Mohga Hassib interviewed celebrated Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdelmeguid about his International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-longlisted novel, Clouds Over Alexandria, his philosophy on writing, and how he sees contemporary Alexandria.
Mohga Hassib: What drove you to write a trilogy about Alexandria and how did the idea come to you? Did you know from the beginning that it was going to be a trilogy?
Ibrahim Abdelmeguid: After I wrote No One Sleeps in Alexandria, where its events revolve around World War Two, I realized that the city underwent three major historical periods. The first period was the great historical Alexandria as a cosmopolitan world city, on which this novel has a window despite the horrors of the Second World War. Alexandria was the city of religious and ethnic tolerance. Being born and raised in Alexandria, I witnessed the transformation of the city into an Egyptian one after the 1956 Suez Crisis, when all the expatriates left because of the Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy slogan of political and economic liberalization.
No one disagrees about this motto, but what accompanied it from the migration of expatriates and abandonment of its global spirit was just wrong. Alexandria became a true Egyptian city, but gradually lost its status as a global city. However, the city’s history was still present and its people still aware of the great Mediterranean city’s stature, overlooking Egypt and the Mediterranean nations. This sea was its vital source, even though its rulers didn’t know that.
The novel Birds of Amber characterizes this second period. Then the third period was in the seventies of the last century, where President Sadat formed a coalition with the backward Islamist movement, and bigoted Wahhabi and Salafi thought infiltrated the city. This made it lose its global and Egyptian spirit together and become exposed to the desert culture. The three novels are about the city in three different major transitions, and each novel could be read separately. The hero is the city. Therefore, the idea of a trilogy came to me after I wrote No One Sleeps in Alexandria.
MH: You won several awards before, all of which are local ones. What do you think of the IPAF, which has been controversial with some Egyptian authors, who have refused to allow their work to be nominated. Do you think the IPAF is a force for good in Arabic literature, or more mixed?
IA: Essentially, it is the publishers who apply for the Booker Prize. The biggest criticism was directed to it years ago when the judging committee was previously known while it was supposed to be confidential until the shortlist was announced. After that, this never recurred.
In the end, any prize is an advantage for Arabic literature. The important thing is for the selection criteria to be of the highest possible rank. And I say “possible” because people don’t always agree on creativity. Art is not like science. Recently, prizes became a contributor to the increase of book sales, which is a good thing.
MH: What got you interested in revisiting this specific historical period of Alexandria, does it have a particular resonance?
The city has lost its broadmindedness and plurality which was its most prominent feature throughout history. And because it is my city, and I have witnessed this change along with my generation, we have contributed in resisting this intended retardation and we still are.
IA: Simply because the city lost its Egyptian and global spirit together. Now, after the Jan. 25 Revolution, the city may awaken in the face of the intentional retardation that was inflicted by the previous regimes in its horrific coalition with the backward movements under the slogan of religion. The city has lost its broadmindedness and plurality which was its most prominent feature throughout history. And because it is my city, and I have witnessed this change along with my generation, we have contributed in resisting this intended retardation and we still are.
MH: You mention a lot of Russian writers and novelists, why Russians? Is there some particular shared ground between how you see Egypt and the works of Russian writers?
IA: I have read a lot of global literature in my youth and still do. I absolutely fell in love with Russian novelists as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov and poets like Mayakovski, Yesenin, and Alexander Blok. I read Mayakovski’s “A Cloud in Trousers” in English when I was sixteen, and I almost memorized it. I discovered that it was originally titled “The Thirteenth Apostle;” however, that title was rejected by the Russian censor, given there are twelve apostles. So the poet changed its title to “A Cloud in Trousers,” intending himself to be the cloud embodying a fading persona.
My novel’s protagonist is a poet who is in love with Mayakovski and borrows from him the cloud over the city, which he considers is fading, too. The cloud, not the city. I was struck by the predictive dialogue of one if the novel’s heroes, and the novel was handed over for publishing in 2012: “The people behind this trend which they call Islamic rule will reach power, but the people will oust them after a very short period of time. A year at the most and society will return to its authentic Egyptianness, unfamiliar to extremism nor to the denial of other religions and the Other.” I was surprised by the readers and the fans of this excerpt, which was written nine months before the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood.
MH: As a philosophy major, how do you see philosophical questions appearing in your work? Have your studies in some way shaped your novel-writing? Are you an existentialist?
IA: Philosophy was an important tributary to my writing along with my life experiences, studies, and literary readings. I intentionally chose to major in philosophy to understand the major issues which occupied the human mind. I could have majored in Arabic or the English language, but I chose philosophy for that reason. Also because I knew that Naguib Mahfouz studied philosophy, and this was patent in his texts and its characters. Marxism occupied a certain period of my life, since I was part of the opposition to Sadat’s social and economic policy, which sank the country and handed it over to thieves, as well as his alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, existentialism was the nearest to my soul. Particularly the theme of alienation. Added to that, there is my life amongst the marginalized who cannot create their own life — everything around them is bigger and stronger than them, determining the way they live.
Also, I have lived my life in vast infinite places yet not close to these places.
Also, I have lived my life in vast infinite places yet not close to these places. We lived in Karmouz district which is close to Mahmudiya Canal, which used to be a route for river transport, where strangers arrived in ships and disappeared in a world that I realized was larger than what we see around us. I also lived close to Lake Maryout, where we went fishing in our youth and saw the vastness of the place where people disappeared like they were never present. In addition, my father worked on the railroads and he used to take me with him on his trips during the school holidays to the western desert where I saw a span and no one was around me. This always made me sense the diminutiveness of man in this universe.
