May Telmissany, an award-winning writer and renowned academic, has focused her efforts since the revolution on defending the civil state. Author of the acclaimed novel, Dunyazad, translated into various languages, and winner of the State Encouragement Award, Telmissany is currently an assistant professor of cinema and Arabic studiesat Ottawa University in Canada where she has lived since 1998. She has taken sabbatical leave and spent that time in Egypt. Telmissany talks to Ahram Online about the transformation that occurred in her life in the wake of Egypt’s revolution and about the role of the writer in these difficult times.
This text is a summary of the interview conducted on 3 June, and the video contains 20minutes of excerpts from the one-hour interview. For the full interview, please follow the link.
Ahram Online: When and how did this transformation happen; from a writer, highly involved with writing and literature, to a political activist?
May Telmissany: This transformation actually occurred while I was doing research for my PhD on the representation of popular neighbourhoods in Egyptian cinema.Undertaking my fieldwork about the Egyptian hara or alleyways, I realised that what is commonly termed the “true Egyptians” are those living in popular neighbourhoods, leaving the likes of me, a middle-class lady in a fancy neighbourhood, out of the picture. I started questioning identity, and was trying to join the debates around it as early as 2005 when I started my weekly column in the Egyptian magazine Rose Al-Youssef.
The beginning of my active role in the revolution came during the first 18 days of the revolution, upon hearing of the committee led by Omar Suleiman, appointed vice president before Mubarak was ousted. Also the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood were coming into the limelight prompted me to action. As much as I had called for the Brotherhood to be allowed their political presence during my writing over the past years, I became concerned that there's an attempt to confiscate a diverse Egyptian identity in their favour. And so I started drafting the proposal to remove Article 2 from the constitution which stipulates the role of Islam and Islamic law, and collected some 600 signatures for it. At the same time, I started the dawla madaneya (civil state) website and initiative.
AO: Can you tell us a little about the civil state initiative? Where did the idea come from and how is it doing so far?
MT: This is very much an independent initiative based on personal efforts and is not affiliated with any political party or NGO in particular, though we do get help from various groups. The aim is to spread awareness about what a civil state is about and to dispel some common misconceptions related to it. I am fully against a military state or an Islamised state, and for a secular state where religion and politics are separated.
I received a delegation once from the Freedom and Justice party trying to convince me to work with them, and I was very open to their sentiment that they wished for Egypt also to be a civil state. But when I asked them to commit to statements on human rights, they backed off, saying that was all 'western' and they wished to have an Islamic reference, which really doesn't make sense: either we have an Islamic state with an Islamic reference, or a civil state with a human rights reference.
As part of the initiative, I toured the country and spoke to many many people. There were those coming clearly just to fight, but I was really interested in people who came open to listening and willing to discuss, and decided to focus all my efforts on those people and not distracted.
Sometimes people tell me that I've wasted my effort over this past year and a half, but this is a long term effort. I'm aware that this could take five years of work, and so not too worried about immediate results.
AO: What is your opinion about the results of the first round and your plans for the runoffs?
MT: It is clear that the Brotherhood and the Islamic currents in general are losing support. I am not willing to get trapped into choosing between the two options of the runoffs. I will go to the ballots and write a statement on the ballot paper, refusing to choose a military or an Islamic figure as president.
Writers and the revolution
AO: The big question facing writers in Egypt today is the role of writers and literature in relation to the political scene: what is the role you see for yourself?
MT: I must say that I'm fully against the concept of the "committed writer" as described by the French and in particularly derived from Jean-Paul Sartre’s writing. For me, this notion can mean sacrificing the art in order to box it into political criteria. I have constantly been against these boxes, and don't see that the role of the writer is to write just about the revolution, but possibly to reflect the spirit of the revolution in the writing; that’s different.
AO: What is your opinion of the intellectual and writer community in Egypt?
MT: There's so much burden laid on the shoulders of the intellectual community. But there are many other elite communities – for example businessmen – and they're much stronger and capable, yet we see them doing nothing. The intellectual community is constantly being challenged and called upon to respond, which is weakening its capacity to do much.
But let's look at it this way: it is culture and art that have sustained Egypt over these last 30 dark years. It is only when people would see a movie, read a book, go to an exhibition or visit a historical place that Egypt was still remembered and respected. Other than culture, there was nothing to maintain the fame of Egypt. We would have simply gone to the gutter and been shamed and forgotten. It is thanks to culture and the intellectuals that we reached this far, and so the disregard for culture or attempts to reduce its role are simply unimaginable.
AO: Your latest book Acapella, was written before the revolution and reflects your focus on the internal conflict facing the main character and her search for something else. Do you see the character in your novel reflecting in anyway your own experience?
MT: Here I must admit that I am committed to one thing: to the character that is in constant motion, to the character who is living a certain degree of unrest. In Acapella, Mahi was the typical, married, comfortable stereotype of an Egyptian woman, but there was a small spark of unrest within her. That spark is what leads her to the world of her friend and complete opposite, Aida, who's broken all norms, twice-divorced with a child and many men around her life, but who's unable to fulfil herself as an artist. The duality of the two figures leads to this constant search for the better, a search through dissatisfaction to reach a higher understanding of oneself and break out of the boxes in which we live our lives.
I also challenge the reader by describing some erotic scenes rarely shown in Egyptian "committed" writing. My aim though is not to impose sex, but rather to bring to light something every woman experiences but never talks about, challenging her to look at herself, not as an object of desire, but as a natural being with unspoken aspects. It is not an attempt to excite the reader but to bring the writing closer to them and perhaps to challenge their norms.
The two characters also were an attempt to break the stereotypes about women friends and solidarity; between women there are all kinds of little battles, jealousy and wars, not simply members of the weaker sex standing side by side.
AO: Do you plan to write something soon about or inspired by what you have lived through this last year in Egypt?
MT: I am not really sure. I don't write creative works very often, though I write every day as an academic and activist, but it's a different mindset. Between one novel and the next, I work very hard not to just repeat the formula even it has worked before. I try to make each work individual and unique. I have done this with my first two novels, with the gap in between stretching to 10 years. I really don't know if I will write something inspired from what I saw. Maybe – who knows!