INTERVIEW: Basma Abdel-Aziz searches for profound meanings of words in politics & psychiatry

Dina Ezzat , Friday 8 Mar 2024

Earlier this year at the Cairo International Book Fair, Basma Abdel-Aziz, a psychiatrist by profession and author by dedication, published an over 200-page volume collecting her weekly articles in Al-Shorouk.

Basma Abdel-Aziz
Basma Abdel-Aziz


The collection offers reflections of social and political significance – while never abandoning the line of semantics.

The collection, titled “Makam Al-Kalam -Fi Naksh Al-Ma’louf min Al-Alfaz walAhwal” (The semantic scale: On the Usual and Unusual Words and Affairs), adds to the author's impressive œuvre of short stories, novelle, novels and political titles – many of which got translated into several foreign languages.

Each of the 45 articles of the book has a one-word title: a noun. In each of the stories, Abdel-Aziz offers reflections on social and political significance – while never abandoning the line of semantics.

In the chapter titled “Mokawama: Resistance,” Abdel-Aziz noted that it is practically impossible to utter the word mokawama without instantly thinking of Palestine and the Palestinian resistance.

However, she wrote: “Resistance is not always against oppression; it is sometimes against life itself when people are so eager to see the end of their own lives.”

“This is the whole point: things are rarely one-sided – not with words, not in politics and not psychiatry,” Abdel-Aziz said. 

She added that her passion for the Arabic language, which started very early on during her years at a French teaching school in Cairo, was always of some guidance for her during her profession. 

“Words are often loaded with messages and getting into the heart of these messages is essential for any psychiatrist,” she argued.

She drew parallels between her profession as a psychiatrist, her commitment as a writer, and her political passion for justice.

“It all comes down to speaking up, finding remedies for the pain and seeing the light,” she said. Her choice of psychiatry, upon graduation from the Ain Shams Faculty of Medicine, was an indication of this conviction.

Abdel-Aziz’s medical career never interrupted her passion for writing: “It inspired and guided” her, she argued. 

Two of her previous books, titled “Ighra Al-Solta Al-Motaka” (The Temptations of Unchecked Power) and “Zakirat Al-Qahr” (Memory of Oppression), are closely associated with her work as a psychiatrist.  

Equally, her most translated novel, titled “Al-Tabour” (The Queue), and her most debated novel, titled “Hona Badn” (Here is a Body), delve deeply into the minds and hearts of people with troubled souls.

However, as she noted, it was due to the “amazing spaces that the Arabic language has” that she managed to move freely, way beyond all assumed red lines, to offer a political content that intentionally shifts between the implicit and the illicit.

The same dynamic can be found in her most recent title. In the chapter titled “Nataah” (Scorn), she reflects on the abuse of power. In the chapter titled “Hawan” (Ignominy), she reflects on the unavoidable spur of anger and possibly violence by those forced into humiliation.

“These are not place or time-specific statements; these are reflections that fit many times, many people and many settings,” she said. 

“Obviously, at times it is unavoidable to think of certain settings or certain people that would come to mind when a particular word is mentioned as in the case of ‘resistance’ and Palestinians or the case of ‘siege’ and ‘Gaza,’” she added. 

This, she said, was the case in 2019 when the articles collected in the book were originally published and it is still the case today.

This book is not the first title where Abdel-Aziz pursues the avenues of language to make political statements. In 2019, in cooperation with Contemporary Image Collective, she published “Al-Wasfa” (The Recipe) where she shared her recipes for “Wasfat Al-Seissah”, (Politics Recipe) “Wasfat Al-Qahr” (Oppression Recipe) and “Wasfat Al-Thawra” (Revolution Recipe) – among others.

Currently, she said, she might be working with Al-Shorouk to get a sequel where she would publish the continued series of articles that she has been publishing every week. “except for some interruptions” in the daily Al-Shorouk.

“The idea is not just to harness the incredible capacity of Arabic to articulate political and social views. There is also the wish to show this incredible capacity of the language that is so rich,” she said.

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