Ibrahim Aslan on His Regrets: ‘I Was A Little Too Afraid of Writing’

The cover of Aslan's collection of essays Something Like That.

Ibrahim Aslan recently released a new book, Hugratan wa Salah (Two Rooms and a Hall) and turned 75. To mark these occasions—as well as the release of a reputedly bad film version of Aslan’s The Heron—Al Ahram interviewed the great Egyptian genre-crosser about his motives, methods, and his regrets.

Although Aslan arrived on the literary scene five decades ago, Al Ahram notes that his literary output has been somewhat small: He has published three novels, three collections of short stories, and two collections of narrative essays.

Despite this relatively small output, Aslan has been a large influence on the Egyptian literary scene. The blogger Baheyya explains what’s so special about Aslan:

Mixing fiction with autobiography, short story conventions with novelistic forms, poetic economy with dramaturgical composition, Aslan’s art is a precious, wondrous creation. He has the poet’s ear for language, the painter’s feel for texture, the composer’s sense of movement, the layperson’s love of humour, and the photographer’s knack for finding the magic in the mundane.

Perhaps because of the great care Aslan takes with his work, there have been long stretches when he’s gone without publishing.

Thus his great (literary) regret, Aslan told Al Ahram, is that:  “I think I was a little too afraid of writing.”

Al Ahram says:

He should have been bolder, he explains, and made better use of his time. Throughout his life he was a perfectionist, concerned with nothing but quality of writing, even during those periods when he was not writing. “Perhaps it was this,” he says, “that instilled the fear in me.”

Al Ahram likens Aslan’s writing to the painting of Alberto Giacometti, “an artist whose work depends on exclusion. Little remains of his structures.”

Aslan writes “with the eraser,” Al Ahram says, and is always concerned that he never think for his reader or offer easy answers. So how does he go about writing his books?

At the beginning I set out a general vision for writing a book. This book has its own clear and independent character. It is not important what you will call it, classification is not important. Some might see it as more of a novel, others as more of a short story collection. But in all of my books I gather that daily debris to which no one pays attention. Consequently each book takes a different direction, until the reader and I reach a point of intersection. To my mind this is an ideal way of avoiding the notion of missionary literature, as it were, literature that wants to communicate to readers a predetermined message. I don’t see this as the job of literature.

Al Ahram asks what he now sees—from this vantage—as the core of his work, that has not changed throughout the years. Aslan says that he finds it difficult to “stand outside” his work and answer these questions. But, he adds, again emphasizing the need for readers to think for themselves:

[T]here is one thing I have been aware of since I started writing — and that is my complete repulsion from encouraging the reader not to think. A true work of art is a work that does not think for anyone, or imagine for anyone, but instead presents the only true, aesthetically viable opportunity for others to think and imagine for themselves….

Two of Aslan’s novels are available in English from AUC Press: The Heron and Nile Sparrows.

Not sure if you want to read them? Reviews of The Heron and Nile Sparrows are available on the Banipal website.