Waleed Almusharaf is a translator, writer, and academic, with a PhD from SOAS, University of London, currently living in California. His latest translation of Adel Kamel’s The Magnificent Conman of Cairo (Hoopoe, 2020).
What was it like to translate a classic like The Magnificent Conman of Cairo?
It was fun! The book is a classic, but that word is loaded with all kinds of connotations that don’t really suit the book. Kamel has a light, satiric, tragicomic tone. He has a sense of humor that is colored by Egypt, but also seems to translate very well in English.
Did you find certain passages a challenge to translate and why?
Actually, no. There are always things with translation that are difficult to get across, but overall, Kamel (like Tayeb Saleh, actually) writes in a way that lends itself to a story that reads naturally in English even as it retains its local flavor.
What or who is your favorite part or character in the book—without giving too much away of the story?
That’s a hard question. Kamel enchants the reader (and translator!) into such intimacy with his characters that I would feel bad picking favorites. He has a knack for making all the characters lovable and flawed, which makes it difficult to choose. As for my favorite part, I would say watch for the scenes where Khaled interacts with his father. The war between those two characters is a phenomenon that often left me laughing as I translated it.
As a translator of Arabic fiction, would you say that Adel Kamel was a ground-breaking writer for his time?
I really do. Much is made of the modern simplicity of his language (which was misunderstood at the time). I found, however, that his use of language is masterful and subtle. He is unpretentious but sensitive to the use of words. He has a command of Arabic that makes descriptions precise and bring the story to life.
He switches between styles in a way that allows him to embellish language in a way that mocks his characters’ tendency to grandiosity, and strips the language to a down-to-earth way when admiring his characters’ less pretentious virtues.
If Adel Kamel were still alive, what would you ask or tell him?
I think I would like to talk to him about some contemporary Egyptian writers. In many ways I think that the direction that one line of Arabic literature has gone picks up where Kamel’s work left off. The satirical touch, the challenge to language, and the way that the narrator is— how do I put this—self-conscious: all of these are elements of storytelling that I would love to have Kamel’s take on. I would also like to know about the manuscript he was working on!
How relevant is the story of The Magnificent Conman of Cairo—set in the 1930s—to the realities of modern-day Cairo?
Extremely relevant. That was one of the main reasons that I wanted to translate it. Some of the more obvious connections are in the relationship between the classes, between the government and its citizens, and so on. Some things seem minor but for anyone growing up in Cairo they are really fascinating. The latter half of the book draws a picture of Cairo that shows relationships between parts of Cairo—artists, activists, and so on—that will be recognizable to anyone who has spent time in the city.
One truly remarkable aspect of the book that I found to really be ahead of its time (and that is related to all this) is his perceptive understanding of what would later come to be regarded as a formal critique of Orientalism. Kamel’s novel presents a critique of Orientalism: the existence of an East/Egypt that is imagined entirely by the West, the role of literature and art in that phenomenon, the internalization of that by the Egyptian elite, and so on.
Why do you think Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz said this was an “exceptional” novel?
Now that is a question I would like Mahfouz to answer! My guess is that there are literary elements of this book that Mahfouz aspired to achieve. Among these would be the masterful balance between high Arabic, simplicity of expression, and an inexplicable way of making that formal Arabic sound very decidedly Egyptian.
I also think that Kamel has a way of getting inside characters in a way that Mahfouz probably admired (Mahfouz himself is a master of this, of course). Kamel captures the spirit of these characters but also the specifics of their psychology, mental processes, self-deceptions, rationalizations, contradictions, and so on. Finally, I think that Mahfouz was such a serious writer that he couldn’t help but admire the way that Kamel achieved all this with such a natural lightheartedness.