Novelist and physics professor Amr Shaarawi recently spoke with translator, educator, and scholar Yasmine Motawy about his creative process:
By Yasmine Motawy
Amr Shaarawi is a professor of physics at The American University in Cairo, and his first published novel, Tokar: the Story of One Hundred and One Thousand Moons, won him the Academy of Arabic Language in Cairo Prize for best historical novel published between 2011 and 2016.
Yasmine Motawy: You normally research photonic bandgap materials, the shaping of pulsed beams, and the propagation of wideband pulses… Then you write a novel that you describe as “a journey between two defeats,” from the 1882 battle of Tel El Kebir, where Colonel Ahmed Orabi and his 15000 men were defeated in their rebellion against the British, to the defeat of the Egyptian army in 1884 in Tokar, in the Sudan. Why?
Amr Shaarawi: Those are two questions: Why writing and why Tokar! I wrote a bit in my senior year of high school, and in my early university days, and then science took over completely for decades. I was always a good reader of both English and Arabic literature, and I always found the Arabic language to be so expansive and inviting to play with and express myself through. It was only in 2008, when I was Associate Dean of Graduate Studies & Research and my colleagues and I would host faculty from other universities abroad, that I would tell them stories over dinner by way of entertainment, so my colleague and friend Dr Ehab Abdel-Rahman asked me, “Why don’t you write these stories, they are incredibly entertaining,” and so I began to. At first, it was four or five stories of about 30 to 40 pages, that were basically fleshed out anecdotes, in a form reminiscent of Pushkin’s The Duel, but I never published any of them.
It wasn’t until the revolution that I began writing more, and one night during a curfew, I began to wonder about the Egyptian saying “we lost it in Tokar” and what it meant. My research took me to interesting places; I dived into readings on the Kitchener campaigns, the Mahdi movement, and narratives around Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur and Osman Digna, and I immediately saw the structure for a full novel. I began writing in November 2011 and was done by November 2013.
YM: What a time to begin writing about defeat! Did you see any similarities between the story you were writing and the story unfolding outside your apartment?
AS: I saw a great many similarities; the nationalist movement, the debates around the constitution, the differences between the civil and military bodies, the discussions around legitimacy, the formation of parliament and the drafting of the constitution, the ideas of an Islamic caliphate and Arab nationalism that were thrown about, and the opportunistic interventions of foreign powers in Egyptian affairs. More essentially, the book explores the impact of defeat on the psyches of men. So it can be considered a contemporary story, written on a historical canvas.
In fact, my second published novel,The Revolution of Qaw, is a historical novel about a forgotten revolution in the “Gao” in Upper Egypt. Three villages had to be razed to the ground to contain it, and new villages stand in their place, cementing the obliteration of its memory.
YM: I am interested in your writing process; do you approach your writing in a systematic scientific manner as befits your training? How do you find your writing flow?
AS: I find writing to be a game; it’s like a puzzle made of characters, words, and plot that I play with. I knew the structure of the story from the outset, then I began to plot the anchor points throughout the 18 months of the story, like the cholera outbreak, and the Orabi plot. When I read Abdelrahman Elrafeii’s book The Orabi Revolution and the British Occupation, and I stopped at an appendix he had made, listing the names of all the officers that had been put on probation following the containment of the Orabi uprising, I felt I had my characters, and that the story had come to life. By giving my characters the names of these officers, I felt I had summoned their personalities and all I had to do was imagine and record what they might have done.
After I was almost finished with the manuscript, I experienced a bit of imposter syndrome, because in spite of my best efforts, I had not been to Sawakin in the Sudan. So, I removed the immediacy of experiencing the Sudan by making all but one of the chapters set there, an epistolary exchange between the protagonist and his father.
I find writing to be extremely pleasurable; I do it in the car on my way to campus from Zamalek, at meetings, or in my living room. I have a lot of stressful administrative duties and have known what a tough life is, so writing is my personal walk in the park. If I am not enjoying myself, I stop. If I finish and something is still nagging at me, I sit on it. If I like a scene but it doesn’t fit, I pull it into another book.
YM: As a first-time author, how did your book find its publisher?
AS:Well, even though it had been finished for months, the manuscript lay about unseen for a while because I didn’t know if it was any good, or if my Arabic was beautiful enough. I began to share it with good friends, who were surprised that I had been writing and would ask: “Does it have love in it? Does it have crime? Does it have history?” I would tell them: “It has everything!” I was sceptical about their positive feedback at first, but then those who reported having finished it in three days encouraged me to consider publishing it.
It was only in November 2014 that I considered sending it to AlAin Publishing, whom I knew only by reputation. By January 2015, they had not responded, so I walked to Behler passage and visited their offices and introduced myself to the then- editor-in-chief Ashraf Youssef. He is a poet, and he warmly invited me to sit and talk and told me he would get in touch with me after the book fair was over. When he did, he had read the manuscript carefully and wanted me to remove 100 pages of the text, move a battle up a few chapters, and he added the second part of the book title. I edited out 50 pages without losing any of the scenes, and was happy with the tightness this gave the language. When the book won the Academy of Arabic Language in Cairo, I was surprised but very happy because it was the language that most worried me.
YM: Where is the scientist in you when you are writing? Are you now a physicist/historical novelist or will we see other kinds of literature from you?
AS: The scientist in me allowed me to write without judging myself too much. When I began graduate school, my advisor drew a line on a piece of paper and told me that whatever lay below the line was what we did not understand, and whatever lay above it, was what we did understand. He said to me: “You don’t really need to do anything here but shift one small thing from below the line, above it.”
I am currently working on a novel that is based in the world of physics, but the manuscript I have just completed is more social; it take place in the Egyptian context of the period between the 1967 and 1977 bread uprisings. Because I lived this period, I did no research at all so it wouldn’t feel like it was really historical writing. I did however use many anecdotes I had heard from family and friends growing up, you see, as I spent many years sitting quietly at the dinner table where my siblings and I were to be seen and not heard.
The opening scene of The Revolution of Qaw comes from a fragment of a family anecdote about a severed arm being thrown into a mother’s lap. Why it was severed, by whom, how it ended up there, I have completely forgotten, but I saved this shred of a memory and put it into a new setting.
YM: I have told you that I found following the battles to be the most challenging part of reading the book, how did you write them?
AS: Haha, yes, a cousin of mine told me she almost skimmed through them as she read. I found accounts of campaigns written and published by minor British colonial officers, and knew from Egyptian accounts, where the leaders of the battles were positioned during the fighting, and began to reconstruct the battles as they would have been told by the defeated.
YM: What do you read, and what are you reading right now?
AS: [Pulls out a copy of Ahmed Ibrahim Elsherif’s Tariq Alhalfa from his bag.] I am enjoying this right now. I have always been a promiscuous and avid reader of all genres. In the novel form, I read Yusuf Idris, and Taha Hussein when I was younger, and I love Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Marquez, and Kazantzakis. I also love Radwa Ashour, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, and many others. I have just — to my embarrassment — discovered Abdel Hakim Kassem and am rediscovering Naguib Mahfouz, whom I did not appreciate when I was younger. I think that he is one of the best writers at building memorable and distinct characters.
YM: When will we be able to share an English copy of Tokar with friends?
AS: I have not made plans for translation but would love to have a good translation published, so at least so my wife can read it!
Yasmine Motawy is an educator and a children and young adult literature scholar, translator, editor, consultant. She is a senior instructor at the American University in Cairo.