Saturday Summer Re-Runs: Egyptian Novelist Mansoura Ezz Eldin, Carrying the Mantle of Edgar Allan Poe

In an essay-interview that ran last year, writer-translator Ahmed Salah Eldein reflected on the art of Mansoura Ez Eldin and discussed her art and views on life and writing. We re-run it as part of Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth):

By Ahmed Salah Eldein


Ahmed Salah Eldein talks with Mansoura Ezz Eldin.

The first time I heard the word uncanny dates back to 1992, when I had a course in short stories. We studied different samples of uncanny stories, those both very familiar and at the same time weird and frightening. The idea goes to the heart of the very real world.

Reading Mansoura Ez Eldin’s story “Gothic Night,” I immediately remembered the uncanny in Edgar Allan Poe, particularly “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Black Cat.”  As in other of Poe’s stories, terror is created within an ordinary context. To the secure domestic milieu is introduced something that arouses fear, and thus the familiar becomes unfamiliar by the appearance of something alien.

Although postmodernist, the Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez Eldin also continues the legacy of Allan Poe.  When asked about the story “Gothic Night,” Ez Eldin said that the theme of the story falls in a nightmare – an ideal uncanny context – where a giant monster wearing a cloak appears, rushing through the streets. People vanish the moment he points his finger at them. There are two locales in the story. In these two cities, horrible things happen: in the first, a giant blind monster turn people blind, as he is, and in the second city, the sea devours people with its frequent storms. It is frightening everywhere. Nowhere is safe. Human lives can end abruptly while we are helpless and powerless.

The story was first introduced in a Lebanese newspaper in 2011 and was selected by Harvill Secker and Banipal for a translation competition. The winning translator was Wiam El-Tamami, whose efforts were published in Granta. The American writer Marjorie Sandor further included the story in The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, side by side with Kafka, Chekhov, and the aforementioned Poe. In 2013, the story was published in Arabic in the collection Path to Madness.

In her review of The Uncanny Reader, Rebecca Nesvet wrote: “This reader’s favorite discoveries are by the postmodern Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez Eldin. A journalist and novelist, she contributes ‘Gothic Night’, a tale that’s almost a prose poem, told in the very Gothic convention of deliberate fragmentation, which completely belies its apparently self-explanatory title. It’s also a fable with more than one interpretation. It rises to mythopoesis, and makes this reader want very much to read Ez Eldin’s award-winning novels, not all of which have yet been translated into English.”

This was not Ezz Eldin’s first acclaim. Her debut novel Maryam’s Maze was translated into English by AUC press and released in 2007. In 2010, her novel Beyond Paradise made its way to the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist. She was, at the time, the youngest writer to reach the shortlist and the first Egyptian woman writer. In 2013, her collection The Path to Madness was published and, the following year, it won the Cairo International Book Fair award for the best Egyptian short-story collection. In the same year, she won the award of the best Arabic novel from the Sharjah International Book Fair for her novel Emerald Mountain.

Mansoura tells her own story

Mansoura Ezz Eldin: At the age of 18, I left my tiny Delta village and headed to Cairo to pursue my studies. I was supposed to join the School of Engineering at Tanta University, but I changed my mind and decided to make my move to Cairo, to be close to the Cairene literary scene. The only way towards that end was to enroll in a school in Cairo. I had to choose one of three options: mass communications, translation, or economics and political science. My choice was the first, as journalism was closer to my passion to write.

Alone in Cairo, I moved from campus to expatriate houses and private apartments. It was really hard, and I was totally cut off and estranged. However, that feeling died away gradually, as I got acquainted with the place and the people, especially when my first stories started to appear in magazines and newspapers. As an intern, I worked in more than one newspaper, through short internships organized by the school.

In which genres do you write?

MEE: In my novels, I mingle reality and fantasy; this together with uncanny short stories.

Which of your books do you love the most?

coversMEE: I love Maryam’s Maze. I wrote it with amateur boldness and freedom, careless of reception and reader reaction. What preoccupied me foremost was the fun of writing and aesthetic issues. Emerald Mountain is dear too, as it overlaps with the Thousand and One Nights. Writing that novel, I felt as though I were undergoing a cultural and learning transformation: wonderful discovery! However, “Gothic Night” is one of my beloved short stories, where the protagonist searches for night.

