The English translation of Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Bahaa Abdelmegid's 2011 novel Khammarat al-ma'bad (Dar Merit) is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press under the title Temple Bar - the name of an area in Dublin famed for its bars, cafes and cultural life. The novel, translated by Jonathan Wright, explores the cultural and spiritual dislocation of Egyptian student Moataz after he leaves Cairo for Dublin in 1998. A Fulbright scholar from a poor family, Moataz endures various unexpected travails after he enrols at Dublin’s Trinity College to research a PhD on Irish literature.
How far is Temple Bar autobiographical? It is written mainly in the first person, and certain facts coincide, including your going to Dublin’s Trinity College in 1998-99, though as a visiting academic rather than a student. You have also been a Fulbright scholar, though elsewhere. Moataz encounters many different types of people in Dublin. Was this also the case with you?
To some extent the novel is autobiographical. I was a visiting academic at Trinity College more than fifteen years ago, at a time when Ireland was fresh to the EU. Dublin was flourishing and progressing and welcomed foreigners, though with some fear and apprehension. Although my hero suffers a lack of generosity from the authorities, who neglect the expatriates and foreign students, on the level of ordinary people he finds them very sympathetic and kind. My personal experience was important, but as a novelist I try to reflect my own imagination and skill as a writer rather than depending on memories or easy reflections on my travel experiences. I tried to make Temple Bar a sort of A Passage to India or Death in Venice in which the author is a serious and independent character and not just a narrator from the first person perspective.
How much were James Joyce and other Irish writers in your mind when you were in Dublin and when you were writing Temple Bar?
I was fascinated by Dublin and Irish writers when I was an undergraduate, though they were taught within an English literature syllabus, but it was when I started writing about Ted Hughes in my MA thesis that Seamus Heaney started to become a reality, and he was an open door to Irish culture. I was of course fascinated by Yeats , Synge , Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Living in Trinity College gave me the chance to read many contemporary poets such as Seamus Heaney and others. Joyce was a colossal figure for me as a novelist with his great novel Ulysses and his characters Bloom, Dedalus, Molly, and Dublin with its vividness and the story of its people at the beginning of the twentieth century. For me Joyce represents two things: modernism, and a genius mind. With his modernist approach he created a new novel form, and with his genius mind he did unprecedented work . Ulysses was strongly in my mind when I was writing Temple Bar and I identified with its hero all the time and I imagined myself as both Stephen and Joyce at the same time. I tried to walk in the same places and I planned my novel as a journey in the mind and the place of my character as James Joyce did.
It’s interesting for people to read a literary work depicting their country through the eyes of a writer and fictional characters from another country and culture. Has there been much fiction by Arab writers set in Ireland as far as you know, and written in Arabic or English?
It is true, and I think I tried to depict Ireland as I saw it from many different perspectives. But from a literary historian perspective, as you ask, Somaya Ramadan wrote Leaves of Narcissus - published in English by AUC Press as well - about her own journey to Dublin. We are friends by the way, and we are very fond of Irish culture.
Has your book been read by any of your contacts, friends, in Ireland, and have you had feedback or reviews there? Are you worried about how they might react to your depiction of Dublin and the treatment there of foreigners? Would you like a launch in Dublin, and how did you find the literary scene in that city – eg at the Irish Writers’ Centre – did you have much contact with Irish writers?
I do not know what reactions there will be to my novel in Ireland, and this is very difficult to predict. I do not have a lobby either in Cairo or somewhere else in the world may be an interview like that will help in promoting my novel and make fair publicity. I am very timid and I never ask for more, like Oliver in Oliver Twist by Dickens. I think my publisher AUC Press will help introduce me to Dublin readers and the Irish intelligentsia in the near future; it is doing its best to promote my books. My novel is highly experimental and sophisticated and needs a good critic to reveal its narratives. I think it could be studied on comparative or post-colonial literature courses. I think if the novel was introduced to Irish reviewers they would write about it but till now I do not see any reaction. Of course I would love to launch in Dublin it is an old and a great city for culture. I often visited the Irish Writers’ Centre, and I had many writer friends, but that was a long time ago. Irish writers are very distinguished and I think Irish readers would be open-minded enough to accept any observations made about their lives by a foreigner. I wrote my novel to immortalize them and to document my own experience from different perspective. Although there have not yet been any reviews of Temple Bar in Ireland, there are many in Arabic.
Did you find Ireland and Dublin different from the Ireland and Dublin of your imagination?
To some extent it was the Ireland of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World but when I was there I discovered the difference between the image of fiction and reality but still people are interested in myth and talk.
Flowers play a significant part in your book, with Moataz becoming a flower seller at one point, after running out of money, and thereby getting an entry into the lives of the women flower-sellers. We learn from him that he had also sold flowers back in Cairo. Could you say something about your own relationship with the flower business and how you know it so well?
My family has one of Egypt’s major flower businesses, and we have very luxurious and prestigious shops in the Maadi area of south Cairo. I was introduced to the business when I was only 13 and I have very good experience in this field. I used to visit the Netherlands with my brother to attend the great Aalsmeer flower festival. My novel Leaves of Paradise is about this travel and I think it would be great if it were translated into Dutch. I am a lover of greenery and interested in the purity of nature and I would love to join the Green Party in UK if this were possible! Creating a clean environment is one of my interests and aspirations.
Could you say something about what you were writing in terms of fiction when you were actually living in Dublin, and where you were when you wrote Temple Bar? Did you need some distance of time and place from Dublin to write this novel?
