Shafīq Maqār

egyptian writer



Shafiq Maqar, expatriate Egyptian writer, left Egypt for Britain in the early 1970s. Born to an ancient Saīdi (Upper-Egyptian) family whose roots, according to the paternal grandfather, were traceable back to the time of the Pharaohs, it sometimes occurs to him that if the transmigration of the soul is more than wishful thinking, he might have been, in a previous life, a scribe in one of the temples of Thebes. From his first mesmerizing contact with her, through the papyrus rolls she left behind to in the grandfather’s library to snare him with their enigmatic message in hieroglyphs and the visions they filled his head with, mother Egypt has not been detached from his soul.

Fate or, rather, divine intent, steered him in the direction that has made it possible for this indissoluble attachment to be given a voice.  Against the wishes of a father who abided no disobedience, he managed to study journalism, languages, literature, and the humanities rather than medicine or the arts of war. It was the thing for people of his father’s generation to send their sons to the Military Academy or the Faculty of Medicine. Such studies, important as they no doubt are, were beyond his capabilities. All he wanted to do was write. He did not know what it was he had to write, or why he should want to write it. All he knew was that he had to.

The signs were there from early boyhood. He was always cutting pieces of paper and sticking them together with glue or clumsily stitching them with needle and thread to make ‘books’ in which not a word was written other than some off-the-cuff title under a pseudonym or other. The most exciting gift he ever was given was a toy he gave himself with a loan from a kindly teacher: a print shop made of a neatly grooved block of wood with sets of rubber letters that fitted into the groves in magical configurations of words and a stamp pad to print the words with. The blank sheets of the books he had made were soon filled with neatly printed blocks of words that mostly were place-names of locations that did not exist on any map. This was not the sort of toy he could have asked his father to buy him. The severest talking to of his life was given him the day his Geography book accidentally fell from a bulging school satchel and gave up its secret next to his father on the settee: a short story he had written about a voyage of discovery up the Blue Nile that never reached lake Victoria but ended in disaster for a doughty young explorer who was trapped and eaten by cannibals.

Callously, the father, rather than feel sorry for the poor eaten hero, shook in the author’s frightened face the sheets of his manuscript after a cursory disapproving glance at what they contained. With a martyred look on his face he tore them to shreds and made clear to his son that, if this was what he intended to do with the costly education he was being given, it was worth the family’s while to put him to work in the fields alongside the fellaheen to do something useful.

Occupations such as storytelling or gournalgui جورنالجي (journalistic) tattle, to his father, his grandfather and uncles, were no better than the shameful dancing contortions of a painted ghazeyya غازيـّه in the village souk.

He was not being sent to school to become a folk ‘hakawatiحكواتي (storyteller) on a rababa (peasant one string fiddle) but to prepare himself for a respectable career as officer, doctor or, in the very least, lawyer. While the latter was a profession the father was not too fond of because of the bad feelings that developed between him and his father-in-law whose profession it was, most of those who made it to the top in those days as diplomats, ministers, prime ministers, and leaders of political parties, were lawyers.

The talking to availed nothing at all: it went in one ear and out the other, as did every piece of advice he was given. He did not stop writing stories. He was under some sort of compulsion. Neither his father nor he for that matter knew that this was happening to him because of a love affair. That was revealed to him years later by the Wanlys, a pair of surrealist painters whose studio became a favourite haunt of his in early youth. They had been observing him for some time, they said, as they stood eying him as if he were a specimen under the dilapidated microscope they sometimes peered into when they were short of inspiration. They had come to the conclusion that, contrary to the case of most adolescents, the ‘hots’ he was having were for words. He was not to laugh, they said, in all seriousness. If he took a look inside his head at his addled brains he would find why he was always trying to transform all that he looked at (even their own paintings), felt, heard, or hoped for into sets of neatly arranged words that, in most cases, said nothing anyone could understand. He, at the time, was contributing short pieces on a weekly basis to ‘Al-Nidaaالنداء a paper of the Wafd Partyحزب الوفد of which he was a member, and had had the temerity to write things their paintings they did not like.

The way the Wanlys put it might have been as zany as the paintings they tried to convince him were great works of art he was too hidebound to understand, but ‘hots?’ You cannot have the hots for words or want to ‘make love’ to them, or so he thought at the time. He knows better now.  Deep in his heart, however, he felt that crazy as his two artist friends were, what they said about him and his love affair with words was not far off the mark.

Words did have a special fascination for him that has never waned. He usually catches himself whistling contentedly whenever a dictionary is open in his hands. The first school dictionary he was given, ‘The West,’ captivated him so much that he decided to memorize it in its entirety. Words were always coming to him out of nowhere and proposing themselves as sonant containers for every experience, thought, wish, dream or fear that he ever had. Any likely subject of a ‘composition,’ as such assignments were called in those days, which could lend itself to treatment in story form, brashly came out as such on the pages of his exercise books. Luckily, he was blessed with teachers who did not disapprove of such strange antics from a schoolboy. One of them in particular, Ustaz Salama, أستاذ سلامـه god rest his soul, seemed to like his gaucheries so much that he sometimes read them aloud to a sniggering class. In comment on a more ambitious try, he even wrote an encouraging remark. For his pains, when the boy rashly went and showed the father what he considered to be an official endorsement from his teacher that showed how wrong the father was about storytelling, a parental complaint was lodged against the poor teacher in which he was accused of misleading an impressionable youngster.

For all the stiff resistance and the resultant contretemps, it was perhaps some unseen hand, or maybe his long-gone self that once was a scribe in a Thebes temple, that did the ‘misleading of the impressionable youngster.’ Throughout life, anything he set his hand to other than writing proved to be a non-starter, a let down.

Only by writing life became worth the hassle and to be able to write as he wanted to do, without having to look over his shoulder, was worth any risk, even a drastic change at mid life. The move to Britain, when he felt within an inch of the fate that overtook ‘Munir my darling’ in his short story, ‘The Burrow’ (‘Flights of Fantasy’), was similar to the leap the unheroic hero of ‘Black Magic’ was on the point of taking, at the peak of his ordeal, from a fifth-floor window without a safety net. As it turned out, no safety net was needed.

The notion that art is some sort of confession seems to apply in the case of a writer whose output has been inspired by a combination of a strange insatiable hunger and a strong sense of revulsion that, throughout, between them, shaped his outlook and guided him in all he wrote.

The hunger caused no end of trouble even in early boyhood. He asked too many questions that left the grown ups staring in dismay. The grandfather’s expectations especially were not too rosy as far as he was concerned.  He was headed for a place no one in his right mind wished to go to. The questions he asked were not however hissings in his ear by some evil spirit as the old cleric seemed to think. He was made to ask them by someone inside him who wanted to know why.

There was not a mechanical toy he was given as a child that was not taken apart in the first thirty minutes or so of its falling into his hands. This lust for finding out why things happened the way they did developed, as he grew up, into a desire to find out what made people do and say the things he watched them do and heard them say to each other. Unable to dismantle them as he did his toys to find out why, he had to content himself with letting his imagination try to penetrate their defences and do the digging inside.

Quite a few of the stories he wrote came to him in some fleeting look he caught in the eyes of a passing stranger and, in the millisecond of casual eye contact, told him of things that were churning inside or pierced his inner hearing with screams of terror and torment. Others were set in motion in his head by some hurriedly exchanged whisper between two strangers that was not meant for the ears of others but was overheard by him on a crowded bus or from a nearby table in a bar or restaurant. Those ‘keys to the kingdom,’ as he called them, opened the heavily guarded doors that people securely barricade themselves behind and made possible the breaking and entering into the breathtaking interior where all sorts of hell and madness were breaking loose. Hand in hand with the hunger, went the revulsion, the loathing for injusticeالظلم . Aptly enough, the word is a derivative of الظلام, darkness. It is in the dark that the animal in man sinks to the lowest depths and commits the most hateful acts of meanness, greed, brutality and the devouring of others.

With such an obsessive combination guiding his hand, his writing, both at the creative level and the more down-to-earth one that led to the rummaging in the closets of history, was destined to come face to face with the darkness and to try to tear at its folds. All that he has written and continues to write is in the arena of the tussle that ensued. Inescapably, this has earned his writing the label of ‘controversial’ and brought down on some of it the heavy hand of the almighty censor in exercise of the old practice of ‘preventing literature.’ Regardless, what he has been saying does not seem to have been said in vain. The world wide web has brought to him the knowledge that there are those of his contemporaries who have lent an ear to what, over the years, he has been saying in newspapers, periodicals and books and on radio, and has found a place on the shelves of the libraries of major centres of learning.

Other than fiction, radio, a medium for which he has a special fondness, and contributions to the printed media, a major part of his writing has been the outcome of long voyages of discovery he embarked on to try to find out what, in the far distant past, was going on in the ancient Near East.

One result of this rummaging in the awesome closets with their ancient clinking skeletons, has been a two-volume work, in English, that took the best part of twenty years to dig up facts about Egypt’s civilization firsts that, very uncharacteristically, were left dormant and undisturbed by some usually loquacious pundits of the science of Egyptology. The digging brought to light the truly outstanding achievement of some of such big guns of the science who, for various reasons that ranged from the religious to the racialist, not only looked away or pretended not to see – to the detriment of the moderns’ knowledge of Egypt’s real contribution and place in history – what they came face to face with preferring to leave it dormant and disturbed, or donating it to any unfindable hypothetical ‘donor’ that came to mind. Taking its cue from the popularity of the Detective novel’s sleuthing into the misdeeds of men, ‘The Great Egyptology Whodunit,’ has been the title work came up with for itself.

Another result of the voyages of discovery in the past was the series of seminal works researched and published in the 1980s and 90s: ‘A Political Interpretation of the Bible,’ ‘Magic in the Bible,’ ‘Christianity and the Old Testament,’ and ‘Sex in the Bible.’

After the passing away of Isabelle, his life’s companion, the kind hand of an ever merciful God, lifted him from the hell crater of grief, loss and loneliness and, with a gentle nudge, pushed him toward the intermittent trysting in the enchanted world of ‘Saïdi,صعيـدي , an autobiographical novel, he has been writing as an occasional escape from the demanding reassessment, re-researching and rewriting, in English, 20 years on, of the biblical voyages of discovery.

The first work of the series, now nearing completion, is a two-volume Socio-Political re-reading, in English, of the times and storytelling of the Holy Bible makers, committed writers who, in their own way, from their time in the far distant past, gave the world its No.1 bestseller.

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