This summer saw the English-language release of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award-winning After Coffee, a coming-of-age novel by Egyptian author Abdelrashid Mahmoudi. The translation, by Nashwa Gowanlock, is published by HBKU Press, formerly Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation (BQFP):
After Coffee follows the story of Medhat, an orphaned boy who grows up shuffling between various farming families in a small village in the Sharquia province, east of the Nile delta.
What was intended to be a brief visit for the five-year-old to Cairo ended up being the beginning of a nomadic life no one could have imagined for him. Medhat’s journey takes him across the many landmarks of Egypt and beyond, all the way to Vienna where he discovers that his feelings of displacement still haunt him at the core.
In a narrative that interweaves aspects of Egyptian folklore, epic prose, and classical literature, Abdelrashid Mahmoudi skilfully presents the conflict between the man in exile, who reflects longingly on his history and origins, and the village boy who belonged nowhere.
The author and translator will read from the novel in both languages at an event hosted at SOAS university, London, on January 14, 2019 from 7 pm. Ahead of the event, translator Nashwa Gowanlock led a discussion between herself, Mahmoudi, and the novel’s editor Marcia Lynx Qualey, who lived in Egypt between 2001 and 2012. The three spoke about the book and Egypt, a country that connects this collaborative team.
By Nashwa Gowanlock
Prior to signing the contract with BQFP to translate After Coffee, I arranged to meet the author, Abdelrashid Mahmoudi, aptly at the Eros statue in London’s Piccadilly Circus. He suggested a little patisserie he knew that was just around the corner.
I had read After Coffee with great enthusiasm, devouring the details of an Egypt I was desperate to discover. Growing up an expat in both the Gulf and the UK I had always felt an urge to experience life in my native Egypt, for more than a summer in Cairo and a brief sojourn to the northern coast each year. I had visited the countryside only a handful of times, to Fayoum, where my mother’s family is originally from and al-Mansoura, the capital of the northeast governorate of al-Daqahlia, where my father grew up. But the village life Mahmoudi describes in the novel is a million miles away from anything I ever imagined.
I asked Abdelrashid to draw a map of the villages depicted in the first part of the novel to help me visualise the location I would be rendering into English. He dutifully sketched a rough map on a napkin, which I kept and would often refer to whenever I wished to immerse myself deeper into the story. I was lucky that Abdelrashid had spent time in both Egypt and the UK, and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. We were able to discuss both the book and our own backgrounds, which is quite rare for a translator and author duo, who are often based in different countries if not continents.
After that initial meeting, our communication naturally became focussed on the text. We exchanged dozens of emails as our mutual interest in experience in translation led to in-depth discussions over word choice. Mahmoudi’s writing did not only teach me more about my country and its political and folkloric history, it also offered an addictive introduction to some classical texts I was even less familiar with. As challenging as this would inevitably be, with numerous hours of additional research required to produce a translation, After Coffee is an absorbing read and project to work on.
Once the translated text was eventually submitted, communication between the author and I naturally petered out. Now that the book is being released, I realised that the person I most wanted to celebrate this success with was Mahmoudi himself and that despite the many emails we exchanged, there were many more questions I still wanted to ask him. Our editor, Marcia Lynx Qualey, was herself a former resident of Egypt who is also proficient in the Egyptian dialect and a self-professed Arabic literature ‘nerd’, and I realized that the conversation could be widened to include all three of us.
Nashwa Gowanlock:The village life you introduce readers to in After Coffee seems so unique and sacred, in a way, being so far from the urban life many of us are absorbed by. How important was it for you to record details of this culture?
Abdelrashid Mahmoudi: There are in fact several Egyptian novels dealing with village life in Egypt. To mention but a few, Zainab by Muhammad Huasyn Haykal, al-Ard (The Land) by Abdelrahman al-Sharquawi and Yawmyyat Naaib fi-Alaryaf (The Diary of a Country Prosecutor) by Tawfik al-Hakim. If there is something special or different about my novel, then I would leave it to readers and critics to say what it is. As far as I am concerned, I held fast to, and focused on, village life because I felt that it was a dying culture, and I decided to keep it alive in memory. Hence, for instance, my decision to write the dialogue exchanges in the village dialect (as distinct from literary Arabic and even from the Cairo colloquial). Something similar applies to life in the beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Ismailia, which I portrayed with a sense of loss, because it has vanished.
NG:It’s true that a theme of disintegration is prevalent in the novel, from the community institutions such as the seera– the local village meeting point – to the folkloric tales, poems and songs, which the younger generation no longer even recognise. The theme even extends to the demise of the older Medhat’s own control over the muscles of his hand as he struggles to play the piano.
