Discussing ‘Women of Karantina’: A Savage Comic Epic, Relentlessly Ironic, Uncompromisingly Rude, Profoundly Moral, Totally True

A back-and-forth with the author and translator of the witty, wild Women of Karantina (2013), released last month in excellent, gum-snapping English translation:

karantinaThe must-read Women of Karantina, listed by several authors as one of their “favorites of 2013,” follows several generations of Egyptian crime-boss families in the northern port city of Alexandria as they attempt to take over the city and re-make it in their own images.

Its author is Nael Eltoukhy. Born in Kuwait in 1978, he moved to Egypt while still a toddler. He published his first collection of stories, Technical Changes, in 2003, which as followed by two novellas, the novel 2006, and Women of Karantina. He also translates from the Hebrew and was a once-upon-a-time blogger about Hebrew literature in Arabic.

ArabLit: First, a question to Robin. How and when did you come across this novel? Do you remember your first impressions?

Robin Moger: I’d read Nael’s novels — Leila Antoun (really a novella) and 2006—and had translated an excerpt of the former plus a short story of his and then I think I told him I was keen on translating 2006—which is also terrific by the way. So he said to me that I should wait and read his next novel that he was in the process of finishing, and I waited and I read it and I could tell about three pages in that he’d gone up a gear. He’d outdone himself. Though it was a sort of “voice” novel, all about tone and timing and great lines, it also had these stupidly compelling characters and plot. A properly fantastic comic novel, I thought.

AL: Nael, when did you first begin to write, or plan for, this novel? Was it a conscious response to anything you’d read before, such as Awlad 7aretna / Children of Gabalawi? Or any “true crime” stories you’d read in the papers? Do you remember where the germ of the idea came from?

Nael Eltoukhy: I do remember, yes. I had this dream that I was in a microbus with my girlfriend and the driver harassed her, so we both got out and killed him and then decided to go on the run and set up something new in a completely new place. When I woke up it struck me that this would make a great beginning for a novel and I started thinking about a family that made its living off crime. As for The Children of Our Alley, I don’t much like it. I wasn’t thinking of it at all while I was planning what to write. Actually, I was thinking more of a response to Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy: the idea of the three generations. Later, though, while I was writing, it struck me that the plot really did resemble that of Children of Our Alley.

AL: Robin, once you’d read the novel, what aspects made you decide you wanted to be the one to translate it? Once you got in up to your elbows, did your impressions of the novel change at all? 

RM: Because I loved it as above and I just knew how I would go about it. I thought I could do a good job on it and it would make me incredibly happy. And it did. Definitely when I start the actual business of translating, no matter how closely you’ve read it, things change in my appreciation of the text. It’s more a case of hearing a tone and voice in my head then finding that you are pegged to a real, concrete text, not writing some literary response, and making it work.

AL: Nael, how do you see the role of the grittiness (bodily fluids, cussing, sewage, dirt) in the novel? Why were you drawn to the visceral? My mother would surely tell you that it would be such a lovely book if you never mentioned mucus, masturbation, or excrement. What would you tell her?

NE: To your mother I’d say, Ah well. Forgive me. And I’d smile. As a general rule I don’t have snappy comebacks for my elders, but you, Marcia… I’d tell you that this is a fundamental part of the spirit of the novel. The novel is built around dirt: around a dirty, realistic tragi-comic tone. Speaking for myself it’s impossible for me to conceive of the story without it.

AL: Robin, you could call the language colorful, you could call the language obscene. Surely many (proper, civil) English-language readers will find moments uncomfortable. Did you have to push yourself to follow Nael into some places? Did you ever think, “I’ll just tone down this one passage…”?

RM: I mean, there’s bad language for sure, but none of those beastly words that make me, personally, cry and I wasn’t ever shocked. It honestly didn’t occur to me that this might be a feature of the book until you asked. So I’d say that, no, I never felt I had to tone down a passage or that I was following Nael into a sewer or anything like that. Actually, you sort of are following Nael into a sewer, it’s just he makes it seem like a good idea. Or maybe Nael is pointing out that, bad luck, you already are in sewer, but it’s all right because he’s holding your hand.

AL: Nael, the events of 2010-2011, particularly what happened to Alexandria’s Khaled Said, play an wonderfully interesting role in the novel, tangled as they are in the neighborhood’s anger, the government’s corruption, and the average person’s (often manipulated) veneration of successive crime bosses. Did setting your book, for the most part, far into the future, give you a freedom that the past and present wouldn’t permit? 

