The Egyptian novelist Ahmad Abdulatif in a gripping dialogue, where one can trace the mind of Ortega y Gasset, the soul of Marquez, the heart of Saramago but the character of the Egyptian man of letters whose literary project reflects glimpses of transcending postmodernism into metamodernism.
What shaped Ahmed the writer?
I learned a lot at my mother’s knee. She played the major influence on my life. It was through her that I got cultural ingredients I came to realize in older age. Under the influence of her metaphysical faith, my worldview was far from being pragmatically realistic. Here, I am speaking about an Egyptian mother born in 1939, unlucky to get proper education, but enjoyed handsome share of wisdom, vision and love. Because of her, I felt like a totally emancipated child, able to choose, say NO and rebel without being subject to punishment, or be considered a go against family rules, which other families consider as a sin. This space of freedom I think of now gave me the capability to imagine and pose questions, the type of questions that she or anybody actually could have never answered. Reading was the answer bank, either through my father’s library or by buying books. I was really lucky because my elder brother – almost 17 years older then – was enchanted by theatre and poetry. Still green, he accompanied me to theatres, explaining the know-how of this art and how to interpret movements and understand décor and accessories.
Meantime, I am talking about childhood. In this very phase, I believe, I realized the differences between art and reality and got to see how reality turns into aesthetic material. May be such things slipped into me undeliberately. Now I am in a much mature phase. What I remember well is that I started to write very early and was really lucky to be then an introvert and withdrawn child. You could imagine an unsociable kid at a home full of books and a mother armed with a treasure full of abundant folk tales, enough to tell one story daily, one that is devoid of any intentional moral lessons. These were the core ingredients, I think, followed by early literary readings, then religious, philosophical and historical. Afterwards, I experienced no major influences, may be just an exposure to intellectual and life histories that enriched my knowledge reservoirs, but without that profound influence as early experiences.
What about translation?
At first, my intention was to study Spanish and Latin American literature, but by accident the syllabus included translation course from Spanish to Arabic and vice versa. It was a theoretical and practical study that paved the way for my first steps in this direction. The large number of Spanish literature books I have read inaugurated my translation career path. I loved the idea that my friends read the books I appreciate, motivated by a romantic urge to spread knowledge. Secondly, the translation profession looked pretty appropriate with my dysphoria on the one hand, and creates a dialogue with other cultures on the other hand. At the same time, it overlaps writing at a certain area. I think the best way to know a nation is to read its literature. Reading foreign literature opens up new intellectual horizons and good acquaintance with the world. However, I always set clear-cut borderline between the translator and the novelist within me. When I write I forget the translator and totally disappear to keep my shadow concealed. Though writing is the offspring of writing, but it is the upshot of a certain formula made up of spiritual, cultural and intellectual constituents that are the writer’s very own. That’s why I consider myself schizophrenic. I think that all the characters inside me, the novelist, the translator, the journalist and the scholar are in a constant state of struggle, immortal conflict, where the loser leaves space for the conqueror to take up. I run the battle rigidly coldhearted and applaud the good play. However, I very much realize that the real winner, even if he seems to be a loser sometimes, is the novelist himself. He utilizes the accumulation of struggles. He is the most adept person who is capable of shaping a worldview.
Narrative art is far beyond that. It goes right to the heart of the human depth. It could utilize current events as a raw material to create the aesthetic; draw out events that could be reshaped in the brazier of art.
Is it necessary for writers to have a political stance?
I think it is a must for everyone, not for writers only, especially if you are destined to live in the 3rd world. What about democracy; Freedom; Freedom of expression; Price rocket raises; Privatization of education and healthcare; Enforced disappearance; Protest law; Prosecution of writers; Expenditure on arms in a country devoid of infrastructure and suffering from poverty? This is a human issue and not only for writers. Everyone is to rebel against injustice, autocracy, political dumbness, corruption and stealing the wealth of one of the richest countries on earth. All what you need is to be human to perceive how poor, ignorant and miserable people are because a political regime forgot people's interests and prioritizes its very own. A panel of military generals brought itself to a resolution to live in palaces, having bank accounts full of dirty money. They are leaders who behave hostilely towards culture; contributed to the creation of extremist Islamic guerilla groups to act as a scarecrow against people. You don't need to be a creative person to abhor all this and dream of a country that is more just and humane.
