Yusuf Idris Critical Essays


(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 around him, he wonders why there are so many children and speculates with satisfaction that many of them will die of crime or starvation. Finding his way home, he crawls into bed and has sexual relations with his wife. Nine months later, he is congratulated on the birth of his child. In “Al-Mahfaza” (“The Wallet”), Sami, a young boy, is resentful of his family's poverty when he can't afford to go to the movies with his friends. One night, he sneaks into his parents' room while they are sleeping to steal money from his father's wallet. When he finds the wallet empty, he is overcome by shame and resolves to find a job to help his family with expenses. Other stories reflect the changing political and social situation in Egypt as well as the relationship between the individual and society. In “Alif al-Ahrār,” a man obsesses about his loss of individuality in a job that demands conformity. When he refuses to use his typewriter in an act of defiance, he is fired and told that he is expendable.

Critical Reception

Idris is viewed as one of Egypt's finest short-story writers. His prolific output of short stories, particularly in the mid-1950s, was welcomed as a new direction in Egyptian fiction. Critics point to his rejection of the romantic tendencies of Arabic literature at the time in favor of a realistic portrayal of Egyptian society—especially the poorer and disadvantaged classes—as innovative and authentic. Idris utilized colloquial language in his dialogue to mixed reviews among Arab commentators: some critics derided it as lazy and inferior; others saw it as an authentic reflection of the changing Egyptian culture. His incorporation of political and cultural themes have led some critics to view his stories as shrewd reflections of the state of Egypt as it struggled to become an independent modern nation. Reviewers have praised his fantastic tales for their adept utilization of fable and myth. He is deemed a pioneering writer based on treatment of such sensitive topics as homosexuality, sexual impotence, and the danger of religious fundamentalism. Several critics have discussed Idris's stories within the development of the Egyptian short story genre and have traced his development as a short fiction writer. Moreover, critics often compare Idris's short stories to the short fiction of the Egyptian Nobel writer Naguib Mahfouz. Idris is viewed as a gifted and important short-story writer who made a valuable and influential contribution to Arabic literature.