INTERVIEW: Novelist Mina Adel Gayed: Fascism could be personal choice

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 27 Jan 2024

On the occasion of the 55th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), Ahram Online (AO) runs a sequel of interviews with authors whose books are making it to the stand this year, among whom is Mina Adel Gayed.

Mina Adel

 

Practically as 2023 was coming to an end, Al-Masriya Al-Lubnaniya published “Oustaz Bashir Al-Kohly” (Mr. Bashir Al-Kohly), the most recent novel of Mina Adel Gayed. 

Born in 1990, in the Middle Egypt governorate of Minya, Gayed made a name in 2020 with his almost autobiographical text “I Was a Coptic Child in Minya,” where he shared and reflected on the life of a young man who grew up in the middle class of a generally conservative and observing Coptic family in the heart of Minya, one of the governorates with a considerable Coptic population.

In this novel, the author, who grew up during the worst years for the Copts of contemporary Egypt, takes a step away from everything cliché about the anti-Coptic sentiments in the wider Muslim majority Egyptian society. Instead, he reflects on the small details of the lives of Copts that are not very different from those Muslim counterparts who subscribe to the same socio-cultural milieu.

“I hate clichés and I hate predictable literature and I knew that this book was not exactly what most would have expected when they picked it up off the stand of bookstores a few years ago,” Gayed said in an interview with AO. 

In his two subsequent titles, “The House of the Poor” and “In the Neighbourhood of the Cathedral,” Gayed adventured further in de-stereotyping the “Coptic story” in literature. “I do not subscribe to this equally cliché and highly misleading title of ‘Coptic literature’ which has been offered as a vogue in the past decade or two,” he said. 

Gayed insisted that the fact that there are more young Copts who are taking up writing should not be immediately presented as “a wave of Coptic writers.” “It is true that in parts, or at times in many parts, the works of these authors offer an insight into the lives of Copts. However, this is not to say that it is about Coptic matters – because in many ways it is just about ordinary matters that people happen to go through,” he added.

In “The House of the Poor,” Gayed is approaching the conflict between strict adherence to the Orthodox faith and the hidden leaning to secularism of a young Coptic man, who has been brought up in a conservative society. “For sure, these questions of faith are not exclusive to anyone – they are part of the questions of a particular generation rather,” he said.

His subsequent title “In the Neighbourhood of the Cathedral” approaches the confusing and blurry lines of what is right and what is wrong as perceived by a group of people, “including Copts – good Copts and bad Copts, equally.”

While not shying away from another take at de-stereotyping Coptic representation in contemporary Egyptian fiction, Gayed chose to pursue other tracks with his subsequent title “The Island of ETC,” which practically subscribes to fantasy literature. “It was the year of the pandemic and there seemed to be many curious questions about the meaning of life and its course and so I wrote this novel that takes place on an island inhabited by conjoined twins.”

The novel might not have sold as many copies as the previous volumes, but it did get a lot of attention in the literary quarters for having dared to embrace an otherwise not-very-common genre. “It was an experiment and it worked well,” he said.

For the 2024 Cairo International Book Fair, Gayed is monitoring the readers’ take on his most recent “Oustaz Bashir Al-Kohly” which reflects on the hidden insecurities of Bashir Al-Kohly, who was born to a well-off father who had married his maid after having been forced to, for having had seduced her into illicit sex. Bashir and his mother are so poorly treated by his father, a high-ranking military.

Bashir’s attempt to avenge his humiliation and the abuse that led to the early death of his mother by taking up a military path himself failed as he could not pass the test to join the Air Force due to poor eyesight. To compensate, Bashir becomes a PE teacher, who always goes the extra mile to impose discipline and induce abuse whenever he can in avenge for his insecurities. 

“Yes, it is about insecurities and fear but above all it is about fascism; it is about how some people decide to be the ultra-good citizens who take it upon themselves to play the unsolicited by personally satisfying role of protecting the best interest of their own country,” Gayed said.

Gayed declines any deliberate or indeliberate political or, for that matter, religious insinuations that Bashir Al-Kohly is supposed to be offering. “It is just literature; literature is about reflecting on certain ailments that the author is aware or weary of; nothing more,” he argued.

However, Gayed would not deny that, at least in part, Oustaz Bashir Al-Kohly is a cry against the overriding waves of ultra-nationalism that could be seen in many parts of the world. “There is a fear of growing fascism – this is all over the world, really,” he said.

To write his manuscript over a year, Gayed said he needed to immerse quite a bit in the history of fascism in the early 20th century.  There, he added, he did not only find incredible research but also incredible warning bells about how societies could easily slip onto the road of fascism under some good and charitable guises.

Fascism is not just, and not necessarily only, political, Gayed argued. “I also think that in a sense, I am subject to a certain level of fascism, when I walk on the pavement of a downtown street with a sense of fear that I could get hit by a motorcycle whose driver decided to take the pavement as an alternative lane or when I have to run across a seven-lane street in the heart of east Cairo to cross from one side of the street to the other,” he said.

Fascism speaks loudly, in so many ways, in Gayed’s Oustaz Bashir Al-Kohly. Subject to its rippling echoes are the poor, the weak, and the socially disadvantageous. “I think the writers have a responsibility to reflect on the social ailments they are seeing,” he said. “And I can see a lot of fear, apprehension, and despotism – in many ways that are not all political,” he added.

During 2023, Gayed has read several titles that reflect directly and indirectly on the concepts of fear and coercion – “again not in the political sense but in the larger sense.”

Some of the best titles he read include the Arabic translation of historian Khaled Fahmy’s “In Quest of Justice,” the Arabic translation of “Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship” by Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, and Fouad Hegaz’s outstanding piece “Prisoners Setting Barricades.” Each of these three volumes allocates considerable space to reflect on fear and despotism in their many shades, Gayed noted.

“Fear is not just something of the present; it could be something of the past and it could well be something about the future,” he said.

To further explore the issue, at 2024 CIBF, Gayed picked up a few classics by Taha Hussein, who is still getting a lot of attention since the 2023 CIBF marking of the 50th anniversary of his death and some Arabic translations of some world classics including Stendhal’s “Red and Black.” “Classics continue to inspire,” he said.

However, on a more contemporary note, Gayed picked up “The Princess of Seven Seas,” Mohamed Abdel-Gawad’s most recent title, and “The Secret Lover of Frau Merkel," the latest of Moroccan novelist Rim Negumi. Again, fear and anxiety are easy to find in both works. “I guess this is the sentiment of the moment – at least this is how I feel,” he said.

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