Marxism also helped me write — I saw through it how man is like a cog in a magnificent machine, which profits the Capitalists. Yes, existentialism to me was the shore I leaned on despite my political opposition to my surroundings.
MH: In the novel Clouds Over Alexandria, you describe the Nasserist rule as communist, whilst many others describe it as socialist, why do you choose to call it communist? How do you see the difference?
IA: I do not recall labeling the Nasserist regime as communist. Perhaps I described it as dictatorial and totalitarian which is a communist feature. But of course I know it was not a communist in the comprehensive sense. The novel depicts the way this regime opposed the communists and detained them. The novel’s heroes are adolescents, not complete communists, and they are detained from time to time by the regime.
One of the heroines is Nawal, previously accused of communism, and one of its heroes is Issa Salmawy, a former communist who suffered during his detainment by Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, in the novel, he opposes the Sadat regime, which opened its door to the backward Wahhabi religious movement.
MH: In writing this novel, did you rely more on memory or historical references?
IA: I relied on memory to a large extent because I lived it and my soul was divided amongst its characters. However, I relied on the newspapers for documentation of events, and relied on books in providing accurate information on certain places. These sources are all cited in the novel. I did this before in my two previous novels, No One Sleeps in Alexandria and Birds of Amber.
MH: Where you ever detained for political reasons during Sadat’s regime?
This was funny. Mubarak did not differ from Sadat in concocting charges against the leftist opposition or the intelligentsia in general. I remember laughing when state security forces stormed my house and told the official “you are very late.”
IA: I was never detained during Sadat’s rule; however, this is ironically funny, I was detained during Mubarak’s rule in 1985 and accused of belonging to the Trotsky Organization. This was funny. Mubarak did not differ from Sadat in concocting charges against the leftist opposition or the intelligentsia in general. I remember laughing when state security forces stormed my house and told the official “you are very late.”
MH: Do you see political detainment as having influenced the writers of the seventies?
IA: I am sure that the political detainment has left its mark on writers and some of their works in the novel and the short story; however, this did not impede our innovation in literary form. Meaning, politics did not make us write direct literature. This is one of the major features of writing, even though our life is full of struggle and opposition, yet we are aware that at the end literature is a spiritual more than it is a mental activity. Writing does not have to be journalistic nor direct. Art is not politics.
MH: The last poem by Nader in the novel says: “My story of lost love intertwines with the society that was once happy.” Does Yara stand in for a larger part of society? Is she also Egypt’s “lost love”?
IA: I am leaning towards Yara being Egypt’s lost love, but it is up to the reader at the end. Some readers considered her symbolic of Egypt and Alexandria, others considered Kariman, and not Yara, to be an embodiment Alexandria and Egypt, especially since she suffered from her lying Salafi stepfather. Yara has suffered from the police and state security and Kariman suffered from the other side of the ugly system.
MH: How did you put together these characters? How did you get to know them?
Characters about whom the writer has never thought before come and go during the writing process. At the end, my soul, culture and knowledge was divided amongst all of them, though the character of Nader is a poet, and he has taken the biggest share.
IA: Surely I met some of these characters in real life and some of them were colleagues during university. But also I met some of the characters as mere acquaintances away from my personal life and from the literary work itself during writing. Characters about whom the writer has never thought before come and go during the writing process. At the end, my soul, culture and knowledge was divided amongst all of them, though the character of Nader is a poet, and he has taken the biggest share. This share is from my soul.
MH: The novel goes back to the beginning of the religious movement in Egypt. As a writer and a witness to several political uprisings, how does your novel resonate with contemporary Egypt? Are there similarities between then and now?
IA: Like I mentioned earlier, the novel has an unintentional prophecy of what occurred in Egypt during the seventies until now. As I mentioned, the readers guided me to that prophecy.
MH: The novel focuses on the fading identity of cosmopolitan Alexandria. How is it different from Alexandria now?
IA: There is a huge difference. Cosmopolitan Alexandria is a city of the world, with Egyptians, foreigners, Muslims, Christians and all the ethnicities and religions. Since the seventies, Alexandria became a Wahhabi city that does not even acknowledge the Christian Egyptians, although the Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the Orthodox church of the whole world before Islam. Alexandria was a piece from Europe in food, clothes, architecture and more that were mentioned in the novel.
It was all lost and the city became fanatic and uptight in everything. Alexandria was the first city to have a cinematic film screened in 1895: After it was screened in France, it was for the Lumiere Brothers. Later, the city’s movie theatres were demolished to be replaced by buildings, malls and workshops. The dancing clubs were destroyed and music became forbidden in public gardens like the olden days. Women’s fashionable clothes were banned and substituted by veils and niqab, which is all mentioned in the novel. Alexandria was transformed from a city that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea to a city that overlooks the Arabian Desert.
MH: Would you like to share any sneak peeks from your upcoming project?
IA: My next project is a novel that will be released this week [on Saturday, February 1], about Cairo, titled This is Cairo. It is an overview of Cairo in the seventies and the way the strange hero sees it for the first time and how he lived there.
Currently, I am on a recess for 10 months to focus on my weekly articles about our present state, but I have not thought about my next novel. Finishing a novel makes me wait for months to return to my beautiful fictional world.
Mohga Hassib is an English and Comparative Literature graduate student at American University in Cairo and teaches academic writing at Misr International University. She has also been president and vice president of the AUC’s literature club.
Nesreen Salem’s review of Clouds Over Alexandria: An Overpopulated Requiem for a City