INTERVIEW: When dreams turn into nightmares

Dina Ezzat , Friday 19 May 2023

On the eve of the announcement of the winning title of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, novelist Miral Al-Tahawy talked to Ahram Online about her shortlisted Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqah (Days of the Shining Sun).



Published by Dar A-Ain in 2022, Al-Tahawy’s latest work has been seen as the epitome of a saga that she has been telling since her very first novel, Al-Khiba (The Tent), came out in Dar Sharqiyat over 25 years ago.

Through the following years, Al-Tahawy had put out her widely celebrated Al-Bazengana Al-Zarqa (The Blue Aubergine). That was followed by several other titles including three novels: Naqarat Al-Zeiba (Gazelle Tracks) and Brooklyn Heights.

Al-Tahawy’s five novels have captured the agonies of women who subscribe to some Bedouin origin, as they try to escape a largely coercive reality by going through an estrangement before they land in a reality that carries other shades of coercion.

In Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqah, however, the agonies of Neiam are put side by side with the misery and agonies of other women from other backgrounds who all came to this imagined town of the shining sun only to be faced with yet another devastating reality that is so packed with reminders of the inevitable pain that some people are born to carry like a cross throughout their lives.

Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqah is a text loaded with tales of tormented femininity, rough motherhood, excoriated bodies, affronting unfairness, bewildering displacement and suffocated dreams. It is an eloquent tale of pain that is hard to escape.

Ahram Online: Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqah tells the stories of estrangement and coercion that force women, and men for that matter, to jump into the unknown… to what extent do you think the story of displacement has become integral to the lives of many in today’s Arab world?

Miral A-Tahawy: The novel does draw a picture of the destinies of some migrants or rather those who get suspended in the trap of deliberate or forced migration. In this sense it is a memoir of days in an imagined town somewhere by the borders of a country [that refugees and immigrants want to get to]. Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa is a deliberate sarcastic title because the novel is about the stories of this community of those who live on the margin; those who found a way to infiltrate into the country – whichever the country might be – in pursuit of work and in the hope of a life under the sun of this assumed eternal heaven.

The novel does subscribe to this genre of diasporic literature that depicts the lives of those suspended between East and West, North and South, homelands and alternative homelands. It is the inevitable outcome of political realities in the Arab world just as elsewhere in the world. It started quite early on with Postcolonial literature. It evolved in many ways that produced diasporic literature and minorities' literature. This prompted a lot of literary studies that tried to examine the concept of displacement and the relation between displacement and wars and socio-economic unfairness in the Third World.

Meanwhile, there has been a very clear shift in the perception of new migrants in many countries. This came with the increased inflow of undocumented migrants during the past decade – with the vast majority of those migrants being Arabs, Asians and Jews. This prompted a lot of unease in the hosting countries as they became concerned over a significant demographic change in favour of those migrants.

In parallel, there has been a very clear rise of the calls of the right wing hostility towards migrants. This forced a state of marginalization on many of the migrants who had to cling together and to live almost as outcasts in poor and marginalized neighbourhoods that ended up being like the ghettos of specific ethnic communities that are surrounded with racist stereotypes.

Personally, I live in a country that is considered one of the big host states of migrants and refugees. The entire continent [of North America] is actually based on sequels of migration and there are daily cases of people who are trying to break into the borders.

It is actually very hard to try to count the number of people who have to die of thirst or of hunger as they stand stranded on the borders. And because I live in Arizona, a border state in the US, I had often seen those new comers just laying around on sidewalks or trying to find a shady place, under a bridge or in a garden or next to the wrecks of a house, to evade the harsh sun. The stories of migrants, both documented and undocumented, are daily matters of life in this country.

So, this novel depicts the destinations of displacement of some marginalized migrants and refugees who did not find heaven but ended up in a new hell of compounded agony. Obviously, it is so harsh for anyone to have to be forced into a displacement. It is so much harsher, when one has to also fail the test of integration into the new homeland.

This said, it is important to remember that in the early phase of moving from one country to the other, a migrant or a refugee, is not immediately willing to integrate but more inclined to hang out with people he feels similar to. We are the children of our memories and once displaced from our homeland we are often haunted by a sense of nostalgia.

This is perhaps the explanation for the fact that communities of expatriates end up living together, sometimes in almost ghetto-shaped neighbourhoods where people look quite similar, speak similar languages and eat similar foods. It is at a much later stage that they start pursuing acceptance or to work for this alleged adjustment.

While writing Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa, I was very wary of this harsh experience of estrangement and failed integration. Obviously, it is partially my own experience. I have to work hard every day to put the agonies of the past behind me, to accept the new reality and to get integrated in this new reality. However, like others I am always faced with the fact that it is much easier said than done. Uprooting is a very hard and long exercise and it is not always successful.

Things become so much harder in a case where a migrant decides or tries to go back to his homeland of origin. It becomes a situation of double estrangement that is so hard to reconcile with – just as the integration was hard to acquire. It becomes a state of conflict between the images of the past and those of the present.

