Tareq Imam: ‘The Writer Has Become Everyone’s Target’

Katherine Van de Vate’s translation of an excerpt from Tareq Imam’s The Taste of Sleep appeared in our Winter 2020 DREAMS issue. Here, the two discuss translation, the poetic element in his prose, and the shrinking space for creative expression in Egypt:

by Katherine Van de Vate

Tareq Imam is an Egyptian writer, radio journalist, and critic born in 1977.  He is the author of ten novels and short story collections, including The Second Life of Constantine Cavafy and The City of Endless Walls.  Imam’s work has received numerous awards, including Egypt’s prestigious Sawiris Prize. He has also been the recipient of the Supreme Council of Culture’s State Incentive Award, the Ministry of Culture’s literature prize, the Su’ad Sabah Prize, and the Spanish Museo de la Palabra’s prize for flash fiction. Imam’s work is distinctive for its often experimental character, including magical realism and fantasy.  

Your work has been recognized in Egypt, the wider region, and also in Spain, but it is less well-known elsewhere, and none of your novels has yet been translated to English.  However, your novel Hudu al-qatala appeared in Italian as Le mani dell’assassino in 2016 and al-Armila taktub al-khitabat sirran was published in 2019 as La vedova scrive lettere in segreto. It seems a shame that the English reader doesn’t have much chance to read your work. Do you have other translation projects underway, especially into English?

Tareq Imam: Apart from a few short stories and novel extracts, my work hasn’t been translated into English. Though there may be efforts of which I’m unaware, to date there hasn’t been any plan to translate a complete work of mine into English. But in my opinion, this is not a matter for the author. He is concerned with his own language, and others are responsible for theirs.

How do you feel about the process of translation? Is it important for a writer to have his work translated? Is English the gateway to a larger market, or are you more interested in seeing your work in other languages? Has having your work translated had any effect on the way you write? 

TI: Every writer assumes that he’s presenting his literary text to all of humankind, and that’s true. But in reality, it is translation that makes it possible for his text to reach that “humankind.”  To be honest, I am not concerned with the question of translation, for two reasons. First, I’m not involved in the process. Translation primarily depends on enthusiastic translators and publishers who welcome that opportunity. Second, and more importantly, I write in Arabic, according to the aesthetics of the one language of which I have mastery. Thus, the style in which I write gives me satisfaction. I don’t feel I’m missing anything, or that my writing is a step towards a particular goal; I would see that as a kind of extreme subservience. In my view, and this isn’t just a rhetorical statement, every reader represents all readers, and for me, the Arabic language represents all languages.

I don’t think about translation at all during the process of writing or afterwards. Does this mean that translation isn’t important? No; it is certainly important. English is undoubtedly the world’s leading language when it comes to publishing or facilitating translation into other languages. But as I said earlier, I am not part of the game, and to be frank, I’m not really interested in being part of it. Well-known translators occasionally visit Cairo, and I’m asked if I would like to meet them or be “present” where they are, and I’m definitely not interested.

I’ll be candid. Translators have approached me in the past about translating my work into English, but it didn’t come to anything because I wasn’t comfortable with some of their editorial suggestions, such as amplifying a particular aspect of the text or emphasizing an element to which I hadn’t given prominence. To be completely honest, my own laziness is also a factor. I’m a very lazy person and find work meetings annoying. I always try to postpone them, and if they get delayed or cancelled for some reason, I feel a sense of genuine relief rather than regret or that I’ve missed a precious opportunity.  

The question of which texts are chosen for translation into English (in particular for British or American readers, who are further from the Mediterranean European reader, who is relatively closer, even emotionally), is a complicated one. For some Western translators, the Arab world is a string of events on the evening news, events which they sometimes try to find directly reflected in literature because they too are not free in their choices. After all, publication is a business of which the marketing side is crucial, so when translators don’t find what’s required in a given text, they simply drop it. That doesn’t mean I see literature as separate from its moment in time; on the contrary, I support its involvement in difficult moments, but aesthetically, not in a simplified form that reads like a newspaper. 

Lest it seem I’m being unfair to translators, there is another factor to consider. There is a massive amount of Arabic literature being produced nowadays. How can a translator keep up with it all and choose from it? It’s impossible even for an Arab critic or reader. So, the translator is often dependent on the “channels” that distil this huge production down to a smaller number of titles: novels that have won big prizes, created a sensation in their home countries, or achieved the biggest sales. These are the three sides of the triangle in which translators find themselves. And obviously, these aren’t the ideal parameters for determining which literary works are the best or most worthy or of the highest quality.

