Egyptian women writers Radwa Ashour and Ahdaf Soueif discuss political and social issues from a literary perspective
“What can you learn about a country so vast and rich in a few days?” asks Radwa Ashour in her deep, husky voice. “India has a special place in our hearts. For Egyptians growing up in the 1960s, Nehru was a much-loved figure,” says Ahdaf Soueif, her higher pitch in counterpoint. The two Egyptian writers were in Chennai to dialogue on “Common Ground: Literature and Politics through Arab Women Writings”, organised by Women Unlimited and Prakriti Foundation, at the Max Mueller Bhavan.
They make a riveting contrast — Ashour's tranquillity suggests patient scrutiny and nuanced thought. Soueif's fastidious words reveal a grasp of reality without loss of hope.
Winner of prestigious awards (Book of the Year, Cairo International Book Fair, First Prize, Arab Woman Book Fair; Constantin Cavafy Prize for Literature) Ashour has had her works, including the best-known Granada Trilogy, translated into several European languages. Also the translator of her Palestinian poet-husband Mourid Barghouti's verse, she teaches English and Comparative Literature at Ain Shams University, Cairo.
A writer of fiction (“In the Eye of the Sun”, “I Think of You”, the bestselling Booker-short-listed “The Map of Love”) and non-fiction (“Mezzatera”), Ahdaf Soueif has Englished Mourid Barghouti's quietly searing non-fictional “I Saw Ramallah.” As a bilingual writer in English and Arabic, she brings a unique perspective to comment on issues political, socio-cultural and aesthetic, analysing problems of identity with a dual vision.
An African nation on the Mediterranean shore, Egypt shares its language, culture, history, religion and literature with other Arab countries. Unlike Australians or Indians identifying themselves with their motherland and culture while writing in English, those who write in Arabic see themselves primarily as Arab writers.
Women writers? “More than enough!” The four-volume compendium of Arab women writers (1876-1999) Ashour co-edited, lists 13 hundred names. Do they focus on women's issues? “Not exclusively. We are citizens first,” says Soueif and mentions the lively debate at the launch of a women's magazine in Egypt (1803): Should it confine itself to women, women's writings and women's issues alone or opt for wider terrain?
Didn't Ashour once say that the Arab literary mind remained opaque to the world despite Naguib Mahfouz winning the Nobel Prize? “Our best writers are not translated. A few brilliant translations will put our literature into host languages but what we have is simply not good enough,” regrets Soueif. Ashour looks beyond the West. “I'd have more readers if my work were to be translated into Chinese or Urdu.”
How do Arab artistes react to the fact that the world today identifies Islam with militancy, terrorism? Ashour says with unruffled conviction, “Today, in some people's minds, Islam is a bomb! People forget that Islam is algebra, mathematics, architecture, poetry, music. Militant Islamic groups cannot be identified with Islam, full stop, though they are not as responsible for violence as is U.S imperialism, which decided after the Cold War that Islam was the new enemy.”
The annual Palestine Festival of Literature (www.palfest.org), launched by the U.K.-based Engaged Events founded by Soueif, invites 15 western writers to travel through Palestine for a week with local writers, to get a first hand feel of realities in the region. Sys Soueif, “We support the Palestinian impetus to continue to create culture, despite living in perpetual siege, under military occupation.”
Can writers make a difference to the world? Is their voice heard in a world dominated by the visual media? “Words have a sly power,” says Ashour, convinced that they find subterranean ways of reaching spaces hidden from the eye. What impels the act of writing? Soueif responds at once, “Making sense of the world by creating patterns out of the material life throws at me everyday.” Ashour gets reflective, “I can't stop the world, or change its course. But when I write, I am not an object. I am a subject. I master through my writing what I cannot master in life.”