Obituary: Yehia Haqqi

Yehia Haqqi, writer, born Cairo 7 January 1905, died Cairo 9 December 1992.

THE EGYPTIAN novelist Yehia Haqqi is well known among Arabic language writers and readers for his comprehensive and wide variety of works: novels, novellas, short stories; translated works from German, French, Italian, Turkish and Persian; books on literary criticism and the history of literature and the arts; and columns in daily and weekly journals.

After a few years in the shadows, Haqqi's name hit the headlines briefly in the aftermath of the Cairo earthquake in October when the ailing writer vacated his hospital bed 'to make one bed available for injured civilians who are needier and younger citzens'.

The statement incorporated the mixed and sometimes confused feelings, as well as the feeling for sacrifice, of this literary giant. He was full of love for the poor and the handicapped, and felt an urgent need to prove his Egyptianism.

From his birth in 1905 in Cairo to Turkish parents, when Egypt was officially still part of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, the young Yehia Haqqi fought to prove that he was more Egyptian than those born to families who had lived for thousands of years on the banks of the Nile. 'If you squeeze me in one of the street sugar-cane squeezers, not one single Turkish drop would come out, because I am more Egyptian than the Pharaohs.'

In using Egyptian metaphors and developing the Arabic literary language to embrace the Nilotic Egyptian, Haqqi went further than many of his compatriots to develop a language that literary critics in Egypt called al-haqqawiyah, or Haqqism.

Like most writers of his generation, he did not devote all his time to writing until after years - three decades in his case - in the service of the state. He joined the diplomatic service in 1928, and served in many countries abroad, thus giving himself experience to cement his speciality as one of the best writer-critics to examine the clash of eastern and western values, good and bad.

Such experience is very evident in his best-known and longest novel, Quandeel Om Hashem ('The Lantern Of Om Hashem', 1954). This novel, along with the late Egyptian philosopher Tawfik el-Hakim's Ousfure minelsharq ('The Bird from the East') is regarded by Arabic literature scholars as the base for everything written in Arabic about pre- and post- colonial contacts between the romantic, mystic, spiritual, but backward, values of the East and the secular, rational, advanced way of life in the West. Om Hashem is the Cairo mosque of a Muslim woman saint, Zynab, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, where thousands of handicapped Muslims go seeking a cure. Haqqi, who had been born in the area, used his childhood memories in the novel: the German- educated doctor who is outraged by the way a Muslim mother treats her child's eyes with drops of oil from the mosque's lantern, thus blinding the child. The doctor rushes into the mosque to smash the 1,000-year-old lantern.

When Cairo television turned the novel into a film, Islamic fundamentalists were outraged, but the popularity of the film overcame their protest. Despite this confrontation, Haqqi was never in real danger from the fundamentalists. Unlike Naguib Mahfouz, Haqqi professed his Muslim faith. In fact the message he conveyed was that what the East needs to catch up with the West is a new structure: a modern secularised Muslim empire ruled by a benevolent dictatorship.

He was very excited by Col Nasser's military coup in 1952. He penned a new novel, Al-Ustazh ('The Crafts Master') - where the main character was unmistakably Nasser as the promised benevolent dictator. As expected, critics accused him of seeking favours with Nasser, but such accusations hardly fitted in with Haqqi's character. He was a modest and simple man to the point of enjoying pain and suffering. He once sold most of his antique furniture and collection of books and slept on a mattress on the floor.

His writing about the deprived, the physically and mentally handicapped turned into an obsession. His 1955 anthology of short stories Blood and Earth won the highest state prize in literature, while one of its stories, 'The Postman', was made into a film in 1965 and won international prizes.

After he quit his job as an editor of the prestigious Al-Migalla literary journal, in 1970, he refused offers to write regularly for national dailies like Al-Ahram, where Mahfouz writes, or the Middle East's largest daily, Al-Akhbar, but he wrote a weekly 1,000-word column in a small circulation paper, Al- Taaoun, for a small sum of money.

Haqqi devoted himself to being a guide to many young Egyptian writers - there is hardly a writer in Egypt today between the ages of 30 and 50 who has not published a book with an introduction by Haqqi.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'