I was researching on Seamus Heaney for my PhD and I consider it a good exercise on writing and I benefited from it when I came to write Temple Bar. I wrote The Black Piano in 1996 and I was looking for a big writing project, especially a novel. I started writing the novel Saint Theresa and some sketches based on certain characters I met in Dublin, especially women of flowers. It is true that I took some time to finish Temple Bar: in fact it took me 13 years to write and rewrite it and for it to be published. I felt it was necessary to be objective and direct and not to be over-sentimental. I did not want it to be a “travel literature novel” but a novel in the classical sense.
The novel was translated by the prizewinning translator Jonathan Wright and published in English by AUC Press. How did these two things come about? How did you work with Jonathan – did you meet him, did he have many questions in person or by Skype or email?
I consider myself lucky in English translation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank my publisher, AUC Press, for taking care of my writing. They translated two of my previous novels, Saint Theresa and Sleeping With Strangers, translated by Chip Rossetti and published as one volume in 2010. Jonathan Wright did a great job in translating Temple Bar. He is in my view an excellent translator, and he took great care over the novel’s stream of consciousness technique and its polyphonies. He was very accurate and asked me many questions via emails and Facebook. I did not meet Jonathan before or during the translation, but after the publication of Temple Bar AUC Press introduced us, and I am honoured by this cooperation.
Is Temple Bar your technically most complex work? You have various flashbacks, changes of tense and of person. Was this style difficult to accomplish? Do you do much rewriting after a first draft? Did you start Temple Bar with a definite outline of the novel that you stuck to, or did it evolve as you went along?
It is true and I consider it a turning point in my writing career. It was a reflection of my power as a writer; I wanted the novel to reflect my skills as a writer, but at the same time I remember how much I enjoyed writing Temple Bar even though I was writing about the sufferings and sorrows of its hero. At a certain point I did not want to publish it and I was even afraid of publishing it as it revealed so much of myself and the lives of others. I rewrote it many times and I have many drafts, to a degree I want to sell them in an auction or put it in an archive! but my friends in Egypt laughed at this and said “Who do you think you are, James Joyce?” I wanted to write the life of Moataz , this was my first plan, but then life changed and fate played its part in the life of Moataz so I had to add a different ending because many event evolved from this new end.
Do you have a daily writing routine, and are you always writing? Do you keep a notebook of observations etc and did you have such a notebook in Dublin? Do you listen to music, write at home, at work, or in cafes and so on?
Yes, I have a routine to my day. I work in the early morning , and I always go out to look for a place to write, maybe a coffee shop . Sometimes I write at home, as recently as two years ago I used to write only with pen but I then started to use a keyboard. I write every day, though not necessarily fiction: I also write emails, reviews, and my Facebook status. I write sometimes in the summer where I am free of teaching obligations. I like to keep a notebook and I still have my notebook from when I was in Dublin. I am fond of listening to music while writing especially Beethoven and Mohamed Abdelwahb , Om Kulthum and Angham.
In an interview with Egypt Today you said that during the years you were writing Temple Bar, you got married and changed your life completely. Could you say something about how in your view marriage and children may affect a writer’s life and material?
He becomes more mature and responsible and also it widens his domestic experience and puts him in touch with life in a broader sense. Sometimes domestic responsibility for a writer can stand as an obstacle in his development and his search for different and unusual experience but with some organization he can cope. I am lucky because I have a wife who understands the meaning of being a writer. She tries as much as she can not to interfere in my life as a writer and most of the time she gives me some space in which to create.
In your CV you say singing is one of your hobbies. The character Simone, with whom Moataz becomes involved, studies world music, and Moataz sings on occasion. Could you say something about this music angle of the novel? Did you yourself do any singing or take part in music making while in Dublin?
Yes I did, I sang sometimes in pubs in Dublin, though as a guest rather than professionally, and joined in singing with friends. Music is essential in the life of the Irish, and especially the singing of ballads. Music can be heard everywhere and this is similar to Egypt where music is common in coffee shops and in the streets. Singing is equal to existence to me and it releases me from my cares. When I sing I become happier and lighter. Many members of my dad’s family practised Sufi singing, and my father taught me many songs. In this sad city of Dublin singing is a vital route to survival.
Despite Moataz’s tribulations there’s quite a bit of humour in the novel, and at times his apparent innocence creates some amusing encounters. Was this something you intended, or did it come naturally with the writing?
It is natural I think, I am still innocent like Moataz. Humour comes naturally from ironical situations. Life itself is a big joke and art’s function is to reveal this joke. Though tragic end is essential , but can we stop it , no so it is better to try to laugh. But at certain moment in Moataz’s life he could not laugh, especially when he was depressed, and from here comes the irony.
At one point Moataz teaches Arabic to a young French Jew, Lusini, who later tells him he has Egyptian roots and that his grandfather had left Egypt after the 1948 war, going first to Israel and then England. “I don’t know why, but after that I stopped going to give him Arabic lessons, despite his polite manner...” and lack of racism, and Zionism. Could you say a bit about this brief but somehow revealing passage of the novel?
History and culture play a big role in the attitudes of people. Moataz has a heritage of suspicion and lack of tolerance and maybe he wanted to be free and to live his own life, but he could not. He was afraid of being a traitor in the eyes of Egyptian socialists who think peace with Israel is a crime, and a normalization of ties a sin.
interview conducted by Susannah Tarbush