Areej Gamal on Revolutions Against ‘What Many See As an Intuitive Truth’

Areej Gamal has a short story, “An Alternative Guide to Getting Lost,” tr. Yasmine Seale, in the recently published Book of Cairo. Her first collection of short stories, One Table for Love, appeared in 2014. The story featured in Book of Cairo comes from her second collection, Churches Don’t Fall in War, published in 2017. She also contributes to Mada Masras well as other journals, and recently published a novel titled Dear Maryam, I am Arwa:

Gamal talked with ArabLit about crafting titles, writing theatre and film criticism (where critics travel in flocks), crafting queer characters, and more.

The title “كنائس لا تسقط في الحرب” / Churches Don’t Fall in War is very intriguing. I also love the title “An Alternative Guide to Getting Lost.” Both are tremendously evocative. How much of short-story writing is about discovering the story’s title? Do you start from the title, end from the title? How did you arrive at these?

Areej Gamal: I don’t follow any particular method when working on titles. Sometimes, the title comes at the beginning, when the idea comes to me, and the title might help me develop the text, while at other times, I only need to get a feeling to begin to work in earnest, and the true text awaits. In those cases, the title can change after the story is written.

With Churches Don’t Fall in War, I’d chosen the name of the book first from the title of one of the stories, “Under an Umbrella in Frankfurt,” but then, in the last stages of publication, I chose a different, independent title; the churches that didn’t fall in war refer to an anecdote in circulation in Frankfurt, Germany, that says the churches alone didn’t fall in a war that otherwise wiped out the city, and since I’d written the story with inspiration from that city, I borrowed its story for the title. The title for the story in English translation was chosen by Raph Cormack. It’s a translation that I think is smart and appealing not only for the title (which was “مسارات جانبية للتيه” / “Side Tracks” in Arabic), but also for what’s within.

You also write theatre and film criticism. What do you think is the role of the critic in the artistic ecosystem? Why does the critic matter? What are you trying to do when you write about theatre and film?

AG: I started writing about films from a young age, as a way of interacting with the film I was watching. Now, critical writing has become, for me, a sort of exploration of the ideas, feelings, and references that a work of art produces inside me. It’s also a way of understanding how the general public thinks about different types of artworks.

Perhaps I could say that, for me, on a personal level, writing criticism represents a dialogue with the community around me and the prevailing culture. Generally, though, I think criticism in Egypt and in the region tends to fly in a single flock, with the same words said and repeated about films and plays, becoming formalized, or superficial as I see it; of course, there are exceptions. In any case, I enjoy cultural criticism as an entry point to watching films and plays. I studied literary and arts criticism at the Academy of Arts; I wrote research and discussed themes with the professors, and then I left these studies, although they helped me develop a way of thinking and critiquing. Now, I tend to believe that criticism requires talent, practice, and know-how; I greatly appreciate Virginia Wolf’s critical mind, and her talent in choosing words.

I would also like to ask about your new novel, which recently came out from Dar al-Saqi. I am interested in the part about the oboe, because I played the oboe as a girl. But also…why did you choose to set your novel in this moment, why revolution?

AG: For years, I had a friend who played the flute, and she had many performances that she gave in a variety of different places, and thus I grew close to the world of musical instruments and was caught up in it, and through my studies in art criticism, I learned about the rest of the wind instruments through the lens of academia, and I developed a passion for the oboe, as its sound made my innermost soul tremble, such that I had not felt my spirit move like this before. And so I began to develop the image of the oboe-playing heroine, and this was the first image that entered my mind when I began to dream the recent novel, published by Dar al-Saqi, called Dear Maryam, I Am Arwa. The question of the revolution is like the question of life itself; I finished my undergraduate studies in journalism in 2010, one year before the revolution, and thousands of contradictory thoughts and concerns had lived inside me, such that I wasn’t aware of them. I wanted to belong to something, to a set of values, but I belonged to a place and values from somewhere else — I lived the early stages of my life in total isolation, away from other people, and I lived with an idealistic spirit, looking for perfection, and when the revolution broke out I felt like I belonged to this symbolic idea, and nothing could shake this attachment because it was a moral attachment.

But on the other hand, I was troubled by questions of sexual identity, as I think the perceptions of gender in Arab societies, in particular, requires a self-revolution at the very least, a revolution against what many see as an intuitive truth, a revolution against the repression of the body and emotion. My narrative revolves around a love story between two Egyptian women. Is there a better moment for such love to happen than during a revolution?

You traveled to the Agadir Festival of the Novel, where you spoke alongside Hoda Barakat, Habib Selmi, and many others. What do you hope to gain from festivals like these? Are you interested in talking to audiences of readers, to other writers, or both … ? Why?

AG: There’s a natural need to speak of what one loves. Yes, I love attending literary events, but ones where it’s not those sorts of audiences who have nothing to do with the writer; I don’t want their compliments. This was the case in Morocco, at the Sixth Agadir Forum for the Novel, where I had an opportunity to meet the amazing author Hoda Barakat, and to share a conversation with her about literature, and she requested my novel and asked to read it, and a similar thing happened with Habib Selmi, a Tunisian writer who’s tuned in to the details of human beings as if he were listening to a piece of music, and I also discovered the reading and writing club at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat as well as other members of the public who were deeply interested in literature. I felt that the Moroccan public appreciates writing a great deal, and that they have a sincere belief in creativity, which is hard to feel in Egypt outside intellectual circles, because of the political circumstances, and perhaps because literature is not rooted in Egyptian popular culture,

Anyhow, I always find it’s nice to gain new friends either from among readers or writers.

You said in an earlier interview with Ehab Sayed Ahmed that, “Awards are important because they draw the reader’s attention to the book.” What do you think about national prizes (such as the Sawiris) vs. international Arabic literature prizes (Almultaqa, Arabic Booker, Naguib Mahfouz)? Did it change your career when your first book was shortlisted for the Sawiris?

AG: I can’t judge how my first book got to the Sawiris Award shortlist, but the German award I received at the start of my literary life for the short story “Tinnitus,” from a partnership between the Goethe Institut and the KFW Foundation in Frankfurt, gave me a great advantage in steering me to work on literature, insofar as it gave permission. But frankly, today the way I see awards has changed. The surprise factor is important — that is, to find a writer who does not expect an award, and most importantly that readers like the book, or, to be more accurate, some readers.

Honestly, I’m trying to focus on developing the writing process itself, discovering new ways to enjoy my work and to do it in a way that’s satisfying. This swallows both time and energy and leaves me little time to think about the worlds around writing and publishing.