Fishere interview: The novelist and political commentator on his vision of Egypt's future

Mary Mourad and Sayed Mahmoud, Tuesday 3 Jul 2012

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s latest novel, Exit Door, represents a new genre of futuristic political fiction

Exit Door

Days after the release of Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's political analysis work In the Eye of the Storm, his latest novel, Exit Door, will hit the market. Originally published as a serial in Al-Tahrir newspaper, the novel initiates a whole new genre in Arabic writing, and promises the reader both human insights as well as one view of the possible future Egypt after the January 25 Revolution.

Fishere spoke to Ahram Online about this experiment and what he thinks about the future he depicted.

Ahram Online: Unlike your political analysis book which is filled with optimism for the future, the new novel seems to trace all the possible dark scenarios of Egypt’s political future. How do you explain this?

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere: Optimism doesn’t mean things will change right away, and In The Eye of the Storm already admits the storm is still going to be happening for a while, but on the other side there’s the modern, advanced Egypt.

What I was trying to do through Exit Door was to try and imagine what could happen if each of the political factions active today in Egypt’s political sphere tried to take authority in their hands and impose their perspective on everyone else; be it the conservative Islamists, the coalition-seekers, the leftists or even the puritan revolutionaries. From my perspective, each of these scenarios can only lead to disaster, and only through learning from their mistakes can we get into the wave of ‘new politics’ where new solutions are found.

But I must say that I worked hard to find the last glimpse of light in the very last chapter, where the protagonist finds a way to end the possible annihilation of the country through atomic war with the US and Israel. I wasn’t so successful with positive endings in earlier works, and most of my previous novels lacked even a glimpse of the hope I found this time, so I wouldn’t call it pessimistic altogether.

AO: How was the experience of writing a novel in a daily serial? Did you finish writing before the publishing started?

ECF: In fact not! The key idea of someone finding a manuscript about Egypt was looming in my head since last summer, but I only had a plan of the overall scheme of the chapters just days before publishing started, and I was writing on day-to-day basis, sending the chapter by midnight for editing, finalising it in the early morning, then sending for publication for the next day's papers. I was, most of the time, only two to three days ahead, but overall, it was a difficult task that required dedication for each of the 68 days until it was completed.

Reading the feedback comments of the readers was very exciting, and in some cases I had to make tweaks here and there in reaction to some of these comments, and in some cases had to speed up events, and sometimes change them.

An additional dimension of course was the actual events happening in the country, and sometimes they were running faster than my own imagination! I recall in particular that right after publishing the chapter about the conflict between the police and the residents of Ard Al-Lewaa a [deprived area west of Cairo], an actual conflict happened in the same neighbourhood involving police and residents! It was really unbelievable, and I had to take such things into consideration.

I must say it was a really good experience, but I’m not likely to repeat it anytime soon. It’s also a challenge because you cannot take back what your write; no time for correction or going back. The context had to allow for this speed and some degree of chaos: a man writing a letter to his son in great haste, and thus making some repetitions, skipping some details, etc.

AO: What were the reactions of your readers to this new experience?

ECF: I could discern two types of readers following what was being written: there were the readers who usually follow my political column (stopped during the writing of the novel of course) and these were not so interested in the plot of the novel, but looked at it as if it were pure futuristic political analysis, and mostly were very bored with the sections about the stories of the characters and their lives and developments, considering it out of context. In my view, this reduces the whole concept of the novel. The fiction readers, however, were keener on these, and gave reactions, even sometimes advice, about how the characters should behave etc.

But I must say that I enjoy writing creatively, and if that were [negatively] affected by my political writing and analysis, I will not write a single word on politics any more. Politics dies very quickly; what lives on is literature.

AO: Exit Door seems to be a return to your earlier works, before Embrace Over Brooklyn Bridge, where politics is the façade against which events and characters move. Is this your plan for your future writing projects?

ECF: I hope not! I think my next work will have nothing to do with politics. I hate for my writing to be considered a simple reaction to current political affairs. It’s always a tricky thing when you’re writing so close to events: maybe this book won’t be readable in five years, who knows?

The way I see my novel is that the socio-political conditions are the context in which humans move, and these humans are my focus in writing, and this was clearest in my earlier novels, Intensive Care Unit and Embrace Over Brooklyn Bridge. Exit Door, however, had a much higher political dose, but it tries to answer the old questions about destiny, freedom and the value of politics altogether; all the leaders had their hands stained with blood, so what’s the true difference between revolutionaries, Islamists, leftists, etc.? But I must say I’m tired of politics in novels.

AO: How did you choose the characters in your novels?

ECF: After setting the plot, I started thinking of the possible characters that are best placed in life for the roles in the novel. For example, I needed some kind of character that could be close to political life, but without any authority. I chose the character of the translator, since this is the only person who is allowed to be present in private presidential meetings and can see everything without influencing anything. One of the dramatic tricks I played is hiding the antagonist till nearly the end, keeping him behind other fake antagonists.

AO: One of your characters, Ezzedine Fekri, started out as a copy of you, then moved into a world of its own. How was that experience?

ECF: It was my way to play with my readers who always look for the writer among the characters: Fekri started out a copy of me, and through him I was able to make fun of myself a little, and review my own self with freedom and without taking myself too seriously.

AO: To what extent was your imagination entrenched in your views of what is happening today in Egypt’s political life?

ECF: I built some of the stories on the themes happening today: for example, the fact that nobody today wants to be held responsible; none of the political factions are ready to present their own voters with reality, raising the tone rather than face the problems.

AO: You spoke a lot, especially in the other book, In the Eye of the Storm, about changes to the Egyptian character. Was this optimism or analysis?

ECF: I argue that Egyptians changed and if not for that, the revolution wouldn’t have happened: they’re no longer willing to accept oppression, they accept the idea of equality, and are very pragmatic. This sweeping change happened to everyone, not specifically to men only or the rich or the non-Islamists. It helped the non-Islamist opposition to gain more confidence and to understand that power is in unity, while it helped the Islamists to advance. Individuality, capitalistic markets, state politics, in addition to the personal freedoms; all these factors lead slowly to forcing the Islamists to move forward. They have to use the state as a tool for change, must use capitalism as the economic system and not charity etc. Unless they’re able to find a match between human freedom, change and religion, they won’t be able to communicate with the new Egyptians.

AO: In the same book, you argue that there’s a mass cultural revolution. What was this conclusion based on?

ECF: The new generation depends on pragmatic trial and error methods, not ready to blindly follow old traditional methods without questioning, and not satisfied with mediocre solutions, but focused on how to achieve; forward-looking rather than backward-looking. This new method is what will push society forward, constantly allowing self-correction, not letting the old method dominate. 

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