Khalil Kalfat: Musings of a Nubian Marxist
By: Sayyid Mahmoud
Published Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Drawn to Cairo for its literary and political scene, existential Marxist Khalil Kalfat lived through the many struggles and ultimate retreat of Egypt’s Left in the past century. But the Jan 25 revolution has rekindled the Nubian intellectual’s hopes for social change.

Khalil Kalfat’s personality shines through a smile that never leaves his face. His silver hair betrays his seventy years of age but gives a luminous energy that is hard to conceal.

Kalfat arrived in Cairo from the Nubia region of southern Egypt in the early 1960s. Soon after he joined the Egyptian left. In his time, Kalfat has contributed to the fields of literary criticism, Arab leftist theory, translation, and Arabic dictionary and lexicon compilations, which he believes serves to renew the Arabic language.

Kalfat’s father moved to Cairo in the 1920s and worked as a cook. He later returned to Nubia with hundreds of books, which he read all the time, inspiring his son to follow suit.

Kalfat moved to Cairo as soon as he finished his secondary school education, intending to study at the Business School on the advice of his older brother Muhammad, a merchant in the Cairo neighborhood of Bab al-Luq. However, Kalfat held ideological beliefs different from his brother’s and decided to pursue another route, leaving university after one year. He justifies this as “normal behavior for anyone active in the literary circles. The poets, Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi and Amal Dankal did the same thing.”

During that period, the promises of ‘real life’ were greater than those of university. What you could learn at the Riche cafe or Isafetch in Cairo was much more important than what you learned in the classroom. It was a generation open to knowledge, ideas, and life. At the time, the Egyptian left was at the height of its confrontation with President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egyptian leftists agreed with Nasser’s aims but not his means to achieve them. Kalfat was part of this scene, but he was not yet a pure Marxist. He says he arrived from Nubia as an existential Marxist: “I built my knowledge of Marxism in my own way. When I came into the literary circles in Cairo, I used to listen to the discussions between intellectuals who were of my generation, people like Salah Issa, Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi, and Yahya al-Taher Abdullah. I liked what they were saying, but I did not join their leftist group known as The Communists Union. After that, I joined the Egyptian Communist Workers Party.”

Like the Communists of his generation, Kalfat found Nasser’s regime to be authoritarian. In 1965, he began to publish literary articles in Beirut-Based Al-Adab magazine, as well as studies on the poetry of Khalil Hawi, Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, and others. He debated with prominent critics, such as Ghalib Halasa. It is hard for Kalfat to recall his youth without reminiscing about his days as a literary critic.

“My stint as a literary critic was quite short. People might have forgotten had it not been for my book, Elementary Steps in Literary Criticism, which includes articles I published in the Cairo newspaper, al-Masaa, during its literary heyday,” he says. “Those were also the years that I was associated with an exceptional man in the history of Egyptian literature, Abdul Fattah al-Jamal, who was the inspiration for an entire literary generation in the sixties.”

In his book, Kalfat wrote an introduction which read like an apology, critiquing his past ideas on literary criticism and particularly his thoughts on social realism. He explains his short stint as a critic, saying his articles always underlined the need for literary texts to connect to their society. This was the most prominent idea featured in his discussions, and allowed him to develop his political ideas within a leftist movement that was very active at the time, but suffered from its battles and alliances with Nasser’s regime. Despite the fallout with Nasser, Kalfat still considers the late Egyptian leader to be “one of the military leaders who came after colonialist rule in the Third World. They established a nominal independence which did not destroy dependency, but enshrined it.”

Kalfat has not thought about writing his memoirs, even though most of his generation believe that he played a central role in the Egyptian left of the 1970s. He is able to remember those years with surprising clarity. He avoids talking about the role of specific individuals, preferring to concentrate on the main idea: “The leftist groups at that time were led by people who had great pretensions about their links with the populace, when their groups had nothing to do with the people. They exhausted themselves with disputes that diverted their attention from making clear social demands.”

Kalfat is more optimistic about the fate of the left in Egypt today. Despite the dangers it faces at the moment, Egypt’s 25 January Revolution has revived Kalfat’s high hopes for revitalizing the Egyptian left. Still, he views it as a popular political revolution that was “halted by a military coup from inside the regime” that aimed to “protect the old regime” and not the Egyptian people.

As for his predictions for the future, Kalfat draws on his endearing Nubian accent and sings, “Yes there is hope.” Revolutions bring social change and this is the most important thing in his opinion: “Egypt is witnessing developments in that direction, but the gravest danger now is colonial dependency. All revolutions have ended with a dictatorship and personalities who dominate power.” He believes that it is important that democracy is established from the bottom up. He contends that this is happening in Egypt through independent unions and elections in many places, indicating that the “battle for change against the counter revolution is still ongoing.”

Five Dates

1941 — Born in Nuba (Aswan). His birth was registered the following year.

1965 — Begins publishing critical and literary articles in al-Adaab magazine of Beirut.

1982 — Published The Palestinian Disaster, criticizing political ideas that he believed were destructive to the Palestinian resistance movement.

2009 — Towards a New Arabic Grammar is published by the Egyptian Higher Council for Culture.

2011 — Published his translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s book The Old Regime and The Revolution

What's a Nubian?

getfiscal posted:
What's a Nubian?

Black North Sudanese / South Egyptian