2006 September 18

As Anjel Lertxundi wrote, the Basque word albiste, news, comes from the Arabic word al-bisara – good news – and today the news comes from the Arabic world itself, but it is sad this time, and brings word of your death.

Nevertheless, death did not catch you unawares. When you turned 89, you must have heard Death calling you since you made this confession: "I feel like I’m in the Sidi Gaber train station, the last station before Alexandria. When I used to go to Alexandria for the summer, I knew I shouldn’t get off at the Sidi Gaber station, but at the next one. But, at the same time, I also knew that since it was the next-to-last station, I had to begin to prepare my luggage to get off at Alexandria. Now I feel as if I were at Sidi Gaber."

Nevertheless, you had a long life, nearly a century, and gave us news, particularly of Cairo. You wanted to bring literature to the common people by making books easily attainable for the poor in the Al-Ghuri library, and by writing works of theatre for the illiterate. You distinguished yourself in novel writing, and although you hardly left Egypt, your work has spread throughout the world. The particular became the universal in your work; for example, your novel set in Cairo, Midaq Alley was actually filmed in Mexico City by Jorge Fons

Nevertheless, your Cairo is not the city of silence and truth that you described. Cairo has sixteen million inhabitants today and there were only one million when you were born. And as you walked a street of that very city, you were stabbed by a fundamentalist and lost the use of your right hand and arm. In any case, incapable of writing yourself, you dictated your work to your friend the writer Mohamed Salmauiri and published an article every week in the newspaper Al-Ahram.

Nevertheless, the west unfortunately has little interest in Arabic literature, in learning the real news from that world, and were it not for the Nobel Prize, your books would surely be unknown to us; compared to western literature, eastern literature is more sensual, it comes to us through a glance and through the senses, it is more aromatic, sweatier, speaks to us in a different cadence.

Nevertheless, in earlier times your work was banned in Egypt, and although you must not know it, your work in translation – due to literary agents and ignorance and politicking – was banned in the Basque Country as well. Anjel Lertxundi had this to say about translation: “In the territory of the world and of literature, there are many feelings, emotions, views, curves and intuitions that Basque still has not named. Translation is our only way of building a bridge. Translation is a way for us to see with our own eyes other climates, characters and landscapes, a way for us to blend our voice with the universal voice, a way as essential as it is fruitful.” And you must not know this either: at last your novel Arabian Nights and Days has finally been published in Basque Mila eta bat gauen gaua and soon we will have Midaq Alley (Mirarien kalezuloa), and that is both al-bisara and good luck.

And now at last the train has come to Alexandria, and perhaps it is fitting to say what you used to say: speech is silver; silence is golden.

Published by permission of the author.
Original version published in Gara (31 August, 2006).