tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > The Man Who Lost His Shadow

The Man Who Lost His Shadow by فتحي غانم
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Dec 22, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: literature, politics
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review of
Fathy Ghanem's The Man Who Lost His Shadow
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - December 22, 2011

I got this novel w/o being familiar w/ the author but interested b/c I noted that he's Egyptian - I've never read an Egyptian novel before. I'm almost completely ignorant of Egyptian culture - esp recent Egyptian culture. I've vaguely followed the recent (2011) Egyptian political situation that's resulted in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak but that's about as far as it goes.

I didn't really have any expectations about the novel but I was a little surprised by how much I cd relate to it. The writing style (& maybe this has alot to do w/ the translator from Arabic into English: Desmond Stewart) was that of pretty much any other somewhat conventionally written novel I've ever read. It most reminded me of Albert Camus - wch, perhaps, isn't much of a surprise since Camus grew up in nearby Algeria (both countries being North African).

The well-crafted narrative is told in 4 parts - each part from the perspective of a different character, each character inter-related to the others. As such, The Man Who Lost His Shadow is almost 'Cubist' in the sense that we get 4 different perspectives on the same story - just not all at once as one might in a Cubist painting. The tale's structured so that the reader progresses thru 4 different levels of economic well-being (or lack thereof). Essentially, class struggle is analyzed in an unsentimental way. It wd seem that The Man Who Lost His Shadow was written by a man w/ few delusions of the motives & strengths of people who still manages to also not be completely cynical. &, perhaps, that's why this appears to be one of Fathy (also transliterated as "Fathi") Ghanem's most famous novels.

Looking up Ghanem here: http://www.arabworldbooks.com/authors... [by the by, I include full URLs instead of just providing a link b/c this might be easier to use for people w/ "unsupported" &/or 'obsolete' browsers like myself], I was very interested to read this statement attributed to him:

"Some critics have talked about the influence of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet on my novel The Man Who Lost His Shadow. The truth is that I had not read the Quartet when I wrote that novel, and a closer reading of the two works may reveal that there is no link whatsoever between them.

"For a long time after writing that novel, I was unable to see how I had gone about it. I had started writing it at the end of 1958. Then, I thought it was going to be called The Ladder, as its theme was those people who are driven by a constant desire to climb the social ladder. But five years ago, and as I was watching a video tape of Citizen Kane, a film that is said to have caused a cinematic revolution, I remembered watching that film in a small cinema theatre in New York in 1956. The story of Kane, who was an influential journalist and eventually newspaper proprietor, was dealt with from different angles: that of his guardian, that of his friend the journalist, and that of his second wife. Only while watching the video at home did I finally wonder whether that treatment, with its use of so many different angles, had sunk into my unconscious, affecting my perception of the world of journalism in Egypt. It seems highly possible that this was indeed the case; but I, for one, was completely unaware of that factor until recently."

Even though I know the film Citizen Kane well (& have referenced it & quoted it extensively in 2 movies of my own) & have just finished reading The Man Who Lost His Shadow it didn't even occur to me to compare the 2 - even though that now seems glaringly obvious.

Much of the action of The Man Who Lost His Shadow centers around a newspaper named Al-Ayyam. The 2 male narrators work for the paper, as does at least one other side character. The paper's role in manipulating public opinion in order to serve the political agenda of the rich is explicitly laid out as a main plot element. Given that Ghanem's novel at least appears to create transparency of "manufacturing consent" (& I'm somewhat convinced actually does do so), it's particularly interesting that Ghanem writes, in the same article quoted above:

"As for the character of the eponymous idiot in my novel, I find that of all the characters in my novels he is the closest to me. To write that, I stood on the edge of the impossible; its writing represented for me an attempt to penetrate that impossible domain, where entry is prohibited to all.

"Youssef, the protagonist of The Man Who Lost His Shadow, always represented for me a formula which combines both truth and falsity."

