With a cover that resembles the box of a famous Cairo cupcake chain, Karoline Kamel offers a complex text that is nothing like the predictable simplicity of a cupcake.
Kamel offers an intimate account which is not necessarily autobiographic but is certainly revealing of the big and small questions that Kamel shares with other women who like herself made a brave, adventurous and not always safe journey on their way from their teenage years from a city in the Nile Delta to spend their twenties in Cairo where they are faced by issues of class, religion and femininity-and-feminism.
In so doing, Kamel is always, consciously and unconsciously, pulling down the many stereotypes that would be typically associate with a young Coptic woman who was brought up in the Delta of Egypt.
Victoria was put out in the last quarter of 2022 by Al-Karma books.
Ahram Online: You have been a journalist, researcher, film-maker and at times even a photographer. How did you decide to write your first novel?
Karoline Kamel: Well, the novel has been coming alongside of so much that has been happening [in my life]. I started writing in 2017 and I finished the last draft in 2021.
I have always known that I wanted to be a writer. This was the only thing that made me put up with studying mass media – between the years 2003 and 2007 – because I thought that this is the beginning of the stairway that I would climb up to write novels, especially that I got lucky with a short story that I wrote for a literature contest during my university years.
I remember a day when I used up an EGP10 telephone card from my hometown in Mahala to get through to Sameh Samy who was organising a writing workshop.
So, it has always been in the works really.
AO: The novel Victoria tells the story of a Coptic woman who was born and brought up in the Delta in a relatively close Coptic community and who came to Cairo to study art, living in a dormitory for nuns and going through the ordeals of ‘becoming.’ Is Victoria telling the story of Karoline? Is your first novel a sort of a literary autobiography?
KK: I am not so sure that this is the case. The novel has so many details that I would relate to but certainly it is much broader text with so much woven together. I guess it is more accurate to say that it was a personal project rather than to say it was an autobiography because it could be story of so many young Christian, middle class women who come to Cairo from the Delta – and I am specifically talking about the Delta not Upper Egypt because there is so much that has been already written about the journey of those coming from Upper Egypt or other parts from the country compared to what has been written about the stories of those coming from the Delta.
I guess in a sense I was sort of inspired by Al-Rehla (The Journey), a book by Fekri Al-Kholi (a leading figure of the labour movement in Egypt) who wrote about the same city that I come from, Al-Mahla Al-Kobra, in a way that I related to in terms of the details he shared about the city which I actually found to be quite endearing.
I must say that one of the things that I was consciously sharing in the novel is this shock over the predominant assumption in Cairo that all those coming from the Delta are essentially coming from villages – as if there were no cities in the Delta.
I was also consciously sharing this story of those [so-called] “Egyptian expats in Cairo” and again my shock over the predominant assumption in the capital that all those who come to the city want to leave their entire lives behind and just live in Cairo which is an entirely false assumption because, despite the centrality of Cairo, which we in the Delta call Masr (Egypt) to the mockery of many Caireens, we have full and very well layered lives that we happen to cherish profoundly.
AO: So you are saying that this is essentially about a novel that defies stereotyping?
KK: A good part of it, yes. I mean it was not all a conscious attempt to do this but inevitably, yes. For example, there is also this assumption that Coptic girls living in dorms run by Coptic nuns – who are actually very different from Catholic nuns – are unavoidably square and introverts. Unlike Victoria, I myself did not live in a dorm when I came to Cairo but I have been to these dorms and I know that girls who live there, coming from a conservative Coptic background as they are, are just like all other girls who wish to be pretty, fall in love, have adventures even if they have to live under the surveillance of these very strict nuns who are fully committed to the idea that unlike boys girls should be firmly protected because they are not allowed to make mistakes because the mistakes of the girls are not forgiven.
AO: In the novel you show your frustration with this collective Coptic mentality on the status of women. You often do it indirectly, as for example when Youssef, for an engagement gift, offers Victoria a neckless with the pendent replicating the sweating and tormented face of Jesus on the cross.
KK: Yes, there is certainly that with this scene when the gift of love is depicting pain and suffering – even though the drops of sweat are replicated in pieces of diamonds, but still. I mean, once married, a Coptic woman is not expected to complain and if she does she is always asked to put up with her cross.
I am here talking about the middle class and I think while in the case of Victoria we are talking about a Coptic woman, in fact that this the predominant take in society, religion aside. This is why I think it is important to look at Victoria [the novel] more as a story of a young woman from the middle class who is having a journey of ‘becoming’ in the capital on her own and then to add that this woman is a Copt – not the other way round.
AO: The strong presence of death seems to be part of the journey – all through; it starts with the death of the mother after a severe illness that allows for mother and daughter to reconcile an oppressed sense of estrangement, especially on the side of the girl, but it does not stop there.
KK: Yes, I guess this is a very unconscious part of the writing but I am not at all surprised that it came up in the novel because this question about death has actually haunted me since I was a child because as a child brought up in quite a typical Coptic setting in a city of the Delta, I was very early on introduced to images of martyrs who had to suffer and die to come close to Jesus Christ. On the walls of our house, we had these pictures just as we did in the church. The issue of death in a sense is very central to Christianity and yes, it is very present in many parts of the novel.
