Egyptian writer Mansoura Ezeldin and Yemeni poet and novelist Ali Al Muqri hail from a region known for repressive regimes and rocked recently by people's upheavals for change. In New Delhi as panellists at The Hindu Lit for Life conclave, they talk to SUBASH JEYAN on what it means to be a writer, to engage in their own different ways with the issues important to them...

'We need more revolutions'

Writing is a way to freedom and a weapon against the many injustices in society. Yet, she insists, a writer is not a mere spokesperson for his/her nation or people. Meet Mansoura Ezeldin.

Tell us about your work with Akhbar al-Adab... and the contemporary literary scene in Egypt today…

I was the book review editor at Akhbar al-Adab literary newspaper till last month. I have taken a year off to finish my new novel because I wanted to devote all my time to writing. The contemporary literary scene in Egypt is really rich. Since 2002, we've been having a flourishing period; many bookstores have opened and many independent publishers support daring experimental writing, and we have a good readership compared to the 1980s and 90s. Egyptian literature, especially that written by the new generation, is daring and breaches many taboos and also beautifully written at the same time.

How are contemporary women writers in Egypt contributing to social change? What are some of their predominant concerns?

Egyptian women in general were in the forefront of demonstrations during the revolution. And many Egyptian women writers were with them. Women writers also play an important role through their novels and essays and columns in newspapers. There are many female political and social activists who are fighting now for a secular, democratic country. Many of them, including myself, don't want the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists to come to power. Because a possible victory of the Muslim Brotherhood will worsen Egyptian women's position as they have a backward, negative image of women. But I'm not afraid of them. Fear gets you nowhere. We're fighting a battle for building a new democratic country and in such a battle fear is the worst enemy.

How consciously are you working in your novels against stereotyped perceptions of women in Arab societies?

I believe that art and literature work inherently against stereotypes and generalisation. So, my writing is against all sorts of stereotypes, whether it's stereotypes of women, men, or a specific culture or nation. Arab women have been subjected to many stereotypes, such as being oppressed, weak, not independent. These stereotypes are wrong in most cases. But I also believe that the novelist is not a PR official or a spokesperson for his/ her nation, people, or tribe. Literature is beyond all these things.

One has read and seen so much about the recent people's uprising in Egypt. What impact, if any, has it had on writers, especially women writers? Are you really able to talk about social, political and sexual issues in a more open way than before? Or have writers always enjoyed that liberty?

As a novelist I have always written what I wanted to write. These days in Egypt everyone can talk/ write openly about what he wants in social and political terms, but the SCAF (The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) is trying to reproduce Mubarak's regime again. We, now, write against this. I write a weekly article in Almustaqbal newspaper.

The problem also is that society doesn't approve daring writing concerning sex or religion. I guess we need more than one revolution. Believe it or not, most readers who got mad over the sex scenes in my novel were female! I see this as a part of the symbolic violence where the “victim” begins to see herself through the eyes of her oppressor, and in my opinion this is a more difficult kind of violence because one can't recognise it easily.

What was/is it like being a writer under military and other dictatorships? How does having to find indirect ways of saying things affect the texture of one's work? Or is that not a problem at all?

Like I said, I've always written what I wanted to write. In Egypt, under Mubarak's ugly regime, many writers were able to write what they wanted, but they paid a heavy price to gain this right. By heavy price I mean having your books banned or being neglected by the authorities. The regime used official literary prizes as rewards for the writers who supported it, or at least didn't oppose it.

As for journalism, the situation is more difficult, especially when it comes to State-owned newspapers, because many editors-in-chief work as gate keepers or even censors. The situation is better now, but new taboos have appeared because many editors are scared of the SCAF. But, fortunately, we, the writers and journalists, are still fighting to gain more freedom of speech. In the newspaper where I used to work we brought down a pro-Mubarak editor-in-chief and elected a new one, which was an amazing experience.

You've called your writing as the ‘weapon of your choice'. What exactly is it that you see yourself fighting?

I've always had to fight for everything I have now. Fought to leave my remote village and live on my own in Cairo, to live the way I liked, to choose writing as a career because all the family wanted me to be a doctor, fought to write what I wanted without thinking of anything else outside the writing process. I owe writing almost everything. For me, it was a way to freedom, a way to get rid of many obstacles. This is one side of it. On the other, in my writing I'm trying to capture the neglected, forgotten, obscure people, feelings and worlds. Writing for me is a weapon to stand against the injustice, to support the weak, but this doesn't mean that I'm writing propaganda literature. On the contrary, I opt for experimental, avant garde writing.

