‘If There is a New Feeling, There Must Be a New Word’: A Talk with Nora Amin

Nora Amin is an Egyptian writer, performer, choreographer, and theater director. Her long poem “The Text / النص” was published by the Berlin-based non-profit publishing house Falschrum in 2021. The bilingual, Arabic-English booklet is the result of Amin’s collaboration with the artist Katharina Marszewski and the design studio Eps51, and was funded by the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA).

Shortly after the book was printed, the documentary filmmaker Reine Chahine met Amin for an interview and witnessed the moment when the author saw her book for the first time. In the interview, part of which Chahine turned into a short film to be watched on the publisher’s website, www.falschrum.org, the author talks about her work between the theater stage, the dance studio, and the desk, in which the language of the body and verbal language intersect. In order to express what, in her view, has not been spoken about before in Arabic literature—women’s perspective on sexuality, in its various forms, from lust to sexual trauma—the author saw the need to invent her own language, which impacts readers with its clarity and sobriety.

Nora Amin with her book, The Text. Credit: Reine Chahine.

Nora Amin: It’s very weird to see one’s name mentioned as a “she.” My gosh! I swear, I will cry! [Reading the blurb on the rear cover] “She uses a surrealistic form of poetic writing to deconstruct gender roles, sexual trauma, and patriarchal authority.” Oh my God! Alright, okay.

We have to suffer in order to enjoy.

Amin turns the book in her hands, looking at its unique binding, which allows readers to change the reading direction by placing two binding rings on the left or right side of the book, depending on whether they want to read it in English or Arabic.

Nora Amin: It’s deconstructing the experience of a book. It’s like a deconstructed book and you restructure it, but then it remains what you deconstructed, because it’s never really holding together tightly. And this is lovely!

Reine Chahine: What do you feel now that you see your book published?

Nora Amin: I cannot describe how I feel. But it’s a strange experience. It’s an emotional moment, and yet it’s kind of a distancing from the initial emotional moment that produced The Text. It’s two opposites at the same time, as if it doesn’t exist anymore in my mind. It has been evacuated.

I don’t want to cry! It is too much crying recently. It is enough for now.

And this is a lovely thing! I have no clue what to do with it now.

[She laughs.]

So that’s the book, and here it is.

I kind of like this, really. It has no function anymore, but I just love it.

[She laughs again.]

“The Text,” pub. Falschrum

After speaking about her work with different theater groups in Cairo, and her previous publications, among them four novels, four collections of short stories, three books of essays, and many theatre plays, the conversation focusses on Amin’s poetry.

Reine Chahine: Is this your first book of poetry or have there been any before?

Nora Amin: I wrote several poems and pieces of poetry. Some of them were published in newspapers or magazines, but never in a book. So this is the first book I made that contains only poetry. And it is bilingual. This is something new as well.

Reine Chahine: When we talk about The Text, or your books in general, what are you writing about? What are your subjects?

Nora Amin: I think the first collection of short stories was in 1994 or 1995. It was a kind of childish writing. Now, I think it was very childish and very innocent. I was intrigued by the amount of unspoken realities in daily life in Egypt and really impressed by how people can manage having double lives, having secret personas, and a whole neighborhood can have a kind of agreement not to talk about something that everybody knows is happening. Or to cover up for a crime or something like this. It was impressive. I mean, I am being sarcastic.

I decided to adopt a style that somehow reveals or uncovers those facts or those realities, as if the writing becomes a kind of document of the unspoken lives. I feel that I have a tendency to dig deep and get things out on the surface which nobody really wants to be confronted with. Maybe it is considered shameful—and I want to remove this shame.

Reine Chahine: How would you describe your style?

Nora Amin: I like to write in a very personal and intimate way. I like to deal with descriptions of the body. This is, for me, a kind of extension of my work as a dancer and choreographer. When I write about and describe the body and its movements, it is not just like an ordinary description. You know like: “they walk, they sit.” I try to make it more choreographic. It is a kind of dance notation, also, The Text. Poetry and the embodiment of body and dance in a verbal form—this is something very exciting for me.

Reine Chahine: Because you are a choreographer, too?

Nora Amin: Yes, I think so. But then, why am I a choreographer? Because I love physicality. So I feel, this passion with physicality is in the essence of my expression, whether it then transforms into dance or literature.

