Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid Interview: Egypt's youth who are willing to die in the streets won't fail

Mary Mourad, Sunday 12 Aug 2012

Renowned award-winning novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid shares his writing plans and hopes for Egypt with his readers

Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid

The holy month of fasting bears special memories in many Egyptian homes, and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid shares some of these in his most recent book Iftar Hour Stories, published by Bayt Al-Yasmine especially for the occasion. The book is published only months after the publication of a collection of articles drawn from his weekly columns in Egyptian newspapers, Who Makes Crisis in Egypt.

Abdel-Meguid talks to Ahram Online about his work and his views of Egypt’s politics and its future.

Ahram Online: As a writer and novelist, how do you perceive the book Who Makes Crisis in Egypt within your writing career?

Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid: As a young writer, I always thought of journalistic writing as a danger to creative writing, and didn’t think it could be possible to mix the two. At the same time, I looked at great novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez who worked as journalists and it didn’t impact their careers.

I decided to delve into this language when I realised I could make a distinction between the two modes: the fast, mass-reading, simple style required for writing in a newspaper versus the rigorous building and language required for novels.

These different modes were reflected even in my routine: I write articles in the mornings or at least when people are awake before midnight, leaving my door open and sometimes I write listening to the television or to crowds. Novels and creative writing I start after 2am when everyone is asleep and the world is silent. Then I close my door, put on some classical music, diving into a different mode.

My compiling these articles in a book is actually a form of documentation. I realised that some of the articles I wrote somewhat tell the story of what happened. They record history, as I perceived it then, not as a historian but as a writer. The way I look at things is that the SCAF are the cause for all the crisis in Egypt, this is my perspective.

In Egypt it’s usual to think in terms of specialisation; a writer should only write novels and stories but not scenarios. But looking at European renaissance artists and writers, many of them went across various forms of creative practice; Victor Hugo the great writer had some paintings, Dali wrote books and so on. I decided not to limit myself to one form or style but to experiment with different forms.

AO: Your newest book, Iftar Hour Stories, is a whole new style. How did that happen?

IAM: The idea started when the newspaper where I write regularly, proposed that I write something about Ramadan folklore, but the time was too tight to allow for this. I suggested instead writing these short stories all related to the hour of sunset, Iftar, to be published daily in serials throughout Ramadan, and they agreed.

I'm not afraid to experiment and to try myself in new genres, since the world is vast and large there's room for many things.

As a first experience, it was scary and even Khairy Shalaby, the late renowned writer, called me in total surprise that I write at this pace, knowing that I normally would write, review, re-review, and proofread before sharing. It was an exciting experience, but not likely to be repeated unless a similar insight comes again. This year it is collected and published as a book.

My sad memories of this hour have been with me since my early days in Cairo when I lived alone for several years. Iftar bears for me the saddest memories when I was alone, while my whole family back in Alexandria were gathering for Iftar and enjoying each others' company. This sad recollection has stayed with me till now, and it made me realise that many people have memories about this very unique hour when Muslims around the country gather to break their day-long fast at the same instant. I gathered these memories from many years ago, and added other imaginary stories.

The spirit of the revolution is present in various stories: the first for example depicts a family whose son died in the revolution and they were missing him on the table and received a spiritual message from him. There's the story about the police who were waiting for an official to pass by, and he never came despite Iftar and they had to endure additional time in the heat without food. There's the real story of the youth sitting in Tahrir Square during Ramadan, who offered the police food when they were breaking their fast, knowing these same people will be hitting them as soon as they finish eating.

AO: What are your writing plans for the future?

IAM: To be honest, I'm not so stressed about writing a novel anymore; I have fulfilled my plans, and the third volume of No One Sleeps in Alexandria is complete and should be out by January or so. I announced this intention in the year 2000, long before the revolution but I don't like to plan long-term; I write when I feel something flowing with my spirit.

This last piece of the trilogy was nearly complete before the revolution, but with all the events taking place, I forgot all about it! I discovered it by chance last October and started re-writing. This completes my largest project. Its first volume was about Cosmopolitan Alexandria, and the second about the exodus of the foreigners to turn it into an Egyptian Alexandria.

The third volume of the trilogy is about the Alexandria that is losing its Egyptian spirit to become Wahhabi with the growth of the Salafist movement. What I'm most interested in is the early days of the movement, its first appearance in university, and their attack on our magazines, the camps to train their militia to attack the leftists, all the way to the massive project selling all the bars and casinos of Alexandria and turning them into malls or party halls.

This novel, I must admit, was very tiring. It took a lot of effort bringing all these characters together and tying their lives while avoiding mistakes. I'm not sure I can delve into something as complicated.

AO: Are we likely to see the impact of the revolution on your writing anytime soon?

IAM: I'm not sure yet, I still have to find a way to look at this great act of revolution in its entirety. Right now, the efforts to document are somewhat fine and tackle diverse angles, but I'm still missing what I experienced myself.

In general, we must acknowledge that creativity had already crossed the taboos of politics, sex and religion long before the revolution. What the revolution brought to the surface is a breaking of remaining fears.

We are, however, still waiting for new creative production that can match this new liberation from fear. Right now the common sense on the street has surpassed complex analysis, and creative production will hopefully soon catch up.

AO: How did you receive the news about the Ministry of Culture and the debate on the appointed minister?

IAM: I have a clear perspective on this topic and have discussed this long ago. The Ministry of Culture should become a Ministry of State for Culture, and its role should be to promote independent art. Art has to be created and managed by private individuals, supported and encouraged with the infrastructure and funding by the state, but not directed by it.

Imagine this situation today: the Ministry of Culture before the revolution was the voice of the state. Now with the regime change, is it going to be the voice of Islamists? If they lose power, is it going to change course again? This doesn't make sense. Culture belongs to people and not the state. It's the people themselves who should decide what to watch and hear, not be directed to it.

AO: Having actively joined the revolution and a political party over the past year, how do you see your role in politics now?

IAM: Our generation is plagued with politics ever since it started its life in culture. After the 1967 defeat, we dived into political action with all our might, and I personally joined the secret Egyptian Communist Party. Politics was perceived as more important than literature that was under state full control at the time. 

However, I realised after a while that my soul is all for writing: there may be 1000 individuals who could handout flyers, but only a handful that are able to write. So I took the backseat in politics, fighting with the pen, attending to the major events and demonstrations, but not getting too dragged in. Now I’m a member of the Social Democratic Party and don’t go except for very special events, avoiding media or commitments in the organisation.

Today, I'm also active on Facebook and Twitter, spending long hours on the social media and observing its world.

AO: How do you see the future of Egypt amid all this turmoil? 

IAM: I'm really optimistic about this new generation: they are willing to die for what believe. This is something we see in war, but to see these young people heading to the square, potentially to die, is a change in the entire fabric of society. They will not be defeated, despite the splits and the disagreements we hear of, and this gives me great optimism.

All analysis and reviews of the revolution are valid and great, but the essence of revolt, that spirit of sacrifice, is still out there and will rise again when the call is out. These young people must go forward and create their own lives, not waiting for a ministry of culture or someone else to support them. They must move forward without fear. 

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