Muawiya Nur: Buying Books in Early 20th Century Egypt and Sudan

30 Dec

Muawiya Nur is a writer I have been interested in for a while. A diligent Sudanese student of Edward Atiyah (who eulogised him in his memoirs “An Arab Tells his Story”), he went to Cairo in the early 1930s to try to become a literary critic and writer. According to Atiyah, he lived a bohemian existence on top of a flat in Heliopolis surrounded by books.

He never managed to get enough money to sustain himself in Cairo and soon had to return to Khartoum where he went mad and died at the age of 31 or 32 in 1941. Still he managed to have a huge influence on all of 20th century Sudanese literature and is still spoken of reverentially by many Sudanese authors working today.

One things that is always said about him is that he spent his life surrounded by books. The student yearbooks of the American University of Beirut, where he studied, make reference to his books and his “philosophy”. Atiyah thinks that his books were his refuge from the conservative society around him.

Here I translate an article he wrote for an Egyptian newspaper in 1933 talking about how he felt about his books, both reading them and collecting them, in ways which are no doubt familiar to us all.

m nur

Me and Books or Books and I

I swear I don’t know which of these is true: is it me who is writing about books and discussing their style or is it the books who are writing about me and seducing me – with what they have taught me – to seduce myself, expose my weaknesses and mock myself? It is me who loves books, is infatuated with them and is their hunter and their conqueror? Or is it those books who are charming me, making me a tool for their amusement and entertainment. I don’t know which one is more true.

Whatever the fact of the matter, let us leave it to the Lord of Consolation.

I do not know, either, with any degree of accuracy when I first fell in love with books or when they became the object of my devotion – and I cannot easily do it now. But I do know that, when I was in primary school, an old friend and I used to collect them, gather them together and take an undue pride in their abundance. I cannot say that we read them. We hardly did that at all. If my collection was even one book bigger than his, I would brag to him, self-satisfaction filling my body and joy infusing my being. He would, likewise, suffer great pain until he could complete his collection and we were equal again.

That is the first episode in the story of my love for these papers they call “books”. As you can see, it was a totally irrational, mad love. After this, I never went anywhere or visited any place without asking about its bookshops. I went to them all as if it were my official duty to do so.

I might be broke and so would not buy a single book. Still, that did not stop me visiting public bookshops every day until the owners got annoyed with me, and my lack of money. Still I did not stop going because, for me, looking at books has its own special magic which surpasses all others. To my eyes, they are more charming than beautiful girls. The pure scent of a new volume off the presses is a fragrance that puts Jasmin to shame.

It is a special kind of pleasure for me to open a new book and smell its pages as I am sipping some tea or smoking a cigarette. I promise, there are few pleasures like it in all existence.

Discovering a new book gives me the same feeling that geographers must have when they discover a new continent, that a lover must have when he first meets his beloved, or that a skilful thief must have when discovers some hidden treasure.

There is nothing more attractive to me in a bookshop than the glass display case. I walk back and forth looking at the azure cover of one book and then my gaze will stop at the title of another and it will pain my heart that it was not me who wrote it. My irritation at the author intensifies because he has treated exactly the same subject that I intended to write about. Then my sadness grows because I can’t afford to own the book, even if I can, at least, look at its cover. Then I look at some magazine that contains all kinds of articles and studies that I ought not be ignorant of. Then some book about music… Yes, music… And I ought not talk about it or discuss its theory without full knowledge or understanding.

So I imagined myself amongst brothers lecturing with wit and pride on Beethoven’s Sonatas, or on “harmony”, “melody” and movements. Then I would tell them how Chopin’s art differed from Wagner’s how one surpassed the other in thought while the other surpassed the first in emotion – or some other refined claim like that.

Then, I see a book about painting … Yes, dear reader, painting is everything. Art. Art, my friend. Discussions about shading, colouring, and movement in the art of Hessler and Degas and their ilk. How can I consider myself “cultured” without knowing about these kinds of things? I wander, picturing myself in a crowd as I rave about these refined pieces of knowledge. They are all there, with their ears listening and their mouths agape, eating up what I say.

That’s right, they are eating it all up.

