Back to
In the News

  To Reach the Waterfall



source Al-Ahram Weekly

By Youssef Rahkha


"The real question is whether they have compromised themselves," says Bahaa Taher of his generation of writers, "in order to get recognition from the establishment..."

Active in the left-wing and avant-garde literary circles of the 1960s (and later one of the most widely read contemporary novelists in the Arab world), the 63-year-old author has now received the state's Award of Merit in Literature, the highest honour the establishment can confer on a writer. With numerous other prizes and one novel turned into a popular television series, the community seems to be intent on lionizing this angry young man of Egyptian letters, more than 30 years after his career took off. True to form, Taher shrugs off all talk of the effects of this recognition on his latest collection of stories, Zahabtu ila Shallal (I Went to a Waterfall), the first book to be written after his return to Egypt from an extended stay in the West. "If the establishment is beginning to acknowledge the 1960s generation of writers [who, up until the early 1990s, were generally tagged as political and social dissidents], this only goes to show that the gap separating genuine and official culture is narrowing."

The stories in Zahabtu ila Shallal are far from being complacent variations on favourite themes. For Taher they comprise the effort to come to grips with the changes wrought on the social and political landscape during 14 years of "self-imposed exile", as he puts it. "Even for someone who has not left Egypt for a moment, it requires a terrible effort of mind to understand how social and political developments have affected individual lives, how they manifest in particular people. It is this that interests me most of all. When I went to the West, you know, I had travelled many, many times. I had been there before. But I do not claim to have understood the West until I had lived there over a number of years. Only then was I able to have that kind of knowledge of people, to understand the social relations that bound them, to get closer to the meaning of what I had merely apprehended from afar."

Here too Taher's trick of throwing oblique, poetically elusive glances at individuals in society holds good. One story recounts the homecoming of an expatriate who, traumatized by the selfishness and corruption he encounters on arriving in Sadat's Cairo, finds solace when an eccentric taxi-driver agrees to take him from the airport without fussing over the money. While the driver speaks of his alienation from this harshly materialistic world, the nameless narrator recalls his own troubles, drawing closer and closer to the event of Nasser's death, which coincides with the circumstances that lead to his departure. As they pass the mosque in which Nasser is buried, the driver starts divulging his belief that Nasser was a saint with supernatural powers. Two months before he died, he says, "he sat next to me in this taxi and wanted to go to the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque. I told him the gate would be shut so late at night. He said, 'Just take me there'... I saw the gate opening for him and a powerful light coming from within. Then he went in and the gate shut behind him. He must have known he was going and thought, I'd better say good-bye to the Sayeda..." The driver and expatriate lament their separate losses, but the identification of two very different experiences of the same event is complete.

"I would be lying if I claimed that I can grasp all that has changed in society," Taher continues as he slowly lights a cigarette. "A writer cannot simply look around and come up with the answers. A writer is not a sociologist or economist whose fieldwork yields clearly definable results. You need to know people and live among them, to know them well across generations and classes. To me writing is this process of exploration. In the three years since I came back, I have been exploring the new landscape. Not only me but everyone else, those who belong with my generation and other writers alike. We are exploring, looking for keys to the change that has occurred." He stops to look for an ashtray, as if to give himself time to evaluate the change. "Because the last 15 to 20 years have witnessed a phenomenal, a flagrant change ? to the extent that for someone like myself, who has been absent for a long time, it is as if you come back to a totally new country, radically different from the one you left."

Ironically that "new country", unlike the one Taher left in the early 1980s, is eager to embrace the formerly marginal culture to which his writing belongs. It is an odd, belated reunion. With one recusant after another receiving the official stamp of approval, including such vehemently anti-establishment figures as the late Amal Donqol, one has the feeling that the insurgent energy of the 1960s has been absorbed into the fabric of life and that right-wing authority no longer needs to fear the "genuine culture" which it had been adamant on suppressing. "In the past we were marginalised because we were not blindly supportive [of established authority], nor writers of panegyrics. And we are not so now. If the establishment acknowledges our contribution that can only be a positive sign. It signals a kind of development in the perception of the role of literature in society: that writers are no longer expected to blow the government's trumpet."