AO: In Brooklyn Heights, Hend, the lead protagonist, moves away from home carrying her own fears but also carrying hope. However, in Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa, Neiam is moving from one plateau of pain to another in a firm straight line that has no diversions towards hope. Has pain become so inevitable for so many women of our Arab world – as a result maybe of the crushing dreams of the Arab Spring?

MT: Obviously, the fate of the dreams and passion of the Arab Spring was so bewildering. It underlined an unkind reality. It was a situation where the dream turned into a nightmare – almost exactly like some stories of migration where people’s dreams and hopes crash into a trap of pain. This is not just about women, really; it is about everyone.

However, it was at an earlier point that I had written Brooklyn Heights – [It came out in 2010]. I had moved from Cairo to New York and I was trying to open a new page in my life – both as a woman and as a writer. It was a moment when I felt that the page of Cairo, or of Egypt in general, had come to an end and that it was time to start a new page – somewhere else.

This was essentially about my personal life – I divorced, I lost my mother and I fell out with some friends. There was also a professional aspect to the move that related to my teaching job at university. I was teaching Arabic literature at Fayyoum University, a true hangout of Islamist groups [at the time]. It was just so difficult to get into a class that was almost packed with male students who would not want to look at me because they thought it was indecent of them to look at an unveiled lecturer and of women students who were mostly veiled from head to toe.

It was such a daily ordeal to try to teach university students in that atmosphere when I felt that I was being subject to a moral judgement every time I entered a class. That was a moment of awkwardness and of estrangement.

There was also this decline that was hitting hard at Egyptian universities – with so much corruption and so many conflicts. That was quite disturbing. It was so hard to adjust to all of this. Moreover, that was not at all a moment of political stability in the country. I am not sure exactly when I decided to run away from all of this.

As a writer, I knew I had to move on and to learn new things and to actually start a new page of my life. I cannot say that this is a mission accomplished because despite the many years I have been away I still feel that one cannot just close a door on the past. It is not something that one can decide to do, actually.

The past will always be there as a magnet that will always attract. However, when I look back, I think that moving away was the only decision that was there for me because when I think about it I realize that Brooklyn was my way to rediscover myself and to actually re-read my own past and to try to heal from that past.

Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa, however, is a much more layered exercise because it tries to reflect those illusions of deliverance – this idea that getting to the assumed eternal heaven will be the ultimate rescue and the ultimate moment of liberation. The novel tries to get into the minds of those refugees and immigrants to understand how they came to see their alternative homeland and how their dream slowly turns into a ploy or even a painful shock that gets delivered right at the heart of this eternal exile place.

In this sense, Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa is offering a very specific sensibility of the diaspora and whose daily struggle for the sheer survival is influenced by the conflicting cultures, identities and political beliefs and backgrounds. This is a big difference between [Hend and Neiam]. It is about this sensibility to the experiences of motherhood, of having to lose one’s own children and of having to get uprooted from one’s own native culture. It is about this awareness of the ultimate disparity of diverse languages and of diverse identities.

The idea of Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa came to my mind when I was just reading another piece of news about a ship that landed a bunch of children by a shore in Australia. This might not be unusual because it happens often on the west coast of the United States and then it started to happen on the European shores as well with the growing inflow of migrants from South to North – some actually walking their long way of displacement on aboard some boats that jumps to get the children off to the shores of the western countries as it starts to dock in an ultimate test of the acclaimed standards of humanity.

Then came the calls for walls of separation – almost a new type of racial segregation that aims this time to separate the communities of those rich and white that always end up at the top of the ladder of power from those intrusive infiltrators who end up in the very firmly squared zone of undocumented and very cheap labour that is always in charge of demeaning jobs – with that constant fear of getting deported. This is very close to slavery – except that it is not a forced slavery because those people came by their own will.

This was how I came to think of the lead protagonists of this novel, Neiam Al-Khabbaz, Ahmed Al-Wakil and Mimi Dong. All of these characters represent the new waves of migrants and refugees that arrive to the lands of the assumed eternal heaven with no papers to be faced with broken dreams because they have become so unwanted in these countries that are so fed up with the endless inflow of migrations that they see as a threat to their identity, civilization and even demography.

AO: Both Brooklyn Heights and Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa reflect on the hardships of motherhood in contexts of displacement. However, in the case of Neiam, there is a lot more sorrow and much less affection… Is this a question of Neiam as subject to adverse poverty as opposed to Hend’s life under tolerable poverty?

MT: This is actually true to a great extent. Brooklyn Heights came with a lot of confession and some self-empathy, maybe, with a certain realization that misery comes with a certain ceiling at the end. This is not the case with Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa. The voice of the narrator was so brutally impartial; it reflected no sympathy; it was just a cynical and unsympathetic narrator who was just there to expose the scars that those migrants were carrying around as they were struggling for sheer survival.

Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa is happening in the very unfair world of those thrown out to the margins. They are hoping for fairness but they are not getting it. It is about those people who have to succumb to being used by others who are not any less haunted with their own daemons, one way or the other.

