[This is the introduction from The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: Volume 1, published with permission from The American University in Cairo Press.]

Waguih Ghali“Rather, we aim at being personalities of a general . . . a fictitious type.”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

(epigraph to Beer in the Snooker Club)

The Discovery

On Boxing Day in 1968 Egyptian novelist and political exile Waguih Ghali committed suicide in the London flat of his editor, friend, and sometime lover, Diana Athill. He left her a note requesting that she edit and publish his diaries. For various reasons she did not, although she eventually published a memoir of their relationship (After A Funeral, 1986). For decades Ghali’s diaries have been largely inaccessible to the public, and in recent years, when Athill realized the originals had been misplaced, the diaries have not been accessible at all. In January 2014, however, a photocopy of the complete diaries turned up, preserved by Deborah Starr of Cornell University who had photocopied them around ten years earlier on a visit to London.

It is thus a great pleasure to many that the diaries are now finally accessible in print form. The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties is the first published appearance of the journal of a highly personable and enigmatic literary personality. Unedited, the manuscript stands at some 700 pages, all scanned from a decade-old, photocopied version of Ghali’s already hardly decipherable, drunken scrawl. They have been meticulously transcribed and edited, and are now supplemented by two interviews conducted by Deborah Starr. The first interview, found in Volume 1: 1964–66, is with Diana Athill and sheds light on how she and Waguih Ghali met and why she wrote her memoir of their relationship after his death. The second interview, included in Volume 2: 1966–68, is with Samir Basta, Ghali’s first cousin, who also thought of being a writer himself, and whose remembrances of Ghali shed light on his family life and childhood in Egypt. Both Samir and Diana were close companions to Ghali for years, and feature prominently in the diaries.

The Man behind the Diaries

Waguih Ghali was a libertine, a hanger-on, a sponger, a political dissenter, a depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler, and probably a menace to everyone who let him into their lives. He was also, however, a keen nationalist, a prescient political commentator on Egypt’s then-emergent military rule, and an advocate of pacifism and religious tolerance. As a Copt, he felt the unique and uneasy political position of the Coptic community as both Egypt’s oldest community whose language gave the country its name and a political minority which has had its own grievances with the Egyptian state. Traveler, expatriate, cosmopolite, or political exile that he was, Ghali often felt very lonely and abandoned, and his diaries describe his alienation and nostalgia. A strong socialist, an intellectual who was interested in avant-garde literature and protest, and also a socialite who was a little too fond of the good life, Ghali was very much a man of the “swinging sixties.”

Ghali was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1929 or 1930 (the exact date is unknown). As a child, Ghali was regarded as something of a wild card, taxing his immediate family’s financial resources and acting irresponsibly with the family’s property. Ghali was sent to Victoria College, switching back and forth between the Alexandria and Cairo branches of the school and often staying during term-time with different family members. There was some friction with his stepfather early on in Alexandria for, among other things, Ghali’s spendthrift habits, with the result that Ghali was pushed to spend more and more time at the Cairo school, staying with various relatives, particularly, as he writes in the diaries, with his maternal aunt, Ketty.

Ghali’s struggle with depression and suicide started early. He confessed to one of his relatives that he had tried to kill himself in Cairo as a young boy in one of the hotels in which he was staying, but someone had got to him in time and he had been saved. Depression is hard enough to diagnose and deal with today; at the time, it would have been nearly impossible. After finishing school, Ghali first started studying medicine in Egypt, then transferred to Paris to resume medical studies there, and eventually dropped out altogether. He kept moving until the end of his life, from one city to another, and from one employer to the next.

There are minor indications, although no hard evidence, that Ghali got into some sort of trouble with the Egyptian government in perhaps 1954, and this, in addition to his personal antipathy toward the regime, may have made him reluctant to return to or live in Egypt. The details are far from known. According to his diary, it is clear he spent most of his short adult life in Europe, living in Paris in 1953–54, London in 1955–58, and Sweden in 1957–60. From 1960 to 1966, Ghali lived and worked in Rheydt, West Germany, where he published Beer in the Snooker Club, and after which he moved for a last time to London. In 1967 Ghali managed to visit Israel as a reporter right after the Six Day War. At a time when most Arabs refused to acknowledge the Israeli state, Ghali’s visit would have been seen as treasonous. His subsequent articles for The Times failed to adopt a particular political stance, or to critique either camp, Arab or Israeli, which could only weaken his reputation with both and, effectively, as the diaries tell us, result in his Egyptian passport being revoked while in London in 1968.

