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Egypt’s literary gems: Malim the Great

In 1942 World War II was raging in Europe, the first battle of Alamein began, the Japanese invaded Burma, Albert Camus delivered his masterpiece The Stranger and Adel Kamel published Malim al-Akbar (Malim the Great).

This latter novel was submitted to a competition organized by the Institution for the Preservation of the Arabic Language and rejected together with Al-Sarab (The Mirage), a minor Naguib Mahfouz work. Apparently the jury objected to the simplified Arabic of both. In response Kamel, an Egyptian lawyer and author, wrote Introducing Malim to the Arts of Language and Literature.  

In this lengthy and amusing introduction, published by Al-Karma Publishing in 2014, together with the forgotten novel, the author consoles his protagonist Malim for failing to convince the jury and launches into a long discussion, or rather sermon, on the interdependence of language, form and content, and the need to reform the “archaic” Arabic language to render it more content-oriented and compatible with modern times. Arabic scholars must dispense with a lot of abundant over-saturated linguistic freight, he argues, and wonders why a language needs more than one synonym for “lion.”

Though the 140-page essay (the novel itself is only 176 pages) is witty and original, it is also excessively verbose and redundant for this novel. Having ploughed through the introduction, you are instantly awarded by a fresh and concise plot, starting with these memorable lines:  

Malim said: Without a doubt!

Then he picked up his tools, and walked his path, without turning round, pounding the earth with persistence and perseverance, as if he wanted to invade Akko. As for his friend who stood by, watching him with an ironic smile, as soon as Malim had passed a stone-throwing distance , he said: We will see! Then he laughed out loud and walked a path other than the path!

Adel Kamel Fanous was born in Cairo on February 27, 1916. His father, a famous lawyer, pushed him to study law. Kamel, who had a good command of English and Arabic, spent a considerable amount of time studying literature anyway, although unfortunately for Egyptian readers became only literarily active, as far as we know, between 1938 and 1942. 

He wrote two plays that are now lost, Shoban Kehul  (Aged Youth 1938) and Feéran El Markeb (Rats of the Ship, publishing date unknown), as well as one, Wik Antar (I Follow You Antar, 1941), that literary critic Ragaa al-Nakash described in a preface to Kamel’s other novel, Malek men Shoaa (King of Ray, 1941, republished by Maktabet al-Ossra in 1998), as one of the most beautiful and deepest plays of modern times. It was rejected by the national theater. King of Ray, about Ikhnaton and classic in structure and language, was published by Kamel at his own expense.

Fortunately Kamel’s works were rediscovered by Al-Karma, a publisher founded in 2013 to publish modern Egyptian literature and biographies, as well as forgotten and lost Egyptian novels (13 so far). Although his two novels were not totally unknown, they were long out of print and the rediscovery of the mysterious Kamel, who renounced writing after 1942 and died in 2005, equals that of John Williams, whose gem Stoner was republished by Vintage in 2003.

What makes Malim so enthralling is that every single page is entertaining. Written in simple and light prose that’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, it is invigorated with a staunch criticism of Egyptian society and politics that has fully retained its relevance. Suddenly twisting events and ingenious dialogues flank this stinging critique. It is also devoid of stereotypes, compactly and assiduity wrapped up without becoming tangled in overly-fastidious descriptions.

As the paths of the two protagonists, Malim (meaning “penny”) and Khaled, coincidentally converge, it seems they could not be more unlike in either character or lifestyle. Malim, young, poor and pragmatic, is the son of a hoodlum but commits himself to leading an honest life with a carpentry job. Khaled, the youngest son of a powerful pasha working for the Foreign Ministry, is a renegade without a cause, constantly challenging his father’s authority with revolutionary ideas on reform and governance.

“You’re a foolish boy,” retorts his father, who is said to have pushed his own father down the stairs in order to inherit his fortune. “Ruling the people as you envisage it would be like bending your back to a donkey and inviting him to ride. Myself, I’d rather ride the donkey.”

