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’.
They were playing the soundtrack of the The Godfather in the lobby of the Aurassi hotel, a huge modernist statement built in the 1970s on a hill above the centre of Algiers. Today its cavernous spaces feel understaffed, and guests complain of water shortages in the morning. But the wide open view of tanker ships slowly coming and going in the bay of Algiers is spectacular. I was there for a conference on higher education and unemployment. Algeria has dozens of new, subsidised, overcrowded universities. In the last fifteen years, the number of students has tripled, to 1.5 million. But there are few jobs.
In his film Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako shows a traditional Muslim society overrun by outsiders claiming they have the God-given authority to tell everyone what to do. The film is inspired by the 2012 takeover of much of Northern Mali by jihadist and other rebel groups. It is both specific to its setting and raises questions about struggles playing out across the Muslim world. I can't think of another creative work that takes such an imaginative, subtle, assured look at Islamist militancy and its effects.
Riad Sattouf’s father travelled from a small Syrian village to Paris in the 1970s. He met Sattouf’s French mother at university there. After they graduated and their son was born, the family went first to Libya under Gaddafi and then to Syria under Assad. L’Arabe du futur, Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel, tells of his strange childhood spent in the shadow of Arab dictators and his father’s delusions. Two more volumes are forthcoming, and an English translation is under way.
There was a bride in full wedding regalia on my plane from Cairo to Doha last month. She was wearing a sequinned, lacy hijab and a long, tight mermaid skirt that flared at the bottom, over a wire hoop. It wasn’t easy to manoeuvre the hoop down the aisle of the plane. She was travelling alone, and in the long empty hallways of Doha's new airport made laborious progress. I didn't see who came to meet her.
Hassan Blasim's short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, 'set up after the fall of the dictator', to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are 'stranger, crueller and more crazy' than everyone else's. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may 'turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire'.
A few days before Isis fighters captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, Saqi Books released an anthology called Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, a thoughtful collection of work by Syrian writers, activists, visual artists and anonymous collectives who were at the vanguard of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
On Wednesday 11 June, the Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was one of 25 people sentenced to 15 years in prison for organising an illegal protest last November. Abdel Fattah is a 32-year-old software developer and blogger, and an habitué of Egypt’s street protests, court rooms and jails. He was first detained in 2006, under Mubarak, for protesting in favour of an independent judiciary. Supporters organised a 'Free Alaa' campaign. After being held for six weeks without charge, he was released.
On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. 'He’s been there ten days,' a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. 'He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.' The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.
I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.