As the post 9-11 world becomes a single stage for international conflict, Nadine Gordimer asks: “What place, task, meaning will literature have in witnessing disasters without precedence?
During her speech at the Naguib Mahfouz Memorial at the American University in Cairo earlier this month, Gordimer – the South African 1991 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – assesses the role of fiction and poetry in providing an account of the world’s calamities throughout history.
“Witness, she quotes the Oxford English Dictionary, is “attestation of fact, event, or statement, testimony, evidence; one who is or was present and is able to testify from personal observation.
Writers have long given us a means to experience our world, our history, she said. Their “witness account of events often allows us to gain a deeper understanding. Naguib Mahfouz’s literature is a notable example of “witness literature . His characters provided us with a close look at Egyptian society, and the intricacies of its structure.
“Naguib Mahfouz has drunk the cup and gone, leaving us behind in the shabby, grim presence of worldly power, Gordimer said, “but he’s left his wisdom, his writings, his inward testimony, the wisdom of great literature.
With conflict raging throughout the world, witness literature has emerged as a way of processing and understanding disaster and violence, as well as making sure that it doesn’t continue unnoticed.
Gordimer herself has become an agent of creating awareness for racism and brutality that she witnessed under apartheid South Africa. “I was the child of the white minority, blinkered in privilege and a conditioning education, she said. “But because I was a writer – for it’s an early state of being, before a word had been written, not an attribute of being published – I became witness to the unspoken in my society.
“Very young I entered a dialogue with myself about what was around me; and this took the form of trying for the meaning in what I saw by transforming this into stories based on what were everyday incidents of ordinary life for everyone around me, she recalled.
Literature and poetry are powerful tools. Writers and poets allow us to make sense of our past, understand our present, and look on towards our future.
The Day the Leader Was killedBy Naguib MahfouzAnchor, 2000
The time is 1981, Anwar El-Sadat is president, and Egypt is lurching into the modern world. Set against this backdrop, The Day the Leader Was Killed relates the tale of a middle-class Cairene family.
Rich with irony and infused with political undertones, the story is narrated alternately by the pious and mischievous family patriarch Muhtashimi Zayed, his hapless grandson Elwan, and Elwan s headstrong and beautiful fiancée Randa. The novel reaches its climax with the assassination of Sadat on October 6, 1981, an event around which the fictional plot is skillfully woven.
The Cairo HouseBy Samia SerageldinHarper Perennial, 2005
This novel takes the reader on a walk through life during the luxurious days following World War II, to the turning point in Egypt s history when the Free Officers took power in 1952, reaching the social upheaval during Nasser s era, followed by Sadat s infitah, and finally to the Cairo of today.
Dubbed a semi-autobiographical novel, the protagonist s story unfolds against the backdrop of the changing social and political scene. Gigi, a modern woman born into an affluent and influential family, grows up in the 1950s in a stately villa in Garden City. She tries to adapt to the emergence of a new social entity that challenges the sheltered cocoon and values the women of her family have been enveloped in.
“While I was writing the book, I thought the title was something I could decide on later. But in effect I realized that I would only know what the book was about when I knew what the title was. And the title is The Cairo House because the novel, for me, is about an entire era in Egyptian twentieth century history that witnessed the rise, and fall, of the nationalist movement, party politics, and the Egyptian landowning bourgeoisie. The history and fate of the house reflect this pivotal era that spanned a century and came to an end with the passing away of the last Pasha at the turn of the 21st century, said Serageldin about her novel.
Snow By Orhan PamukKnopf, 2004
A tale of disparate yearnings – for love, art, power, and God – set in a remote Turkish town, where stirrings of political Islamism threaten to unravel the secular order.
Following years of lonely political exile in Western Europe, Ka, a middle-aged poet, returns to Istanbul to attend his mother’s funeral. He is disoriented by news of strange events in the wider country: a wave of suicides among girls forbidden to wear their head scarves at school. The writer’s curiosity leads him to Kars, a far-off town near the Russian border and the epicenter of the suicides.
No sooner has he arrived, however, than we discover that Ka’s motivations are not purely journalistic; for in Kars – once a province of Ottoman and then Russian glory, now a cultural gray zone of poverty and paralysis – resides Ipek, a radiant friend from Ka’s youth, lately divorced, whom he has never forgotten.
As fierce snowstorm descends on the town and seals it off from the modern, westernized world that has always been Ka’s frame of reference, he finds himself drawn in unexpected directions: not only headlong toward the unknowable Ipek and the desperate hope for love – or at least a wife – that she embodies, but also into the maelstrom of a military coup staged to restrain the local Islamist radicals; and even toward God, whose existence Ka has never before allowed himself to contemplate.
Absent By Betool KhedairiAmerican University in Cairo Press, 2005
Absent is the story of Dalal, a young Iraqi woman living with the childless aunt and uncle who raised her. Dalal and her neighbors try to maintain normal lives, despite the crippling effect of bombings and international sanctions resulting from the first Gulf War.
The novel paints a moving portrait of people struggling to get by in impossible circumstances. Upstairs, the fortune-teller Umm Mazin offers her customers cures for their physical and romantic ailments; below, Saad the hairdresser attends to a dwindling number of female customers; and on the second floor, the nurse Ilham dreams of her long-lost French mother to escape the grim realities she sees in the children’s ward at the hospital. Hoping to bring in much-needed cash by selling honey, Dalal’s uncle turns to beekeeping, and instructs his niece in the care and feeding of these temperamental creatures.
Absent is a haunting portrait of life under sanctions, the fragile emotional ties between individuals, and, ultimately, the resilience of the human spirit.