Heron.. How did Ibrahim Aslan portray the lives of the marginalized in Cairo?

How can you write a fictional text that is so succinct and full of life, characters, drama and human richness at the same time? In 1972, the young Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Aslan decided to write a novel about the area in which he lived, the Imbaba neighborhood and Kit Kat, the popular neighborhood in which he lived for most of his life. Ibrahim Aslan continued writing his novel and meditating on life and the people around him for a whole ten years, until his first novel, “The Heron” came to light in 1983, with more than ninety characters.

Ibrahim Aslan belongs to a generation of Egyptian novelists who were active at the end of the sixties and seventies of the last century, and there are common features that connect him with “Abdul Hakim Qassem”, “Sanallah Ibrahim” and “Gamal Al-Ghitani”, who belong to the same generation: the trauma they suffered It includes the defeat of the Arab armies in the face of the Israeli occupation in 1967, and its impact on their literature and their vision of life. The literature of these “angry young men” was a renewal in its worlds and style, experimental in some respects, and constituted a kind of “revolution” against the prevailing writing traditions until that time. The methods of the Egyptian “writers of anger” varied in artistic expression of their anger, and one of the most important novels that represented this anger, revolution and renewal was the novel “The Heron”.

Ibrahim Aslan

The novel was a surprising event at the time of its publication in the early eighties, as it took place in less than two days in the Kit Kat area, and thus differed from all the prevailing forms of storytelling at the time. Aslan did not care about creating a fictional plot within the novel, and did not adhere to a single narrative style throughout the text, in addition to trying to describe an entire world within a short text, in short terms with a clear economy in description and dialogic sentences. Aslan found himself compelled to reconcile two opposites: how to describe a very miserable and narrow reality, within a generous literary text rich in life, without falling into the trap of embellishing poverty and beautifying the lives of the poor and marginalized with what is not in it, so that the reader does not tolerate the circumstances in which the characters of the novel live, At the same time, he does not lose his sympathy and feeling for those who are fascinated by misfortune and the absence of justice. Perhaps here lies the reasons for the greatness of “Heron” as an exceptional literary work in the history of the Egyptian novel.

The richness of the text and the emptiness of the world

“To look into the depth? What if there is no depth? What if the harshness of things is the true essence?”

(Fernando Pessoa)

After a few pages of the novel, and with the intense series of characters appearing, we can realize that “Kit Kat neighborhood” is the hero and the source of identity for all those characters we see over the course of the two days. Hence, the people of this place, whose existence is verified, do not differ from it in anything, ordinary people, practicing very simple professions, who come to the text, without the writer trying to give an aesthetic symmetry to their behavior, their language, or even their titles (Ramadan Al-Fatari). The high, the master of the request for forced labor, and the pyramid who sells quality and hashish), or seeks to ameliorate the ugliness of their beauty and infirmities with elegant terms, or descriptions that move away from the banal and everyday, but on the contrary to all of this, people are present from reality with their humanity and descriptions, without Aslan heeding when weaving them with theories stereotyped” (3), meaning that Aslan did not try to make his characters at the service of the literary text, but rather made the text at the service of his characters.

Sheikh Hosni attended with his visual impairment, which did not prevent him from continuing life, but rather convinced himself that he had not lost anything, and convinced everyone that he actually saw, and then he rode the wheel like any sighted person, until he fell into the water, and despite his fall, he repeated the attempt with Solomon’s machine The jeweler without fear of the result. There is also Uncle Mujahid, the seller of beans, who died in his shop without anyone feeling him, like all the forgotten and oppressed in the novel, who cling to the tail of life and its fringes, and it did not give them a single look of justice. We put Aslan in front of a very realistic and ordinary type of characters, characters who do not put their lives into question, despite all the hardships they suffer in their daily life, and do not even care about fate, but are characters who seize the moment of their life and existence without paying any cost.

Then “Fatima” appeared, that beautiful girl, radiant with femininity, who is similar to thousands of her peers in the villages and neighborhoods of Egypt. Just the body. And there is Qasim who sits all day and night waiting for his glasses to fix them, without fate to spare them, so he remains the same, as if we are facing a kind of constant toil, without any of these personalities having a solution in the face of all that except patience.

As for my English destiny, which is alienated from real life and flees from it to a Western style that depends on it since he worked with the British in the Marconi company, he drank from their style and their disciplined lifestyle. A disgrace between her and Zaghloul, the fat seller, just because she yearned for him.

Almost not once did Aslan care about providing a physical or psychological description of these characters, and we do not hear with all of these characters any internal dialogue or question about the meaning and value of life with the poverty and injustice surrounding it. Live in it without paying attention to the questions of good and evil and justice. Instead of focusing on introducing a reasonable number of the main characters and introducing us to their inner world, Aslan has massively condensed, almost throughout the novel, a large number of marginal characters that appear about once or twice, and they are multiple characters with weak presence without much effectiveness in The course of events or changing the direction of the novel, just as it is in real life. These people, despite their plurality, differences and diversity, were absorbed by the narration of “The Heron”, but the world did not pay attention to them, and perhaps this reflects the richness of the text and the emptiness of the world at the same time.

A world without roots

Two characters appear in the novel more than others, the character “Abdullah Al-Qahwaji”, and the character “Youssef Al-Najjar”. Abdullah Al-Qahwaji was associated with the café that teacher Sobhi would buy as part of his purchase of all homes and real estate in the area, to demolish the café and the entire surrounding buildings, after the teacher threatened Attia and stabbed him with a knife in the lower back to force him to sell the café. With all the transient people in the novel, the café remains the essential place, the beating heart of Kit Kat, the organizing contract of social relationships and emotional and psychological connections, and the only place where the characters feel that they are not transient characters but rather complete selves with roots and land.

Ibrahim Aslan breaks the main narration technique in the novel, and brings us to Abdullah Al-Qahwaji’s awareness. To see what the days, months and years stole? How? He came to the café at the dawn of the day so that he wouldn’t miss anything he didn’t leave. He tried to remember what he looked like when he came with his father when he was young, and he knew that he had tried the impossible.. The rope was cut, the café was lost, And instead of God, he was lost, and only today your father dies.. It is true, your life is long and you are defeated, Abdullah. In the end, Abdullah took advantage of his last days in the café, and seized the daily revenue after he quarreled with the teacher Attia, the owner of the café, and left, without thinking of anything or knowing where to go.

As for the second character, it is the character of Youssef Al-Najjar, and perhaps the most present character in the novel. Because of the defeat, marginality, and deep alienation that Youssef feels, he is always “alone… you talk to him and he talks to you, and your eyes are in his eyes, but his soul is in another place.” Youssef does not feel himself inside Imbaba, nor in Cairo. Youssef is absent in the crowd of demonstrations, he misses Kit Kat and the cafe, and he does not stay up with any of the Kit Kat youth or its old people, and he is also absent with wine in one of the old bars while drinking rum, and whenever he tries to He writes a novel in which his inner trembling comes out, and then all this alienation fails him.

In one of his random hangs, Youssef bumped into a demonstration moving in the streets of downtown, and watched the soldiers and officers approaching the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Yusef left the demonstration of students, injured and detainees and continued his wandering on his way to Kit Kat, where he saw “people in transportation and traces of sleep remaining in their eyes.” He wrote in his diaries about this (and speaking to Aslan in the end, of course) that famous sentence: “Cursed is the father of people, and cursed is Abu The sleep in their eyes, cursed her father is a country, cursed your father all of you. Eventually Yusef went to the Nile and threw himself into a boat, tore off the rope that tied the boat to the mooring, and let it move with it down the river without a specific destination.

One of the key symbolic lines in the novel is the news that Qasim Effendi gave in front of everyone in the café, about an Italian Khawaja who lived in Cairo during the thirties and forties, and claims that he owns the entire Kit Kat neighborhood, and has all the official papers that prove this, and submits them to the warden of the department Kit Kat said that they had seized the lands he had bought in 1944, and that when he returned to Egypt, he was surprised by its disappearance and the appearance of those houses, streets and cafes on its ruins.

“I mean, the first thing to win this urgent case is to say to the houses, coffees, coffee, oranges, and iron, peace. All of it. The mosque, the Usta Bedouin, the library, the sea, the Shawish Abdul Hamid, the juice, the kiosks of beer, and the liver all… I will never need anything.. God! It is his land and not ours. ?”.

(Kasim Effendi, Kit Kat)

The symbolism is completed during the funeral of Uncle Mujahid, as Uncle Imran, the oldest of the people, tells about the reality of Al-Khawaja, who once owned the whole Kit Kat, and how the Kit Kat consisted of palaces, a social club and a nightclub that witnessed a whole life of foreigners, aristocrats and the king’s entourage, in which they lived A wide and wide life, until the army made the blessed movement and closed the kit kat, then slowly “people punctured it and opened shops, coffee, winery, fried, mosque, oven, ruins, houses, nests of chicks, pigeons, ducks and flour stores, and the kit kat remained what you saw now,” this is what Uncle Imran tells all This ancient history, at a time when the teacher Sobhi buys the café and all the surrounding area to demolish it and build tall buildings on the ruins of this world.

Here we understand more other things about Ibrahim Aslan’s silence and his reluctance to delve deeper into the characters of the novel, marginalizing them all instead, and understand the reasons for writing a fictional text without any main character, the meaning of his narrative in that novel, and the end of the novel that seems like episodes of a difficult daily life that revolves Endless in place.

When we reach the end of the novel, we realize why Aslan wrote in this short, angry and indifferent language. All the characters of the novel came from nowhere to Kit Kat, after they had seized it from his old companions, and they will go, like Uncle Mujahid, Youssef Al-Najjar and Abdullah Al-Qahwaji to another place. After being bought by the teacher Sobhi or taken over by Al-Khawaja, then their stories – just like their lives – are marginal and part of a hard and temporary life without roots, and they have no effect except in the hearts of their owners.



  1. Ibrahim Aslan, “The Heron”, Dar Al-Shorouk.
  2. Mamdouh Farraj Al-Nabi, “The Heron of Ibrahim Aslan: From the Ideology immanent to place to the anti-authority ideology,” Al-Kalima magazine.
  3. The blind Heron sees, and so does the reciter Ibrahim Aslan – Art

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