It took fifty years for Waguih Ghali’s only novel Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) to achieve cult status among Egyptians. It has taken about the same time for his diaries to be published. The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties are now available in print by the American University Press, in two volumes. They cover the last four years of Ghali’s life. Volume 1 (1964-66) is dedicated to his time working for the British Army Corps in West Germany, and his subsequent move to London. Volume 2 (1966-68) covers his sojourn in London, and his visit to Israel in 1967. No one has more reason to rejoice than Ghali fans, but it won’t be the first time that Arab readers wonder where to locate his work vis-à-vis the region’s interrelated political and aesthetic contexts.
Ghali committed suicide in London in 1968, leaving behind six notebooks to his editor and friend, Diana Athill, along with a note asking her to publish them. The diaries remained in Athill’s hands for decades but received relatively little attention from scholars. As Ghali’s novel grew more popular among Arabic-speaking audiences, however, interest in his unpublished diaries increased. Ghali fans knew the diaries existed. They had read all about them in Athill’s 1986 memoir of her relationship with the writer. Just when Athill apologetically declared the originals permanently lost, however, a scholar at Cornell, Deborah Starr, announced that she had a photocopy. Thus, in 2013, with Athill’s blessing, the diaries were digitised and made accessible to the public by Cornell University. One year later, the American University in Cairo Press undertook to publish them. During the course of the AUCP project, Athill further unearthed about fifty letters between her and Ghali, and bequeathed them to the Cornell archive. Had correspondence with Athill for the AUCP project not been initiated, and had Cornell not hosted the letters, it is unlikely they would have been preserved at all.
The story of how Ghali’s Diaries took fifty years to make the journey into print touches upon something felt by most Arab scholars who work with materials always in danger of being lost or neglected (this is partly exemplified by Jadaliyya’s own mission). In publishing posthumous material, it is normal to ask questions about what exactly is being preserved and why. Yet political instability and weak movements of cultural preservation in the Arab world lend such questions specific political exigency. In light of the sheer randomness which controls the way archives in and from the region manage to survive, let alone make it to the limelight, both the publicisation and reception of works like Ghali’s are influenced by political pressures and personal aesthetics.
It doesn’t help that Ghali’s Diaries lack representational quality. They aren’t allegorical of a nation; they aren’t classics of an Arabic or Anglophone canon (at least yet); they don’t necessarily represent minor and subaltern voices; they don’t criticise the West for colonisation; and they don’t rewrite world history. They are full of political events, but they are empty of sustained political intervention. In their lack of easy categorisation, the Diaries highlight both how hard it is for Arab authors to write creatively without being political (even in non-Arab societies which they have adopted and in which they have been assimilated) and, at the same time, how hard it is for these writers to be accepted by local and global reading publics as a-political artists.
Like Beer in the Snooker Club but without the fictional plot, the Diaries read largely like a confessional. Volume 1 is filled with the details of Ghali’s everyday life in Mönchengladbach, West Germany. There he stayed, for years, depressed, unable to write another novel, and finding no one with whom he could share his passion for literature and political polemic. Every affair he has with a woman seems to be doomed before it starts. Every love story is overshadowed with racial slurs from parents and rival boyfriends (characters reminiscent of Steve Ward in Beer in the Snooker Club) and threatened by his own abusive insecurities (analysed by Diana in her memoir as resulting from problems Ghali had with his mother). Dreaming of his beloved London, Ghali rails against the loneliness of small-town life and his own ingrained sense of victimhood, even as he documents in passing the political scene in a still-divided Germany: from the Nazi war crime trials in Dusseldorf to the rise of the National Democratic Party and the rebuilding of Berlin around the Autobahn. It takes little persuading (and a lot of Diana’s money) to enable him to move to London, where he stays for the next two years.
