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November 2, 2017


Waguih Ghali in the early 1960s in Paris

Not many Copts know about Waguih Ghali – I didn’t know him until recently; and I regard that as shameful. Ghali is interesting in many ways: he was the first Copt to write a novel in any language, ‘Beer at the Snooker Club’, in 1964; and he wrote it in English. He is considered not just the first Copt but the first Egyptian to write a novel in English. The novel was hailed literary critics as a masterpiece and the best book ever written about Egypt. Martin Levin writes about it:

A small masterpiece of a novel that does several things with astonishing virtuosity. It gives an Egyptian’s view of Nasser’s Egypt that brilliantly communicates the texture of this experience. It depicts political conflicts before and after Suez in terms of imagery that transcend journalistic platitudes. And it creates an original and complex protagonist.[1]

And Gabriel David Josipovici, a friend of Ghali in his last year,[2] writes:

Beer in the Snooker Club is the best book ever written about Egypt (better even than my grandfather’s Goha le Simple) and it is a crying shame that it is out of print…

This is a wonderful book. Quiet, understated, seemingly without any artistic or formal pretentions. Yet quite devastating in its human and political insights… if you want to convey to someone what Egypt was like in the forties and fifties, and why it is impossible for Europeans or Americans to understand, give them this book. It makes The Alexandria Quartet look like the travel brochure it is.[3]

Waguih Ghali was born in Alexandria in 1929[4] to a rich, landowning family, related to the famous, cosmopolitan Coptic Ghali family that for the last two hundred years or so got involved in Egypt’s politics, with perhaps the best known being Boutros Ghali, prime minister in Egypt (1908 – 1910) and Boutros Boutros Ghali, Secretary General of the United Nations (1992 – 1996). The family was Anglophone, and had sent many of her children to study in France. He died on 5 January 1969, aged 40 years old, in hospital, after having ingested an overdose of sleeping pills in the apartment of the British literary editor and author Diana Athill in north London in order to commit suicide on 26 December 1968. He had suffered from severe depression before his death.

For the last four or five years before his death, Ghali was in close contact with Diana Athill (b. 1917) since 1963[5] after reading his novel and becoming acquainted with him. Although a German acquaintance had described him to her as “a modest, tender and gazelle-like being,” when she met him, she says, “[h]e looked more like a goat than a gazelle;” nonetheless, she fell in love with him. He lived a guest in one of her flat’s rooms in north London. After Ghali’s death, Athill wrote in 1986 a candid biography of her life from 1961 until Ghali’s death, in anything to do with Ghali. Her biography, titled After a Funeral, is the best source to get from a glimpse into Ghali’s life, character and soul. In the book, she calls him Didi. As I wanted to know more about Ghali, I read Athill’s memoir about Didi; and read it as a Copt wanting to know more about this extraordinary Copt.


Athill’s book ‘After a Funeral’ cover

The publisher’s review of Athill’s memoir reads as follows:

This is the story of how and why a talented writer came to kill himself. When Diana Athill met the man she calls Didi, an Egyptian in exile, she fell in love instantly and out of love just as fast. Didi moved into her flat: they started housework and holidays, and a life of easy intimacy seemed to beckon. But Didi’s sweetness and intelligence soon revealed a darker side – he was a gambler, a drinker and a womanizer, impossible to live with but impossible to ignore. With painful honesty, Athill explores the three years they spent together, a period that culminated in Didi’s suicide – in her home – an event he described in the journals he left for her to read as ‘the one authentic act of my life’.[6]

Hilary Hicklin writes about it:

This is such an extraordinary book that it’s hard to know where to begin. Diana Athill recounts the story of her friendship with a young Egyptian writer who comes to live with her in England on a “temporary” basis. Three years later he commits suicide while she is away. Athill tries to unravel the complexity of his character and behaviour – charming and delightful one minute, vindictive and self-destructive the next. It is a fascinating but poignant account, especially for anyone who has loved and lived with that kind of person. His personal demons were drink, gambling, and womanising and an inability to hold down any sort of proper employment. Yet his wit and charm made everyone around him forgive him. The seeds of his erratic behaviour lay, of course, in his childhood and Athill has written the book partly as a lesson to parents.[7]

Ghali was a mentally troubled man, and reading After a Funeral makes a painful read because it reveals his complex personality and sad story. There is nothing characteristically Coptic in Ghali – for once, although he was a Copt, he did not follow the Coptic Orthodox Church – his family was Catholic; and there is no hint in his novel or Athill’s memoir about him that indicate that he was in any way attentive to the conservative Coptic culture. His path in life was not typically Copt.