Reine Chahine: Talking about The Text, how would you relate what you just said about your style of writing to this poem?

Nora Amin: This is a long piece without interruption, and it is written in a surrealistic form. What really matters and what makes it so special for me is this kind of surrealistic style, where nothing follows the ordinary logic or the rational.

It is from the beginning to the end based on movement description and [the question is] how to make it poetic, how to make it visual, how to engage the imagination of the reader, how to speak to the reader not as a passive receiver, but as a partner in recreating this story through their own imagination. And how maybe it also has a kind of resonance in the body of the reader, because we never think of the body of the reader. We think of the mind of the reader, the eyes of the reader. Then—this is covering almost centuries and thousands of years of human life. So there is also the intention of making my own story of creation. It was always a necessity to rewrite the story of creation against the religious notions. So I got to write it as a dance piece that is hopefully poetic.

In the middle, there are hundreds of years passing by, one century passes by another. And there is also the aging body, the young body, the sexuality, the realization that we live with nature, that we are nature. We have the same circle. 

Reine Chahine: Would you describe this as a journey of how we deal with our bodies as women and as men in different times and different spaces? I’m asking this because, in your poem, there is a timeline. As you were saying, it’s a long timeline. And then there is the other axis, which is space. We are at the beach, we are in the desert, we are in the room. How would you describe this whole experience of a consciousness of the body in different situations—sexual, intimate, pain, fear—at different times and spaces?

Nora Amin: I am not sure if I can describe it, but, for me, time and space are also inside the body, not only outside. The actions that the bodies make are also transforming time and space.

And then there is something about the relation between the male and female and how it is being reshaped in different forms, and how, with each reshaping, you get a different power dynamic and a different form of sexuality, and how this keeps rotating throughout this “surrealistic” history. Repetition, repeating. And then the nature is a part of this transformation, too.

Reine Chahine: Why did you call it The Text?

Nora Amin: Because it is the Bible [She laughs]. It is not a text, it is the text. How can you call a book The Text if everything is a text? Yes, for me it is like a bible.

Reine Chahine: Why?

“The Text,” pub. Falschrum

Nora Amin: Because it is what I decided to write as a piece of mythology, a piece telling the creation [story] from my own point of view. So it is my text. But it is also a way to make it a myth and mystery, somehow.

Reine ChahineThe Text—what does it mean to you?

Nora Amin: It is part of my body.

Reine Chahine: The text?

Nora Amin: Yes, because my body is in it. And my own experience of femininity is. I find my own experiences reflected in The Text, and that it has somehow escorted me throughout other experiences of writing, because it was not really published. But now it is published.

So there is this feeling that, until a certain text is published, it is like being locked inside your own body. And then, when it is out there, when it is released, it is no longer yours.

Now I am experiencing this fresh moment. But I am also experiencing the possibility that there is no censorship of this, because it is published here in Germany. Maybe some of the sexual details are not taboo. This is so relieving. I feel it is also releasing this feeling of taboo from my own body. And this is nice.

Reine Chahine: What are the intentions or motivations that led you to write the text? Is there any motivation or background you could tell me about, that motivated you to write this text?

Nora Amin: The body and the lacking of the body in verbal form and the sexuality, how it is never there in anything I read in Arabic. It is always like an insinuation, a symbol. So it has to be done. Someone has to do it. And not like a kind of pornographic text or whatever, but poetry, which can still look like pornography or erotica to some people. I like erotica. Nice!

But this motivation is also bringing us back again to the feeling, that this kind of bible or The Text, the unspoken, what needs to be told.

Reine Chahine: So you feel you put this in your text?

Nora Amin: Yes. It is special to feel like: “Nobody is going to write this. I have, or somebody has, to do this.” It is similar to the experience of the “Theatre of the Oppressed” and many other projects, I have made. You feel you have created something genuine. At least I perceive it like this.

Reine Chahine: Can you tell me about the experience or the journey to write this text?

Nora Amin: I had different stations in the journey with The Text, because there is the phase of writing it in Arabic, and then almost redoing it again, writing it again in English and French. Then making translations into German, Arabic, English, French. With each of these other languages there is something developing. I reconnected even more deeply, because I had to look for the essence of what I want to say. It also sounds a bit strange in some languages. I feel, in German, it sounds a bit strange, the kind of expressions or how some sentences are formulated . . .