The older he grew and the more he moved around, the more enigmatic Ghali seemed to become to family members who visited him in Europe. His passion about political events seemed puzzling to his younger siblings and cousins, who had by then lived over a decade within the censorship, media seclusion, and incessant political propaganda of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s police state. Ghali’s impatience with political hypocrisy and his passion about the plight of the poor in social structures can be seen in his writing, but he seems to have found it impossible to reconcile these ideals with his tastes and lifestyle, although he often used his ideals to justify unorthodox life decisions. When asked about why he quit his medical studies in France, for example, he might answer one sibling (perhaps sardonically): “What am I supposed to do with a medical degree if I can’t use it to help poor people in Egypt?”

Waguih Ghali died in London by his own hand in 1969. The story of his short life seems one of exile, alienation, and despondency. The various people who knew him, however, don’t speak of him with despondency today. Instead, they often describe him with love and, above all, laughter. He is remembered until the end as having been witty and charming, as enthusiastic about a good joke as he was fiery in his principles. Characteristically for Ghali, there was some surreal humor even in the way the terrible news of his death was conveyed to his family in Egypt over the censored telephone lines in Nasser’s day. As the family gathered around the phone asking questions, a younger sibling overheard his mother and older family members repeating to each other that Waguih had had an accident. In the chaos, the sibling shouted at his parents, “Why doesn’t Waguih get a blood transfer? Give him a blood transfer!” Suddenly the female voice of the censor listening on the phone burst out sobbing and yelled, “Listen to the boy! He’s saying give him a blood transfer. Give him a blood transfer for God’s sake!”

The Novel behind the Man

Waguih Ghali’s only completed novel, the semi-autobiographical Beer in the Snooker Club, tells the story of an angry young man in Nasser’s Cairo. A socialist flâneur with more philosophy than political convictions, Ram, a Copt, is in love with an Egyptian Jew, and the affair, mirroring the political turbulence of Nasser’s Egypt, is rocky at best.

The novel’s publication history and popular trajectory have also been rocky. Published in London (André Deutsch) in 1964, the novel was quite successful, and within the year had gained critical acclaim in the US (Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), and had been translated into French (1965) and Hebrew (1965). A second English edition appeared four years later (Penguin New Writers, 1968). The novel then went out of print for about twenty years. Its sudden republication in 1986 (Serpent’s Tail) would renew its path of success. Since then, the novel has been frequently republished, with a steady series of translations appearing through the 1990s and early 2000s. One of the first novels in English written by an Egyptian, long before postcolonial or Arab- Anglophone fiction became institutionalized genres, Beer in the Snooker Club has now become required reading in university courses around the world. Rather than being regarded as world literature, and eliciting aesthetic appreciation of its distinctive (in Anglo-Arab writing) latemodernist, stream-of-consciousness technique, the novel has more often been read as a historical period piece, a diatribe against Nasser’s state, and an exemplary sample of a common kind of nostalgic Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism.

After a Novel

The diaries are an interesting read for their own sake. In the context of the success of Ghali’s novel and the diversity of its audience, as well as the pathos of the writer’s own life, the diaries also represent for Ghali’s fans a much-awaited second work.

The diaries are written in six notebooks, and cover the last four years of Ghali’s life: 1964–68. For ease of access and a better reading experience, the diaries are presented in two volumes. Each volume has been divided into chapters based on natural pauses in writing pace or obvious thematic changes, such as Ghali’s relocation to another city.

Although Ghali’s main “confessions” are about drinking and women, alcoholism and depression, creativity and the discipline needed for creative production, his writing also gives a lively running commentary on the political events and intellectual trends of the time.

The first two notebooks, collected in Volume 1 of the diaries, center on Germany and his time working with the British Army of the Rhine, possibly in the Garrison Pay Office. How he got the job at the British Army corps, or why he ended up in Rheydt in particular, is not clear. Ghali writes that he was offered an “aliens passport” in Germany, and refers to renewing his residency annually for the sake of his passport (although, speculatively, he would not have lived long enough in Germany by the immigration rules of the time to have received German citizenship). He writes, too, that he had been given a home and refuge in Germany, although, again, refuge from exactly what is never quite clear.

The Rheydt diary offers a unique perspective into West Germany in the 1960s, where playing racquets in Rhedyt is compared to playing racquets on the Stanley beaches in Alexandria. Ghali’s description of what he perceives to be the cultural and political mood in West Germany at the time is completely colored by his own depression, bitterness at his lack of political stability, feelings of alienation and loneliness from being so far from London, and his disappointment over a series of failed love affairs. Indeed, most of this volume expresses his frustration with what he describes as his “schoolgirl” emotions: his inability to form meaningful relationships and his terrible insecurity about, and manipulation of, women.

