Sherif Meleka on ‘Suleiman’s Ring,’ the Challenges of Fictionalizing Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Being a Doctor-Writer
Last week, ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey spoke with novelist Sherif Meleka about the recently published translation of his Suleiman’s Ring, tr. Raymond Stock, and published by Hoopoe Fiction, an imprint of AUC Press. Video of the event is still available on AUC Press’s Facebook page, but — for those who prefer a written exchange — Dr. Meleka typed up a few of his answers.
Although the publisher’s description calls Suleiman’s Ring a magical realist novel, that’s open to the reader’s interpretation: the ring at the center of events might really have magical powers, as many of the characters feel it does, or the magic might be in the eyes of its beholders.
The novel begins when a young Gamal Abdel Nasser approaches two men, a Jew who’s nominally converted to Christianity (Dawood, father of Suleiman) and a Muslim Brother, for help in defeating the British.
Dawood, who later passes the ring to his son Suleiman, got the ring from a jewelry dealer, who told him that ring was the reason for the extraordinary musical abilities of Sayyid Darwish. The ring may or may not have helped Gamal Abdel Nasser survive an assassination attempt, a soldier to survive the October War, a controversial thinker to avoid an attack by the Brotherhood, and Dawood’s own brief but extraordinary rise.
The novel parallels major events and historical figures in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, ending shortly after Sadat’s assassination (he was not wearing the ring), and follows shifting social movements and attitudes, particularly showing how people can be foreignized in their own homeland.
The first edition was published in Arabic in 2008 with El-Hadarra lil-Nashr, with a second following in 2018, from Dar Ghorab. The translation is available from AUC Press; readers can also check out an excerpt online.
I want to start with Nasser, who appears early in the novel. It’s a challenge to depict a historical figure who still lives on in shared memory, and about whom people have strong opinions. It’s one thing to write about Henry VIII or Ibn Battuta. But another to write about a historical figure who people still have a stake in. What were your considerations when deciding how to describe and depict Gamal Abdel Nasser?
Sherif Meleka: Indeed, it was a challenge. It necessitated a lot of research before writing. But one cannot write an historical novel about modern Egypt without portraying Nasser. I had to do it very carefully for many reasons; firstly, I was a mere child during the era of Nasser, and was just 12 years old when he died. Secondly, as you mentioned it was very challenging not to upset the Nasserites. I remember a dear friend of mine with whom I used to argue constantly since I viewed Nasser as a destructive force, not a hero as his admirers like to think. When he read the novel, he called me to congratulate me, and expressed his astonishment as to how I depicted his character. But I believe that the writer’s own views have to completely disappear behind those of the characters. Thirdly, because the events were so fresh in the mind of readers, I had to be diligent in my research not to be scrutinized later on.
One of the major turning points in the book is the assassination attempt on Abdel Nasser’s life in October 1954, by the Muslim Brotherhood, which of is both a historical event but also changes the lives of characters in the book. As a fiction writer, what is your relationship to historical fact, and what kind of responsibilities do you think the novelist has to representing history accurately—if any?
SM: I believe that the novelist is free to create his characters as he sees them fitting within his novel. But — on a personal level — I also have to abide by historical facts, whether it’s recent or distant history. I think that those two seemingly opposing views could be reconciled with through meticulous research before writing. I know that some writers would go as far as completely taking over the historical figures and transforming them at will, as long as they’re writing fiction. But I prefer to be believable.
Do you remember the germ of the novel? How did it begin to come together? What was your process in writing it?
SM: It was October 2006. I was driving my car and thinking about Egypt, feeling very preoccupied by the fate of my mother country that was going through bad times, with a real drop of the middle class, a noticeable decline of the living conditions for a majority of Egyptians, and the uprising of a flimsy minority of nouveaux-riche who were tightly linked to the ruling Mubarak family.
And then this thought crossed my mind like a bolt of lightning: what if I had the legendary Ring of Solomon? What could I do with it to improve Egypt’s fate? Then, I imagined King Solomon himself in today’s Egypt and wondered what he would do with his magical ring. And then I asked myself, why not bring back his father too, King David? I always admired his struggles as a common shepherd, as a fallible human being, then as a grand king, all of which was expressed in his poems and songs.
When I got home, I began to write. I started with David (Dawood) and set the novel in Egypt’s 1940s in order to allow time for Solomon (Suleiman) to develop and use his magic to change the fate of Egypt. Did Suleiman’s ring succeed in changing Egypt’s fate in the end? I don’t want to give away the answer, each reader will come to his or her own conclusion.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
SM: I do a lot of research before writing any fictional work, even if it isn’t historical. In this particular novel, I did even more of it since most of the events predate my own existence, and since I was determined not to allow any flaws to the eyes of the Nasserites who constitute an overwhelming majority in the Arab world of literature. In addition, I did research many events that happened at that time; for instance, Dawood loved to play and sing Um Kulthoum’s songs, so I needed to know exactly which song came up when. Also, Dawood represented David the King, and David needed Goliath, so I had to search for one in Alexandria in 1951, when I found that Nahass Pasha was at an assembly then and there to debunk the 1936 Treaty he signed with the British. The British colonel was Goliath, I guess.