Eltoukhy. From https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/270523508/arab-artists-in-a-revolution/posts?page=2
Eltoukhy. From “Arab Artists in a Revolution”

NE: The political events were used to move the story on and that, basically, is because I was trying to create a narrator-cum-lecturer and the history of the neighbourhood had to be linked to the history of Alexandria in general and then, very generally indeed, to Egypt’s history. But I used a lot of incorrect information when it came to Egypt and mixed it with real details. For instance there’s stuff in the novel about the governor of Alexandria banning shisha from the cafes, and that’s true enough, but the residents’ response, all of that came from my imagination. Then there are those parts that take place in the future against the backdrop of a future political dispensation and that, of course, is completely made up.

As for the second part of your question, Yes, I chose to set it in the future because it was easier and left me freer and more comfortable.

AL: Robin, your sentences have great bounce and snap, and are a pleasure to read. Chapeau. Did you have any prose models in mind as you translated? Any books that helped you imagine how this would sound in English? How did you know what you were working toward?

RM: Not really as a prose model, but his characters reminded me a lot of Martin Amis’ deluded underclass/criminal anti-heroes. Though this sounds a bit like a line, I’d say it was the Arabic that gave the sense of how it should feel in English. I didn’t consciously start thinking about English-language prose stylists, though I suppose it is a very distinctive approach. I just started out trying to get the voice down and then refined it a bit. If refined is the word.

AL: Nael. you don’t seem to worry about introducing any new whiz-bangs or gadgets into the future. There are no flying cars, no chips embedded in the characters’ heads. There is the Shanghai Tunnel, true, but besides that everything seems to stay just as it is. (In 2064, we still celebrate Police Day.) You never felt obligated to toss in some google glass?  

NE: True, and there a number of reasons for that, first of all that I wanted to make the story feel believable. I mean, I wanted readers to feel they were hearing and seeing it all up close, with their own eyes and ears, and that would have been impossible to achieve if I’d introduced any science fiction gadgetry. Science fiction would have immediately taken the reader away from the world I was trying to create.

The second reason is that technology develops very quickly and no one can really predict what new inventions will be around sixty years from now, and the kind of books that offer predictions were never a model as far as I was concerned.

The third reason is that I’m basically hopeless at science and I’d never be comfortable writing about something I don’t understand.

Anyway, I didn’t completely ignore the question while I was planning the novel. I thought that if I wasn’t able to create a sense of the future by describing technological innovations then at least I could provide a feeling of strangeness, and this led me to come up with the idea of the tunnels as the place to which I could transport the conflict over Karantina.

By the way, as far as I’m concerned the whole Shanghai Tunnel thing isn’t science fiction. All the details are readily conceivable… like: if there was sufficient funding and enthusiasm for the project it would get made. It doesn’t really require any great scientific breakthrough—it’s not time travel for instance or memory chips implanted in human brains. That was its attraction for me: that it’s simple, that it “feels” futuristic, that it opens the way to talk about the Alexandrian metro.

Moger, from English PEN.
Moger, from English PEN.

AL: Robin, I found this book by turns bitingly, darkly, and punch-drunk funny, and I know a lot of Egyptian writers who also greatly enjoyed it (Magdy al-Shafee, Muhammad Aladdin, Iman Mersal, Muhammad Abdelnaby). Did you worry at all that the non-Egyptian/Egyptophile reader misses out on the humor? Or is there just nothing much you can do about it? 

RM: In the case of this book I reckon you could go out on quivering limb and say its humour will succeed with a wider demographic than just Egyptians/Egyptophiles. Egyptophobes will love it, for instance. The context for the big joke is well established and a mainspring of the humour comes from posing the characters against the backdrop of a supposedly universal morality and ideological fervour. I would think those that don’t get it aren’t not getting the Egyptianness, just the type of humour on offer, whether they ascribe it to Egyptianness or not. The ongoing joke at the expense of Alexandria, for instance, is more readily absorbed if you are familiar with Egypt, but he sets it up clearly enough. 

AL: Nael, did you sketch out the timeline before you began, or did you just get in and start writing? How long did you work on the book? 

NE: No, it happened during the writing process. Once I was happy that the writing was moving forward I amused myself thinking about what was coming next. The character Hamada, for example, popped into my head while I was writing the first section. Yehyia Volcano came to me as I was finishing off the second part: I was walking in Alexandria when I saw a sign over a shop with the owner’s name on it. I read the name as “Burkan”—Volcano—then saw that I’d got it wrong and that wasn’t his name, but this came after I’d had the idea that Burkan might be the name of a main character. The idea of the tunnels came at about the same time while I was riding the metro in Cairo and examining the way the tunnel looked from inside.

