Samia Mehrez, Ibrahim Nagui: A Belated Visit (Dar El Shorouk, 2021).
There is a picture on a wall in a living room that has loomed large over Samia Mehrez’s life, she writes in her new book, Ibrahim Nagui: A Belated Visit (published by Dar El Shorouk). The picture is of poet, Dr. Ibrahim Nagui. “It’s a picture of a man I do not know,” Mehrez tells us, “yet whom I am told is my grandfather.”
This new release celebrated its first book signing at Downtown Cairo’s Consoleya on 16 November 2021. One of the more pertinent questions raised then was about genre. The ways in which the author gets to know her grandfather throughout this narrative journey are meandering and hard to classify. In fact, as Mehrez herself recounted that evening, it was the very first question Director of Publication, Amira Abul-Magd, asked her when she submitted the manuscript: how do you classify this book? Is it an autobiography about Mehrez in relation to her grandfather, Nagui? Is it a biography about Nagui’s life and works? Is it a social history of Cairo and its evolving literary scenes? Is it an attempt at translating Nagui’s many faces, of giving him an afterlife? Or is it a literary critique of his output and the establishments that engaged with it? As it were, these questions held the key to grasping this genre-bending new work.
“I wasn’t particularly aware that I was genre-bending as I wrote,” Mehrez reflected that evening, “but the more I thought about that question the more I realized the book is the way it is because of its subjects and subject matter.” Let us then start with its subjects-- a granddaughter and her grandfather who also happen to be two literary figures whose careers have essentially been defined by cross-disciplinary interests and outputs. On the one hand, we have Nagui, a doctor, poet, short story writer and translator who self-professes, “I do art as if it were a science, and I do science as if it were an art.” On the other hand, we have Mehrez whose publications attest to her varied intellectual interests. She wrote Egyptian Writers Between History and Fiction, Egypt’s Culture Wars, and The Literary Atlas of Cairo, studies that continuously cross the imaginary with social history, politics, geography, and more. She also founded and served as Director of the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, which for ten years provided a platform for dialogue across many disciplines.
Now let us look at subject matter. As chance would have it, following the death of her aunt, the contents of two envelopes fall into Mehrez’s lap. The envelopes include the following: a contract of sale of Ibrahim Nagui’s library to Rabitat al-Adab for LE70, a waiver of publication rights by the heirs to Mehrez’s aunt, drafts of unfinished book projects in the medical field, notebooks containing his translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, his unpublished journal, and a statement by the aunt in which she vows to publish the contents, after deleting all the personal bits, and to publish his translations after translating the remaining sonnets herself. A vow the aunt never fulfills, which turns the author into the reluctant bearer of this legacy, charged with the daunting task of representing it.
What emerges is that the relationship between granddaughter and grandfather is problematic. She resembles him, but for years she rejects the likeness, put off by his idolized image and the frameworks that have defined and constricted his legacy. At home, his photo is omnipresent, dominating the living room. The qualities used by the family to describe him are immutable: ideal father, ideal husband, ideal doctor. The picture in the frame is the same one known to the general public. It is on book covers, with his articles, and part of the Arabic syllabi in Egyptian schools. On the radio, he is the poet who wrote Umm Kulthum’s most famous song, “al-Atlal”, which to the little girl’s ears in 1966 was a boring lament that reduced her to tears. At school, he was the poet who wrote that stuffy poem called, “al-‘Awda”, cause of her being taunted by her classmates who, forgiven, did not enjoy it one bit. How could they when the request was to memorize without understanding? When the syllabus explanation contained such illuminating points as “den: plural, dens”?
The narrative journey then becomes about two people being re-introduced to each other so that they can re-write the narrative of their relationship, reconcile with similarities and highlight differences. It is one that, given subject and subject matter, naturally unfolds through a kaleidoscopic plot. We follow the paths of two shape-shifting mavericks as they converge and diverge, as writers, literary critics, translators, and as two generations of the same family with a penchant for crossing divides.
Indeed, “boundaries are a construction that we have created,” Mehrez notes, “to cross them is to enrich the experience of both writer and reader.” In this particular instance, however, there were a number of essential reasons that necessitated a flexible analytical framework, she explains. First, specialization was problematic to Nagui himself. We are told that his constant urge to reconcile his medical and literary careers had led to his marginalization by the medical establishment and to life-long financial struggles. Second, the range covered by the documents themselves, from journal entries, to correspondences between him and his wife, to poetry translations, to unfinished projects in health and nutrition, to writings in sociology and psychology. Third, Nagui’s interdisciplinary approach to writing, ranging from a psychoanalysis of Baudelaire to the sociology of medicine; and fourth, there was Nagui’s popular appeal to consider, which a strictly academic language could not capture for a wider audience. Different registers of Arabic were also required to engage with different forms of address: from gossip and memories, from the passionate epistolary to the formal letter of complaint, and from the fast-hand journaling to the tireless redrafting of poems, and so on.
As we move from document to document, the lines between what is fact and what is fiction begin to blur. Memoir is caught between truth and fallacy. Home is captured through a Mahfuzian space that informs character. The doctor and poet are one with a crack in the middle that brings in the light. Literature seeps through medical reports and scientific precision elucidates fiction. Lovers become the heroines of world literature and characters in TV scripts. Mehrez becomes Portia, from The Merchant in Venice, determined to do good by her grandfather’s legacy. As we slip between article and journal entry, short story and poem, letter and interview, we encounter multi-faceted versions of everyone who makes up this elusive narrative. The whole experience is like entering a house of mirrors where images are constantly reflected, distorted, and contrasted by an author who must also shape-shift in order to review every piece of writing on its own terms, and do it all justice.
Through it all, Mehrez capitalizes on the main properties of memoir: intimacy and disclosure, and that also is a crossing of a divide between what is public and what is private. The contract of sale of Ibrahim Nagui’s library to Rabitat al-Adab for a meager LE70, for example, reveals his financial difficulties, but also exposes the power dynamics of institutions that constrained him, being marital, literary, or medical. The statement by Mehrez’s aunt in which she vows to publish the contents of the envelopes after deleting all the personal bits, becomes a critique of an official national narrative that prefers to morally sanitize and idolize political and cultural figures. The ambitious drafts of unfinished projects are contrasted against a frail and embattled man. The journals filter through his poems and short stories with characters moving freely between real and imaginary worlds. The translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets becomes a way to engage with her son on levels both theoretical and personal as she establishes dialogue between three generations of the same family.
We enter this narrative through a living room, traverse many realms, and return to a living room, our perception profoundly changed. The atmosphere in the room was initially tense. We met a man in an enlarged picture frame who dominated the space; his image fixed, binding, and daunting to the woman who stands before it. When we return at the end, Nagui’s spirit pervades the room and envelopes the narrator. The veil has been lifted from a public figure and a cultural idol, to reveal just a man. We have followed his trials and tribulations, identified with his struggles, been inspired by his ambition, related to his failures, intimated with his secrets, and have come to love him rather than revere him, or maybe revere him because we have come to love him. Nagui’s culminating image is so intimate, so dazzling in its multi-dimensionality that he comes to life in 3-D. The success here is dual, because as one main character unravels before our eyes, so does the other. As Mehrez crosses the final boundary with Nagui, he exits the picture frame.
Mai Serhan recently conducted an interview with Samia Mehrez, accessible here.
 This was his preferred spelling of his name.