This volume also gives the first inkling of the seriousness of his alcoholic dependency and depression, and his inability to live within his means. As a member of the British forces, he was probably exempt from German taxes, which, while living during the “economic miracle” of West Germany (Wirtschaftswunder), should have made Ghali’s income more or less comfortable for the average person at the time. He describes his carelessness with money and his quick accumulation of debts, confessing with self-disappointment that he spends twice what he earns.

Ghali also comments on the reception of his novel, particularly on the sales in America and the book’s translation into languages such as Czech. He complains about his failure to write a second novel, pouring his energy into the diary instead. He also takes time to reflect with some nostalgia on Egypt and his family, from whom he is estranged. The typical Ghali narrative tone, familiar for readers of Beer in the Snooker Club, shines through as he describes his Egyptian childhood in a mixture of nostalgia, love, and wry humor.

In parts 3, 4, and 5, collected in Volume 2 of the diaries, Ghali moves to London. His spirits seem to improve during this period, despite ups and downs, as he has a chance to socialize more widely. As distinctive as the German experience, this volume offers a unique perspective on London’s “swinging sixties,” and no matter how Ghali appeared to loathe intellectual and political posing, dismissing various movements from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the radical left, he was, like others, very much imbued with the “swinging” spirit. A man in his thirties, footloose in London, staying at a good address, Ghali lived between parties, drinks, women, card games, and heated intellectual discussions (some more sincere than others). He paints a lively scene of going out every day and meeting famous intellectuals and artists, many of whom he complains act affectedly. The London diaries embody, whether intentionally or otherwise, the “myth” of London’s sixties, which for subsequent decades iconized a counterculture and revolution in social norms and habits like clothing, music, sex, drugs, and schooling. Yet with rebellion often came skepticism and moral questioning, and this resonates in Ghali’s writing as well. His own moments of euphoria—the booze, the casual sex, the parties—are closely followed by a keen critique of the potential insularity, even hollowness, of the “intellectual” life: the often superficial interest in world affairs, the political posturing, the fashionability of being down and out, and the critical discussions delivered with the right key words and jargon but devoid of actual intervention in community affairs. Rather than being a struggle for human rights, for Ghali this lifestyle risked being a struggle for righteousness, a kind of moral exhibitionism.

Reading between the lines also shows how the swinging sixties were not only a national phenomenon but a global event, even in London. As people took to the streets to protest in the British capital, they followed the footsteps, slogans, and calls for freedom which had filtered into global public discourse through the media, music, art, and literature from distant places. At the same time as many of the protest movements in the global sixties boasted universal or international solidarity and unity against forces of oppression, the manifestations of this protest, from clothing to cultural forms to social and economic restructuring, flowed from one country to another around the globe. Ghali’s writing locates him as a sixties man of the moment, drawing on decades of popular catchphrases for freedom and liberation and able to simultaneously link the rise of the Labour Party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain to the events of World War II and all three to the American war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Zimbabwe, the legacy of the 1938 Spanish Civil War, and the Algerian War of Independence. The “alternative” cultural experiences which were steadily growing in popularity in London run like an undercurrent through the narrative, pointing to the movement of both people and ideas. Ghali refers to clubs and parties frequented by Africans, West Indians, and Arabs; African dance and music performances; newspapers and syndicates started by Israelis and Indians; cinema from western and northern Europe; and integrated alternative culinary experiences in the London scene with Chinese and Indian restaurants (a difference from his everyday “roast chicken” and “sausage” in Germany). He also refers to the circle of Egyptians relocating to the capital, including family members and old school friends, some of them very well-known, like the late Ramsey Bayoumi (Ahmad Ramzy) and Omar Sharif.

Although the swinging sixties stand as an icon for the alternative lifestyle, the decade also marked the culmination of a much earlier period of artistic modernism bracketing the two world wars. The general movement in art toward experimentation, the authorial tendency to express a distance from reality, and a highly sensitized and self-conscious perception of daily events as well as the extolling of self-indulgence can be seen in Ghali’s writing in this volume. Ghali’s London diary smacks of a decadence of an earlier period, when smoking and drinking with utter abandon, drunk driving, unprotected sex, and frequent abortions had not yet been denounced by health movements and legal frameworks. (Ghali actually refers vaguely in 1968 to some “new law” which has just been passed in London about drunk driving.) Take, for example, Ghali’s enthralled description of a friend’s house:

