Alamri: Bismilah. First of all thank you for granting me this interview in your house and thank you for this lovely food. Tislami [Thank you]. Congratulations on your recently published book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Reading it reminded me of your first novel In the Eye of the Sun; I was struck by its free spirit and by its handling of time, alternating as it does between present time and past memories. Fajaa [Suddenly]a building or makan muayan [a certain place] would remind you of when you were young, and then you would address the reader directly.Could you talk about the process of writing both novel and your memoir of Tahrir square in Egypt?
Soueif: In the Eye of the Sun was [written] such a long time ago… so many other things happened after it bass [but] what I do remember was that it was a very natural process. When it became clear the book was getting really big, my publisher was rather wary and said, “We can publish it in two parts”; but it seemed to me essential it should be one unit so I went and calculated the number of words of [George Eliot’s] Middlemarch, went back and told them: “This is the same number of words as Middlemarch: three hundred and thirty thousand words.” They went with it; it seemed to me then that every word was of critical importance.
Fi [In] Cairo: My City, Our Revolution it was nice to go back a little bit to that voice; but it was not entirely my own decision. Yaani [As I mean], I had agreed a long time ago to write a personal account of Cairo; I signed a contract with my publishers but I never produced the book. Cairo was becoming sadder and sadder, more and more exploited and enslaved. When the revolution happened, I was writing dispatches for The Guardian and my publisher called to say that this was the moment for the book; because of the original contract, I knew there had to be a personal element to the book: it couldn’t just be the story of the revolution now. As I was writing it, I kind of felt that one of the reasons for writing, one of the reasons I wanted to do with the book was to give the reader who was not in Cairo [then] the same emotional charge that those days had for us. Certainly if you are Cairene, the city [is the place]… of your own history, whether it is your public history such as in il mathaf al masri [the Egyptian museum] or your personal history, [for example] where I used to walk with my aunt; all combine to give the movement, significance and emotion. That was what I wanted the reader to share so I guess this is why the memoir had to be like this.
Alamri: Yes I felt that as a reader, it had so much rooh [soul] so much emotional and power. You talk to the reader; you say, `oh dear reader’.
Soueif: Yes, it is personal because it was an act of advocacy – it’s not an observer’s or a historian’s account. The book is an act that hopes that it is part of the revolution. Yaani arfah [You know as I mean]:this is speaking within the revolution not about the revolution.
Alamri: Could you tell me something about the genesis of the novels that you’ve published, In The Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love. How did the ideas for them come about? What were the issues that concerned you when you wrote these stories? When and where did you write them? Was location important?
Soueif: Yes, “location” in the larger sense. In both cases, I was not in Egypt – but all the time I’m not in Egypt I’m longing for it. Being away, you see it more clearly. [With regards to] In the Eye Of theSun there were, possibly, a lot of stories in my head that wanted to be told, and there were a lot of real life characters like my uncle or my grandfather that I wanted to put down on paper: exploring and recording them, having them there. It was very mucha desire to make sense, to make patterns out of material that was there just in my head and heart, and had been for a long time.
I started it in Saudi Arabia; I was teaching there for 2 years. When my (first) son was two, we moved into this house, I wasn’t working and I wasn’t writing and I was becoming very broke. I was also very cold and catching colds all the time and I was unhappy. My mother was teaching in Saudi Arabia, and her friends had been saying to me for a long time, “why don’t you come?”, so I… took Omar and went…. In the evenings I couldn’t go out as this was Riyadh, you know, and my mother was in another apartment on the other side of town; I was at home with a sleeping baby and it seemed as a good moment to start writing. So I started In the Eye of the Sun there. I broke off for 6 months while I had my second baby and moved back to London. All in all, it took four years and it was written half in Saudi and half in this [London] house.
