‘Trying hard to get out of my skin’: A conversation on Waguih Ghali’s multiple selves

“Athill is dead. This just makes me feel the passage of time. Time that has been lost. Time that has been wasted. Visas and plane tickets that were too expensive to obtain. No more thoughts on what I would’ve asked her if she were still alive. I actually don’t know what I would’ve asked her… I read this and I just want to cry. I’m not sad she died. We go when we go. I’m just overwhelmed by this PhD I’m supposed to write and all things I want to do and never do. All the plans I make in my head which I never pursue. This one plan has evaporated because this person is dead. Was the plan even necessary? Did it matter? Does it make sense?”

— Facebook post by Zainab Magdy, January 24, 2019

A month ago, I stumbled across this Facebook post by Zainab Magdy, whom I had known only as a friend of a friend, who acts and writes, teaches English literature at Cairo University, wears bright red lipstick, and has a head of flawless curls. I quickly came to understand that she was also centering her PhD on the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali (1930?-1969), known as the genius behind the beloved novel Beer in the Snooker Club (1964).    

I did a double take. Diana Athill, right? The same writer and editor Ghali befriended in the 1960s and lived with for a few years before killing himself in her London flat? It was a strange coincidence: That same week, I was waist-deep in Volume II of The Diaries of Waguih Ghali.

Interest in Beer in the Snooker Club has spiked in recent years — more so since the release of its Arabic translation in 2013 — and with it, interest in the author. He shares many qualities with his anti-hero. The novel, set during the turbulent transition after the 1956 Suez Crisis, captures the wanderings of Ram, a highly educated Coptic Egyptian struggling to fit in, in Cairo and then in London, who is critical of both the British colonial enterprise and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Many have found in it a valuable account of a crucial moment in Egypt’s colonial and nationalist history, and the novel has particularly resonated with readers since the 2011 revolution.

That’s probably why the diaries were received so eagerly upon publication in 2017. These notebooks, which I had grown slightly obsessed with, capture Ghali’s battle with depression; his complicated relationship with his native country after the Egyptian authorities refused to renew his passport, forcing him to live exiled in Europe; his voracious appetite for love, sex, alcohol and gambling; his constant struggle to make a living; his inability to write a sequel to his successful debut and his ambivalent relationship with Athill.

Athill didn’t edit the diaries as Ghali had suggested she do (in the same suicide note in which he declared her “the person I love most,” he suggested the edited notebooks “would be a good piece of literature”), but she preserved them for decades, and used them in her memoir of him. She lost the diaries in a move, but Cornell University digitized photocopies the scholar Deborah Starr had made and kept, publishing them online in 2013. Writer and scholar May Hawas later edited them into the two volumes published by the American University in Cairo Press.

The diaries show that the pair had an intimate and substantial relationship, and while Athill’s 1986 memoir After a Funeral corroborates this, it also offers a less-than-flattering portrait of Ghali. At one point she refers to him as “little goat-face,” and she depicts him as an egocentric drunk. “Why does she choose to conceal her friend’s identity?” Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif asks in a review of the memoir. Maybe that’s what Zainab Magdy would have asked her? Perhaps when Athill died, Magdy felt as though part of the story was dying with her. (But stories don’t die, do they?)

In the same way that it was difficult to read the diaries in Ghali’s voice, and not Ram’s, now something about Magdy’s post really reminded me of Ghali. Perhaps it was the rawness and immediacy, the panic and the sense, as she writes, that “everything is unraveling out of control.” I was struck by her intimacy with the subject she was building a PhD around — so much intimacy that she was starting to sound like him.

Driven by a curiosity about his life and her ongoing research, I persuaded Magdy to sit down for a conversation a few days before Ghali’s birthday on February 25. We sat on the floor after she declared that “Waguih wouldn’t have liked that big blue couch” in the living room.

We plan things and plan things and they don’t go the way we want them to. I plan stories in my head then I don’t write them and I think deep down this fear of finding that I’m writing bullshit follows me everywhere Waguih is, the writer who wrote one good book and died. Who was it who said we write the same story over and over again? What about plans? Do we make the same plans? Do we make the same performances? Do we dance the same moves? Do we love the same way? I’m so exhausted from everything and the news of the death of this woman just made me feel that everything is unraveling out of control.

