INTERVIEW: Mohamed Afifi challenges historical narratives in new novel

Dina Ezzat , Friday 22 Oct 2021

From the thick volumes of history on the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt that have consumed years of his academic work, historian Mohamed Afifi decided to dig out the story of the historical figure Mu’allem Ya'coub Hana (General Ya'coub) for his first novel, titled ‘Ya’coub’.

Mohamed Afifi

The novel, published in 2021 by Dar AlShrouk, is less than 130 pages long and is part of the increasingly popular genre of historical fiction. It also falls under the equally popular biographical fiction genre.

The novel offers its reader a smooth blend of history and biography. The most captivating part, however, is the way the novel challenges a wide range of taboos, without regard to political correctness, and how it deconstructs what has been long accepted as historical fact.

Afifi does what a historian should always do, remind the reader that there is no single narrative and that nothing is 100 percent right or wrong.

Ahram Online: You have been heavily involved in producing history books, and then suddenly a novel…

Mohamed Afifi: This novel had been a dream that I wanted to fulfil for quite a while. I could call it a delayed dream that came true. I had wanted to write a novel and to do documentaries with a history background.

This is not just about my work as a historian, but also about the fact that even as a young kid I was always interested in movies that tell historical stories, like Youssef Chahine’s Saladin for example, and in novels that recount full episodes from history, including the literary work of Gorguie Zidan [a late 19th and early 20th century historian, novelist and journalist of Lebanese origin who lived mostly in Egypt].

Actually, my decision to study history at university was inspired by the interest I developed from watching movies and reading literature. I think cinema and literature allow for history to be offered in a broader sense where creativity steps in to add some details that might be missing.

And this is what I was trying to do when I sat down to write ‘Ya’coub’.

AO: The novel contains quite a few personal accounts. Would you classify this as a biographical/historical novel?

MA: Not really. I mean, there are elements there that could be of a biographical nature, but this was more of a literary trick because this novel is not exactly about the student of history who is haunted by the story of Ya'coub, nor is it about Ya'coub himself.

The novel is designed to share questions with its reader. The trick of the novelist, rather than the historian here, is to blend the world of documented history with fiction in order to approach some issues that do not strictly relate to Egypt or the French campaign, but to history and life at large. The questions in this novel relate to people who live in Cairo [almost as much] as they do to people who live in Baghdad or Rabat.

The objective was not just to dig out a story from the archives, interesting as it might have been. The objective is ultimately to approach taboos and to actually challenge these taboos.

AO: This novel offers alternative narratives regarding the French campaign. It actually goes against what history curricula have been teaching students for so many years.

MA: Absolutely. I think we need to rethink the way we study history in schools. But I know that this is not at all an easy task and it is not something that could be done independently of everything else that is happening around us.

Changing the way we study history in schools requires many other changes. Society has to be willing to rethink things that were for long accepted as unchallenged facts. Society needs to have a space where free discussion is exercised comfortably and where there is no fear of approaching or even challenging taboos.

The history curricula are about “the sacred national” narrative that is designed along the very narrow lines of good citizens and bad citizens. This is certainly the wrong starting point.

Then there is this concept that students learn that history is almost a mechanical sequence of events, where point A will definitely lead to point B. This is the wrong concept of history to start with.

So, there are no five or six or seven reasons that led to the 1919 Revolution as the curricula teaches students. And we do not need to think of Khedive Ismail or King Farouq in the simplistic terms of good or bad rulers. In history, actually there is not that much room for black and white narratives, because this is not how it works in life.

AO: Many of these narratives have been revisited recently on quite a large scale.

MA: Yes, because of the changes that our society has been going through, with the IT revolution, the independent press, and the January Revolution.

However, this is [yet to be] reflected in the way we teach history in schools.

AO: Your novel takes quite a few daring steps in discussing the history of the Coptic Church and the history of some particularly controversial Coptic figures, like Ya'coub. Clearly, you are an expert on the issue as a historian, but were you not hesitant to delve into this as a novelist given that you are Muslim?

MA: No, not at all. As an Egyptian, and not just as a historian, I think of Coptic history at large, and not just of the history of the Church of Egypt, as part of my own history.

Having been brought up in Shubra, which was a very mixed community in the middle of the 20th century, I never thought of Copts as being different from Muslims. I have clear childhood memories of my mother passing by St Theresa Church to light a candle for health before taking me for a medical checkup. So, I really have no inhibitions there. One of the things I am hoping this novel will do is to drop this inhibition of who is Muslim and who is Christian when we discuss history.

AO: You also took some daring steps in challenging the established assumptions about good and bad people in the modern history of Egypt. You did this at a time when things seem to be falling more into a narrow narrative.

MA: All the more reason. I think we need to work on [deconstructing] these assumptions. Take for example [late Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Every year, on the anniversary of the 5 June [1967 military defeat] and on 28 September [the anniversary of Nasser’s death], we have a very tough war of words between those who categorically think that Nasser was a hero and those who categorically think the opposite.

I am not suggesting that we should all agree that he was partially bad or good, but I am saying that there is no need for either side to throw harsh accusations in the face of the other side on the basis of their assessment of Nasser.

Political figures are very layered characters and they cannot be reduced to the limited juxtaposition of black or white.

AO: This nuanced profile is what your novel is trying to grant to Mu’allam/General Ya’coub, who is one of the most criticised characters in the official historical narrative. He is generally portrayed and perceived as a traitor who helped the French occupation of Egypt.

MA: Ya’coub is a very nuanced character who has many contradictory elements… It was not an easy job to draw the details of this character in the novel, because even though this is a work of fiction, ultimately the writer is sometimes unable to escape some inevitable self-censorship – even when challenging taboos was one of his original purposes.

AO: But despite this self-censorship, you did speak of Ya’coub’s bisexuality, his not so entirely covert affair with a French soldier. You even went further and spoke about the homosexuality of a leading Sheikh, Ismail El-Khashab.

MA: Yes, because in the case of Ya’coub, I thought that his sexuality is very compatible with his politics – not in the primitive sense of right and wrong according to any particular set of norms, but in the sense of being someone who did not hesitate to step away from accepted norms and to actually be almost vocal about it, in politics as in sexuality.

In the case of Sheikh El-Khashab, his sexual orientation is mentioned openly in the history books. And again, the purpose is not to refer to sexual preferences, but to reflect on nuanced nature of humanity.

AO: Your publisher did not object to this part?

MA: No, my publisher had no quarrel with the manuscript at all.

AO: You plainly state that the French campaign in Egypt was a foreign occupation. Still, your novel attempts to deconstruct the common narrative about it and to offer a perspective that is more layered, especially in relation to Egyptians who chose to cooperate with the leaders of the campaign.

MA: True. Again, the French campaign was not black and white. And again, the choices of political players should not be measured from a black and white perspective. This is about Ya’coub, who in his own way of thinking was inclined to find the campaign to be somehow useful. It is also about [late president Anwar] Sadat, who, according to the memoires of several diplomats who served with him, often said that when he made some concessions for Israel, he did so with the intention of compelling Israeli leaders to make more consequential compromises.

This is not to say that Ya’coub was right or wrong, or that Sadat was right or wrong. That is to say that things are nuanced, and that in a given moment in history, this one person thought this way and believed he was acting in the good of the entire nation.

AO: Is Ya’coub a one off? Do you think you will delve more into history for your fiction?

MA: The idea of firmly separating history and fiction is currently under revision in many quarters. I know I want to bring different ideas to the keen audience… I am currently working on my second novel… I am not sure what will come after, maybe history books, maybe more fiction, maybe documentaries and maybe all of the above.

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