The Map Of Love was written here;… basically a friend and a literary agent having read In the Eye of the Sun said to me, “Why don’t you write a blockbuster? Something with an Arab background, desert and some shopping and I can guarantee you a huge advance”. Basically ‘sex and shopping in Arabia’. I used to read Mills and Boone when I was young, so I thought, “Why don’t I try to write a Mills and Boone – an English woman and Arab man and some source of conflict – and if it’s going to be romantic, it should be further back in history”. That’s how it started but… [the book] became very serious quickly; it became an exploration of history, and of whether you can actually fall in love across cultures… [It] really became my response to living here, … being at this junction of misunderstanding and trying to push [towards] understanding, and not knowing if it would ever work. And of course the Palestinian issue is so very close to my heart…
… I had to go off and do a huge amount of research, immersing myself in magazines, newspapers and diaries of the time to get a feel for what life was like, and what people were interested in on a daily basis. I also realised I didn’t want to keep up the pretence or have my reader keep up the pretence of being a hundred years ago all the time. I wanted it to be now. So the parallel story of Isabel and Omar was created, and so it became clear that it was to be a comparison shiwayyah [a bit]. There had to be a link between the two stories. I had to create an actual narrator… [as] a device through which the old story would be told…. The last thing was… almost in the middle of the novel, there was this trip that Amal and Isabel take to Upper Egypt. In that trip, it no longer worked that the story is told through Amal because you had to be inside Isabel’s consciousness, and so a further layer was created: the omniscient narrator.. But you couldn’t just have an omniscient narrator popping up in the middle of the book; so I added a bit at the very beginning and then this narrator comes on again at the end. That gave… [the novel], an overall structure: … [an] omniscient narrator at beginning middle and end, general narration by Amal and the journals of Anna Winterbourne and Layla al-Baroudi; [all of this]… was born organically… as the work progressed and needed new devices to help it get to where it was going.
Alamri: Can you say something about why you chose to write in English, if you had a specific audience in mind when you composed the novels, and if such concerns affect the way you write and what you write about, especially in terms of its themes and styles?
Soueif: Oh, I’ve answered these questions millions of times. Basically, I never chose to write in English; I found myself writing in English. When I sat down, I thought I would write in Arabic…[but] it wasn’t happening… I [still] can’t – but I can do dialogue in Arabic. For narrative I’m just better in English; I have a bigger vocabulary. In English, to be a really good writer you need to know the language from about 1550 till today, but in Arabic, you need to know it from pre-Islam, from about two thousand years ago – and I don’t. I know modern standard [Arabic], and so I can’t play with the language as I can with English. I’ve certainly tried not to let it [English] dictate what I write and I’ve tried to open up the language too. And it’s been very hospitable, [English has] … accepted Arabic rhythms and turns of phrase. I wouldn’t have written it [The Map of Love] if I was not living in England; living in England, I was passionately concerned about this meeting or clashing or crossover (or whatever) of cultures. If I was living in Egypt, why would I care about that? It’s not the language that dictates… it’s my geographical and cultural location…
Alamri: Why do you think they ask you a lot about writing in English?
Soueif: I think that will stop when more and more people do it. It will stop. But being the first to do it, it’s strange: as if a zebra had got up on its hind legs. It’s like you are doing something they do not expect of you. And because the relation between the countries is so complex , they think there is a [hidden] motivation: you are trying to put forward your view; you are trying to speak to a different audience; you are trying this or that… In my case, it really was a completely “by chance” thing. I’ve started from last year writing a column in Arabic in Al-Shorouk newspaper and this is really ground-breaking for me [as] I didn’t believe I could do it. I kept telling them, “I can’t, I can’t!” But they said, “Try, try!” and the breakthrough was writing a piece for the fortieth anniversary of the death of Nasser, in September 2010. Somehow it got written and it got a good response… because of the revolution and because of my friends in Al-Shorouk [name of an Arabic newspaper meaning Sunrise] newspaper pressuring me I’ve started this column. I’m pleased with it and it works; but a sometimes I feel… I have an idea [but]… I can’t put it in the subtlety of Arabic, so I have to simplify. But now it is easier.
Alamri: Writing about other cultures is always difficult, and sometimes negotiating what to put in, how much to put in etc. can be tricky. Can you say something about mediating your story to different audiences?
Soueif: I think I was lucky I didn’t have to negotiate that because… I don’t have a story that would conform to the stereotype that the west expects and wants from us. So I was spared that issue. Knowing what I know now, if I had a story — let’s say about female circumcision — I might write it but I would not publish it. But I’m very politicised. I really can’t bear these kinds of topics any more – in English, I mean. I think they’re very important in Arabic.
…You can only write about stuff you feel strongly about, I would just say, there is a difference between writing and publishing. And that sometimes you have to write the stuff, so it clears the way for something else to come out. So I would write whatever pushes at me to write it and then I would decide what to publish and what not to publish really. Having said that, I have actually published everything I’ve written.
Alamri: In Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, you also address the reader, ‘As I write, I think of you holding this book and reading my words’, ‘I imagine that you’re reading this page here’ or ‘you my reader, are in a future unknown to me’. Could you comment on these imaginative projections?
