Muawiya Nur, a Sudanese Writer in Egypt, on the Voracious Appetite for Books

Muawiya Nur (1909–1941) was a Sudanese writer, journalist, and literary critic from Omdurman. His maternal grandfather, Mohamed Othman Khaled, was believed to be a Mahdist prince, while his maternal uncle, al-Dardiry Mohamed Othman, was the first Sudanese judge to apply the local law on the British, following a 1939 incident where an English sailor committed theft.

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Muawiya Nur

Renouncing what would have then been a profitable career in medicine, Nur went to Beirut to study literature at the American University of Beirut, and was a diligent student of Edward Atiyah, the Anglo-Lebanese author and political activist. Upon graduating, he oscillated between Sudan and Cairo, where he lived a “bohemian” existence “on top of a flat in Heliopolis surrounded by books” (The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction; “Muawiya Nur: Buying  Books in Early 20th Century Egypt and Sudan“; “Mu‘awya Muhammad Nur“).

Nur wrote stories and literary criticism pieces, and was an important contributor to the beginnings of the Sudanese short story as a distinct genre. In fact, he was rarely without a book at hand, and Atiyah explained that Nur’s books were his refuge from the conservative society Nur found himself in.

In Raphael Cormack’s post, we listen to Nur as he writes for an Egyptian newspaper in 1933, touchingly ruminating on the relationship that develops between a writer or a reader and the books they read, write, and/or hoard. This piece, which could strike a chord with many, softly reminds us of the agency of non-humans and objects in our lifeworlds, the power of writing and textuality, the multidimensional and multi-sensorial realities of books that transgress a mere visual or tactile hegemony, the political economy of books and the spaces and temporalities that they and their human companions are enmeshed in, discourses of reason and madness with regards to books, and the extension of our personhood beyond our bodies and into the objects we collect or we are affectively tied to:

I swear I don’t know which of these is true: is it me who is writing about books and discussing their style or is it the books who are writing about me and seducing me – with what they have taught me – to seduce myself, expose my weaknesses and mock myself? It is me who loves books, is infatuated with them and is their hunter and their conqueror? Or is it those books who are charming me, making me a tool for their amusement and entertainment.

. . .

It is a special kind of pleasure for me to open a new book and smell its pages as I am sipping some tea or smoking a cigarette. I promise, there are few pleasures like it in all existence.

. . .

I do not know what the reason for this inexcusable appetite is. Do you think that I have a second stomach which is only filled by books and only hungry in their presence.

. . .

However, the reader who intends one day to become a writer cannot also be a complete reader. This is because, instead of losing himself in the book and so getting pleasure and benefit from it, the feeling grows inside him that he is incapable of writing like that writer. He tries to understand how the writer formed one particular sentence or how he succeeded in expressing his opinion so simply. In short, he tortures himself and wears out his soul. What is harder than for someone who one day thinks of being a writer to read with any kind of pleasure?

. . .

God preserve me – what do you have to say about this?

Is it madness? Of course it is.

But it is a madness over which I have no power or control.

And of course, not to mention, Nur confesses on the limitations of particular reading styles, wherein skimming and quick glances at particular words, sentences, or sections lead to a kind of disengaged engagement—a reality many graduate students in the humanities and social sciences are forced to cede to its structural violence:

I frequently deceive myself – as you may also deceive yourself, reader – that I have read everything in the bookshops because I have read their titles and knew the names of the authors. And I convince myself that if I have read their introductions and conclusions that I have read it well and can criticise it, analyse it and tear the author limb from limb.

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