AM:If it is true that such a theme runs through the novel, then I must say it was not planned. Written first, the third part of the novel, about Medhat’s life in Vienna, was meant to be comic or even satirical. But I am inclined to think that there comes a moment in the process of writing when the work itself takes over following a course of its own, and the author becomes more or less an instrument. This development is due to what I might call the author’s inner self or super ego. When this happens, I rejoice and let go. As far as regeneration is concerned, I like to think that that the novel contains an undercurrent of glimmering hope. Think for instance of Marika, the Greek lady who adopted Medhat as an orphaned village boy, or the Viennese family who much later invited him, a total stranger, to share their dinner table in a restaurant.
Marcia Lynx Qualey: I think one of the great innovations of this book is that it takes a coming-of-age story, where a young person is full of fire and promise, and then leaps from a bright young man into a (disappointing) middle-aged one, and how surprising this is, and yet how relatable. If you started with the last part, why did you decide to move to the earlier two sections?
AM:The work was originally conceived as a novella about the hero’s life and amorous adventures in Vienna. But like some of my short stories, the novella when completed appeared to be full of potential and to contain the nucleus of a full-fledged novel. For instance, it was made clear in that original version that the hero was unhappily married, that he was of rural origins and that he was a music lover. These and other elements pointed to possible further development by going back to the origins in the hero’s past.
MLQ: Medhat as a boy has any number of graces: he’s intelligent, he’s scrappy, and we can’t help but root for him. I’m still curious how you worked backwards from Medhat-the-adult into the child he would be!
AM: The original version of the work contained indications as to move backward. But at the end of the day, one cannot fully explain how the mind of a creative writer moves. Writing is a challenge and an adventure; there is always room for experimentation, taking risks and the free play of the imagination. The writer is not always a calculating rational animal; sometimes he is “possessed” working under the spell of unconscious and subconscious powers.
NG: How much of Medhat’s character is based on the your own life?
AM: Those who think that the novel is autobiographical are probably struck by the graphic details and the author’s noticeable attachment to real places and spaces, and maybe also by the fact that Medhat is a novelist like the author. Well, I drew on my own experiences and observations, such as the ones I just mentioned. For example, I have always been passionate about music. However, when it came to writing about Medhat’s life in Vienna, I felt handicapped by my musical illiteracy and my incapacity to write convincingly about music even as an amateur. So I decided to take lessons in piano playing and musical theory. That was part of my homework. Generally speaking, I gave myself the liberty to plunder reality, whether it was my own life or others’. So, there is a bit of me in Medhat, but there is so much that was drawn from other real or literary models or simply invented. All of these elements were weaved together into a great yarn. Medhat, the final product, emerges as an antihero, a pathetic or tragicomic figure with serious failings and plunders, and no graces apart from his love of music. Or that is at least what he was meant to be.
NG:Were the locations in the book were based on your own childhood homes?
AM:I lived in all the environments in which Medhat is supposed to have lived in. So my life story served as a sketchy blueprint. But the final product is fiction. Many of the characters in the novel, including Medhat, were based on real models. But these models were used as raw materials allowing the author to have a free hand in sculpting and creating the final product. And it so happens sometimes that a given character might be a compound of several models. This is the case of Medhat; he is made up of several raw models, which I used freely.
NG: The transformation in narrative context and style is so dramatic, where did the inspiration for the novel come from?
AM:It came from different sources. But I think my visits to Vienna played a decisive role. Quite a few incidents happened there and left indelible impressions. Being acutely aware that I was living in the city of great classical composers, I was particularly struck by Viennese street festivities with music, song and dance. There were episodes and scenes that attracted my attention, made me think and found their way to the novel. For instance, as I was on my out of a metro station, I saw in a hallway so many sheets of paper stuck to a pillar. When I stopped to read, I found poems, which made me think of their author. Why should he publish his compositions in that way? I imagined that he was hiding somewhere waiting for his beloved to emerge out of the crowd and stop to read his love poems. Also, while I was once a bit lost looking for a recommended restaurant, a group of people (in fact an elderly man and his two daughters) came to my rescue and invited me to share their table in that same restaurant. That encounter gave rise to a big imaginary story in the novel. The same applies to a visit I paid to a public swimming pool and sauna attended mainly by old age pensioners. The scene of stark naked men and women hovering around in the basement of a building (an underworld) looked so unreal, so surrealistic and so inviting to the writer in me. It seems that Vienna touched a nerve there. That is why the last stage in the hero’s life journey, which was spent in Vienna, came to be written first. From there I moved backward to his early childhood in the village.
I would say that I was strongly influenced by my early readings in classical Arabic literature and the Holy Books of the three monotheistic religions. On the Western side, I was deeply impressed in my late teens by Dostoevsky; in my early twenties, I fell in love with Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, but Cervantes and Homer came to play a major part in shaping my outlook as a fiction writer. I may also add that I learnt a lot, unconsciously, from narratives in the Quran and the New Testament.
AM: Being a modern Egyptian, how did you, as the translator, respond to the portrait of an Egyptian village and a way of life that are now extinct?
