Fri, 22 Sep 2023 - 10:31 GMT
Fri, 22 Sep 2023 - 10:31 GMT
Notoriously known for being a revolutionary and ingenious literary talent with a sharp mouth and an even sharper wit, Mohamed Hafez Ragab was born in Alexandria in 1935, where he eventually returned to at the peak of his career to live a life of self-imposed isolation before his death in February of 2021.
A self-taught writer and a rebel since childhood, Ragab dropped out of school after only getting a primary education and started working for his father as a newspaper boy and lottery ticket seller at Al-Raml train station in Alexandria before separating from him and working as a peanuts and pumpkin seeds street vendor near Strand Cinema, where he truly began to discover his passion for writing, believing he would become a world-class writer.
At the young age of 18, Ragab’s father forced him to marry; a union that resulted in two daughters. Still, he was undeterred and unrelenting in his hunger for literature, often reading and writing in his free time and then sending his work to several literary entities and magazines.
In the 1950s, Ragab co-founded a literary association for young writers in Alexandria titled the ‘Cultural Association for Emerging Writers,’ which served as a literary union for marginalized laborers, attracting talented writers from underprivileged communities.
Once he published one of his short stories in a popular literary magazine, Ragab was discovered by one of the bigwigs of the literary scene and offered a job in a prestigious cultural institution in Cairo, where he quickly became a revolutionary voice within the Arab literary scene before gradually breaking away from the realism of his predecessors, slowly finding out that he didn’t really fit in the white-collar society of writers in the bustling capital.
For years, critics overlooked his works due to his experimental writing style and themes, often describing his work as surreal. His avant-garde writings shook the basis of fiction, painting a target on his back that writers from earlier generations were too content to take shots at.
His work was also rejected for its focus on the absurd in a time when realism was more prominent in the cultural scene, putting him at odds with his contemporaries despite being an explicit renewal of the prevailing norm.
In 1968, Ragab published his first book The Strangers, followed by The Ball and the Man’s Head in 1970, which Naguib Mahfouz introduced at his weekly literary seminar, describing the young author as "a surrealist in a real world."
"When I first heard these words, I foresaw my destiny," Ragab told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "I saw a linen rope and a tree branch waiting for my neck to hang."
Ragab was also known for his extreme frankness, which caused enmities among people in the cultural community, as he often said: "We are a generation without literary masters" — a statement that sparked a campaign of criticism and veneration from his peers throughout his long career that concluded with his eventual return and exile to Alexandria, where the alienation and loss of passion for what he loved the most — writing — eventually pushed him to cocoon in his house on the edge of the city for 30 years until his death.
"All my contemporaries closely watched the battles I fought to introduce alternative writing styles in Egypt," says Ragab. A pity that these fights only paid off after years of marginalization in the literary world.
A collection of Mohamed Hafez Ragab’s complete works were published by Al-Ain Publishing House in 2011 in two parts. The collection was edited by the poet Ashraf Youssef and included an introduction by Yahya Haqqi, who spoke of how Ragab eschewed the rules of Arabic short story writing with his use of short, delicate sentences that told a story by evoking emotions rather than recounting events. He even went as far as calling Ragab an "artist who was, undoubtedly, ahead of his time"
The first part of the collection included a compilation of his fiction stories, including the Boiling Tea Kettle Creatures Collections, as well as Hamasa and the Giggles of Smart Donkeys, Ignition of the Dead Head, The Knocker at the Dead of Night, Joyful Dances of the Municipality’s Mules, and the Love for a Cup of Guava Juice Collections, all of which have been translated into English, French, German, and Italian throughout his career.
As for the second part, it included a collection of unpublished stories and other writings, as well as everything that was written about him in terms of critical articles, battles, letters, documents, pictures, and more.
Despite his great career in the world of literature, Ragab didn’t receive much recognition for his work, merely winning a Best Storyteller Award from the Writers Union in 2007, as well as a celebration from the Narratives Lab at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2012 commemorating him as a pioneer of innovation in Arabic storytelling with a conference and a booklet about him.
Ragab eventually passed away in 2021; however, his story lives on in fellow Alexandrine director Hend Bakr’s recent documentary THE TEDIOUS TOUR OF M, in which she breaks through his solitude to find out the reason behind his radical decision to self-isolate for the better part of 30 years. The film premiered at the Aswan International Women’s Film Festival and received a Special Mention from the Gabes Art Festival in Tunisia.
Written, directed, and produced by Bakr, THE TEDIOUS TOUR OF M — which was co-produced by Ahmed Nabil, edited by Peter Adel, and lensed by Tamer Nady — screened at this year’s edition of the Amman International Film Festival - Awal Film, with Bakr holding a post-screening Q&A to discuss everything from meeting the man behind the myth in the flesh to the challenges she faced while filming the documentary.
The documentary will also be screened in Cairo and Alexandria, with the first screening scheduled for September 22nd at 6 pm at the Goethe Institute’s headquarters in Cairo’s Downtown, and the second to be held at the Jesuit Cultural Center in Alexandria on the following day in the same time slot.