Basma Abdel Aziz — whose novel Al-Tabuur (The Queue) is forthcoming in English translation next year, courtesy of Elisabeth Jaquette and Melville House Press — talked with Rachael Daum about torture, the study of psychology, and why she writes. Abdel Aziz is also the author of the 2014 work Memory of Repression: A Study of the Matrix of Torture:
With Rachael Daum
I understand that while you were at university, you focused your studies in psychiatry; you state in another interview that it is “similar to the world of literature and arts.” What got you interested in psychiatry to begin with? How do you find they are similar to literature and arts?
Basma Abdel Aziz: As a child in school, I used to draw, play piano, write poems, and wanted simply to continue my studies in the faculty of arts. But as I had an excellent grades by the end of secondary school, my family refused to let me “waste” it by allowing me to become a sculptor or a musician. They said that these hobbies couldn’t be the future: either the faculty of medicine or of engineering.
I went to the faculty of medicine and finished the 6 years with high grades, but was still thinking about arts. As I prefer to see people as a whole — not only as a chests, or kidneys, or bones — psychiatry was the magical solution that puts all things together, that cares about the man as one part.
Beside that, psychiatry was the nearest branch to the world of art, and as art constitutes a reflection of what we are — our conscious and unconscious — I thought that studying psychology and psychiatry would help me in better understanding, better seeing things around me, would also help in deepening my art work, whether in writing, painting or composing music (as I was at this time studying composition in the opera house).
I guess I am fond of watching and explaining behaviour, searching for motives, reasons, and exploring what is behind each individual act, what favours a specific reaction and what can push human beings to refuse or accept certain forms of control, and this pushed me in the end to specialize in psychiatry.
You were also one of the only women to refuse wearing hijab at your university when it was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Did you find solidarity with other women or men by doing this? What was that experience like?
BAA: Well, this experience was a very stimulating one. Members of Islamic groups in the faculty talked to me not only about wearing hijab, but also about my writing that dealt heavily with women’s rights. They never gave me orders or threats, but tried to convince me to change my behavior. I was headstrong enough to say no, to refuse with a loud voice any trials to make me shut my mouth.
Very few Muslim women (students) were not wearing hijab; it was (and still is) a deeply rooted habit and at that time it was so difficult to find people who would accept ideas about individual freedom that appear in conflict with religion. Some of my friends stood in solidarity with me, but the actual problem was that both the dean of the faculty and the security department stood completely against all that I was doing. They always had their goals and their deals with the Islamists. I went through a number of battles and received punishment many times; they even denied me my post in the faculty for political and security reasons, and I was prevented from becoming a staff member. They most likely were scared to allow me to be in contact with students, spreading among them a rebellious way of thinking.
I also understand that your Master’s is being denied for being “too controversial,” as it is an in-depth analysis of torture. What got you started in that research? What does it mean to you to have it denied — do you hope it will be granted?
BAA: My Master’s degree that was denied is the latest one, not in psychiatry, but in sociology. After finishing the first MS, which was granted, I started to study sociology, got a diploma, and registered for Master’s in a French university named Poitiers. I chose the field of discourse analysis, and the subject I decided to work on was about the discourse of the official religious institute based in Cairo, Al Azhar.
I was looking to analyse the statements of Al Azhar and the speeches of the Sheikh of Al Azhar during the crisis of the Muslim Brotherhood ruling. I left for France but had to return soon after because there were some problems in my governmental job in Cairo. I re-registered for the MS. Here in an Egyptian institute I finished the analysis work in one year, but my Egyptian supervisor refused to discuss the thesis. I guess that the subject looked to him very sensitive, especially considering the results I came out with, which convict both the military institute and the religious institute with abusing their authority. My analysis reveals how the authority represented by the minister of defense used Al Azhar for its sake, and how Al Azhar used religion in achieving this target. It focuses also on how the religious text was directed to reconstruct the consciousness of people and to bring them finally to the side of a military ruling system.
Now, the worst thing is that publishers are scared, too. Many of them refused to publish my thesis after I re-edited it to be a book.
Turning to your writing: your books are often described as dystopian and surrealist. What do you find is effective with this sort of writing? What do you hope to accomplish with it, and what sorts of lasting effects do you hope to see the books have?
BAA: Yes, my latest novel The Queue is a dystopian one, many readers found in it the spirit of Kafka and Orwell as well. I wrote it about three years ago, after the Egyptian revolution, and I finished it by the end of 2012. The real political scene was at this time unclear, things looked really surrealistic, the Muslim Brotherhood took over authority through apparently fair elections and started to build a distorted religious ruling system. The reality was very hard to believe or to deal with, so that a writer could go so far by his imagination to make a story which would be interesting enough to read.
In all my writing I try to destroy different faces of dictatorship and of totalitarian authority, whether political, social or religious. And as this is a universal not a purely Egyptian case, I think that a dystopian piece, not located in district place and time, with a considerable dose of fantasy, is the best way to express some of my thoughts. I feel it is a convenient way to express a markedly painful situation that we are living in, and I hope it leaves a positive and deep effect on readers who are facing forms of persecution and harassment every day, and who might feel uncomfortable with reading an extremely realistic piece.
I wish to make change, even a small one, with my books, to help in disclosing games played all the time by different authorities to control people’s lives. I hope to add just a few millimeters in the way of gaining our deserved freedom.
You enjoy the luxury (or the curse!) of being able to read your books in English translation. What relationship to you have with the translations, and with Lissie Jaquette, your translator?
BAA: Having may work translated to other languages beside Arabic is a great milestone for me — I would love to receive comments and reactions from people everywhere. I met Elisabeth in Cairo where a common friend introduced my latest novel The Queue to her. She contacted me later on and invited me to discuss the novel with a group of her friends. She told me how much she liked it and offered to work on translation of one chapter, which I welcomed. We became thae friends and she surprised me after months with the news that her translation won the English PEN grant.
Lissie told me also that Melville House is going to publish it, and this was like a dream come true. We collaborated after she finished the translation, and I started to answer her questions about certain points and found it very exciting job, in fact I enjoyed reading her translation while answering, it was a great experience — not only seeing my work in another language but also being able to explore how another person saw it and re-wrote it by his eyes. Lissie is a very helpful and understanding person, at some point I felt she was present with me while writing the novel and I feel we constitute a very successful team.
Editor’s note: The Queue is scheduled for English-language release in May.
Rachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical.