The impossibility of a life in the in-betweens: The Diaries of Waguih Ghali

On November 2, 1964, novelist, intellectual and political exile Waguih Ghali recounted in his diary a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, in which a civil servant falls ill and dies because a beautiful girl from a nice family falls in love with him. Essentially, the man dies of happiness, of disbelief that something good could possibly happen to him. “I too have reached that sad state where I don’t, for an instant, believe that I shall love and be loved again,” writes Ghali. “And if it did happen like [the character in the story] I would be unable to assimilate this happiness, being very unprepared for it.”

Four years later Ghali would die by his own hand after swallowing 26 sleeping pills in the London apartment of his friend, editor and sometimes lover Diana Athill. The author of the gripping, caustic, semi-autobiographical novel Beer in the Snooker Club (published in 1964 by UK publishing house Andre Deutsche) never wrote another book, pouring his efforts instead into his personal diary, updated almost daily and spanning six lengthy notebooks. The first three were published earlier this year by the American University in Cairo Press, edited by literature professor May Hawas and titled The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties.

“In some way, the diaries replace the novel as another creative genre,” writes Hawas in the introduction to this volume, which covers Ghali’s time living in the small city of Rheydt, Germany, between 1964 and 1966. The second volume, which chronicles his move to London and the final days before his suicide on December 26, 1968, was released by AUC Press in July, and will be available in Egypt starting August 15.

Born in Alexandria either in 1929 or 1930 (the date is unknown), Ghali was a member of Egypt’s social and intellectual elite, described by acquaintances alternately as a pacifist, a charmer, a loafer, an alcoholic, a nationalist, a dissident and a depressive. Prior to the publication of his diaries, most of what was known about his character was gleaned from Athill’s almost unbearably candid memoir of their difficult relationship, After a Funeral (Jonathan Cape, 1986), and from his own novel’s protagonist, the cynical, western-educated Ram, who drinks beer with his friend Font in Nasser’s post-revolution Egypt and attempts to find a place for himself between the frontlines of the 1956 Suez War, and the poolside of the Gezira Sporting Club.

But Ghali’s diaries make little mention of the life he left behind in Egypt, save for occasional yearnings for a game of racquets at Alexandria’s Stanley Bay. He focuses instead on his daily life: who came over for drinks, how much money he owes people and episodes of romantic infatuation and heartbreak. While he sounds like an opportunistic and unreliable person, as well as a misogynist, he is a gifted writer who can craft a witty, well-constructed sentence even in his deepest moments of pity and self-loathing. The joyful irreverence that made Ram such a compelling narrator is present here as well (although the joy is in shorter supply), and Ghali’s inner monologue is, like Ram’s, full of snark, self-indulgence and symbolism.

When asked about the name of his book at a dinner party, he reports placidly replying, in between sips, “Beer.” At another point he frankly expresses his dislike for Germany, and brazenly tells a German friend that “living in Germany was like living in a cowshed – with cows.” When an old school friend, now a government representative selling Egyptian cotton in Europe, comes for a visit, Ghali remarks: “Hamo became much fatter, but he didn’t change at all, he was always rich and still is rich, he always invented a lot of nonsense, and he still continues to invent it – what has the revolution actually really done?”

While enduring page upon page of Ghali’s observations at first felt like how he described enduring his own company, “like a woman who has to put up with the embraces of a husband she loathes,” I soon became used to his tone and the cyclical nature of his stories, like the voice of an old reliable friend. He whiles away his days at a department of the British Army of the Rhine, though what his duties were or how he got the job remains unclear. Yet it is clear that he suffers immensely from an emotional instability that, along with his boozing, incessant socialization and affairs, makes it impossible for him to write.

In a bar he picks up a magazine and takes a quiz on emotional intelligence, which tells him his score belongs to an adolescent. “Yes. Yes,” he whispers to himself. “I am left in this hopeless state of seeing myself, in my thirties, intelligent, terribly self-aware, overpowered by the feelings of a child.” His depression gets markedly worse in December 1965, when he writes, “I carried my death about me from one end of the flat to the other. Literally squirming with mental pain at times. […] Is this the prelude to permanent insanity?”

