Mohammad Rabie on Revolution, Translation, and ‘La Bibliothèque Enchantée’

Egyptian novelist-editor Mohammad Rabie was at the Maghreb-Orient des Livres in Paris:

By Olivia Snaije

Editor Farouk Mardam-Bey with author Mohammad Rabie.

Egyptian author Mohammad Rabie, whose third novel, Otaredwas shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), was trained as a civil engineer. He published his first novel, Amber Planet, in 2010. Now, nine years later, it has been translated into French, as La Bibliothèque Enchantée (The Enchanted Library) by Stéphanie Dujols. Dujols had used the term “enchanted library” in her pitch to the publisher, Actes Sud, and the title stuck. (“At first I was afraid that people would think it was a children’s tale but when I saw the cover, I was no longer worried,” said Dujols.)

Rabie wrote and published Amber Planet before 2011, and his work that followed has been far more somber. Rabie was in Paris for the Maghreb-Orient des Livres book fair and to promote his book. He spoke to ArabLit about his newly translated first book, some of his favorite books as a child and an adult, and about his current work as an editor. And how he organizes his bookshelves.

What is it like to be speaking about Amber Planet now, nine years later? Do you still feel close to the novel or has so much happened since then that you feel like a different person?

Mohammad Rabie: I tried to read the novel on my way to Paris and after 30 or 40 pages I found it boring, but I remembered everything, it all came back to me. But I’m a different person today. During these ten years huge changes happened in my life. [When the revolution happened] I was 32 and was married and had my daughter and I was working as an engineer. Now I’m no longer an engineer, I work as an editor, and wrote two novels afterwards. I met a friend of mine who works in Paris and I told him they translated my novel. Otared, he asked? No, Amber Planet, I told him, and I said I didn’t know why because publishers usually want your latest work. But he said, it’s a good novel.

There is a sweetness in this book in contrast to the violence in Otared

MR: I was still naïve. When the revolution happened, I was writing [my second book]Year of the Dragon. I stopped writing during the revolution and didn’t complete it until the end of 2011, and at this time I realized that everything [politically] was going the wrong way. I wrote about tyranny, though, which is maybe our fate.

Amber Planet is about a library. What is your relationship with libraries and what was the inspiration for writing it?

MR: I wish I could say I had a good relationship with libraries. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of libraries in Cairo, libraries are not something happening in Egypt. I wish there had been a library in my neighborhood, I would have been there all the time. Maybe I was fulfilling a dream of mine.

At the Maghreb-Orient des Livres, you told the audience during an event that, two years after your book had been published, a friend of yours told you about a library in Cairo that resembled the one in Amber Planet.

MR: I went to visit this library, it was very close to what I had imagined in my book. It was very strange. The only difference was there were no people in the library.

In Amber Planet, they have a very particular way of organizing the books on the library shelves. How do you organize your books?

MR: I try to organize my books by genre. But I fail all the time. A book can be in many categories at the same time. For example, take W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, how can you categorize it? In my library, books by Sebald are on their own, in a corner.

You said you had been reading Borges around the time you wrote this book; do you remember what else you were reading?

MR: It’s not very related to writing, but I was reading al-Isfahani’s The Book of Songs in 24 volumesIn 2008, I had started to read one volume a year and I think I was in the process of reading the second or third volume. Reading this work is a project in itself.

There are elements of the fantastic in this first book, which became more pronounced in your next books. Did you read a lot of fantastic and science fiction growing up?

MR: I did read science fiction as a child. There were two main series in Egypt then, both by Nabil Farouk; The Impossible Man, which was about espionage, and a guy in the intelligence service, and the other series called The Future File, which was pure sci-fi, with gadgets: laser guns, rocket cars. Everybody was reading the series about espionage and hated the sci-fi, but I liked the series. I read Jules Verne afterwards. And Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, and Stanislov Lem’s Solaris. These are the novels I still remember.

You write about translation in Amber Planet, and a secret translator?

MR: I was very interested in translation at that time. I thought we have to translate much more into Arabic. We learn English and some people learn French, but I would like to see more languages learned and more books translated into Arabic.

In Amber Planet, you write about the destruction of buildings, or buildings that are in very bad shape. Is this related to your studies as a civil engineer?

MR: The one story about the destruction of a building happened to a friend of mine. His family was forced to leave the building, and he went and took things like doorknobs from the apartment because he wanted to keep something as a souvenir. Civil engineering is about building, not about demolishing. I think we are losing a lot in terms of buildings and our heritage in Cairo.

You said that every few years you are influenced by different authors. Who are you reading now?

MR: I’m reading Sebald now, and over the past three years I read Kurt Vonnegut, a fantastic writer. I’m reading Jonathan Safran Foer and I read Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. In nonfiction I read Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies. Some books I read in Arabic, some in English, it’s all about reading good writers.

Would you like to translate a novel?

MR: I wish I could translate. I don’t have much time. I read, edit, and write and read for leisure. As a writer you have to read to learn so there is no time for translating.

How come you stopped working in civil engineering?

MR: I was very interested in engineering for eight or nine years. Then, in the last years, I lost interest. Maybe I was making some tiny revolution in my life. I’m very happy with my work. In the Arab world, there is no such thing as an editor in publishing houses, but I’m working as an editor. When I began, I was very afraid—how could I support my family if I failed? But at Dar al-Tanweer they were very friendly and patient with me and I learned how to edit from Hassan Yaghi.

And you’re now working as an editor at Dar al-Karma. And what else are you working on?

MR: I’m finishing my fourth novel. It’s about tyranny, it’s futuristic, and some of the events happen in 2040. The working title is History of Gods of Egypt.

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism.