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‘I hate tragedy’

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The Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali is described by his editor, May Hawas, as ‘a libertine, a hanger-on, a sponger, a political dissenter, a depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler, and probably a menace to everyone who let him into their lives.’ The American University in Cairo Press is bringing out his diaries in two volumes, 1964-66 and 1966-68. Ghali’s wonderful (and only) novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, was published by André Deutsch in 1964. He had a job of some kind with the British Army Corps, which he loathed, just as he loathed the town of Rheydt in West Germany where he lived a ‘colourless and middle class and unadventurous’ life. He had reached this relatively safe harbour after years of hardship: the details are fuzzy, but he seems to have run into trouble with the Nasser regime (which he disliked) and from 1954 travelled through Europe, working in factories and docks, and living, as he writes, ‘in the gutter’.

I have read his novel many times, and there are still passages that make me laugh out loud, starting with the opening one, in which the protagonist, Ram, calls on his wealthy aunt. She is signing away a million pounds of land to ‘these poor devils, the fellaheen’ and lamenting an increase in the price of bread. Her secretary and a friend are there, too. Ram gives them some tongue-in-cheek advice: ‘I tried to be as helpful as possible and told them of a baker who sells bread wholesale and by weight … I was going to tell them how to jump off the tram at Abbasie and not pay a ticket, but thought better of it.’ He then retires to Groppi’s bar, ‘feeling happy that my aunt had refused to give me money. I had asked simply because my conscience was nagging.’

The diaries, too, are witty in places: ‘As I said, I am penniless, lazy, sleep over twelve hours a day, can’t bear to think of the future, but I am advising the Germans to form a new political party … I can see the ridiculousness of it all,’ he writes. ‘I spend 800 DM a month, and earn 400. It is funny. Honestly it’s a most remarkable thing. I don’t know how I manage it.’ He describes a man ‘who works in the bank where I have the empty account’.

But they are mostly an exhausting, enervating read, an account of a daily struggle to avoid ‘sinking’, to fight the ‘cafard’, not to succumb to ‘the disease’ – all the different names Ghali finds for his depression.

His every romantic relationship (and there were many: he was attractive to women) is doomed by his terror of being humiliated and abandoned. If a woman cools to him, he becomes obsessed; if she returns his affections, he begins bullying and looking down on her. What makes it all worse is his self-awareness. When he was a child his mother sent him away from Alexandria to Cairo, to live with relatives and sometimes to stay alone in hotels. ‘I am all strange and full of such uncommon thoughts, or perhaps common but I am so aware of them all the time, it is tiring,’ he writes. ‘I am not a person. I rely on other people to make a person of me. I try and make a person of myself in other people’s eyes.’

Beer in the Snooker Hall was eventually translated into Arabic, but never became part of the Egyptian canon. Like its hero, the novel is a misfit. Ram is a Coptic Christian in love with an idealistic Jewish heiress; a penniless would-be Communist who enjoys luxury and is surrounded by wealthy relatives and schoolfriends; an English-educated Egyptian alienated from his homeland but also ill at ease in London. He views the hypocrisy of his wealthy relatives with disgust and Nasser’s revolution with cynicism, but most important he refuses to take either of them seriously. ‘I hate tragedy,’ he says.

That was Ghali’s attitude as well, although the belief that he would eventually kill himself hangs over his journal. He did so in his editor Diana Athill’s flat in London in 1968 (she wrote a book about their friendship, After the Funeral). Knowing what will happen makes the final lines of the first volume of diaries particularly jarring. On returning to London, Ghali writes: ‘Everything is here, and I feel, again, that I have been missing life, and that life is here – here.’

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