Did your time as a public health inspector at Tora prison influence the shape of the novel? I found the prison relationship between Dr. Rashad and Muhammad al-Buri very moving, and then also crushing that this friendship didn’t end up being transformative—that love doesn’t conquer all.
SM: Again, here comes research; I read a lot about what prisoners of the Muslim Brotherhood wrote about their imprisonment during Nasser’s era. What songs the guards were playing to them on loudspeakers there, which prisons they went to, what level of security, etc. I was completely enmeshed into their depiction, that I was told that no Muslim had written about the Brotherhood with greater compassion. But the Tora experience was in the eighties with different types of Islamists then. Those were more fundamentalists, similar to today’s Al Qaeda and ISIS.
There has been a wave of Arabic novels foregrounding Jewish characters in the last 15 years or so. By Ali al-Muqri, Amin Zaoui, Ali Badr, and many others. Several in Egypt—Mutaz Fatiha’s The Last Jews of Alexandria, and the trilogy by Kamal Ruhayyim that AUC also published. Why do you think there has been this interest in writing about Jewish characters, mostly by non-Jewish writers? How do you see your novel as part of this—or not part of this?
SM: I don’t mean to gloat, but I think my novel was first published in 2008 before anyone else was writing about a Jewish character in a novel. I was told by the late Iraqi writer and critic, Khdair Miri while presenting my novel: “You’ll be damned by this novel, and no one will view your work in your lifetime!”, and to certain extent I believe he was right. As for why write about Jews in particular, I think that writers were finally permitted to explore that thorny issue, after the years of nationalism that flooded the minds of Middle Easterners had finally subsided. One had to admit at the end of the day that those people were unfairly treated and got kicked out of their homelands based solely on their religion. The Arab writers were — in other words — ready to write about them, since they had already inundated their readers with stories about the poor peasants or factory workers.
The differing titles used to refer to different characters are very meaningful, and we definitely come to flinch every time someone calls Daoud khawaga, which makes him feel as though they are shouting FOREIGNER at him, and gradually he is alienated from life in the city of his birth. Of course, there are other aspects, especially when former friends question his loyalty. But why did you decide to focus on this aspect of turning Daoud into the Other?
SM: I guess as a Christian Egyptian I felt sometimes as a Khawaga myself. I was told by my best friend once: “You are good in all aspects, dear Sherif, except that you’re not Muslim!” This is only one aspect, but I find myself writing about minorities, weaklings, oppressed, children as the main characters in all my fictional works. I try to sort out their problems, and mine too, in the process. I usually start with a certain idea, a certain character, and see how they resolve their issues, and learn from them.
One bio of you that I read suggested that it was your experience with people’s chronic pain that led you toward literary creation. There are of course many doctor writers—how do you see the relationship between being a doctor and writing fiction?
SM: Not just any doctor, but I spent most of my career taking care of pain patients. Those are my teachers; they came to me bare their hearts out to me. They told me things that they expressed to no one else. I used to feel compelled to write afterwards, as a tool to re-energize my soul. As for other doctor writers, I think the scientific mind is used to a certain discipline, keen observation and organization, unlike the typical eclectic, artistic and almost chaotic persona of a writer. Maybe that’s why doctor writers typically excelled in short stories (Chekov, Idris) similar to a prescription for the soul, or an integrational mind like that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
You’ve said that you admire the works of Naguib Mahfouz, Salah Jaheen, Tawfiq al-Hakim. I also felt there was something of Ihsan Abdel Quddous in the novel. What books did you read as a young person, that helped form your literary tastes, and what do you read these days? How do you keep up with Egyptian literature while living in the US?
SM: It’s true that I grew up reading Mahfouz, El-Hakim and Idris as well as Jaheen and Nizar Qabbani the famous Syrian poet. I was in a French school, so I read a lot of French Classics from Racine and Moliere to Voltaire (one of my favorites) since my early years. Then my education led to the study of Taha Hussein, Ahmad Shawky, and older Arabic poets and writers, as well as more modern French writers as in Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert. I hadn’t actually begun reading Ihsan Abdel Quddous until last year when I purchased some of his novels during a visit to Cairo. I love to read and always read in English during the day and Arabic in bed before I sleep. I keep up with current Arabic literature, though I have to confess that I’m more engaged by the older generation of writers.
Read an excerpt from Suleiman’s Ring, tr. Raymond Stock, at the AUC Press website.
Watch a video of the whole conversation, including the questions from viewers.
Sherif Meleka’s page on ArabWorldBooks.