Only two of my novels have been translated, both into Italian, by the same translator – Barbara Benini. Benini works according to her own point of view, independently even of the traditional guidelines of Italian publishers. More than that, she defends the new and avant-garde. Because she’s lived in Egypt, she understands its literary scene from the inside, not through intermediaries (although I should add I have never met her). For that reason, she chooses texts herself, purely on the basis of their “literariness,” completes the translation of what she likes and then looks for publication opportunities, which are often not easy to find.  In my opinion, it’s the brave translator who dives into the adventure like a creator and assumes the cost as well. This may be the first time I have publicly declared my gratitude to this translator, but I see it as my duty in the context of an interview like this. 

You are an author who isn’t afraid to experiment, and who draws on other authors, literary traditions, and styles.Ta’m al-Nawm is a particularly good example – it incorporates elements of Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Memories of My Melancholy Whores), but it’s is also modelled on 1001 Nights. What literature, whether Arabic or non-Arabic, has most influenced you? What authors are you currently reading? 

TI: For me, writing equals experimentation. I like literature that is figurative in both its language and its representation of reality. Some people describe my writing as poetic, and for me that confirms what I am saying: the poetic element in my works is no less important, in my view, than the prose element. I tell a particular story to uncover its hidden poetry, not just to reveal facts. 

I’m someone who believes that texts rewrite one another. A literary text has many sources, including literature itself. Literature also writes literature, and art can even be the subject of art, not just direct reality as traditional teachers of literature maintain. That’s why I am not afraid of the idea of pastiche (al-mu’aradah al-adabiyah) for example, which is the backbone of my latest novel, The Taste of Sleep. I see it as a fundamental role of the new text in its attention to what I call its “textual memory,” according to a new concept, and with mechanisms that tap into its very specific cultural moment, because I also believe that the novelistic text must engage with its timeonevery level, from the cultural to the political. The art of the novel needs both the whisper and the shout. In The Taste of Sleep, I wrestle with  a Japanese novel, a Columbian one, and an historical Arab narrative with the goal of delving more deeply into the history and reality of Egypt. 

This is the way I see literature: as an open-ended inquiry into texts and history, reality and imagination, without allowing one of them to exclude or dominate the others.  I believe that the literary text’s identity is the way in which it questions itself without relying on any established or prior definition. By the way, this technique has begun to appear in a number of Arabic novels. At the same time as The Taste of Sleep, Kuwaiti novelist Buthayna al-Issa published a daring novel entitled Haris Sath al-Alam, which draws elements from five remarkably varied literary texts — Zorba the Greek, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 — to pose, at the end, a very specific cultural question about the mechanisms of Arab repression represented by the concept of the censor. 

Literature is, therefore, a source for understanding our reality in all its particularities.  Even when I, as a person in the abstract, present the larger ideas of my existence related to time and freedom and death, at the same time, as an Arab/Egyptian author (and individual), I am also writing from my particular moment in time, with all its historical, cultural and social complexities. I think that purity of identity, or unified authority, reflects the idea of monism, which ultimately brings about dictatorship. 

As for my favorite writers, they include novelists from many different literary schools, eras and places: Nagib Mahfouz, Albert Camus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Muhammad Hafiz Ragab, Eugene Ionesco, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Juan José Millás, Javier Marías, Michael Cunningham, Paul Auster.  

You have often spoken about cities – how they influence us and how we are influenced by them. One of your major concerns is the writer’s relationship to the city.  Your collection of short stories The City of Endless Walls explores this theme, but cities are important in your novels as well. What do cities mean for you? 

TI: The writer’s relationship with the city is extremely important to me. I touch on this fundamental question in every single one of my works, because it’s a persistentpersonal question for me even more than an artistic one. I’ve tried through my use of narrative to address the relationship between the individual and different kinds of cities. Sometimes it’s a completely imaginary city, as in The City of Endless Walls (2018) and the city in “The Mountain of Kohl,” the setting of my novel My Father’s Tomb (2013). There is also the unnamed imaginary city in my novel The Widow Writes Letters in Secret (2009). But, of course, imaginary cities arise to reflect real ones and to explore their dimensions in greater depth and more comprehensively than we can when writing about a specific place. They also expand our view of them in such a way that the fictitious city represents every city.  

On the other hand, I addressed the same theme – the individual’s relationship with the city – through real literary cities, for example Cairo in The Calm of Killers (2008), Alexandria in The Second Life of Constantine Cavafy (2012), and The Taste of Sleep (2019). In all those works, I explore this pressing matter, which I consider one of my major themes. That’s also true for my next novel, which will hopefully come out soon, and the subject of which is clearly the city of Cairo and its relationship with a particular individual after the January 2011 revolution.

The city for me is the greatest space in which to explore individuality. It’s ironic, however, that while the city is the only pathway to realize the individual self, it is also, at the same time and to the same extent, a giant machine that works to dissolve that individuality through harsh laws that aim to standardize everyone and dissolve their differences beneath a collective banner. It’s a dialectical relationship. In my opinion, the space between resistance and obeisance/submission is murky, and an ideal space for the arts to explore. 