— Zainab Magdy’s Facebook post, continued  

Waguih Ghali

Sara Elkamel: So, I’ll tell you where my interest in all this started. Two years ago I read Volume I of the diaries while on a writing residency in Spain. I was staying in a huge house in rural Andalucia, with several cats, a goat and only a couple of other human beings, so Waguih became a sort of companion. I found myself strongly relating to his experience with depression — and I will admit that the resemblance scared me. I’ve thought about him a lot since then. And I was actually just getting to the end of Volume II when Diana Athill died, and that’s also when I saw your Facebook post. It moved me, and it made me really curious about your relationship with Waguih. How did your interest in him develop?

Zainab Magdy: I studied Beer in the Snooker Club during my MA program; Hoda Gindi, who is now one of my PhD supervisors, had assigned it. I immediately became obsessed with the book. Reading it, I realized that like Ram I was stuck between two cultures — and, in a way, the book translated what I felt. Every time I read it, I felt this pain in my chest. There’s something about how raw it is, how easy and simple. And then there’s the humor; I always grinned and laughed as I read it.

Three years later I was asked to write a text about Cairo [for Cairopolis, published in 2013 by Snoeck], and all I could think of was the book. Ram was haunting me. The book had captured so much of how I felt about the city, and how I felt about the way my mother raised us [me and my sisters].

We didn’t grow up reading a lot of Arabic books, and my grandmother didn’t speak Arabic. The library we went to only had books in English. When I was a teenager we used to have these arguments with my mom where she’d end up telling us that we were “Egyptians” and start speaking about our Egyptian traditions. Anyway, when I was 19 I began reading contemporary Egyptian literature, and became obsessed with writing in Arabic. And I’ve always returned to these questions about how we were brought up, where and who we are. So something in the book really spoke to me. It became very dear to my heart. But the more I read it, I started to feel like my attachment was more to Waguih, and I developed this imaginary relationship with him.

SEK: What kind of relationship is it? Are you friends?

ZM: I actually used to joke that we were lovers in a past life! But I think I just have this impulse to take care of him. I want to make sure that he’s read, that he’s not exploited, not misunderstood. I feel he’s this great love, for reasons I can’t explain.

I strongly believe in the power of books and of stories. And Waguih’s novel is not something you can just interact with from a distance. It’s like something that opens up, and you have no choice but to jump right into it. Still, I constantly wonder: Why do we get attached to authors in this way? I think about this a lot, and it’s the reason I decided to work on Ghali for my PhD.

SEK: Have you found any answers?

ZM: I feel like our attachment is mostly driven by basic human curiosity. My other interpretation is that there is something in the act of writing that exposes the self. Especially when texts are written in the first person, we come to read them as a relation of the author’s life. For Waguih, my guess is that a lot of the interest and curiosity were fueled by his suicide.

When I was writing my proposal, Dr. Hoda [Gindy] was teaching Beer in the Snooker Club to her MA students, and she asked me to go talk to them. I discovered that they were all speaking as though Ram was Waguih, and that they were mostly interested in what I was saying about Waguih, not about the novel. And sometimes I think that’s a real shame, because the focus on the author’s character also takes away from seeing how brilliant the book is. I’m afraid of it, but at the same time I understand how much Waguih’s character speaks to people.

When Reem El-Rayyes and Iman Mersal’s translation came out [in 2013], the novel, which speaks of a certain trauma and suffering, suddenly became much more available. I think the figure of Waguih, as the writer who fails to write another book, who lived through a period of change when nothing really happened, who constantly speaks about being different, and suffers from depression and mental illness in general, is very compelling. It really speaks to what we’re living through right now. And that has a lot to do with why Waguih is so popular today.

SEK: So you think the Arabic translation had a hand in raising interest in the novel?

ZM: Of course. The translation, and particularly its timing, did wonders for the book. The novel captures a very critical period and the Arabic edition was released at an equally critical time: 2013 [the year former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted as a result of military-backed protests, followed by the violent dispersal of his supporters at the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in]. I think the historical moment Ghali was writing about really echoed that moment we were living through that year.

I’m sure the representation of Ram, as an anti-hero, also resonated; his apathy towards any form of activism, his sense of disillusionment and cynicism, but still, his desperate attempts at doing something useful.

I belong to a secret organization the head of which is Dr Hamza, Jameel’s father. He is collecting documents, pictures and literature, concerning atrocities carried out in our political prisons and concentration camps… I drive once a week to those places to visit police officers supposed to be friends of mine. They hand me an envelope containing pictures and reports written by inmates and in return I pay them a certain sum of money. I have the terrible feeling that some of the pictures wouldn’t be so gory if we didn’t pay for them.
This is all I do.
“What’s this job?” Font asked again.
“Nothing,” I told him.
Excerpt from Beer in the Snooker Club

At the end of the day it’s a book about Egypt. And I think its depiction of this relationship with who you are, where you are, where you come from and where you belong has been critical in setting up a strong audience for it.

SEK: When the diaries were released [in 2017], it seemed that readers had become very eager for more details on Ghali’s life.

ZM: Yes. There was an insatiable curiosity about it that went beyond the novel. Of course there are also very few writers who leave their diaries behind to be published. But the contents of these diaries — exile, sex, gambling, alcohol, addiction, falling in and out of love, London in the 1960s, his visit to Israel after the 1967 Naksa, and so on — there’s a lot of drama. So they’re not just diaries, they’re diaries that seem very juicy. They also play the role of the long-awaited second work by a favorite author.

SEK: Do you think people’s access to the diaries affected their interpretation of the novel?

ZM: Definitely. Reading the diaries after the novel actually turns them into sequels if we think of the novel as “semi-autobiographical,” as it’s always described. Also, I think that whenever we’re reading literature we become entangled, and this makes me wonder: Why do we decide to make these comparisons between author and protagonist? Why do we insist on them? And how far do we go to prove that the author is just depicting their own life? It’s fascinating to look at how we read literature in that sense.

There are so many novels out there with protagonists extremely similar to their authors. But I think what drives this particular [curiosity] is not just the book — it’s the scarcity of what we know about Ghali’s life before the diaries, and a desire to put parts of the jigsaw together. So you use the fictional text to speculate about his life, and this is what’s so amazing about literature: How you can use, re-use and recreate a story that’s larger than the one you’re reading. Genres are really fluid in that way. Especially a genre like autofiction.

SEK: Can you tell me more about autofiction? Is that what you will focus on for your PhD?

ZM: Autofiction is one genre I’m looking at. I’ve been reading a bit for my thesis about the term, which was coined by French writer Serge Doubrovsky. There’s a lot of theory written about autofiction and diaries in French; much less in the Anglophone world. Basically, I would describe it as a recreation of the self in writing.

I took a course on autobiography and memoir with Dr. Hoda and Hala [Kamal], who became my supervisors, and it was very clear to me that I wanted to study Beer in the Snooker Club as autofiction then. I am basically looking at how the “self,” as a thing, is represented in Waguih’s writings, but also how it is performed, or becomes performative; how the act of writing the self is performative. My main concern is to examine how the self is represented as we move between genres of life narratives, how it’s written out and how genre controls this representation. I’m also trying to examine how someone’s fiction, or diaries — or any other text they produce — can move other people to interpret and represent this same self in their respective work. So that’s why I’m also looking at Athill’s memoir and the introductions to various editions of Beer in the Snooker Club.

Diana Athill

SEK: I wonder if it is this fluidity of genre that makes readers confuse the author for the protagonist — it feels like if anyone were to read the diaries first, they would almost certainly read Ram as Waguih. How do you read the novel now, having seen the diaries?

ZM: I personally think Ram is who Waguih would’ve loved to be. Or maybe how he would’ve loved to have been seen. After finishing the diaries, I felt Ram was a reflection of a life without Waguih’s struggle, which we have only recently been able to witness in the diaries.

SEK: You seemed to have been really distressed by Diana Athill’s death, and you clearly had an intention — however postponed or unrealized — to meet her. What do you think you would’ve asked her?

ZM: I just wanted to talk to her. I think I would’ve asked her about things she wrote in her memoir. Mainly, I was going ask her why she had read Ghali’s diaries [when he was alive and living with her].

When I read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of Athill’s memoir of him, it really resonated. She wrote exactly what bothered me but that I was too emotional to verbalize. I was very troubled by Athill’s book. She showed very little awareness of her position over this brown man, in exile, suffering from mental illness, with gambling and alcohol addictions. Maybe Athill had an idea about Ghali that she had formed after reading [and editing, as his publisher] Beer in the Snooker Club. Remember I was saying that we have these ideas about people, and what happens when they don’t meet these expectations? I can see how perhaps he disappointed her imagination of him and the projection of her fantasies of what he would look like, act like, etc.

And it angers me that she never edited the diaries like he had asked her to. I mean, I understand her anger; he had lived off of her for years, but in one way or another, she had created this situation. I’m sure she came to feel that she couldn’t kick him out, but at the same time…

I also wanted to talk to her about how she felt about him, and what she expected of him. I just wanted to hear her talk, give her the benefit of the doubt. But also, she’s someone who knew him quite well, and I think I just wanted to talk to someone who knew him.