Volume 2 starts in London in 1966, and Ghali spends most of his time partying with London’s intellectuals in Chelsea and playing cards with London’s Egyptians in Knightsbridge. “London is swinging, and I am swinging wholeheartedly with it”, he writes in his Diaries as he goes from deck of cards to pack of fags, and from one new woman to another glass of whisky. It’s less the spirit of the age than it is the homebrew of 1968. Politically, the sixties are in full swing as well, and Ghali fills his Diaries with passing (often dismissive) remarks on the protest movements of the period, from those on Nuclear Disarmament to the anti-Vietnam Campaign. The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 finally catapults Ghali into political activity, pushing him to travel as a journalist to Israel, (“A scoop, what. Very much not me all this really”) –a trip of which he later gives a blow-by-blow account. He returns to London to collaborate with a group of much more politically savvy Israeli anti-Zionists and intellectuals. This surge in political activity inevitably results in the revoking of his Egyptian passport. Depression doesn’t magically disappear with relocation, political activity or love, however, and Ghali’s character, even among the people who loved him the most, was not famous for its strength. The Diaries end with his suicide note.
There is a lot of politics in these Diaries, yet much of the politics lies on the surface. This was a deeply troubled man: alcohol-dependent, depressive, suicidal, and often abusive of himself and others. The signature moments of Beer in the Snooker Club –the witty, impoverished homme-du-monde, the idealistic love story, the sense of humour, the consistent and righteous political anger, even the dream of a happy ending– are all absent here. Equally absent is the fictional quality of Beer which enabled Ghali fans over the past half century to construct an image of Ram (and by extension Ghali) in any star-like form they found dear, from cynical, rock-star rebel to naive, idealistic romantic. It is hard to reconcile this star-like image today with the misogyny, pessimism, nihilism, womanising and lack of political and personal ethics found in the Diaries. If it had been easy for readers to applaud Ram’s critique of the persecution of Egypt’s Jews in the Nasser period, it will be less easy to read of Ghali’s hatred of the Germans who give him refuge in 1966. If it had been easy to accept Ram’s offhand marriage proposal to Didi in Beer in the Snooker Club, it will be less easy to accept Ghali’s obnoxious behaviour with women. If it had been easy to sympathise with Ram’s lackadaisical incapability of action because an Egyptian joke can make you get away with murder, it will be less easy, at least for a reader who is not used to the symptoms of clinical depression, to sympathise with Ghali’s horrifying outpourings of grief. In the end, this is not the writings of a political hero, nor the posthumous writings of Ram. Instead, it is the ravings of a depressed writer who ends up killing himself because he feels bad about himself as a writer, and despairs because he can’t write a second novel.
Such distinctions are important. The hardest thing it seems for an Arabophone writer is to find a reader who will not judge the work from a moral and political standpoint. It isn’t a coincidence that modern Arab writers tend to avoid marketing their dissipated voices. We boast, if boast is the word, few Fitzgeralds with dark, unpredictable tempers, few Dalis taking pet ocelots for a walk, no Dylan Thomases or Spike Milligans with personality disorders, no Doris Lessings with unusual, unmotherly-like choices –even no Diana Athills, revelling that sex is great at sixty. Instead, the Diaries are distinct in bringing together various strands: the distant, a-moral narrator common to early and mid-century European literature, the atmosphere of the 1960s redolent with the loud chants of political protest and the louder chants for sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the playful, irreverent exuberance of Arabic aesthetics which celebrate the trivial abundance of life’s horrible details and its kinder tableaus (aesthetics most familiar to non-Arab readers perhaps in the best of classical Arabic poetics). This abundant detail, the pathos of love, humour and survival, has often, even always, included the political as part of the fabric of which everyday Arab realities are made. In the eloquent words of Mourid Barghouti, a writer acutely more political than Ghali: “Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there and who is absent and why”. For the Arabophone intellectual, politics is everything, and politics is nothing. Let us leave it at that.
The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties. AUC Press, hardcover. Volume 1: 1964-1966 (272 pages). Vol. 2: 1966-1968 (255 pages)