Soueif: It is factual; very straight. I’m in the odd position now being the future reader. I work on the book 3 hours a day, translating it into Arabic, [but] while reading it I am the future reader. To translate my words a year after they were written… [is] a genuine problem; you want to convey the reality of… communicate with a reader in the future, and yet you do not know how the future will be, but you hope the book [will be] relevant to that future somehow. It was quite hard to decide how to do it, and I decided that the only way was to be completely transparent and share the problem with the reader: this is what I’m trying to do, and this is the way I can find and I hope it works….
One of the nicest things, when the shabab [youth] in the revolution read it, they said they felt it spoke for them; it was really from the heart of the revolution and not from outside or above it.
The other thing that was lovely for me was when a young woman said to me, “we hear from our parents that Cairo was like this, and this road was like that, and we never felt it. But in the book you have given us these streets; you made the old Cairo belong to us as well. That really makes it worth the months of writing.
Alamri: Can you comment on how you imagine women’s spaces in your work: how women’s bodies are regulated and how women resist regulation. Ai, Asya teaching at university, becomes aware of the way she is dressed compared to her veiled students. However Amal in The Map of Love has debates with her mother on the veil, where it started from and why women choose to wear it.
Soueif: Veiled women… I have refused many times to write about the veil, the dress code of the Arab Muslim woman. But I immediately run into problems. Muslim women are not all Arab. The conditions of Irani women are different from those of the women of Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and now famously, Afghanistan. And they are all different from the Arabs. And not all Arab women are Muslim. Thirty years ago, you could not have told whether an Egyptian woman was Christian or Muslim by her dress. In Palestinian villages, you still can’t tell. So whose dress code shall I talk about?
The veil is not a big deal; to us it is a ‘dress code’. But to the west, the veil, like Islam itself, is both sensual and puritanical, is contradictory and is to be feared. It is also concrete, and is to do with women. Since cultural battles are so often fought through the bodies of women, it is seized upon by politicians, columnist and feminists and so on.
During the time of the revolution the western media were fixated on the role of women in the revolution…. Eventually, we had ten feminist NGOs… respond… “Women have taken part in this revolution as citizens. This revolution is not about gender issues; this is not the moment for gender issues; we aim to create a society that has equality and does not discriminate against anybody on the basis of anything: gender, age, colour, ethnicity, religion, anything…” There is a space for everybody. We are all partners in the public space and in the private space; we are working to fashion a world in which this is the norm.
Alamri: Can you comment on the use of Quran in your novels, In the Eye of the Sun , has both Surah Al Rahman and Surah Yaseen?
Soueif: They’re parts of the culture that the novel describes. There are surahs [verses from the Quran], there are also songs, like the Beatles as well as Arabic songs from Halim, and Um Kulthoum. The Quran is an extremely important… and this is embedded in the culture. I’ve used a Quranic quotation as an epigraph for Mezzattera: “O Mankind, We have created you from male and female, and made you into Nations and Tribes that you may get to know one another. The one that God honours most among you is the one that fears Him most. And God is knowing of all things”… If you’re writing from within Arab culture, then the Quran is very important…
Alamri: How difficult is the publishing scene for an Arab women in Britain? Do you find your work confronted with certain expectations or labels? For example, ‘Egyptian British’ Arab, or Muslim….
Soueif: I think for an Arab women if you are published at all… you will be very celebrated… but you have to be careful of exoticisation and you have to be clear where you stand on issues. But I will also say that now, in the UK, there is a healthy interest in Arab writing… The Wimbledon book festival, for example, I spoke there a long time ago and also last yearand now they’re really keen to have more Arab speakers , they’ve realised that there are people out there working and writingand that they get full houses when they put them on because people here are interested! And so they come to me and say who shall we get? This is good and it’s happening in several places. I really think the audience are much more [interested]… The audience is way ahead of the academy and the industry, truly, and this I have been aware of in many places [that I’ve read at].
Alamri: So what about labels: British, Muslim, Egyptian?
Soueif: Now that one is taken full on, you don’t get identity questions, and you learn to disable them early on in the conversation… Edward Said, Allah Yirhamuh [God have mercy on him], … said that all these identity questions are barking up the wrong tree and that they are boring actually… so you throw something in like that in the conversation and it gets rid of the boring questions of identity.
Alamri: How do you position what you do in relation to Arabic literature and international writing in English. An Arabic canon? An English canon?
Soueif: This is a question for the critics; it’s not even that, because what was it that made me? It’s a mixture of everything, I’ve read Arabic literature, English literature, and I was most influenced by French literature and Russian literature, which I read in English. I loved the Russians, Flaubert, Colette, George Eliot,Naguib Mahfouz,Fathi Ghanim, all these, as well as films, all mixed, and it comes out like this. Just call it ‘Fiction’.