In Brooklyn Heights, Hend is a mother telling her story of trying to find a way out of her own ordeal but this is not the case with the mothers of Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa where the very experience of motherhood was being dissected, by the narrator, so impartially and with no empathy.

In Brooklyn Heights there is a mother who is floating on with her son while truly thinking that she is trying to find herself and her son a new beginning. In Ayyam Al-Shams, mothers throw their children to the shores of the ocean while thinking that this might be their only escape. This is about the instinct that a mother, any mother, has to help her kids survive. This is a very unique dynamic of love and of letting go.

Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa depicts those parents who came a long way and against so many odds to have a better future for their children. However, once in the new homeland, they become haunted with a fear for the cultural identity of their children and they try to keep their children behind the walls of an assumed community that usually revolves around worship places that happen to provide support.

Eventually, this fear brings about a path of isolationism that hinders integration and accentuates the marginalization. As a result, a migrant or a refugee becomes like an outcast which makes things so much harder.

AO: In Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa as in Brooklyn Heights and your other novels this issue of estrangement, with its many faces, is very central… Do you think that this issue of estrangement is the most pressing question for many Arabs today?

MT: It so happened that my master’s degree examined the issue of “Rebellion and estrangement: Representations in Arabic writings.”

Rebellion as a state of mind was very clear in my first two novels: Al-Kheba and Al-Bazengana Al-Zarqa.

I think, in a way, rebellion is an elementary state of estrangement. And obviously, it is so hard to think of writing as an act that is alienated from rebellion. Rebellion has to be there – against established ideas, against society, against taboos and against one’s self. This is actually the core of a study that I got a Fulbright grant to work on. I am trying to examine the evolution of the metaphors of physical rebellion in feminist Arab writings.

This said, I think that issues of estrangement, marginalization and the search for rescue are very pressing issues for me, at the intellectual and personal levels. Despite my sense of fulfillment, over the work I have done since I left to the United States, and despite the margin of stability that I reached and despite my work in one of the bigger universities, I still carry this psychological belonging to this racial margin in my exile of choice.

I am still there with the minorities and the coloured. I live in their neighbourhoods and I suffer their very same misunderstandings and I feel their loneliness, their fear for the future and this sense of being torn apart between two worlds. It is just part of the package and there is no way to escape it.

AO: The women of Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa, diverse as they are in a way, come across as having made an unconscious choice to opt for a strict type of feminism… could we say that this is the story of women in today’s world where they have to deal with many reasons of coercion.

MT: Without falling in the trap of generalisation, I think it is fair to say that, yes, there are segments of women who have to live in very poor and inhumane conditions – including some living in developed countries, especially if they subscribe to the communities of minorities that were formed by consecutive migrations.

This was my impression when I first migrated. Most of the women I met then, especially in the quarters of migrants and refugees, were victims of war and violence. They were mostly young women who had suffered traumas. They mostly came with a baggage of poverty and coercion and with a hope of finding a better world for their children. However, they mostly end up with demeaning jobs and a demeaning life, all in the lands of the shining sun.

They are there with their poor English, basic skills and their small jobs, as cleaners or help or assistants in some beauty salons, trying to make the future as they dreamt of. This is how I thought of the element of the Neiam Al-Khabaz as a representative of these mothers who take very high risks for the sake of their children without being unable to stop their children from landing in a very confusing situation, of poverty, bigotry and racism, which drives them to just run away into the unknown before simply losing their lives as they get caught up in a fight.

Of all the women that came across Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa, the woman I felt closest to is Nagwa [a bewildered post-graduate student]. She carries some similarities with my long time in the quarters of academia in Egypt and the US. I had wanted to write about the endless conflicts, the blackmail, the corruption and the poverty. I wanted to write about those who managed to get up the ladder and secure the socio-economic upscale they were hoping for.

AO: Is Ayyam Al-Shams Al-Moshreqa the completion of the literary project that you had been on, possibly since you wrote The Blue Aubergine, about the many diasporas that women of our world have to struggle with as they come and go between what is expected of them and what they aspire for?

MT: For a writer, there is no such thing as completion, simply because writing is an ongoing process of accumulated sensibilities that one gains about one’s self and about everything else that is out there to learn about. So, I actually think that Ayyam Al-Shams is possibly a new beginning where I am exploring new terrains.

I am not so certain about my next project but I think, as always, it will relate to those issues that I find to be intellectually engaging. Generally speaking, there is a lot there in the frame of humanitarian issues that inspires a lot of work.

I think there is always room for hundreds more novels on issues that relate to experiences of war, displacement, coercion, racial bias and cultural clash. Ultimately, it is not only the idea that gives a literary work its value because what is of essence there is the approach, the style and the ability of the writer to find the story between the layers.

For me, the issue is always about making the time I need to do a new novel. I am never fully dedicated to my literary work because of my job and my academic commitments.

But I am always sincerely trying to come a step further and to stay away from getting stuck with an idea. Writing is a taxing exercise that takes a lot of accumulation, both intellectual and psychological. And when an idea comes it just takes hold of the writer and ends up in a text.

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