May Hawas is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Alexandria University, and associate editor of the Journal of World Literature. She received her PhD in literature from Leuven University, and has been a visiting scholar in France and Germany. She has published various academic articles and book chapters, and some of her short stories have appeared in Mizna, Yellow Medicine, and African Writing.
She is also the editor of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties Volume 1: 1964–66 & Volume 2: 1966–68 (AUC Press, 2017).
In this interview Hawas explains what Waguih Ghali’s writing means for her and how she got involved in editing the diaries of this enigmatic and fascinating Egyptian writer, pacifist, and savvy political commentator.
What is it about Waguih Ghali’s cult novel Beer in the Snooker Club that resonates with you?
MH: For me, personally, many things. Its language—which is a very early to mid-twentieth century British idiom. Its unapologetic performance as a world level novel. That is, it doesn’t self-consciously aim to be a ‘postcolonial’ text (even though, obviously, it is one). Instead it’s simple, witty, consciously modernist; there’s no ‘local color,’ no ‘self-translation,’ no history lesson, lots of politics, and no politics at all. It’s a slick mix.
What resonates with me the most, however, is the range of its subtle humor, from deadpan irony to slapstick. Egyptians are said to be known for their humor. In other words, we think we’re funny. We certainly tell everyone else we’re funny. It may or may not be true. You can certainly find a range of humor in old Egyptian films. Until fairly recently, you could hear it on the streets. The love of wordplay, the untimely witticism when the world seems to be crashing around you, the sympathy, even admiration for fahlawa, the appreciation of the ridiculous at the most inappropriate moment.
It takes a culture once inherently appreciative of comedy as an art form to find an afa funny—no wonder the southern Italians have afa jokes, too. Afa, one long loud smooch on the palm of your hand then slap the hand down on the back of someone’s neck. Ha! Actually not very funny at all, but an iconic trope that can still get a laugh provided no one gets their neck broken. The slap is inconsequential, but the smooch is relevant. Why smooch? Because comedy is also a self-conscious, self-congratulatory performance. A process of timing and surprise that operates in the same way a house cat behaves with a piece of string: deliberation, waiting, pouncing, missing the target, bumping into a wall, pulling away shocked, and—my favorite part—the finale: walking away with dignity because it knew this would happen, and waiting for the standing ovation that it knows will come for such a splendid performance.
The first scene of Beer in the Snooker Club unfolds in much the same pattern, ending with the same withdrawal from the scene in theatrical dignity. Ram knew he won’t get the money from his aunt, nor does he actually care. The whole act is a performance—reaching a climax when he, the sponger, advises his aunt, the matriarchal landlord, on how to cut down on the cost of bread by reheating old loaves in the oven, but gets lost trying to deduct the price of the gas from the price of the new bread. It’s a performance—do you think a cat is really interested in a piece of string?
Strangely enough, this appreciation of comedy as an art that needs some deliberation rather than as a series of multi-authored sketches limply strung together seems to be completely absent from Egyptian literature and contemporary film. Completely absent. Audiences may have lost their taste for it. You find it subtly in Beer in the Snooker Club, though, and this is what Ram tells Edna: “I am real Egyptian. I have our humor… We would have all died a long time ago if we didn’t have our humor.” He never imagines that a taste for a certain humor can change in a culture. We look to contemporary Hollywood for humor these days. Which I suppose is why Beer in the Snooker Club is appreciated for being funny in England (which still has its own tradition of comedy) but is largely considered as political in Egypt.
How did the success of Beer in the Snooker Club affect his life (and death)?
MH: It sold well enough when he was alive, in England and the US, and got him some good reviews. One critic compared him to Aldous Huxley. The book was translated into French a few years after its publication. Ghali also writes in the Diaries that he’d been approached for a translation into Czech.
I’m not sure if the novel or any one thing “affected” his death as such. He was a generally troubled man.
How would you describe Waguih Ghali?
MH: As a writer. He lived to write; he died trying to publish. Anything else is conjecture.
What was it like to edit the diaries of such a controversial character, and posthumously no less?
MH: Exciting. Depressing. Worrying.
Exciting, because we were revitalizing something that no one had worked on before, and we were preserving a document important to Egyptian and world literature. We were also working on the diaries of someone who’s a cult hero for Egyptian readers, and was one of the first Anglo-Arab writers and probably the first Egyptian novelist writing in English.
The process was depressing because editing requires having to read over and over the same description of his often bleak moments. A reader may read the phrase, “bleakness and utter despair,” for example, and it takes him or her a couple of seconds. An editor has to read ““bleaknes… And utter despaire.”” Then change it to ““bleakness And utter despair.”” Then change it to “‘bleakness and utter despair.’” Then ““bleakness and utter despair.”” Which is a bleak and utterly desperate way to spend a few minutes.
Finally, it was worrying because the work was done posthumously, and it was not possible to discuss changes with the author beforehand. The degree to which the text could be changed was severely limited.
This might have been a good thing, of course. I’ve spent more time of my life than I would like marking essays. Faced with Ghali’s language mistakes, sloppy handwriting, lack of revision, repetitiveness and sometimes incoherence, I’ve never felt more like asking someone to re-do the assignment. At the beginning of the project I looked at the printout of an incredibly messy 800-odd page manuscript on my desk in front of me, and I knew, had he been alive, what I would have been tempted to say.
Here, Waguih. Please. Come in—may I call you Waguih? —Yes, do sit down.
Now listen, five things. We’re trying to sell a book, so:
Turn it into a novel.
Correct the grammar.
And for God’s sake send me a typed manuscript.
