Sunday, October 30, 2011

three egyptian authors at residence of egypt's ambassador to uk

HE Hatem Saif Al Nasr

The recent tour of England by three Egyptian authors whose bestselling Arabic novels are newly published in English translation by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) had a wide geographical scope. The three writers - Khaled AlKhamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik - participated in literary events in cities from Durham in the north and Cambridge in East Anglia to the Southbank Centre in London and Bristol in the south west. Also in the south west, AlKhamissi appeared at two events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

But the event held at the splendid residence in South Audley Street, London, of the Egyptian ambassador to the UK HE Mr Hatem Saif Al Nasr at the invitation of Bloomsbury Publishing and the Ambassador, at which the guests included many Egyptians, had a particular resonance.

The event began with a minute's silence to remember the martrys of the revolution. In his opening speech the ambassador thanked his "dear friend" Bloomsbury’s founder and chief executive Nigel Newton, and Bloomsbury itself, for bringing to London and to a wider English audience three of Egypt’s “most renowned authors and their brilliant literary works. We are delighted to welcome Khaled AlKhamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik the authors of Taxi, Vertigo and Utopia, indeed three of the most successful and bestselling novels in Egypt in recent years.

“The three novels tell – each from a different angle yet all in unique and beautiful styles – important aspects of the story of Egyptian society’s journey to Tahrir Square... This is a story well worth telling, because it shows not only how our society evolved over recent years, but also how its people’s ingenuity preserved its historical accumulation of civility and humanity.”

The books, as different as they are, “were able to capture the humour, the temperament and the values of the Egyptian People and their undiminished eternal hope and optimism for a better tomorrow. Furthermore, you will also discover how our guest authors employed their narrative skills to shed light on some trends, patterns and challenges which we –as a people – will have to grapple with as we look ahead towards a brighter future for our society.”

The ambassador concluded: “One wonders if all of this and the other rich cultural expressions on the Egyptian scene during the past 10 years were a precursor, a bellwether to the civilized and peaceful Egyptian revolution of January 25th. The judgment is up to you…”

BQFP is a partnership of Bloomsbury Publishing of London and the Qatar Foundation. As well as publishing the three authors’ novels in English translation, it publishes the Arabic editions of Utopia and Vertigo outside Egypt: within Egypt the Arabic rights remain with the original publisher, Dar Merit.

Newton said that 18 months ago BQFP launched a new list of fiction and non-fiction from the Arab world. "This list is growing fast and earning recognition from many quarters. The Independent newspaper recently praised our enterprising list of Arabic fiction.”

Newton recommended the three books by the tour authors as “outstanding examples of contemporary Egyptian writing – they are not only by fine writers but offer valuable insights into the political transformations currently being experienced in Egypt.”

During the event the three writers were interviewed by BQFP consultant publisher Andy Smart, and then answered questions from the audience.

Asked about the inspiration for his debut political thriller Vertigo, Ahmed Mourad (33) explained that he had “worked with Mr Hosni Mubarak for 10 years from 2002 till the last 18 days [of his rule] as his personal photographer ...the atmosphere of the political layer of this society inspired me to write Vertigo.” It was a question of observing this stratum’s behaviour and treatment of others, and also its language: “Any layer in society has a slang – those people have a slang too.” He likened his novel to cutting through the layers of a cake. “My hero Ahmed Kamal is a wedding photographer for example, very low class” yet working in close proximity to the upper classes.

Mourad graduated from the High Cinema Institute in 2001 intending to work in film and media but found himself working on music video clips. He found this somewhat insubstantial, “like my footsteps on sand in the sea”, and started writing as a form of “therapy from our problems in Egypt”.

He started working on Vertigo while sitting in the rotating restaurant on the 40th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Cairo, waiting for a friend who was working in the hotel. Two businessmen plus bodyguards sat down beside him and he started to fantasise about their world and what they might be discussing. When they left “I wrote a scene from Vertigo – the assassination scene – imagining what might happen if some people came and assassinated all these people and me too! And this was the first page of Vertigo.”

He says it was his wife who eventually persuaded him that what he had written was a novel and that it should be submitted to a publisher. The novel was published by Dar Merit. He has continued to pursue a career in both writing fiction and in movie making, and has written the film script for Vertigo and for his second novel.

Mourad was asked whether he plans to write about what he saw while working as Mubarak’s personal photographer. “For me a photographer is like a doctor – I can’t tell my patient’s secrets” he said, but added: “If I write something it will not be now, it will be after 10 years when everything settles... in Egypt people are angry from the last regime, and if I write something now I have two choices: people may say I’m not angry enough, or the opposite. I prefer to wait for some years to make it more accurate."

Khaled AlKhamissi , born in 1962, said he is from the generation “that lived the fall of culture in Egypt”. He remembers the deterioration of culture in the 1970s and 1980s, with the closure of many bookshops, cinemas and theatres. He traced this to the 1967 defeat by Israel, subsequent US hegemony in the region, and Sadat’s policies as president. In 1971 a war was launched against the cultural intelligentsia, whose members tended to be Leftist. Khaled’s father, the famous poet, writer and journalist Abdel Rahman Al-Khamissi was phoned by Sadat who told him he liked him very much - and was giving him four days notice to leave the country, otherwise he would be jailed. Many other writers and intellectuals also left Egypt. Abdel Rahman remained in exile until his death in 1987, when his body was returned to Egypt.

After the decades of cultural stagnation “what happened in the last five years was for me a total surprise,” AlKhamissi said. “It was a cultural revolution – we had more writers, more bookshops, more cinemas, more theatres, more music troupes, more everything. What we experienced this year was totally related to this huge cultural revolution that happened in Egypt beginning in 2004, 2005.

