In a small corner at a coffee shop in Downtown Cairo, novelist Bahaa Taher welcomed his zealous fans, who approached him for autographs and pictures as he sipped his favorite cup of coffee.
It’s difficult to imagine how a world famous novelist of Taher’s caliber can maintain his humble nature while surrounded by his many admirers.
Born in 1935 in Cairo, Taher graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Literature in 1956. He then embarked on a career in broadcasting, which at the time comprised radio only. While most applicants were racing to join the news or other popular programs, Taher chose to develop the Egyptian Radio Cultural Program, which was the first of its kind in the region.
The program included roundtable discussions with writers and critics, featuring the likes of literary icons Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris and Salah Abdel Sabbour.
“[This] was a milestone in my life. We embarked on an adventure, we created everything and learned through trial and error, said Taher, “I consider this is one of the best and most memorable experiences of my career and my life.
Taher looks back fondly on the days he worked with Saad Labib, the supervisor of the project at the time, who promoted a democratic work environment, giving everyone the freedom to openly express their opinions. “I have never found the same group spirit and democracy at work again, he said.
Being part of a generation of innovators and intellectuals motivated Taher to become a writer. “At the time writing was the best profession. The stars we looked up to at the time were Taha Hussein and Abbas Mahmoud El Akkad, these were the idols the youth wanted to grow up to be like. This drove everyone to write, during the vacations people filled the copybooks leftover from the academic year with [their] writing, explained the soft-spoken novelist.
Even though his first piece of work wasn’t published until 1964, Taher discovered his passion for writing early on. Some of his early works written when he was still a student were later published.
Some look back at Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era as a time of authoritarian rule – infertile soil for creativity and free-thinking to flourish. Taher begs to differ.
“I love Abdel Nasser. When I introduce myself to anyone I say ‘I’m a Nasserite.’ The thing people don’t know is that three quarters of what is being said about Nasser’s dictatorship is all lies, he said.
Taher stresses that Nasser never banned a book or prohibited any writer from writing, citing one meeting where Nasser told writers and intellects: “Since the beginning of my rule, I have never banned a book from being published or withdrew any book from stores except one book that was going to create sedition in the country because it attacked religion in an exaggerated manner.
“All books, even those that called for an uprising against him, were available everywhere – as long as the writer was not part of a group organizing an uprising. For example, Sayed Qutb’s books, which viciously attacked Nasser, were sold everywhere, Taher said.
“Even though he wasn’t the icon of democracy, he didn’t [persecute] writers. The proof is that Nasser’s era was the renaissance of Egyptian literature when writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq El Hakim and Youssef Idris emerged, he added.
Everything changed for Taher when President Anwar Sadat came to power in the early 70s. In Sadat’s attempt to wipe out any traces of communism left over from Nasser’s rule, Taher was blacklisted in the witch-hunt and was forced to quit his job in Egyptian Radio in 1975.
“They weren’t a fan of my ‘political views.’ I was considered a dangerous leftist, the funny thing is that I didn’t know that about myself, said Taher.
Eventually, he opted to leave Egypt in 1976 and started working as a freelance translator, trotting the globe for a number of years until he finally settled in Geneva in 1981.
With his work banned from publication at the time, Taher continued writing but without the same zest. In 1983, Taher gave his novel “East of the Palms to Louise Greiss, editor-in-chief of Sabah Al Khier magazine, who agreed to publish one chapter of it in his magazine.
“He told me he’ll publish one chapter first and if no one objects we’ll continue, explains Taher. “No one said anything when we published the first chapter so we continued publishing the novel in a serialized form, he added.”I owe him [Greiss] for having the audacity to publish my work, noted Taher.
When he came back to Egypt, Taher said he was shocked by the new-found “hypocrisy of the people.
“Everyone wants to give themselves a false image. For example, someone can give off the image of extreme piety when, in reality, they don’t practice any of the principles religion calls for; or show nationalism when they are actually ready to sell out their country, he said.
In 1991, “Aunt Safiya and the Monastery was published and became a bestseller while simultaneously stirring much controversy in the country. The novel delved into the humanity behind Muslim- Christian relations in Upper Egypt, a topic somehow considered a taboo.
“I didn’t expect [it to generate] this level of controversy. When I wrote it, I had been living in Geneva for 10 years and wasn’t in touch with Egyptian society so I couldn’t predict what kind of reaction the novel would receive, said Taher.
With recent strains in sectarian relations, the novel is still relevant. Taher cites more than 20 reasons for these rifts in society.
“There is the hypocrisy, the economic situation which aggravates people, and the education system as well as the media, both of which do not teach people the concepts of democracy and tolerance, he said.
Most of all, he said, “extremism is a general trait of our society.people get really angry because of a soccer match. This shows that our society doesn’t have any mercy or tolerance.
In his acclaimed novel “Love in Exile, released in 1995, critics unanimously praised him for discussing the relationship between East and West, an idea Taher strongly disagrees with.
“I have said this one hundred time, I never thought about the whole East and West issue. These are fictional characters – one of which happened to be from the East and the other from the West – and none of them is representing their race or country or culture, he said.
Similar reviews were written about Taher’s latest novel “Sunset Oasis, the current bestseller and recipient of the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker Prize.
Again, Taher said the characters do not represent East and West. “Whoever knows me well knows that I never generalize, so a western character in any novel doesn’t symbolize the West by any means, he said.
Taher spent three years writing “Sunset Oasis.
“I predicted it would be an important novel that would grab attention, but not to the extent that it would win international prizes, he said.
Even though the novel is set shortly after the Orabi revolution, many factors resemble Egyptian society today. “Any writer cannot escape or detach completely from the time they are living in, he said.
Taher explains that he is not trying to preach certain ideas through his novels because he simply doesn’t believe that authors are entitled to give advice to their readers. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to disregard the overall impact of his work, which stands out as an accumulation of a lifetime of tactfully exploring human nature and the unique elements that make up the Egyptian character.
Taher is optimistic about and appreciative of the current culture scene, namely because people are reading more than they have been for years. “This means that people are starting to think again, after a long period of laziness and submissiveness, he said.
Taher’s new collection of short stories titled “I Didn’t’ Know Peacocks Could Fly, published by Dar Al Shorouq, is slated for release this summer.