to have come closest to this ideal is Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he said: “I did not write anything I did not see.”

Abu Golayyel reiterated his belief that a writer should write about his own experiences, about everything he went through and place himself as the hero of his novels. To do that, the novelist should not select some events and hide others. He should be truthful, writing without pride or shame.

A great novelist is one who presents his life bare for everyone to see, which makes the novel valid for all times and places. Abu Golayyel cited the example of American writer Ernest Hemingway and his novel “A Movable Feast,” which recounts the author’s experience in Paris during the 1920s.

In the Arab world, Abu Golayyel said the best example of a reality novel is Suleyman Fayyad’s “The Book of Gossip,” a revealing work about the nature of Egypt’s elite and intellectuals, such as Amal Dunqul and Naguib Sorour, all of whom were amazing literary figures.

The Egyptian novelist pointed out that some confuse the subjective experience with the literature of confessions. What he meant by “confession” genre was not the scandalous type but the act of relating reality for readers who don’t know it to enjoy.

Among reservations voiced by Abu Golayyel was concerning the language he uses in his work. He relies on colloquial Egyptian Arabic in books and said that resorting to dialects should not be perceived as weakness or intolerance. He asserts that colloquial Egyptian Arabic has become widely accepted and understood by a large segment of Arab society.

Abu Golayyel said the greatest plights of Arab societies were, politically, the independence revolutions led by the nationalist liberation movements and, culturally, the application of modernity.

“The national liberation movements expelled foreign colonialism and established unfair authoritarian regimes in most countries while modernity had demolished the structures of the native cultures, which led societies to fall prey to Salafi religious movements,” he said.

Abu Golayyel explained that texts written by the pioneers of Arab modernity died during their lifetimes. That was the case of the poetry of Adonis or the books of Edwar al-Kharrat. The modernists’ claim that native cultures had to be overthrown was no longer valid. “If you had an old wall, leave it till it crumbles by itself; that’s better,” he said.

He stressed his disbelief in the revolutions of the “Arab spring,” despite his participation in the January 25, 2011, uprising in Cairo. He said he particularly resented the hijacking of the revolution by fanatical religious currents that tried to drive society 15 centuries backward.