A recent encounter at the Goethe Institute in Cairo between three German and three Egyptian writers revealed that writers are writers everywhere regardless of their spoken or written language, as the rituals involved in the writing process proved much alike in Berlin, Cairo or Mumbai.
The participants were Egyptian writers Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, Khaled El-Khamisi and Mansoura Ezzeddin, and German writers David Wagner, Katharina Hacker and Ulla Lenze. Journalist and moderator Amira El-Ahl chaired the debate.
The six writers exchanged views on the challenges of writing, the personal tribulations, the suffering encountered in the process of attempting to compose so much as a line or two, and the increasing anguish from one book to the next.
Writing is a process
For Ulla Lenze, what is to be written is just as unforeseen as what is to be read; she even surprises herself, she says, while she writes. From her perspective, writing is a process that develops without her being in control.
“Of course I write notes, but I mostly don’t commit to them; if I knew what I am to write in advance I would be bored. I let the writing go and see where it will drive me,” she adds.
David Wagner agrees, explaining that he does not prefer pre-planned writing since it is not the finest form of literature.
Similarly, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid believes the writer never decides to write, as writing “depends on forgetting, not reminiscing.” He says the “writer sees and perceives a huge amount of details every day, but many of them aren’t important; what remains in the memory of the writer is only what’s worth writing about. I never try to remind [myself of] anything I have forgotten; if it is important and if it has affected me I won’t forget it.” The real struggle for a writer, according to Abdel-Meguid, is not what to write but rather how to write it.
Khaled El-Khamisi and Mansoura Ezzeddin, who also find pre-planned writing objectionable, add that they do not even engage in specific writing rituals. Every time they write a text, they do it differently. Sometimes they escape the stress of the crowded city of Cairo, as does El-Khamisi, or take unpaid vacations, as Ezzeddin currently has to complete her latest novel.
Travelling as meditation
Travelling plays a major role in some writings, and offers a means of liberation to the writer from the burdens and responsibilities of daily life. Lenze must travel away from a locale in order to write about it. She could only write about Berlin once she moved to Mumbai, and wrote about Mumbai when she returned to Berlin.
“I can never write about the place I’m residing in, I have to leave to have the distance that allows me to write,” she says.
Wagner perceives travelling as a means of abandoning the security afforded by all things familiar. “Being a writer means living without security, away from what’s comfortable and clear to discover the stories inside ourselves,” he explains.
Politics isn’t irrelevant
The political scene in Egypt was never absent from the debate, especially as the Goethe Institute was forced to relocate the session to the German Association of Academic Exchange in Zamalek and away from its headquarters near Tahrir Square due to the planned protests there, which eventually witnessed clashes.
Living in a country experiencing such a tumultuous political situation places pressures on the writers which impede the creative process. El-Khamisi has hardly written at all during the past three years, he says.
“Every time I have tried to sit at my laptop and write, I deleted what I wrote as soon as I did. Writing inside a storm is hard, not to mention the ordinary burdens of [living in] Cairo,” he adds.
Writing inside a storm is hard enough, but writing about the storm itself seems impossible to Abdel-Meguid, who thinks most of the literature centred on Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Revolution failed to contain the merits to qualify as ‘literature’.
Money and children
A prevalent stereotype in the Arab world assumes that writers in western countries can make a living from the release of one publication due to the vitality of the book market and wider readership base. The exchange of experiences during the debate, however, proved that the financial problems plaguing writers in Egypt are the same in Germany.
Furthermore, Katharina Hacker highlights the significantly larger number of Arabic speaking countries compared to German speaking ones, which translates into additional challenges facing German writers concerning readership base.
German writers said they needed additional occupations besides writing. For example, Wagner is a lecturer at different universities and Lenze offers writing courses. The same is true for the Egyptian writers, who work in journalism or run small publishing houses.
Having a family places additional burdens on the writer. Hacker says “I can’t leave my family and go for a scholarship; my kids would miss the food I cook for them.”
Many of the writers also refuse state-sponsored scholarships as they “can’t accept money from a government that works against writers and culture.” El-Khamisi suggested instead that a public fund be established with the private donations of those who seek to financially assist writers.
Though the writers spoke two different tongues, the resemblance of their views, circumstances and writing processes erased the language barriers. Both the German and Egyptian members of the audience heard very similar stories, only in different phonetic sounds.