All about individuality: Meeting with Egyptian novelist Sahar al-Mougy

Amira El-Noshokaty, Tuesday 23 Jun 2020

As she resumes Seshet, her writing workshops, novelist and university professor Sahar al-Mougy shares thoughts on personal growth, literature and all that lies between

Sahar al-Mougy
Sahar al-Mougy

"It’s the most playful ground I've ever trodden." She laughs, explaining how her latest novel Misk al-Tal (Musk of the Hill) was extremely hard yet quite revealing to write. "I started with fictional characters but didn’t have a plot, and each chapter would be written on the spot. 

Novelist and university professor Sahar al-Mougy waltzes between different times and places effortlessly in her latest novel. A thorough reflection of life, its three main characters move forward in a sort of harmonious chaos. Despite being fiction, she explains, the main characters of the novel reflect the background of the novelist. Amina, taken from the Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, Catherine, taken from UK novelist Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Mariam, a modern day psychiatrist, these women were often the topic of studies on al-Mougy's own creative journey.

Born in 1963, al-Mougy grew up in a liberal home. The daughter of Saad al-Mougy, a famous cultural figure, and Gamalat al-Zayadi, a radio presenter, al-Mougy's intellectual perspective was as rich and diverse as the Egypt she lived in. Now a professor in the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, a story-teller, radio presenter, and a facilitator in the psychodrama workshop of Australian drama therapist Ben Rivers, al-Mougy's rich knowledge of the human self is revealed in her latest novel.

Al-Mougy's literary works are written in her mother tongue, Arabic, rather than in the English she teaches at Cairo University. She is the author of five published works: Saiedat al-Manam (Lady of the Dream) (1998), Daria (1999), Aleha Saghira (Little Gods) (2003), Noon (2007) and Misk al-Tal (2017). Her first novel, Daria, was awarded the Sharjah Women's Club Award in 1999. Noon was awarded the Cavafy Prize for Literature in 2007.

Like Alice’s in Lewis Carroll’s famous novels, al-Mougy's wonderland holds mythological symbols, fragments of history, and characters that rebel against their own writers.

The assertion that "we always have a choice" is a cross-cutting theme in almost all of her works. Though her lead characters are usually women, al-Mougy's writings are not feminist works per se, but are more designed to give women's perspectives on life in general. They contain a human perspective with all its shortcomings regardless of gender, and that's what makes them so vivid and dynamic.

Another subtle theme is the quest to hold on to one's individuality. One of the stories that continues to inspire al-Mougy is The Emperor's New Clothes by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson. " We all fall into the trap of moving with the mainstream. We give up our individuality for the sake of others. It is very difficult to be an individual, and there is a high price we pay to be individuals and to make our own choices," she says.

For al-Mougy herself, one of her most difficult decisions that upset the world around her but reset her own inner one was a personal one: Divorce. Aside from her gratitude for her "second life" after her divorce, she is also grateful for the past ten years of her life in particular. "I became able to make more adventurous choices. I am usually happier in comfort zones, and I am not a risk-taker. Positive risks, like in 2005 [the aftermath of the Beni Sweif theatre fire that left dozens of college students dead] when I took to the streets, are unlike my idea that a writer is not an activist," she says.

Al-Mougy was one of the early members of the March 9 Movement among academics in Egypt that called for the independence of the universities in 2003. She sided with the 25 January Revolution and had her share of experiences in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. "When I decided to go back to being a writer in 2014, I was not sad. I believe I have given each of my roles their proper time, and I will always have a place in each,” she says.

Studying yoga, transcendental meditation, and drama therapy have all impacted al-Mougy's literary work. She has taken a few months off to research the theory of trauma as well. "Psychodrama [drama therapy] is at its core a way of activating the spontaneity of people. It’s about having a new reaction to a recurrent action or a proper reaction to a new action,” she explains.

Over the past few years, al-Mougy has become a facilitator for the Ben Rivers Psychodrama Workshop in Cairo. "For many years, I missed the presence of a mentor and that was not a nice feeling – to be a mentor and not to be mentored. I have learnt a lot from Ben as he is a humanitarian who conducts psychodrama sessions in camps amidst the bombings and gunshots in Palestine. The fact that he works with compassion among his students is also inspiring. I am still learning from him in fact,” she says.

She held numerous writing workshops, out of which Seshet (the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom and writing) that enhanced the capabilities of many talented Egyptian writers. Her story-tellers’ workshop was also a step in which al-Mougy helped writers tell their own stories.

"Qalat al-Rawia (Said the Woman Story-Teller) is the text I started with, and it has a lot to do with Misk al-Tal. We allowed ourselves the freedom to play with the characters and retell their stories. This really had an impact on my personality and on the way I see the world, since anything could be revisited – your own past, this moment, a literary work, anything."

Story-telling itself matured immensely through the workshops. "Until I wrote Ana al-Hekaya [I am the Story] I was a story-teller in a group with a director. Later, I became the director. This gave me the pleasure of seeing other discover their own stories and push their imagination’s boundaries," al-Mougy says. "To me, writing and telling stories are almost the same thing, and in the workshops we tell the stories of writers themselves. That was different from telling a folk story, for example. It’s a very important experience that I hope will continue.”

Of her work on radio, al-Mougy says that "Ever since I graduated from college, I've read the news on the radio." In 2000, she joined the European Radio Programme of the Egyptian Radio Service which gave her air time until the end of last year. "I loved it. I would go to the Radio building because I am still very attached to my mother and this is how I maintain contact with her," she confesses. "To me, radio is a creative space, a cubic room, where you are alone yet you address the world. I also like the silence very much and understand the different types of silence radio involves.”

Al-Mougy stopped her radio programmes because they were going against her biological clock as the programmes were from 12 midnight to 2 am twice a week. "It was a form of training in letting go of the things you love to give room for new things to come," she says. However, new technology might be the solution for her. "I want to make sound cloud meditation clips. I would like to make them for people in Arabic. This is where I want to put my passion for radio meditation,” she says.

"I also love teaching," she exclaims, revealing her passion for her students, the English Department at Cairo University, and the history it represents. "Teaching taught me compassion. I learnt that when you give love, you get not only love in return, but you also get people who are not afraid to ask and are able to hold themselves up in facing life. I also learnt how to be realistic. How many people you touch does not matter, even if it's only one in a hundred students,” she says.

As she continues her literary journey she reflects on inspiring family members and what they have left behind. "My grandmother on my father's side succeeded in making a home with very meagre means after my grandfather died. Al-Mougy adds that in her view her grandmother stands for an era.

"Our old house is still there in the Al-Azhar district of Cairo. That place is reflected in my early writings, and all its details often come back to me.”

"My mother died when I was 24, and I always said that our time with each other was not that long and my perception of things at that time was not strong, but I still find things of her in me and I appreciate how she was both a career woman and also a farmer’s daughter from Mansoura in the Delta. She kept a balance. She represented innocence and the ability to maintain the child within and believe in the goodness of life. I cherish this innocence in myself as well,” she says.

"My father grows in me as well. 11 years after he died, I still never feel that he isn’t there. He left in me things that make me feel safe, that I will be alright no matter what.

He left me the curiosity to learn and understand. He had a gift for people to help them reach insights. I am so happy to find this gift in myself as well, regardless of when it will bloom.”

“This is my true happiness: to see love growing and shading other people in different spheres," she concludes.

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