Reine Chahine: When I was reading the book, I felt that it triggered a lot of my imagination, as you were saying. I was seeing the scenes really in front of me, or next to me, or within me. What I really like is this sense of movement in the words. How does this text relate to your theater work, to your choreography work, to you being a dancer? Can you describe how you “merge” these arts, how they intersect?

Nora Amin: I think the first kind of intersection between dance and this text is to know the anatomy of the body. And then to know what can be done in terms of movement with this anatomy and how also the shape and the size of the body changes throughout one human life. You can be several bodies and, with each change, this impacts the kind of movement you would do. How you would move and how you would deal with gravity.

Then comes another important intersection, and it is about what is not doable with this anatomy of the body: gravity, size, weight, and so on. And what cannot be done is the surrealistic part. It is the dance that cannot be danced, but only written.

Nora Amin

There is one moment in The Text, where the man is carrying the woman and he is spinning with her. And her body is spinning around him. For me it was like a kind of the spinning of the earth, the planet itself.

You see the movement totally different from our traditional image of the earth spinning. It becomes a dance, but with this dance it becomes blurred, because they start spinning so quickly in the text. And then she dismantles. Parts of her body fly in different directions, as if those parts are creating parts of our earth, the sea, the forest, and so on.

There are many moments where, for instance, they disappear in the sand. The hair becomes like worms. But all this is just impossible.

But I feel that this kind of description in this intersection with dance can maybe inspire a kind of strange movement or choreography, that is not part of what we know is possible. Not that the people will fly, but at least that we can look at our physicality outside of what is usual, outside of what we know, outside of the usual gaze we have.

Reine Chahine: I would like to talk with you about some details of The Text and what I felt the moment I read it. When the woman was pulled out from the well, for me it was this experience where I really felt, I’m in her place. I felt the pain she is feeling. I felt the struggle. I felt the time passing. Why did you describe situations like these and go so deep into them?

Nora Amin: I would say that the suffering we endure as women deserves to be expressed and screamed out loud. It deserves also to be embraced and felt.

With this movement of climbing the well over several years, her body is swollen, and her footsteps are like elephant footsteps. 

With each traumatizing sexual experience, we have to climb out of that well on our own and connect with the pain, with the heaviness, with the body that becomes known with the impossibility of explaining. I’m very happy if the feeling gets through.

I believe, with this empathy and when we put ourselves as readers in the place of this woman, that is a moment of healing as well. I feel that the journey towards healing has to go through pain. I’m aware there are a lot of painful moments in The Text.

Reine Chahine: Do you want to take a moment, a break?

Nora Amin: No. I’m happy. When you were describing the moment of the well, you were sort of appropriating that part of the text and reproducing it in your own words. And your own words touched me and made me understand that it is succeeding, this form of writing. If it touches you like this, it works. So, for me, this is a happy moment.

But also when I answer, when I talk about the well, somehow it triggers me, so I re-live the experience of being in the well, while I’m answering. Very interesting!

[She laughs]

Reine Chahine: I would like to give you a hug, and I wish I could be closer to you!

[Rules of social distancing due to Corona making this impossible at the time of the interview.]

Nora Amin: Very nice!

Reine Chahine: When you started the poem, what did you initially want to talk about? You wanted to talk about us, women with our struggle and with our body, us, human beings with our struggle with pain?

Nora Amin: I wanted to talk about pain, gender roles, sexuality, but I was not moved by a theoretical idea or a message I wanted to convey. It is another connection to these topics. I deal with them in this not-so-conscious process of writing. It means that they are all embedded in our physical memory, in the events of our lives, in our subconscious. And it means that this is not a kind of social activism. It is a kind of actually poetic catharsis, maybe. But also in a literary form, that is so marginalized within the Arabic literary scene, not only in the Egyptian. As I said: it doesn’t follow a clear rational [line]. You don’t find the figures of style and the rhetoric, that usually, as Arabic writers, we are so keen to exhibit—our linguistic capacities. So this is something totally outside of mainstream writing. Maybe it feels like a dance notation, but it could also be like scripting a performance.

Reine Chahine: As an Arab, I noticed something in the Arabic version of the poem: some of the words are not common. Can you tell me more about your Arabic style of writing?