Structurally, the novel also resembles a city – a complex entity filled with inhabitants, houses and streets, intersecting voices, strangers and locals, life, death and destiny, where nothing is certain. That is why I believe the novel is the city in textual form. 

Perhaps you can also talk more about Alexandria, a city with which you have close ties, where you did your university studies, and where The Taste of Sleep is set, as well as your novel The Second Life of Constantine Cavafy. Many English readers know Alexandria only as the setting for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which bears no resemblance to the city today. What does Alexandria symbolize for you and why did you use it for the setting of your latest novel? 

TI:  Damanhour, where I was born, is not far from Alexandria. Though they are separated geographically by only a few kilometers, the cultural gap between them is vast, representing the difference between a rural city in the Egyptian Delta and a Mediterranean city that has always had different values. This relationship, between me and these two cities, began when I was a child; early on, I noticed the difference between the two types of city, even before I became a writer. Then I saw the transformations, at least the transformations I could see here, over more than thirty years, until the Mediterranean city became a city cut off from the sea.  I wrote about the two Alexandrias, so to speak: the cosmopolitan Alexandria, the world’s city, in The Second Life of Constantine Cavafy, and Alexandria the Wahhabist stronghold that has reverted to a desert primitiveness surrounded by an explosive belt of slums, which has been ruralized and lost its diverse and tolerant nature to such an extent that I call it “Egypt’s biggest village.” 

I employ even the cosmopolitan Alexandria to address the question of the “Egyptian” who has been marginalized in the (so-called) “city of foreigners,” which is not necessarily a paradise.

By the way, I have a delayed project, a novel about the Alexandrian Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, that may become my next novel.  So Alexandria is an inspiration for me on more than one level — my personal memory and my artistic and literary concerns. It can also serve as the ideal setting for a novel that takes as its subject radical transformations and confused or troubled identities in a city that has lost its definition. 

Please tell us more about The Taste of Sleep. Its events take place across several decades of Egypt’s modern history.  

TI:  The Taste of Sleep takes two pivotal moments in history. The first is one that I did not experience, the 1967 July defeat (or what the media more politely calls “The Setback”), and the second is the 2013 curfew after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and before the return of military rule.  

To this end, the novel covers about 46 years in the form of a generational novel that I wanted to be different in two ways. First, it centers on a line of women, not one of men as is so often the case in generational novels, which are usually centered around men. Second, these women are whores, so they are on the margins of the place, a secret house as opposed to an open city, as well as on the margins of morality, since they work in prostitution. On top of that, they are women, and therefore to the left of the masculine authority that monopolizes the manufacturing of history itself and therefore how that history is recorded. I wanted to achieve a depiction that was both historical and realistic by portraying the weakest and most fragile of those living on the margins of society.

Yes, I sought an historical reading at the core of which is the defeat of 1967 and the search for an individual who is “sleeping,” or has to sleep, because he is not a participant in a world manufactured by the open/ “waking” eyes of the authorities.     

Who are you writing for?  Which readers do you have in mind when you write? Is it the intellectual, the man in the street, the revolutionary, the new generation? 

TI: I write for everyone, and I write for no one. 

This characterization may sound strange, implying irony or even contradiction, but it’s the truth. When I start a work, and until I finish it, I am writing for an unknown reader who lurks inside me, or you could say that I am divided into being a writer and a reader at the same time. The writer is real and the reader is hypothetical. But no sooner has the work been published and become common property than the situation is reversed: A real reader comes face to face with a hypothetical author.  

The actual reader is always a surprise. Some of my books that I had expected to lose money achieved unexpected commercial success, more like that of popular literature, whereas books I had thought were sure to succeed in the market didn’t extend beyond a single print run. Any bet on prior assumptions about the reader is bound to fail. The reader is in search of his writer just as the writer is in search of his reader.  

How do you see the future of the literary landscape in Egypt? Are you optimistic about it? 

TI: There is new writing in Egypt that is trying to extricate itself from the bonds of both the traditional text and traditional literary criticism as well as an outmoded value system. But there are many obstacles, the most prominent of which is the shrinking climate for freedom. Literature requires unconditional freedom. Can you write a novel which is clearly about the dictator? God? We are hemmed in by every kind of political and religious threat, not to mention by a society that is sinking beneath values that have taken over it and which it now defends ferociously. The most open places in Egypt now are its prisons. The real criminal in our society, as far as the political, religious and societal authorities are concerned, is the creative person.  The writer has become everyone’s target. 

Katherine Van de Vate is a freelance translator of Arabic fiction who lives in London. 

Also read:

Van de Vate’s translation of Tareq Imam’s “Through Sightless Eyes” in Asymptote

“The Eye,” translated by Riham Adly (ArabLit Quarterly, Spring 2019)

The Tale of the Woman with One Eye,” translated by Katherine Van de Vate (ArabLit Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2019)

The Tale of the Book of Lost Life,” translated by Omar Ibrahim (ArabLit Quarterly, Summer 2020)