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.