Yet it was precisely because I couldn’t intervene to that level that the Diaries are unique. Simply put: there is nothing in Anglo-Arabic literature quite like them as they are now, in form and in content. Their rawness has been preserved, but transcribing and editing them has made them readable.
Why were you interested in editing the diaries in the first place?
MH: I’d wanted to access the diaries for years, but when I eventually did I was at the stage where the material had gained a professional significance to me whether academically or out of an interest in saving something from the always-threatened Arab cultural archive.
In the beginning I was just curious. I loved Beer in the Snooker Club when I first read it. We were still on dial-up internet connection in Egypt. There was nothing you could find on Waguih Ghali on the very slow internet, but I realized somehow that there was a memoir on him, After a Funeral, written by his editor, Diana Athill. I was an undergraduate in a public university where accessing a book meant you had to borrow it, steal it, or find it in the British Council. Well, no one I knew had Diana’s memoir so borrowing and stealing weren’t options, and the British Council didn’t stock it. (The British Council library has since shut its doors in Alexandria, by the way, like most libraries in Alexandria have shut their doors.)
A couple of years later, I started my MA at AUC, and could access After a Funeral in the library. The internet had become faster, but I could find only general information entries on Waguih Ghali, bolstered by the growing popularity of Ahdaf Soueif’s more thorough review.
I started my PhD—Beer in the Snooker Club was one of the novels I worked on. With a European scholarship and family in England I thought I might access the diaries for research purposes. But I didn’t know Diana’s address. I found out through the newspapers that she’d moved into a nursing home, so I e-mailed the home in about 2012, asking them to pass on my message to her. Then I forgot all about it.
About six months later I got an e-mail from my supervisor in Belgium asking me to pass by his office. I went, and on his desk was an envelope for me, with my name, the name of the University, and a few Queen Elizabeth II stamps. That’s it. No address. No return address. It’s a testimony to the Belgian post (and perhaps the size of the population in my university town) that they actually delivered the letter by way of my long-suffering supervisor’s mailbox under whose name I was registered at the University (and where all my misaddressed post would also eventually find its way: university receipts, advertisements, voting announcements). I opened the envelope almost absent-mindedly in the street as I was walking home. I didn’t know who it was from. First came shock, then disappointment. Alas, Diana had written me a postcard only to tell me that she didn’t have the diaries anymore. They’d disappeared, probably during her move into the nursing home…
A year later the internet had become fast enough for Facebook. A friend (and former teacher of mine from AUC, actually) tagged me onto the news that a scanned version of a smudged photocopy of the diaries had been digitized online. In the history of Facebook tagging, never has a tag had more practical use. But by then I was in my final years of PhD: I thought my best response to the digitization would be to publish them. Who knew when the online copy might be taken down? I thought AUC Press, which was regionally distinctive and whose titles were globally disseminated, and with its unique experience in publishing Arabic writing in English in Cairo, the heart of the Arab publishing world, was the best place for the diaries. So I polished my best shoes, ironed a suitably frilly shirt, and looking very much like the over-awed PhD student I was trying to pretend I wasn’t, went to see them.
I’m rather pleased AUC Press said yes.
Were there things in the diaries that you were very surprised to find?
MH: There were many things I was surprised to find. The contradiction between his high moral ground and his own actions, the terrible insight the diaries give into a depressed mind. We’ve all had periods of being upset, but reading about this level of despair gives you a whole new kind of compassion for its victims. Finding out how attractive he was to women was surprising. His love of Alexandria was also surprising. You’d think that someone who spent much of his youth in Alexandria, and who thought Alexandria was the most beautiful sea city in the world would base his novel there. But no. Rediscovering the beauty of his prose in certain sections, where it appears as simple, sharp, funny and full of pathos, was also a pleasant surprise. And the post-reading experience remains full of pleasant surprises. Reaching out to people to work with us on this, finding out they actually wanted to work with us, getting inquiries from Waguih Ghali’s family and friends and having them willing to talk to us, dealing with the editorial team at AUC Press, following up with reviews, talking to you now—all this is because of the diaries, and all of it is a pleasant surprise.
Why, in your opinion, did Waguih Ghali keep a diary?
MH: He wrote that he started it to stop himself from going “mad,” that is, to prevent himself from self-harm. It quickly becomes his confidant and ‘therapist,’ if you will.
Anyone who writes down their thoughts when angry or upset will relate to this. Going through your computer sometimes, or an old notebook, and coming across things you’d written in an emotional mood can be a shock. How could you have hated that person or job so much? How could you have been so much in love? Why were you being so uptight? Get a grip, you want to tell yourself. But you won’t. You’ll work yourself into the same intense writing frenzy next time. Then, if you aren’t intending it for publication, you’ll set the scribble aside.
Well, Ghali didn’t set it aside. It seems to have gradually dawned on him that he was putting all his creative energies in the diary which could instead be redirected into a new novel. Of course, since he didn’t write a novel, and since he had all this rich creative material already, he started reflecting on how he could edit it for publication.
Did Waguih Ghali really intend for them to be published?
MH: Absolutely. He keeps alluding to editing and publishing his diaries. He even revised some of the anecdotes (“makes nice reading,” he says about one story), gauging them as he would any of his short stories for the Times or the Guardian (which are excellent, too, by the way). He compares his writing in the diary to other diaries and some biographies—Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Kafka. Towards the end, he seems to have realised that he wouldn’t be able to do it himself; a few months before he died, he praises Orwell’s papers, edited posthumously by his wife Sonia. In his suicide note, Ghali asks Diana to edit and publish his diaries. “Well-edited, they would be a good piece of literature,” he writes. Are they? But now I’m interviewing you. I will leave that one for you to decide.