INTERVIEW: Novelist Heba Abdel-Alim’s first novel examines dual personalities in virtual worlds

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 21 Apr 2024

It has been a few months since author and food blogger Heba Abdel-Alim celebrated the launch of her first novel, El-Hayat Le-Serial Maha Tawfik (The Secret Life of Maha Tawfik).

Heba AbdelAlim
File Photo: Novelist Heba AbdelAlim writes an autograph during Cairo International Book Fair. Al-Ahram


Since it was put out by Al-Mutawassit last December ahead of the Cairo International Book Fair in January, this less-than-200-page novel has been getting positive reviews, both from critics and readers who have been recommending it.

The initial reactions were satisfactory to the author, who had walked out on her accounting career to pursue parallel passions of writing and cooking – with impressive beginnings in both cases.

“I had been into writing for a long time and I have texts that were never published – at least not yet,” Abdel-Alim said.

She added that it was not an impulsive but rather a fulfilling decision that she took when she shifted careers. Having contributed and co-edited a volume on the testimonies of women and men who took part in the January Revolution, Abdel-Alim said that she felt empowered to finish her novel which had been four years in the making.

The novel, she said, is the debut of a wider-scope project of writing on the complexity of the human soul and mind.

“I think soul-searching is a very intriguing and even perplexing exercise that merits a lot of attention, especially in the case of people who somehow feel obliged or feel the need to live their lives in dual personalities,” she said.

While the novel might seem strictly about the public and private faces of a divorced upper-middle-class woman in her early 40s, the novel is in fact about a society that prompts pretension as a way of living.

“For different reasons, people feel the need to pretend something,” she said.

Maha Tawfik, the lead protagonist, perhaps pretends the least of all the characters in Abdel-Alim’s text. Maha, Abdel-Alim said, is a woman who is facing and fighting with her demons in the wake of a sudden divorce that prompts her to question so many givens about herself and about the established norms that she had thought adheres to.

However, it is the five men that Maha Tawfik is emotionally and sexually engaged with that fall into the trap of pretension – either by choice or otherwise.

“Sometimes people cannot just be who they are; they feel they need to play being someone else to gain social recognition or to avoid confrontations that they are not up to even though they might pretend otherwise,” she said.

Within this context, Abdel-Alim said that the virtual world that has been created by social media and modern communication applications has become purposeful. Social media, she added, offers a space for people to project images they want to project, to gain attention, to hide weaknesses, or to escape loneliness.

Maha Tawfik subscribes to those who wish to escape loneliness and rejection in a virtual world and it is there that she created ‘a secret life’ that she eventually chose to reveal and abandon. In her secret life, Maha Tawfik is far from being the devasted divorcee who was abandoned by a husband that she loved. She is a playful woman who dares to enter parallel adventures with men she barely knows.

These parallel tracks of her life are lived in two parallel neighbourhoods, Heliopolis, where she was born and lived until her divorce, and Maadi, where she moved following a post-divorce falling out with an aggressive brother.

In her daily life, Maha Tawfik is Maha but in her virtual adventures, she is Matti, the nickname that her most-admired father had given her in memory of a Matilda that he had loved during his younger years.

According to Abdel-Alim, the story shows that no one can compartmentalize their feelings, their thoughts, their fears, and their desires.

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