Looking at the Longlist: Mohammed Abdelnaby on the Difference Between Writing Novels and Stories

Egyptian novelist Mohammad Abdelnaby is on the longlist for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his Return of the Sheikh. Abdelnaby, who has previously been known for his short stories, won the 2010 Sawiris award for his collection Anton Chekhov’s Ghost. He is also an acclaimed translator, having recently brought Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance into Arabic. Here, on his new novel and other concerns:

mohamedabdelnabiArabLit: You said elsewhere that you had been working on The Return of the Sheikh for some years. When and where did you begin working on it? How did it begin (with an image, an idea for the story, a character, a question)?

Mohammad Abdelnaby: Given that it’s been so long, I no longer recall the exact starting point, but it certainly was many years ago, here in my home in Shubra al-Kheima, Cairo. It was, in the beginning, a profile of Ahmed Ragai, the sheikh who was writing poetry and left behind him the debris of 60 years, most of which was about the writing process.

AL: Were there any particular roadblocks you faced along the way while creating it? Did the novel change course with political events?

muhammad_abdelnabyMAN: The main obstacle was in visualizing the overall structure of the novel — and wondering if one can leave the novel to build itself as the work progresses. Do I need to specify in advance? Another question was how to give myself the greatest possible narrative freedom without letting threads escape so that the reader is lost. Another practical obstacle was my inability to devote myself to the novel for long periods of time, as I was busy with translation. I also left the novel for months as I finished a collection of short stories reprinted recently by the Family Library Project (Anton Chekhov’s Ghost).

The novel itself has not changed as a result of political events, on the one hand because it was almost finished at the outbreak of these (recent) events, and, on the other, because after every political event, there is a great need for an extended absorption period in order to reproduce it, and the two projects I have in hand now are other novels and have nothing to do with the events of the last two years in the Arab world.

AL: Before this you wrote short stories. Did you feel less able to play around with the novel format? Or able to experiment, but in a different way? How were your considerations different when constructing The Return of the Sheikh vs. stories?


MAN: You’re right that yes, the short story remains a place of free play and experimentation and adventure, and it is much more important, with novels, to develop the framework, and in the end a narrative must be developed. The novel is limited by these borders. 

One cannot extend free play beyond  techniques of narrating the story and how these are distributed throughout the novel’s architecture. Here, the adventure is different, and I had to be more careful with experimentation. In the short story, the structure becomes clear from almost the first moment, and it cannot be separated from the method of telling the story. But with a novel, it is like a branching tree, and, with each branch, a new adventure can develop. There can be variation on the basic tone, but you must remain faithful to the melody, and each branch must remain connected to the roots of the tree, so that it can’t be cut, and in contrast, the stories are free birds with nothing holding on to each separate experiment.

AL: Were there other books (that you can point to) that particularly nourished the development of this novel?

MAN: There have been many books, of course, but if they have made a direct contribution to this novel, I cannot rightly say.  The image of the cultured person who is isolated from reality, immersed in a fog of the blue smoke, has been handled tens of times in Egyptian literature. The most well-known of these works is the novel Adrift on the Nile, by Naguib Mahfouz, and it was a dilemma for me to stay away from this familiar and expected pattern, and to deconstruct it and reproduce it on my own. It was important to me to put my own questions about the boundaries between reality and art, life and writing. 

AL: Has your work as a translator helped to develop your novel-writing? Has it worked for or against your creative work, or both? Do you consider translation a work of art in itself, or channeling someone else’s art, or …?


MAN: Although translation work is a daunting task for any writer, and even sometimes one feels he is donating the blood of his writing to strangers, at the same time it gives him gifts and pleasant surprises. Translating a good literary text allows the translator to analyze — in practice — the methods of this author, and takes him to drafts of language, and as such is a task very close to writing. Translation made me more eager to be accurate and clear with expressions that were potentially confusing, and those and other gifts occur now and then. On the other hand, translation can be a real obstacle when one wants to fully indulge in working on a big, important project. It makes it difficult for the translator to keep hold of his own linguistic world, apart from the translation.


Of course the art of translation may sometimes seem a routine task, but all translators of stories or poems have known that magical moment when he feels himself on equal footing with the author himself, even if it were to stand in the author’s shadow. Translation is writing, to some degree, and whatever the translated text, it remains incumbent on the translator to re-craft the work in a new language. … I don’t now remember who said it, but all writing is a translation from the original.

With gratitude to Mona Elnamoury for looking over my translation.