“This cultural revolution had a mainly youth clientele –we have to know that two thirds of the Egyptian population are under 25 years... We cannot understand really the phenomena of publishing in Egypt and the phenomenon of best selling without understanding the boom of culture, which is totally related to political crisis and economical crisis. The youth are searching for a land to stand on, and during that search they use culture to try to understand where they have to go, and this is totally related to what happened this year.”

Khaled AlKhamissi

Khaled AlKhamissi grew up in the house of his late mother’s father, the great writer, poet, critic and translator Moufid El Choubachi (born in 1899). Khaled’s mother, the TV actress Faten Choubachi, died in 1968 at the age of only 32. His uncles Ali El Choubachi and Cherif El Choubachi are, among other things, important writers.

AlKhamissi had wanted to write from the age of 14. His grandfather’s house was home to novelists and poets and he asked himself how he could write in this milieu.“It was impossible as a matter of fact – and I remember that everything I wrote I put very quickly in the garbage. I was very anxious that the paper should be totally torn up because I was afraid that someone would read what I wrote. My grandfather was a great critic and I was really afraid that he might read something I wrote, which I felt was really nothing.”

In addition, in the 1980s and 1990s and until 2005 every time he wanted to write he would ask himself – why? “And I didn’t have an answer to this simple question, why. There was no reason at all. No readers, no bookshops, nothing."

It took him 25 years to become a writer. “And when I wrote I tried to write something totally different as in the matter of the literary form, and in the matter of the language and in the matter of the technique of writing. I tried to make something really different, to make my grandfather happy."

AlKhamissi added: “I’ll tell you something very personal: I didn’t find any happiness during my whole life till 2005 when I began to write. This was totally linked to what was happening - in 2005 there were parliamentary elections, a presidential election, constitutional changes to try to ensure Gamal Mubarak would succeed Husni. It was a catastrophic situation that made society shake and I found that a lot of people began to want, exactly like me, to speak loudly."

AlKhamissi's debut novel Taxi was published by Dar El Shorouk of Cairo in 2006. It takes the form of 58 fictional conversations between the first-person narrator and Cairo taxi drivers. The novel teems with humour and tragedy, and became an instant best seller. It was subsequently published by the now defunct British publisher Aflame Books in English translation by Jonathan Wright. The translator has improved the text for the English edition now launched by BQFP.

The British novelist Maggie Gee wanted to know whether Egyptian taxi drivers ever talk to AlKkhamissi about Taxi, and whether in Egypt there is a smaller gap than in Britain between highbrow and popular fiction. AlKhamissi said he didn't think taxi drivers read his novel. With 55 to 58 per cent of Egyptians living under the poverty line, taxi drivers are totally caught up in the struggle for survival and "these people in this poverty cannot for sure read a book".

On the question of the distinction between popular and non-popular fiction in Egypt, he said this had been through various phases in the past century."In the first phase from the beginning of 20th century until the 1940s for example we had popular fiction and non-popular fiction. During the 50s and 60s, with Nasser and the revolution dream, pop fiction was gone and we had "serious" fiction you may say. In the 70s, 80s, 90s, we lost culture totally, and for the past 15 years we have been trying to make a road."

Ahmed Khaled Towkik (left) Ahmed Mourad (right)

Ahmed Khaled Towfik is the prolific author of 500 works. “I’m famous in Egypt among the youth, in pop culture,” he said. He writes in the range of 17,000 to 40,000 words, novella length, for the 19-39 age group. Utopia was his first experiment in addressing an audience wider than a youth readership.

He spoke of the rewarding nature of writing for a young audience with its appetite for reading; after all, “no singer likes to sing to the deaf”. He values the feedback from the youth. “When I write something bad they say to me it’s bad, we hated what you wrote, when I write something good they say we love you very much ... When you write for them you feel you are alive”.

Utopia is a dystopian novel set in Egypt in 2030. The wealthy are living in gated communities in the north, insulated from life outside. He described the novel as “a form of prophecy” and “psychological therapy for myself because I felt the danger is coming – as I said once in my writing, if you squeeze Utopia, pus will fall from it, because it’s full of fear, full of anger.” He had sensed that disaster was approaching: “I began to understand that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and that one day the poor will be the amusement of the rich... the rich will start hunting the poor just for fun.”

He imaged that the situation would end in revolution. “I didn’t know what would happen in this revolution, but I predicted that the revolution would be done by the lower classes. This didn’t happen in January, when it happened through middle class youth who enter Facebook and have the picture of Che Guevara in their bedrooms.”

Ahmed Mourad

Asked whether the slang in his novel posed a particular challenge for the translator, Ahmed Mourad said: “Bloomsbury chose Robin Moger who’s a very talented translator, very professional. He lived in Egypt for eight years I believe, and he knows Egyptian slang very well. Every weekend Robin sent me a report on 10 or 12 words he wanted me to translate because he didn’t know the meaning.” An example was shankouti which seems to roughly translate as wheeler-dealer.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik said: “My translator Chip Rossetti would send me questions on words he didn’t understand, or that he just found it difficult to use or which had no parallel for him.” He added: “Slang is changing every day in Egypt with the very rapid social changes that are occurring. My son uses some words that I don’t understand, very strange words. When I learn these words he says I am very old and that these words are old!”

As the event was drawing to a close Ahmed Khaled Towfik asked to have a final word. He said that globalisation has helped increase interest in Arabic literature, and that it is now easier for Arab authors to have their work translated. Naguib Mahfouz had to wait a long time for his work to be translated, but “now it’s very rapid and active process... I think that some of the works that paved the way for this are the works of Alaa al-Aswany. The Yacoubian Building made youth interested in literature and made the world interested in Arabic literature, and I should thank him for this."
Susannah Tarbush

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