Launching Sahar Elmougy’s Long-awaited ‘The Hill’s Musk,’ A Rewriting of Mahfouz’s Amina

Sahar Elmougy has launched a new novel, The Hill’s Musk, ten years after her popular Noun:

By Mona Elnamoury

Ten years after Noun comes The Hill’s Musk, Sahar Elmougy’s long-waited new novel.

On Monday June 19, Cairo’s Grand Library in Zamalek held a signing for Elmougy, attended by many academics, journalists, writers, and translators, and moderated by renowned author Khaled al-Khamissi and poet Omar Sameh.

Elmougy, among the most prominent Egyptian women writers, took a long time to produce another masterful work. Though she explains the lapse of time in terms of the Egyptian uprisings and unrest, it’s clear she hasn’t wasted her time. Elmougy is one of very few writers who dedicate themselves to moderating creative writing workshops, supporting other emerging writers and tremendously enriching the cultural scene.  From 2012 through 2016, Elmougy moderated six creative writing workshops entitled Seshat, named after the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility and creativity, hosted by Doum Cultural Foundation.

In The Hill’s Musk, we have Mariam, an Egyptian psychiatrist; Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights; and Amina of Mahfouz’s Trilogy. The three female characters are significant to Elmougy’s psychological journey and to the history of literary female characters. The Greek mythology of the “Sirens”  is Elmougy’s frame device, setting the characters into contemporary Cairo and our lives. The story ends on the first day of 2011, a sad day when The Saints’ Church in Alexandria exploded.  It seems that the novel subtly tackles the steps toward the Arab Spring.

Elmougy’s novel brings into the literary scene a visible, professional literary editor. Amira Abu Almagd, editor of Dar Al Shorouk, played that role for Elmougy, who admits that Abu Almagd has shared in shaping the novel in its final form and helped her take significant decisions. For instance, The Hill’s Musk is the work’s second title. The first was Serenet, an Arabic name for The Sirens, women or winged creatures whose singing lured unwary sailors on to rocks. Abu Almagd had strong reservations about the title. She wanted something more readily digestible for the Arab reader.  Elmougy was at a loss. She says it took her a whole month to figure out a new title, though she admits the publisher’s was a wise decision. The Sirens is a Greek mythology that only unfolds halfway through the book. It would have been a distancing title indeed.

Of the writing experience, Elmougy says that she has approached the idea in a playful way. But the playfulness turned into serious search when Catherine Earnshaw, heroine of Wuthering Heights, and Amina, heroine of Mahfouz’s famous Trilogy, come and speak to her. Catherine represents Elmougy’s cultural half impacted by Western literature. Catherine, as an emblem of revolution, has always fascinated Elmougy.

On the contrary, Amina has always been a thorn in her side, partly because of how she represented of female oppression and resignation, and partly because of the fact that she was stereotyped in the film version and turned into a cliché. In Elmougy’s opinion, the cinema has done Mahfouz a great harm by molding and typing his characters. Before writing this novel, she had always thought that if she could give Amina the inner life she was not allowed to show, perhaps she could finally make peace with her and give Mahfouz his due credit. This is what she does in The Hill’s Musk: figuring out inner lives for female characters who never spoke before.

An excerpt of the novel translated into English.

نظرت إلى تاريخ اليوم على شاشة الموبايل، 9 مايو 2010، كأنها تتأكد أن أيام سبع قد انقضت. في كل يوم كانت تفتح عينيها وهي تسأل نفسها إن كانت قد أقدمت بالفعل على حماقة بهذا الحجم، أن تدعو إلى بيتها امرأتين لا تعرف عنهما إلا ما يشير إلى كونهما تعانيان من أعراض “ذُهان”! لكنها ذكرت نفسها أن تلك الفعلة أقل خطورة من رغبة الانتحار التي عادت إليها في الأسابيع الماضية. لم تستسلم لها، وإلا كانت الآن ترقد، والعياذ بالله، في حضن أمها ناهد في مقابر البساتين، وهو شيء أكثر بشاعة من الجحيم ذاته. لقد قاومت تلك الرغبة، أغرقتها في مضادات الاكتئاب التي تركتها جثة تتنفس ولا تحس بأي شيء. وعلى الرغم من ذلك وجدت مريم نفسها في أحد أيام الشهر الماضي تخطو ببرود إلى المطبخ وتفتح عيون البوتاجاز كي يتدفق الغاز على راحته إلى البيت. عادت بعد دقائق وأغلقته بنفس القدر من الهدوء وفتحت نافذة المطبخ كأنها تطرد من البيت رائحة تحمير بطاطس.

She glanced at the mobile’s screen: It was the ninth of May, 2010. It was as if she was making sure seven whole days had passed. Every day, she would open her eyes and wonder whether she had actually committed such a reckless act — hosting two women she knew nothing about except they were psychotic! But then she reminded herself that this was far less dangerous than the suicidal wish that had crept back in the past few weeks. She did not surrender. Otherwise she would have been lying, God forbid, next to her mother in Albasateen’s cemetery, something more terrible than hell itself. She’d drowned herself in anti-depressants that left her a breathing corpse until, one day of July, Mariam found herself walking coldly into the kitchen and turning the knob on the cooker on so the gas would flow freely into the house. Minutes later, she turned it off quietly and opened the kitchen window as if to clear the house off the smell of potato frying.

Photo credit, Marwan Hatem.


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