Ahmed Mourad and the literary insult to intelligence
 
 

Dear Ahmed Mourad,

I experienced steadily rising fury from the first page of your novel, “1919,” but I thought that things might improve as the plot progressed. However, when I read the last page I swore in such a loud voice that everyone sitting near me on my return flight from Khartoum was offended. But I’m sure that they would excuse me if they knew why.

You’re a young and promising writer who has specialized in novels full of mystery, suspense and the supernatural. You have attracted many readers of this generation. I’m trying to understand why you decided to change what was special about you and start writing historical novels.

There is nothing wrong with the historical novel in principle, but to someone like me — who has read Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef El Sebai, Youssef Idriss, Yahya Haqqy and Ihsan Abdel Qodous — when I read a novel like “1919,” I am left with one persistent question: Why? I don’t know if you’re relying on this generation’s ignorance of Mahfouz’s writing or whether you yourself are unfamiliar with it.

When you decide to write a novel with a plot that revolves around the events of the second decade of the 20th century, and is set in the world of brothels, English military camps, alleyway bullies and pashas’ palaces, yet ignore the existence of the many novels that have been set in these places with the same events and characters — but with the essential difference that the author is someone like Mahfouz — then your writing is a prime example of a literary insult to intelligence.

You re-write the scene of the 1919 revolution from scratch, apparently pretending that you don’t know that its depiction in Mahfouz’s trilogy is one of the most famous scenes in the history of Egyptian literature. What about people who haven’t read Mahfouz’s novels but have seen the film adaptation? Do you not expect them to compare? Does it not occur to you that you’re taking on the most famous novelist in Egypt’s history? And if it did, would you be so kind as to explain what your motives were in doing so? Because it is not clear in the book.

As for the rest of the novel, at first I said to myself that the brothels might be an unintentional similarity, because it’s a rich and exciting world. But you offer nothing new in this setting. The Banba is a carbon copy of certain characters from Mahfouz and Sebai. She’s a madam of the type conjured up in the imagination of anyone who has read or watched Egyptian novels and films such as “Nahno la Nazraa al-Shouk” (We Don’t Sow Thorns, 1970), “Darb al-Hawa” (The Path of Desire, 1983), “Shawaria min Nar” (Streets of Fire, 1984) and many others. If you are deliberately using this character as a stereotype, then at least you should add some depth or a new dimension.

You take us from the world of brothels to the world of English military camps. I expected you to use the term “al qornos,” which Mahfouz told us was the name given to English military camps. But you didn’t, for whatever reason. I was again struck with the feeling of having lived this scene before in a different novel — probably Mahfouz’s “Miramar” (1967). The same stereotype of the English soldier Johnny, as if we’re in a sitcom poking fun at this period in Egypt’s history. You should know that the Johnny character has been overdone to the extent that you cannot use it unless you are being satirical.

Then you move to the world of the alleyway bullies, represented by the characters of Shehata al-Gen, his son Abdel Qader and his story with Khalil Bateekha, the former top bully. In the process you’re apparently completely oblivious to the existence of a creation called the Harafeesh saga. The 1977 Harafeesh saga is popular in Egyptian culture to the extent that it’s a joke to write something so similar.

Then you go to the secret world of the resistance against the English occupation, the killing of the English soldier and the printing of leaflets through the character of Ahmed Kira, who is a solid mix of the characters of Fahmy and Kamal in Mahfouz’s trilogy. Though to be honest, the similarity to Kamal is only in the love story with the pasha’s daughter. And we can’t forget the similarity between him and the character of Ibrahim in Ihsan Abdel Qodous’ “Fi Baytena Ragal” (A Man in Our House, 1957).

Recycling literary characters from the past is not a sin, but you completely fail to add anything new to them. On the contrary, your characters appear superficial and incoherent. I am trying to find a single special aspect about Kira that we haven’t seen in previous works, but I can’t. Maybe the only positive is that he’s based on a real patriotic character who has been long forgotten.

You do attempt to create depth and a background story for some characters, such as Ward, the Syrian woman of Armenian descent. But this character is strange and out of sync with events. And you try to make her talk the Syrian dialect, with the result that she resembles an Egyptian actress trying to play a Syrian character with a concocted broken accent.

As for Queen Nazly, who you portray in her youth as intelligent and patriotic and who in the end completely loses her senses — your novel fails to present any reasonable explanation for this change in her character. You could have at least presented something original that, again, has not been overdone in Egyptian literature. Moreover, there are other characters whose personalities experience radical and illogical changes in the book, such as Yassin, who begins the novel broken and defeated and ends it by suddenly perking up and committing a crime that seems completely at odds with his psychological state.

Alas, all the book’s characters are annoyingly clichéd in the spirit of a third-rate Ramadan soap opera.

It is clear that a primary-school history book was used for the novel’s historical research. You make no effort to add your personal vision or any analysis. There is an incredible shallowness in your treatment of historical events, the majority of which remain contested today. Those who drew up the primary-school history curriculum would envy you for your absolute certainty and conviction about the 1919 revolution. Perhaps you thought you would shock us with the news that Saad Zaghloul was a gambling addict, that we would collapse psychologically at this image of the leader of the nation?

I won’t discuss the mediocre narration and weak language, especially since as a whole the novel is a challenge to the talent of Naguib Mahfouz. You tried to make the dialogue run in colloquial dialect, which results in a very artificial language that sounds like a modern Egyptian trying to speak like old movies, especially in the dialogue between Kira and Nazly.

However, you manage to maintain a level of suspense, though interrupted by moments of boredom, that helps readers keep on reading. I will use the words of Galal Amin in his review of your novel: “Does this novel achieve any goal other than entertainment?” 

I won’t accuse you of plagiarism or even of adapting the works of others. You’re guilty of either ignorance, or, simply, a literary insult to our intelligence.

Yours,

A reader whose blood is boiling and who has been subjected to this when he still hasn’t got over the ending of your previous novel, “Al-Feel Al-Azraq” (The Blue Elephant, 2012), which quite ruined it for him.

Please read an alternative review of “1919” here.

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