A tribute to Ibrahim Aslan

In a world like the one we live in, it is difficult to find someone who will give credit to a friend for introducing him to art. Everyone talks about their incredible ability to discover things on their own.

I'm not any different. I, for instance, always give myself credit for discovering writers, books, novels, films and music.

But it is best for me to give credit where it is due and tell you about my friend whom I tried more than a thousand times to write about. I won’t get a better chance than now to do so following what happened tonight.

So what happened?

Although painful, the answer is short, simple and clear… Ibrahim Aslan died.

My phone call to my friend Ahmed Zain consisted of three words, preceded by my condolences. Zain, in one way or another, is the reason I came to know that a writer named Ibrahim Aslan lived on this planet. The world seems dreary without his writings.

It’s difficult to determine the exact moment in which Zain introduced me to Aslan. However, it is easy to tell you all of Zain’s stories from beginning to end.

Zain recently told me how he formed a new routine. These days, he wakes up in the evening, goes to his computer, logs on to the Internet, and opens Al-Ahram newspaper online, specifically the section that includes Aslan’s weekly articles.

Zain told me the site even includes his old articles. He said he sits alone at night, as his children and wife are asleep in their rooms, to read, and catches himself laughing out loud over Aslan’s jokes, which at first glance don’t seem all that special until you discover their depth the more you read.

He told me that reading Aslan’s latest article – at the time – about black taxis was important for learning how to capture details and write them eloquently.

Zain and I shared a daily drive between 6 October City, Al-Haram and Maadi. Together, we faced the summer heat and the winter cold by discussing literature, books, stories, tales, and movies, and Aslan.

For both Zain and I, reading was a way to decipher life and keep our common enemy, boredom, at bay.

Reading is also an attempt to circumvent the fact that we only get one life with limited experiences. Reading the works of writers such as Aslan is an attempt to live other lives and to discover more and bigger experiences. All this and more can be found in Aslan’s writings.

I learned from Zain, as he cited Aslan, the importance of simplicity, the magic in details, and the ability to conduct short interviews with the people we typically watch from afar, maintaining an appropriate distance between us out of fear of wasting our “precious” time.

I told Zain that from Aslan, I learned that the eraser is just as important as the pencil and that it is easier to erase words from our writings than it is to add them. We were amazed at Aslan’s ability to write an article with few words but rich in images and meaning.

It wasn’t Aslan’s writing technique that charmed us, for technique was not important for readers like Zain and I. What enamored us was this old man’s ability to collect stories and reconcile with life.

For me, Aslan’s writings were happy. Although never classified as a cynic, he was our cynical writer of choice. Sometimes, we laughed so hard that we cried.

This is perhaps what led to me and Zain’s favorite habit. We would call each other every morning or at noon to ask, “Did you read Aslan’s article today?” Since the answer was usually no, the one calling would immediately tell the other the best parts of the article.

We often spoke of Aslan while watching the sunset over Moqattam Hill and on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. We would share information about the man, emphasizing the things we loved about him, such as the fact that he began his life as a Post Authority employee, and that he was not a professional writer when he was young. There was also the fact that he wrote his first novel after receiving a Culture Ministry grant to become a full-time writer, and that he had planned to write short stories. He then discovered the grant was intended for writing a novel, so he wrote Malek al-Hazeen (Sad Malek), which was turned into a movie called “Kit Kat.”

His life itself was like a brilliantly written short story: quiet, full of drama, and slow paced, although it ended abruptly and without warning.

I clearly remember the last call between Zain and myself in which we discussed Aslan’s article where he paid tribute to his life-long friend Khairi Shalabi. The article was also an account of the final phone call between the two.

Our question was clear: How had Aslan managed to reconcile with life to such a degree? How did he become so dedicated to his writings? How do you get rid of issues that seem of primary importance such as money, for example?

Without realizing, we were trying to understand the secret of our respect for his life experiences, which have become, it seems, part of our own.

We respect him because he managed to remain dedicated to what he loved. The issue of dedication continues to haunt our generation, so much so that these days, we attribute the discovery of all things good to ourselves. We pretend to be the first to have read a book, or watched a movie, and we forget that a man like Ibrahim Aslan lived in this world and that I would never have known him if it wasn’t for a loyal friend named Ahmed Zain.

Baraa Ashraf is a blogger and documentary filmmaker

Translated by Aisha El-Awady

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