AO: There is also a strong presence of a largely atypical conservative but open-minded father who is befriending his daughter and who is pushing her to be herself and not to just give in to a prominent suitor. Unlike her awkwardness with Youssef, even when she most thinks she loves him, Victoria is almost perfectly at ease with her father.
KK: Well, this father of Victoria is partially my father and partially the father I wanted my father to be. I mean, as Victoria goes through the journey of acknowledging and embracing her own femininity, she is also finding her way around rejecting chauvinism and patriarchal dominance. This she does in the face of what is expected of any middle class girl, especially one who is born and brought up as a Copt. A supportive and actually inspiring father was essential there; he is the natural take against male chauvinism and patriarchal claims.
AO: While trying to break so many givens, Victoria – in fact, by virtue of the very name – is putting the reader straight into the life of a girl who is certainly Christian and who is certainly born in the last decade of the 20th century when Egypt’s Copts, especially in the middle class, started giving their kids foreign names to prepare them for the eventual journey of immigration to North America, Europe or Australia.
KK: Very true. This is why Victoria’s close friend, who comes from a more economically advantaged setting, does not carry this type of name. She is just Heba – a name that could easily be shared with any Muslim girl – because her life is not immediately haunted with this wish for distinction first, and/or immigration second.
But actually, the title has a very simple story. When I started writing I created a file under a temporary name, and I just gave it the name “Victoria.” I knew that the story was about a young woman’s consequential journey to know the world outside her immediate habitat and to actually know herself. I was not immediately sure that this was going to be the title to the novel. Even when I decided to have the title for the novel as a woman’s name, I played with several alternatives, including the obvious Mariam, Mary and even including Karoline, but I just settled for Victoria.
AO: Did the title inspire the cover, which everyone says looks like the box of a famous Cairo cupcake store, or did the cover inspire the title?
KK: Well, the idea behind the cover was to play with the theme of what a woman wants and what she thinks she wants; so there is this young woman who came to live in Cairo and who would want so much to be like other colleagues who could afford to get coffee and cupcake but she simply cannot afford even a cup of coffee. But in reality having the socio-economic upgrade is only a very superficial want of what this woman wants because she wants to be herself and to do the things she wants to do. So, the idea was that the readers would think that it is a sort of a sweet novel but when they get to the text they would realise that it offers much more.
AO: You are working on your next novel?
KK: Oh, yes. Hopefully will get my final draft done sometime this year. It is a novel about three women who were respectively born in the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s and who faced with questions of existence, life and death in different ways and forms. I am still hanging on with the women’s issues; I have not got it all out yet.
Victoria – Excerpt
“…From the window, I saw Egypt to be very big – much bigger than when I saw it with uncle George and my dad; actually, too big for me to survive on my own.
The driver called on the girl who wanted to get off by the Fine Arts Faculty; I did not notice he was talking to me until an older man poked me to draw my attention to the driver’s call. I got up very fast and I immediately got off the bus.
I felt alright. I felt that I can breathe. But I kept making sure that my blouse was long enough to cover my hips properly. Again and again, I kept pulling the blouse down; again and again I kept looking right and left to make sure that nobody is coming too close.
I looked at the stores around, hoping to find one where there is a woman assistant to ask about the specific place of the faculty, as I am supposed to do. I found none. So, I just kept on walking and hoping to find other students with backpacks like myself so I can follow their trail.
I walked on the side streets, hoping to find the students, but instead I found lots of foreigners with fair skin and coloured yes – with women wearing short skirts or short dresses, sleeveless tops – with some throwing shawls on their shoulders.
I thought to myself , how come they are not worried to be harassed by someone who would pinch them on the ass and I immediately reached out for my blouse to make sure that it is still hiding my hips.
I instantly loved the streets of Zamalek. It was my first time to see such villas in the intense surrounding of trees and to see stores that look nothing like the stores on the streets of my city or even like the stores on the streets of Shubra. I noticed a nice brown bag in one of the window shops; I had a close look only to realise that all the big fortune that my dad had given me prior to coming to Cairo does not amount to half the price of this bag; I just walked on.
Then I saw this pastries store which seemed too unreal for my eyes; it really looked like it came out of an animated film. I looked at the pastries. I was not familiar with any of them. I had missed breakfast and I was very hungry. It was however out of the question for me to buy one of those pastries simply because the price of a single piece amounts to my bus tickets budget for ten days. I regrated that I did not get some breakfast before leaving the dorm.
We were never poor but right after the death of my mother, my dad started to panic about spending money and he became so focused on economizing. I asked uncle George who told me that my dad was so scared that any of us would get sick and we would not have enough money for our pharmacy bills or that we would have to count on public hospitals and therefore die before we are admitted in for treatment or even that he would get sick and die to leave me with no sufficient financial security.
I was not sure how long I kept strolling on so distracted. Then, I remembered the instructions of the nun at the dorm that pressed on me to avoid falling prey to the temptations that Masr offers because they would pollute my ideas.
I had to regain focus and find strength to stop a lady to ask her about the road to the faculty. She gave me directions. I knew I was not very far.”