Writing (and Translating) Queer Characters in Egyptian Novels

Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Muhammad Abdelnabi was recently in Paris for the launch of his La Chambre de L’Araignée, where he appeared on a panel about “Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Arab Culture” and later sat down for a talk about writing gay characters into an Egyptian novel, linguistic registers, and loneliness:

By Olivia Snaije

Author Muhammad Abdelnabi and publisher Farouk Mardam-Bey.

Egyptian author Muhammad Abdelnabi was in Paris recently for the French launch of his book La Chambre de L’Araignée, translated by Gilles Gauthier. His 2016 novel centers on a gay man, Hani Mahfouz, who is involved in the unfortunately very real 2001 police raid on the Queen Boat in Cairo. The novel was shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and was published in English last year as In the Spider’s Room, translated by Jonathan Wright. Abdelnabi also won ArabLit’s first Story Prize, along with translator Robin Moger, for his short story, “Our Story.”

Abdelnabi appeared on a panel at the Arab World Institute entitled “Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Arab Culture” which included his translator and former diplomat Gilles Gauthier, Sorbonne University professor of contemporary Arab literature, Frédéric Lagrange, Sorbonne doctoral student Gabriel Semerene, who is focusing on sexuality and gender in Arabic literature, and Smith College professor of French studies, Mehammed Amadeus Mack, who has written about gender, sexuality, and diversity in the French banlieues.

Semerene gave an interesting overview of the evolution and acceptance of vocabulary in Arabic pertaining to homosexuality. Until fairly recently people, including writers, weren’t necessarily aware or sensitive to terms describing homosexuality that weren’t derogatory, he said. In Naguib Mahfouz’s 1947 Midaq Alley, his character Kirsha is described as a “homosexual” by the neighborhood sheikh Darwish, who defines Kirsha’s “condition” in English in the original Arabic version. Semerene pointed out that the words mithliyi/mithliyah, which designate a person sexually attracted to someone of the same gender have become the acceptable terms, rather than words such as shaath, which can mean deviant, used, for example to describe the character Hatim in Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

Gauthier, who is gay and translated The Yacoubian Building into French, said that he told Al-Aswany at the time that he wasn’t happy that he had used the word shaath, even if employing a derogatory term hadn’t been Al-Aswany’s intention; that it was an ugly word, and that he should have used mithliyi.

When Farouk Mardam-Bey at Actes Sud first sent Gauthier Abdelnabi’s In the Spider’s Room, he said he was “enchanted” by it, and not only because the subject concerned him personally—he was in Egypt when the Queen Boat affair happened and is still in touch with someone who was arrested back in 2001.  “I loved this book; it was a great pleasure to translate it. And what an act of courage. Muhammad Abdelnabi opened a door, took a step, and things will never be the same again. Here’s a novel in which homosexuality is spoken about openly and there’s even a happy end!”

Abdelnabi was understandably discreet, replying to questions related to his novel but not about his personal life. He said that his character, Hani, already existed in an 8-page short story he had written and put aside in a drawer. After the Egyptian uprising in 2011, “many people felt they needed to ask specific questions about homosexuality,” said Abdelnabi. “Each time I looked at the [8] pages they spoke to me more and more.”

The day after the event, at the office of Abdelnabi’s publisher, Actes Sud, Abdelnabi answered some questions for ArabLit which have been edited and condensed for clarity:

You were a young man in 2001. Do you remember the Queen Boat incident? Did you file this event away at the back of your mind?

Muhammad Abdelnabi

Muhammad Abdelnabi : I was in university in my third or fourth year, and I heard about the case like everyone else. It was a shock but because I was studying, I didn’t think about it much. Then, I kept hearing about it and reading about it and afterwards, years later, I imagined the real stories. But [the book] is not about the Queen Boat. It’s about Hani Mahfouz as a gay man in Egypt and his relationship with his mother and the character Abdel Aziz. I was thinking about the people and not the event.

Hani, rather than being an activist, is turned inwards, very focused on himself. Why is he so self-absorbed and how did his character evolve?

MA: There are two aspects to his character. There is a level of loneliness, like when he is a teenager, he feels this loneliness deeply, and there’s the other aspect when he gets out and discovers the others, he has taken on a role, playing and singing. He can’t find his real self, and this causes his psychological problems.

Every writer has themes that are repeated in their writing: questions about loneliness, sexual tendencies, the nature of them and how they evolve. Before I wrote this book, I was working on another novel about a poor man called Salama who works as a cleaner in a bank. He has no wife, and no sexual relationships. All of a sudden, he becomes pregnant. So, I was researching the meaning of being a man or a woman and I remembered Hani Mahfouz. I might come back to Salama, though.

You mentioned that it was a challenge to adopt Hani’s voice. Why?

MA: To adopt the voice of any character is a challenge, but it’s easier if the character is closer to you. In my short stories, it was my voice, the character was like me. But for Hani Mahfouz our environment and social class is very different.  I tried to forget about myself and speak like him. Sometimes I slipped and friends put their finger on a few sentences that didn’t work. I had written that Hani didn’t like Mishima’s novel, Confessions of a Mask. They told me “that’s you, not Hani Mahfouz.”

At the Arab Institute Gabriel Semerene spoke about language, and the way words in Arabic have been used to describe gays, can you talk about the vocabulary in your novel?

MA: There are many levels of language, and there is a language used in the gay community. I didn’t want to make a dictionary for gay language. I know a few of these terms. It was very important for me to use the rough words heard on the street. Harsh words, for example, that Hani’s mother uses to describe the [character called] ‘the Prince’ and the effect the word has on Hani.

Is Hani’s last name a wink to Naguib Mahfouz?

MA: I didn’t think about that. But Mahfouz means reserved and protected. And Hani is behind an invisible wall. I realized it later. I liked the meaning of the name, which I changed many times in the first draft.

Were you surprised when your book made the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction because of the subject?

MA: Yes. I expected the longlist, but I was happy with the shortlist. I was surprised, too, because the book was banned in the Emirates. It was at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, but not in the bookstores. In Egypt, there is no censorship of books before they are published, but you can have problems afterwards. I was left alone by security on this subject, they just asked me to delete one phrase about national security [when it was reprinted].

You dedicated the book to your brother Ibrahim. Can you say why?

MA: Because he is very important to me; he is supportive and very understanding. He is a bit religious, we have different beliefs, but we respect each other. We understand and respect our differences.

Muhammed Abdelnabi is also a professional translator from English to Arabic. He is finishing the translation of Michael Oondatje’s novel, Warlight, and putting together a collection of non-fiction essays. He is currently living in a village outside of Cairo.

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