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Waguih Ghali

When I wrote a post about Waguih Ghali’s novel Beer in the snooker club not long ago, I didn’t realize that the author’s diaries and an unpublished manuscript had recently been digitized and made available by Cornell University library. (The same friend who lent me the book wrote to tell me.) These digitized versions were made from photocopies held by Deborah Starr, a literature professor at Cornell. She had made the copies in 1999, from the originals held by Diane Athill, the publisher and memoirist whose flat Ghali was living in when he took the overdose of sleeping pills that killed him. At some point after 1999, though, the originals were lost, leaving the photocopies as (probably) the only extant copy. With Athill’s permission, these copies were digitized last year.

A novelist’s diaries are most obviously interesting to scholars of literature, and Ghali’s place in the canon seems increasingly assured, with his one slender completed novel still in print fifty years after its publication. But there’d be plenty of interesting stuff here for a historian, too, interested in Ghali’s experiences of a precarious life in exile: working for the British army in the West Germany of the Wirtschaftswunder; attending the trial of SS officers in Düsseldorf (there can’t have been many Egyptians there); trying to complete a second novel on the fringes of literary London; and travelling to Israel immediately after the 1967 war. This, as Ahdaf Soueif pointed out in 1986, was a monumental act of bridge-burning, ensuring that Ghali could never return to Egypt:

Visiting Israel – indeed entering an Israeli embassy anywhere in the world – was treasonous according to Egyptian wartime law, and punishable by death. It was also an act that would have gone completely against popular feeling in a country suffering the aftermath of a terrible defeat. It is the one thing which has stayed in the minds of the very few people who remember him today in Cairo.

(Even fewer people will remember Ghali in Cairo now, over 25 years after Soueif wrote that, but perhaps more know about his book, which was written in English: according to this article it has a small cult following, and there’s a recent translation into Arabic.)

Anyone want to do a dissertation on all this? Email me.

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