Presumably, Ghanem, in writing "the eponymous idiot", is referring to Al-Ghabi (The Idiot - Cairo: Rose Al-Youssef, 1966) & not to "Youssef" (transliterated in this translation as "Yusif"). But as I was reading The Man Who Lost His Shadow, it was hard for me not to wonder how much Yusif might be representing the author. On the same web page quoted from above, I found this biographical chronology regarding Ghanem:

"Born Cairo 24/3/1924
Graduated from the Faculty of Law, Cairo University, 1944
Inspector at the Investigations Department, Ministry of Education, 1944
Reporter at Akher Sa'a magazine, 1950
Deputy editor-in-chief of Akher Sa'a magazine, 1953
Deputy editor-in-chief of Rose Al-Youssef magazine, 1956
Editor-in-chief of Sabah Al-Kheir magazine, 1959
Deputy chairman of the board of the Middle East News Agency, 1965
Chairman of the board of the Middle East News Agency, Feb 1966
Chairman of the board of the Dar Al-Tahrir Organisation, Nov, 1966
Editor-in-chief of Al-Gomhouriya newspaper, 1968
Head of the Dar Al-Tahrir Organisation, 1970
Editor-in-chief of Rose Al-Youssef, 1973
Member of the board of Rose Al-Youssef, 1981
Recipient of the State Merit Award for literature, 1994
Died February 2nd, 1999"

Yusif attends law school & becomes a reporter for Al-Ayyam. From there he rises to Editor-in-chief. There's certainly a parallel between Ghanem's own life & Yusif's! It's my assumption, however, that the author's own life was probably a little less unscrupulous than his character's. There's at least integrity in the telling of the tale.

The novel's action takes place in the yrs prior to & during & after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. Here're some relevant quotes from a Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_...

"Revolution of 1952

"On 22–26 July 1952, a group of disaffected army officers (the "free officers") led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, whom the military blamed for Egypt's poor performance in the 1948 war with Israel. Popular expectations for immediate reforms led to the workers' riots in Kafr Dawar on 12 August 1952, which resulted in two death sentences. Following a brief experiment with civilian rule, the Free Officers abrogated the 1953 constitution and declared Egypt a republic on 18 June 1953.

"Nasser and Arab socialism

"Nasser evolved into a charismatic leader, not only of Egypt but of the Arab world, promoting and implementing "Arab socialism."

"When the United States held up military sales in reaction to Egyptian neutrality regarding the Soviet Union, Nasser concluded an arms deal with Czechoslovakia in September 1955.

"When the US and the World Bank withdrew their offer to help finance the Aswan High Dam in mid-1956, Nasser nationalized the privately owned Suez Canal Company. The crisis that followed, exacerbated by growing tensions with Israel over guerrilla attacks from Gaza and Israeli reprisals, support for the FLN's war of liberation against the French in Algeria and against Britain's presence in the Arab world, resulted in the invasion of Egypt in October by France, Britain, and Israel This was called the Suez War."

A tumultuous time - but told in Ghanem's novel more from the perspective of individuals trying to lead their lives rather than in a more sweeping epic way. In newspaper editor Muhammad Nagi's story he tells of millionaire Shohdi Pasha's advice to him about how to report on the political crises of the time:

"'Muhammad, now's not the time for friends, or enemies. We're all in danger. Give them a chance and these kids will ruin Egypt. Public opinion must be worked up against terrorists. Gaol for every troublemaker! Education's valueless; everyone who can write his name thinks he can be a political leader.'

"Excited, afraid, Shohdi Pasha for once has lost his self-control. This is fun.

"'Pasha, I want you calm opinion. After you've considered the matter from all angles.'

"'I know what I'm talking about,' he retorts. 'Now's no time for intrigues. This thing is bigger than all of us. Let anyone come to power - foe or friend - and I'll support him, provided he rids us of these criminals. The country's being ruined by trash . . . Communists . . . Muslim Brothers . . . Socialists . . . Nationalists. They're all paupers with nothing to lose. But we, we have everything to lose.'"

Note that the "Muslim Brothers" & "Nationalists" are lumped in w/ "Communists" & "Socialists". Jump-cut to the present: I quote from the Wikipedia article re the "History of modern Egypt" also quoted above:

"The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, remains an illegal organization and may not be recognized as a political party (current Egyptian law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion). Members are known publicly and openly speak their views. Members of the Brotherhood have been elected to the People's Assembly and local councils as independents."