Right from the outset I’d had this vague idea of a crime family in Alexandria and the rest of the main themes appeared while I was writing. This always happens with me. I’m useless at planning novels, except for the very broadest outlines.

AL: Robin, was your process here different at all from translating Crocodiles, Vertigo, Where Pigeons Don’t Fly?

RM: It’s a very different book to all of them, but my process is the same. From one to the other the amount of time I spend in communication with the author or researching stuff will vary, of course. Crocodiles and Karantina are both largely about the voice and the language—much more thought about the writing and sentence structure and punctuation; designing effective rhythms and timing and tone to recreate the novels’ effects. Though that’s part of all translation, something like Vertigo comes a little easier: plainer and less polished—it really comes down to what the author has put his effort into, and recognising that. Pigeons is very long and has a lot of detail you have to research, like Riyadh mall names, streets, Saudi history. The effort there was to try and keep a long heavily-plotted narrative buoyant; not let the prose get in the way, while keeping it alive. In Karantina and Crocodiles, by contrast, the prose is front and centre, though for different reasons.

AL: Nael, why so many powerful women? What do they allow the narrative to do that men couldn’t/wouldn’t? 

NE: Because I love strong women; the women who are capable of imposing their point of view, particularly those from the very poorest and deprived areas. That type is inspiring to me, and specifically its Egyptian manifestation: the hagga or miallima, the woman with a powerful personality who’s able to dominate men.

AL: Robin, has this book won any prizes and I missed them? Or is it too soon yet? (Although yes, I saw that Nael won/wins the Nobel.

RM: I don’t think it has. But as you can see from that link Nael’s evolution into a heavily-garlanded literary monster is already underway. Hear me, judging panels: ride on his coattails or be crushed under foot.

AL: Nael, I see that you’re still going out and discussing the book and doing signings. What do people ask about at the book signings? Or complain about? (In perusing the reviews on GoodReads, there are a number of people who warn this book is “not for the young.”) 

NE: There aren’t so many events, by the way, but there was one about ten days ago in Alexandria where people were more interested in debating the way their city was portrayed in the novel. Of course there are complaints about the book’s “obscenity” but these complaints are only on GoodReads and for the most part the readers are saying that they personally enjoyed it but place warnings for younger readers about the novel’s “obscenities” which, I believe, are not regular fare in Egyptian literature. But in general, people mostly ask about things like “the portrayal of Alexandria,” “the language used in the novel, both aamiya and fusha” or “the problematic relationship between official history and alternative history.”

AL: Robin, how are you getting this book out among the masses? Are there any English-translation book-launch events planned? If you had to explain to an Anglophone reader why they’d want to pick up this book, what would you say?

RM: Any events and launch things that the AUC might be doing I haven’t yet heard about. I’ll try to do a bit of promotion here in South Africa where I am (that would be very satisfying), I’ll hand my complimentary copies to influential-looking and attractive strangers and of course the devastatingly effective technique of links-on-social-media. If I can attend some AUC thing in Cairo I will, but not likely, life being as it is. To the Anglophone reader I would say: Good evening. Women of Karantina is a savage comic epic, relentlessly ironic, uncompromisingly rude, profoundly moral, totally true, good value for money, and available online. Ihab Abdel Hamid said of it: هتفشخ دماغ الخواجة

AL: And finally, Nael. You’re also a translator. Did this make you more or less anxious when turning over your book to Robin? Did you involve yourself in the process, or mostly leave it with him?

NE: Yes, I did. Robin sent me the draft translation when he’d finished with it. I didn’t read it all, just focussed on those parts where I anticipated there’d be some confusion in the translation, and we discussed a number of words and formulations together. Sometimes he convinced me and sometimes I convinced him. Naturally there were things I had to just accept would be lost in translation, things it would be completely impossible to translate without footnotes, and I don’t like footnotes and nor, I think, does Robin. So I gave up on my dream that 100 per cent of the content would reach the reader from other cultures. It’s something I first experienced with non-Egyptian Arab friends of mine. They read the novel and enjoyed it despite there being references they didn’t understand because they belonged to a highly localised Egyptian context. I realised there were specific references that would be impossible to understand for anyone but Egyptians: like a little bonus for Egyptian readers. Thats how I thought about them and I left it there. But at least the spirit of the text and the different tones and voices in it were conveyed brilliantly and that was the most important thing for me.

But hey: translation is betrayal. What can we do?

While you wait for your copy to arrive in the mail (or at your local bookshop), you can read an excerpt from Leila Anton and Eltoukhy’s short story “The Next President of Egypt” over at Robin Moger’s blog, QISASUKHRA.