Al-Sayyid Negm on Publishing in Egypt: ‘A Beautiful and Difficult Journey’

Al-Sayyid Negm, author of the 2018 environmental novel The Noise of Frogs, talks with Layla Azmi Goushey about writing what he sees as “resistance literature” and the “beautiful and difficult journey” of getting published in Egypt:

By Layla Azmi Goushey

In his 2018 book ضجيج الضفادع (The Noise of Frogs), Al-Sayyid Negm tells a story of unregulated, unrestrained construction and development on the Nile. Negm writes of traditions twined with contemporary realities for individuals and communities along the river. His characters are the engineers, politicians, and bureaucrats who manage and sometimes instigate pollution and disease and the ordinary people who must live with the impact of change.

The Noise of Frogs is Negm’s latest addition to what he refers to as resistance literature. According to Barbara Harlow, whose seminal book Resistance Literature helped bring the genre to the attention of English-speaking academics, the term “resistance,” with reference to literature, was first used in 1966 by writer and critic Ghassan Kanafani in his study Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine: 1948-1966.  Harlow notes that Kanafani situated resistance literature within the context of national liberation struggles.

A native of Egypt, Al-Sayyid Negm has written several novels and stories in Arabic on war and resistance. He also writes children’s literature. In addition to his writing, Negm takes on a number of other literary roles, working for the Egyptian Committee on the Culture of the Child, with the science-fiction division of the Egyptian Writers’ Union, and more.

Author Emad El-Din Aysha, who translated the interview below, notes that Negm “has done the most in Egypt to ensure that resistance literature gets the recognition it richly deserves.” I conducted this written conversation over email last month. The interview that follows has been lightly edited.

Layla Azmi Goushey: What led you to become a writer? 

Al-Sayyid Negm: The purpose behind my writing was not to be an author so much as the sheer sense of accomplishment and the wonderful euphoria I experience after reading a book. Reading was a goal in itself, and my readings were not in literature alone but in the various fields of knowledge available to me from books on Sur al-Azbakiya. On my monthly excursions to this used book market I would return with a multitude of books, all for a paltry pound. Perhaps you know that the purchasing power of the Egyptian pound in the past was unparalleled, especially of second-hand books that begin in the prices range of 5 or 10 pence!

I had made a number of attempts to write poetry, if you could call it that, and it will please you to know that these first attempts were at the tender age of ten, during the celebrations of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. This was after the tripartite aggression (Suez War in 1956):

Dam, Mr. Eden, a Dam

Don’t you dare tell anyone

We’re going to build the Dam, while you’re there

Whimper while we say Hush!

My first short story, however, was published in Rose Al Yousif magazine in 1973, before the crossing of the canal in the October War, and the critics said it was a prophecy for the crossing. The story was entitled “A Night from a Thousand and Five Hundred Nights”.

LAG: How do you define ‘resistance’ in your writings and why have you decided to write resistance stories in your children’s literature as well?

SN: Defining resistance and resistance literature is something I did in my book Resistance Literature… Concepts and Issues with Dar al-Hilal publishing house. I also put forward my definition in some other studies. I defined resistance literature as:

“The literature that expresses a group that is aware of its own identity that is seeking freedom in the face of the other, the aggressor, in their quest for collective salvation.”

Writing under the umbrella of resistance literature was not intentional in itself, but it expressed my situation and my views on a number of key issues raised on occasion in literature, whether in the novel, the short story, and even in children’s literature.

I should add that, at least in my view, that resistance literature is not aggressive and at the same time does not surrender to aggression… It depends on the consolidation of the collective self by putting forth the elements of empowerment and avoiding the elements of passivity. It is in marked contrast to the aggressive other, identifying the elements of empowerment specifically to avoid the negative effects of the aggressor — what makes us vulnerable in our confrontation with them.

Resistance literature, moreover, is humanistic. It holds supreme such lofty values such as the sacredness of land and belonging. Consequently, identity and belonging are some of the most important topics of the literature, but approached with wisdom and subtlety, not in a bombastic or propagandistic fashion.

As for my stories and novels for young people, they include in them elements of resistance. This is second nature to me, as the causes I believe in are of public concern, without forcing ideas artificially onto the body of a narrative…

I have five short-story anthologies for young people, a book on children’s literature, and number of books that simplify aspects of science for children, such as books about nature and stories of great scientists. Most of my science fiction is also in the area of children’s literature, such as The Very Happy Robot (2005) anthology, and other works in resistance literature directed at children such as Adventures in the Love of God and the Nation (2011).