But if the recognition increasingly bestowed on the 1960s generation of writers is "a development in the perception of the role of literature", are we moving along the lines of western democracy? With this the conversation takes a distinctly political turn. Taher retorts, "In the West writers have no more freedom than they do in the East. I mean, in most cases you cannot radically oppose certain well-established concepts. You can speak about sex and religion as much as you like, your freedom of expression remains intact. Of course it is also possible to express your political views, but only within a predefined framework. In the West you have the freedom to say what you like about God, but if you happen to come up against the interests of the banks, or the huge conglomerates and multinationals, not a word will be published. Unless you function exclusively in marginal and out-of-the-way circles, you are not permitted to say that the Arabs are right in the Arab-Israeli conflict, you are not permitted to sympathize with the Iraqis. During the Cold War, you were not permitted to side with the Marxists against America... What kind of freedom is this? The freedom available to writers under Western democracy is a theoretical freedom. Genuine freedom is the ability to oppose the most fundamental precepts in a given society and not risk being excluded from the mainstream. Over here, on the other hand, I can fundamentally oppose the establishment without losing too much..."

Notwithstanding Taher's reservations about western democracy (which might explain the positive tone in which he speaks of the establishment in Egypt), it is the feeling of alienation from current Egyptian realities that explains why some of the new stories revert back to his experience in Switzerland. Before coming back for good, Taher had already explored what it could mean for an Egyptian to live in the West in his widely acclaimed last novel, Al-Hob fi al-Manfa (Love in Exile), which has been described by I'tidal Osman as "an expansive vision that encompasses world and homeland, north and south, self and other". In sharp contrast, his first collection of stories, Al Khotouba (The Engagement) had invoked, according to Sabri Hafez, "an extremely strange, nightmarish world, which is nevertheless presented in very ordinary language, as if its strangeness were neither surprising nor lamentable". In Zahabtu ila Shallal, perhaps to an even greater extent than in Al-Hob fi al-Manfa, the poetry is more intense, the world more humane. The drama, which had been absent from Taher's early writing, is dense with life. Was the experience of Europe necessary to the 1990s' lyrical insurrection?

Taher himself believes that the success of Al-Hob fi al-Manfa depended on its drawing on an emotionally compelling episode in the political conflict between East and West. Although the action of the novel takes place in Europe, it is set against the backdrop of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and when it came out in 1995 the atrocities committed against the Arabs in the camps of Sabra and Shatila were still vivid in people's minds. "In that novel I used actual documents and real-life accounts that had come my way. A journalist had seen the atrocities in Lebanon and written an article about them but no one agreed to publish it. I had long talks with her and took down what she said, which was later incorporated into the text. Of course, it is never a clear-cut battle between West and East (we should really say, North and South, because that is where the problem exists...). I feel that well-meaning westerners can be equally victimized, as the novel I think shows. Bernard, the left-wing journalist who is prepared to take risks in order to point out the truth, is a good example of that." In the wake of political upheavals and a presiding sense of unrest in the Middle East, was it Taher's distance from home that brought out his sense of belonging in a striking way?

"All the time I was away," he recalls, "I was totally engrossed by Egypt. Doubtless the experience of living abroad gives you an opportunity to see your society in a fresh light ? that is, of course, if you genuinely belong to that society. Whereas you know as well as I do that many Egyptians who travel to the West simply dissolve and forget their homeland. I feel it is a question of belonging, whether or not you belong somewhere. Even at the personal level, you know, in everyday life, I belonged wholly to Egypt. Living abroad was only a way of confirming that. For example... I'll tell you a strange story. Before I became an expatriate, particularly because of my work in the culture channel of the Egyptian radio, I was reading a great deal of western literature, but as soon as I had settled in the West I found myself reading only Arabic ? this will symbolically reveal the effect of living abroad. Incidentally," he laughs, "none of this has prevented me from marrying a European woman."

Interestingly, in his most recent works Taher has frequently returned to the vision of a European woman, and to the redeeming power of a love that bridges differences and obliterates conflict. The story that gives the book its title is an intensely poetic prose piece in which the narrator meets his beloved at the point where the river turns into a waterfall. There is no mention of time, place or national identity, but the implication of the waterfall is that they are in Europe ? a heavenly Europe of dreams. As they watch the spray rising in huge waves, "like white peacocks stretching their wings and then bending them again in a split second", the narrator is so happy that he says, "Only if this waterfall were Eternity!" And his beloved replies, "But that's exactly what it is."

"There is no [direct] symbolism in my writing," Taher explains. "When people ask me what this or that might stand for I never have an answer. All I can see is an image..." It is the image of the waterfall that one goes away with. A beautiful, fascinating waterfall. And regardless of his being lionized, there is no doubt that Taher has reached it.

Back to top