The Egyptian novel at the School of Welsh

With Egypt and neighbouring countries currently in the news, a lecture hosted by the School of Welsh at Bangor University will suggest that the path towards revolution can be traced in the Egyptian novel of the last decades. Professor Sabry Hafez,  Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Qatar University, will give his lecture on Cairo and the Egyptian Novel, at Bangor on April 1.

Dr Angharad Price said: ‘At the School of Welsh we are attempting to place the Welsh language and its literature in a wider international context. Three years ago the distinguished Kenyan author and critic, Ngugi wa Thiong’o visited us and gave a talk on his work in the Gikuyu language. Last year Professor Jeff Opland of SOAS delivered a lecture on the praise poetry of the Xhosa tribe in Africa, and this year we are delighted to welcome one of the world’s leading experts on Arabic literature, Professor Sabry Hafez, on the very timely subject of contemporary Egyptian literature.’

Born and raised in Egypt, Professor Sabry Hafez has lectured at the universities of Cairo, Oxford, Stockholm, Los Angeles and was Research Professor in Arabic Literature at SOAS, London. He is the editor of the on-line journal Al-Kalimah (alkalimah.net).

In presenting his lecture, Professor Hafez said: ‘The Egyptian novel in the last decades shows why the Egyptians had to have the revolution, which is still unfolding.’

The population of the megalopolis of Cairo has swollen to an estimated 17 million, more than half of whom live in the sprawling self-built neighbourhoods and shantytowns that ring the ancient heart of the city and its colonial-era quarters. Since the late 1970s, the regime’s liberalization policy—infitah, or ‘open door’—combined with the collapse of the developmentalist model, a deepening agrarian crisis and accelerated rural–urban migration, have produced vast new zones of what the French call ‘mushroom city’. The Arabic term for them al-madun al-‘ashwa’iyyah might be rendered ‘haphazard city’; the root means ‘chance’.

Sixty per cent of Egypt’s urban expansion over the last thirty years has consisted of ‘haphazard dwellings’. These districts can lack the most basic services, including running water and sewage. Their streets are not wide enough for ambulances or fire engines to enter; in places they are even narrower than the alleyways of the ancient medina. The random juxtaposition of buildings has produced a proliferation of cul-de-sacs, while the lack of planning and shortage of land have ensured a complete absence of green spaces or squares. The population density in these areas is extreme, even by slum standards. The over-crowding—seven people per room in some neighbourhoods—has resulted in the collapse of normal social boundaries. With whole families sharing a single room, incest has become widespread. Previously eradicated diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox are now epidemic.

In his lecture, Professor Sabry Hafez will suggest that the new Egyptian novel involves a rupture with earlier realist and modernist forms and transforms the rules of reference between the text and the extrinsic world. Indeed, this new type of novel shares demonstrable formal homologies with the sprawling slums of Cairo itself.

Publication date: 22 March 2011