INTERVIEW: Novelist Mohamed Abdel-Gawad - No Noah’s Ark for the marginalized!

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 4 Feb 2024

On the occasion of the 55th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), Ahram Online runs a sequel of interviews with authors whose books are making it to the stand this year. We talked with novelist Mohamed Abdel-Gawad.

Mohamed Abdel-Gawad

 

At this year’s Cairo International Book Fair, El-Maraya Publishing released a new title for novelist Mohamed Abdel-Gawad: "Amirat Al-Behar Al-Sabea" (Princess of the Seven Seas).

Coming after the impressive success of his three previous novellas, especially "Al-Sadakah Kama Rawaha Ali Ali" (Friendship as Narrated by Ali Ali), this year’s volume is Abdel-Gawad’s first published novel.

In keeping with his previously three published novellas, which were all published by El-Maraya, Abdel-Gawad is sticking closely to the world he finds inspiring: that of the marginalized.

"We often think of the marginalized as some odd people living in a peculiar place far from where the mainstream is; this is not true; the mainstream is marginalized because the marginalized are all around," Abdel-Gawad said.

Having studied business and commerce and worked for a government institution that requires regular assignments all over the country, Abdel-Gawad has been moving around to see "those labelled marginalized as they are and where they live."

For Abdel-Gawad, it made perfect sense that this world where nothing seems to be falling into a particularly logical place was an immense source of inspiration to get the writer out of the closet.

He is an avid reader of Colombian author Gabriel Gracia Marquez, the master of the school of Magical Realism.

Abdel-Gawad is an affectionate reader of Naguib Mahfouz "who made literature out of philosophy."

He is also a passionate reader of Ibrahim Aslan "who poeticized the marginalized."

Abdel-Gawad's childhood was influenced by the passion his father shared for the cinema of the late Egyptian director Youssef Chahine and the eclectic and unconditional choices of books from the works of prominent Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan.

"The neighbourhoods of the marginalized in these authors' worlds just put everything together; those marginalized could amount to being the new middle class that dominated the literature of Naguib Mahfouz and their world is as poetic as magical as the works of Ibrahim Aslan and Marquez,” he said.

"It was inspirational and it was picturesque in a sense," he added.

"My writing is about a nonjudgmental ride through the worlds of these neighbourhoods; it is a journey free of despise and open to free encounters with possible muses," he said.

A photographer too!
 

Photography is Abdel-Gawad’s second passion.

The covers of his three novellas and that of his most recent "Amirat Al-Behar Al-Sabae" are photographs of his choice.

"For me, a text always starts with a scene that could serve as a unique photo and from that everything follows," Abdel-Gawad said

Been there! Done that!
 

His first published volume "Al-Sadaka Kama Rawha Ali Ali” started when he was walking across one of Cairo’s economically challenged neighbourhoods and saw a man driving a vehicle to collect trash from house to house.

His most recent "Amirat Al-Behar Al-Sabae" started when he was attending a script writing workshop and a participant in his group suggested a story about a girl with a distinct body odour.

His first published novella is shrouded in the atmosphere of "1001 Arabian Nights" - with all the possible blends of the real and the unreal.

Amira (princess) in Amirat Al-Behar Al-Sabe is somehow, but not exactly, a mermaid.

Similar to the women in the Arabian Nights, Amira has a curious descent and some distinct traits and unusual powers.

Her exquisite beauty is only matched by a compelling body odour similar to that of the sea creatures. And, like them, she is mysterious and haunted by a curious past.

The sea, which constitutes the backdrop to the village of Sidi Al-Awwam, is the venue of the battle of good and bad – between those who belong to the sea and those who wish to absorb the sea – with Amira hanging there in the middle of bras de fer where the evil is much stronger.

However, the portrayal of the battle is not strictly metaphysical despite the clear Biblical and Quranic take on the story of Noah’s Ark.  It is also political in so many ways.

There is a battle between neoliberalism, in its abusive form, and socialism, in its empathetic version. There is also the illicit marriage between political power and money at the expense of the marginalized.

There is coercion which amounts to threats of masterminded violations and there is music coming from the heavens of love.

Literature and politics?

 

Abdel-Gawad skips the question on the association of Egypt’s political realities with this particular work that could come across as a reflection on the pre-January 2011 Revolution.

He also declines to say whether his first published volume was a reflection on the political feud between Egypt’s first, and often "marginalized" President Mohamed Naguib, who ruled from 1952 until 1954 before being deposed by Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

"Politics is always there – irrespective of how they relate to any particular question that is so modern or contemporary," Abdel-Gawad says. 

He added that novels, whether read in a political sense or a biblical or any religious sense, are essentially a reflection on the lives of those who are trying to escape injustice, treason and despair – with some or without any success.

"It is about those people who live on their terms and decide their struggles; this is particularly the case with the setting of "Amirat Al-Behar Al-Sabae", he said

Abdel-Gawad's generation
 

Abdel-Gawad said he was happy with the praise his first works have been receiving and he attributes this success to a generation of younger writers who are trying to create their imprints.

"I am happy that my first published novel is coming side by side with the works of other men and women writers of the same generation. I am glad that collectively our works are getting attention," he said.

Off the shelves of this year’s Cairo International Book Fair, Abdel-Gawad picked up some of the titles of these new authors as well as some more volumes from the authors of Latin America and also of China.

"There are similarities between the world of Latin America and that of China and ours. It is interesting to see how the ideas are reflected in different contexts,” he said.

Currently, Abdel-Gawad is working on his next novel, which might be slightly longer than the 300-page "Amirat Al-Behar Al-Sabae".

"It is about a few generations of a Cairo family who are going through socio-economic transformations as the city changes."

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