He cut reading medicine at Cairo University and joined the Sorbonne Medical School in Paris sometime in the early 1950s, but he did not finish his education; and in 1953, after the coup d’état of Nasser in 1952, he left Paris to London, where he lived for some years. During that period, he wrote six short narrative essays in the Manchester Guardian. From London he went to Stockholm and in 1960 he moved to Berlin in West Germany where he associated himself with members of the political Left. There, he worked in menial jobs but in the years 1964-1966 he worked at the British Army Royal Pay Corps in Rheydt in West Germany. Beer in the Snooker Club was written in Stockholm and completed in Berlin; and in 1964 it was published by Andre Deutsch in London, a publishing company in which Athill worked. From 1966, he lived in London until his death in 1969. During that period, which was spent at Athill’s flat, Ghali visited Israel where he stayed from July to September. This was a mere month after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 in which Egypt was defeated. The visit, which was facilitated by a group of left-wing Israeli expatriates in London, infuriated the Nasser regime in Egypt; but Ghali had already been banned from returning back to Egypt. In 1958, he was forced to leave Egypt for good as he was threatened by arrest for being a member of the Egyptian Communist Party. When his passport expired, there was no way of renewing it and he had to live as an exile in the West.

It is easy to understand why Ghali did not like Nasser’s regime – most Copts didn’t. Ghali was critical of Nasser’s coup d’état that “neither serves the people nor allows their rich aunts to live the life of leisure they are accustomed to.”[8] It is easy also to understand why Nasser’s regime hated Beer in the Snooker Club and why the Jewish community in London loved him for it. The story is that of a young Copt, Ram, and his friend, Font. Ram, like Ghali himself, is from a rich family background but his family branch poor. His friend Font was equally poor. The two young Copts, while students at Cairo University and engaged in anti-British occupation activities, meet a Jewish girl by the name of Edna with whom Ram falls in love. Edna, who is a Communist, comes from a rich family and did have enough resources to live on and spent. She encourages the two Copts to complete their education and sends them to London. When the 1956 Suez Crisis occurs, Ram joins the Communist party, and participates in the anti-war campaign, and during one of the demonstrations at Trafalgar Square he hits a policeman. Consequently he is deported to Egypt. There, Ram finds himself disappointed in Nasser’s coup, which he previously regarded as a welcome revolution to help the poor fellaheen (peasants).  He finds that the new regime was corrupt, unjust and oppressive to Communists and Jews. He starts gathering evidence of torture in Egyptian prisons.


I am afraid I don’t identify with Ghali even though I feel very sorry for him and for his early death – a talented life that was prematurely cut and could have been used better. I sympathise with him enormously in his mental illness and his sad life, and find in his early childhood the key to his later struggles and complex personality.  Children who are neglected and abused, physically, emotionally or sexually, mostly turn out to be ‘Waguihs’.  It is now established science that children who have experienced adverse childhood events have higher incidence of mental illness, ranging from anxiety, severe depression and schizophrenia, trouble with police, gambling, drinking, suicide and early death.

