ON A TRAIN travelling from Alexandria to Cairo one day I met a man named Mr Haniff. He was a businessman, he told me, and a great lover of Alexandrian sweets. So I did not ask him what he did but listened instead to his extolling of the virtues of Alexandrian ice-cream. I learned later that Cairene visitors are in thrall to the the cool sorbet of the Corniche.
As we arrived in Cairo early evening, he asked me if I wanted to meet a famous writer living there. I had nothing planned for the evening except a kebab and the walk back to the Beyt al Shabbab (the youth hostel), so I followed Mr Haniff to Garden City where we took a flight of stairs and then walked a few steps to a flat where a very impressive man opened the door. He was, I remember, wearing a three-piece suit and he struck me there as this imposing figure holding a glass in his hand. This is Mr Abbas Al Aswany, Mr Haniff introduced him to me.
I can't recall much of what Mr Al Aswany said to me, but he did smile, I remember, and then he beckoned me to a chair. Most of the time we were there he spoke to Mr Haniff in Arabic and I gathered from the way they conversed that he was a man greatly respected by my train-travelling friend. During the course of this conversation Mr Haniff turned to me to add another notch to his respected friend's glittering career: Mr Al Aswany is also a prominent lawyer, he said to me.
I could tell from the lay-out of Mr Al Aswany's flat in a leafy corner of Garden City and the appurtenances gathered therein, and his books, that he must have been a gentleman of some wealth. Law would have been a likely supplement to his livelihood besides his writing propensity. They continued to chat about things as Arabs do when they meet, with flows and stops and excitable rises in tone and the mellifluous flow. And then the time came for us to part. I shook Mr Al Aswany's hand and thanked him for the cup of tea and then, outside the imposing block in Garden City, I bade Mr Haniff goodbye.
ONE DAY, many years later, at the Eurostar station in London, while rushing for the train to Paris, I grabbed a book from the newsagent's display rack before going through the immigration rigmarole. A rush followed as the train was about to pull out and only when the drab backyards of the Waterloo tenements were rolling past us that I could take take a closer look at the writer's bio-data. He was Alaa Al Aswany, and the book that fate sent me was The Yacoubian Building, his first foray into English language publishing via a translation by Humphrey Davies.
This is the story of how trains brought me to a book and the author, via an early prelude to his father. Alaa Al Aswany, I discovered to my amazement was the dentist son of the man I had met years earlier in Garden City, the man who had also won the Egyptian State prize for literature in 1972. In the Yacoubian Building the writer son represented the disparity and the varied miens of Egyptian life in a building in Cairo, the Yacoubian Building where the rich lived their prosperous lives in the main tenements while the poor snuggled up in the spaces that were available to them, that were out of view, in the rooftop mainly. Could this have been the building I went to in Garden City, that well-heeled part of Cairo?
PHOTO: Book sculpture, The Old House by Su Blackwell.With thanks.