I don’t hate her. Yesterday I was rereading the last part of the diary. He died feeling he had no one else [apart from Athill]. I think that’s something that, even if you find the memoir problematic, one should remember. Regardless of why he felt that way, she was the person he loved the most.

Something else that annoyed me though was the last part in her memoir, when she says: “This record has been written for him and for people who are going to have children.” What? So Ghali’s problem was that he wasn’t loved when he was a child? Are we going to trim it all down to this? Without mentioning the trauma she herself must have caused him, the political context, etc.?

SEK: It really destroyed him when she read his diaries. He exposed a lot of himself in these notebooks — he was mean at times, and even showed a tendency to be cruel. He was sometimes horrible to the women in his life, for example. But as soon as he saw his self-image like that, he became distraught. As if he wished he were different. That’s why it made sense when you said that Ram was who he ideally wanted to be, a representation of his ideal self-image. Because the self-image he revealed very openly in the diaries wasn’t something he liked when he saw it staring back at him. So I think that’s why it ruined him when she saw the self-image that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be seen.

Ghali and Athill

ZM: Exactly. Did you get the feeling that you were looking at something you weren’t supposed to see when you read them?

SEK: Not really.

ZM: I did a little bit. At some point I thought that perhaps this is not what he would’ve wanted. At least not in this very raw form.

What I find beautiful in the novel — and in the diaries — is this splitting into two different selves. At some point Ram sees a different “I,” and he says: “I had felt myself cleave into two entities, the one participating and the other watching and judging.” In the diary too I feel there are always several selves. Waguih really cared about his self-image, and the diary was where he could be the “self” he didn’t want to expose to the public. As a genre, the diary is intriguing and disturbing in this way. It’s private, but then it gets published and there’s this incredibly naked exposure.

“How are you, Diana?”
“I’m alright,” she said.
“OH good,” I said. “For some horrible moment I thought you had read my Diary.”
“I have.”
I was unable to speak for a moment… I mumbled some incoherent words. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even shook my head (not new) violently, trying hard to get out of my skin… to separate the good decent me, from the vulgar, scrummy other self. I remained stuck.”

I think the diary was the place he unleashed these things he wasn’t sure he wanted to say in real life. Even though he told Diana some terrible things to her face. She was very hurt when he told her she was not a very good writer, for example. Sometimes I feel she might’ve been jealous because he was a better writer than she was.

And something happens at some point in the diaries — maybe it’s when he starts to realize that he’s not going to write again that an audience develops. Suddenly it’s like he lets out all his creative energy in the diaries. Or maybe not. I think he says he writes the diary because he’s failing to write. What a thing to feel when you’re a writer: that you have nothing to write anymore but your life.

I think about the diary form a lot. Is it written for an audience? Why is it written? For whom?

SEK: Sometimes we just need an other while we’re writing.

ZM: Of course. But there are instances in which he seems to be talking directly to the reader. In his suicide note for example…

I am going to kill myself tonight … The time has come. I am, of course, drunk. But then sober it would have been very very very difficult (— I acknowledge the drunken writing myself.) But what else could I do, sweethearts? loved ones? Nothing — really nothing —

SEK: There were parts in Deborah Starr’s interview with his cousin, Samir Basta, in the preface of Volume II, that I found rather careless — like Basta’s use of the words “schizophrenia,” “depression,” etc. I feel strongly about wanting this book to be read in conjunction with awareness of mental health issues. Because I think it’s crazy to keep theorizing about the “reasons” for his suicide, without proper, informed discussion of his mental health situation. But is it reasonable to ask for something like this? Whose responsibility would it be to ensure that readers are getting this introduction?

ZM: Something about the diaries themselves does this. You can see that this is someone who was suffering from some undiagnosed psychological or mental illness, and that he didn’t have the luxury of receiving treatment.

Should we ask readers to approach the book with this awareness? I feel like we all need to have this awareness, but that we have a long way to go as a society before we can talk in a more empathetic way about mental health. And maybe literature can do that. I think there’s something about Waguih’s story that forces readers to empathize, sympathize and see something.

The diaries, read in totality — the four notebooks — present a very raw and real timeline of what the daily existence of a person suffering mental health issues can be like. People are coming to realize this.

It’s not something singular that Waguih wanted to be loved. We all want to be loved. We all want to give love and to be loved. Isn’t this a standard human emotion? Isn’t this the emotion we bestow on everything, on friends, family, pets? So it’s not the fact that he wasn’t loved that was the problem. If we say that, then it’s a serious dismissal of someone’s struggle with illness.

Magdy’s cat with the 1968 Penguin New Writers Edition of Beer in the Snooker Club

Sara Elkamel 

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