NG: I was immediately absorbed by the description of the Egyptian village, which I knew I would never experience so intimately as a visitor. The opening scene with its image of the novel’s 5-year old protagonist Medhat, racing across the canal that divides his village from the village of the Upper Egyptians had me hooked. Not only was their childhood devoid of smart phones and tablets, Netflix and Xbox, but their concept of fun consisted of escapades that include attacking wasps that built their nests on rooftops – a dangerous pastime for children who spend much of their day running around with little or no clothes. These are kids that bathe in the river where they ride on the water buffalos and who spend their days searching for their next adventure. Medhat especially is described as a chronic wanderer and it is through his roaming that we as readers are able to explore this mysterious world.
The Egypt of my childhood was Cairo: our beloved overpopulated and polluted capital. Before reading After Coffee, the closest I had come to imagining the world drawn in the novel was through stories my father told about his own childhood where, he claims, he was the only boy at his primary school to wear shoes. Though his town was not quite as small or remote as Medhat’s village, they at least had a school, whereas Medhat’s village – which is considered the most civilised of the area – only has a small Quranic establishment led by a local teacher. In fact, as I read the novel, a small part of my mind kept tripping over imagining what life might have been like for my young father. Like Medhat, my father’s father had also died at a young age like Medhat, leaving him to be raised by various family members and in different towns.
AM:And Marcia, I’d like to know what your reaction was going through such a long narrative covering so many different environments.
MLQ: At first, I read them as three different novels: (1) an “honor story” where Medhat was in the background; (2) Medhat’s youthful coming-of-age; and (3) Medhat’s middle-aged quest-crisis. Later, I came to appreciate the leap between (1) and (2): When we’re small children, we’re not really the centers of our own stories, but are a part of our community. Then the jump from part (2) to (3) was both the most startling and ultimately the most satisfying in the book. In so many “coming of age” novels, we leave when the young character is still full of promise, on the precipice of something. It was wonderful to cut out the intervening years and suddenly be with a middle-aged character who had in many ways failed (at relationships, at parenting, at finding a satisfactory place for himself in Egypt, despite his modest literary success). As for setting, I admit I was ultimately more interested in reading the sections set anywhere around Egypt, since Egypt is the country of my heart and Vienna is just some boring city in the middle of Europe. 🙂 Like Marika, I took was anxious for him to give up this nonsense and go home.
NG:It strikes me that there is a resemblance between Marcia and Marika, the Greek woman who becomes an integral character in the novel…
MLQ: Ha! Well, that’s a lot more flattering than the dreadful American woman Marcia in Mekkawi Said’sCairo Swan Song.I’d be happy to be Marika, who is a European resident in twentieth-century Egypt without the baggage of believing she’s superior.
Why was it important to incorporate a foreign Greek woman who is also fully Egyptian? For me, this blurs the lines of national identity, especially as part of it is set during anti-colonial nationalist protests. Do you consider her an Egyptian or a foreigner or both or neither?
AM:Well, she was not fully Egyptian. The Greeks in Egypt formed a distinct community with their own flourishing culture, although they were an integral part of a thriving cosmopolitan society. The novel celebrates this diversity in unity, bearing in mind also the tremendous influence of classical Greece on Islamic culture. This background must have played a part, however unconscious, in the choice of Greek Marika, as a main character. She was also exotic and something of a welcome challenge for the author, who happens to believe that dealing with such difficult choices can give rise to drama and poetry.
AM: Nashwa, did you experience any difficulty in your attempt to make the rural customs and language intelligible to the English-speaking readers?
NG: Yes! It’s never easy trying to marry up cultural references between the source and target language, especially with often polarized traditional frameworks. Your text is full of colourful expressions and proverbs that were very tricky to translate. I had to judge each one on a case-by-case basis. Some expressions or proverbs translated well, without the need to search for an English equivalent, like “An onion shared with a lover one is a lamb”.
Growing up bilingual and living in an English-speaking country, I have grown accustomed to constantly having to interpret Egyptian culture, often to simply express an idea or concept that I desperately want my English friends to share. So in fact, it was a real pleasure to work through some of my native country’s idiosyncrasies and have them forever recorded in print. One of my favourite proverbs to translate was the popular proverb: “the smack of a loved one is as sweet as a sultana”. I also took a lot of joy in finding a rhyme scheme, with the help of my Egyptian friends, for another familiar Egyptian proverb: “If the wind passes through the open door, close it and worry no more”.
However, I am painfully aware that many other options exist and I feel the weight of responsibility for my selection but it isn’t an easy task. Sometimes, I did have to compromise and accept the loss of either part of the original’s rhyme or meaning, in order to render as much of the sense of the culture in translation as possible. I was in a privileged position with this project to have both author and editor to discuss the translation with, with Abdelrashid and Marcia both also translators Arabic into English and familiar with the Egyptian dialect. As a strong supporter of collaboration, this was an ideal translation to work on and I hope readers will enjoy the fruits of our collaborative labour!
Those interested in reading After Coffee can buy it on Kindle (US, UK) and Jamalon. Those interested in the event can find more at the website of the SOAS Centre for Cultural, Literary, and Postcolonial Studies.