What inspires you?

MEE: Dreams are a core component. My writings owe much to my personal dreams and nightmares, too. “Gothic Night” started as a nightmare, and my next novel Shadowgraphs originated in a dream. However, I then focus on minute details and characters of people I meet. Sometimes, flash sightings and glimpses are valuable sources of inspiration. I believe that a writer has to view himself as “Alice” and the world around as a “Wonderland”; to maintain their curiosity and passion. I think both should be always evolving as they form the foundation of creativity.

What types of books do you read?

MEE: I read philosophy and poetry. I love fantasy and fiction novels where writers tend to experiment.

Who are your favorite authors?

MEE: My choice apples are Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, Bruno Schulz, Carlos Fuentes, and Roberto Bolaño.

What is on the list of your beloved books? 

MEE: Among my favorite books are the Thousand and One Nights, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Dostoevsky’s books, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, Aura by Carlos Fuentes.

What were the books of your childhood?

MEE: I used to read fairy stories, detective novels, and the [inexpensive paperback] Egyptian “pocket novels.”

When did the writer within you come to existence?

MEE: It was a late realization, actually. Yes, I was a bookworm since I was just a kid, but the idea of being a writer never came to my mind. It was just a far, far off and even fantastic probability. As if the writing profession were made only for someone else. Then at the age of 18, reading a short story in an Arabic magazine issued in London, I told myself that I could write a better story than this one. I immediately started to write a story and sent it right to Ibdaa magazine before my enthusiasm faded. It was published in the following issue with handsome praise by the editor, the writer Abdallah Khairat, who predicted that I would be a renowned writer in the future.

Ezz Eldin’s breakthrough

The young Mansoura Ezz Eldin had a dream. Her journey from a tiny village to the Egyptian literary elite was not easy. She fought fiercely and exerted hard efforts to transcend and succeed. Every step was meaningful, even moments of failure, as they gave her hard lessons. She avoided despair by totally losing herself in her work and distancing herself from the mainstream. She learned from great artists like Naguib Mahfouz and Mohieddin Ellabad. They focused on their work, awaiting no rewards.

About her journey from innocence to experience, Mansoura said: “I was coddled for my excellence at school. I hadn’t seen any discrimination or male prejudice, perhaps because of that. They were proud of me. The only situation where I faced some resentment was when I decided to move to Cairo and live by myself.

“However, when my mother died, I started to look at things differently. Reality is harder than it seems for women, especially when they are weak and powerless. Women should stand out from the crowd to evade the destiny of others who are buried alive symbolically.  Women’s suffering was a focal point in my novel Beyond Paradise.”

In striving to change the status quo for women, Mansoura looks for a total revisiting of established stereotypes. She firmly believes that it is time to radically change the naive assumption that not wearing veils by women is a sin. She took off the veil. Her own experience with the veil was very personal and done of free will. No one, she believes, has the right to impose their view on others. For instance, her sisters are veiled, but this is something they decide. She is also against the pressure faced by those who don’t wear it. It is again an issue of personal freedom. The strangest aspect of the patriarchal system, she said, is women’s total identification with it. “They represent it and enforce its rules on fellow women old or young,” Ezz Eldin said. “Actually, I started to feel myself a woman in 2004 when my mother died quickly, in agony from cancer.”

A passion for storytelling and the call of duty

As early as 21, she threw herself into storytelling, and her stories began to make their way to Egyptian literary media. After graduating from the Faculty of Mass Communications in 1988, she pursued her career in journalism and today holds the position of book section head and assistant chief editor at the Egyptian literary journal Akhbar Al-Adab. She says that her job duties devour a great deal of time. She added that her best time ever was the period between 2011 and 2014, when she had unpaid leave. It was a very rewarding time as she did a lot of reading and writing. Otherwise, she exerts a great effort to cope with responsibilities and even make use of them to the best advantage of her writing. She writes a book review weekly, where she selects books she loves and recommends them for reading. Thus, happily, she reads a lot of books within the confines of her job.

Also read: Mansoura Ezz Eldin’s “Gothic Night” in award-winning translation by Wiam El-Tamami.

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).