This place I go and ‘char’ at is [ . . . ] a large house in which seven people are living. [ . . . ] Sabrina is a nice dark-haired, dark-eyed girl of nineteen. She comes from some sort of aristocracy and has lived in France most of her life. She has a slightly aristocratic hook nose which would have been very beautiful in a taller woman. Her father and mother are the broke aristocracy with a third-class job in the British consul of Marseilles—living, apparently, in penury in a hotel room. Maeve is a blond, attractive slut. It is a world peculiar only to England—a laziness, a magnificent tolerance with hardly a suspicion of materialism. Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart records lying about in each room. One record player always top on. Parts of sandwiches and half-empty cups near each bed. Clothes lying on the floor—some of [which] haven’t been swept for weeks. Something very different from Germany where people spend their lives being ‘efficient’. I like this lazy, careless household. The grandmother complains to me about the disorder, the carelessness, the sluttiness. I am sympathetic.

Similar sketches of “lazy, careless households” along with the celebration of moral distance pepper some of the most representative works of the early and mid-twentieth century within and outside Britain, from Françoise Sagan to Christopher Isherwood, André Gide to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Parts 4 and 5 tell of Ghali’s almost parasitic relationship with Diana Athill, for, as he makes clear, he lived on her money and in her flat for two years. The bond between them is obvious, despite times of intense fighting. These sections reconstruct whole incidents later meticulously described by Diana in her own memoir, including their trip to Yugoslavia, Ghali’s relations with several of her boyfriends, and a terrible fight they have when she reads his diary. Set alongside each other, the two texts offer an uncanny counterpoint between two respected literary voices.

The final sections, parts 5 and 6, give an account of Ghali’s visit to Israel and the last days of his life upon his return to England. Ghali’s Israel diary gives a day-by-day report of perhaps the most famous and enigmatic act of his life. The description of the atmosphere after the Six Day War and the general public mood in the by then twenty-year-old state is rare. Today, the description is also surprising in its lack of vitriol. Like many of the documents written at the time and which are now coming to the surface, Ghali’s Israel diary is devoid of the intensity, urgency, and horror of the Israeli–Palestinian situation, which has since been exacerbated. Instead, Ghali appears very much the tourist abroad, a man caught in a situation the parameters of which he, like many others, could not quite grasp. In his diary he describes meeting Jewish tourists and Israeli journalists and activists who are unhappy about the war with Egypt, and tells of visiting a “congregationless” Coptic church in Jerusalem. He mentions his sense of effeteness in the face of the realities of Israel–Palestine. He does not make strong and sweeping political statements at this point, and those looking for definitive critical positions are bound to be disappointed. He dwells most of all, and importantly so, on the sincere confusion that he feels as an Egyptian who is devastated by the 1967 war. The mental journey of knowledge that he must undertake in order to develop a firm position toward Israel comes later.

Like his judgment of the Nasser regime, Ghali’s political position about the policies of Israel and the US in the Middle East emerges when he returns to London—not in response to or in solidarity with Arab opinions as such but from his own experience with Jewish and Israeli activists and artists. He becomes increasingly critical of both the Zionist project and Israeli policy toward Arab countries as well as Nasser’s state. Ghali engages in a momentary spree of activity, getting involved with a circle of anti-Zionist Israelis and Jews that included the likes of Akiva Orr and Shimon Tzabar. Indeed, the issue of Tzabar’s Israel Imperial News (March 1968), now digitized online, includes a contribution by Ghali1 (alongside another article by the celebrated Iraqi-English journalist Khaled Kishtainy). Ghali’s article predicts that “the peasants” of Egypt have had enough with the regime and will “rise.” Ghali rehashes, intentionally or otherwise, the simplistic romantic symbolization of this huge voting bloc, which, mass popularized by Nasser himself, is still frequently used in Egyptian political lobbying today. More importantly, the article also documents, at least according to Ghali’s reportage, tangible antagonism toward the ruling military class in the days after 1967. This emotive polarization among the Egyptian public in the 1960s on the political position to be taken toward Israel and the (albeit temporary) loss of credibility of Nasser and the ruling military class because of, among other things, the naksa, seems entirely absent from mainstream historical narratives and media in Egypt today. Similarly absent, of course, is the rich heritage of Jewish and Israeli questioning of and resistance to Zionism exemplified by Tzabar and others.

The response of the Egyptian state to Ghali’s political activity seems to crystallize at a university in London when, in the middle of a public lecture, a “representative of the Egyptian state” publicly accuses Ghali of defection to Israel and informs the hall that Ghali has been stripped of his passport. This is the climax of the book. Returning to the house afterward, and surrounded by Israeli friends, Ghali feels more alone than ever.

