‘Paranormal Will Always Have a Special Place in My Heart’

Today, Netflix is releasing the series Paranormal, based on the ما وراء الطبيعة books by beloved Egyptian novelist Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. We look back at the man  (1962-2018) and the impact his books had on young readers:

Egyptian novelist Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi — who is also a genre novelist who writes and translates Young Adult, horror, and science fiction — was one of several writers to speak at an Ahmed Khaled Tawfik symposium in 2018.

He particularly spoke about the influence of the Paranormal series, and the influence the books had on later writers. He answered a few questions about it today.

Do you remember your first encounter with an Ahmed Khaled Tawfik novel? Which one was it? Where did you get it? What do you still remember about the characters, the action, or how it made you feel?

Ahmed al-Mahdi: The first time I saw the covers of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s novels was in my primary school years. The publisher of the novels, the “Modern Arab Association,” was also publishing educational books for students called “Selah El Telmeez,” and they used to advertise their various collections of novel series in these books that were called Egyptian Pocket Novels, showing the covers and names of the novels. There was one series that caught my eyes. It was Ma Waraa Al Tabiaa, or Paranormal, by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik.

During my first primary school years, I read many series of short novels like The 13 Devils and The Five Adventurers, but nothing was like the Paranormal series, with its haunting covers and strange names that always start with the word Ostora, or what Netflix is translating as Myth. In this time I was living in Asyut in Upper Egypt and I couldn’t find the novels. I remember that I spend a lot of time looking at the covers and the names of novels, trying to imagine the stories behind them.

A few years later, we moved to Cairo, and one day I borrowed one of Paranormal novels from a friend. It was Issue #30, The Myth of After Midnight, and it was written as if it were a real radio show, in which people call Dr. Refaat Ismail and the host of the show to tell their real stories. The novel was entertaining and haunting and sent shivers down my spine. I loved it. Before that, I had read the Arabic translation of the Goosebumps novels, and I knew that I loved horror fiction, but for me this was better — maybe it was the Egyptian environment, characters, and atmosphere that made it familiar and yet outlandish.

Soon I start reading the series from Issue #1, and I found myself attracted to the world he created and its characters, mainly Dr. Refaat Ismail, the protagonist of the series and his friends like Ezzat, Maggie, and Dr. Lucifer. It became one of my favorite series of all time. After that I read the other two series by Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq, Fantazia and Safari, and I loved them, too. But Paranormal will always have a special place in my heart. 

Is there an aspect of his life — the way he approached his writing — that you have drawn strength or inspiration from? 

Ahmed Amin as Dr. Refaat Ismail.

AM: Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was very humorous writer, not only in his novels, but in his articles, too, he had a distinct style. Even his protagonists were different from anything I read before; they are not strong handsome men or very attractive women. Dr. Refaat is the best example. He is old, weak, and ill, and not so attractive. Despite that, he is a very charming character, and his humor in the face of the horrors is his strongest characteristic, which made him a memorable character in Arabic literature.

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik introduced me to many Western horror authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, and I really loved the Lovecraftian horror, the subtle horrors lurking just behind the narrow field of the human awareness, the feeling of fear and awe in the face of the unknown. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik mentioned elements from the works of Lovecraft in many of his novels, such as The Myth of the Bloody Signs Issue #65 of Paranormal, where he mentioned Kitab al-Azif or The Necronomicon, which was written by Abdul Alhazred, a fictional character created by Lovecraft. I was inspired by the Lovecraftian horror, and this inspiration was behind my first novel Reem: Into The Unknown, a mixture of fantasy and horror, and I hoped to make the reader feel the same way I felt when I read the works of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Lovecraft.

If there was going to be an “Ahmed Khaled Tawfik Prize,” what should it celebrate?

AM: I think Ahmed Khaled Tawfik played a big role in popularizing genre literature — fantasy, sci-fi, and horror — in Egypt, so I think a prize with his name should celebrate those genres of literature, something like Hugo and Nebula awards.

If someone were going to read the ما وراء الطبيعة novels, where do you think they should start? From #1, at the beginning? Or do you have favorites?

AM: I think It’s better to start from the beginning, as there are recurring characters and running jokes that are best appreciated when the stories are read in publishing order. Some stories are better than others, of course, but I don’t remember that there were bad ones. Some of my favorite issues are: A Different Myth, Issue #43, A Boring Myth, Issue #52, The Myth of Men Who are Thus No Longer, Issue #66, and many more.

Why do you think horror remains such a popular genre in Egypt?

AM: I think it’s because of the nature of Egyptian culture. People to this day still believe in sorcery and dark magic and the ability to summon djinn and demons and invoke them to harm other people. They think some people have the ability to make one get married or divorced, can make a woman have children or be sterile. When the government has a campaign to clear the graveyards, they find all sorts of papers with hexes and curses, voodoo dolls, and parts of hair or toenails of the victims.

In an environment fraught with djinn, demons, and black magic, you find yourself thinking about the possibilities that can exist within our material realm and the mystic realms beyond. This is what makes horror the most popular genre in modern Egyptian literature. People really believe in those things, and even those who don’t really believe it would like to entertain the idea.

Also read:

Emad El-Din Aysha: Birthing the Ugly Hero: Dr. Refaat Ismail

Mohammed Said Hjiouij: Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, ‘Genius’