INTERVIEW: Mahmoud AbdelShakour on the elusive questions of love

Dina Ezzat , Friday 22 Oct 2021

Literary critic Mahmoud AbdelShakour talked to Ahram Online about Habiba Kama Rawaha Nadim (Habiba as Recollected by Nadim), his first novel that approaches some of the most complex questions of love, obsession, joy and pain.

Mahmoud AbdelShakour s

Two successive stories of unrequited love stories inspire (Habiba kama rawaha Nadim), a novel of less than 200 pages, that AlKarma Books published this year and has just put out its second edition.

However, Habiba as Recollected by Nadim is far from being just a sheer recollection of a personal experience. Rather, it is a journey of soul searching and of looking for answers to some perplexing thoughts about love as both an ultimate source of positive energy and at times an inevitable path to pain.

The elusive question, however, remains mostly unanswered at the end of the story: is it better to have an inspiring love story that ends in a veil of tears or is it better to know love the easy way – with no pain and no muses.

Ahram Online: You have already been in the writing business for quite a long while, with close to 15 titles that you penned on art and literature. Why did you decide to write your first novel?

Mahmoud AbdelShakour: It was not by design – not really. I had gone through two successive failed love stories that really got me from utter joy to utter pain. One day I just wrote a Facebook status sharing a few thoughts and sentiments that I had about love as a source of total joy, which really gives life, its colours and about failed love as a source of ultimate pain that makes life unbearable and almost unlivable.

Seif Salmawy [of AlKarma Books] who had been my publisher called me up and set out a meeting. When we met he said it straight on: what you wrote on Facebook is a definite novel. To be honest, I was not sure that I wanted to write. And I was not sure it was a novel that I would write – if I would write.

To write of my unrequited love was to look pain straighr in the face. That sounded really hard. And to just write a love story did not mean very much, in the sense of literary production; I mean there are hundreds and thousands of love stories out there. And after all, I did not want to write my stories – not as such.

However, Seif insisted that I should just start writing and then we will discuss the format. And 10 days later, I started a long and very painful but almost unstoppable labour where I just put down all the thoughts and sentiments – rather than the memories – I had. I did not confine myself to any style or format; I just wrote on; I wrote what I felt I wanted to write – what I could write at any case.

Ultimately, I was trying to ask some very profound, or maybe even absurd, question about what love is and why and how it happens rather than to tell the story of Nadim [the leading protagonist] with the two women he loved, Yomnah, [an older blonde] and Habiba [a significantly younger brunette].

The novel is on love and not on Nadim – or rather it is about the existential questions that two failed love stories left Nadim with. Actually, it is not only Nadim who is there telling the story. It is more this ‘other voice’ of Nadim’s editor. He is the one who finds all the papers of Nadim after he died of ‘an unspecified heart ailment’ and he is effectively the one who is telling the story, as recalled by Nadim, and not by Yomnah or Habiba– hence, the title “Habiba as recollected by Nadim”.

AO: Your novel seems to be suggesting an inevitability of pain as a consequence of love…

MAS: I guess yes. But I also think that this novel is recalling the inevitable senselessness of love. When love happens, the brains are sidelined – almost completely.

Love is like gambling – in so many ways really. Both are obsessive and irresistible sentiments that haunt people and often enough compromise one’s good judgment. A gambler, like a lover, is often hoping to win even when he looks failure right in the face; there is always this elusive hope.

The questions of and on love are really very elusive. And yes, I guess one of the most perplexing questions here is that: if love is ultimate law that runs our lives then why does it have to come with so much pain?

I am not assuming that the novel is offering any answers. We always say “love can be described but never explained.” It is one of those mystical sentiments that cannot really be subjected to the rules of the mind.

Many of [20th century Chilin Pablo] Neuroda’s poems, [Johann Wolfgang Von] Goethe’s [18th century] The Sorrows of Werther and even Ibn Hazem [AlAndalussi]’s [11th century]The Ring of the Dove have all been trying to approach these elusive questions of love. And every one of those was just sharing a very unique personal experience that can never be quantified in any way. And it is often about sharing the questions rather than sharing the experiences as such.

AO: Is it a healing exercise – both for the writer and for a reader who has to gone through the pains of love?

MAS: When I wrote Nadim and when I made Nadim die, at the end of the novel, I kind of drew a line between Nadim and myself. It could actually be an act of separation – but it is often a separation from the experience and not from the pain. The pain is always there somehow. One learns to tame it and live with it.

When we write our pains – and I am not just talking about literary writing but about all forms of writing even if it is a Facebook status – we are actually acting to share the pain with the reader.

Some readers may find solace in this act of sharing; it depends really on the personal experience of both the writer and the reader.

AO: Is it all over – all shared? Or will Yomna and Habiba inspire another novel?

MAS: I am not seeing another novel coming from the same experience. I got it all out, in a sense. And I am not even sure if there will be a next novel – or anything. It all depends really.

To be able to write, I think, one has to be full of an idea or a sentiment. It has to be something that takes over completely and prompts the act of writing.

It is not about finding inspiration or necessarily about falling in love and going through pain again. It is about a certain magical moment that prompts the act of writing.

AO: It was very well received your first novel…

MAS: I think yes. It has been very interesting to observe the reaction to the novel, especially with the somewhat untypical format of a novel.

What I found to be most surprising of all the reactions I got is the one that suggested that the pains and tears of love are for women and not for men. I think that many like to think that men do not suffer as much as women do when they are hurt in love – but in fact they do. And I think that this is one of the things that the novel is saying because it is basically arguing that it is not likely for anyone, a man or a woman, to go through life away from love.

This is precisely why Nadim chose to hold on to love even when he knew it was not just happening for the women he fell in love with to reciprocate his sentiments.


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