Khaled studied in England and on returning to Egypt began to question a society imbued with lies and hypocrisies. In his naïve idealistic zest, he encloses himself in his room and reads one book after the other, despite his father’s urgent appeals that he hold down a job at the Foreign Ministry, which Khaled deems tantamount to scrounging unearned money.

When tasked to fix a window at Khaled’s house, Malim stumbles upon a pile of money carefully hidden in the room. Khaled hatches a romantic plan to cast Malim as an honest man who returns the money to Khaled’s father, thus deserving a neat finder’s fee. This backfires and Malim ends up in a jail cell, let even down by Khaled. Burdened with guilt, Khaled defies his father, providing the reader with the most enjoyable dialogues of the book as their witty disputations reach almost Shakespearian grandeur and the law courts.

Khaled’s rebellion constitutes a stirring-up of pasha-oriented patriarchal rule. As Kamel’s ironic depictions dispense with unnecessary pathos, this confrontation between conservatism and liberalism perhaps seems frivolous. It is undeniably a facetious, stylized satire. Khaled’s comic endeavors to turn his back on a dissolute society and lead a simple life as a Bedouin in a tent are an allegory suggetsing that Egyptians or Arabs generally are still living a backward life like their ancestors, and must reimagine their conservative traditions.

Then the narration jumps three years to the future and to a shabby, mysterious castle in Islamic Cairo’s Khayameia district, where a bunch of political and social anarchists, parasitic crooks and fake intellectuals spend their days idly philosophizing and arguing to waste their otherwise unconsumed energy, ruled by an eloquent blighter called Nasseef, who is envious of Malim because his services have become worryingly indispensable to them all.

The castle clearly represents hierarchical society run by useless intellectuals, artists and politicians, sucking on the blood of the poor, without whose services its pyramid-like structure would crumble. Hence the paradoxical title: Malim (which is analogous with being poor) the great.

Khaled falls victims to one of Malim’s cons, who sees it as pay-back for his incarceration. But Khaled sees through the act, joins the castle dwellers and falls in love with Hania, a foreigner who assists in Malim’s tricks. This part of the plot is packed with delightful misunderstandings and mistaken identities. At one point Nasseef presumes Khalid is a policeman come to arrest them, and falls back in his chair shouting: “Long live Egypt”, proving English writer Samuel Johnson’s famous words that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Yet the most comical scene is when Khaled preaches about the rights of the poor in a shabby bar in order to impress Hania, whereupon he is promptly arrested. It’s another attack on intellectuals addressing the masses with bloated rhetoric they cannot fathom, and it illustrates that the masses are not concerned with the worries of the educated as they toil for their daily bread.

Perhaps this belief is what led Kamel to renounce writing in 1942. Or did he?

There are rumors that Kamel wrote two novels in the 1990s, whereabouts unknown. Who knows? If found, it won’t be the first time novels reemerge long after their writer’s death.

When asked why he abandoned writing by critic Sabri Hafez in 1966 for Megalla magazine, Kamel said: “Literature for me was a complete life. I poured so much love into it, it was tantamount to adoration… But the shock was cruel… I soon discovered that I wrote plays the theater did not care for, and novels I published at my own expense that no one read. I felt like a bride that meticulously put on her make-up and made herself pretty for a groom she could not find.” Yet Hafez says Kamel also expressed remorse about forswearing his passion.

Mahfouz, who was four years older, expressed sympathy for this radical decision. “There are no clear reasons why a writer suddenly stops writing and creating forever,” he writes in an afterword published at the end of the Al-Karma edition. “I had a similar case when I told my colleagues that I was done with writing and was going to dedicate myself to film scripts. Then, after years passed I returned to writing literature. It’s back, I told them.”

As far as we know, Kamel emigrated to America at some point. His last known literary words came out of Malim the Great’s mouth: “Oh Egypt, you have stuck your head in the sand.”

Sherif Abdel Samad