Agendet Sayed Al-Ahl (Sayed El-Ahl’s Agenda) by Ahmed Sabry Aboul-Fotouh, Cairo: Al-Ain Publishing, 2011.
Though works since the January 25 Revolution are numerous, few truly belong to literature, while one is the book by Ahmed Sabry Aboul-Fotouh, Sayed Al-Ahl’s Agenda, published by Al-Ain. This new work follows the Sarswa Epic by Aboul-Fotouh, a masterpiece that won the Sawiris Cultural Award last year. But unlike the epic, which came out in three volumes, this new book goes beyond the writer towards a deeper view of the revolution in its first days, loaded with stories and surprises.
Aboul-Fotouh has previously published two novels, Thistles Bird and Republic of Earthlings, in addition to a short stories collection titled Death of Moalem Hanna. Ahram Online interviewed Aboul-Fotouh on his latest novel.
Ahram Online: Why did you risk writing about an event that is still taking shape, particularly one which novelists usually avoid?
Aboul-Fotouh: Writing itself is an adventure, and writing about the January 25 Revolution is a calculated risk. Before, during and all around the revolution are thousands of stories a writer can grasp reality through; nothing is really lost. You can flash a light around a person and discover that he lives among us, in flesh and blood; you can feel him, observe his crisis. Who said adventure is just scary? There’s a lot of pleasure, and I wrote because my inner voice called me for writing, and I had to obey.
AO: Some writers chose to record dailies about the revolution while you chose to write a whole novel.
AF: Maybe because I’ve been thinking of it as a novel all throughout. Some think in a very realistic way and do not drag the event to the realm of novelling — a space that is very deep inside a writer. Possibly they did that to suit this instant. It was different for me: everything that took place around me during the events of the revolution was exactly in that realm, as if I was and still am living a dream, like a child in front of the box of stories, and this is how this novel came out so close to the event. The revolution is wonderful, and highly connected to the great being, the human, even in their toughest moments.
AO: To what extent did your prior experience as a deputy to the general prosecutor, or lawyer, matter in drawing your characters within police stations and events around it?
AF: This experience benefited me a lot; I didn’t have to exert any effort to know the processes and the internal structures of the police and their hierarchies — something unknown to many.
AO: While writing a piece this grand, it’s usual that the author is biased to his protagonist, while you chose to maintain a similar distance from all the characters. Why was that? It looks as if you’re trying to say that the ruler and ruled are both the result of an oppressive society.
AF: This is true, because I live the constant fear of failing to reach to the bottom of any personality portrayed, and I catch myself sometimes intentionally distanced from the character, to be able to observe its full spectrum. This happened to some extent in Saraswa Epic, and also in Sayed El-Ahl’s Agenda. As soon as I find myself getting too close to one personality, I find myself quickly getting also close to its opponent in the same way. This is not intentional, it’s part of the writer’s own character. In this novel, I was keen, without prior planning, to show that the society that lacks hope produces its own victims and criminals with the same technique: losing hope and sight of the road. It becomes similar to a patient of blocked arteries without hope of survival.
AO: In the novel there’s an epic mode that resembles your great work, Saraswa Epic. Do you think this is becoming a key trait in your work?
AF: Novelling is epic in my viewpoint, and that’s different from short stories or even long stories. It has nothing to do with the size of the work. Marquez’s novel, No One Writes to the Colonel, is but a few collections, but it has the same epic mode. The challenge that forms the heart of epics is at the same time the heart of drama. Looking at the crisis of the modern human, his weakness and individuality come to face the tyranny of the machines. Realising this reality means that while drawing a character, whether aware or not, the epic mode comes in: the hero face to face with an enormous force, almost like fate.
AO: You avoided using the poetic language that defined the Saraswa Epic, moving to reporting and direct language. Does this come from your intention to capture events and determine the fates of the heroes?
