by Samir Gharieb

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Sample from Surrealism in Egypt and Plastic Arts:

The Surrealistic community was officially founded in Egypt on January 9, 1939, when George Henein formed with some of his friends the Society of Art and Freedom.

The founding agreement states that it was formed ‘for the defence of the freedom of art and culture, and to circulate up-to-date books, to offer lectures, and to a apprise Egyptian youth of literary, artistic and social movements in the world’.

Thus we must affirm George Henein's pioneering role in the formation and activity of this society, which turned into an active and influential movement, as well as the role of the artist, critic and writer Ramses Yunan.

George Henein was born in Cairo on January 20, 1914, and due to the ambassadorship of his father, Sadek Henein Pasha, to Italy and Spain, he moved with him to several European countries and came to study at the Sorbonne in France thereby mastering the F'rench, Italian, English and Arabic languages. It was likewise possible for him to become acquainted with the pioneers of Surrealism in France, and to establish friendships with them, particularly Andre Breton, the "Father of Surrealism", and to participate in their organization and activities.

Henein's activity in Cairo coordinated and cooperated with the Surrealistic movement in France and other parts of the world such as Belgium, Great Britain and the United States of America. This activity began in Egypt sixteen years after the publication of the first surrealist manifesto in Paris.

George Henein played an important role in establishing and setting the movement in motion in Egypt, along with the artists Ramses Yunan, Fouad Kamel, and Kamel el-Telmessany, all of whom were talented writers as well as painters. By virtue of the notable presence of foreign communities in Egypt as well as Egyptian Jews at that time, the Egyptian Surrealists found fertile ground for their activity, and several foreigners joined the movement, such as the Italian Angelo de Riz who had taken refuge in Egypt from Italian Fascism, and the Bulgarian Eric de Nemes and several others who acquired Egyptian nationality.

George Henein joined the ‘Attempters’ society before graduating at the Sorbonne, and took part in writing in French for its monthly journal ‘Un Effort’. He also participated in the activity circles of the society of ‘Friends of French Culture in Egypt’ concommitant with his writing for a number of French, British and American journals. He established the publications ‘Masse’ and ‘Portion de Sable’ in Cairo.

In November 1938, George Henein issued the first of his collections of poems, Absurdity of Being, illustrated with drawings by Kamel el-Telmessany. Similarly, he published in 1944 -1945 the books For a Polluted Consciousness, Who Are You, Mr. Aragon, and Position of Terror. He later issued The Incompatible, Two Images, Allusion to Kafka, and The Forbidden. In 1967 he wrote the introduction to An Anthology of Contemporary Arabic Literature, and collaborated in writing The Small Political Encyclopaedia, which appeared in 1969. In his later years he worked as editor-in-chief for the weekly journal ‘Jeune Afrique’ and as head of the reporting department of the weekly magazine ‘L'Espress’.

After years of struggle with lung cancer , George Henein died the night of July 17/18, 1973. His wife Iqbal al-Alaily, best known as Paula, published several of his works in French posthumously: Notes on a Useless Country, The Gloomiest Relation and the Savage Spirit.

Ramses Yunan on the other hand, was born of a poor family in al-Minya in 1921. His father passed away when he was fifteen, the oldest of his four brothers. In 1929 he entered the School of Fine Arts in Cairo which he left in 1933 to begin work as art teacher in secondary schools. Ramses participated regularly in the annual Cairo Art Salon held 1933 to 1938, organised by Friends of the Fine Arts Association. In 1935 he began his contact with the ‘Artistic Propoganda’ society taking part in its group exhibition. At the same time his first book was published entitled Aimes of a Contemporary Artist, which stirred up a great commotion and in which he heralded Surrealism. In 1938 he signed with his colleagues the daring manifesto ‘Long Live Bad Art’. At the end of April 1947 Ramses Yunan left Egypt to settle in Paris for nine years, during which he worked as editorial secretary for the Arabic department in the French broadcasting service, participating at the same time in the international surrealist exhibitions in Europe. He returned to Egypt, however, in 1957 having been dismissed by the French broadcasting service for having refused to broadcast statements against the Egyptian government during the Tripartite Aggression. He translated several books among which were the novel First Love by Turgenev, The Story of Modem Art by Sarah Newmayer and Caligula by Albert Camus. He was granted a paid leave which lasted six years until his death at the end of 1966.

The first five years in the Surrealist movement in Egypt were the phase of greatest brilliance. Though George Henein had begun paving the way for it since the mid-thirties with lectures and articles yet the impetus or the movement began to wane gradually by the mid-forties, until it ceased altogether as its founders adopted new artistic and intellectual stands, as well as Ramses Yunan's temporary stay in France, and finally George Henein's permanent emigration to France.

The Egyptian Surrealistic society ‘Art and Freedom’ issued the monthly journal . ‘al-Tatawwur’ in Arabic which ceased publication after seven issues. The first issue came out in January 1940 with Anwar Kamel as editor-in-chief. The surrealists also took part in founding and editing the weekly newspaper. ‘Don Quixote’ published in French, the first issue of which came out in December 1939 only to stop after a short period. They then took part in editing ‘The New Magazine’ published by Salama Mousa with Ramses Yunan as editor-in-chief.

In all these publications - as well as the leaflets and group and one -man- exhibition catalogues - the group expounded its viewpoint on the various artistic, intellectual, social and political realms as well as demonstrated examples of their artistic and literary creativity.

We will limit ourselves in this book to their artistic creativity.

Samir Gharieb