Nora Amin: There is something like a part of the canon—what is part of the canon, what we have read before, what we think we can write, because we have read before, because it is approved, because it is within all these traditions of linguistic expression.

I think, sometimes, that we are so done with that what already exists. Where are the words? And if there is a new feeling, there must be a new word.

It is also nice to be surprised while reading. If you got in this hypnotic mode, you would wake up. Most of the unusual words are related to physical descriptions. Some of them we are not used to seeing in literary texts, because they belong more to physical descriptions from a scientific field or anatomy. There are some of those terms throughout the text.

Reine Chahine: Why do they disappear at the end?

Nora Amin: Actually, throughout the text you have the two voices: the man and the woman. And there is a third voice that is watching them and describing. This is a neutral voice. We don’t know who is this omnipresent narrator. And it is nice not to expect the gender of this narrator.

At the very end, at the very last line of the text, it is the first time that this narrator says: “I cannot see them anymore. They are now out of the text.”

And this means that they maybe transformed into something else, but did not totally disappear. Maybe they are part of the ingredients of some seeds or water. But they are no longer visible to the writer or narrator or to the author. It also means that they are outside of the author’s authority.

My hope is that they are transformed into something within each reader, a memory maybe. A memory of the poem or a memory of the reader’s own connection or feeling during the reading.

So this could be one beautiful place, where they have disappeared.

It is also interesting because, I feel, this last line could also trigger [the reader] to go back a little bit and see: “Ah? Is this the first time? Who is this ‘I’ suddenly appearing?”

This is why it is also on a separate page. 

My experience as an author of this is that I was the woman and the man. I was both. And trying to write both was for me a really huge experience and a way for my own decolonization of gender roles and gender understanding. My own gender identity is also transforming and being many things while writing. And this is liberating. But then, when we arrived at the end, it is also liberating to say that I don’t see anything anymore and it is over, and I can close the book.

Reine Chahine: I would like to talk now about your cooperation with Katharina Marszewski. She is the artist who made the drawings and the visual material in the book. What could you tell me about this collaboration? I know that the two of you met and talked . . . 

Nora Amin: With Katharina Marszewski, a visual artist, it was a very special experience, because we talked, we met, we exchanged ideas, and then she came to my dance classes. It was really special, that somebody takes this extra step to understand and to experience also the kind of corporality I have with my dance work.

So it was a real exchange.

In many parts throughout The Text, her artwork is really somehow becoming like a visual kind of resonance of the surrealistic form. For me, some of the drawings are like bringing back this sort of primitive sense of scriptures from the old caves, temples, and murals.

And I feel that there is a kind of revisiting of our imaginaries and how, within those visual imaginaries, there are a lot of similarities and connections. This was a nice chance to grasp that and follow it with passion.

Reine Chahine: How would you describe in a few words the relation between your text and her drawings?

Nora Amin: The relation is a collaboration. It is a conversation and also a resonance. It is also a relation between the verbal material and the shapes. You can see the shapes and the colors. And in that sense, I feel, as if talking to the imagination of the reader, it pushes the experience to its full potential.

Somehow this also changes the traditional position of the readership, when you have this kind of book. For me, it is like the ideal formula to put things together that are experimental, surrealistic, and not traditional—on every level: writing, visual, book design. It becomes a new experience for me, where I feel that maybe the seed comes from the text, but now in its full form it is no longer the linguistic text alone. It is another experience, and it is more fulfilling and more interactive with the readership.

Reine Chahine: Speaking of interaction, tell me more about the design of the book!

Nora Amin: The design was made by Eps51. It is as experimental as The Text itself. You don’t have the usual book design format. There are loose pages, it is bilingual, you have to read the instructions when you receive it, decide where to place the binding rings, if you want to read it from left to right or from right to left. Or you can change your mind and switch the rings to the other side. And in that sense, with this book design, Sascha [at Eps51] has made of the reader a book producer as well!

[She laughs]

Each person has to create their own physical book.

Reine Chahine: And make decisions!

Nora Amin: Yes! And maybe struggling with the rings a little bit is also good. [She laughs]

I feel, to have something like this is extraordinary.

Reine Chahine (@reinachahine) is a documentary filmmaker between Beirut and Berlin.