Yusuf Idris

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Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

Yusuf Idris 1927-1991

(Transliterated as Yūsef Idrīs, Youssef Idris, and Yûsuf Idrîs) Egyptian short-story writer, novelist, playwright, travel writer, editor, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism on Idris's short fiction from 1975 through 2001.

Regarded as one of the best short-story writers in contemporary Egyptian literature, Idris is lauded for his stories and novellas that portray the changing values of Egyptian society during the twentieth century. Critics note that he was one of the few Arabic authors to realistically address issues of homosexuality, sexual impotence, poverty, sexual and cultural mores, and the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

Biographical Information

Idris was born in Bairum, Sharqiva Province, in Egypt, on May 19, 1927. He was educated at Cairo University, where he received an M.D. in 1952. Soon after graduation, he became a medical inspector in the Department of Health, a position that involved working with the urban poor. His concern for the poor and disenfranchised became a recurring theme in his work. While in college, he began to write stories. In 1954, he published his first collection of short stories, Arkhas layālī (The Cheapest Nights and Other Stories). The volume was hailed as a major literary contribution to Egyptian short fiction. He worked as a physician and a psychiatrist for over a decade, but gave up his medical practice in the mid-1960s to focus on his literary career. His interest in science is reflected in his fiction and journalism. In 1967 Idris was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his collection of short stories Qissat hubb (City of Love and Ashes). He later became politically active, and his leftist political views resulted in several arrests and brief imprisonments. In the mid-1970s he began focusing on journalistic work for the newspapers Al-Jumhūriyya and Al-Ahrām. Later though, Idris redirected his attention to short fiction as well as critical essays. He died in August 1991.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Idris was a prolific short fiction writer whose work focuses on such themes as love, repression, poverty, alienation, and the concept of masculinity. Sex is a central theme in his work, particularly the various sexual mores in the villages and in urban areas. Several stories explore the inherent iniquity in sexual relationships between men and women from different sociopolitical backgrounds. For example, Qā'al-Madīna (1959; City Dregs) chronicles the story of ‘Abd Allah, a judge, who confronts his servant and lover, Shuhrat, when he discovers his expensive watch missing. Although he had once felt guilty because of his powerful position and her vulnerable one, her theft now frees him from any emotional and sexual connections to her; however, he also becomes aware of how illogical and hypocritical his own values are. In “Akbar al-Kabā‘ir” (“The Greatest Sin of All”), as Shaykh Sadiq becomes increasingly devout, he neglects his farm and wife. She eventually seeks comfort in the arms of a young, poor man named Muhammad. Idris also touched on the theme of homosexuality in a few of his stories—a subject taboo in Egyptian literature. “Abū al-Rijāl” (“A Leader of Men”) depicts the shocking realization of Sultan, a married, powerful, masculine man, that he has been repressing his homosexuality during his entire life. When he pressures one of his young male servants to have sex with him—and take the dominant role in the sexual encounter—his façade as a strong, virile leader has completely overturned.

Many of Idris's stories reflect his concern with such issues as Egypt's soaring birth population, the denial of civil liberties in a repressive society, the growth of religious fanaticism, and the devastating poverty and hopelessness in urban areas. In “Arkhas Layālī” (“The Cheapest Nights”), a middle-class man walks disoriented through the streets of a busy village. Annoyed by the mass of poor children teeming...

(The entire section is 1,045 words.)