Then, my friend, it is not enough for a man to know just Arabic, English, and French literature to become a widely learned litterateur. No, you must also know Czechoslovakian literature, and Polish, and Danish, and the literature of the Hottentot, the Mexicans and that of the far off lands beyond the seas. That is all necessary.

But where is the money?

God curse money.

Then time. God curse that too. Can I read all that I want to read? No, of course not, but this need not stand in the way of me buying books, collecting them and wanting them. It is enough for me that they are in my library so I can look at them and enjoy their presence in my sight. Maybe I’ll go to sleep and dream I’ve read them cover to cover and learned all that is in them. I might have criticised them or commented on them in my sleep, and what need to read them after that?!

In fact, if I wanted to read a book but did not have time to thumb through it, I would sleep and read it in a dream (this does not mean, wise reader, that you can just sleep and dream and then read – your dreams might not come to your aid there).

Very often I buy a book and feel a sense of ease simply because I own it, not bothering myself to actually read it ever. I think many readers do this same thing but do not admit it. Despite all this, I never stop complaining to my friends about how few books I have and my lack of money. I spend my whole day and read there – without spending any money, of course. The shopkeeper thinks, at first, that I am going to buy something so is patient, asks me what I want and responds to my questions with care but I send him away, insisting I know what I want myself. If he found out that I couldn’t afford to buy he would kick me out and ban me from ever coming into the shop again.

I do not know what the reason for this inexcusable appetite is. Do you think that I have a second stomach which is only filled by books and only hungry in their presence.

It is strange, and even surprising to me myself, that I only like to read in book stalls or book shops. For if I seclude myself in my private library – yes, reader, I have a private library and no lie – I leave it quickly and lock it up, going back to the bookstalls. If I manage to stay in my library I get bored, my eyes blur and I drift off, reading everything in a sweet dream.

I frequently deceive myself – as you may also deceive yourself, reader – that I have read everything in the bookshops because I have read their titles and knew the names of the authors. And I convince myself that if I have read their introductions and conclusions that I have read it well and can criticise it, analyse it and tear the author limb from limb.

If I get obsessed with reading on one particular genre of literature, I imagine (and my delusion grows) that I am wasting time on something that is useless or worthless and that there must be other books out there more worthy of care and attention. If I read some serious books, I start to think that there are things in glossy showbiz magazines (and things like that) that should not pass me by and without which my life would not be complete. Then I go out and buy as many of them as one could wish for.

If I read too much, I start to think that I won’t be able to write and that I have to test myself right then, when this dangerous worry takes me. If I am writing, I want to amuse myself with some calm, pleasant reading. Then, if I am spending all my time reading and writing, I think that I am being stupid for not having any balance and that there are more things in life than just reading and writing. If I spend my time in pleasant idleness, the same issues arise and I get bored of the dissipated life and the pleasure that comes in the flash of an eye. If I am in the casino, watching the beautiful faces of the dancers, I long for one letter from the beautiful aspect of Schopenhauer or Socrates’ slender frame. At another moment I curse Schopenhauer and his ugly face then flee from him and his grave companions.

However, the reader who intends one day to become a writer cannot also be a complete reader. This is because, instead of losing himself in the book and so getting pleasure and benefit from it, the feeling grows inside him that he is incapable of writing like that writer. He tries to understand how the writer formed one particular sentence or how he succeeded in expressing his opinion so simply. In short, he tortures himself and wears out his soul. What is harder than for someone who one day thinks of being a writer to read with any kind of pleasure?

When I was a student, I once tried to read the whole library. What madness! Day by day, I made my way right to left, up and down. For a number of days all I read or talked about was “Psychology”. At other times I was dominated by a thing called “Drama”, and then travel books and memoirs. Then I would leave this all aside and go to study electricity, the nervous system, or the digestive system. At first, I studied these things with great zeal but this soon faded away so I turned to other things. This could be biographies, great speeches, diaries, books about education, and all the other things that writers write and printers print.

Sometimes I get angry at my perverted mental state and my blind passion for books. I spend a whole day thinking about the bookshop I am not at. I imagine that new books from Russia or Germany might have arrived by surprise – yes, reader, by surprise! Laugh if you want! – so that very morning I hurry to the bookshop and begin my search operation.

God preserve me – what do you have to say about this?

Is it madness? Of course it is.

But it is a madness over which I have no power or control.



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