Beloved Egyptian Novelist Radwa Ashour, 1946-2014

Beloved, acclaimed Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour has died, leaving behind a great hole:

Ashour has struggled with cancer for several years, a struggle that has been beautifully chronicled in her writing, particularly her recent Heavier than Radwa. Three days ago, novelist Ahdaf Souief tweeted: “Radwa Ashour: Get well quick. We need you.”

As news of Ashour’s passing spread, many expressed gratitude and loss on social media. Novelist Miral al-Tahawy wrote: “Radwa Ashour…you taught us to love writing…. Good-bye!”

Journalist Amira Howeidy wrote that: “Novelist, literature professor, intellectual, critic and most beautiful, gentle soul Radwa Ashour has died.”

Souief wrote: “Peace my beloved friend. Radwa Ashour. Silence now.”

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Ashour left behind her husband, the great Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti, and her son, the poet and political scientist Tamim Barghouti.

It was only a few months ago — March of this year — that Ashour was celebrated with a two-day conference on her work by Ain Shams University, titled “Radwa Ashour: Writer and Critic.” Guests and scholars came from around Egypt and beyond to discuss Ashour’s writing.

But the celebrated author — whose Granada trilogy was voted one of the top 100 literary works of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, and who has confidently and authoritatively taught hundreds of students to love literature — has not always had an easy relationship with writing.

In 1969, at the age of 23, Ashour traveled to a young writers’ conference in Zagazig, and was overwhelmed by the talents of the other writers. She soon abandoned the idea of writing. In her essay, “My Experience With Writing,” Ashour says that the question of whether or not she’s a truly talented writer plagued her. In the 1970s, “I renounced writing. I said that I was no good, and my resolution hit home as sharply and decisively as a guillotine.”

Ashour and Barghouti, via Mansoura Ezz Eldin

Between the ages of 23 and 34, Ashour focused on being a teacher, a mother, and an activist. Her son Tamim was born in 1977, the same year her husband — Mourid Barghouti — was deported from Cairo. For a time, Ashour’s husband lived in Hungary, and she and Tamim visited as frequently as they could.

But the 1970s passed and, she wrote, “all of a sudden, I found that writing reappeared with an insistent, importuning presence.”

It was 1980 when Ashour got back to writing. The impetus, she says, was the health problems that have continued to dog her throughout her life. Ashour’s first book, The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Student in America, was written after she nearly died. The book, published when she was 37, seems to have let writing’s “insistent, importuning presence” back into her life for good. Her first novel, Warm Stone, was published two years later.

Illnesses confined Ashour to bed many more times. But perhaps — as well as limiting her activities and causing her great pain — they also elevated and honed her writing. In her keynote address at the March conference celebrating Ashour, Professor Ferial Ghazoul discussed her long relationship with the multiple and singular Radwa. She described how Ashour’s passion for writing emerges from a fear of a lurking death, in a metaphoric sense, a fear of “life burial and assassination of potential.”

Ashour’s Warm Stone was followed by several other novels, including Siraj in 1992, the celebrated Granada trilogy in 1994 and 1995, and the quasi-memoir Specters in 1998.

Ashour wrote her half-autobiography at nearly the same time her husband Mourid Barghouti wrote his. ButSpecters doesn’t paint a picture of Ashour’s life in the same way I Saw Ramallah sketches Barghouti’s. Instead, she both conceals and reveals by moving between the “real” stories of her own life and the fictional ones of a character named Shagar.

The novelist Rehab Bassem, a former student of Ashour’s, said in an interview three years ago, “She was nearly the only professor who talked to us ‘normally’…she didn’t patronize us, she didn’t think us stupid. She was teaching us, listening to us, and she made me fall in love with every single [author] she mentioned. … She made me feel that the things she was teaching us were reachable, tangible, could be grasped and understood and discussed.”

As she taught, Ashour also continued to write: A Part of Europe, published in 2003, and her beloved 2010 multigenerational epic, Tantoureya. She was honored with a number of literary prizes, including the 2007 Constantine Cavafy Prize for Literature and the 2011 Owais Prize.

Ashour’s health problems also sidelined her from direct political activism during much of the last few years. But her presence — through her writing — was always felt.

The influence of Ashour’s work on successive generations of Egyptian writers is yet to be reckoned. Acclaimed nineties-generation author Mansoura Ezz Eldin said in an interview several years ago that she hasn’t drawn directly from Ashour’s work. But, Ezz Eldin said, “I really admire her personality. She is like a candle that inspires others, as a human being and as a professor.”

A funeral will be held on Monday afternoon at the Salah al-Deen Mosque in Manial, Cairo.

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