It's my understanding that the Muslim Brothers are still active in Egypt today in contemporary uprisings. I, for one, hope the Muslim Brothers lose at the same time that I hope that anti-police brutality & anti-torture forces will win. If Egypt were to become another fundamentalist state like Iran, the world will go one step further down into narrow-mindedness. If, as the article states, "current Egyptian law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion" then I applaud that whole-heartedly.

The so-called United States of America is at its worst when fundamentalist Christians are lobbying their way toward the 'Rapture' (intent on killing or 'converting' everyone in the process) & Iran & Lebanon et al are just as oppressive (if not more so) albeit not quite as militarily successful). The separation of Church & State was one of the smartest things that the 'Founding Fathers' of the USA every conceived of. After all, the memory of Catholic vs Protestant slaughter & it's relationship to state politics was still pretty fresh in their day.

Given that the novel also takes place during 'WWII', it was interesting for me to get an admittedly somewhat oblique Egyptian take on that. On page 269, Yusif remembers that "The war had broken out and my father enthused about Hitler and the might of Germany. I listened credulously, but without enthusiasm."

Pages 274-275:

"The whole world suddenly seemed at my feet. Why shouldn't I drive out the English and become Prime Minister?"


"I'd be corrupt - why not? All the students boasted of their exploits with girls and hashish. Even Prime Ministers debauched minors. The prosecutors of criminals were criminals themselves."

Saad Abdul Gawad, Yusif's impoverished intellectual Communist friend, helps educate the naive Yusif:

"From him I heard about Karl Marx, Lenin, Sorel, Engels and Owen. He explained the differences between Nazism, Socialism, Fascism and Communism, ideas which I had confused until then, thinking they were all words for one and the same thing."

As Yusif is being upbraided by his then superior on the newspaper, Nagi, about not having reported a story earlier, he's told:

"'What if some other paper beats us to it? We're not playing at journalism, you know. If you think along those lines you'd be better working at the Islamic University. [..]'"


"'I'm sorry if I sound ruthless. Perhaps I would have felt the same in your place. But if you don't look out you'll be putting on a turban, dressing like a holy man. That would never do.'"

Indeed. W/o really creating a spoiler here I think I can still quote a sortof 'summing-up' from page 345:

"Perhaps the words I was writing would one day be a noose round my neck. What a mad world - evil was turning into honour, cowardice into courage, while cheap actions were surrounded by noble dreams.

"A world run mad? Or simply life?

"How I wished I could understand."

This review barely touches on the story itself. & it doesn't touch at all on the 2 main women characters: Mabruka & Samia. It appears that there are plenty of other reviews of The Man Who Lost His Shadow online &, perhaps, the reader shd read those for a fuller picture of this novel. Better yet, read the novel itself. & there lies the problem: Is this the 1st Egyptian novel I've read b/c I have no interest in Egyptian culture? Hardly. It's, more importantly, the 1st Egyptian novel I've read b/c I've never run across any others in English! Translators take note: there are at least some of us out here who wd like to be better informed about Arabic culture in general. By wch I don't mean the Koran. I 'need' that like I 'need' the Bible. Not at all.
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tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE It's nice to get even a "like" here. Recently, I've become more interested in Egyptian culture & I'd like to go to Cairo. But what I have to wonder is: Is it a place where there are NO atheists? B/c that wd be a very scary place indeed. Wd I be a "kuffar" w/ all the attendant negative connotations? I hope that in a big city like Cairo there'd be a thriving atheist culture - but, maybe not! Artists that I recently met from Cairo were all Muslim. They were perfectly nice people & I was delighted to meet them.. but since I ultimately blame religion (& capitalism & imperialism) for most of the major conflicts & human-induced misery in the world, I much prefer atheism. I wd NEVER kill someone b/c they're religious - but I'd never expect similar respect for my life from a religious person - despite all their blather about compassions & the like. After all, 'God' justifies all crimes.

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