In a press interview I conducted with Ibrahim Aslan in 2010, the Egyptian novelist talked affectionately and appreciatively about the role played by Alaa al-Deeb in introducing the writers of the sixties and their works. The way he spoke of him seemed to suggest that he regarded him not simply as a writer of the sixties, but rather as a mentor of that generation. Indeed, he placed him among the ranks of Yahya Haqqi and Abdel Fattah el-Gamal, two of the fathers of that generation, who lent their contemporaries great support by writing about them and helping publish their work.
“I regard el-Gamal as one of the forces of good, along with Yahya Haqqi and Alaa al-Deeb,” Aslan said, adding that people of such calibre “are capable of bringing balance to any cultural life”.
This view is by no means exclusive to Aslan: in a cultural community characterised by its flattery and narrow interests, Alaa al-Deeb is widely regarded as a saint. Litterateurs of various generations view his writings on them as both an endorsement and a recognition of their talent. Indeed, what earned the late novelist his well-deserved stature was his objectivity and keenness to encourage the new voices in which he saw potential.
Moreover, Alaa has close resemblance to his protagonists. The following remark he made will suffice to demonstrate: “It has killed me. I have not lived a full day since.”
The reference here is, of course, to the June 1967 debacle, or the Six-Day War. Though it may at first appear to be a gross exaggeration, those who are familiar with al-Deeb’s works will see this statement as an entirely fitting description, not only of his life but also the lives of his characters. For the 1967 defeat was a turning point when the dreams of his protagonists were dashed and their lives were spoilt forever. In almost all his works, that humiliating defeat embodies a lasting wound; an incurable disease.
Personally, I always saw in Abdel Khaliq al-Messiri (from Lemon Blossom) and Amin al-Ulfi, amongst other protagonists of al-Deeb, a reflection of the author himself. He seemed like a musician who is more concerned with creating variations within one main melody than composing multiple melodies.
In most of his works, we are confronted with almost the same protagonist, albeit with a different name: a defeated leftist intellectual, estranged from his surroundings, unwilling to engage with a world governed by strife and personal interests, and highly critical of injustice and flagrant practices. Other recurrent themes are marriages doomed to failure and old love affairs still lingering in the memory. More importantly, there are recurrent references to a particular moment of total collapse, when everything breaks down. This is by no means exclusive to political and military defeat alone, but encompasses also smaller individual defeats.
What, I sometimes wonder, would have happened if the 1967 defeat had not occurred, or if at least it had not had such an impact on Alaa al-Deeb’s life and works? Such a speculative question is difficult to answer, of course. However, his few stories published before 1967 reveal more diversity and vigour than do his subsequent works. Yet this remains a personal view and may not be highly significant when we consider the fact that the same existential anxiety, and the feelings of estrangement and alienation, are dominant too in his early works, particularly Al-Qahira (Cairo). In this novella, written in 1961 and published in 1964, there is a critical moment which marks a turning point in the protagonist’s life: the moment he kills his mistress:
“Here the human being has been defeated. Here he killed. Here with his bare hands he had attacked existence His defeat was proof he had reached the peak. Here his consciousness had snapped and he had lost control. The thought had merged into one with the deed. Here Fathi stopped torturing himself and his ability to stand his life snapped.”
Read this paragraph and compare it with similar moments in other works by the same writer, and you will gain the sense that the human being in al-Deeb’s works is “pre-defeated” – that defeat is his fate. It is part of his identity as a human. A defeat on the scale of the 1967 debacle is therefore not necessary for his protagonists to experience feelings of emptiness, alienation and loss. Perhaps the military defeat was merely a means of affirming Alaa al-Deeb’s deep contention that human beings are doomed to failure.
Translated by Adil Babikir
FROM Banipal magazine no 60 Autumn-Winter 2017