Egypt loses committed intellectual, novelist Radwa Ashour

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Prominent Egyptian author and intellectual, the late Radwa Ashour. Al-Akhbar

By: Sayed Mahmoud

Published Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Radwa Ashour lost her last battle with death. The Egyptian novelist had fought on all fronts. She remained loyal to the idea of resistance, struggle and Palestine and her life’s work was anchored on these principles. Her funeral was held yesterday in Cairo in the presence of her husband, Palestinian writer Mourid al-Barghouti and her son, poet Tamim al-Barghouti. The author of the “Granada Trilogy” left this world after finishing her memoir – published this year – titled “Heavier than Radwa.”

Cairo – Egyptian intellectuals bid farewell yesterday to the novelist Radwa Ashour (1946 - 2014) after the noon prayer at the Salah al-Din Mosque in the suburb of Manial near a bridge leading to Cairo University. The late novelist wanted her funeral to be held at the Omar Makram Mosque at the heart of Tahrir Square where she witnessed first-hand most of the critical events of the Egyptian revolution only steps away from her home on Huda Shaarawi Street (in Bab al-Louk). However, the closure of Tahrir Square made that impossible. This forced her family to hold the funeral at another mosque. They chose a mosque near the university that is considered an important symbol of Egyptian culture, and whose independence the late prominent intellectual always called for.

People close to Ashour know that in the past three years death was nearing. Even her last book, “Heavier than Radwa, Excerpts from a Biography” (Dar al-Shorouk 2014) seemed like an exercise in taming death and dislodging its weight whether by invoking spectres of her life, keeping a daily diary that included her stay at a US hospital or documenting the deception of change and defeat in Egypt. After all, she followed the news of the Egyptian revolution and did not allow her illness to stop her from going to Tahrir Square with her son and his friends. The book is also a space of revelation, disclosing her private relationship with her husband, Palestinian poet Mourid al-Barghouti, who has been with her since their college days in the mid-1960s.

Born in Cairo, Ashour’s life offers the perfect example of what is referred to as the “committed intellectual.” She belonged to the last generation of the writers of the 1960s who embraced the idea of political engagement without resorting to preaching. She was also devoted to the notion of an Arabism conscious of the peculiarities of Arab societies and exhibited a rare loyalty to the idea of resistance and struggle to regain the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. Her writings, generally, reflected these principles and fashioned them in a creative mold remarkable for its ability to invent forms of literary phantasmagoria that give a different meaning to the femininity and responsibility of writing.

Her academic resume underlines the centrality of the “idea of engagement” and displays a bias toward silenced voices. After she studied english literature at Cairo University and earned an MA in Comparative Literature from the same university, she moved to the US where she earned a PhD from the University of Massachusetts. Her dissertation was on African American literature. When she became a professor, she encouraged her students to study the marginalized voices of African literature and postcolonial novels, siding with the eloquence of the oppressed whose voices she clearly adopted by co-founding the Committee for the Defense of National Culture following the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. In those years, she connected with Latifa al-Zayyat who was one of the icons of change on the Egyptian left. Zayyat left an indelible mark on Ashour who hailed from an old Egyptian family.

In 1977, she published her first book in literary criticism, “The Road to the Other Tent,” a study of the works of Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. In 1987, her book “Gibran and Blake” was published in English. The critical study was her MA thesis and it demonstrated the degree of her commitment to the Palestinian cause and the depth of this commitment after her marriage to Barghouti who was a student with her and Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif at the same department.

In November 1979 under President Anwar Sadat, her Palestinian husband was deported from Egypt and her family was divided. This event prompted her to turn her sights to the idea of the diaspora which dominated her two major works, the “Granada Trilogy” and the “Woman from Tantoura.” These novels focused on the themes of resistance and uprootedness as the battle for the manipulation of memory continued.

Although Ashour wrote an important text in travel literature titled “The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Student in America” (1983), it was not as widely read as the novels that followed, which secured her place among the writers of the 1960s. There were three novels, “Warm Stone,” “Khadija” and “Sawsan and Siraaj” and a collection of short stories titled “I Saw the Palm Trees” in 1989. Then came her historical novel “The Granada Trilogy” in 1994 which won the Book of the Year Award at the the Cairo International Book Fair that same year.

In the past three years, this novel became very popular and enjoyed widespread readership after it was published by Maktabat al-Usra. It became not only one of the most popular Egyptian novels but one of the most pirated and illegally reproduced. The late writer expressed great happiness on more than one occasion for the availability of the novel in the hands of young people who were fascinated by it. Between 1999 and 2012, Ashour published four novels, the most important of which was “The Woman from Tantoura,” and a collection of short stories.

Before the Egyptian revolution broke out, Ashour’s academic work focused on supporting the March 9 Movement established by academics advocating for the independence of the university from political interference. She recounted this experience in detail in “Heavier than Radwa” written with the force of a diary of illness and the events of the Egyptian revolution. This book is different in its narrative structure from Ashour’s previous books. It is reminiscent of Saadallah Wannous’ writings during the last days of his illness whereby writing became a ruse to tame death, confront it and hold on to memory.

Ashour took writing as a mechanism of resistance and of reasserting the power of the active self to its maximum limit in her two beautiful novels, “The Granada Trilogy and A Woman from Tantoura.” The first novel takes place in Granada after the fall of Muslim rule. The trilogy begins in 1491, the year Granada fell when the treaty, which forced Abu Abdallah Mohammed XII to relinquish sovereignty over the city to the king of Castile and Aragon, was signed. It tells the story of a family, from the grandfather Abu Jaafar to the youngest grandson Ali to Mariama. What distinguishes this novel is the creation of an imaginary narrative based on historical facts. It delves into the minutest details of the everyday life of this family and the characters around it, leading “lost Andalusia” to seem as if it were paradise while its significance is missing and its value irreplaceable. The author used this family as a symbol of Andalusia as a whole, revealing its contradictions and diversity. It is a novel about “lethal identities,” to use Amin Maalouf’s words, where fear expresses itself with full clarity.

In her novel “The Woman of Tantoura” (in reference to the village of al-Tantoura located along the Palestinian coast south of Haifa), Ashour rediscovers the cruelty of living in a Palestinian refugee camp by focusing on a massacre perpetrated in the village by Zionist gangs in 1948. It follows a family uprooted from their village, their lives for almost half a century and their experience as refugees in Lebanon. The reader follows the life of the protagonist, a woman from the village, from her youth to her old age. As in “Granada,” the novel combines historical facts and literary creativity, confirming the presence of “memory hunters,” as the late novelist called them in one of her magnificent books on literary criticism. Ashour was one of those memory hunters and will forever be.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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