LAG: What are some opportunities and challenges facing writers in Egypt today?

SN: The writer in Egypt, now and for decades, has to read and prepare himself to be a good writer… Then he has to put his creative abilities to the test, prior to publication, getting feedback from his friends as readers… And then he should attempt to publish, either online or on paper in periodicals. (That challenge has been eased now thanks to the internet, allowing you to summarize the whole process and get works out immediately)… And then wait for the opinion, negative or positive. Or they may decide to print in book form, which always is a difficult journey. I can say this with certainty. Although I have been writing for about half a century, my works are still unavailable to a wide degree. If that is true of someone with my experience and years, imagine what new authors have to endure… And then comes the final stage where you work is discussed and dissected in seminars and in the writings of critics – a difficult and painful stage, and often never ending.

In brief, it is both a difficult and beautiful journey, and worth it.

LAG: Tell us about your short story “أسرارحربالكائناتالدقيقة”(The Secrets of the War of the Microorganisms), which is a science fiction story directed at young people aged 15 to 18?

SN: Perhaps that longish science fiction short story belongs to an important idea in science fiction, namely, moral corruption in the world of scientific research, especially in the field of genetic engineering, if it is used for evil and destructive purposes meant to harm society.

A strain of bacteria is developed in the story that can live in the environment of microorganisms, including fungi, algae and bacteria. It so happens that the evil scientist in question seeks to steal the research, and because of the sensitivity of dealing with those organisms in terms of temperature, humidity and other factors, an error occurs that allows these creatures to become deadly and turn on their evil creators. And so begins the journey where the microorganisms hunt the evil gang… The story ends with the capture of the evil scientist and his colleagues. Germs fighting back, resisting their original fate!

LAG: What can you tell us about science fiction and fantasy literature as resistance literature in Egypt today? Is it receiving the critical attention it deserves?

SN: On the literature of resistance… There are some members of the media and even critics who believe that this literature is a literature of “events” — namely, national celebrations. On the contrary, resistance literature, particularly mature texts that refrain from propaganda, are not for special occasions and national holidays. A good illustration of this, known to the common reader and the specialized critic, is Al-Ard (The Land) by Abdulrahman Al-Sharqawi. Belonging to the land is the ultimate goal and therefore the element that builds the project of resistance in the face of any who dare steal our land.

As for fantasy, we are living in ‘sensitive’ times and fantasy has still not been formally recognized by the literary establishment. I say this explicitly, as we neglected the works of the writer Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq, who lead the way for those who wrote fantasy. Critics made their minds up about him and his writings before they even reading him… This question is of such importance it leads me to think that we should reconsider the very term fantasy and follow with great keenness what is written in this field.

LAG: What are some other themes and genres of interest to you?

SN: To be honest, I begin by reading the literary text, whether a novel or story or poem, for adults or young people, and if I sympathize with the text … if I feel that there is no exaggeration, nothing forced or fake, then I complete my reading without specifying beforehand the theme or genre. What concerns me above all else is the way something is written, the artistry is what attracts me not so much the cause.

Selected Novels and Stories

Papers of an Old Combatant (an anthology, 1988),

The Quails Migrate to the East (1995)

The Noise of Frogs (2018).

Al-Sayyid Negm adds, “I have also written in fictional format about ancient Egypt and more recently about the January revolution and have six anthologies and eight novels outside of my children’s writings.”

Critical Studies

War: Idea, Experience, Creation (1995),

 Resistance and Literature (2001),

Resistance and War in Arab Literature (2005),

Resistance and the Story in Palestinian Literature… The Intifada as a Model (this was published in Gaza by the Palestinian Writers’ Union in 2006),

Children and War in Arabic Literature (2011).

Nonfiction Publications

The 25 January Revolution… Intellectual Perspectives and Practical Applications (2012)

Participation in the edited volume Critical Testimonials in Palestinian Literature (2018).

Layla Azmi Goushey is an Associate Professor of English at a community college in Missouri.  She completed her M.F. A in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri – St. Louis where she is a doctoral candidate in Adult Education, Teaching and Learning Processes.  She is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her research interests include Arab and Arab-Diasporic literature and culture, philosophies of teaching and learning, and Islamic philosophy.