On the other hand, does this mean that a writer has to use his political stance in creative writing? This is a dangerous question to be true. Here lies the trap. Art could never be a political circular, or a typical reflection of reality, especially at the era of photography and video. Narrative art is far beyond that. It goes right to the heart of the human depth. It could utilize current events as a raw material to create the aesthetic; draw out events that could be reshaped in the brazier of art. The output would be a work of art that does not antagonize reality but is connected to it. Otherwise, the vision of art is totally more profound than that you would see in magazine or watch in a video. Art has this capability, the one that could be recklessly squandered by directness and writing in great haste about current events.
Is the reader in the Arab world a victim or guilty?
I think there is no reader guilty in any society. The problem lies in the inappropriate means of communication with him. In Egypt, for instance, most libraries are in Cairo and Alexandria. Readers in Upper and Lower Egypt are therefore unfairly discriminated. Add to this the unavailability of purchase through the internet and the relative rise in book prices in comparison to income. I feel sympathetic with the reader and I would gladly gift the reader with my books, if possible.
Do you have fathers in creativity?
I don’t like the idea of fathers in creativity as I think that writers are born. However, i was influenced by many names, especially in the Arabic tradition as Al-jahiz, Ibn Iyas, Al-Jabarti, Al-Isfahani, writers of Thousand and One Night in addition to "Don Quixote" of the great Miguel De Cervantes. Beside a lot more writers I enjoy reading to the extent that it is hard to count their names, whether in Arabic or Western literature.
Which of your novels do you love the most?
I looked thoughtfully at this question for long time, may be because all of my characters have verified manifestations. But if I have to select just one, I would say "Ilias".
You said once that you are not interested in the foreign reader, why?
No writer, I think, is busy thinking of a reader in alien culture other than his own. It is complicated somehow. Each writer has an implied or virtual reader and this reader, for me, is the Arabic reader, not the foreign reader. Of course I believe in the universality of literature and its humanitarian aspect but this is a following phase. As a reader of my writings, you are aware that my basic preoccupation and questions raised are very much Arabic in essence: religion, deconstruction of theological mythologies; writing alternative myths valid in the same criteria to be religious though they are sort of anti-narrative; questions about identity; controversy with and challenging Arabic history and recently the repercussion of the revolution.
You face narrative sphere based on Arabic and Egyptian folk culture, a narrative excavating the core of the Arabic culture. Thus, the implied reader is normally the Arabic reader. If I am to write these subjects thinking of the foreign reader, I would have written something else close to auto-orientalism which I detest to be true due to its being opportunistic and unoriginal. I would be glad in a later phase, if these works are translated into other languages, to know the feedback of foreign readers and how they could perceive works alien to their cultures, the same way as I and millions of Arabic readers received writings made for Colombian reader. We had great admiration for these writings for their being congenial from both aesthetic and humanitarian perspectives.
How do you see literary prizes?
I said earlier that the winner is the book. I love to present the book to the world and not myself as a writer. If the prize is to contribute to the dissemination of a book and raising its readership, this is something I would be grateful for. My role in life is not to win prizes, but to enjoy the freedom of expression and write what I love, without: limiting myself to preset conditions of a given prize; censorship; social taboos; authority on the part of a reader who likes to impose his reading taste on me. My grand prize is to be a free writer.
Spotlight on his latest novel…
"Fort of clod" is the latest novel of Ahmad Abdulatif. It is the story of a Morisco family. The theme of the novel preoccupied the writer's mind for years. The very specific moment when the idea was born has something to do with the consequences of the Arab spring. It is the time of manslaughter and bloodshed that shaped the everyday life. The frequent scenes of manslaughter seemed like rituals of sacrifice to God and a sign of devotion. The primary idea turned to be an obsession and chronic anxiety so Ahmad started immediately to dedicate himself to write it down. The reader could notice the relationship between two events separated by more than 500 years and therefore would hold a comparison between religion spokesmen in the now and in the past. Moriscos would remain a persistent human ailment to which other categories of people from other religions would join on daily basis and lose their lives just because they don't abide by faith of the powerful and its authority. The novel is a careful reading in history that challenges as well as argues with the official account of events. It mediates on political authority and its direct influence on religious authority. Simply and unfortunately, these are the questions of the Arab here and now.