Poet takes a novel approach to history
By P. Ramakrishnan
Award-winning poet Sayed Gouda found the switch from Arabic to English
much easier than the recent challenge of moving from poetry to prose.
"I have lived here in Hong Kong for the past 13 years and lost touch
with the written Arabic language," he says with a laugh.
After 20 years as a poet, and with works published in Egypt's respected
literary journal Akhbar Al-Adab, Gouda has released his first
novel, Once Upon a Time in Cairo.
A leading figure in Hong Kong's literary community - he organises
Arabic Nadwah, a monthly reading of Arabic poetry at the Fringe Club -
Gouda, 37, says the novel reflects the way his work has changed since
he arrived in Hong Kong in 1992.
"The first writer who really opened the door for me to read English
literature was Thomas Hardy - it was Return of the Native," says
the translator and accountant for the Kuwait consulate. "I loved his
style. I later discovered that he was also a poet. I can see that he
has chosen every word carefully. I see them as poetic novels."
Set in 1948, Once Upon a Time in Cairo follows three families
living in one house. Each family claims ownership of the property, and
their animosity spreads across generations. Gouda describes it as a
parable of the Middle East.
"It's a symbolic novel," he says. "Each character resembles a country
or a leader in the Middle East. And each chapter deals with a certain
period of our modern history."
The novel starts in 1948, when Israel took over Palestinian land. The
other sections are based in the historically important years of 1956,
1967, 1973 and 1981.
Gouda tears out a page from his notebook and draws diagrams. "The
character Galilah - she represents Israel itself," he says. "The master
of the district is El-King, the king. By that I mean Britain, the
"In the old times, there used to be a master for the street or the
district itself - a master who collects protection tax on people, a
master who protects the family who claims the room. This overseer was
Britain at first. In time, like an old lion who goes away, the El-King
loses the power. The character of a sultan comes in - a new master.
That's America. All the names of the characters have more than one
meaning. In Arabic, all names mean more than what the syllables are."
Although the symbolism is clear, Gouda says the message of the book is
kept vague. "Before creating any sort of art - whether it's a poem, a
novel, a painting or a piece of music - should I have a message to
convey to the reader?
"The answer in my opinion is, `Not necessarily'. Even if there's a
message, I shouldn't reveal it," Gouda says. "I can only convey it
wrapped in my work of art and leave it to the reader to unfold it and
understand it in any way he likes.
"To be neutral is not an easy task, I have to admit, especially when I
know that my countrymen will read it. But as a writer, I must be
"I don't expect everyone to understand the story in exactly the same way
as I do. It's almost impossible. I wrote it as a novelist, not a
historian. If the reader enjoys it as a novel, I'm happy."
Once Upon a Time in Cairo
(Blacksmith) will be on sale this month for $98
June 10, 2005