Adel Kamel had three daughters: Mona, Sonia, and Nadia. Mona Farid spoke about her father from her home in Texas in a discussion edited here for length. Thanks also to Sonia Kamel Kotb for sharing family photos:
Could you describe your father? From his literary persona, I’d assume he was witty?
Portrait of Adel Kamel, 1935.
Mona Farid: He was a very intellectual person, very forward thinking, sometimes too forward in his ideas. He did not really mash into the traditional Coptic orthodox conservative life. He read a lot, he was a man of very few words, he didn’t talk a lot, and his friends were paramount in his life, his literary friends.
Did your father talk much about Naguib Mahfouz or his other literary friends?
MF: Oh yes. Through Naguib Mahfouz and the other “Harafish,” he met some people from the art world, I guess, and we had a feeling that we probably didn’t know my dad half as much as his friends did. He didn’t talk to us about those weekly meetings.
I can imagine what the topics were, but we weren’t privy to them.
Some of them I remember distinctly. One of them owned a farm somewhere, and he took us one time, but he would go with his friends to that farm. They probably went away to replenish their muses. Or I don’t know. But he really was very much into intellectual engagement: new things, new ideas. And you’re right, he was very witty.
He originally decided he wanted to only be a writer, but eventually decided I guess he couldn’t make a good living at it, and he went into the law. But I guess he never really left that passion.
There has been some speculation that your father left behind unpublished works.
MF: They left Egypt, my mom and dad, because all three of us were here in the States. I don’t know what he did with them; he did not bring them. Maybe he entrusted a friend, or two. I don’t know.
What year was it when your parents came to the US?
And he didn’t continue after that, to write?
Adel Kamel and his wife.
MF: We’ve asked him, but all he did was read and read, and he was missing the life in Egypt so terribly. He never said anything, but I could just see it.
So you all ended up in the US, you and your sister Sonia in Houston. Did your father visit you before he moved there in 1992?
MF: He used to come almost every year. My mother came every year and stayed a couple of months.
But my dad, maybe every other year. And he was very fluent in French and English. So it wasn’t a problem for him.
But he never became a part of the literature communities in Houston.
MF: No. At this point in his life, all that he wanted was family. He just read a lot, like all the time. He woke up, had breakfast, took a walk, and then read, and took a nap, and then the family things.
Naguib Mahfouz said he stopped publishing after 1940s.
MF: I’m sure Naguib Mahfouz would know better. It’s a shame, because it’s not something he shared with us at all. It was like he had two personalities: at home, he never shared any of that with us.
Was your mother at all involved in his literary life?
MF: Maybe this was where the disconnect originated. My mother is completely different person from my dad. My father is Egyptian Coptic orthodox by birth, and my mother is Lebanese Armenian descent, and she came when he married her. She was Catholic, and we were with her and her family and her friends more than with his friends.
So it was two type different types of backgrounds. She hardly read Arabic until she got married, and then she started reading. Her spoken Arabic was terrible, because in her household they only spoke French.
Kamel with his three daughters.
Did she read his books?
But you and your sisters did?
Do you have a favorite?
MF: Malim al-Akbar. On, Malik min Shoair, too. Well, they’re two different things. One is more spiritual, and one is more sarcastic.
Did you talk about books with your father?
MF: We were in a French school, and we had to read in French. I didn’t read too much from his library. I did see the titles. But we talked mostly about his spiritual convictions, not literature.
He had an encompassing view of the traditional religions. He respected people’s beliefs, but he went past that. He also read about Buddhism, about Zen, about Hinduism. He opened my horizons, and I feel I’m much richer because of that. Maybe literature or art did not define his happiness because he went beyond. He might have understood something.
ArabLit: Translator Waleed Almusharraf, On Kamel’s Characters: ‘Despicable and Lovable with No Contradiction’
ArabLit: Publisher Seif Salmawy on Rediscovering Adel Kamel
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