What's Maryam's Maze all about? You've said that you've really let go and unleashed yourself in that novel. Can you elaborate on that please?

I meant that I was totally free while writing it. Didn't think about the potential readers, critics, anyone, or anything apart from the novel and the characters. It's an experimental, avant garde novel that might come across as difficult or even enigmatic, so I didn't expect it to succeed but to my surprise it was a huge success. It sold many editions including a popular edition and gained praise from the most important Arab and Egyptian critics.

The novel is about a central protagonist, Maryam, who wakes up in a flat that she has never seen before and finds that her family members, friends, and the world as she knew it had disappeared. The novel follows her attempts to regain and build her life through memories.

In Maryam's Maze, there is a strong tie with the techniques and the world of The Arabian Nights, but the protagonist is a young woman moving through Cairo in the beginning of the third millennium.

Your second novel, Beyond Paradise, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010. What do you feel about what has been called the Arabic Booker, do you think it is bringing to light new voices and writers?

Yes, the prize is successful and is bringing new voices to light, but let's not forget that no prize can be of any help if the work itself is not good. Many novels which won or were shortlisted for prestigious prizes have been forgotten later.

You have said that each new book/novel is an attempt to set right a perceived lack in the previous book and that you have an idea what must be written when you begin a novel. Does writing always follow this trajectory, or is there room for surprising yourself even as you write?

I just meant that I'd like to be a learner and not to be deceived by the success of my books. I don't prefer to look at myself as a professional. Writing for me is a mix of pleasure, adventure, and profession. When I begin writing a novel, I only have a vague picture of what I want to write, I have some questions and the writing process is a constant trial to find answers to those questions. If I don't feel that I'm in an adventure within the unknown, I can't complete writing a work. I love when the characters surprise me and lead me down their own routes. I totally believe that “a good novel writes itself”.

Quick facts

Mansoura Ezeldin was born in Delta Egypt in 1976 and studied journalism at the Cairo University. She works as the book review editor with Akhbar al-Adab. Her first collection of short stories, Shaken Light, was published in 2001, followed by the novels, Maryam's Maze in 2004 and Beyond Paradise in 2009. Beyond Paradise was shortlisted for the prestigious Arabic Booker in 2010. She lives in Cairo.

The other inside us

As a writer, Ali Al Muqri is interested in exploring the accumulated conflict behind identities, in a world where a monolithic identity is no longer possible… Excerpts from an email interview.

Could you tell us about the literary climate in Yemen, about the Yemeni Writers’ Association? What are some of the concerns of Yemeni writers today?

I have no relationship anymore with the institutions that you mention, but what these institutions are trying to do is initiate cultural activities. The literature movement in Yemen is part of the literature of the Arab world, although Yemen is going backwards compared to the cultural transformations taking place in Lebanon and Egypt. We don’t have cultural institutions interested in publishing books or promoting cinema and theatre. Literary creativity is still limited to individual effort.

What are the impulses behind your exploring the Arab past? Your book on wine and Islam seemed to have stirred a controversy....

I think that the value of research, any kind of research, lies in changing the mind’s complacencies and inciting it to move beyond closed opinions [on prohibition], and to invent new solutions and answers to contemporary questions. My book questions the dominantly held view of Muslims on prohibition by digging out and projecting other opinions and facts concealed in the heritage which is the other face of prohibition; there are many issues we think have been satisfactorily resolved but the truth is not that, because what we have done is select texts and evidence that support the prevailing view and omit texts and other evidence contrary to this view.

This book deals with the issue of alcohol and wine in Islam, through Qur’anic texts, sources, and historical references, exploring what different scholars and researchers have said on the issue of prohibition of alcohol. I’ve shown that there is no penalty in the Quran and Sunnah for drinking alcohol, that there is an agreement in Islamic references that drinking wine was permitted. I have demonstrated the existence of many levels of texts, ranging from decisive prohibition to tolerance to acceptance. As this was a topic nobody had explored till now, the clergy attacked me with all the means at their disposal though I have cited references prudently from known books.

What was it like, writing your novel on the Yemeni Akhdam community, Black Taste, Black Smell....

Before and during the writing of Black Taste, Black Smell, the one pressing question I had was: How to write this book from the world view of Al Akhdam (Yemen’s coloured people). They live a marginalised life, outcast in Yemen. Yet, despite suffering racial discrimination and social exclusion because of the colour of their skin, they live an open and free life, like the gypsies, not bound by (restrictive) social traditions, including religious and cultural values. That’s why I wanted to write a book about them, a book as open, with no boundaries or framework as their world. I do not know to what extent I succeeded.