AF: Yes, and for one more reason: I’m talking about people who live among us, with their historical backgrounds appearing from their personalities. The Saraswa characters were moving in a dreamlike space, with locations near sacred. In Sayed El-Ahl’s Agenda, the characters are moving right in front of our eyes, walking on the same ground. We cannot talk about current events in a poetic language, but rather in a simple language that travels to the reader. I didn’t write one single poetic statement until I got close to the Safeya El-Ghamriny character — maybe I wanted to create a dream and hope out of her.
AO: Is the novel about the revolution or rather the events that led to it?
AF: It is about both. I chose to write about one part of a day, associate it with one personality, and explain how the conditions led to its behaviour in the way observed. It is both about the revolution and the conditions leading to it.
AO: The novel also shows appreciation for the position of women, though some characters are corrupt, but the highest model remains a woman, also similar to Saraswa.
AF: I don’t know how to answer that. Only, I love my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, my sisters I was brought up observing their struggles and their inner beauty. I write about the woman as I see her. I wrote about Thoraya El-Dahesh in Thistle Bird, with a different crisis and complications, but full of love. Even the daughter of the dictator in Republic of Earthlings, I captured her confusion and her empty life when her kids dispersed all over the world. My masters, Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez both had this illness.
AO: The parallel narration technique used in the novel does show your belonging to Mahfouz’s school. Why did you go for this complex choice?
AF: I look for fairness, and the narration in the Agenda is different from Mahfouz’s in the aim and use. Mahfouz’s late narration used characters with their own names, complementing and interacting lives, with a lot of creation for a creator who knows his tools and is using them brilliantly. It’s like a football player juggling with his head, his hips, his shoulder, without the ball falling, then scores a goal. He’s not only boasting but showing the reader the magic of art. In the Agenda, I’m only creating, driven by certain events during the revolution and the importance of shedding light on those we know little about, their backgrounds, broken souls. I owe first and foremost to Naguib Mahfouz who captured me as a child and put my feet on a path I could not return from.
AO: Do you see in this novel an addition to your literary status achieved by winning the Sawiris Cultural Award last year, though you’re away from the usual literary map?
AF: What you call a known literary map is the making of the media and critics, but maybe you agree with me that over the last 35 years the media has not been very fair, leading to the personalisation of literature, lacking proper performance and leading to reduced effort by following known themes approved by critics. You may even agree that the critics mob led to the officialisation of this literary map, leading the media to adopt it. Since now I’m talking to one of the most important writers of his generation, let me openly accuse the critics mob of hatred and false courtesy, in addition to ignoring and excluding. For some reason, the critics have mostly belonged to the liberal or Marxist school, and are not paying any attention except to writers who belong to either. Look at what they’ve done for Idriss with his grand status versus Aboul-Maati Aboul-Naga with a similar talent but with no focus. Similarly, there’s the good reception for Ibrahim Aslan and Sonallah Ibrahim, and poor reception for Fathi Ghanem. I can draw thousands of examples. The sad scene of critics Ibrahim Fathi and Farouk Abdel-Kader looking like Olympian Gods, distributing fame here and there, is quite expressive of the sad reality called the literary map. There’s also those who lost track of looking for young talent and now looking for women writings and the such. This is why Sayed El-Ahl’s Agenda may indeed improve my literary presence if it became well known. But from critics, there’s little to expect.
AO: Why did the story stop at the Battle of the Camel event, without recording all that happened next? Why was the focus on the events of the first week of the uprising only?
AF: The choice of the beginning and end is a very complicated technical question. It’s about the interaction of the characters with the events, in a place and time. The revolution isn’t over yet; it’s a state of fluidity that is difficult to track or predict where it’s heading. It’s like flowing water that changes course according to barriers. It is still taking shape in front of our eyes. I stopped at the Battle of the Camel because in my point of view, it’s the last event that bore fruit: it led to failure on the side of the regime leadership, eventually leading to their demise. But the regime itself is still there. I didn’t want to cause the revolutionaries any frustration (I’m naturally optimistic) and the revolution will reach its targets, but now it’s still in the rush, and one week in the life of a revolution is a very long time. Once we start, everything is possible.