The Rumpus Interview With Mansoura Ez Eldin

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T-shirts, hats, mugs, flags, wristbands, posters, stickers, mock license plates: When I was in Cairo in March, almost every street corner seemed to offer a vendor selling January 25 Revolution souvenirs. And this commercialization was endemic. Located on Tahrir Square, the Ramses Hilton was, for much of early 2011, offering (at an elevated price) rooms with a “demonstration view.”

But is commercialization the enemy of deep remembrance? How does Egypt preserve and consecrate the memory of its revolution—the single biggest peaceful revolution of this young century—in a vital and living way?

The answer is—in large part—through words.

In today’s Arab world, novelists and intellectuals of all kinds have been at the forefront of the preservation of public memory. Suddenly there’s a huge appetite, worldwide, for Egyptian writing—writing which was neglected for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Organizations like The Hay Festival and Shubbak (the Mayor of London’s Arab Culture Festival) have structured their programming around the voices of young Arab writers, artists and bloggers. Al-Jazeera is routinely interviewing novelists and essayists and poets to get their opinions on political questions—interviews which only sometimes touch on the artist’s work, itself. The age of the Middle Eastern writer as international public figure has roared into being.

Mansoura Ez Eldin is one of the most respected individuals in this environment. Her first novel, Maryam’s Maze, was intimately concerned with questions of genealogy, history, public memory, and madness. The book was widely-reviewed and almost universally praised. It was published, in translation, by American University of Cairo Press in 2004.

Maryam’s Maze concerns a central character, Maryam, and her attempt to negotiate an urban landscape that has suddenly lost all sense. It reads like a prescient and deeply wise document, seven years after its publication in English. The writing, which is spare and evocative, seems to suggest—through metaphor—any number of contemporary political conditions. “It’s a life of glass,” the narrative voice asserts, “a brittle life that can be smashed at any moment…” And the uprisings of early 2011 throughout the Middle East spring immediately to mind.

Ez Eldin’s second novel, Beyond Paradise, was shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Her work is forthcoming in Granta’s much-anticipated The Granta Book of the African Short Story. She replied to these questions from Cairo—even as the city was shaken by ongoing unrest and political violence.

The Rumpus: In Maryam’s Maze, you open with a scene wherein the protagonist, Maryam, seems to split into two beings: both herself and a ghost. Why did you choose a ghost?

Mansoura Ez Eldin: Is Maryam dead? Is she dreaming? Or just losing her mind? I don’t like to explain my work—or to suggest a singular interpretation for it. In the writing process, I try to leave some clues that might help the reader draw his own conclusions. Some readers believed that Maryam was a ghost, others thought that she was schizophrenic—or perhaps on the verge of insanity.

I was happy with this ambiguity because I sincerely wanted my readers to make up their own minds; I wanted to avoid a more obvious and imposed meaning. I love to take risks, to play with the reader and provoke him.

The novel was inspired by the Muslim notion of the ‘double’ or the Pharaonic ‘ka/ba’ concept of being. In Islamic culture, the ‘double’ is known as Al Qarin’ or ‘the spirit companion.’ There’s a strong belief that everyone has a double, or Qarin, who is invisible.

In Islamic culture, the Qarin is supposed to be a bad spirit—but you can’t find more information about him. For example, you can’t know what happens to him after death. Or [whether] there [are] male and female Qarins or not. So, I tried to imagine the Qarin in a different way—as Maryam’s double who wants to steal her life—to steal her body and her memories. But I didn’t mention the word “Qarin” in the novel to let the reader think freely and imagine whatever he wants, according to his own culture.

The Qarin concept can be a sort of metaphysical interpretation of schizophrenia. Let’s say that the metaphysical sides of religions—and the rich oral Islamic and Egyptian heritage—are a main source of inspiration to me.

The real challenge is, I think, in finding ways to understand that wonderful heritage, to use it to interpret the world we live in. How do we tie—meaningfully—that heritage into the real life problems from which we suffer while awake?

That is what I am trying to do.

In Maryam’s Maze, for example, there is a strong tie with the techniques and the world of The Arabian Nights, but the protagonist is a young woman moving through Cairo in the beginning of the third millennium.

Rumpus: When the novel was released, you said, in an interview: “Arab readers aren’t used to this style from an Arab writer– especially from a woman. I felt like I’d committed a crime.” Can you elaborate on that idea a little?

Ez Eldin: In the writing process I didn’t think of the reader at all—so I wrote freely and without any burdens. But after finishing the novel I was uncomfortable and anxious, because I felt that the novel might come across as an enigmatic and mysterious book—and readers may consider it a real labyrinth.

Egyptian writers with few exceptions are quite loyal to realism, and don’t appreciate fantasy or horror or detective novels, as much. And, as a woman writer, readers expect you to write about specific themes in a direct way.

They don’t expect an avant-garde or an experimental Gothic piece from you—or at least this was what I thought then. So, I was prepared for indifference, but much to my surprise the novel was extremely well received by readers and critics.

