An Attraction of Opposites

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In the first issue of Slightly Foxed I wrote about Waguih Ghali’s first and, as it turned out, only novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, a witty, moving and politically explosive account of dissatisfied youth in Cairo that was clearly based on his own experiences.

Ghali was born into a large and prominent Egyptian family (the Ghalis have more recently produced a Secretary-General of the United Nations). When his middle-aged father died soon after Waguih’s birth, his young mother left it to the extended family – particularly her sister and parents – to bring up the child.

Ghali emerged from his privileged upbringing into the new, post-revolutionary Egypt as an angry young man with political convictions that upset just about everyone. While his family complained that Nasser was confiscating their wealth, Ghali criticized the government for not taking more from the rich to give to the poor. Dissent was tolerated, but when he joined the Communist Party he was exiled.

Ghali wrote his novel while living in poverty in Germany. The book was published in 1964 by André Deutsch and, as a result, Ghali met Diana Athill, who worked at Deutsch and is now best known for her autobiography Stet. ‘I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners, and an oppressed foreigner who could shrug off hardship in order to look at things with the humour and perceptiveness shown in his book was one whom I would certainly like.’

Athill did more than like him: she was won over by his charm, his elegance and his situation, which was at that point at least one step away from desperate. In spite of the fact that she was in a happy, long-term relationship and that Ghali was some ten years her junior, she was also a little in love with him. ‘One can make plenty of new acquaintances in middle age,’ Athill commented early on, ‘but it is not often that one sees the possibility of knitting a new person into one’s life as one did in youth.’ F

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About the contributor

As a writer and broadcaster, Anthony Sattin has discovered that, for him at least, all roads lead past Rome and on to Egypt. His latest book, The Gates of Africa, roams eighteenth-century London and North Africa only to end on the Nile.

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