Tomorrow around 7 a.m. GMT, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) — popularly known as the “Arabic Booker” — will announce its six-book shortlist along with the panel of judges. One of the strong candidates for the shortlist is Mohamed Rabie’s Otared, or Mercury. Journalist Mahmoud Mostafa discusses the book with Rabie, as well as the forces of violence and hope:
By Mahmoud Mostafa
What would you hope for when you’re already in an eternal hell? Mohamed Rabie’s IPAF-longlisted novel Otared (Mercury) gives readers the glasses of a missionary policeman in a post-revolution Egypt that is occupied and decaying. When you flip up the lenses, you may see that people are already serving their eternal perdition and that worst sin of all is hope.
Rabie spoke to ArabLit ahead of the announcement of the IPAF shortlist, discussing his work on the novel and his perspective on hope, violence, and the future. Otared is his third novel; his first novel, Amber Planet, won the Sawiris foundation award, and his second Year of the Dragon received a nod for the same award.
Mahmoud Mostafa: Days before announcing the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which of the nominated novels did you read and who do you view them?
Mohamed Rabie: Sorrowfully I didn’t read any of them yet. Certainly, I am remiss, as the shortlist is there to acquaint readers with what the reading committee thinks are good novels.
MM: This year’s longlist saw two debut novelists: the Moroccans Tareq Bakari, with Numedia, and Abdennour Mezzine with Letters of the Storm. What do you think of the selection?
MR: It is very effective in an author’s career. Of course it is an encouragement to the authors and motivation for them to continue writing.
MM: The events in your nominated novel Otared (Mercury) take place in different time paths. Were those paths clear in your mind when you started writing the novel? Which came first?
MR: The events that took place in 455 (Hijri) were written to add information that is important for readers. The paths of 2011 and 2025 were there from beginning at the same time.
MM: When did you start writing Otared? Did political or social circumstances have a role?
MR: Certainly the political circumstances have a role. If it were not for the failure of the January 2011 revolution, I wouldn’t have written the novel. All the ideas in the novel are built around its failure.
MM: Readers get a feeling of a mixture between political fantasy and a pessimistic philosophy. Which was more dominant while writing? Was the idea of the already-here-hell the foundation of the novel?
MR: The idea of the novel came after several discussions with Nael El-Toukhy. His hypothesis [that we are already in hell] didn’t come from his perspective of current events, I think, but his talking about perdition made me look differently at my surroundings. We all saw our dreams end in nightmares, all that we thought were luminous bright ideas turned into–or turned out to be illusions and we saw the victory of violence, oppression, and autocracy.
In such a backwards situation, one cannot logically interpret what is happening. I proposed that we are in hell and only with this hypothesis can the paths and events leading to our current day be understood and interpreted.
MM: In an interview with Al-Modon, you said that you see “violence implicit within the people.” Is this a part of the permanent punishment in the repeated hell?
MR: This may be right; the idea of perdition opens the door for hundreds of interpretations, and certainly the implicit violence is a terrible psychological torture — maybe way more intense than outspoken and practiced violence.
MM: Where did you draw the character of Otared the punisher and the punished from?
MR: There are a lot of police officers who are similar to Otared. Some might treat police officers as if they are gods or demons, but of course they are not. The officers that are torn between national duty and a bias towards logic and humanity do exist and maybe this is the more common type and we don’t know it.
Certainly this type is linked to a limited period of time. January 28  was a defining battle, where police officers were fully defeated, and those who lost and survived had to think and question what happened.
MM: In the novel, Sakhr Al-Khazragy calls his people (you who lived/suffered/ravaged by hope). Is hope what your characters were guilty of or their punishment?
MR: Hope clouds observation — so says the American author Frank Herbert. I think that hope is one of the many myths that we create just to help us continue living.
In the novel it is indeed a type of punishment. It is a mirage that the thirsty person walks towards but will never reach.
MM: Your novel looks at a not-so-far future for Egypt. To what extent you view your fiction as exaggeration or touching on the factual future?
MR: I don’t think there is exaggeration, but there is condensation of events in a short time span. I don’t think occupation is a disaster; we lived under occupation many, many years. Not resisting the occupation, as it goes in the novel, is the real disaster.
MM: The dystopic view is present in your novel and also in Nael El-Toukhy’s Women of Karantina. Are there motives for this generation of novelists to use this genre?
MR: Motives are different of course. Certainly, Nael realized that “there is no hope” before I did. And maybe our motives are worlds apart.
MM: Are you preparing for a new novel?
MR: I have three ideas in my head and I don’t which I will work on. The sure thing is it will be far from politics this time.
Mahmoud Mostafa (@Deboyadebo) is a Cairo-based journalist.