Rumpus: Your second novel, Beyond Paradise, was shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Over the past few years, the IPAF has quickly become the most prestigious award given to fiction written in Arabic. And yet—work on the IPAF short list is still slow to make the leap into English, especially in America. I was wondering what the status was of the translation of your second novel. Will it be issued in English soon? Why do you think that Arab writers are not as widely read, across the Atlantic?

Ez Eldin: The IPAF is the only Arabic prize that increases readership. Beyond Paradise became a bestseller in many Arab countries after being shortlisted for the IPAF. The German edition will be out next week by UnionsVerlag, the Italian edition is supposed to be out next August by Piemme Mondadori, and the Dutch edition will be out next February by MM Boeken. As for the English language, my agent will begin submitting the novel to American publishers next October.

I can’t tell why Arab writers are not widely read in America. The American publishing market seems to be really tough—especially for foreign literature. On the other hand, most of the Arab writers don’t have agents and Arabic publishers in general are not professional enough, and don’t work on promoting their publications outside the Arab world. Also, there are no official organizations that support the translation of Arabic Literature.

Part of the problem is that the translated Arabic works are not necessarily the best of the Arabic literature. Sometimes western publishers and readers search for specific themes from Arab writers—as if our literature was just a social or a political text, and not art.

Rumpus: The corollary to that question, then, is this one: Books take years to write. They take even more years to copy-edit, assemble cover art, print, publicize, etc. How can they have relevance in our contemporary world—where everything seems to happen so quickly?

Ez Eldin: Believe it or not, I’m always thinking about the contrast between books and the quickness of our modern world. I reckon this contrast is the reason behind the importance of books in our life.

In a highly rapid world we need to take a breath through reading. Reading in this case becomes a sort of meditation or yoga. However, when I associate books with slowness, I don’t only mean the long time we need to produce a book—I particularly mean that books, especially novels, look like a slower version of our real world.

Writing is a sort of capturing of a special moment or period of time and then, that moment’s deconstruction. Then, the moment is restructured, rebuilt—in the search for more understanding. By writing and reading we praise slowness and creativity.

Rumpus: In The New York Times, on January 30, 2011, you wrote an op-ed piece that concluded: “Silence is a crime. Even if the regime continues to bombard us with bullets and tear gas, continues to block Internet access and cut off our mobile phones, we will find ways to get our voices across to the world, to demand freedom and justice.” This was obviously written two weeks—roughly—before Mubarak’s resignation. The regime fell—but has the progress been as extensive as you would have hoped? Have the demands for freedom and justice been met, in your opinion?

Ez Eldin: Our revolution is still unfinished!

Obliging Mubarak to resign was the first and the easiest part of the revolution! Our demands for freedom and justice have not been met yet.

Two days ago (Tuesday 28 June) there were clashes in Tahrir Square between the families of the martyrs and the brutal police force—there was tear gas and rubber bullets as if Mubarak’s regime didn’t fall.

This is a sad thing for sure, but at least, we’ll resume our revolution and will be back to Tahrir Square and other squares.

I’m full of hope that we can face all this violence in a peaceful and civilized manner, as we did before. Too much has happened beginning from 25 January until now. There is no way back to the past. The spirit of the revolution cannot be conjured back into the bottle.

As a friend of mine put it: Now we have a treasure, we have the memory of a unique and victorious revolution—which will keep up the people’s courage. Against all odds, I’m pretty optimistic concerning the future of Egypt.

Rumpus: In America, fiction writers struggle for relevance. There is no substantial fear of persecution—based on the things you publish. How much does this impact the work of a fiction writer—the fear that the work could be ammunition for some kind of campaign against you?

Ez Eldin: In countries in which a writer can pay dearly—maybe with his own life—because of his thoughts, words acquire an additional importance, and writing, as an idea and a practice, resembles walking blindfolded in a mine field.

The best thing you can do in this case while writing is to ignore everything outside your work. As a writer you should practice killing your internal censor—practice forgetting about potential readers.

As a matter of fact, the censorship issue in Egypt is really complicated. On one hand, there’s no pre-publishing censorship in Egypt. But on the other hand, there are many sorts of more dangerous, covert censorship. That is, there are many gate keepers who function as covert censors.

The daring independent and small publishers—like Merit Publishing House—were the lungs that helped Egyptian literature to stay alive, vital, and daring. The works of new Egyptian writers are really daring on all levels.

Rumpus: What are you working on, now?

Ez Eldin: I’ve just finished a new collection of short stories entitled, The Path to Madness, that will be out in Arabic within two months.

A story of this collection will be included in The Granta Book of the African Short Story, edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila.

I’m also in the middle of writing a new novel entitled, The Mountain of Life.

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Pauls Toutonghi’s second novel, Evel Knievel Days, will be published by Random House in May 2012. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches at Lewis and Clark College. More from this author →