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Khairy Shalaby: The voice of the “Egyptian Street”

Saturday 09-09-2017 - 11:45 AM
Cairo - Khairy Shalaby is an Egyptian writer and novelist, as he wrote several novels, books, short stories, plays and analytical articles. He is commonly known for his writings on the “Egyptian street.” 

Shalaby was born on the 31st of January 1938 in the village of Shabas Emir in the city of Qallin, Kafr El Sheikh governorate. His name was Khairy Okasha, but decided to change his name to Khairy Shalaby out of fear that people would think he is related to the former minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha.

He was one of the most important novelists who provided an outlook of the Egyptian society in the countryside and also of the marginalized groups in Cairo. He was considered by a lot of people to be the voice of the poor, as he spent a lot of time walking on the streets of Cairo and talking to people, in search for passion, aspiration and writing material. 

His writings were seen as a link between novelist, Naguib Mahfouz’s experience, which was focused on Cairo, where he was born and died, and the experience of novelist, Yusuf Idris, which focused on the countryside and less on Cairo. He became the first ever radio critic during the seventies. Shalaby died on the 9th of September, 2011 at the age of 73 years, as a result of a heart attack.

His father’s influence:

Shalaby said of his father, who was a poet, expert on law and one of the founders of secular Al-Wafd Party, that he was the reason behind his love to the Arabic language. He revealed that he used to hear his father read legal memoranda loudly, which Shalaby thought were music to his ears. 

He described his father as a “Fantastic poet, but lousy politician”, adding that his father had a big library, which contained books about politics and heritage, stressing that he learned a lot from the books about heritage. 

When Shalaby was at his sixth year in elementary school, he decided to write the story of his father's life. Shalaby said: “He took over my interest, as for many years i was fascinated by his strength and stamina, as well as patience while facing crises. This was the first time i held a pen to express myself.”

Shalaby's Novels Reflects Social Problems:

The misery was one of the main aspects of Shalaby's stories. He was keen to underline the negative sides of the Egyptian community to pave the way for achieving serious reforms. He discussed a number of issues witnessed in Egypt's poor neighborhoods through portraying the daily life there.
He discussed the problems of Egypt's young people in a number of his novels, criticizing the approach adopted by both the government and young people in dealing with them. He focused on the youth's problems since his beginning whether explicitly or implicitly.
In his first novel Al-le’eb Khareg Al Halaba (Playing outside the Ring), Shalaby discussed a tragedy of a young small family. The young husband suffers from impotence, while the wife failed to coexist with his failure to meet her desire not only on the sexual side but also on the financial one.
The author discussed the complications imposed by the Egyptian community that prevents serious solution for such a problem. The divorce is impossible, as the community almost despise the divorced woman, while the husband, if decided to take the step, would face the imprisonment because of the deferred dowry. 
The Egyptian author also was interested in the sectarian problems witnessed in a number of governorates before January 25 Revolution. This appeared in his novel entitled "Istasia". 

The novel carried the same name of its protagonist who was a Christian woman. She lost her son in a sectarian incident, while the judiciary did not achieve retribution. She remained praying to God for revenge six years to gain the solidarity of the residents of her village and the other surrounding villages. 
Shalaby was honest in his presentation to the reasons that lead to such problems, including the foreign attempts to drive a sectarian wedge between Muslims and Christians especially during the colonial era and the false understanding.

Reason behind Shalaby becoming a radio critic:

During the seventies, Shalaby became a radio critic and said in an interview with radio presenter, Wajdi al-Hakim that he thought by becoming a radio critic, newspapers would focus more on this category and recognize it. 
He was always convinced that newspapers neglect such category and instead, focus on plays, movies and series. He said, “I try to be a specialist in this area because there is no radio critic so far.”
The novelist continued on saying, “I relied on my limited knowledge of drama and i try to take advantage of certain experiences from what i studied in drama, theater and radio. A radio critic does not necessarily have to have worked in radio before, as the experience one has gained throughout one’s life would qualify one to practice criticism.”

Turning journalism into a novel:

The writer issued this novel in 2010 during the peak of the sectarian incident. His novel was like a wakeup call to the Egyptian people to realize the conspiracies that push them to such conflicts aiming to divide the people. 
Shalaby's writings were not limited to the literary field, while it extended to other sides although he has not abandoned the literary wording. 
Novelist Ibrahim Aslan, a close friend to Shalaby the last person who talked with him hours before his death, said that Shalaby passed away during writing an opinion article. He was interested in journalism stressing its role enlightening the Egyptian community especially after the January 25 Revolution. 
He developed a new style in the press writing based on literary writing. He was using his words to draw a portrait to his readers. He depended on this style when he wrote about a number of prominent personalities in the Egyptian society. 

His opinion about political Islam:

In an interview with TV presenter Ahmed al-Meslemany in 2011, Shalaby said that he was against the idea of MB group ruling Egypt after 25 January revolution, saying that religion should not be mixed with politics.
He pointed out that Egypt cannot be ruled by a religious group, saying that the politicization of religion ruins the relationship between the people and the Islamic religion. 
Shalaby stressed that Islam is a great religion of great morals and values, but he said that extremism is the bane of Islam and a ruler from political Islam groups would spread extremism and chaos as well as giving orders to people as if they were God’s guidelines.
He added that most regimes based on a religious basis in other countries have failed, saying that he did not favor witnessing political Islam groups ruling Egypt.


Shalaby received a number of honorary awards during his long and successful writing career. He won State Award for Literature in 1980-1981, and the best Arab Novel Award for Wikalet Atiyya (The Lodging House) novel in 1993.
He was also awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003, Best Arab Book Award for Saharij Al-Lu'lu' (The Pearls’ Tanks) novel in 2002 and State Merit Prize for Literature in 2005, during the Cairo Book Fair.

His Works: 

Khairy Shalaby wrote more than 70 books, dozens of them were translated to English, Russian, Chinese, French and Italian. 
Among Shalaby’s most famous novels Al-Awbash (The Bastards), Al Watad "The Wedge", Al-Arawy (The Buttonholes), Al-Amaly Trilogy, Baghlet Al-Arsh )Throne’s Mule, (Saharaa Al-Mamalik) Mamluks’ Desert, Zahret Al-Kheshkhash (The Poppy Flower), Manamat Am Ahmed al-Sammak (The Dreams of Uncle Ahmed the Fishmonger), Ne'na' Al-Ganayen (The Gardens’ Mint) and Al-Shotar (The Clever Ones).
He wrote a number of stories such as Saheb Al-Sa'ada Al-Les (His Excellency the Thief), Al Monhana Al-Khatar (The Dangerous Turn), and Sareq Al-Farah (The Joy Thief).
Shalaby wrote also a number of studies such as Mohakamet Taha Hussein (The Trial of Taha Hussein) and Woggoh Masreya (Egyptian Faces).
A number of Shalaby’s novels and books were adapted into movies, plays and TV series. Al-Shottar and Sareq Al-Farah were adapted into movies. Al-Watad, Al-Komy (Seven of Diamonds) and Wikalet Atiyya (The Lodging House) were adapted into TV series. Al-Mekharbesheen, Sayad al-Looly (The Pearl Fisher) and Lyrical of the first Sonata were adapted into plays.
About his novels that were adapted to TV series, Shably said that he was forced to write the screenplays by himself because the professional screenwriters wrote “disturbing and trivial” scripts, adding that professional screenwriters were not focusing on presenting any intellectual values as they were trained to do anything to gain profits only.
He pointed out that he considered himself a “guest” not a professional TV screenwriter, as he expected that he would remain a novelist until his death.

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