He begins to feel differently about his diary. While he once referred to it as his companion, the only thing keeping him sane, he now resents it as a “‘person,’ who goes on and on putting up with my complaints and groans… and whenever I look at it I see it only as a reminder of the utter misery that I am.” He describes the diary as beginning to share his “awareness” of himself and becoming “yet another cause of unnaturalness.”

It is evident Ghali was writing with an audience in mind, both himself (he frequently rereads and comments on previous entries) and us, reading his diaries today. He often wonders how someone reading it might perceive him, alternately as a great Don Juan, or as a man with the laughable emotions of a schoolgirl. And as he discards the manuscript of his new novel in December 1965 — ­­“because it started with unrequited love, and it reminds me of B”, and because he realizes “what insipid caca most of us write” — it becomes clear that the diary has inadvertently become his new writing project.

Although this volume gives us great insight into Ghali’s enigmatic character, key periods of his life remain ambiguous, including his childhood and the circumstances of his “exile.” Following a visit to Israel and his neutral reporting on the 1967 Six-Day War, an incident happened that is mentioned in the introduction of Volume 1 and will be recounted in Volume 2: During a public lecture at a university in London in 1968, a “representative of the Egyptian state” accused Ghali of defecting to Israel and informed the hall that he had been stripped of his Egyptian passport. But Ghali’s troubles with the state began well before that. When he attempts to renew his alien’s passport in Germany in 1966, he says he was told to try to get an Egyptian passport instead, to which he laughs, “You are joking.” It is known that the Egyptian government refused to renew his passport due to his “political views,” but which views or when this took place remains unclear. The introduction only speculates that his reluctance to return may have been motivated by “some sort of trouble” he got into with the Egyptian government in “perhaps 1954.”

These and other questions are likely to be answered in the second volume, which includes an interview with Ghali’s cousin Samir Basta, whom Ghali often stayed with in Cairo during his adolescence. This upcoming volume is likely to be far more revealing, shedding light on the crucial phase of Ghali’s life preceding his suicide, and possibly contextualizing his life in Egypt and family dynamics, which are barely alluded to in the current volume. It will also be interesting to compare volume two with Athill’s memoir, since both cover the time Ghali spent living at her flat in London.

“The diaries also represent for Ghali’s fans a much awaited second work,” says Hawas, and many will agree. Although Beer in the Snooker Club was critically acclaimed when published in the US by Alfred A. Knopf the year following its UK release, and was also translated into French and Hebrew that year, at home it suffered a similar fate to its marginalized author. It remained little known outside of English-speaking circles until 2006, when an Arabic translation was published by Dar al-Alam al-Thaleth, with a second Arabic edition (translated by Iman Mersal and Reem al-Rayes) published by Shorouk in 2012.

In the novel, Ram tells his older, Jewish love interest Edna (another impossible and unrequited relationship) that he joined the Communist Party in England because he didn’t know what else to do with himself. “The knowledge I possess […] this knowledge of history and politics and literature had to be channeled towards something or other if I weren’t to go mad,” says Ram.

But Ghali himself was unable to anchor himself to a cause, a project or his work, and was incapable of returning to a country he loved and loathed. Dying penniless and alone, he described the act of taking his own life as the “only authentic one” of his life, and a pleasure. “I am doing this not in a sad, unhappy way,” he wrote in the final entry before his suicide, quoted in Athill’s memoir, “but on the contrary, happily and even (a state of being and a word I have always loved) SERENELY… serenely.”

Ghali’s struggles and insecurities feel terribly familiar, and it is oddly comforting to see them laid bare. His diaries serve as a cautionary tale on the fate of the idle intellectual, a portrait of the impossibility of a life lived in the in-betweens, and a liberating account of “living for one’s own pleasure.” It is perhaps in those brief moments when everything seemed lost that Ghali could attain the real, reckless, individualist happiness that eluded him in his doomed love affairs.

“Had fantastic luck,” he writes of one of many evenings spent at the gambling parlor, “and before I knew it, had won about 60DM. But continued playing. Wanted to lose. Very funny indeed. Lost everything except 1DM and felt very relieved. Walked the five miles back home in pouring rain. Feeling strangely good and happy.”

Lara El Gibaly 

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