Mona Elnamoury — one of the five featured emerging novelists at a recent Doum Cultural Foundation event in Cairo — answered questions about her new book, Chitchat Over the Thames, and the state of travel literature in Arabic:
What do you think are the highlights of Egyptian travel literature? Although Ibn Battutah, for instance, went all over, contemporary travel lit seems to go mostly to Europe, the US, and Russia — vs., for instance, Colombia or Mali or Thailand.
Mona Elnamoury: I think the fascination with the more developed and advanced Europe and the desire to copy that at the homeland have been the major highlights of the Egyptian travel literature tradition. You still find traces of that in my own book too, and it is almost inevitable. Funny situations based on cultural differences are usually always there in the travel literature tradition as well.
Radwa Ashour’s Al-Rihla changed that a little bit. Her book was more of a trip into her relationship with the world being discovered: the imperial West, which had been affecting her region and her own life negatively. The experience in Al-Rihla is of a particular nature — it is the woman-subject who tells and arranges the familiar experience of studying in the US. In a sense, this becomes a different telling and a re-arrangement of the tradition.
Similarly in my book the full-time mother is telling the story of two different trips to England. In the first one she — I use the third person singular pronoun to refer to the character because she is not exactly myself; once I put myself on paper I realized that I also became a fictional character — was busy trying to figure out England as a place for her son to study. Occasionally, she was also trying to enjoy the “England” of her dreams. Almost alone on the second trip, this scholar of English literature is telling the story of being in a country that influenced her tastes for 26 years; she is both fascinated by human learning and occupied with her family back home. Finally, and in both trips, she is a “third-world” woman in an ambivalent period, discussing her complicated feelings towards the country, culture, and the people. These traits are different from what a male writer would think or notice in similar trips.
I am not sure why Egyptian travel literature did not stretch greatly outside Europe. I think language is a great barrier. A writer would also need to stay for a very long time to get to the heart of the culture. For instance, when Anees Mansour, a journalist, wrote his famous book Around the World in 80 Days, he could not escape the trap of stereotyping because of the limited time. Of course, one can never escape that trap in a way. I tried, by carefully deconstructing the whole experience every now and then, reminding the reader that after all it is a personal experience. Readers need to think, search, and find answers for themselves while being entertained.
What does travel literature offer the author that other genres do not? Why do you think there hasn’t been more interest in the recent period, when it was such a popular one generations ago?
ME: Travel literature is a great genre, in that it gives the writer endless freedom to use other forms of writing. It is informative, sarcastic, funny, autobiographical, and still very much fictional. Writers may have lost interest in it because they focus on one aspect only, which is the informative aspect and become discouraged because the world has become “a small village” as the trite saying goes. Well, in a sense it is, but you can see that small village from a thousand angles and tell a thousand different stories about it.
One more reason, I think, is the market. Literature lovers tend to prefer the novel now. What about short story collections? They are less prestigious. What about plays? They are less popular; people want to watch them. What about poetry? Oh! Much less wanted. Travel literature? What else could be said about a place like London that has not been said before? You risk not being read or sold. I was advised by Sahar Elmougy to work on the fictional parts of the book and make an effort to turn the book into a novel. I tried and I could not. And you know what? It looks like a novel to me as it is. You need to rethink the concept, as Ashour says, and as I quoted her in the last pages of the book.
To answer your questions, I had to re-read the book after a long time. To tell you the truth, I am surprised by the deconstructionalist nature of this narrative. The parts seem to be at war with each other, and this seems to be working for a particular purpose as well. Even the word “Home,” which ends the narrative part, is ambivalent. I am not sure whether I was looking forward for home or afraid of home. This double message is present all through the book, although it was not planned. I was simply true to what I felt and thought to the point of utter simplicity.
What do you enjoy about Hussein Kadry’s travel book?
ME: I enjoy the simplicity and the fun as well as the questions it raises in a difficult time; namely, the 1973 war with Israel. The book has influenced my entire life, since I read it at 12. By the way, I have recently discovered that Hussien Kadry is still alive, but I cannot find a way to contact him. I need to send him the book and inform him that his first signature has been confirmed by my signature, in the tradition of Derrida.
Your book also seems very much in the tradition of Radwa Ashour’s writing. Are there particular works of Ashour’s that you love, that you think bear re-reading?
ME: All Radwa Ashour’s books must be re-read and criticized. I love them all. Siraaj, however, makes me wonder every time I either read or teach it. In my opinion it is perfection accomplished. A simple concise story, lyrical in language and condensed in emotions; this is what Siraaj is.
You didn’t worry about putting your publisher in the book?
What do you see are the particular difficulties of publishing right now in Egypt, in 2017?
ME: Oh! I worried a lot at a certain stage of my writing career. Talented friends from Seshat workshop for creative writing helped me stop worrying and think the impossible. Putting other people rather than my family in the story came in the second phase of writing, as a result of all the reactions I received after reading the first draft. Every opinion kept ringing in my ears in the voice of its owner. At a moment, I needed to get them all out of my head into paper and ask them to deal with each other. They surprised me by not fighting with each other on paper. Instead, they sort of sat together, chitchatting about the book. They kept quarreling with me, though!
Publishing is a very risky activity now. It has never been profitable enough; however, it is leading to bankruptcy these days. And the book may cause a great political fuss and become confiscated. Fatma Elboudy is a brave woman and her editor Ashraf Yousef is meticulous. Their patience helped me greatly.
Are there other contemporary Egyptian travel books you think are interesting? (Did you read Mahmoud Zaki’s Oroba Btawqeet Embaba?)
ME: Hussien Kadry is still very much productive, I’ve heard. Yastroun publishing house has published some of his recent books. Unfortunately I did not read Zaki’s book, although I would love to do so.