A few months before his death, and after an incident in which he disappointed Athill, he wrote:

The situation I am in now has been typical since boyhood. No one putting up with me. Whatever unorthodox or mischievous thing I did met with ‘He must go away’. Where to? From Grandpa’s to Tante B, to my mother, to the S’s, to the J’s, to Dolly[9] for a couple of nights, from Alex to Cairo to Alex to Cairo to Alex. Each autumn, the end of summer, I would be staying with friends – school would be starting again soon and I had to go ‘back’. But ‘back’ where? To whom? The Cairo school or the Alex school? I would stand, my heart sinking inside me, with my suitcases, in the street as it were. Dolly would finally ‘arrange’ something (never at her place, though). Finally a pension, when I was still a boy, and never any home since. I keep thinking about all that. And this, I suppose, turns me into a manic-depressive, presumably incapable of ‘coping with life’. What shall I do?

Ghali had known what he should do, from his point of view, for a long time – to kill himself; which he did on Boxing Day in 1969 by taking a large dose of sleeping pills. Athill found his death intolerable:

It was intolerable that a man should be so crippled by things done to him in his defenceless childhood that he had been made, literally and precisely, unendurable to himself. He had tried to change. All through his adult life the part of him which he thought of as his ‘mental sanity’ had stood in the wings and watched the part he called ‘emotional insanity’ – watched and judged, in vain. His intelligence, his gifts – useless to him. Other people’s patience, kindness, affection, understanding – useless to him. Love? Too late, and equally useless. […] He was certain at too deep a level, in the very fibres of his being, that he was unworthy of love. Being unworthy of love, he must be punished; and the only way he could secure this was by plunging out to the point where he was driven to punish himself.

What could have been the origin of Ghali’s misery in his life? It seems it was his mother. Ghali’s mother was a teenager when she got married to a doctor, a man older than her. She didn’t love her husband, and didn’t want to get pregnant. Shortly after Waguih was born, his father died. The young family moved to Ghali’s maternal grandparents, where Ghali spent his early childhood. His mother did not have much time for him, and Dolly, his elder aunty, looked after him until she got married. When Ghali’s mother got married again, Ghali moved with her to her new home, but she was horrible and neglectful to him. Mémé, Ghali’s cousin and son of Dolly, tells us this story which Athill adds to her book:

When Didi was about eight or ten he came back from school one evening and there was no one at home. … He rang and rang, and no one answered. So he went away and walked round looking at shops and things, and then came back and rang again, and still no one was there. So he went away, and came back, and went away, and came back, and it wasn’t until about eleven o’clock that a servant from the flat above came down and said ‘Oh there you are, your mother and her father have gone away for a week. They asked me to tell you and give you this.’ And he gave him one piaster – one piaster – so he could find a telephone and ask someone for a place to sleep. She was always doing things like that. When he won a prize at school and she’d promised to come to the prizegiving, she didn’t, and when he cried and asked her why she hadn’t come, all she said was why wouldn’t he stop being such a nuisance.

Ghali’s family was not less horrible, as Mémé says:

He was always poor, and my family is so horrible. They talk so much about loving people, but if there was a party, say, and all the cousins were coming, they wouldn’t ask Didi. They’d say ‘Well, he hasn’t the right clothes, it would embarrass him.’ And they got all his money, you know – all the money he had from his father. They made lawsuits and got it all.

It is not surprising that Ghali was full of anger and was always shouting when he was a child. What was fundamentally lacking in his childhood was his mother’s love. Had he been fully orphaned the impact on his later life would not have been so great, but with her alive and showing all the signs that she didn’t want him, in my opinion, resulted in Ghali’s bad destructive behaviour as an adult and ended up with him being dead at the early age of forty.


[1] Levin, Martin, Futility Lurked at Every Corner (New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1964).

[2] See: London Review of Books (Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986).

[3] See: Waguih Ghali in Wikipedia.

[4] Ghali’s diary confirms that he was born on 25 February without mentioning the year. Researchers have suggested a year of birth between 1927 and 1930.

[5] Athill met Ghali for the first time in the summer of 1963.

[6] Diana Athill, After a Funeral (2012 edition by Granta Books); backcover.

[7] Comment in Goodreads.

[8] The publisher’s review of Beer in the Snooker Club (Serpent’s Tail Classics, 1910).

[9] Dolly was one of Ghali’s maternal aunties who visited London and met Athill.

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