Gradually, depression overtakes Ghali again. With various triggers like the loss of his close friend Peter Schelo in Germany, increasing financial problems, and the revoking of his passport, by the end of the year Ghali commits suicide, and in a final diary entry he explains how and why he does it.

Although Ghali starts the diary by explaining that he writes to save himself from going mad, it is in these last sections in particular where he elaborates on the role that the diary has played in his life: how writing it has relieved his feelings, but how it has also displaced effort which otherwise might have been channeled into writing a novel. In his suicide note, Ghali stresses his desire to have his diaries published, spelling out the degree to which his creative energy has been directed toward the diary, even if it was not the novelistic work he had really wanted to produce. In some way, the diaries replace the novel as another creative genre, like the short story or novel or poem, simply another way, in his words, that a writer could “create something.”

Why publish the diaries? In correspondence with Athill in 2011, she had expressed her feelings, rightly, that the diaries were “the depository for all that was most hopeless and neurotic in poor Waguih’s life.” Undoubtedly, since he tended to write more when he was depressed or angry, there is much about his writing, and his personality, to dislike here, not least whimsy and superficiality, and, in moments of anger, even cruelty and stereotyping as well as a general tendency to be less forgiving about the transgressions of others than he was about his own. Contrary perhaps to his own intended testament, the diaries establish his reputation as having been a one-hit-wonder for lack of a second novel (although he does mention writing a play in German, which would be rather intriguing if found). Moreover, the diaries define him as a black sheep of the literary academy, and offer a fascinating, if sometimes horrific, study of a terrible waste of talent and an unstable temperament (he himself marks the resemblance to Fitzgerald’s sickening weaknesses and moanings and Tolstoy’s moodiness with women). Yet in this, too, and like Beer in the Snooker Club did for the Anglo-Arab novel, Ghali’s diaries mark a watershed, this time in the genre of the Arab (or Anglo-Arab) memoir in their openness about the taboos of family conflict, psychological trauma, alcoholic dependency, and sexual dissipation. The diaries give an account, uniquely honest in Arab autobiographies, of living for one’s own pleasure. “There is,” as Ghali writes, “no moral to this story.”

The diaries bring out some of the best qualities of Ghali’s style too, beneath all the complaining, and demonstrate why friends and relatives, including Athill in her own memoir, remember him today as a charming, gregarious man, witty and intelligent. The most distinctive traits of Ghali’s writing sparkle here: playfulness, irreverence, poignancy, the obsession with quirky, irreverent details, and the ability to laugh at himself and others, or, as he describes one of his stories, the ability to be “funny and sad at the same time.” This mixture of humor and sadness is often delivered by starting an anecdote on high moral ground, moving into a rant and then ending in intentional banality. After a long and offensive tirade on German voters and politics, for example, Ghali ends: “As I said, I am penniless, lazy, sleep over twelve hours a day, can’t bear to think of the future, but I am advising the Germans to form a new political party . . . I can see the ridiculousness of it all.” Or, elsewhere, after raging about the isolated impenetrability of the British officers stationed in the Rhine, that “human mass in uniform,” he switches to mocking his own vagaries: “I possess one pair of shoes, but a car. I have elegant suits but no overcoat. And some very expensive ties but only four pairs of socks (or three, I think). As I said, enfin.”

At times, perhaps, when judging Ghali the writer’s digressions, or Ghali the persona’s political opinions, his lack of consistent political stances, his bad-mouthing of friends and relatives, and even his errors of prediction (a memorable moment is when he predicts that V.S. Naipaul will never be a popular writer), it may be helpful to remember the genre of this book. This is no political treatise, nor a novel, but a diary—written precisely because the writer did not want to write the former, and could not finish the latter. Did any of this actually happen? Perhaps not, possibly never. Even diaries are outlets for the way we believe we see ourselves, and are, on some level, fictional. “The man who sees himself,” as Ghali writes, quoting Nietzsche, “is not a person.” It is in this spirit, that of the creative writer trying to write, confessing a memoir, and spicing up a life story, that this text from the swinging sixties might be read—and enjoyed. In this context, the epigraph from Dostoevsky on aiming to be a figurative type, copied here from Ghali’s own epigraph to the much-loved Beer in the Snooker Club, is singularly apt.

May Hawas received her PhD in literature from Leuven University in 2014. In addition to her editorial experience she has worked in various NGOs concerned with women’s issues and youth employment. Some of her short stories have been published in Mizna Journal, Yellow Medicine, and African Writing. She currently teaches English literature at the University of Alexandria.


Join our mailing list to receive news from Full Stop:

You can also help by donating.