Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid (b. 1946) is one of the most-laureled Arabic novelists of his generation. He talked with Ahmed Salah Eldein about his literary past, the books he most loves, and what people ask about at Western literary events (hint: it’s terrorism):
By Ahmed Salah Eldein
Ibrahim Abdel Meguid has won, or been a finalist, for nearly every major Arabic literature prize. He’s won the Sawiris Prize, the Egyptian State Prize for Literature, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the Katara Prize, and has been longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (2014, Clouds over Alexandria).
Four of his novels have been translated into French and five into English. Among these, three were translated by the towering scholar-translator Farouk Abdel Wahab — Birds of Amber, No One Sleeps in Alexandria, and The Other Place. One was translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela (Distant Train) and one by Noha Radwan (The House of Jasmine). Some of Abdel Meguid’s work has also been adapted for television and film.
Translator and writer Ahmed Salah Eldein sat down to talk with Abdel Meguid, and he also profiles Abdel Meguid’s well-known novel Here is Cairo.
Ahmed Salah Eldein: How do you see your beginnings?
Ibrahim Abdel Meguid: Oh! Reminiscing about those days, I see them just as they were: great and full of joy…the aha moment when your creative talent is lit on from inside; to win the trophy in a short-story writing competition; to see your prize-winning short story on a whole page of its own in Akhbar al-Youm, one of the biggest newspapers. I bought copies with all the money I had and handed them to passers-by in the streets and people in the café. To have a dream to place yourself among the crème de la crème of writers, and working towards that end vehemently, silently, and with much fun.
ASE: Who are your favorite international writers and your literary gods in Arabic?
IAM: My library is very rich with great books by genius writers belonging to different phases in the history of world literature: Readings trace back to Greek epics and develop into Latin American literary-renaissance works. My literary godfathers beyond the sea are Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Dino Buzzati. As for onshore and nearshore Arabic writers, I have read in abundance, too many to count. But my choice apples in Arabic are Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Idris.
ASE: If you imagine your novels as love stories, which one is the love of your life?
I fall in love with every piece I write. I consider each novel as the only duck in my pond, a real love story. You can locate female figures everywhere in my writings. But my novel Here is Cairo is a special case among the rest. The moment I finished the novel, I had a strong impulse to look for its women in the streets. However, I came to realize recently that I would never find them again.
ASE: How do you see the writer in the shadow of freedom and traditions?
Writing is a creative act based on free will and should never be enslaved by traditions or succumb to them. A novel is a world of its own, the aesthetic utopia and paradise where a writer is able to play with everything, even structure. I have an urge to constantly change and add my very own touch to the structure here. I’ve learned a lot about the trends in writing and form engineering in novels; still, this is not something sacred.
The autobiography, I think, is the sole literary genre that has a confrontation with traditions in our Arab world. So, I still haven’t written my autobiography. Few can do that. The memoir is mostly viewed, in Arab countries, as more or less a sort of citizenship education class, or ethical lessons. The novel saves one’s bacon.
However, I did write two literary autobiographies: Beyond Writing (this book won the Sheikh Zayed Award in 2016), which tells the reader about the multi-layered way in which books are made and sheds light on the creative process; and Me and the Cinema, which tells my experience with the cinema. Beyond Writing and Me and the Cinema supersede the personal autobiography. My personal details are subtly projected in my novels but they matured into the totally fictional minutiae of their respective characters and not myself, the author.
ASE: What is a book you lavished superlatives on?
As a matter of fact, I have lavished superlatives on many books throughout my life and it seems a bit hard to pick just a single choice. Time and place play a part here, as it does in the way you look at things. I personally love Oedipus Rex by Sophocles; L’Étranger by Albert Camus; A Faint Heart and The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky; The Trial by Kafka; The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati; and My Dagestan by Rasul Gamzatov.
ASE: What is the role of translation in your life?
It is something of a heavenly joy to travel and meet writers and readers beyond the sea.
ASE: If you could travel back through time, would you change anything of what happened to you?
Yes. I would have been slightly more reasonable with my Alexandrian frankness. However, fortunately what I lost due to that was compensated by readers, and this is what matters to me.
ASE: How do you see the future of literature after Svetlana Alexievich’s and Bob Dylan’s being Nobel laureates?
Svetlana Alexievich is a great writer and there is nothing wrong of her being a journalist. Reading your translation of Chernobyl Prayer, we came to realize her worth as a brilliant writer. As for Bob Dylan, of course he is a global mega star in music and singing, and there are abundant awards for the field other than Nobel, as for instance the Grammy. His winning seems more like propaganda. Hearing the news, even the man himself remained silent in the face of the prize.
ASE: Do you think that Arabic literature suffers from isolation from the rest of the world?
No, I don’t think so. It has a deserved and far-reaching presence. The Arabic novel, and Arabic poetry, are no less than any literary production anywhere in the world. However, Arab countries also export terrorism and despotism. I constantly face questions, posed by audience in seminars I attend in different countries, related to this very issue: terrorism.
ASE: What about the absence of criticism in Arabic?
Criticism exists. It is just not confined to what is written in the printed media. You can trace a good number of studies and dissertations on literature and men of letters. If there is a nagging problem, it lies in the large of literary works as opposed to the number of critics. This is it. I hope to see studies on formal structure of new novels and if there are common features among them or not.
Spotlight on Abdel Meguid’s Here is Cairo
In the novel Here is Cairo, Abdel Meguid’s Alexandrian heart and soul moves his pen from the 70s of the previous century, from the northern cosmopolitan city, to Cairo, where he lives and works. The most significant sign of the times is the sociopolitical changes, due to President Anwar Sadat’s support of the fundamentalist pro-Islamic groups, which lead to drastic alterations in the mainstream culture of the country.
Abdel Meguid views these alterations as forces destructive to positive things achieved by the 1952 revolution, alongside the cultural renaissance.
The novel is elegiac in nature and nostalgic in tone, lamenting the loss of the Cairo the novelist knows and the distortions that took place in the beautiful city and its people. Voltarian sarcasm is omnipresent in Here is Cairo, and the novelist satirically looks at some incidents and happenings. It is not funny, however, as it throws black shadows over the tragic changes that the Egyptian state witnessed during the 1970s.
The novel focuses on two main characters, Saber Said and Said Saber, two defeated young men who are psychologically torn due to their internal defeats. They could not restore the great past and fail to cope with the ugly realities of the time, and thus they become addicted to drugs as a solace and easy escape. The hero of the novel joined the Communist party only to quit later as he failed to adapt. Other characters—like Ibrahim Omar, Omar Ibrahim, and women called Safaa, Safaa the 1st and Safaa the 2nd, —face their dilemmas in totally absurd realities besieged by ossification, narrow-mindedness, fogeyism, and conservatism.
Locations play an integral role in the novel. The protagonist is the immigrant Étrange, coming from a provincial city, who tries to get acquainted with the city and learn the secrets it hides. The novel tours many places in Cairo, tracing the ugly noise, and the architecture that stained its previous beauty.
Ahmed Salah Eldein (@Saladeino) is an Egyptian writer and translator born in Cairo on the 21st of November, 1973. While still a student, in 1992, he started his career as a translator. He published his first book Heirs of Tolstoy on Kosnitsky Bridge in 2015, where he drew a portrait of the contemporary literary scene in Russia in Arabic. His translation of Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (2016) gained instant success and became a bestseller. Ahmed writes in both Arabic and English and publishes regularly in a variety of magazines. He studied English language and literature at Ain Shams University and Russian language and literature at Ruden University in Moscow (Patrice Lumumba). He is also founder of the new literary site Aswat.
Previously on ArabLit: