I received in the mail last week a copy of Waguih Ghali’s diaries. This is volume 1, and is published by the AUC press Volume 2 will be published later this year.
Waguih Ghali is a well-known writer of the last vestiges of Cairo’s Belle Époque. His book, Beer in the Snooker Club, is still in print. The saga of his affair with the famous UK literary editor, Diana Athill (who must be a hundred by now, and is still with us, as of this writing, in a nursing home in North London), has been well documented.
I actually have a first edition copy of his book, which once belonged to my father. I retrieved it from Dad’s library in the apartment the family still rents in Cairo, a beautiful 13-room apartment overlooking the Nile, not far from the Gezira Sporting Club, where my father probably read Ghali’s novel on some lazy Friday afternoon, perhaps sitting at a white clothed table and thoughtfully sipping a Stella as he smoked his pipe in the open air terrace by the old cricket pitch that used to enliven that part of the club.
Beer has not been served at the Gezira Club since the 90s, when some drunken young lout arguing with his friends at the Lido used such strong language that he caused an aging member to die of a heart attack; and I am not sure if snooker is still played upstairs iin the low building that stood by where my father liked to sit. Probably not. Last time I went to Cairo, I didn’t go to the club. The small mosque built decades ago near the tennis courts probably had more to do with the alcohol ban than anything else.
As Waguih knew all too well, the immigrant’s life is a dicey one.
I shall have much to say about Waguih Ghali, whom I identify with in a number of ways.
I believe that all immigrants suffer enormously from a hole in their hearts if they leave their country, particularly if they do so late in life. I believe we are much like sea turtles. We may leave the place we were born, or grew up in, but we never forget it, and a part of us will always long to return.
Like Waguih Ghali, many turn to booze to assuage their sorrows. Many others turn to money or sex or drugs. Literature is what preserves the past, and in the best of literature, the writers who are worth reading attempt however imperfectly to explain, with that unmistakable power and resonance that great novels alone have, the world around us: as we once knew it, as it is today, as it might be tomorrow.
The Greek Stoic philosophers believe in shrugging off the past.
They might have been mistaken about that, particularly in a country like Egypt.
Here’s a goodie for you to read, in order to give you a taste of this book.
It is a copy of the introductory text to this book, which was painstakingly teased out of a rambling semi drunken diary Ghali kept between 1964-8. This informative introduction was written by the book’s editor, May Hawas, who’s also written about Comparative Literature in Alexandria in the 40s.
Enjoy the extract, or better yet, buy the book now from the AUC press (see link up top)! It will also be available on Amazon and Oxford Press in July.