On Writing: A Bird’s Delight in Space

By Taher Al-Sharkawy           

Reading was always like a gigantic discovery that changed the face of the world, this is how I felt during my teenage years when I got acquainted with books, only to discover later a new seduction: writing.

It started with magazines, more specifically children magazines, and thrillers. This was the introductory phase that preceded my discovery of the world of the other books, starting with religious books, then books on tradition, and finally the world of novel and short story.

I think that the geographic area where I grew up played a role in shaping my consciousness of the world. It was an area rich with tribal, cultural and environmental diversity. I was born in the south of Egypt, specifically in one of the towns of the governorate of Luxor that holds Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic cultural heritage. This hybridity contributed in creating a unique culture. The area also possesses an oral tradition of storytelling passed on from the mouths of the grandmothers to the ears of the grand children, all it requires is a bed made of palm fronds to bring us together.

Surrounded by darkness, by stars that never cease to stop moving in the sky above, and by palm trees and acacia, the stories that were told to us did not stop at fairy tales or myths, they expanded to embrace a historical narration of the biographies of our ancestors, biographies that fuse between the real and the imaginary, and where our ancestors are identified with the heroes of stories. They make miracles and go on adventures in exotic, faraway lands, they overcome the night, the wolves and the bandits. The grandmothers used to tell those stories while their merciful and harsh hands caressed our hair or padded our fragile bodies until the mighty sleep carried us to its kingdom.

This is how the oral story – the godfather of the literary short story – came to dig its own place within me. It was not apparent in the beginning, but it was there, observing me in patience while waiting for the right moment to emerge and announce its existence, which happened after a while. Yet to announce itself, the writing chose poetry rather than a story. May be this happened after a one-sided platonic relationship that started in some winter, or may be it happened because poetry was convenient for my age at the time. Anyway it was poetry back then, with its classical concept, the vertical verse poetry, and its traditional topics ranging between love, homeland and religion. Then a little window opened up, one that gave me a view of different writings. After having discovered a small Cultural Palace hidden behind mango trees, I used to sit on the stone stairs waiting for the employee to come in the morning to stay for an hour only before she goes home. The library in that Cultural Palace contained shelves of dusty books which I quickly read during the first summer vacation spent after this discovery. This is how I got to know Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Alsibaie and Mohamed Abdelhalim Abdallah, before I took off later towards other writings that were not available at the Cultural Palace, like the writings of Alghitany, Aslan and Almakhzangy that drove me to leave poetry and join the world of narration.