I was not interested in the form of this book, and in its description, when I started writing the first lines. I wanted the Al Akhdam’s world, spawned from various narratives, historical, social, realistic and imaginary, to be its own rhythm. With this world, we cannot follow the enshrined narrative paths and concepts. Love, for example, is no longer an engine or motive to act rebellious, but it’s the body, a string of its smell that leads to antagonism and thus the move to freedom..

I remember when the novel was published in 2008, Reuters said that it reminded the readers of the world of the untouchables in India. Is it so? I guess I’ll see for myself when I come to India. Of course, the novel also refers to a point of view that the origin of Al Akhdam is India, but it is not certain.

You are very much concerned with identity and its relation to cultural and political life, aren’t you...

There is nothing to be anxious about identities or differences. I do not see that the problem lies either in identities or multiplicities, ethnic, ideologies or nationalities. The problem lies in the history of the accumulated conflict to determine these identities and its impact on livelihoods in the present, when it becomes difficult to talk about a single identity. We no longer have an identity apart from the identities of others. The other, in the old sense no longer exists, and may be the other is us.

You have said that you wrote The Handsome Jew“to reveal a memory in the form of an intimate love story that goes beyond dislike and class hatred between two religions.” What exactly are you trying to do by writing about the Jewish past of Yemen given the current political context vis-à-vis the Arabs and Israel...

The love story was not a means to a message, but is itself a problem; Love, believe the sons of the two, is impossible between a Muslim woman and a Jew. The novel is not about the possibility of coexistence between the two religions, but about the plight of the co-existence, the beauty and cruelty. The inheritance of ideological struggle is part of the text of The Handsome Jew, but the ideology is not its base, or its goal. The text does not begin from the ideological, or partisan political position. I think the novel tests concepts and problematic issues such as the authority of religious ideology on social life, and the reproduction of the conflict in extreme political and social practices.

There is also a test of two concepts, the Sacred Homeland and the Holy Land and their references. What’s a home? Why the home? And also love at the height of its manifestations, when formed under the religious barriers between Muslim and Jew. The conflict has other aspects, not just among the followers of the two religious ideologies, but also within each ideology, especially in its manifestations as an authority. If Imam Mutawakil Ismail bin Qasim did not persecute the Jews in Yemen, in the middle of the 17th century, in reaction to their longing for Jerusalem, and their quest for religious/ mundane power, it was also to benefit from the expanded geographical tax/ jeziah, also practised against the violators from the other doctrines of Islam in the south and east of Yemen.

Muslim Fatima and the handsome Jew were not far from the ideological power, but they tasted it, tried to live it, and went to the maximum extent in exploring the possibility of dismantling its authority. Were they able to achieve this, despite authority hunting for them, even to their graves? Is their story a questioning or a search for a way out of the conflict? I can not answer.

What is the third novel you are working on about?

My new novel is about a woman facing the body in the community, of the plight of repressed wishes; struggling with sexual stimulus, and resorting to religion for salvation. Later, the frustrations accumulate and in spite of all the instructions and moral values, is unable to face the upheaval of the body.

There are dogmas everywhere irrespective of one’s politics and ideology. Would you say that as a writer, your concerns are with exploring the dogmas in your own community? And has that sometimes led to the perception of you as an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sometimes?

Taboos in Arab culture and Muslim communities have increased more than ever before. There is a narrow view of the other which we need to review, as Muslims are an extension of the social and cultural ancestors of the Jews and Christians, and pagans before them and Zoroastrians, Hindus, Babylonians, Assyrians, Pharaohs and others. I’ve found everyone under the same sky and common ground, before they are divided by ideologies and illusions produced by breeding the “Sacred”. Thus everything has become haraam (prohibited). And instead of living together in a common homeland, and free ideas, we are seeing them living in a kind of illusion, the illusion of the sacred land, the sacred homeland, and the true religion. I do not know where they are going.

Quick facts

Ali Al Muqri was born in Taiz in North Yemen in 1966 and began writing at the age of 18. He has been the editor of various literary journals in the past likeAl Hikma and Ghaiman. His controversial book on wine and Islam was published in 2007 followed by the novel Black Taste, Black Smell in 2008 and The Handsome Jew in 2009. He lives in Sanaa.